(Read Paul Ollswang’s fantastic comic Cynicism here)
Book shelves series #6, sixth Sunday of 2012: In which we dig into the comix inside the book shelf we looked at last week.
When I was 13, I sold a fairly large collection of superhero comic books and earned enough money to buy an electric guitar—a weird mutant by Fender called the Bullet—and a small practice amp. It was the early nineties, and Marvel was about to burst the comic book bubble big time by flooding the market with gimmicky covers, hologram cards, and other nonsense.
I continued to buy comics (or comix, if you prefer) over the years, although eventually economic concerns led me to just wait for graphic novel editions. Anyway, the book shelf above now contains most of the “underground” comix that I own. A few samples:
Most of the comix in this unit though are issues of Dave Sim’s epic (and insane) series Cerebus. I bought issues of Cerebus intermittently for years at a time, usually getting frustrated and then waiting for the “phone book” graphic novel editions of the series. Sim, along with background artist Gerhard, produced 300 issues of Cerebus over 25 years. The issues from the early ’80s to the early ’90s are brilliant; eventually Sim cracked though and went on an insane, reactionary (and arguably deeply misogynistic) bent. He created his own religion, a mix of hardline Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the later books in the series suffered greatly, as the book detoured to chronicle projects that seemed far outside its original scope (including strange, long satires of Hemingway and Fitzgerald). Anyway, some issues:
Cerebus Jam, a one-off collaboration with a cover by one of my favorite artists Bill Sienkiewicz (I still have his entire run on Marvel’s The New Mutants in a box somewhere):
A panel from the issue’s collaboration with comic book legend Will Eisner, featuring his seminal character The Spirit:
The AV Club interviews comix creator Daniel Clowes. (Read our review of Clowes’s hilarious and acerbic book Wilson)From the interview—
The A.V. Club: People often ask musicians if they listen to their old albums or filmmakers if they watch their old movies, but do you reread your old comics?
Dan Clowes: I try not to. [Laughs.] It usually doesn’t lead to anything good. The only way I can ever experience them really is if I completely forgot what they were about. Once I send it off to the printer, I try to never look at the work again, if I can help it. Usually when I put together a book like this Death-Ray hardcover or that Ghost World special edition, then I have to reread it and see if there is anything I want to change or any re-coloring I want to do. That’s when I’m faced with the actual work. When I’m working, I’m too close to it. I’m sort of inside, and I can’t see it at all. So when I have that experience of rereading it years later, it’s jarring.
Great collection of recipe comix at Saveur magazine. Marvelous stuff. A few choice panels, plucked not entirely but still somewhat at random—
From Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Wilson, available from Drawn & Quarterly.
The AV Club’s Tasha Robinson interviews comix legend Lynda Barry. In the (rather lengthy) interview, Barry discusses teaching her craft–
It’s a really hard thing to teach students. The two things I always try to teach them is, one, you have to stay in motion. It doesn’t mean that you have to just write blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Write the alphabet. You have to stay in motion. And the other thing is, when you get stuck, don’t read over what you just wrote. Especially if you have a computer. Maybe by hand is not so bad, but with a computer, what happens is… My experience has always been that there is a point when the story just stops. Always. You know, it’s just like when you’re dancing. There’s a time when you’re fake-dancing, because the groove has stopped. Then you’re back in the groove. So if people understood that that’s a natural part of making something, and they knew what to do during that time… But what people will do if they’re writing on a computer is, when that time comes and it’s quiet for a minute, they panic and go back and start fixing stuff above it that was not even broken. You can’t start to fix something until you know what it’s for, you know? So I always try to get my students to just sustain the state of mind for a certain amount of time. Even though I use 24 panels for my students, they’ll have seven minutes to just sustain this open state of mind while they’re writing, keep their hand in motion. But it’s really tough to get them to believe me, to just to even give it a try. And then once they do, it’s really fun.
Earlier this week, I pulled out From Hell with the bold intention of re-reviewing it for this site. I love Halloween and I love Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic revision of the Jack the Ripper murders, so this seemed as good an occasion as any for a reread (especially considering the “review” I wrote back in October of 2006 is so lazy that I won’t even link to it). Alas, I misjudged or misremembered the sheer density of From Hell–so, on Halloween day, I’m still only half way through, despite staying up way past my bed time, crouching under my sheets with a quavering flashlight, scanning Moore’s erudite words and Campbell’s scratchy inks (okay, that image is an exaggeration). I’ve read it at least thrice before, so I’ll review it anyway.
