December 29, 2011

Elsewhere: 2011's Best Female Cartoonists


This just in from Jezebel: 13 Fantastic Female Comics Creators of 2011. I'm sorry to say I haven't read most of these, save Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgal, which I thought was just great and hope to discuss further sometime. It looks like I missed I missed last year's list (part one; part two), so I'll have to catch up!

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Notes
Image source: http://kboo.fm/node/32528 © Vera Brosgal

December 22, 2011

Better Together: The Salon and The Left Bank Gang


This review is adapted from one written for the 2012 edition of
Season's Readings, Durham County Library's annual book of reviews and recommendations, now available at all locations! Past editions may be viewed at http://www.durhamcountylibrary.org/readers/sr.php. The Salon may be found on the Graphic Novel shelf under the call number Bertozzi, N; The Left Bank Gang may be found under the call number Jason.

"Just another modernist with no head," comments a police officer at a murder scene. Everyone's a critic in The Salon, Nick Bertozzi's fantastic historical mystery, including the killer targeting Paris' avant-garde scene. Pablo Picasso, Erik Satie, Gertrude Stein and company split their time between the canvas (or score or manuscript) and drinking a peculiar, blue-colored absinthe that allows the drinker to enter the reality of any nearby painting. Soon this mind-altering key to the doors of perception is understood to be life-threatening in more ways than one.
From the opening scene of The Salon1

The story opens with subtle humor -- there is a running gag about carotid arteries, and Picasso is portrayed as more of a buffoon than genius -- but we are ultimately drawn through artistic temperments into personal struggles and interpersonal relationships, even as the meaning of the mystery deepens. Bertozzi's writing is as smart as it is touching, and his art is intoxicatingly dynamic.

Update: I recently found this nifty little promo video for The Salon, in which Nick Bertozzi describes his reasons for creating this story and his method for creating a page of comics. Fun and informative!

In Jason's The Left Bank Gang, Earnest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce spend all their waking (and drinking) hours struggling with the meaning and purpose of their chosen profession: comics! When the fear or artistic failure and financial ruin sets in, Hemingway takes drastic measures and proposes that the quartet rob a bank. The crime and its aftermath are portrayed, Rashomon-style, by all the players, through to the bittersweet end.

Ezra Pound (left) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (right) in The Left Bank Gang2

Other historical figures appear throughout the story, including Gertrude Stein, who ruthlessly (and hilariously) critiques Hemingway's comics, and Jean-Paul Sartre, who plays a role both in Zelda Fitzgerald's bed and in the execution of the crime. Jason's trademark nearly blank-faced anthropomorphized animals and his clear-line drawing style are perfect for this book. The Left Bank Gang is quietly funny and quietly touching, and it definitely rewards multiple readings.

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Notes
Top image: http://www.linesandcolors.com/, © Nick Bertozzi
1. Image source: http://nickbertozzi.com/, © Nick Bertozzi
2. Image source: http://comicsbin.blogspot.com, © Jason

December 2, 2011

Indefinable?


My recent post about the roots of comics took me a little closer to confronting their elusive and controversial definition than I'd intended. I was afraid that, if I started on that path, I'd never be able to give up trying to find the perfect way to describe what comics are and are not. Well, I did give up, and I'm okay with that. In the mean time, I really enjoyed seeing how other folks have defined comics, so I thought I'd share my findings here. First up is Scott McCloud's definition from Understanding Comics.
Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer.1
This was the first "real" definition I ever came across, so it's rather near to my heart despite the problematic choice of excluding single-panel works on the notion that a sense of time is not expressed in them, which McCloud explains later in the book as the reason that comics are different from other media. As I have previously stated, I think it's important to acknowledge that multi-panel works can depict the passage of time, while single-panel works can only suggest it (except those that can, more on which another time). Not that he asked for my opinion, but I think that McCloud would cause a bit less grumbling in the comics world if he'd add this element to the definition.

I've also already shared R.C. Harvey's response to McCloud, but not his actual attempt at a definition.
In my view, comics consist of pictorial narratives or expositions in which words (often lettered into the picture area within speech balloons) usually contribute to the meaning of the pictures and vice versa. A pictorial narrative uses a sequence of juxtaposed pictures (i.e., a "strip" of pictures); pictorial exposition may do the same--or or may not (as in single-panel cartoons--political cartoons as well as gag cartoons).2
If Harvey's subjective language weren't enough, he explicitly acknowledges after this excerpt that his definition lacks as much as any. Still, this feels less like a definition and more like a declaration that two things -- "pictorial narrative" and "pictorial exposition" -- have some conventions in common. Then again, lumping these items together in a definition accurately mirrors that lupming together that goes on in our minds and our comic shops. I do find it disconcerting that humor and politics are the only kinds of single-panel comics he mentions here and in the rest of the essay; for someone who is so devoted to single-panel comics' getting the respect they deserve, Harvey seems to have a restrictive opinion of what can be included.

