Category Archives: graphic novels

published drawn narratives by other folks

teaching Fun Home: random thoughts 1

So I’ve been teaching college writing for awhile now. Around nine years (and I still haven’t learned what a sentence fragment is…). The place I’ve been teaching for the past seven years requires that a book length work be taught in 1A (the first transfer-level writing class). This year, I’ve decided to teach Fun Home. Not only have I never taught it before, I’ve also never taught a graphic novel before. What I want to do here is just get out a few thoughts. My goal is to eventually put the thoughts together into some kind of coherent essay, or maybe comics essay, but right now I just want to list a few things. By the way, we’re only up through chapter 5 now.

  • Before starting the book I had one student ask me at least twice: “why are you having us read a comic book?” I took this as the old “comics are for kids” bias. As it turns out, this guy reads manga. So I don’t know why he persisted with the question. Maybe he was hoping we could talk about Naruto together or something. I guess I should ask him.
  • I was able to put a piece of McCloud’s Understanding Comics into our reader. I’m not sure how helpful it was yet. So far, his terms have only been used by students a few times.
  • I taught my students the terms narration and monstration and have been surprised by how willing the students are to use them. I think Fun Home is a good text for using these terms.
  • A lot of students thought the character of Alison Bechdel in the first chapter was a boy. They were shocked when I had to disabuse them of that. In a way the mistake is fitting and I even wonder if it may have been intentional since the conflict between she and her father over gendered appearance is a large theme early on.
  • Students have an easier time seeing the differences between Bechdel and her father than seeing the similarities.
  • Most students buy Bechdel’s theory that her father committed suicide. The ones who wrote about it pointed to the impending divorce and how it would threaten his quest for perfection. They also mentioned how being around so much death in the funeral home probably affected his view of it.
  • The language and the allusions are definitely challenging for the students, but I expected that. As it turns out, the students can often figure out the meaning of words they don’t know by looking at the images. As for the allusions, I have assigned them to present on the chapters in groups and one thing each group must do is take on a research topic, such as Daedalus and Icarus for chapter one. It seems like it’s been helpful.
  • I have one student whom I know is homosexual and he read the book all at once even though we are going chapter by chapter. He said he loved it. But he was also the first to agree when I brought up the criticism that the book reinforced negative gay stereotypes.
  • Students can’t really read visual symbolism, besides the obvious, like Bruce Bechdel carrying the column like Christ carrying the cross (7). Bechdel’s frequent visual isolation of family members alludes them and I have to point that out. However, they are obsessed with how Bechdel draws eyes, especially her father’s.
  • I have one student who believes that Bechdel’s girlfriend in the book is a stand-in for the father. He claims that she looks and acts like the father. I don’t buy it, but it’s an interesting theory and he has some evidence.
  • Tonight I showed them one of the videos about how Bechdel made the book (this one) and they were all shocked when they first saw her. One student exclaimed, “she looks like a dude!” And we’ve already gone over the part where the young Alison was interested in the butch dyke in the restaurant. It never ceases to amaze me how I can discuss concepts of gender with students, but when something specific like this comes up the old categories reassert themselves. And I don’t even think Bechdel looks that masculine. Maybe that says more about me than it does about my students.
  • I thought this might be a “coming out” for me. But I still have never told my students that I also create comics.
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Alice in Sunderland: initial reaction

So I started reading Bryan Talbot’s Alice in Sunderland last night. I’ve enjoyed Talbot’s previous work and Alice got some great reviews. “Ground-breaking!” they say. “Reinvents what can be done in comics!” they cry. I feel like I’m missing something, because the book feels a like a mess to me. The different art styles seem jarring more than liberating. And the story (of which there really isn’t one) seems like Talbot did a bunch of research and just threw it on the page without any digestion or consideration. There’s just no hook to the book that draws me in. It’s simply page after page of unrelenting visual cacophony and encyclopedic text with some post modern elements thrown in. There’s no real pacing or thematic development. And as for “ground-breaking,” I’ve seen similar approaches elsewhere, such as in the work of Dave McKean and, more specifically, in The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell and Snakes and Ladders by Campbell and Moore. I feel like I should keep going to give Alice in Sunderland a fair trial, but the thought of that doesn’t sound like “an entertainment.”

