Saturday, August 30, 2008

Swansea Find #2: Super Stupid Spidey Stickerbook

On another of my rambles through Swansea, that "ugly-lovely" town, I wandered through the Swansea Market, vaguely hunting for souvenirs. It's an odd institution, this indoor market. Their website says they were established in 1961, and some of the shops may not have changed since then. It gave me an overall feeling of updated Victoriana, rather than anything quite so modern as Six Flags, JFK's inauguration, or Hemingway's suicide. (You see, I can read Wikipedia, which also informs me that 1961 marked the demise of the farthing as British currency.)

Where was I? Right: at one of the market's dingy stalls, I saw a slim book that came with a sheet of fairly cool Spider-Man stickers. I like to put stickers on the occasional outbound piece of comics-related mail,* so I decided to pick these up:

You never know when you'll need a sticker of a camera or a thundercloud or a pair of balloons.

But part of the fun in this stickerbook is how egregiously off-model the characters are, in terms of their concerns and their abilities. The story makes no sense, even if you know nothing about Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus, but I have to assume that most of the book's target audience would know more than nothing. Here's what you get around your stickers:

Spider-Man is in New York, and a pleasant sunny day turns cloudy and stormy, so he figures something bad is happening. A garbage can flies by him while he's swinging toward the storm. Then he sees the storm is being caused by his old nemesis, Doctor Octopus:

Yep. Doc Ock is making lightning.

Many cephalopods are known for their weather-manipulation abilities. (Cuttlefish, for instance, can cause sleet.) So it's not surprising that the writer (uncredited) would make this mistake about good old Doctor Octopus. But in fact he's just a guy with extra mechanical tentacles. (Okay, I see the irony of using the phrase "in fact" to talk about Dr. Octopus. Sorry.) He doesn't have any mollusk powers at all! Why, he can't even change the color of his skin, or shoot out a cloud of ink!

I don't know why the writers didn't use Electro instead. He can't make storms, but he can at least make lightning; it's not a stretch. I've seen him on stickers here in the U.S. But maybe they figured Dr. Octopus was more recognizable, and they couldn't think of any way for him to be a menace other than making it rain on Manhattan.

Once he sees Spider-Man, he's in a hurry to get away, I guess, or to taunt Spidey from a safe disance:

Oh, yeah: did I mention that this guy could fly now?

Because, as everyone with a pool noodle knows, whirling a few flexible cylindrical tubes in the air is going to give you plenty of lift. Fortunately, Spider-Man realizes that there are only a couple of pages left in the book, so he snags his enemy on some webbing:

(I really like that look on Doc Ock's face, actually.) And that's the end. Never mind that none of those four mechanical arms are restrained in any way. Octavius's dignity is broken, and he surrenders meekly. The police come and take him away, for the heinous crime of weather manipulation, I guess. Or maybe there was a warrant out for a previous spree of cloud-seeding.

This reminds me all too much of the ending of another sitckerbook, Stick with Hulk, that I've been meaning to write about. The story's not important, although it's equally dumb. Here's the penultimate page:

Hulk wraps the Abomination in a chain-link fence and offers him a massage. Then, the stunning conclusion:

Hulk changes back to a fully-dressed Bruce Banner and effortlessly retrieves the radioactive macguffin from the snarling, super-strong Abomination, who is still struggling to free himself from his chain-link fence. It's for pleasures like this that I often linger in the toy aisle at the drugstore, or in shabby markets in little Welsh seaside burgs.

* This is the sort of postal goofery around that I'm talking about. See Spidey hop!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pogo for President!

It so happens that the onset of the Democratic convention this year coincides with one of the most important holidays in my personal calendar: Walt Kelly's birthday. Today marks the ninety-fifth anniversary of Kelly's birth, so it seems appropriate to offer my endorsement of the perennial nominee possum:

The timing seems right to honor Kelly. Only yesterday, Eddie Campbell considered the remarkable coherence of Impollutable Pogo as a through-composed comic--remarkable given its origins in the daily papers over a period of many months. I remember that volume fondly as one of the earliest Pogo books I acquired, back in elementary school when you could still find newly-reprinted Pogo paperbacks for sale at Waldenbooks.