In the essay that inspired this post, "The Impossible Definition",3 Thierry Groensteen provides a handful of definitions (below) to explain his general dissatisfaction with the range of comics definitions out there.
I would propose a definition in which a "comic strip" of any period, in any country, fulfills the following conditions: 1) There must be a sequence of separate images; 2) There must be a preponderance of image over text; 3) The medium in which the strip appears and for which it was originally intended must be reproductive, that is, in printed form, a mass medium; 4) The sequence must tell a story which is both moral and topical.
-- David Kunzle
A serially published, episodic, open-ended dramatic narrative or series of linked anecdotes about recurrent identified characters, told in  successive drawings regularly enclosing ballooned dialogue or its equivalent and generally minimal narrative text.
-- Bill Blackbeard
Comics would be a story (but it is not necessarily a story...) constituted by handmade images from one or several artists (it must eliminate cinema and the photo-novel), fixed images (in difference from animation), multiple (contrary to the cartoon), and juxtaposed (in difference from illustrated and engraved novels...). But this definition applies equally well to Trajan's Column and the Bayeux Tapestry.
--Pierre Couperie
Groensteen decries Kunzle's and Blackbeard's definitions for being "normative and self-interested, each made to measure in order to support an arbitrary slice of history". Kunzle, he says, is unreasonable in stating that comics are essentially a mass medium. I agree, especially considering that almost nothing isn't "reproductive" with today's technology, making that requirement unfair, for example, for painters working before the days of color photography and so on. (Kunzle was writing in the 1970s, but that's not so long ago, technologically speaking, that we should overlook this shortsightedness.)

Both Kunzle and Blackbeard also declare that comics must tell a story. Kunzle's "moral and topical" requirement is far too subjective to be part of a valid definition, and Blackbeard's notion that the story must be serial, episodic, open-ended and minimal in "narrative text" is equally ridiculous. These are all accurate descriptions of widely-practiced conventions in the comics world and, if definitions of anything, are only definitions of what Kunzle and Blackbeard consider to be "good" comics. 

Groensteen includes Couperie's definition as an example of how difficult it is to produce "a definition that permits discrimination in that which it is not but which excludes none of its historical manifestations, including its marginal or experimental visionaries." It's imprecise, to be sure (and self-consciously so), but I kind of like it. "Comics are this one thing, except when they're not." Sounds good! Also, I'm intrigued by the photo-novel and what makes it worth excluding; is it just a bias against photography, or is there something inherently different? I hope I can explore this more another time.

Groensteen's solution to the question of defining comics is not to define them at all, but to construct a system of understanding that acknowledges the incredible diversity of "things" people call comics. "The notion of the system," he says, "...defines an ideal ... [and] will be a conceptual frame in which all of the actualizations of the 'ninth art' can find their place and be though of in relation to each other, taking in to account their differences and their commonalities within the same medium."

Even though I never settled on a definition for myself (and I'm sure there are many more out there that would be worth investigating), this exercise has been worthwhile. It definitely forced me to reconsider aspects of comics I'd taken for granted, and that's always a good thing. I'm especially encouraged by Groensteen's "system" approach and will accordingly add his book on the subject4 to my reading list.



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Notes
Top image from the cover of Mad Magazine no. 1, drawn by Harvey Kurtzman. Source: http://thefolioclub.blogspot.com/2010_01_01_archive.html, © Mad Magazine
1. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
2. Harvey, R.C. (2009). How comics came to be. In J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 25-45). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
3. Groensteen, Thierry. (2009). The impossible definition. in J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 124-131). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
4. Groensteen's The System of Comics is published by the University Press of Mississippi; more information at http://www.upress.state.ms.us/books/845.

November 30, 2011

Where did comics come from?

One of my primary goals here is to construct a definition for comics for myself so that I feel comfortable discussing what the medium is and is not. In order have a solid definition, I feel I need to understand the medium's historical roots. To that end, I'm going to wrestle with two divergent historical models, those of Scott McCloud and that of R.C. Harvey.

