Apropos comics, a conversation with Dave Crane

Ever so often I have interesting conversations on twitter – more often than not about comics – that I want to preserve here in their entirety. I’ve tried different formatting in the past, but to avoid the screenplay look in this exchange with improvisational cartoonist Dave Crane, I have edited the tweets down to paragraph text with links to the source marked by hashes (#). as all noteworthy conversations on twitter, this one begins with one party sharing a snarky image:

 

Allan Haverholm: oh man, I missed this by watching only the documentary channel all night :-( :-( :-( #

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Dave Crane: The essence of comics is combining words and pictures in a way that generates friction. (Also — hee! hee!) https://t.co/gpxGVKfj2Q #

AH: Oh no, don’t involve me in hybrid theory! Comics are a visual form, words are only accessories 😛 #

DC: Yeah, but even when there are no words, the lack of words adds to the meaning 😛 (same goes for pictures too) #

AH: Nnnot really. That’s like saying instrumental music “lacks” singing. Or that movies pre-Avatar lacks 3D… #

DC: I don’t buy the avatar/3D argument, that was a tech-driven gimmick. But the music analogy raises an interesting point. #  My thinking was comic readers will typically expect words (90-odd% of comics have them), so choosing not to is deliberate choice # …but music, hmm — traditionally, that’s been more like 50:50, so my argument run aground a bit there. # I’ll have to have a think about that one… # Oh, and yeah, I know there’s a truck-sized gap in any argument based on cultural norms — which we’re all free to ignore :) #

AH: Oh, no need to think about it. I’m right :-) # Correction for cockiness: It’s the basis for my work and thinking re: comics, and I’m pretty sure it’s accurate… #

DC: Yep, you are on an entirely valid path, placing the visual elements as central (not that it’s my call whether it’s “valid”) # …and not alone. Lorenzo Mattotti says he “illustrates” the pictures with his words, for example (similar-but-diff emphasis on visuals). #
AH: I think Mattotti is spot on. Images and text both have shortcomings and may supplement each other. #

DC: But there are other approaches too, that take a different emphasis. Nothing inherent in the medium that puts visuals first. # The obvious counter-example is words, but this discussion makes me wonder if there are others e.g. rhythm: # If an abstract sequence is based on, say, rhythm (e.g. alternation between black & white panels, or alternation in shape), # then is that the “visual” element predominating, or a temporal one? (I don’t know the answer to this, btw). # Such an exercise would be limited in appeal to the scholars/wonks like us who do this sort of thing, but that sort of exercise # could also inform more “mainstream” storytelling (i.e. stuff with narrative) — in addition to being complete in its own right # PS: I totally dug your “cocky” reply 😛 :) #

AH: But the matter of dominance: yes, comics have historically mostly included text. That doesn’t make the words essential, though # It’s just evidence of the direction taken by early comickers and later generations following their lead. # If we imagine early comics had also allowed simultaneity and non-linear juxtaposition, the image/text balance might differ. #

DC: Agreed. We operate in a cultural context, and can choose to step outside it (and comics’ context is darn weird!). # McCloud’s good ol’ book has that section w histograms, and structural differences between manga and Euro-US tradition #obviousexample #

AH: Because early-1900s comics could have been employed as a modernist art tool. The cubists would have loved it. # In my work and teaching I’ve tried to dismantle comics and throw away non-essential parts. Words went rather early… #
DC: That too is an aesthetic choice: do we throw away non-essential or elaborate it (e.g. rococo architecture)? #
AH: Of course, but for the sake of analysis we cut off parts of the patient to see how long he survives without them :-) # If you look at comics as a form rather than genre or medium, it becomes clear that words are absolutely non-essential. # That doesn’t discredit genre work or the works of comics writers. I’m just pointing out a larger territory to explore. #

DC: it’s definitely not a genre. But distinction between form and medium is new to me: thanks. #
AH: Print or Web are media; comics or literature are forms (of art or communication, take your pick). #

The text/linear narrative (+ humour/adventure) aspects af early comics were dictated by the requirement that they entertain. # So if we don’t need text, do we need the linear narrative? If that goes, the space=time convention in comics is meaningless. # But there are still formal elements of comics that hold water without the time/space illusion/sleight of hand — like montage. # (I rant about that here) # Think Kuleshov/Eisenstein montage, pulled out of a cinematic context and into a graphical juxtaposition. # Basically McCloud’s closure concept, with the (optional) temporal aspect peeled away. So we arrive at your rhythm example 😉 # In music and cinema, rhythm is temporal. yet in architecture and pictorial arts it’s considered visual/spatial. # (rhythm is both auditive and visual in cinema of course, oops!) #

And here the line went dead. Dave and I had carried out our discourse over the evening of one weekday and the morning of the next — menial (and paid) work called for our attention and left the thread hanging. Perhaps to be picked back up in the comments section below?