Over the years, my loving parents and friends have helped me to amass a pretty satisfying library of Pogo books, prints, and tchotchkes. Here's a glorious print of practically the whole Okefenokee gang gathering for a perloo (please excuse the reflected glare from the flash: without the flash, the picture was blurry, but I did try to position the glare in a blank area of the drawing):

A few years ago my parents gave me a color print of the most famous Kelly tag, used here (as in Impollutable Pogo) as a cry against pollution:

My most recent Pogo art acquisition was courtesy a friend of my brother. Here is what looks to be a color proof for a Pogo Sunday page--possibly with annotations by Kelly or one of his assistants?:

Still, my happiest acquisition came three years ago, when my parents came through with a copy of the final original Pogo book missing from my collection, Pogo à la Sundae. Here's a photo of that glorious moment when I unwrapped the prize (and the photo is flanked by a couple of plastic Pogo pals):

And having revealed just a snippet of my Pogo shelving, I owe it to Isaac--who challenged me to produce some "shelf pr0n" of my own to match his--to post one last Pogo picture:

That's all the original Pogo books, many in original editions; all the trade paperbacks collecting material from the Pogo fanzine The Okefenokee Star; several issues of Animal Comics and the Dell Pogo quarterly (including the Pogo Parade); a few non-Pogo Kelly projects; some souvenir cups; and figurines of Pogo and Howland Owl. And just in case you were wondering: yes, I've read all the books and comics. Most of them several times over since my impressionable youth. Which, if you know me, explains a lot of how my mind works...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Swansea Find #1: D.R. & Quinch

So: when I was in Wales last month, in a seaside town called Swansea, without much to do, I found myself poking around in the retail outlets, shopping absent-mindedly for comics and other random junk. I've got three of these posts planned, each focusing on a single piece of cultural flotsam. (You can picture me collecting them like driftwood or beach glass. Here is a picture of the beach in Swansea, to help you imagine:

... and to help you see why I was reduced to shopping.)

Anyway, on one of my idle perambulations, I stumbled upon an old shopping arcade—an indoor hallway with shops on either side of it—in which I found one Comix Shoppe. The guys working there turned out to be friendly and informative. When I asked what they might have that was local and interesting and hard to find in the States, they were stumped at first. There was one local minicomic that looked pretty clumsy; otherwise, the guy said, "You [Americans] pinch all our good writers," so pretty much everything recent was easier to get in the States.

... And then he realized that I wouldn't have seen the recent reprints of material from 2000 A.D.. He had a nice run of Judge Dredd reprints, and a near-complete run of Strontium Dog reprints, but I shied away from those, and even from Nemesis the Warlock, mainly because I wouldn't have much room in my suitcase to carry home several phone-book-sized collections. But I was willing to buy this little gem:

It's the most recent edition of The Complete D. R. & Quinch, and for those of you who didn't click on the image to enlarge it, let me point out that it's a sustained collaboration between Alan Moore and Alan Davis, who were also putting out their Captain Britain and Marvelman stories around this time. But this no deconstruction of the superhero genre: it's sci-fi teen-comedy surrealist mayhem of a fairly high order.

Waldo "D.R." Dobbs (the "D. R." is for "Diminished Responsibility") and Ernest Errol Quinch are teenaged aliens with short attention spans, devious plans, and tactical nuclear weaponry. They first appear in a slight "Time Twister" story that parodies the von Däniken / 2001 notion that human history was shaped by alien visitors.

D. R. and Quinch time-travel through human history, carefully arranging things so that when Earth people get a space program, make alien contact, and petition for membership in the League of Disadvantaged Planets, the visible coastlines of Earth's continents spell out a rude message directed at the dean of their college. It's a fun story with plenty of one-off gags, and the final plot twist isn't bad for a short piece of this type.

The hyperviolent, sneering, disaffected teens were popular with 2000 A.D.'s early-'80s fanbase (for some reason), so Moore and Davis brought them back several times, in longer and more convoluted stories that gradually turned one-joke caricatures into characters with a shadow of depth. Moore's humor leans away from anarchic sneering and into surrealist satire. He's not known as a comic writer (I mean, he writes comics, but not comically), but Moore is capable of putting together some pretty funny stuff, and his timing is good.

