Talking About Ourselves...

*Site Improvements of Arguable Utility Dept: Turning your eyes rightward will lead you to the newest permanent installation on my sidebar, the Assorted Specials and Wholly Subjective ‘Best Of’ list. In this way, some of my longer (or simply more pleasing-to-me) pieces can be fairly easily pursued by anyone, without the need for digging through the archives. The war against the ephemeral state of blogging visibility wages on!

*Tom Spurgeon has a lovely interview with the great Michael Kupperman, he of Tales Designed to Thrizzle, which will apparently be coming out twice yearly now. If I read correctly, it sounds like the work is already done through issue #3, which is fine news. I think the most interesting parts of the interview, however, are the references to heretofore hidden or lost Kupperman works; I had no idea he was working as an editorial cartoonist for a while, a position he feels he was ill-suited for (and honestly, one of the things I noticed about Thrizzle is that Kupperman doesn‘t seem to have the most up-to-date set of comical targets, which is fine for conceptual humor of his type but probably an issue in editorial cartooning). And apparently he was this close to starting a series at Dark Horse, which then balked upon seeing the first completed issue, an expansion of Kupperman’s Snake ‘N’ Bacon character Wonderbook Jr., a violent and literal-minded Encyclopedia Brown (“God, what a mess. I had to kill the whole bloody lot of them. He was lying - the capitol of Missouri is Jefferson City!”). Oh, how I’d like to see that issue come to light. Plus: all the juicy details on the Evan Dorkin ‘fight’! With a Dorkin response! You cannot ask for anything more.

*Another teensy tidbit from Spurgeon’s: James Owen is returning to Starchild?! Yeek; I ought to reread that stuff.

*Say, Entertainment Weekly is back with more 100-word max comics reviews. And, like every fine comics-tuned publication, they’ve been getting around to complaining about the lack of action in opening issues in new books, which is why Image’s Common Foe, a book I’ve heard virtually nothing about, gets a ‘B’. Also covered is Pantheon’s latest, The Rabbi’s Cat, from Joann Sfar, a regular presence at L’Association along with fellow Pantheon pick-ups David B. and Marjane Satrapi. Reviewer Jennifer Reese cites its “pointless, disjointed plot” as reason enough for a ‘B-’ grade. Alex de Campi and Igor Kordey’s Smoke gets a ‘B’ (“…big picture is at times hazy…”) and Image’s anthology book The Ride gets an ‘A-’ (“There is something undeniable captivating about balls-to-the-wall pulp storytelling.”). As usual, no room for much substance or anything (such space is only ever afforded to a few movies and one feature from every other section), but hey, if you want a batch of professional writers sitting ya down and telling you what’s good and what’s not at lightning speed, you can do far worse. Also: Stephen King recommends Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale prose novel, in case that ship has not already sailed for anyone out there.

Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates

Delhi holstered the mace with which she had been remonstrating with some star-thistle and invited me in for some chamomile tea. I am about as fond of chamomile as I am pan-fried cotton swabs, but I wished to escape her wilderness before she flushed a covey of those folk who had so troubled Jon Voight in Deliverance.”

This is a very nice book, an excellent collection of writing in the vein of the above quotation, its 17 included essays offering a fine overview of a wide range of comics talents, while casting the author himself as an affable, inquisitive sort. Indeed, simply from examining the above quote you might have detected a certain novelistic (or should that be ‘short story inclined’?) drive behind this collection of over a decade’s worth of writing on comics. You’d be correct, though not entirely; there is also a lot of chat about the author himself, about what drives him to explore comics, about how such comics relate to his life, and not all of these concerns are approached directly - the guise of fiction is occasionally draped over the proceedings. Such quasi-autobiographical motions may annoy some; in fact, I know it will, because it already has, which is what author Bob Levin tells us in the text itself.

Levin is the author of a pair of novels, neither of which did particularly well. He mentions that in this book too. He began writing for The Comics Journal (in which all of the collected essays first appeared) in 1991, inspired by his suddenly renewed fascination with the comics form, which he had so loved in his youth. In his day job, he toils as a worker’s comp attorney, but he’s interested in studying art and literature in his spare time. He particularly enjoyed EC comics as a youth, the heyday of which he was present for, having even met Bill Gaines on a tour of their offices at the height of their power. He likes to talk about comics with his friends in Berkeley, most of whom show up in several essays. I know all of this because he tells us, as part of his comics work. Each of these pieces is as much about Levin as they are about his subjects, most of which are individual cartoonists, existing on the fringe of acceptability of visibility. Levin’s approach can perhaps most simply be described as profile/essays. I didn’t think that up alone; it’s what Levin calls them too. The self-reference is thick and hearty, but it is one of the book’s great strengths, in my opinion; by the end, when it is revealed that two of Levin’s recurring associates as presented in the text are actually only one true person, the reader is hardly surprised, and probably understanding. Anything to strike at the heart of the matter, of the work.

