Thursday, January 28, 2010

JD Salinger is dead, and while I expect most news outlets to write headlines referring to him as just "Author of Catcher In The Rye," the briefest eulogy I would give him amounts to "May no one graffiti 'fuck you' on his tombstone."

There's a certain self-conscious backlash around that book, one cited by too many folks that don't seem like big readers as a favorite. Yet that self-consciousness leads to citing other books- Franny And Zooey, Nine Stories- as being better, but remember what got these people interested enough to read those later works in the first place. The Catcher In The Rye is uniquely strong piece of high-school assigned reading, in that it's one of the few works of literature that an adolescent can understand. In college, I heard people on the bus talking about Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, as a book they were rereading and getting a lot more out of from an older vantage point.

The impact that book made at the time of its release was deeply powerful, cited as part of an epiphany by Bruce Jay Friedman. The voice of the novel was inspiring in its immediacy, to the people of the 1950s. That "I can do this" realization is attributable to any number of works of art of the twentieth century, but it seems like the best idea-virus we could ever hope to spread, an inspiration to the spirit in the face of adversity. Friedman went on to become a novelist, as well as editing an anthology called "Black Humor" that contained within its pages some of the most interesting folks in mid-twentieth-century fiction, the folks that would midwife postmodernism in literature. This is almost a tangential connection, but it's worth noting the way the writers would all move in different directions to the point where the idea of an anthology containing them all could not effectively be said to document a movement of any kind.

Think, then, of the way Salinger's vision developed, away from the angst of young people, and into this kind of mystic spiritual searching. Buddhism, meditation- these were not popular subjects in 1950s literature. There is a documentary about the beat movement where the person who introduced the beats to these ideas was a 17-year-old girl named Hope, who ended up undergoing electroshock therapy. Here it is, in The New Yorker, in a Jewish sophisticate intellectual milieu. It seems to make sense now, but this can't be the case historically: In all likelihood it's with Salinger that these ideas start to proliferate.

With Salinger we find a major force for mind-expansion, not in a sixties drug culture way, but for general spiritual inquest and expression of contemporary voice. Later, in the 1990s, there'd be a zine called Bananafish, edited by one Seymour Glass, which would document the noise underground which has come to be a major influence on contemporary art, exciting people with the same appeal of freedom.

That's all with only four books in print. They ended up popular enough to be issued as pocket paperbacks, priced to move around six dollars, approximately the size and cost of the sort of cassette tape one could order through the mail after reading about it in an issue of Bananafish. He's dead at 91 years old, and would that I could live on so long.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Noel Freibert gave me a copy of his latest comic, "My Best Pet," and I asked him if he wanted me to review it. He was noncommittal, and I said that I can only write about things that haven't had much said about them. While I've only seen one review of the comic, that review set off a big back-and-forth between critic and artist, where Noel explicitly stated his aims. Luckily, there's some things that went unsaid, which is great, because maybe my writing about this will get more people to give me comics for free. This is to be a positive review, absolutely tainted.

Anyway, Noel's comic is one of the first "actual comics" he's done. The work he's done in the past I'll characterize as "artist's books" for the sake of distinction: Fully silk-screened books, lots of layers- some of it is almost storybook format, but pretty heavily formal in its use of colors on top of each other. His mini "Entertainment Catalogue" is an example of this: It's all a hand shape and some text, using various masking effects, all advertising a yet-to-be-printed comic called "The Blue Hand." He's a pretty good silkscreener, as the three-color cover shows. There's a distinct 1990s Providence influence in how the colors play against each other in a way designed to avoid "paint by numbers" effects- the use of one color as a fill for another's line is deliberately avoided. It looks good. Here, the interiors are in black and white- as they were with his comic in Closed Caption Comics 8, with which this forms two parts of a trilogy. These are straight-forward comics, playing by the rules, using a six-panel grid. Without the multiple colors, the line drawing is pretty simple- there's no blacks, the line never wavers from a default that looks like it could be done in a ballpoint pen. (The exception being a shadowy figure on the first page and a slightly thicker line used for one character's word balloons in one all-dialogue sequence.) It's a pretty effective horror comic- EC is the reference point but the plotting is driven by dream logic more than a sense of ironic cosmic justice. This makes it disturbing beyond the "shock" animal cruelty violence that led to criticism. Despite all the exposition, the actual cause behind the events depicted is unexplained, attributable to just a pervasive evil, that exists outside the comic's basement purview.

