"Life in Hell" actually earned Groening his big break in Hollywood. It started running in Wet Magazine in 1978, then moved to the now-defunct LA Reader, where Groening worked. The strip eventually made its way to LA Weekly. Its popularity grew, amassing a client list of more than 250 papers, when producer Polly Platt noticed "Life in Hell" and showed it to actor/producer James L. Brooks.
Brooks contacted Groening and wanted him to develop a series of "bumpers" based on "Life in Hell" for "The Tracey Ullman Show." Groening was a bit apprehensive at the thought of handing over the rights to his characters, so he created the Simpsons to fill the slot.
Life in Hell was perhaps the first alternative thing I was aware of as a kid. I used to go with my dad to Minneapolis on business trips and I always grabbed a City Pages while walking the skyway...Life in Hell was on the back page (or close to it).
They love Donald Duck in Germany -- not so much for the cartoons, but the comics, which were deliberately smartened up in translation by the great Erika Fuchs:
In the years following World War II, American influence in the newly formed Federal Republic was strong, but German cultural institutions were hesitant to sanction one U.S. import: the comic book. A law banning comics was proposed, and some American comics were eventually burned by school officials worried about their effects on students' morals and ability to express themselves in complete sentences...
A Ph.D. in art history, Dr. Fuchs had never laid eyes on a comic book before the day an editor handed her a Donald Duck story, but no matter. She had a knack for breathing life into the German version of Carl Barks's duck. Her talent was so great she continued to fill speech bubbles for the denizens of Duckburg (which she renamed Entenhausen, based on the German word for "duck") until shortly before her death in 2005 at the age of 98.
[Comics publisher] Ehapa directed Dr. Fuchs to crank up the erudition level of the comics she translated, a task she took seriously. Her interpretations of the comic books often quote (and misquote) from the great classics of German literature, sometimes even inserting political subtexts into the duck tales. Dr. Fuchs both thickens and deepens Mr. Barks's often sparse dialogues, and the hilariousness of the result may explain why Donald Duck remains the most popular children's comic in Germany to this day.
We've just seen about two billion people watch a royal family at work, you know? And so I would say that it is Shakespearean, but it's also global, I suppose. That we're interested in what goes on in the corridors of power whether it's the White House or whether it's Buckingham Palace. And so Shakespeare was interested in the lives of the medieval royal families, but he also raided the Roman myths and the Greek myths for the same purpose. And I think Stan Lee went to the myths that Shakespeare hadn't used. You know, [they both] recognized that they contain briefly told, very condensed stories that I think are very universal in their application.
I think the connection, if there is one, is that the stakes are high. So in something like Henry IV or Henry V, where the young prince is a reckless man who falls into bad company: could that prince be the king? [In Thor], our flawed hero who must earn the right to be king, but I think what's key is the stakes. There it's Europe and England in power and here it's the universe. It's when that family has problems everybody else is affected, so if Thor throws a fit and is yelling at his father and is banished, suddenly the worlds are unstable. And what it means is if the actors take those stakes seriously it is passionate and it is, you know, very intense. And I suppose that kind of a observation of ordinary human - although they're gods - frailties in people in positions of power is an obsession of great storytellers including Shakespeare and including the Marvel universe.
Thor's story -- especially early on -- really is a lot like Prince Hal's, now that I think of it. Guy's even got his own Falstaff: dude is named Volstagg, which now seems almost too on-the nose.
Finally, have you seen Branagh's Henry V?
Guy knows how to make old-school battle cinematically work.
Speaking of historical figures we can only perceive dimly, cartoonist/historicaster (let's rehabilitate this word, please) Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant adds a thoughtful, searching comment to a short series of cartoons about Andrew Jackson:
Ah, Andrew Jackson. Love him or hate him (and these days my money is on the latter), you can't deny that he was a fascinating man. He did some good things. He did a lot of bad things. And it's not like in his time, no one thought to duke it out with him over it all. The man had so many musket balls in his body you could stick magnets to him...
He did what he thought was good and right to do and he made himself something out of nothing, but he was a hard, racist man, and he doesn't get to be a hero anymore. In a way I am glad that he's such a conflicting figure, because most of the time you can't have it one way or the other. Not all of our historical leaders deserve Nobel Peace Prizes decorating their houses, not all of our heroes get recognized for the wrongs they did like Jackson does.
Because comic books are read in a way that we invest a lot of ourselves in the telling, because they're visual in nature, and because for generations they were among the only art forms available for a child to easily own, they can be powerful nostalgic items. It's always great to have a few comics around that you either remember reading or simply recall wanting more than anything in the world. You may be surprised by how much of your comics reading since has been shaped by those feelings.
