Friday, February 29, 2008

Unsplendid News, Everyone

I'm still pretty ridiculously busy, though apparently not as busy as Mike...

... but I have a little news, completely unrelated to Leap Day: I've got a couple of poems in the new issue of Unsplendid, which also has audio of me reading the pieces. Here's to the internet.

I'm sharing virtual page space with my friend Juliana Gray as well as with the poet Charles Martin (who gave a reading at LIU last semester), so I feel like I'm in good company.

And now, please, you may continue your celebrations of the life and accomplishments of Georges Batroc.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Another Freakish Mutation

I'm having a pretty busy week for pretty much everything around here, which means a light week for the ol' blog.

Still, since I have a few spare minutes, let me favor you with a panel out of Iron Man #71, from 1974. I've already plumbed the Joe Stinson Collection for a slavering green paunch-bellied ape-spider tripod and a yellow Kryptonian mantis-bird-bat-dragon; here's a purple, spotted giant cockroach demon, courtesy of the Yellow Claw and his incredible collar. (The monster breathes radioactive flames, by the way, but I haven't scanned that page.)
(Please click to enlarge.)

"Don't you ever get bored with your unreal world?" Iron Man asks.

It's a question I've had to face many times myself.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Mike Grell Extreme Stance

So, okay: last week I was complaining about some of Mike Grell's figure work in an issue of Superboy from 1975. Wikipedia tells me that Grell was in his late twenties when he pencilled this issue, but it still shows some of the quirks of an incompletely developed style.

First, as I mentioned, the men in their spandex have zero body fat, and their outfits look uncomforatbly clingy. I know that hyperfitness is a common trope in superhero comics, but I also know that drawing a figure as pure musculature is easier than putting realistic cloth garments on the same figure. I've often suspected that Superman's skin-tight suit was originally as much an effort to assist Joe Shuster's then-underdeveloped drawing ability as an effort to evoke circus strongmen. But I digress. My point is that Grell's figures are all lanky, taut, and anatomical to the point of awkwardness. Show the readers what I'm talking about, Superboy.

But the thing I want to show you, really, is the weird way that Grell has these guys stand with their feet a yard or more apart when they're trying to look impressive (or surprised). It's all over this story, and it's a pretty weird tic. Here's the opening splash panel, in which Superboy (in his pajamas) is menaced by two ghosts of dead Legionnaires. (This scene does not appear in the plot of the story.)

I hope he hasn't pulled a muscle, jumping out of bed into that pose! (This raises an issue: is Superman strong enough to tear his own ligaments or to strain his own muscles? Surely there's a webforum where people discuss this sort of thing.)

Later in the comic, a mysterious interloper destroys a building (by slamming into it at high speed), then rises from the rubble:

Still later, a second mysterious interloper rescues a sky-diver whose parachute didn't open:

,,, And the crowd below is simply agog:

Hey, that one guy is Clark Kent! And he's managed to assume a pose even more exaggerated than the one in the introductory splash! (To me, this actually looks sort of like "What if Steve Ditko drew The King Canute Crowd?" Because I'm sure that young Clark Kent has been replaced in this panel with the young Alec MacGarry.)

Wow, that's gotta hurt. He "look[s] like [he] saw a ghost," indeed! Apparently, that's the way someone stands when he sees a 30th-century ghost:

(Although, you know, it occurs to me: Superboy has seen these guys die, in the 30th century, but he also knows they're time travelers. Why doesn't he just assume that they've traveled back to his time from a time before they died? Instead, he's all, "But -- you're dead!" ... Couldn't that cause some kind of time-paradox? Ah, Cary Bates: you've done it again.)

Fortunately, Superboy assumes a different stance in the story's final panel, after he and the genetic mockeries of actual life destroy a robot that Superboy built just to test their willingness to die all over again. In this last panel, he casually reveals that he already knew that the interloping Legionnaires were merely auto-destructing 48-hour-lifespan clones.

Chillin' in a secret room in his parents' basement, talking on the "Time-Telephone," without a care in the world, and still looking like he has every single muscle in his body tensed to the point of explosion: that's how a Super-Teenager ends a night of self-imposed robot-fighting.

Swipe File #7: In the Air with Brancusi & E. H. Shepard

Has it really been six months since the last Swipe File post? Indeed it has. Our Elfworld story is the monster that ate the blog! Alternatively, it's the hero that rescued us from nostalgic navel-gazing, but here I go again with the magnifying glass on the details of comics past...