Then again, I was very tired when I started reading it. Maybe I was just cranky.

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links and thoughts

I just discovered the animation work of David OReilly. It’s immature macabre slapstick on the one hand and aching longing and regret on the other. Funny, offensive, and strangely moving. So here: Please Say Something and The External World. David OReilly’s blog here.

While at times propping up straw characters, Gabby Shulz’s “Sick” has grabbed me. Maybe it’s because I especially relate to this chapter.

On a completely different note, here are some examples of the incredible strength and beauty of the human body.

So I bought a few French comics from BD Net: Thomas Cadene’s Sex Tape, Bastien Vivés’s Dans Mes Yeux, Manuele Fior’s Cinq Mille Kilométres par Seconde, Winshluss’s Pinocchio, and Merwan and Vivés’s Pour L’Empire 1: L’Honneur. My French is almost nonexistent, but I’m picking my way through the books. I have to say that almost every time I see comics from France I think, “this is how comics should be.” There’s more to be said about that I’m sure, but one thing that struck me about this bunch of comics is that many of the artists don’t use panel borders. Sure, there are panels, but no hard edges to them. For Fior and Cadene, the panels end where the color ends. But there are no drawn borders enclosing the images. In Dans Mes Yeux the panels also have no borders and are not square. Each panel occupies a discreet space and is surrounded by a lot of white, so are easy to differentiate from one another. But the shapes vary. Still, they all tend to be of a similar size and almost every page has six panels on it. I bring this up because I’ve recently begun to feel that panel borders are too hard, too artificial. The box-shape of them stands out to me too much. I don’t know why. And reading these comics I feel like someone is whispering to me, “then just get rid of them.”

On a related note, I didn’t use panel borders when I did Litmus Test 3 (way back in 1997). It seemed to me that fairy tale stories shouldn’t have panel borders. I was probably influenced by storybook illustration. Anyway, Tom Spurgeon reviewed that issue and complained that the lack of panel borders added nothing to the stories. My step-father read the review and thought it weird that panel borders were so expected that the lack of them must only be done for a purpose. But my step-father didn’t read comics. He wasn’t stuck in the idiom in the way I suspect Spurgeon was. I am always struck by how narrow people’s reading expectations are. My own included.

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The Library of America’s Lynd Ward Vol. 1

I discovered that my library had the new Lynd Ward boxed set put out by The Library of America. So I checked out the first volume that contains Gods’ Man, Madman’s Drum, and Wild Pilgrimage. Yes, I’ve read all these before. I even have the old collection of Ward’s stories, Storyteller Without Words (which I paid a lot of money for since it’s long out of print). So I’m not actually going to review the stories here, but instead the book itself.

Let me sum it up and say that this is the ultimate edition of Ward’s woodblock novels. For one, the cover is truer to Ward’s own design sense than the Dover editions (I’m glad Dover has made Ward’s work available and affordable, but the covers are not very good). The book is also huge. The Library of America printed the stories as Ward did, with one image per page. In Storyteller Without Words, Abrams decided to put multiple images on a page, which greatly changed the reading experience. Also, the print job in the current book is much better than the slightly muddy reproductions in the old Abrams book. The one thing that I liked about Storyteller Without Words that the Dover editions didn’t include were the introductions by Ward. Luckily, The Library of America volume has them all. And they made the smart decision of putting them at the end, not to get in the way of the art or to intrude on the visual silence of the stories. Also, the typeface is much more readable than in the Abrams book, which had a thick sans serif font that didn’t match Ward’s work. There is also a detailed chronology of Ward’s life listed at the end.

So this is it. This book is beautifully printed and put together. Quite simply, it is a gorgeous edition and it gives Ward’s art the attention it deserves. Actually, I want to buy the complete set even though I already own all these stories (I probably won’t any time soon, so if you were looking to get me a gift…). If you can’t afford the price, see if your library has it like mine does.

A book like this needed to exist and I’m glad it finally does.

