I’ve decided to post smaller comics works at Tapas. I’ve named the series “n i j o m u” if you want to keep abreast of updates. I’m going to try to post something every Friday for as long as I can. The first piece I’ve put up is one I did back in April titled “Windows.” It comes from an idea I jotted down in an old notebook and my own self-questioning about what I am really looking for when I am surfing the internet.
I love anthologies. I love seeing new work, being introduced to artists and approaches I have never seen before, and, of course, getting a solid read. Maybe it’s being placed next to other, different styles, but sometimes the best work an artist has done is a little story that appeared in some anthology. And yes, many anthologies suck. Or they are full of little pieces that never satisfy your hunger for something transportive. But sometimes the opposite is true and an anthology blows you away with the quality of the pieces it contains or the new possibilities for the medium that it shows you. These days, most anthologies seem to be one-shots. But even when there were serial anthologies, such as Dark Horse Presents, Last Gasp, Zero Zero, and Top Shelf, there were never too many in the market at once. The anthology, it seems, is never an easy venture for a publisher. But, again, I love them and want new ones to be created. So here’s a short list of some of my absolute favorites.
Raw Vol. 2 No. 1.
I think it’s difficult to understand the impact of Raw. Even these days when there are graphic novel sections in book stores and libraries, Raw stands out for its quality. Imagine it in the late 80s. Way ahead of its time. Vol. 2 No. 1 was the first issue I saw and it’s incredible. There is work by Charles Burns, Justin Green, Joost Swarte, Lorenzo Mattotti, Basil Wolverton, Ben Katchor, and of course a chapter from Spiegleman’s Maus. On top of that, this issue contains Richard McGuire’s iconic comic “Here.” And the disturbing little comic “Paul” by Pascal Doury broke my little teenaged mind.
I chipped in to buy one of these when I heard the concept. Basically, the french publisher L’Association decided to put together a brick of a book, a 2000 page anthology of wordless comics about the new (at the time) millennium. Obviously the anthology contains a lot of french artists, but there are works by Americans such as Chris Ware, Jessica Abel, and Nick Bertozzi. And there are also works by artists from Spain, Norway, and Japan. There is definitely some work whose inclusion I question, but the overall effect is inspiring. There are just so many styles on display here. Also, since the stories have to be wordless, some artists get very creative with what they do visually. In fact, this is the work that convinced me to try my hand at wordless comics. There’s no coincidence that the first Kit Kaleidoscope story came out in 2000.
Nosotros Somos Los Muertos #3
In 1998 I was in Barcelona and bought the first five issues of this Spanish-language anthology. Issue 3 is my favorite with work by Federico del Barrio, Sequeiros, Martin Tom Dieck, Muñoz, Javier Olivares, and Thomas Ott (among many others). It also has Mattotti’s work “El Secreto del Pensador,” which Fantagraphics later published as Chimera. I can barely read a word of this book, but I love it.
Drawn & Quarterly, Volume 3
The Drawn & Quarterly anthology was always good, but things got really nice when they stepped up their production values and put out the anthology in large volumes. In this volume there are stories by Blutch, R. Sikoryak, and Franco Matticchio. The biggest revelation in this volume comes with the reprints of Frank King’s Gasoline Alley. Many of us had read Ware extolling King’s strip and here he was able to show us what he was so inspired by. The King-themed end papers by Ware are also a treat.
Kramer’s Ergot 4
This is the issue when Kramer’s Ergot stepped up from being a quirky little anthology to a force to be reckoned with. This issue introduced me to so many artists I had never heard of and whose work I would have probably never bought. The styles on their own didn’t appeal to me, but somehow together they became something incredible, an awe-inspiring rush of color and audacity. What anchors this book, and what the other issues tend to lack, is the long, solid read of Harkham’s own “Poor Sailer.” This provides the narrative satisfaction one often looks for, letting the more experimental works not have to hold up the entire impact of the issue.
As a publisher, Nobrow always has some of the best printing on its books. The anthology is no different, often giving artists a certain palette of spot colors to work with. This not only makes the colors vibrant, but gives a cohesion to the various works. Nobrow is a bit like the old Blab! in that it includes comics and full page illustrations. In terms of comics, this issue has solid reads from Jillian Tamaki, Eleanor Davis, Ethan Rilly, and Joseph Lambert. Overall this is just a beautiful book full of fulfilling little stories. It’s just quality all the way through.
Over the years, I have abandoned many different stories (“How to Draw Comics the Right Way” is one example). Sometimes plots get away from me, sometimes character motivation becomes unintelligible, and sometimes I just lose interest.
