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kottke.org posts about comics

Planetary and the 1990s pulp comics revival

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Ghost Detective
by John Cassaday and Laura Depuy, from Planetary 3: "Dead Gunfighters"

I called “American Captain” the best anti-superhero comic about superheroes. I need to qualify that. “American Captain” cares about superheroes, but not about superhero stories; Planetary, on the other hand, by Warren Ellis, John Cassady, and Laura Martin, cares about superhero stories, but not about superheroes.

Planetary’s main character, Elijah Snow, has a pretty classic superpower: he freezes things. Or rather, subtracts their heat. He’s a century-old detective, collector, and preservationist, and at the beginning of the story, he’s lost his memory. He joins a team of superpowered mystery archeologists, who beginning in 1999, aim to excavate the hidden wonders of the 20th century. Every one of its 27 issues explores a new mystery, in a new artistic style, while also propelling us to Elijah’s unlocked memories, the characters’ unraveled backstories, and an ultimate confrontation.

Unsurprisingly, I love this book.

The first thing it does is reinvent its own precursors. It reaches past the Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Ages of superheroes into the genre-rich world of the pulps. Snow turns out to be part of a cohort of century-old adventurers that include analogues of Tarzan, Fu Manchu, Doc Savage, and The Shadow. (Later we see versions of The Lone Ranger, Dracula, and Sherlock Holmes.) This group fights off an evil version of DC’s Justice League. Doppelgangers of DC and Marvel superheroes appear and reappear, but they’re either supervillains or easy victims of corporate and government power. Superheroes are not to be trusted. (One exception: an analogue of John Constantine who morphs into Ellis’s other great comic creation of the 1990s, Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan.)

Planetary-003-Just-Us.jpg

Planetary was part of a 1990s reappraisal of the pulps that gave us Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Frank Miller’s Sin City, and more. In 1997, Moore wrote this about Hellboy, which is also true of Planetary avant la lettre:

The history of comic-book culture, much like the history of any culture, is something between a treadmill and a conveyer belt: we dutifully trudge along, and the belt carries us with it into one new territory after another. There are dazzlingly bright periods, pelting black squalls, and long stretches of grey, dreary fog, interspersed seemingly at random. The sole condition of our transport is that we cannot halt the belt, and we cannot get off. We move from Golden Age to Silver Age to Silicone Age, and nowhere do we have the opportunity to say, “We like it here. Let’s stop.” History isn’t like that. History is movement, and if you’re not riding with it then in all probability you’re beneath its wheels.

Lately, however, there seems to be some new scent in the air: a sense of new and different possibilities; new ways for us to interact with History. At this remote end of the twentieth century, while we’re further from our past than we have ever been before, there is another way of viewing things in which the past has never been so close. We know much more now of the path that lies behind us, and in greater detail, than we’ve ever previously known. Our new technology of information makes this knowledge instantly accessible to anybody who can figure-skate across a mouse pad. In a way, we understand more of the past and have a greater access to it than the folk who actually lived there.

In this new perspective, there would seem to be new opportunities for liberating both our culture and ourselves from Time’s relentless treadmill. We may not be able to jump off, but we’re no longer trapped so thoroughly in our own present movement, with the past a dead, unreachable expanse behind us. From our new and elevated point of view our History becomes a living landscape which our minds are still at liberty to visit, to draw sustenance and inspiration from. In a sense, we can now farm the vast accumulated harvest of the years or centuries behind. Across the cultural spectrum, we see individuals waking up to the potentials and advantages that this affords.

It’s one of those books where, like Ezra Pound imagined, an immersion in the old unlocks the artists’ imagination in understanding the present and future. Everything with a potential to blend the old and new is taken seriously. Aboriginal folk songs become secret keys to alternate dimensions. Jules Verne stories butt up against modern Hong Kong action movies. Monsters, magic, mushrooms all turn out to be coded pathways to better understand time and space.