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The Wrong Place by Brecht Evens

The Wrong Place
Brecht Evens

If you pick up and look at this book the first thing that will jump out at you is the art. On the one hand, the wild watercolors seem full of raw energy, while on the other hand being very controlled and intentional. It’s an amazing feat that Evens pulls off. Still, we have all seen comics that have wowed us visually, but left us unfulfilled in all other respects. To adapt a line from The New Yorker film critic David Denby, “we may be ravished by the” art, “but we’re famished by everything else” (March 28, 2011). Fortunately, this common disappointment is not true of The Wrong Place.

There are many things I could point out, but what I want to focus on is the characterization. The Wrong Place is the story of two friends: Gary and Robbie. Gary is rule-bound and gray (literally) while Robbie is an overgrown child or a modern Bacchus. It would be easy to overdo characters like this. You could make Gary grumpy and caustic, while Robbie could be reckless and unmindfully dangerous. But Evens doesn’t do that.

While Robbie may be noticeably unencumbered by the worries of adulthood, he’s actually a decent guy. Sure, he misses Gary’s party, but he takes the time to catch up with him later. And while he woos women, he’s never a schmuck about it. It’s hard not to like him, actually. And we begin to see why everyone in the story is so enamored of him.

And Gary is no sad sack. Sure, he’s nowhere near as full of life as his friend, but he isn’t bitterly jealous or shut off from the world. The book starts out with a party that Gary throws and his character is defined from the outset. First he tells a liquor store clerk that she can’t come to the party, then we see that he has the chairs in his apartment lined in neat rows, and later he tells three women that they have to smoke underneath the oven exhaust fan. So we see that Gary is no wild and crazy guy and is instead full of little rules. Still, he wants to have a party. He keeps encouraging people to drink and dance. But they don’t. The lifelessness of the party is not Gary’s fault entirely. All anyone there talks about is Robbie. In fact, that seems to be the only reason people came to Gary’s party in the first place, for a chance to see Robbie. And so while we understand that Gary is a tepid man, we also see that everyone else is more pitiful than him. Gary at least tries to have fun on his own and live in the present moment (within certain rules of course). No one else is able to do that. The book ends with a phone conversation in a hair salon. The woman in the salon is talking with her friend who spent a night with Robbie. Everyone in the salon looks over and listens to the conversation. No one is in their own life; they are all straining to get a little piece of Robbie. So by contrast, Gary seems brave and noble. He is trying to live his own life, no matter how small. And while we see how unable he is to break out of his own limitations, we also admire him in a small way.

It is this complexity that really makes this book something special. That combined with the amazing art make this book truly exceptional.

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support Hans Rickheit

I’ve enjoyed Han Rickheit’s art across the years. He has often appeared in the same anthologies I’ve been in and I’ve really liked his dark and surreal stories. And his work has gotten better and better. Well, he’s hit on hard times and he’s asking for help. Consider buying one of his books or some original art. As Tom Spurgeon points out, Rickheit is at a point in his career where he needs to keep working consistently to attract the larger readership he deserves.

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Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice

The book is back in print, this time by Yale University Press. The new book is 88 pages and the one I have is 80, so I wonder if there is some new material. Anyway, I recommend it if you haven’t read it (and not many people have).

It is dubbed “a classroom in a book” and is organized as a fifteen week syllabus. So it’s obviously very useful to teachers of comics. The book promotes a very distinct attitude about the medium. It’s like an anti-How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. While the latter book focuses on proportion and surface style, the former focuses almost exclusively on storytelling. For instance, in most of the exercises Brunetti encourages the students to use characters made out of basic shapes and not consider style at all.

I think Abel and Madden’s Drawing Words & Writing Pictures is probably a more comprehensive primer for the aspiring comics artist (a term Brunetti hates, preferring “cartoonist”), but Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice is a very accessible book. It’s small, calmly laid out, and contains exercises that are straightforward and fun. And it’s smart.

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Death Day, Part One by Sam Hiti and Joseph Midthun

Death Day, Part One
Sam Hiti and Joseph Midthun

In high school, I discovered Heavy Metal. This was the 1980s and the magazine regularly carried translations of work by artists like Guido Crepax and Miguel Prado. And, of course, there was the sci fi stuff. I had often tried to get into sci fi books, but I had never liked them. But I liked sci fi comics and film. Yet as I got older, I got embarrassed by Heavy Metal. The magazine changed editors and got more crass, but my interests changed, too. I could no longer excuse the leaps in logic present in many of the stories and no longer give in to the eye candy of half-clothed women that were regularly marketed on the covers. This is a long winded way to say that I have a soft spot for sci fi, especially sci fi done well.