But I didn't plunk down nine pounds for Alan Moore's sense of humor. I bought the book because I like Alan Davis's creature designs. He does some innovative and interesting aliens. Here are D. R. and Quinch walking out of a photobooth they've just disintegrated, in an outer-space bus station.

The character designs in this book are a lot of fun.

The guy at the Comix Shoppe also strongly recommended "the joke about Marlon Brando," and a familiar-looking alien named Marlon does turn out to be a major plot point in "D. R. and Quinch Go to Hollywood." That's not the Hollywood on Earth, "which was, like, this completely worthless scumball planet that me and Quinch destroyed one time"; there's a planet Hollywood in this version of outer space. On that planet, Marlon is a big-name star who insists that he play the lead in D. R.'s movie, even though the title at that point is just "Something Something Oranges Something." Here's a script reading:

(Count those fingers: Marlon only looks human. Alan Davis has fun with alien appendages. I was most of the way through the book when I realized that D. R.'s girlfriend Crazy Chryssie has a thumb on either side of each palm.)

As it turns out, the script is illegible, but Marlon is unintelligible and illiterate to boot. (The illiteracy might be a sort of garbled joke about Brando's insistence on reading from cue cards rather than memorizing his lines, but I think it's probably just a riff on the way he mumbles.) So unable to read is our lead actor that he cannot see the warning sign about not pulling an orange from the pyramid of sixteen thousand oranges on the soundstage. The result turns out to be the defining moment in a chaotic mishmash that D. R. markets as a film:

And that's why the movie winds up being called Mind the Oranges, Marlon.

Digression: The joke about Marlon Brando's elocution isn't a new one, of course. When I was looking over that script-reading scene, it occurred to me that the timing was almost Kurtzmanian; then I remembered that Kurtzman and Elder's Goodman Beaver take a similar shot at Brando, in the era when On the Waterfront made him a heartthrob. Goodman Beaver puts on Brando's mannerisms in order to catch the eye of a woman who is ignoring him:

Anyway, D. R. & Quinch is certainly not Moore's finest work; it's not even his finest work of the period. (This is roughly the same era when V for Vendetta and Marvelman were appearing in Warrior.) I don't even think it's his funniest material of this era. (That laurel wreath goes to the Bojeffries Saga strips.) But it does have more than its share of interesting moments, and Alan Davis's space-alien cartooning looks very good to me. In light of the last few years in movies-made-from-comics, however, it might be interesting to revisit "D. R. & Quinch Go to Hollywood," for Moore's take on hollow, know-nothing movie culture written almost two decades before LXG.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Jesse Reklaw's Slow Wave

I've been a fan of Jesse Reklaw's weekly Slow Wave comic strip for at least eleven years now. It used to run in the New Haven Advocate, and it was one of the features in the paper that I always looked forward to. Then I met Jesse, some time in the summer of 1998, and I can say without exaggeration that he has been an inspiration to me ever since.

Slow Wave is a sort of collective dream diary. Each week, Jesse adapts someone's dream into a four-panel comic. The dreams often feature odd encounters with celebrities, small animals of unusual importance, the dreamer gaining strange powers or responsibilities, or the dreamer behaving cruelly or perversely. Reading a bunch of these dreams in a row, which you can do in the archives of Jesse's site, or in his collection Dreamtoons, or in the forthcoming The Night of Your Life (available now for pre-ordering), you start to see the terrain of these dreams as something shared between the dreamers, a world we all live in while we're asleep. I'm not sure if I'm imagining a "collective unconscious," exactly, or just an otherworld like Oz or Narnia (but more deadpan and perverse) to which we all have nighttime access.

Anyway, I bring this up in part because I contributed this week's dream:

Since I started my postcard regimen ten years ago, I've been writing to Jesse at least once a week, often sending him one or more of my dreams. He probably has almost five hundred of my dreams on postcards now, many more than I can remember. Although I'm not really sending them to him in order to submit them to Slow Wave—I think of it more as just our peculiar method of correspondence—I am always happy when he chooses to use one of my dreams.