Planetary 005-save-it.jpg

It’s also a beautiful book. John Cassaday and Laura Martin, who later teamed up for Astonishing X-Men, Star Wars, and more, give every new landscape and character their own allusive twist. And all the allusions are less specific quotations than they are vectors to a general region of the cultural unconsciousness. You recognize a nod to Jim Steranko without knowing it’s Steranko. You can grasp the archetype without knowing the particular. It’s rewarding on a deep read without rejecting a naive one in the slightest.

I asked Abraham Riesman1, a writer and editor at Vulture, to say something smart about Planetary.

The closest comparison piece for Planetary in my young life would probably be, oddly enough, The Simpsons. I engaged with both before I had read or watched most of the texts that they were building upon, yet that somehow didn’t stop them from being utterly gripping stories on their own. The key difference is that Planetary, rather than simply producing satires of existing genres and works, served to point you in the direction of those genres and works. When you read of Doc Brass, you wanted to learn more about Doc Savage. When you visited Science City Zero, you wanted to take a subsequent trip to the video store (we still had such things when the series launched) and pick up DVDs depicting the colossal women and insectoid men of the 1950s. That’s no easy trick to pull off. And through it all, Ellis, Cassaday, and Martin made sure that you were meeting real people on these archaeological journeys. Consider, for example, Planetary/Batman: Night On Earth, one of the greatest Batman stories ever told. Sure, there are expert gags about the Adam West and Frank Miller eras, but the crux of the story comes when one of the dimensionally displaced Batmen tells a scared renegade metahuman that the goal of power is to make the less powerful feel taken care of. A story like that didn’t need such tender humanity, but the fact that it did is what will make sure it — like so much of Planetary — will remain accessible to anyone who’s ready to learn about what made the 20th century weird.

The century conceit lets Planetary loosen itself from the conceits of superhero comics. And because of how Planetary managed its mythology/anthology balance, it turns out to work best in single issues and as an entire whole. Unlike almost all the other comics produced at the turn of the century, it doesn’t break down neatly into arcs and trade paperbacks. In this way it keeps faith with the past and the future.

It’s a book from top to bottom that’s stubbornly resistant to the present, while also feeling perfectly contemporary. It’s weird and opaque, and you can’t shake the feeling that the writers and artists’ conception of it changed from year to year and month to month, but it keeps pulling you along. I might recommend other books first, I might think of other characters and stories more quickly, but there’s no comic I can think of that I love more than I do Planetary.

  1. For about five years now, Abe has been my dad.

The sad humanity of American Captain, the best anti-superhero comic about superheroes

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 23, 2017

American-Captain-Dream.png
"Old Country," by Robyn Kenealy. Image via Tumblr.

My favorite webcomic doesn’t exist on the web anymore, except by way of the Wayback Machine. Robyn Kenealy created something beautiful and delicate with “Steve Rogers’s American Captain,” an indie-style diary comic written and drawn by the Marvel movie version of Captain America.

My own belief is that love works a little like a network. Your point of contact opens up a whole universe of experiences and emotions old and new. It begins with points of commonality, known and shared data. At that point it can either exhaust the known nodes or build into something deeper, more branching, more interconnected. Fictional worlds play off of our ability to imagine and project those deeper connections. In the end, those connections give us something that we didn’t have before: new ideas, new experiences, new connections, even new people. Love is both the cause and the symptom of the enlargement of our world.

“American Captain” is a great example of this. It starts with common ground. Paradoxically, that common ground is the fantastic world of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially the first wave of films: Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and The Avengers. We know those events and characters. At least we think we do.

“American Captain” gives us Steve Rogers (and to a lesser extent his peers) struggling with downtime, professional frustration, 21st century confusion, and post-traumatic stress. We look through the keyhole of the summer blockbuster and find the muted lifeworld of a sickly kid, now a grown man who can bench-press a car, but can’t figure out online banking. He’s the character who is both most and least like the reader, out of place in every room he enters.