In issue 4 of Satisfactory Comics, two of our swipes featured birds. One was our swipe of museum art, Brancusi's beautiful Bird in Space, which can be seen at the Guggenheim in Manhattan or right here in an image from the Gugg's website.

We owed this museum swipe to our friend and contributor Steve Newman, who submitted "Brancusi's Bird in Space" in response to our appeal for "a noun or noun phrase" that would be "featured prominently in a fable or adventure story." That's how we ended up making a character out of the sculpture--the Golden Bird of Mystery:

I think this remains our only swipe from a sculpture thus far.

The other bird featured in issue 4 is the beloved Owl (aka Wol) from A. A. Milne's Winnie-the Pooh, as illustrated by E. H. Shepard. He's only one of six owls included in this scene featuring the Parliament of Owls, but apparently the Parliament meets at his own house:

That's Owl at the top right, of course.

When I'm busy in my office but not so busy that I can't receive visitors, I put a sign on my door that says "Please knock if an answer is required," in homage to Owl. And here's an inadvertent homage to Shepard: the person who sold me the scanner I used to prepare this post owns an original Shepard pencil drawing of Pooh-related art. Too bad he wasn't selling that for cheap!

Friday, February 15, 2008

A Visit to the Center for Cartoon Studies

I'll get back to that pile of crappy comics soon, but I wanted to say a little bit about the visit I made last week to the Center for Cartoon Studies up in White River Junction, Vermont. Overall, I was impressed with the school and the students, and I think it's looking really nice for such a young operation in such a non-lucrative corner of the educational world.

I drove through some heavy snow the day before I went there, and the terrain beside the highways on the day I went to White River Junction was just gorgeous in a sort of gingerbread-house way. I just had to smile, looking out on all the fields covered in pristine snow, and the pine-trees crusted with snow (the spruces rough in the distant glitter, etc.). Because I was driving I didn't get any pictures of it, but here's a little snapshot from the town green in Burlington, the following day, to help you infer what the countryside and mountains looked like:

Anyway, I got off the freeway in White River Junction, drove a mile or so into downtown, turned a corner, and there it was:

The main space of the Center for Cartoon Studies is on the first floor of the old Colodny Surprise department store, and they've kept the awning out front, but the windows facing the street definitely declare cartoon allegiance:

Up until this point, the CCS had felt like sort of an imaginary place to me, like Oz or Avalon or Oxford: a place that I could read about, but probably wouldn't ever see. There was something a little giddy about seeing it in front of my eyes. Much about it seems mythical: a little school in a little post-industrial Vermont town, where each two-year cohort of twenty or so students gets instruction from top-notch literary cartoonists on the way to make a graphic novel. People like Chris Ware and Lynda Barry drop in. Students have their theses advised by Stan Sakai or Chester Brown. This unassuming building in this dingy, snowy town is one of the epicenters of the new movement in literary comics.

In fact, it's an ordinary building, not glamorously equipped or even eye-catching. But what goes on in there is really exciting. I like to imagine that the students at CCS are getting the equivalent of eight or ten years' worth of comics-making experience packed into their two-year sojourns in White River Junction. These folks will be equipped to write and draw some very smart stuff.

Anyway, I'd been invited to drop in by my friend Robyn Chapman...

...(who has a few really fine minicomics and who edits the zine Hey, Four-Eyes, in case you're inclined to do some shopping), and I called her cell phone so she could let me in to the building.

She was beaten to the door, though, by a cheerful Steve Bissette, who gave me a hearty handshake even though he doesn't know me from Adam. He was on his way out of the building as I was on my way in. I guess that's the sort of encounter one has at the epicenter.

Robyn showed me around the facility, including this attractive sign from the old Colodny Surprise store that hangs in the CCS lobby:

Down in the basement is the printing lab, which is open to the students around the clock. They've got a couple of computers, a couple of xerox machines, a wealth of long-arm staplers, a hydraulic paper-cutter, a screen-printing station, and a ping-pong table down there. Also some sofas, for when Steve Bissette hosts a movie night.

I was a little envious of all the printing equipment.

The real "purpose" of my trip to CCS, though, wasn't tourism. I was supposed to give a short talk to Jason Lutes's afternoon second-year workshop, so after lunch Robyn led me over to their studio space. I sat in on a couple of critiques, in which one of the students circulated copies of work in progress and got feedback from Jason and from his classmates. (I chimed in, too, here and there. My old poetry-workshop instincts resurfaced right away.)