Here’s another thought about strategic, spatial arrangement of images

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In the sequence above, Crepax utilizes the comics storyteller’s most reliable tool, the grid,  but subverts it with an understated grace as potent as that of his pen strokes.  As they’re most often laid out, grids work the same way as lines of prose text, moving across the page in straight tiers that read right to left before resuming below to lead the eye along the same path once more.  It’s an effective, reliable tool for putting across information with comics — it’s easy to follow, and it also places readers, consciously or not, into something of the same headspace as reading prose (which bypasses visual impact and goes straight to the mind) does.  Crepax, however, eschews the lockstep, straight-lined march of panel tiers in his grid, instead jumbling the frames together into lazy stretches and sudden bursts.  There may or may not be a “correct” order to read this sequence in — is it across the page four times? or around it in a backwards “C” shape? or some spiralling combination of the two? — but what matters is that there isn’t an immediately apparent one, that the eye is drawn to examine the page on a visual level, to move around inside it and be affected, before it can read anything.

– Matt Seneca, many moons ago on Robot6

This is a good example of classic, sort-of-conventional comics utilizing non-/multi-linear qualities like I put forth in my attempted, formal definition last year (and I swear, I’ll stop banging my drum about that post and write something new soon!). Although there is certainly a progression in time from the top left image to the bottom right one, the order of the smaller, mid-sequence images is less obvious and can be read as discrete montage groups (or compunds). With the spatial strategy of slight grid misalignments between panels, Crepax disrupts the linear reading in favour of a simultaneous one and mirrors the emotion of the images with a haze of jump-cut close-ups filling the space between the first and last panels.

Seneca has many good points in his post beside the excerpt above, and I recommend taking the time to read them!

Proposal for a weird comics workshop

The Experimental Comics Swap-Meet Appropriation workshop

(any acronym would be pronounced “eczema”, I guess)

Participants:
5-10 experimental comics artists. Number may vary according to venue limitations, see below.

Duration:
Workshop — four days to a week?
Exhibition — a month or longer?

Venue:
Any ad-hoc art making or gallery space or building that will allow the participants free reigns to use the space as they desire, see project outline. Preferably, the venue should include a room per participant to work and eventually exhibit in. To fit these demands, the selection could likely be down to derelict and/or squatted houses.

Project outline:
Participants provide each a comic from their library, and upon the start of the workshop those works are redistributed to the group so that nobody ends up with their own contribution.
The artists should then, in a venue room of their choosing, start appropriating the work in their own style and vision. It is entirely up to the individual artists whether they produce artwork for hanging on the walls, murals, sculpture or other.
A collective budget pool for materials should be divided among participants according to needs and requirements.

Talking about racism in cartoons without hurting people

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Congratulations to Ellen Ekman whose Lilla Berlin strip made it to the front page of today’s Metro Sweden! Yes, that’s the whole damn front page:

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Translation:

[Editorial blurb] This comic was supposed to be printed small next to the horoscopes. But when we realized it was the most important part of the newspaper we changed our minds. Read why on page 2.

[Panel 1] August 2015
– 98% of all rape suspects are men.*
– All men aren’t like that! It’s a matter of individuals!

[Panel 2] January 2016
– All immigrants are rapists!– What happened to the individual consideration?
– It’s really important to look at it strúcturally.

[Note] *Source: Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention, 2014

The newspaper’s reason for running today’s Lilla Berlin comic on the front page is the increased debate about sexual attacks – and Ekman beautifully ties it into the popular conflation of recent cases with immigrants.

Thanks for the comic, Ellen Ekman, and I hope in the future more comics will be found worthy as front page matter!