Back when I first met Jesse ten years ago, he gave me a couple of issues of his comic Concave Up, a sort of antecedent to the Slow Wave collections, and—here's the crucial part—a few copies of his minicomics. A little inch-wide micro-mini called Mime Compliant was my first introduction to the world of minicomics, and I think that if Jesse hadn't given me that comic, I never would have had the notion to self-publish or to draw minicomics myself. I've been conscious of this debt for a long time, but this might be the first time I've spelled it out. Not only are Jesse's ideas (like Shuffleupagus, for example) a continual source of inspiration for me, but he gave me my actual entrance to the community of minicomics cartoonists. I'll always be grateful for that open door, whether it was a gate of horn or of ivory.

Here are two earlier strips that Jesse drew from my dreams years ago. They're old enough that they've disappeared from his online archive, but even in the digital realm I'm a packrat, so I had them stashed away somewhere. This one takes place in the basement of my aunt's first house in Washington, DC:

... And this one takes place in a town I never lived in. I know that in the dream I belonged to a housing co-op, but I've never lived in anything like a co-op.

Maybe it was someone else's dream. On the other hand, I know where the image of the Prince robot came from, and I don't think many people would have this image percolating through their unconscious world:

That's a panel from Mr. Miracle #16, in which young Shilo Norman comes face to face with a group of tiny insectoid monster-villains. They capture him under a stone wall (by making him grow, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, too large to move) then use a "fuser" to put his molecular essence into a pupating larva, so that it looks like him. (Young Shilo looks sort of like a teenage James Brown.) Only it turns out the whole thing was only sort of a dream: Shilo wakes up after three panels of screaming.

Somehow, my unconscious mind decided that if Prince turned into a giant robot in a dream, that's what he would look like.

Anyway, I heartily recommend that you check out Jesse's site for lots more droll, peculiar, and funny dream comics. Also, I exhort you to drop over to Global Hobo distro and pick up copies of the three comics he has on offer there. The latest issue of Couch Tag is one of my favorite comics of all time.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Milt Caniff: Images of China (1986)

I'll use our comics blog to acknowledge today's opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing with some notable images from a twenty-two-year-old French book called Milton Caniff: Images de Chine. The friend who loaned me the book is both a French scholar and a comics aficionado, and his take on this book's celebration of an American comic-strip with a Chinese setting is that it is "very French." It reproduces panels that feature hardly any dialogue from either Terry and the Pirates or Steve Canyon, though Caniff's characters could get pretty talky on occasion. No, what it's interested in is precisely the image, the visual impact of a panel or a panel detail. As a result, it forgoes reproducing whole strips in order to reproduce images at sizes up to 8 inches by 10 inches, larger even than Caniff's originals. The absence of dialogue or sequences means the eye is focused strictly on the artwork.

And what artwork! Obviously Caniff doesn't need my praise, but just imagine an age where an image like this could provide background detail in your newspaper funnies section:

(If any of our readers can decipher some of that text, I'd love to hear about it in the comments. [Barnaby, this means you!])

Caniff also knows how to fill a panel with furniture and gobs of black ink with the whole scene remaining clear, legible, and interesting, not crowded with its goods but enriched with a sense of place and personality:

I'm in love with the way Caniff renders snow in mountainous regions; the image at the top of this post is one of several in the book that offer stupefying variations on how to use forms of black and white to model solid snow-capped surfaces. Caniff's absolute virtuosity with black and white, distinguished not least by the variety of ways he used this most complete of contrasts, makes Frank Miller look like a piker--and I say that with admiration for a lot of the visual effects in his Sin City.

(On a side note, one of the things that disappointed me in the visuals for the film of Sin City, praised by many for its otherwise extreme fidelity to the look of Miller's comics, was the drastic tonal contrast in its inevitable use of graytones where Miller had stayed true to black and white, with very little hatching. But I digress.)