...And then I talked for a few minutes about formal constraints and games. I tried to suggest that although there are plenty of constraints that only limit the things you can write or draw, there are also process-oriented "generative constraints," like the ones we used in some of that comic for Elfworld, or the constraint that propels the Mapjam project. These sorts of constraints can help you find your way to ideas you wouldn't otherwise have, and I think that having a few such constraints in your toolkit can help you get clear of any artistic stuck spot.

Anyway, then I taught them how to play Jesse Reklaw's game shuffleupagus. It's a hard game to explain, but we got three pages of shuffleupagus stuff turned out in about 45 minutes, with the second-year students working in three groups.

Here's a little picture of Jason Lutes in his group, with my lame attempt at explanatory doodles on the dry-erase board behind him:

... And here's a result from the session, not quite completely inked. (You can click to enlarge it.)

If any of the CCS students who drew this page happen to read this, please drop a note in the comments so I can give credit to the artists! I didn't get y'all's names while I was there.

All in all, it was a really pleasant day. I got to see a place that I've been wanting to see since before it even existed, and I got to meet a few people whom I'm sure I'll be glad to run into at MoCCA or SPX in the future. I got a really good feeling about CCS as a program of education and as an institution that's having a positive effect on the cartooning world. I hope I'll get to drop in there again some time.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Super-Heroine or Space-Hooker?

Here's another sample from the crummy old comics I got for my students.

This copy of Superboy #206 is stained and warped, presumably from a water spill some time back in February 1975. The lead story, written by Cary Bates and stiffly drawn by Mike Grell, concerns (get ready for this) a pair of clones of dead members of a team of teen super-heroes who are sent a thousand years back in time (to the present) to test 30th-century cloning technology. They survive the test, but blow up when they return to the future, because clones blow up forty-eight hours after they are created.

I mentioned that the drawings in that story are stiff. The men in the story (and there aren't many women) all have zero body fat and a bad case of Spread-Eagle Syndrome: they tend to stand with their feet about four feet apart. I should scan a few of those images for you, just so you don't think I'm knocking Mike Grell for no reason.

But we are not here today to mock "The Legionnaires Who Haunted Superboy." Instead, I want to comment briefly on the thing that struck me most prominently in the back-up story, which features Princess Projectra (another member of that 30th-century teen super-hero team) and a series of unsettling illusions involving her family. The plot isn't important. I want to talk about the outfits.

Actually, that monster is kind of cool, at least in concept: it seems to be based on a sort of trilateral symmetry, which is an interesting idea. What makes it especially creepy is the combination of that three-part body plan with elements (like its pecs, or its mouth) of our bilateral bodies. It's the sort of thing you might see in our demon book, now that I think of it.

But have a look at Princess Projectra's outfit. I'm pretty sure this is one of Dave Cockrum's designs. When he started drawing Legion of Super-Heroes costumes in the '70s, he redesigned pretty much all of the costumes, moving away from the standard jumpsuit (or skirted jumpsuit, for the ladies) toward designs that looked more super-heroic in that swashbuckling, bold Cockrum manner. For the men, this meant v-shaped costume elements moving from the shoulders to mid-torso, and for the women it meant cutouts from skintight costumes. Some of these designs are real successes. You can see a nice study in contrasts, drawn by none other than Jaime Hernandez, in a recent blog post by Evan Dorkin, where Jaime draws Phantom Girl in her Cockrum gear (sassy!) and then in her previous, 1960s costume (simple!).

Cockrum designed the original costumes for most of the new X-Men back in the '70s, too, and the eight-year-old Isaac who filled spiral notebooks with his own superheroes used a lot of pointy epaulets, tall boots, and (consummate) v-shaped torso patterns. That stuff got into my head almost as much as Kirby's design sense, and it still shows up in my superhero doodles from time to time.

But this Princess Projectra stuff? This outfit is not one of the successes. Probably it at least looked lively when Cockrum drew it, but in Mike Grell's hands it looks awkward, improbable, and inappropriate for kids. It's hard to imagine a real person wearing such a get-up, outside of maybe some sort of go-go-themed '70s softcore movie. It does not look wholesome. Yes, it is cut out just as deeply in back as in front. Yes, the cape is actually just a really big choker necklace.