Steve is racked with guilt: not over losing Bucky, like he always is in the comics, but for not being able to protect his mother from his alcoholic father. For leaving the comm on so Sharon Carter could hear his plane crash. For forgetting to return The Hobbit to the NYPL before he was frozen in the ice. He’s thrilled to discover there’s a new Hobbit movie, but panics at the flame and explosions in the theater. He argues, sometimes passive-aggressively and sometimes aggressively, with everyone, including Nick Fury and Bruce Banner. He is marching, in kindness and honor, to his own destruction.

What I find most relatable in “American Captain“‘s Steve is a trait you don’t see much in the movies, especially before Winter Soldier and Civil War: his anger. Bruce Banner has nothing on Steve; neither does Harvey Pekar. Steve is angry at everyone. He has great moments of joy, and he’s quite funny, but for the most part, he’s inwardly seething. His main nemesis is Tony Stark, who delights in trolling him. (The dialogue Kenealy writes for Tony is spot-on, entirely consistent with the Robert Downey Jr. character yet somehow simultaneously older, sadder, and more juvenile.)

Steve strikes up a friendship with Pepper Potts — likewise finally acting her age — and when he finds out Tony has been drunk-texting Pepper, he confronts him. With Pepper, Steve makes it clear that he’s willing to fight Tony, suit and all, if the behavior doesn’t stop. Pepper, who’s seen Steve in the middle of an angry post-traumatic panic attack, is rightfully terrified.

Pepper reminds Steve that the fact that he can beat up a man wearing a tank always stands between them. She relates to Steve the way the other heroes relate to the Hulk. He has unpredictable, unbridled power that forces her to constantly adjust for his presence. Even though she likes him. Even though he’s a good guy. No one that powerful can ever be good enough to not be dangerous.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in the wake of #MeToo, but well before that. To promise a woman that you would throw her abuser from a window — which I have said, and thought and promised to mutual friends many more times than I have said directly — is not a comforting idea for most people. It’s a reminder that they exist in a world whose contours are shaped by male power, anger, and physical strength, where even friends and allies can be dangerously unpredictable. Sonny Corleone is not a role model, for so very many reasons.

Steve Rogers is a better one, but far from perfect. But I think that’s part of why he works.

S.I. Rosenbaum is a writer, editor, comics artist, and Bollywood fan from Boston, now based in New York, who works dozens of places making stories and sentences better behind the scenes. (She should really have been snatched-up by a magazine or website in the city full-time by now; get it together, people.) Anyways, S.I. and I are both big fans of American Captain, and we got to geek out about it together recently. Here’s some of what she had to say.

The thing that was genius about it (to me) was the conceit that Steve Rogers was drawing it. In classic superhero comics, the art functions as a sort of omniscient third-person impersonal narrator. The art isn’t supposed to have a point of view. We get internal monologues — do we ever — but the art is looking from outside, most of the time. But because of “American Captain“‘s conceit as a webcomic DRAWN by Captain America, the art as WELL as the words became first-person. Early on in the strip, Steve “draws” himself as skinny and it’s not just that the webcomic artist has a style; Steve still sees himself as a little guy.

This made me realize: in the world of “American Captain,” superhero comics don’t exist. Neither do superhero movies or television shows. There are paintings, commercial and conceptual art, and comics like American Splendor, Dykes to Watch Out For, and Maus. Steve doesn’t have a template for understanding who he is as a superhero. He has one for understanding himself as Steve Rogers. I love superhero comics, TV, and movies, but a world without them is probably in some ways a better one.

Monograph by Chris Ware

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 19, 2017

Monograph Chris Ware

Monograph by Chris Ware is a monograph of Chris Ware’s life and work written and illustrated by Chris Ware. Got that? I liked the official description of the book from the Amazon page:

A flabbergasting experiment in publishing hubris, Monograph charts the art and literary world’s increasing tolerance for the language of the empathetic doodle directly through the work of one of its most esthetically constipated practitioners.