The term is grawlix, and it looks to have been coined by Beetle Bailey cartoonist Mort Walker around 1964. Though it's yet to gain admission to the Oxford English Dictionary, OED Editor-at-Large Jesse Sheidlower describes it as "undeniably useful, certainly a word, and one that I'd love to see used more."
Really, what lessons do the Superman comics teach? It says that mankind is full of dull, pointless weaklings and evildoers who can only be stopped by a white ubermensch from another planet, who didn't work a day in his life in order to achieve his powers. Yeah, you could say he's a symbol of "hope," but not hope in human nature - hope in an all-powerful alien who saves the world daily so you don't have to get off your butt and act like a moral person. What sort of message is that?
This sad outcome even in the wake of thousands of dollars spent and months of hard work given to sewing and to packing foam rubber into helmets has an obvious, an unavoidable, explanation: a superhero's costume is constructed not of fabric, foam rubber, or adamantium but of halftone dots, Pantone color values, inked containment lines, and all the cartoonist's sleight of hand. The superhero costume as drawn disdains the customary relationship in the fashion world between sketch and garment. It makes no suggestions. It has no agenda. Above all, it is not waiting to find fulfillment as cloth draped on a body. A constructed superhero costume is a replica with no original, a model built on a scale of x:1. However accurate and detailed, such a work has the tidy airlessness of a model-train layout but none of the gravitas that such little railyards and townscapes derive from making faithful reference to homely things. The graphic purity of the superhero costume means that the more effort and money you lavish on fine textiles, metal grommets, and leather trim the deeper your costume will be sucked into the silliness singularity that swallowed, for example, Joel Schumacher's Batman and Robin and their four nipples.
OK, short intro: Douglas Wolk is smart, funny, and if you have any interest in comics whatsoever you should absolutely check out his Reading Comics. Great stuff. This is a long interview, but every time I tried to cut it, I thought, "Nope, not that—too smart." So here you go. Comments turned on, normal rules apply—enjoy.
JT: The opening of one of Robert Warshow's essays, on Krazy Kat, is worth quoting at length, if only because it could be a sort of manifesto of sorts for blogging, writ-large:
"On the underside of our society, there are those who have no real stake at all in respectable culture. These are the open enemies of culture.... these are the readers of pulp magazines and comic books, potential book-burners, unhappy patrons of astrologers and communicants of lunatic sects, the hopelessly alienated and outclassed.... But their distance from the center gives them in the mass a degree of independence that the rest of us can achieve only individually and by discipline... when this lumpen culture displays itself in mass art forms, it can occasionally take on a purity and freshness that would almost surely be smothered higher up on the cultural scale."
We'll get to comics, but I wonder if this doesn't perfectly capture some of the anarchism, snark, and general weirdness of a lot that comes across the blogosphere? Insofar as blogging remains a kind of private, gift-exchange of woe and rant and fanatical interest, isn't this what makes blogs so much fun? So vital?
DW: There's still a pernicious kind of defensive class-consciousness to what Warshow's writing here, a sense of "purity and freshness" from noble savages ("potential book-burners"? same to you, buddy!), a sense that everybody knows what the cultural scale is and that it's self-evidently immutable. That's not really the case any more, and it hasn't been the case for a long time. And the phrase "respectable culture" suggests that what's at stake here maybe isn't even culture as much as respect—the respect owed to the individual, disciplined "rest of us" by "them in the mass." That, as they say, is a mug's game.
To put it another way: "distance from the center" presumes not only that everybody agrees on what that center is, but that one is either near to it or far from it, and that being far from it can confer some kind of ironic virtue. This is the same kind of mindset that valorizes "outsider art" for the straw dangling from the corner of its mouth rather than for itself. What's fun and vital about the blogosphere is not that it doesn't speak with the questionably unified ("smothered"?) voice of mass culture, but that individual bloggers only need to speak for themselves and about their own personal interests, and don't need to triangulate themselves against any distinct or nebulous center; it doesn't matter who's paying attention and who isn't, even when lots of people are paying attention! Each blogger is a gravitational center, great or small, but there's no sun they're all orbiting around.
JT: In Reading Comics, you write "The blessing and the curse of comics as a medium is that there is such a thing as 'comics culture.'" It's unfair to ask, but can you give a shorter summary of this than you give in this chapter of your book ("What's Good About Bad Comics and What's Bad About Good Comics")? How are these cultures changing—or spreading—as mainstream literary writers like Chabon and Lethem enter the fray & magazines and journals like The Virginia Quarterly Review and The New York Times Magazine have begun featuring comics regularly (or that we now have a Best American Comics)? Is the imprimatur of "official culture" the mark of death for comics culture?