Here’s a thought about comics and context

Too often, people approach Jack [Kirby] as an illustrator and liken his individual pages and panels to works of art meant to be complete in themselves. Jack was an illustrator and yet again, he wasn’t. To get the “big picture” (to use a term he used often), you have to view him as a storyteller if not a writer.

That was the only way Jack viewed his work: Not whether he’d done a good drawing but whether he’d done the right drawing. To him, if it conveyed what he wanted the panel to convey, it was a good drawing. When I spoke at the wonderful, recent exhibit of Jack’s work out at Cal State Northridge, I tried to make the point that to fully appreciate and comprehend his work, you have to consider the art in the context of its intention.

Which doesn’t mean you can’t hang Jack in galleries and discuss him in the same breath as guys who unquestionably belong there. It just means that in addition to looking at panels or pages, you ought to read the comic.

— Mark Evanier, in Kirby, konsidered

This addresses perfectly the role of single comics panels in relation to the page — and the larger context of the work — as a critical puzzle piece rather than an individual work of capital-a Art.

Take image composition; I’ve been trying to formulate a post on the way surrounding panels and placement on the page affect the construction of each panel in a comic. I think there are different rules at play in composing a comics panel than any old photo or painting, and this way of looking at comics as a whole is key to that.

The best comics I read in 2015

I’ll be the first to admit I don’t read many comics these days; the foremost reason is that, as the song goes, money’s too tight too mention, and I have to be picky from the letter go. A lot of genre comics doesn’t even register anymore, and I’d rather look over my kids’ shoulder when they watch a Marvel film than ever pick up a superhero comic again. However, I have been lucky to get my hands on a few good reads this year, and I’m happy to share them with you here:

Mark Badger, Abstract Kirby 1-2

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In his preface to Abstract Kirby #2, Badger describes Jack Kirby as “the bass line for almost every comic drawn in America,” and certainly, the King of Comics beat down paths for future artists to tread. In recent years Badger has set up a daily routine of analysing Kirby’s latter day work, channeling the design sense and dynamics of it into an abstract tribute all his own.

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Badger draws on his fascination with epic space opera period Kirby — as well as Matisse inspired shapes that sit really well with the bold contours and jagged blocks of black that fill the pages. On a micro-drawing level we have the Kirby crackle and little brush line ticks, but I especially see Badger’s fingerprint in the frantic hatchings that add depth and a rough-hewn texture to the shapes populating the page. Badger’s obvious fascination with art as evidence of the act of drawing turns Abstract Kirby into a free form jam session across space and time, and the cosmic backdrop of the New Gods cycle becomes a resonating space, adding a tremendous acoustic to the performance.

In many ways, Abstract Kirby is the purest celebration of Jack Kirby’s legacy because the narrative is entirely discarded, yet every image on every page hums and pounds to the beat of Kirby’s bass line.

Read more on Mark Badger’s website, and buy the books on Amazon

Nick Sousanis, Unflattening

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This is proably a no-brainer in a list like mine; an academic paper in comics form, about the primacy of words over images. What’s not to like?

Mining from diverse sources, Sousanis weaves a compelling argument for multilateral thinking, but ultimately it’s his playful experimentation with the comics form that leads the reader through the book. His style of drawing is on the conservative side for my tastes — tellingly, he dedicates an aside in the paper to talk about a superhero he created as a teen — yet Sousanis’ panel-to-panel montage and page layouts are so intelligent and informed that an outwardly tic as “style” loses its relevance. Panel tiers split and regroup; spread across the page like a rhizome; or morph from a mandala shape to a DNA helix into the arm of a galaxy.

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It’s a heady spectacle, and the only real uncertainty I might have with Unflattening is whether readers may be seduced by the choreography and slacking our critical reading, such a sleight of hand as Scott McCloud has pulled in his works to distract from weak arguments. Still, Sousanis’ work has faced up to harder publication crieria than McCloud’s, and for now, I’m quite happy with the seduction.

See more on Sousani’s website and buy on amazon!

Lynda Barry, Syllabus

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Lynda Barry is one of the finest artists to have worked in the intersection between comics, creativity, and memoir, no discussion. I’d put her at the top, but that might be a matter of opinion (and for the sake of Xmas peace, let’s not have opinions).