And that brings me to Death Day. Yes, the story is full of aliens and other worldly technology, but most of that is offered visually and taken as a given. The story itself is concerned with plot and character. And so Death Day avoids one of the many pitfalls of sci fi and that is the creators getting lost in their own imaginary world. Hiti and Midthun offer us a world and leave it to us to figure it out through the course of the book. I greatly appreciate this trust in the reader.

The book itself concerns a war. What’s interesting is that by the end of this book I’m still not sure who exactly is involved in the war and why. Yes, one side are humanoids that all look alike (clones?) and the other side are six-appendaged aliens who are probably defending their home world. Yet where the humanoids are from and how the war started are not explained. But the fact that so much is still unclear and yet the book is so engrossing really points to the storytelling abilities of Hiti and Midthun. They provide enough clues and action to keep the narrative going, while leaving a lot of mysteries hanging. This book is only the first part, so it’s yet to be seen what threads get tied up.

Really, most of the burden of the storytelling is placed upon the art. Hiti’s brushstrokes remind me a bit of Paul Pope’s, though are more like Blutch’s. While these influences are there, Hiti’s style is all his own. This is most clearly demonstrated in his pacing and panel layout. The pacing is often slow and deliberate, but then breaks into chaotic action. Yet even in the midst of war, the reader can always tell what’s going on. He is also really good at creating a sense of space. The images I’ve included in this review all appear on one page of the book. Here Hiti uses moment-to-moment and aspect-to-aspect transitions to give us a sense of the rocking transport the main character is riding in. Hiti is a remarkable visual storyteller and this is one reason I’d recommend this book to someone who isn’t a fan of sci fi.

The book itself is beautifully printed and bound. Really, Death Day is one of those honest to goodness diamonds in the rough. It’s a great book from people who are doing it all themselves. You can read a lot of Death Day on-line for free, but please consider buying the book to support these artists.

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I love Edward Gorey

Tom Spurgeon has mentioned a few times, most lately here, that the comics world seems to ignore Edward Gorey for the most part. One reason Spurgeon gives for this is that Gorey was most prolific during a time when people defined comics very narrowly, so he wasn’t read by comics readers. I think this is probably true. From my experience, people who were into Gorey’s work also bought B. Kliban and Gahan Wilson collections. In other words, people who liked more adult, more macabre cartoons. So more New Yorker readers than Fantastic Four readers.

My parents were such people and I grew up on this stuff, Kliban and Gorey especially. I often read the Amphigorey collections my parents owned and my favorite scary book as a kid was The House With a Clock In Its Walls which was illustrated by Gorey. When I was older, my family would watch Mystery every week and I never got tired of Gorey’s intro animation. While I never looked to Gorey for direct inspiration–how to draw a face, say–I do think he had an influence. My dreams and the early Kit Kaleidoscope stories are all about wandering through strange, dark architecture, which is something Gorey captured so eerily with his meticulous pen and ink work. I sometimes wonder if my desire to hatch, which I have moved away from and since began coming back to, wasn’t inspired by reading Gorey as a child.

But to get back to the original point, people have made an attempt to bring Masereel and Ward into the comics tent, so it seems more of an effort should also be made to Gorey. He was making little handmade comic books long before the art school kids were doing it at SPX and APE.

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Is Fantagraphics dying?

This is more of a gut-level feeling than a thought-out argument, but I wanted to throw it out there. Let me offer a few things that provoked this question…

  • Some of the best artists of Fantagraphics– Chris Ware and Dan Clowes– have struck their tents and moved them to the Drawn and Quarterly fairgrounds.
  • Fantagraphics has done a lot lately with reprints, but what new artists have they brought into the critical spotlight?
  • The last few times I’ve ordered books from Fantagraphics, they have taken months to get to me.
  • The shakedown (or is it death?) of The Comics Journal. Noah Berlatsky comments on the current incarnation of the magazne’s web presence here.
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