I have just two more panels from the book to share, exceptional in that they both provide a narrative sequence and offer a word of dialogue (sort of):

I can't help wondering if Caniff chose a tiger because it offered such ample scope for the black and white contrasts he loved. But perhaps the decision was more intuitive on his part. One of the last remarks from Caniff in the book runs as follows (more or less: I'm having to translate back into English from a French translation):
I'm flattered and stupefied, sometimes, by the reaction of the art world and art lovers to my work. My drawings have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre, a bit everywhere....Often, things are found in my work that I find very interesting but which weren't intentional--even if, to be sure, I didn't do them by chance.

I like the canny way the artist acknowledges that even a medium where every line is the result of the deliberate movement of a hand involves more than mere deliberation to achieve its greatest effects. It's a nicely nuanced position for a master of the black and white, and perhaps another kind of response to the question of how or whether work is informed by theories or agendas while it's in the making.

Ten Years of Postcards

So, while I was away from my computer on a trip, I turned over an interesting point on my personal odometer: I've been sending several postcards a day for ten years now. I started keeping track on July 17, 1998. (At first it was four a day; that rapidly turned to five a day.) Today I'll send number 18,650.

I'm still planning to design, print, and send a special tenth-anniversary postcard, but that's going to wait until I'm done unpacking.

I wasn't going to say anything about my little anniversary, because it's really not comics, and not Satisfactory Comics either, but this morning I discovered that an artist in Los Angeles has also been doing a daily postcard project for ten years, and many of her postcards are cartoons or comics.

Here's a postcard she drew on Feb. 23, 1998. This one from a couple of years later also involves a cat-headed person, though I think that's just a coincidence:

Julianna Parr has been drawing or painting a postcard a day (on most days) for ten years, and she not only has a gallery show that opened yesterday, but a web gallery of the Timestamp project that shows all ten years of postcards.

I've never met Julianna Parr, but I salute her. Here's to the power of a daily routine!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Two Comics Collections

How have I spent my summer vacation? Well, I may still have a post or two in me about my comics "discoveries" in Wales, but mainly I've been busy with moving in to this new place. I did take a day off from unpacking this week, though, and that took me back down to White River Junction and the Center for Cartoon Studies, where I met up with a few other comics scholars for a nice lunch and a quick tour of the CCS facilities.

Something I hadn't seen before is their Schulz Library, which is just a single room lined with shelves in the same building as the Main Street Museum. It's an incredible repository of interesting comics, books, and minicomics.

From the expression on Gene Kannenberg's face, you can see that it's a sort of treasure trove—about as close to Mrs. Hicks's library as you're likely to get in this hemisphere. I was particularly impressed with the minicomics collection (as yet uncatalogued), which is in the central island between Ana Merino and Robyn Chapman. Those gray bins are full of minis, on shelves all the way down to the floor.

Part of the reason I found the space so impressive is that I've been working on my own accursed comics library, unpacking it from boxes and alphabetizing as I go. I think I've got it all unloaded now. For a while I was worried that the comics wouldn't all fit on these new (crappy) shelves. (I do not recommend IKEA's "Leksvik" shelves: they look nice, and they're fairly light, but both of mine are distinctly wobbly.)

I think it's going to work, though: ceiling-to-floor comics. The perspective shift in the middle is the result of stitching two photos together: even IKEA shelves aren't going to distort that much in their first week of use.

If you click on that image above, you'll see a fuzzy image that hints at my dedication to Krazy Kat, to Lewis Trondheim, to Mome, and to Alan Moore. (How did I wind up with three copies of Watchmen, and how have I not discarded at least one of them?)

I'm afraid that's about as much comics activity as I can report this week. I did catch up on the latest Fables paperback (and the last Y: the Last Man one), but I don't have much to say about those. (Well, except that I thought it was genuinely weird that Yorick shaved his head to look more like the writer of the series. I'm not sure what to do with that.)

Anyway, as long as I'm showing blurry photos of the shelves in my study, here's the bookshelf in our house with the most books on it. It's not especially wide or tall; it's just that most of the books are quite skinny.

That's poetry, twentieth and twenty-first century only. It's all alphabetical, but I defy you to read those spines.