“Ajax” was a story idea that I had for a long time and that kept coming back and bugging me. The basic idea was that it was loosely based on the Sophocles play but set in a Masters of the Universe kind of world. It’s not the kind of story I usually do, but that attracted me as a challenge and I had a very clear concept of how the story was going to end. I’ve actually tried starting it a few times over the years. The two pages below are the most recent attempt. This time I stopped because I realized that I didn’t want to add to the fetid pile of stories about tough über-masculine warriors who are idolized by nature of their being the main characters. The ending was going to undermine that narrative somewhat, but I was going to have to tell the story straight first to get to that ending. And I just didn’t want to commit the time to that enterprise.
“Lounger” was going to be a post-apocalyptic story about a group of people surviving a mass plague. They were holing up together in a house, but the focus was going to be on a drunk who spent all his time on a lawn chair outside. The character was based a bit on Bernard from the show Black Books. While the story was pretty worked out, the limited setting was a bit boring to draw over and over. And the character conflicts that developed seemed pretty petty and superficial. On top of that, I didn’t feel that the story was going to cover any new ground that hadn’t been already better covered by the scads of post-apocalyptic stories out there. I have a special love for tales set after an apocalypse, so expect at least one from me some day. But it won’t be “Lounger.”
Rodolphe Töpffer usually wins credit for being the first comics artist. He put multiple panels on a page and employed the new advancements in printing to get his work read. He may not have used word balloons, but most of the elements of contemporary comics started with him. What I didn’t know (and maybe you didn’t either) is that he also was one of the first theorists about this new medium. In 1845 Töpffer wrote Essai de Physiognomie, his thoughts on what made littérature en estampes (as he called it) so special. Sorry, Will Eisner.
I learned this because a new translation was recently published under the title How to Create Graphic Novels, translated and edited by John McShane. While I understand the need for a better title than “Essay on Physiognomy,” “How to Create Graphic Novels” is a bit misleading. Still, this is a very interesting little book and I’m really glad this new edition exists.
I just want to mention that the introduction to this book is both helpful and confusing. It gives a bit of background on Töpffer and goes over what parts of Essai de Physiognomie of have been cut for this edition. But the unrestrained enthusiasm and unfocused chronological jumps make it hard to tell when the opinions being described are Töpffer’s, his time period’s, or the editor’s. Also, almost half the introduction talks about contemporary works. I understand that McShane is trying to contextualize Töpffer’s influence, but it makes for a muddle of times and ideas that obfuscate more than illuminate. That being said, McShane’s translation of the main text is very readable and engaging.
As Töpffer’s original title implies, most of his book concerns facial expressions and how what characters look like reveals their personalities. Töpffer does mention some other ideas in the beginning. The one I found most interesting is that an artist can use multiple panels in quick succession as a kind of visual hyperbole. Yet he doesn’t say much more than that; most of the book discusses physiognomy.
I was concerned when I first saw this term used. Physiognomy usually goes hand-in-hand with prejudice. The very idea of it, that we can judge people’s personalities based on their looks, is the definition of pre-judging. And yet so much of what we do as artists in comics is based in this. We convey character through visual signifiers. This is something that has always troubled me since there are so many examples of how this can go horribly, even fatally, wrong. All you have to do is look at the hooked noses and dark skin in the history of Disney villains to find one example. While he never mentions racial profiling or caricature used as warmongering, Töpffer understands that physiognomy has its limits. He emphasizes that the types of visual signifiers he discusses are about drawings and don’t always relate to “nature.” He says, “these signs never present, neither when considered in isolation, nor when considered together, an infallible criterion by which to judge the intellectual or moral faculties.”
What is so refreshing about his approach is his sense of play. Töpffer says that an artist doesn’t have to go to school and study anatomy. All they need to do is sketch faces, no matter how simple, and play around with the features. See what happens when you move the eyebrows, the lips, or the nostrils. Observe what kinds of characters reveal themselves from these shifts. He then encourages artists to mix up these signifiers. He shows the result of drawing a mouth that denotes laughter with eyes that imply crying. It is this subtle interplay between these different features that Töpffer feels is the medium’s strength and what advantage it has over the novel. And so we see, even in the earliest essay on comics, this bid to prove that it is as worthy a medium as writing.
This is a short book, but a fascinating one. I can see how some of Töpffer’s ideas could be easily made into exercises for a class on creating comics. And again, I was really charmed by Töpffer’s tone. He is an enthusiastic proponent of this new medium, but he is also a practicing artist who is thoughtful about the realities of what he is doing. This book helped me not only respect Töpffer but like him.