But what irks me is the sudden flash of yellow in her bikini area. Well, that and the elaborate arm cutouts. It's not a graceful design, except possibly when she's posed in a ramrod-straight posture that discourages the viewer from thinking about how the costume works.

...Of course, when you combine the Cockrum "boldness" with Grell's apparent trouble in getting a head to match up with a body, any character can start to look like a space-hooker. I've seen plenty of drawings of this Saturn Girl costume that looked fairly innocent, even though the design itself is pretty racy...

...but Grell's version seriously looks like she's waiting to get paid.

And so, dear diary, I sign off, dedicating this post to Blockade Boy, who has a lot to say about super-hero couture...

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

¡Vote por Condorito!

The shuffle function on my iTunes program has kicked up "Christ for President" (lyrics by Woody Guthrie, music by Wilco). Well, that's an alternative to the other nominees, I suppose, though the Constitution isn't ready to allow a native Galilean in the White House (no Arnie, no Jesus!). But on this so-called Super Tuesday, when so many of my fellow Americans are participating in primaries and caucuses while I languish in the United Kingdom, I'd like to suggest another foreign third-party candidate: ¡Condorito!

I discovered Condorito only a couple of months ago in San Juan, when, just before embarking on a cruise with my folks, I bought the magazine featuring the image above. Condorito Collección no. 6 was the only Spanish-language comic I could find, and I bought it with barely a glance at the contents: it was a comic, it was in Spanish, and it wasn't a pornographic historieta: how could it go wrong?

Okay, so I was a bit put off when the first strip in the comic climaxed with Condorito as one of only two survivors of a cruise ship disaster (!). Nevertheless, the plucky Chilean anthropomorph won the admiration of my whole family--even if his jokes were sometimes stale, occasionally sexist, and almost always punctuated the exact same way.

For you see, Condorito represents the apotheosis of the plop take (aka flop take). The vast majority of strips conclude with someone vaulting backwards out of the panel in response to some outrageous pun, idiotic behavior, or über-corny joke. Sometimes, it is true, the strips conclude with an incensed Condorito exclaiming "¡Exijo una explicación!" ("I demand an explanation!"), but most of the time it's heels over head. Behold a typical example:

Sometimes the plopper's reaction is so violent that he or she is launched completely out of the panel. The absent owner of the shoes in this panel is an airborne nun:

If the plopper is shoeless, such as a jungle cannibal might be, other items may remain as further tokens of the plopper's identity:

(It's just as well not to show the unflattering racialized portrayal of the cannibals, methinks.)

Though Condorito has more or less perfected the plop take with incessant practice, there are occasions when it doesn't seem quite right. Here Condorito himself does a plop take when his green wig fails to distract some passersby from his grotesquely swollen feet; maybe the feet are so heavy that they prevent the usual somersault?:

Finally, the first Condorito plop take I saw, on page 2 of that Condorito Collección, is one of the oddest of all: the aquatic plop take. How does that work? Thus, apparently:

The text here explains Condorito's secret to easygoing flotation:

Man in water: We're the only survivors...But tell me, how have you managed to float so easily in the midst of this disaster?
Condorito: Ah, I'm a friend of the artist!

Of course, that begs the question: who is the artist? Condorito doesn't draw himself, after all--and if you've seen any of the modern versions of Condorito, they look pretty stiff and bloodless with their scrawny pen lines compared to the lively and calligraphic brushwork of Pepo. To learn more, click his name there. ¡Reflauta!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Sketchbook: Sleeping Cat

I'm away from home on an extended research trip, so it's going to be a long while 'til I see my cats again. Luckily for me, I managed a quick sketch of one of them asleep before I left. Lo, the cuteness:

(NB: If you click on the image, it will become enormous, too big to view conveniently on a laptop screen, I'm afraid. Before Isaac makes fun of me about this, I want the record to show that this image was scanned with a new piece of equipment, and I haven't figured out how to scale things down appropriately yet. I tried to keep it small, I really did!)

Mad Science the Sivana Way

Just so you won't think I'm 100% hater when it comes to silver-age science, let's have another look at a book our friend at Alternate Universe sold me for cheap. Here, my friends, is Shazam! #11, welcoming in the year 1974.

It's a three-story comic, opening with a queasy-making story about a flood of cherry Jell-O that threatens to overwhelm the city (not even Captain Marvel can eat it fast enough). Second is a fairly amusing tale about a mailman who dresses up as Cape-Man (a tubby Superman with a ski mask) in order to get respect. Both of those stories, really, deserve some attention, and maybe after I've worked my way through the rest of the Joe Stinson Collection I'll come back to them.