From Hell posits Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, as the orchestrator of the Jack the Ripper murders that terrified Londoners at the end of the 19th century. Although the murders initially arise out of the need to cover up the knowledge of the existence of an illegitimate son begat by foolish Prince Albert, Victoria’s grandson. However, for Gull the murders represent much more–they are part of the continued forces of “masculine rationality” that will constrain “lunar female power.” Gull is a high-level Mason; during a stroke, he experiences a vision of the Masonic god Jahbulon, one which prompts him to his “great work”–namely, the murders that will reify masculine dominance.
One of the standout chapters in the book is Gull’s tour of London, with his hapless (and witless) sidekick Netley. In a trip that weds geography, religion, politics, and mythology, Gull riffs on a barbaric, hermetic history of London, revealing the gritty city as an ongoing site of conflict between paganism and orthodoxy, artistic lunacy and scientific rationality, female and male, left brain and right brain. The tour ends with a plan to commit the first murder. From there, the book picks up the story of Frederick Abberline, the Scotland Yard inspector charged with solving the murders. Of course, the murders are unsolvable, as the hierarchy of London–from the Queen down to the head of police–are well aware of who the (government-commissioned) murderer is. The police procedural aspects of the plot are fascinating and offer a balanced contrast with Gull’s mystical visions–visions that culminate in a climax of a sort of time-travel, in which Gull not only sees London at the end of the twentieth century, but also receives a guarantee that his murder plot has had its intended effect. From Hell takes many of its cues from the idea that history is shaped not by random events, but rather by tragic conspiracies that force people to willingly give up freedom to a “rational” authority. The book points repeatedly to the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which led directly to the world’s first modern police force. In our own time, if we’re open to conspiracy theories, we might find the same pattern in the 21st century responses to terrorism (Patriot Act, anyone?).
Although From Hell features moments of supernatural horror in Gull’s mysticism, it is the book’s grimy realism that is far more terrifying. London in the late 1880s is no place you want to be, especially if you are poor, especially if you are a woman. The city is its own character, a labyrinth larded with ancient secrets the inhabitants of which cannot hope to plumb. Despite the nineteenth century’s claims for enlightenment and rationality, this London is bizarrely cruel and deeply unfair. Campbell’s style evokes this London and its denizens with a surreal brilliance; his dark inks are by turns exacting and then erratic, concentrated and purposeful and then wild and severe. The art is somehow both rich and stark, like the coal-begrimed London it replicates. Although Moore has much to say, he allows Campbell’s art to forward the plot whenever possible. Moore is erudite and fascinating; even when one of his characters is lecturing us, it’s a lecture we want to hear. His ear for dialog and tone lends great sympathy to each of the characters, especially the unfortunate women who must turn to prostitution to earn their “doss” money. And while Abberline’s frustrations at having to solve a crime that no higher-ups want solve make him the hero of this story, Gull’s mystic madness makes him the narrative’s dominant figure. Rereading this time, I realized there is no character he reminds me of as much as Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I’m also reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent now, a book that dovetails neatly with From Hell, both in its time and setting, but also in its exploration of social unrest and duplicitous authority. Both novels feature detectives fighting a complacent system, and both novels feature a working class that threatens to erupt in socialist or anarchist rebellion.
From Hell is a fantastic starting place for anyone interested in Moore’s work, more self-contained than his comics that reimagine superhero myths, like Watchmen or Swamp Thing, and more satisfying and fully achieved than Promethea or V Is for Vendetta. Be forewarned that it is a graphic graphic novel, although I do not believe its violence is gratuitous or purposeless. Indeed, From Hell aspires to remark upon the futility and ugliness of cyclical violence, and it does so with wisdom and verve. Highly recommended.
If you like Charles Burns, go ahead and pick up X’ed Out, the first (and very promising) entry in a new trilogy. Skip this review. You’ll probably be happier (and more unsettled) just experiencing all that vivid, glorious weirdness for yourself without any potential spoilers. If you need convincing, read on.