In her previous books, What it is and Picture this, she laid out her perspective on the nature of images and the overlap between creativity and play — peppered with inspirational prompts as well as autobiographical anecdotes from her childhood. All of it in gorgeously hand-crafted collages and water colours culled directly from her notebooks, through which Barry pulls us into an immediate, intimately personal sphere, although separated by miles and years from the creative moment.

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With Syllabus she opens up her teaching plans to us with the same whim and generousity apparent in the last two books and, to the part of me that is a teacher, offers an eye-opening peek into her pedagogy and ulterior methods that structure a course in a fuzzy subject as free-flowing creativity. Also included in this book are student works based on Barry’s assignments: Draw Batman is a personal favourite (no googling, no reference, no time to think) with a slew of baroque Bat-doodles filling the page, demonstrating how iconic that cultural trope is. Not all renditions are canonically “correct”, and anatomically even less so, but the “Batman-ness” is evident.

That single example supports Barry’s fundamental argument as well, that an image is an object that is alive in our minds, and a basic function of our cognitive framework. Because while on the surface her playful approach can appear like a “everybody can draw, c’mon let’s doodle”-after school pastime, Barry’s research with University Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists corroborates her theories.

TL;DR — Lynda Barry is a giant among us, and Syllabus offers a new, inspiring perspective on her teaching.

Read more (and buy) on the publisher’s website.

Oliver East, Take me back to Manchester

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Putting Take me back to Manchester in this list is a bit of a tease as it hasn’t officially come out yet, but Oliver sent me a preview PDF a while back (he and I have published a collaboration book together, and shared festival tables, so caveat all over).

Way back since his Trains are… mint books, following railroad tracks from Manchester outward, Oliver East has been a walking artist, ie pre-plotted walks form the basis for all his work. Observation and train of association as he progresses has become a narrative trademark of his; visually, Oliver has developed a unique, shorthand iconography and a rhythm to his storytelling that closely echoes the physical experience of walking those miles with him.

In recent years he has been commissioned to produce such comics as The homesick truant’s Cumbrian yarn 1-7 for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival, and most recently, for Manchester Museum, this work that shows him expanding to historical documentarism as he tells the improbable story of an elephant’s 1872  journey from Edinburgh to Manchester. The challenges and requirements represented with this shift in point of view does show in Take me back…, but only positively so: Despite doing the research needed to depict the period and uncover the events surrounding the trek south, Oliver pretty much shrugs the burden of it off and tells the story as if it were his own. Which it has become in a way, because of course he traveled the course of Maharajah the elephant as part of the preparations.

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Take me back… marks a departure from the water colours that have been a staple in Oliver’s work for a decade or so, on to a confidently graphical ink line, coupled with a two-colour earth/sepia scheme that lends a faded-daguerrotype veracity to the whole package. It’s a remarkable leap in width of range as well as draftmanship and, in retrospect, one that I’ve seen the beginnings of in The homesick truant. So apart from Oliver’s splendid work here, which comes highly recommended, Take me back to Manchester is also testament to the double value of supporting the arts through project commissions.

See samples and preorder info on Oliver’s site!

Jason Overby, The being being

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In contrast to Oliver’s book I didn’t even read this one yet (although it is ordered and hopefully in the mail soon), but it’s a book I’ve been lusting after since Gridlords announced they would be publishing it. I’ve followed Jason Overby’s work intermittently since I saw his work in the Abstract Comics Anthology, and I loved the 2101 series he made a few years back. He has consistently been reinventing his work and pushing boundaries without visible effort; for years now, I’ve wanted to be Jason Overby when I grow up (and maybe if I could be a bit of Warren Craghead, too, that’d be great).

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It looks in the previews for The being being like Overby has supplemented his collage technique with a more illustrative, sketchy style, but needless to say he pulls that off excellently as well. The diversity of expressions made it difficult to choose sample images for this revue, but the versatile page above should give an impression of what I mean.

It wpuld be unfair to attempt more of a review than that, but I urge you to go see samples and buy the book on the author’s website!

Kevin Czap, #30dayscomics

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So, who a) had a false start at 30 days of comics this year, and b) forgot to participate when the actual time came? No no, not Kevin Czap, that was me! By early December, when I’d stopped kicking myself for the oversight, I looked over the project tumblr to see what had gone down this year. Now, there are no losers in #30dayscomics except those that don’t play, but to me the stand-out best were Czap’s cheeky, spatial collages. Somewhere between the vivid colours, the folded papers, and the familiar “fuck you” to any preconception of narrative in comics, I took an immediate liking to his contributions, their charm perhaps enhanced by the relative monotony of (mostly) black and white drawings.