But this evening we are here to discuss the Sivanas and their hatred not only of the Big Red Cheese but that other jolly red-clad hero, Santa. This is the story of how Dr. Sivana, "The World's Maddest Scientist," with his children Sivana Junior and Georgia, tried to ruin Christmas. How can you not love these ugly mugs?

I love the hereditary overbite, the horrible nose, and the habitual scowl. The art in this story is by Kurt Schaffenberger, and I have to say it's really charmingly lively, silly, and fun. I wish more modern comics looked like this.

That giant clock Sivana is sitting at? It's a machine that controls the speed of time.

You might think that I'd object to that. "What? The Sivanas can control the speed of time, and all they want to do is to ruin Christmas? Why not use that sort of crazy-scientist chrono-knowhow to do something more practical?" But that's not the sort of story this is trying to be. It never asks you to take it seriously,* and it never asks you to believe that Sivana is motivated by anything other than a perverse desire to spoil other people's happiness. If he used the big clock to rob banks, I'd call stupid on that, but to me this is just fun.

I mean, what reason is there for Georgia Sivana to be blowing bubblegum in the background of that panel? This is a story really written for kids. (There's even a point when the narrator in the captions tries to imply that despite any doubts you might be starting to have, Santa really might exist.)

Once time speeds up and the Marvel Family tries to solve the problem, they bump into Santa and he tells them that the Sivanas are behind it. (He knows when you've been bad or good, after all, so he knows what the Sivanas are up to.) The Marvels quickly burst into the Sivana lab and, with their combined strength, yank the clock hands back around so that time moves backwards and Christmas starts all over again at the normal pace.

This is the kind of world we're in: a machine so complicated that it can change all of time is also so simple that physically forcing it to run backwards will make all of its mechanisms reverse their effects. Maybe that's a little naïve, even for this sort of comic, but if the problem couldn't be solved by brute force, Captain Marvel would be up a creek, right?

(Another thing that seems impossible to imagine in today's comics: notice the way that Mary Marvel, despite some really awkward positioning, is not set up in a cheesecake pose.)

Of course, Sivana doesn't get to make that escape he's hoping for...

And although on the next page he's already threatening to break out of jail again, confident that 1974 is going to be his year, we don't hear any more from him for the time being. The Marvels give him a Christmas present, which seems to soften his heart a little bit ("Golly gee whiz!" he exclaims, "No one's ever given me a present before!"), and you wind up feeling a little bit sorry for him. Sivana really seems like a kid's fantasy of supernatural spite, when you think about it, and I think that's just the way he ought to be.

In my moment of sympathy for the devil, however, let me point out that this image really makes me flinch.

Talk about your unfair fights! It's the Superman-vs.-Luthor problem, made even worse because Sivana is a shriveled little old man. There's no way he's walking away from that blow. The poor little gnome. I hope he knows a good reconstructive surgeon.

*At least one of the readers didn't quite get the point. The first letter in this issue's "Shazamail!" begins, "Dear editor: Like fellow Kentuckian James McCoy, I find it hard to take the character of Captain Marvel totally seriously. But I still enjoy reading the stories..." This reminds me of the readers who wrote to the first publishers of Gulliver's Travels, complaining that some of the elements of the story seemed a bit implausible.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Sir Gawain Doodles

I've been thinking about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight lately, not for any particular reason. (I mean, I'm not going to be writing about it or anything; it has just been coming up in conversation a lot around the house here.)

Yesterday, during one of these conversations, I had one of my unstoppable doodling sessions—which was the way I used to "take notes," back when I was taking classes, and which still happens when I listen to a scholar give a guest lecture or whatever. Some of the stuff I was drawing was just to test out how big a "gisarme" with a blade one "ell" (about forty-five inches) long would look.

And some of it was obviously just doodles.

I'm pretty sure that Sir Bart the Sheriff doesn't appear in Sir Gawain, and I don't remember that little demon riding a giant, either. As for the root vegetables, I'm sure they're there, just not mentioned. Literature is full of these conspicuous absences and lacunae. (You know, sort of like the seduction scenes between Beowulf and Grendel's mom, only tasty and good for you. And not a horrible, stupid imposition on the story that utterly changes the meaning of the story.)

Ah, bloggery...