Many of Levin’s profiles see him embarking on little quests to locate his oft obscure, oft reluctant subjects. Usually, these excursions provide plenty of opportunity to reflect on what the subject’s work means to him, and how he’s come to understand these creators. One can even detect a bit of formula cohering, after reading several pieces at once; there’s often a sequence of Levin’s ordinary life (perhaps involving him receiving or suggesting an assignment from/to Gary Groth or Tom Spurgeon, the latter of whom also serves as editor for this volume), then some bits on how Levin understands Creator X’s work, then a little biographical data on the creator, then some interviews with one or more of Levin’s friends, analyzing the creator’s work, then probably a narrative-style interview with the creator him/herself, and a little conclusion. These parts don’t have to go in that particular order, but all of them are usually present. It’s a good enough system, if only because Levin’s subjects are so diverse. I dare say, having read through Levin’s work, I’d have been let down had he simply interviewed the infamous S. Clay Wilson, instead of taking himself and his readers on an afternoon trip to Wilson’s favored watering hole, so we can learn who he pals around with, what he drinks (“A shot of Granddaddy and a pint of Red Hook”). The expected analysis of Wilson’s often troubling work arrives, but only when set up by a period of following the man himself. This approach might not work with everyone, but for the Wilsons, the Maxon Crumbs, the Justin Greens, it’s vital to widening our understandings of these little-approached talents.

Some essays, some excursions, turn out a little differently. Levin’s profile of Ben Katchor is excellent, and it’s partially because Katchor manages to elude the author’s inquisitive pursuit. While never explicitly castigating his subject, Levin does present the evidence of a certain hypocrisy, a carefully-crafted persona of shyness, of old-timey eccentricity, housed within a person more than eager to participate in readings and slideshows and other presentations, an extremely spotlight-focused battery of activity for a man who asserts meekness when asked for an interview, a one-on-one. Ah, but Levin is not without the means for enlightenment, even stripped of first-person input:

“…in his three volumes, Katchor has failed to substantially engage with what normally constitute male-female relationships, racial or ethnic conflict, or generational strife. His work is as devoid of pop cultural icons, autobiographical fodder, and current events as an organic chemist’s blackboard. Phillip Roth he ain’t. What Katchor’s work is, is a triumph of the imagination. It is not that he has existed hermetically sealed, untouched by what has meant so much to so many, but that, after these experiences have entered his creative bloodstream, they have been channeled and filtered and set upon by his artistic macrophagia so these invaders are rendered unrecognizable. Then, when expelled upon the page, they take the form of this heavily evolved, highly distilled, uniquely personal vision at which the more mundanely equipped of us (your humble reporter included) can only marvel.”

I ask you, has there ever been a finer summary of Katchor’s unique talents, his formidable personal vision? I have not read it, in the event that it even exists. And such insight runs all through these short works, perhaps running even higher in the cases of deceased subjects, like underground enfant terrible Rory Hayes, early-to-mid ‘80s short-form anthology mainstay Dori Seda, and legendary Barnaby creator Crockett Johnson. And there are non-profile pieces too: an amusing summary of the quest for the original art to Zap #0, looks at comics censorship and the history of anti-pornography movements, a wonderfully argued, spirited defense of the much-maligned-by-comics-fans Roy Lichtenstein, and even a little ‘straight’ autobiography.

But it’s those profiles from which the title of the book arises, and it’s the profiles that you’ll mostly take away from this tome. The absolute high perhaps arrives in conversation with Jack Katz, a prolific newspaper strip assistant turned horror comics artist who left the industry following the rise of the Code, only to return in 1972 to begin The First Kingdom, a gargantuan, even Quixotic 24-issue serialized graphic novel, released in a period of comics history that could not have possibly been more hostile to such a project. It’s only now being compiled into trade form. Katz himself is interviewed, speaking on the record about the idea for his magnum opus appearing to him in a dream. He speaks of Flash Gordon creator Alex Raymond’s dream for the dominance of graphic novels. Levin alludes to off the record tales of UFOs and dark conspiracies. And Levin takes these words, and takes the words of others and the tides of history, and hammers out a conclusion, maybe one that applies to all of his quiet, offbeat subjects:

The force of these thoughts and judgments is not necessarily diminished by the fact that comic book publishers and creators and fans still cleave to the type of product Katz hoped to sweep from the board. The First Kingdom exists.”

And existence itself can be a form of victory. Perhaps this review is unnecessary to those who’ve read Levin’s prior Fantagraphics release, a long-form book on Disney’s legal attack on the underground comics collective The Air Pirates, The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney’s War Against the Counterculture. But if you haven’t, this fractured, multi-viewpoint interpretive marvel is a good place to start. Levin’s approach isn’t always straightforward, but it’s always insightful, and that’s reason enough to expose one’s self to the work.