The common history of graphic novels, and the one I learned, follows comics aimed mainly at children and the publishers who made them. We hear about the rise and fall of EC, the birth of Mad, the undergrounds, Will Eisner, and then we miraculously get to Maus. This history isn’t wrong so much as the work it presents is very conscribed. Gil Kane’s Blackmark may have broken new ground, but it was basically an extension of the kind of adventure stories already being told in comics. Even the comics of the underground movement were just a step away from the work in Mad Magazine.
This is why I’ve always been excited to find works that fall completely outside this established narrative. Often, these works come out of the art world, not the publishing world. They are usually aberrations, almost never inspiring other works. Because of this, they don’t fit neatly into a causal narrative of the graphic novel. Yet for those of us who are creating today, these earlier works provide both inspiration and proof that comics can go in completely unexpected directions.
I just want to quickly mention that this is not meant to be a complete list. These are simply works I have discovered over the years and have found inspiring. Still, if you know of some other work that would fit here, please feel free to mention it in the comments.
Simplicissimus was a German magazine started in 1896 that was often critical of the politics of its day and ran work by writers such as Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke. It also featured artwork by people like Kathe Kollwitz and George Grosz. It also had comics. Yes, of course, it had cartoons, many satirical. But it also had multiple panel comics by artists such as Bruno Paul and Olaf Gulbransson. It’s not so much the subject matter of these comics that I find so inspiring, but their style. It’s German Expressionism brought to bear on comics. The only similar approach is Lyonel Feininger’s on The Kin-der-Kids.
L’Assiette Au Beurre
L’Assiette Au Beurre was France’s answer to Simplicissimus and looked very similar. Again, the magazine was mostly full-page satirical illustrations. Yet every now and again there would be multiple panel strips, most notably by Caran d’Ache.
Masereel was a Flemish woodcut artist who worked mostly in magazines. Yet at some point he decided to make a series of woodcuts and publish them as wordless novels. The first of these, 25 Images of a Man’s Passion, was published in 1918. Yet he is best known for his 1919 work, Passionate Journey. The story spans 165 woodcuts and captures politics, culture, and the unyielding spirit of the individual. It uses images both representationally and metaphorically. It’s an incredible tour-de-force and a must-read for anyone who wants to make graphic novels.
Ward followed in Masereel’s footsteps, and while he also had similar political interests, his stories became more layered and subtle than Masereel’s. This culminated in Ward’s 1937 book, Vertigo. The book portrays a narrative from the view of three different characters, each with their own time frame: years, months, and days. It’s an ambitious work and unlike anything else before or since. Ward remained an artist for decades afterwards, mostly doing book illustration. To my knowledge, he did at least one other wordless novel, The Silver Pony in 1973.
As I mentioned before, in middle school I was told that Farewell to Manzanar was the only novel written about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Yet No-No Boy was published almost twenty years earlier in 1957. And even before that, in 1946, there was Miné Okubo’s Citizen 13660. The book captures the steps that lead up to the internment and the realities people faced once they were interned. I don’t know if Spiegelman read this or not, but Citizen 13660 is a spiritual mother to all the autobiographical graphic novels that would come decades later.
My parents had a few of the Gorey collections, Amphigorey, and so personally his work is some of the first comics I ever read. It took me a long time to realize that they were comics, though. The Gashlycrumb Tinies seemed to have no relation to Daredevil, which is the first comic book I began reading. Again, Gorey is not part of the standard comics narrative. But of course his work is comics. He first began publishing his macabre little books in 1953. In 1965 he published The Remembered Visit. While this story has the Edwardian characters that populate all his works, it isn’t morbid or humorous. Instead, it’s a quiet little tale of youthful promises and adult regret. It’s surprisingly emotional.
Some people argue whether or not the works of Vaughn-James are comics. While not narrative, they contain pictures and words deliberately put into sequence. They have too many images to be poetry and too much sequence to be simply a collection of drawings. Vaughn-James’s work reminds me a bit of the psychedelic comics of Victor Moscoso in Zap Comix, but taken even further. 1975’s The Cage is the longest and best known work by Vaughn-James and it’s difficult to describe. I tried to write a review of it once and fell short. So I’d say it’s just a work that you have to experience. If you’re an artist it will open you up to completely new possibilities for the medium.
There are other names that could be here, like Dino Buzzati, Guy Peellaert, and Milt Gross, but I wanted to stick to artists I was personally inspired by. Still, if you can think of names that fit here feel free to comment.