DW: "Comics culture" has always been a little bit tough for me to grapple with, partly because I'm looking at it from the inside. It's a culture that's immersed in comics and their history and economics and formal conventions, to the point where it can be difficult to read comics casually: you almost have to adopt (or work around) a certain cultural mode to pick up something with words and pictures and read it for pleasure, and that's annoying. On the other hand, the culture of comics-readers does privilege deep knowledge, and in its eccentric way it's deeply committed to being hospitable to newcomers; we care about this stuff a lot, and we like the feeling of being a community.
As for the second half of your question, why would an influx of public attention, talent and money possibly mark the death of comics? If people start buying books by Jaime Hernandez and Megan Kelso because they've seen their work in the Times Magazine, I'm all for that—believe me, there's nobody who's attached to the idea of the best cartoonists remaining some kind of subcultural secret. It's interesting to see the the way the new streams of creators are affecting comics, though—I'm particularly fond of cartoonists with backgrounds in design or contemporary visual art who've come to comics because they've gotten interested in narrative. In the last few years, there's also been a bit of a trend of celebrity writers in the comics mainstream, some of whom have adapted easily to the different sort of writing that works in combination with drawings, and some of whom are still writing as if the images in comics are just ancillary illustrations of the important (verbal) part. But that doesn't mean that something important has been lost, just that there's fresh blood and sometimes a learning curve—there are more English-language comics in print now than there have ever been before, and more good stuff available than ever before.
JT: A quick Google search for "comics blogs" returns about 58 million results. Are there notable blogs out there that manifest these two sides of comics culture? Is there a killer spandex fanboy site? A Pitchfork for comics?
DW: Oh, absolutely. I'd like to say that if there's a Pitchfork for comics, it's The Savage Critic(s), to which I occasionally contribute—my two favorite comics critics, Joe "Jog" McCulloch and Abhay Khosla, both write for it. The best spandex sites these days, as far as I'm concerned, are Chris's Invincible Super-Blog, Bully Says: Comics Oughta Be Fun!, The Absorbascon and Myriad Issues, with extra credit to Funnybook Babylon for "Downcounting," their weekly savaging of DC's "Countdown" series. And then there are great generalist blogs—the Comics Reporter is one of the first things I read every morning, and I really like the newish Picture Poetry, too.
JT: Even though I included 20 pages of graphic novel in my own book, I don't really have a big collection: Joe Sacco's books, Spiegelman's Maus books, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, a couple of Eisner's, Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi's memoirs, Clowes, Pekar, and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics—basically: no superhero comics whatsoever. Am I just totally dropping the ball on the superhero and other serial comics?
DW: There are a bunch of worthwhile serial comics at the moment, and some of them are superhero comics—although superhero comics are very much grounded in a shared set of conventions, there are an awful lot of them, and even a lot of the best ones require a willingness to figure out how they fit into the "continuity" context of thousands of others. If you don't like the idea of gigantic metaphors in brightly colored outfits, don't force yourself. That said, on the superhero front right now I'm loving Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's "All-Star Superman" (which is deliberately un-linked to continuity) and Greg Pak, John Romita, Jr., and Klaus Janson's "World War Hulk" (which is very heavily enmeshed with continuity), and I think a lot of Brian Michael Bendis's "New Avengers"/"Mighty Avengers"/"Illuminati" work is really interesting--it fails as often as it works, but he's pushing himself really hard.
The best non-superhero serial comics right now? Eric Shanower's "Age of Bronze," "Y: The Last Man," "DMZ," and I suppose "Love and Rockets" counts! Skipping serials on principle means you're missing out in pretty much the same way that you're missing out if you only watch movies and don't bother with "The Wire" or "Lost" or "Arrested Development"...
JT: Given the fanatical culture of comics, it seems natural that there are a ton of comics blogs (and that a lot of comics artists would have blogs), but the comic and the graphic novel don't really work as an online medium, do they? I tried keeping up with the New York Times Magazine's comics section when I dropped my print subscription, but they serialize them on the Web as PDFs—and even then, they don't read very well on my 15" MacBook Pro. Is this a fundamental nature of the beast? Or are there people out there making it work? Is there a Henry Darger out there in the blogosphere? The next Harvey Pekar (as if the current one weren't handful enough)?
DW: Scott McCloud's whole thing about the limitless potential of online comics hasn't quite been borne out yet, but it's still a very new medium. I agree that the Times's PDFs are a dreadful idea, but there are a lot of Web-comics that have enormous readerships; it seems, in general, like daily humor strips are the format that work best so far. I love Achewood and Diesel Sweeties, in particular; as far as non-humor strips go, Dicebox is pretty wonderful. The real problem is that there's presently no way for a cartoonist to make any money at all, let alone make a living, doing online comics (that whole "micropayment" thing seems to have fizzled); the few people whose sole employment seems to be doing them are actually making their money selling related merchandise. I this an insurmountable problem? Probably not—but nobody's sure how to fix it yet. At least people doing print comics have a tangible object that can be exchanged for money.