Lane Milburn's side, "Feeble-Minded Funnies" does the same thing that annoyed me in his contribution to Closed Caption Comics 8: Being the most on-the-nose thing fucking EVER. In CCC 8, some orc-monsters in a ruined world find the miniatures used to role-play with and talk about their significance. Here, a creature called Pukeball tries to get people to read his art comics. It's pretty stupid, a gloss of commentary on Mat Brinkman comics to make it obvious. There's a Chris Cornwell comic that did the same thing and was similarly a bummer for me. We get it. Anyone who would read these comics doesn't need them. They're written for an imaginary audience that needed the existence of Multi-Force explained to them by something not as well done. The other comic here depicts basic human urges as monsters fighting. It's the same thing, basically: The self-explanatory explained. He either needs better concepts or more faith in art for art's sake, because this particular vein is very much the sort of comic you'd imagine an art student making. (On the blog there's pages of comics thrown out and abandoned, and it really wouldn't surprise me if that stuff was better but he just thought that these comics were "smarter," somehow, than that stuff.) It also reads, ironically, like the work done by a dude whose only interests are in comics and monsters and things like that, and this is him trying to justify that interest. I do congratulate him on his winning a Xeric grant and hope that the resulting published work is less self-conscious.

Monday, January 11, 2010

RIP Art Clokey, creator of Gumby.

Today David Mazzuchelli's Asterios Polyp showed up at the Baltimore Public Library and I was able to read it. Normally I try to avoid writing about things other people have already discussed at length, and that book's been talked over by pretty much everyone except for the artist himself. It's incredible for its control over various drawing styles and color use. Of all the masterpieces of graphic novels of the past decade, this is the book that is probably the best-looking, all the way through, in its sense of design. It's also the most thematically thought-through. I could run through it all right now. It's all been discussed, and it's pretty much all readily apparent when you read the thing. It's an approachable comic, if you're keyed into its concerns of art-making. It's a very "comics" comic, in terms of how important it is that you read it visually, but there's enough indicators in the actual prose on page to make it clear that's how it's supposed to be to those not necessarily initiated, like mainstream literary critics. It's a game-changer, a standards-raiser for American comics, to be certain. I look forward to seeing it be processed and moved past by others. It's moving and charming in the midst of all else. It's not pretentious, I don't think, despite the way all it's themes are mirrored and repeated on so many levels- I think the word people are looking for is "baroque."

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Shaky Kane's A-Men, the single issue collecting work from Deadline magazine which showed up at Atomic Books a few days ago. This comic is super-dense with references, but they're never explained as such, and there is none of the thought-out doubling found in Mazzuchelli- instead, it's this intuitive procession of free-association, that's not "moving" so much as it is "interesting" as a document of an artist expelling things from his mind. Like, the comic is called "A-Men" as a riff on religion and superhero comics, and while the whole thing is drawn in a Jack Kirby style the actual comic most evoked is Judge Dredd. It's about religion as fascism in some kind of British sense. There are all sorts of other references that aren't as important to "decoding meaning" so much as enforcing what's there. The plotting is super non-linear, and the conclusion anti-climactic. Plus there's two one-page things about Elvis thrown in, and other separate pages with their own various design approaches. I liked it, it's well-drawn and bonkers in the comic book format I respond favorably to. It's inarticulate in a way that seems like it corresponds to the amount of vision at hand. It's not a thing to be "processed" and then built on, the way I read modern comics, it's a weird early nineties cul de sac of cultural processing as an end in itself, it's own meager reward.

If you, like me, saw that Art Clokey had died and thought about Paper Rad, then I guess you understand appropriation as a means of understanding. That lesson is based on the symbols being dealt with- that's why there isn't "continuity" between Shaky Kane and Ben Jones. These are people who don't make work as a closed-circuit, they're dealing in a bigger pond, and ponds are not a stream flowing through time the way that influence works. Imagine reading that strip from Kramers Ergot 6 about Seinfeld and Smog in 2027, trying to know the foreign tongue of the past. This could be why Ben Jones is describing his new work in the context of Yuichi Yokoyama. Of course, Ben's more influential than Shaky Kane ever was. It's 2010 and the future is hard to understand, with our best chance at knowing the present being to think of it as a sum of the past's collection of dead-end narratives.

Friday, January 08, 2010

I have largely disavowed the practice of personal writing on the internet. So it will have to suffice to say that I had a great 2009. Too much talk of it would seem like bragging, or name-dropping, or some sort of disagreeable practice. But I had a great year, despite the lack of much of the media consumption that drives both this blog and my own conception of my life. The last year was a good one for living. If anyone reading this was around me personally during the span of that year, thank you. Those were good times.