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All of these vinyl taped oddball constructions are probably fine origami objects in themselves, but the staging as, and transformation into flat compositions is inspiredly counter-rational. Much like my own recent work, I’m not sure if these are comics in more than a genrous, technical sense, but they should be! This ~30 photos long non-story about coloured rectangles unfolding may or may not have any point beside the purely esthetic value, or perhaps it’s a metaphor for sociocultural restrictions; maybe I read it backwards. I don’t care, it’s gorgeous in its simple ambiguity and the individual photos (pages?) would be less interesting out of the larger context. Now, if only we could get Kevin to make a whole book of work like this…

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PS, I suck at Tumblr so I can’t post a single link showing just Kevin’s #30dayscomics posts. Please surf to the 30 days of comics tumblr, you’ll spot ’em!  Also, please visit his comics publisher and distro, Czap Books!

A meet&greet with a harsher reality

Since I’m not on Facebook, a colleague had to bring this to my attention:

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I met Fadi Abou Hassan this weekend at the opening of the Freedom of speech in comics today exhibition which he’s a part of. Also present and exhibiting was Malaysian cartoonist Zunar (top, second from left).

Both artists have been persecuted by the system in their countries: Fadi is Palestinian, but it was in Syria that he was detained and tortured by Assad’s forces. Zunar, on the other hand, had to catch the first plane home to defend himself in a trial that might land him 43yrs in prison.

Meeting these two vocal but soft-spoken gentlemen was a tremendous experience that I’m very grateful to have had, and I’m flattered that Fadi asked to keep the copy of When the last story is told that I’d brought along. My privileged, formal experiments hardly measure up to his or Zunar’s struggles to perform their craft.

Thank you both!

A year’s run

It’s odd to think that it’s a year since I was commissioned to redesign the Swedish Comics Association‘s journal, Bild & Bubbla. I stayed on as art director and layouter on the magazine, and with a quarterly publication cycle there’s not much time to stop and think in between. Yet as 2015 winds down we — the editors and I — have the first year’s worth of issues to congratulate ourselves on:

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Daunting as it was, last autumn, to take on a publication with 47 years worth of history — and radically change its format from a book-like journal to an oversized glossy magazine — I was fortunate to have the clear vision of managing editor Jamil Mani to go on. He and EIC Fredrik Strömberg allowed me the space to put my own mark on the magazine within their specifications and (on a few occasions) beyond them.

If time must slip away without my noticing, I’m glad to have something to show for it. Especially something as gratifying as this last year’s new and (dare I say) improved Bild & Bubbla.

On writing in comics: errata

And then everybody with an opinion or less weighs in about the essence of comics. Excellent.

— me, on twitter just now

That was on a sudden discussion about writers and artists in comics, who does who, whose is larger, and which part of the storytelling is more important. That’s a rather simplistic approach of course, but I still managed to get involved in a debate about the semantics of “writing” in comics.

If a wordless comic is made by a single creator like the above by Henning Dahl Mikkelsen, is it per definition written? What if that artist’s work process includes no verbal stage directions or other text at all? In my view, it isn’t written, though it does tell a story. One could be even more pedantic and say it shows or demonstrates a story, as in the adage “show, don’t tell”.

Writing is a subset of narrative, but it’s absurd to say that all storytelling is writing. Ostriches are birds, but not all birds are ostriches. The major, outset bias of the discussion, however, lies with a specific perception of comics — that the art form is defined as storytelling, specifically linear narrative. The below “visual poem/abstract comic” by Rosaire Appel was posted to the Abstract Comics blog, and brilliantly discards that notion:

While I stand by my arguments in today’s discussion, I regret not taking a broader position on (and beyond) the subject. While some comics are certainly written, and others are shown, not told, still others are put forward in kits to be assembled (eg. Chris Ware’s Building Stories), or deliberately non-narrative conceptual pieces, like my own When the last story is told.

So instead of discussing whether writing or image is more important in comics, I should have asked why more comics aren’t built, or walked, or sculpted, or performed. Writing is fine in its own right, but it’s only one lens through which to view comics as an art form of many uncharted potentials.