Kirkus liked it and Zadie Smith blurbed “there’s no writer alive whose work I love more than Chris Ware”. Instant preorder.

The first ever sketch of Wonder Woman

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 12, 2017

Original Wonder Woman

This is the first ever sketch of Wonder Woman by H.G. Peter from 1941. On the drawing, Peter wrote:

Dear Dr. Marston, I slapped these two out in a hurry. The eagle is tough to handle — when in perspective or in profile, he doesn’t show up clearly — the shoes look like a stenographer’s. I think the idea might be incorporated as a sort of Roman contraption. Peter

The Wonder Woman character was conceived by William Moulton Marston, who based her on his wife Elizabeth Marston and his partner Olive Byrne. (Reading between the lines about WW’s creation, you get the sense that Elizabeth deserves at least some credit for genesis of the character as well.) On the same drawing, Marston wrote back to Peter:

Dear Pete — I think the gal with hand up is very cute. I like her skirt, legs, hair. Bracelets okay + boots. These probably will work out. See other suggestions enclosed. No on these + stripes — red + white. With eagle’s wings above or below breasts as per enclosed? Leave it to you. Don’t we have to put a red stripe around her waist as belt? I thought Gaines wanted it — don’t remember. Circlet will have to go higher — more like crown — see suggestions enclosed. See you Wednesday morning - WMM.

From Wikipedia:

Wonder Woman was created by the American psychologist and writer William Moulton Marston (pen name: Charles Moulton), and artist Harry G. Peter. Olive Byrne, Marston’s lover, and his wife, Elizabeth, are credited as being his inspiration for the character’s appearance. Marston drew a great deal of inspiration from early feminists, and especially from birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger; in particular, her piece “Woman and the New Race”. The character first appeared in All Star Comics #8 in October 1941 and first cover-dated on Sensation Comics #1, January 1942. The Wonder Woman title has been published by DC Comics almost continuously except for a brief hiatus in 1986.

William, Elizabeth, Olive seemed like really interesting people. They lived together in a polyamorous relationship (which I imagine was fairly unusual for the 1940s) and William & Elizabeth worked together on inventing the systolic blood pressure test, which became a key component in the later invention of the polygraph test. Olive was a former student of William’s and became his research assistant, likely helping him with much of his work without credit.

Update: The upcoming film Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is a biographical drama about the lives of William, Elizabeth, and Olive. Here’s a trailer:

The Imaginary Worlds podcast also had an episode on the genesis of Wonder Woman (featuring New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, who wrote The Secret History of Wonder Woman):

(via @ironicsans & warren)

Hussam and the Death Way

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 02, 2016

Hussam Death Way

From comic artist Toby Morris, a harrowing tale of Hussam and his family, who escaped the civil war in Syria to a refugee camp in Jordan.

Life lessons from a tattooer

posted by Susannah Breslin   Mar 19, 2015

batman-tattoo.jpg

Leslie Rice (whose work you see here) is a second-generation tattoo artist who’s been tattooing for twenty years, and here’s the number one thing he’s learned: “Women are tougher than men.”

“Women and men have a very different approach to traumatic things like getting tattoos. Women are far more willing to accept it and go with the flow, whereas men will try and fight it, so you end up in this horrible situation where men end up vomiting and passing out and falling on the floor, and the women don’t tend to do that.”

(via Needles and Sins)

How Peanuts got its first black character

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 12, 2015

Franklin Peanuts

Franklin, the first black member of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang, made his debut in July 1968. His presence came about through the efforts of Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman, who wrote Schulz several letters in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination arguing that the inclusion of black characters in the most popular comic strip in America would be a positive thing. Here is her initial letter to Schulz:

Franklin Peanuts Letter

After some back and forth between Schulz and Glickman, Franklin made his first appearance in the strip.