X’ed Out begins in a strange fever-dreamland that doesn’t immediately announce itself as such. Instead, we tentatively enter this weird world with Doug, the book’s protagonist, who, like Alice following the white rabbit, chases his (long dead) childhood cat through a crack in the wall. Doug traverses a cavernous, ruinous place, littered with murky detritus and swamped in a strange flood, to finally arrive in a bizarre desert town that approximates William Burroughs’s Interzone. Populated by mean lizards who dress like Mormon slackers and other grubby grotesques, the terrain readily recalls both Tatooine and Asian bazaars. Hapless Doug, still in pajamas, house coat, and slippers — and marked by an as-yet-unexplained head wound — soon finds himself under the guidance of a strange little diapered dwarf, who may or may not have his best interest in mind. The dreamworld unravels as Doug glances an old man — an “oldie,” as the dwarf says — who we will learn later is Doug’s father. An all of a sudden we’re back in the real world, back in waking life.
But no. That’s not right. Not “back” — we were never in the waking world to begin with. Significantly, X’ed Out begins in the Burroughsian dreamworld and then moves to a conscious, concrete reality. Burns’s dreamworld sequences explicitly reference Belgian cartoonist Hergé’s seminal Tintin comics (you can see how X’ed Out’s cover riffs on the Tintin adventure The Shooting Star here). Doug’s dream face is an expressive, stark mask, a naïve, cartoonish contrast to the bizarre nightmare to which it reacts.
Doug — the waking world Doug, the “real” Doug, that is — pulls a similar mask over his more realistically drawn face later in the story when he does his “Burroughs thing” at a slummy art punk party. Alienated from the scenesters who don’t get his cut-up poetry performance, Doug takes up with Sarah, a girl from his photography class with a thing for razor blades and pig hearts. The same night they meet, he loses his girlfriend, and her crazy boyfriend goes to jail for assaulting a cop. They initiate their romance in Patti Smith records, lines of cocaine, and sick Polaroids. Ah, young love.
But all of that is in another kind of dreamworld, the past, a retreat for the “real,” contemporary Doug, who spends his few waking hours cringing in his bathrobe, poring over old photos, and eating the occasional Pop Tart. At night he eats pain pills and goes to Interzone-land, a place that seems as real and solid and valid as his past with Sarah, a past he has apparently lost. Doug bears a huge patch over half his head (significantly x-shaped in his Interzone version), and both this wound as well as the psychic trauma he’s obviously endured (and is enduring) remain unexplained throughout X’ed Out. However, Burns’s often-grisly images hint repeatedly at a past event filled with violence and loss. X’ed Out leaves us in the Interzone, with the dwarf making long-term plans for Tintinized Doug. There’s even talk of establishing residency and employment–it feels like Doug is here to stay (at least in his non-waking hours). X’ed Out ends maddeningly with a girl who visually recalls Sarah being borne by lizard men to a giant hive. The dwarf explains that she is their new queen–and like some insect queen, she is a breeder. Yuck. The ending is the biggest problem with X’ed Out, simply because it leaves one stranded, wanting more weirdness.
In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.
X’ed Out is available in hardback from Pantheon on October 19th, 2010.
In his new interview in the Summer 2010 issue of The Paris Review (excerpt here), Robert Crumb describes how taking LSD for the first time affected his art –
I had been working along in this modern adult cartoon trend, very influenced by the modern, expressionistic, arty quality of work by Jules Feiffer, Ronald Searle, Ralph Steadman. Then, on LSD, I got flung back into this cruder forties style, that suddenly became very powerful to me. It was a kind of grotesque interpretation of this forties thing, Popeye kind of stuff. I started drawing like that again. It was bizarre to people who had known my work before. Even Kurtzman said, What the hell are you doing? You’re regressing!
Here’s R. Crumb on LSD again, from the “Crumb on Crumb” section of his website –
A whole new thing was emerging in my drawings, a sort of harkening back, a calling up for what G. Legman had called the “Horror-Squinky” forces lurking in American comics of the 1940s. I had no control over it, the whole time I was in this fuzzy state of mind; the separation, the barrier betwixt the conscious and the subconscious was broken open somehow. A grotesque kaleidoscope, a tawdry carnival of disassociated images kept sputtering to the surface… especially if I was sitting and staring, which I often did. It was difficult to function in this condition, I was certifiably crazy, I sat staring on the couch at Marty’s apartment, or on long aimless bus rides around Chicago. These jerky animated cartoons in my mind were not beautiful, poetic or spiritual, they were like an out-of-tune player piano that you couldn’t shut off… pretty disturbing… this strange interlude ended as abruptly as it had begun in the next time I took a powerful dose of LSD in April ’66. My mind suddenly cleared. The fuzziness was gone, the fog lifted. It was a great relief… a weird drug, that was. But what the heck — “minds are made to be blown.”
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