As for the Darger/Pekar question, I'm not sure what you mean—when you say Henry Darger, I think of a crazed sexually obsessed hyperproductive fantasist working in total isolation (hence not somebody who'd be in the blogosphere, by definition); when you say Harvey Pekar, I think of a compulsive self-documenter (hence... everybody in the blogosphere).
"From September 27th - October 21 the Museum of American Illustration at the Society of Illustrators will host '30 Years of Fantagraphics,' a retrospective art exhibition of over 100 pieces of original art published by the Seattle underground giant." Artists in the exhibition include Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Robert Crumb.
Regarding my question about the first superhero back in October, Peter Coogan sent word about his upcoming book, Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre. "An exhaustive and entertaining study of the superhero genre, this volume traces the roots of the superhero in mythology, science fiction, and the pulps, and follows the superhero's development to its current renaissance in film, literature, and graphic novels."
Out of a recent conversation popped this interesting question: who was the first superhero? After a short discussion and a few guesses (Superman, Batman, etc), it was agreed that this might be the most perfect question to ask the internet in the long history of questions.
The earliest superhero I could find reference to was Mandrake the Magician, who debuted in 1934, four years before Superman, who was probably the first popular superhero. Mandrake's super power was his ability to "make people believe anything, simply by gesturing hypnotically". Does anyone out there know of any superheroes who made an earlier media appearance?
There's a related question that has some bearing on the answer to the above question: what is a superhero? There have probably been books (or at least extensive Usenet threads) written on this topic, but a good baseline definition needs to acknowledge both the "super" and the "hero" parts. That is, the person needs to have some superhuman power or powers and has to fight the bad guys. But this basic definition is flawed. Superman is an alien, not human. Batman doesn't have any super powers...he's a self-made superhero like Syndrome in The Incredibles. Or can a superhero be anyone (human or no) that fights bad guys and is superior to normal heroes...the cream of the hero crop? And what about a costume or alter ego...are they essential for superheroism? These are all questions well-suited for asking the internet, so have at it: what's a good definition for a superhero?
And there's (at least) one more angle to this as well...where did the idea of the superhero come from? As Meg suggested to me at dinner last night, was there a cultural need for a superhero during a super-crisis like the Great Depression? Or did the idea evolve gradually from regular heros (cowboys, space cowboys, etc.) to heros who were magicians (with special powers...it's not that much of a stretch to imagine a magician possessing supernatural powers) to classic superheroes like Superman?
Three weeks in, I'm quite enjoying Chris Ware's contribution to the NY Times Magazine The Funny Pages, Building Stories (pt 1, pt 2), maybe because I often imagine inanimate objects like buildings having personalities.
A few weeks months ago, I chose this book as the first official selection of the unofficial kottke.org book club. The idea of the book club is that I tell you what book I'm going to read next, you can read along if you'd like, and then we get together to discuss it in the comments of a thread like this one.
What a terrible idea...I apologize for even suggesting it. I have trouble reviewing books as it is without the added pressure of a deadline and having people (if any of you actually chose to follow along) who read the book depending on me getting some sort of rip-roaring conversation going. As a result, even though I finished the book weeks and weeks ago, I've been avoiding writing this review. However, since I got myself into this, I'm going to give it a shot and hope that someone else can rescue us with a thoughtful, knowledgeable review of the book and/or the comics format in the comments. Here we go.
Many of my friends are into comics in one way or another. I never was, not even as a kid (ok, not exactly true...I really liked Bloom County). I go into comic shops, thumb through comic books and graphic novels, and leave wondering what the hell all the fuss is about. I guess you could say I don't get comics. Which is odd because as a sort of socially awkward dork, I should identify with many of the characters in the stories and the artists drawing them (and I mean that in a good way).
A few years ago, I bought Chris Ware's perfect Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, one of my all-time favorite pieces of media. But that's been the exception to the rule for me and comics. McSweeney's #13 contained a comic by Chris Ware (he designed the wonderful dust cover as well); it, The Little Nun strips by Mark Newgarden, and the wonderfully spare comics by Richard McGuire (which reminded me of Powers of Ten) were the highlights for me.
So instead of a review, a question. What am I missing here? Why do you enjoy comics and/or graphic novels? I can guess why they are appealing, but I'd rather hear about it from you guys.
I was reading a piece by David Sedaris the other day and it contained a passage wherein something happened and a character in the story reacted to it, which is not unusual except that he somehow found space inbetween to write 2-3 additional sentences without interrupting the flow of the story. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about this idea in the context of comics:
See that space between the panels? That's what comics aficionados have named "The Gutter!" And despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics! Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.
While McCloud relies on human imagination to fill in the gaps, Sedaris recognizes one of the endless numbers of gaps that may be filled in a prose narrative and does so great effect.