Franklin’s introduction was part of a five-day sequence featuring Sally tossing away Charlie Brown’s beach ball and Franklin rescuing it. In some ways, this seems an aggressive bit of integration — many American public beaches, while no longer legally segregated, were still de facto segregated at the time. In other ways, the strips suggest what might be seen today as an excess of caution; of the twenty panels of the series, Franklin is in ten panels and Sally is in eight, but never is Franklin in the same panel as the white girl. Franklin would not reappear for another two and a half months, when he came for a visit to Charlie Brown’s neighborhood. He was somewhat lighter skinned here, which seems to be less a matter of trying to make him acceptable to the readers and more a matter of cutting back on shading lines which were overpowering his facial features. Franklin’s job in this series was to react to the oddness of the neighborhood kids, and that was a precursor to what would be his primary role in the strip as a whole. Perhaps due to excessive caution, Franklin was never granted any of the sort of usual quirks that define a Peanuts character, the very sort of mistake that Glickman was warning about when she called for one of the black kids to be “a Lucy.”

His inclusion made news nationally and upset many people, particularly in the South. Schulz had a conversation with the president of the comic’s distribution company:

I remember telling Larry at the time about Franklin — he wanted me to change it, and we talked about it for a long while on the phone, and I finally sighed and said, “Well, Larry, let’s put it this way: Either you print it just the way I draw it or I quit. How’s that?”

(via @essl)

Hawkeye’s hearing, or How to use signs in storytelling

posted by Tim Carmody   Jul 31, 2014

Hi, everybody! Tim Carmody here, guest-hosting for Jason this week.

In the Marvel comic Hawkeye #15, published in February, the title character was brutally attacked and deafened by a supervillain real estate developer trying to push the hero’s neighbors out of their apartment building in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy. (It’s a very special comic book.) This week’s issue, #19, took months to finish but finally picks up that story line. It’s mostly told in a combination of silent panels, American Sign Language, and half-intelligible lip reading. It’s already being talked about as a shoo-in for this year’s Eisner award for best single issue.

clint-600x287.jpg

There are precedents here. Last year’s mostly-silent Hawkeye #11 was told from the point of view of a dog (named Pizza Dog), using symbols and maps to tell a kind of detective story. (That issue also won writer Matt Fraction and artist David Aja the Eisner.)

Pizza dog.png

There’s also a silent issue of Daredevil by Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev where the blind superhero is temporarily deafened by an explosion. And there’s two gorgeous mini-arcs of Daredevil by writer/artist David Mack, featuring Maya Lopez as Echo, Daredevil’s deaf, super-powered love interest and counterpart.

Echo.png

Hawkeye’s also been temporarily deaf twice before: once in the limited series Hawkeye, back in the 1980s (his use of a hearing aid made him a minor hero to hearing-impaired readers) and (it’s revealed in this new issue) also as a child, as a result of an injury implied to be caused by his abusive father. This is how Clint and his brother Barney are shown to know American Sign Language.

I’ve been interested in ASL for a long time for personal reasons, but also as a kind of “writing,” in the family-resemblance sense of visible language, that functions like speech.

Comic books, at least in print, are a silent medium by necessity. But it’s still harder to render ASL in comics than ordinary oral/aural speech, because it’s a language of movement, and we don’t have the conventions of speech bubbles and the alphabet.

What we do have is a graphic tradition of maps, signs, atlases, manuals, and other forms of everyday iconography to draw on. And those are largely what Mack used in Daredevil, and what Aja uses in Hawkeye.

It’s a sign that we, all of us, read signs everywhere, and every kind of reading can be used and incorporated in every other kind. The best way to stay true to what’s essential in a medium is to do your best to explode your way out of it.

Matt Groening’s hellish ordeal is over

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 25, 2012

After 30+ years, Matt Groening is done drawing his Life in Hell comic strip.

“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).

The complete Harry Potter, in comic form

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 06, 2011

Epic comic version of all eight of the Happy Potter movies by Lucy Knisley.

Harry Potter comic

Knisley is also offering large format images of the comic for personal use…for a limited time only.

Donald Duck in Germany: “a bird of arts and letters”

posted by Tim Carmody   May 06, 2011

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.

Think Calvin and Hobbes and their philosophical wagon rides.

Why Stan Lee is the Shakespeare of the 20th century

posted by Tim Carmody   May 04, 2011

Kenneth Branagh seemed like an odd fit to direct Thor, but he makes a solid case here about the affinities between Shakespeare, comics, and our love of all things larger-than-life:

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.

Old cock

posted by Tim Carmody   Aug 09, 2010

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.

Quimby The Mouse, gone fishin’

posted by Jason Kottke   May 06, 2009

A short video animation of Quimby the Mouse by Chris Ware. (via waxy)

Update: Vimeo has pulled the video offline. (thx, paul)

Update: The video is back online again.

Grown-up Calvin and Hobbes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 11, 2009

A collection of drawings of Calvin and Hobbes featuring a grown-up Calvin.

Get Your War On is off

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 21, 2009

With Bush out of office, David Rees ends his popular and hilarious cartoon, Get Your War On.

Manhattan comics map

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 11, 2008

Alternate Manhattan maps, #510 in an infinite series: map of where the Marvel comic book characters hang out in the city.

Update: And of course, fans have made even better, more detailed maps. (thx, sam)

Essential comics

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 01, 2008

Fifty things every great comics collection needs.

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.

@#$%&?! = grawlix

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2008

That string of typographic symbols that substitute for swearing in cartoons? It’s called a grawlix.

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.”

Well, @#$%&?!, that’s cool.

Garfield, remixed

posted by Jason Kottke   Jun 16, 2008

Garfield is the current go-to media for parody and remix. Nothing Garfield, Garfield Minus Garfield, Garkov (Garfield with random dialogue), Garfield as a real cat, Lasagna Cat, Garfield Randomizer, Silent Garfield, what if Conan the Barbarian was Garfield’s owner?, The Death of Garfield, Garfield Loses His Lunch, Garfield Variations.

Why Superman will always suck.

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 15, 2008

Why Superman will always suck.

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?

Michael Chabon on why real-life superhero costumes

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 21, 2008

Michael Chabon on why real-life superhero costumes don’t work.

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.

Douglas Wolk

posted by Joel Turnipseed   Oct 31, 2007

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).

Every once in awhile, my friend Matt

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 15, 2007

Every once in awhile, my friend Matt takes a photo of the whiteboard at Orbital Comics in London. The most recent one features a list of the top 10 greatest moments in movies from comics. Orbital’s MySpace page has more of their whiteboard lists.

From the always excellent xkcd, this comic

posted by Jason Kottke   Oct 10, 2007

From the always excellent xkcd, this comic absolutely drips hilarious nerdiness and nerdy hilariousness all over the place. “Oh yes, Little Bobby Tables, we call him.”

History of the Batman logo

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 18, 2007

A history and analysis of the Batman logo from 1939 to the present, in five parts: 1, 2, 3. 4, 5. More logo studies by the same fellow here. (thx, david)

Spiderman 3

posted by Jason Kottke   May 16, 2007

Longish detailed interview with Chris Ware about

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 13, 2007

Longish detailed interview with Chris Ware about comics, which he calls “the weird process of reading pictures, not just looking at them”.

A tourist map of Gotham City. Gotham

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 29, 2006

A tourist map of Gotham City. Gotham resembles “Manhattan below 14th Street at 11 minutes past midnight on the coldest night in November”.

This week’s New Yorker features 4 different Thanksgiving-themed

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 20, 2006

This week’s New Yorker features 4 different Thanksgiving-themed covered by Chris Ware. Collect them all! This one’s my favorite.