Scott McCloud is best known for his 1993 book Understanding Comics,1 and that's where my first historical model comes from. McCloud's definition, which he constructs for readers piece-by-piece, is "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer." This definition, as pointed out by cartoonist Dylan Horrocks,2 is both more and less inclusive than most working definitions. Whether generously or greedily, this definition includes any artistic works that contain two or more images (words are optional) intended to communicate the passage of time and thus narrative. Thus comics, for McCloud anyway, includes early 20th-Century "silent novels" by the likes of Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel, William Hogarth's serial prints, medieval depictions of saints' lives and deaths, and even older examples. Indeed, it is hard to see what exactly makes these things different. 

"The Life of St. Martin of Tours," 14th Century (artist unknown):4


William Hogarth's "Before and After":6

From Frans Masereel's Story Without Words:3

From Jason's Hey, Wait:5

Thanks to McCloud's pointing it out, I am convinced that these examples all do pretty much the same artistic and narrative "thing" for a viewer; I am not convinced, however, that they can all accurately be called "comics." Still, I do believe that comics are part of a long tradition of creating narrative by using two or more images in sequence.

This images-in-sequence requirement is also what makes McCloud's definition more exclusive than some. In "How Comics Came to Be"7, cartoonist and critic R.C. Harvey demands that any definition acknowledge comics' ancestry among single-panel gag cartoons. Harvey presents a very convincing case by detailing a lineage that begins by explaining that the word "cartoon," although originally used to to describe sketches for tapestry sketches, came to take its modern meaning (animation aside) as long ago as the 1840s. The English magazine Punch responded to Parliament's call for patriotic murals by publishing a series of "satirical drawings about government and calling them 'Mr. Punch's cartoons.'" This form of cartoon was then refined through history, peaking with excellent works by the likes of Peter Arno, whose word and image are totally dependent on each other for communicating the intended meaning. Harvey also takes the lineage backward to the single-panel, image-and-caption graphic works of artists like Hogarth and Goya. Concluding this portion of history, Harvey declares that "the modern gag cartoon is the haiku of cartooning, and no definition of the medium can be complete without embracing it."

Francisco Goya's "They've already got a seat":9


"Grand Show of Prize Vegetarians" from 1852 edition of Punch:8

Peter Arno's "But I can't!":9

Harvey also recounts the history of the newspaper comic strip as it developed from this kind of single-image cartoon into multi-panel strips that are perhaps most familiar today, doting particularly on Richard Outcault's Hogan's Alley (star of "The Yellow Kid") as the catalyst for the transition, and Bud Fisher's Mutt and Jeff as the first fully-formed modern multi-panel strip. Hogan's Alley, it seems, was the first widely-distributed work to break with the convention of using a caption, although speech landed on the character's shirt before other strips began to use speech balloons. Mutt and Jeff, in Harvey's opinion, represents the peak in both the use of the speech balloon and the comic strip structure (a series of panels ending with a punchline and a narrative connection to "next week's" strip) as we know them.

Hogan's Alley's Yellow Kid:11

1918 Mutt and Jeff strip:12

I will have to take Harvey's word on his evaluation of which examples of single- and multi-panel comic strips are most notable, but I have to concur that excluding the single-panel gag strip seems to ignore a major part of comics traditions and conventions. Additionally, McCloud's insistence that the passage of time is only present when more than one image are placed side-by-side comes off as a little narrow-minded and a lot inaccurate. A more precise explanation might declare that that single-image or single-panel works suggest the passage of time (in the sense that we understand them to be the "during" of "before-during-after"), while multi-image or multi-panel works depict the passage of time (though they certainly suggest much more passage of time as well)...

With these kinds of declarations and observations, I'm verging dangerously close to the tempation of settling on a definition. Since that's not my aim in this post, I'll stop here and simply conclude that the roots of comics most certainly lie in many places, most notably the wide range of single- and multi-image works of visual art that humans have been creating for as long as we can remember.

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Notes
1. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
2. Horrocks, Dylan. (2001). Inventing comics: Scott McCloud's definition of comics. The Comics Journal, 234. Retrieved from http://www.hicksville.co.nz/Writing.htm
3. Image source: http://www.aragopress.arago.co.uk/artistsbooks.html
4. Image source: http://popartmachine.com/item/pop_art/CMA-CMA_.1971.103/GERMANY,-COLOGNE-%28?%29,-14TH-CENTURY-DIPTYCH:-THE-LIFE-OF-SAINT-MARTIN-OF-TOU
5. Image source: http://www.alltern8.com/library/the_works_of_jason_comics_made_simple_/l-5018.html, © Jason.  
6. Image source: http://www.paam.org/skinner.html
7. Harvey, R.C. (2009). How comics came to be. In J. Heer and K. Worcester (Ed.), A comics studies reader (pp. 25-45). Jackson, Miss: University Press of Mississippi.
8. Image source: http://www.ivu.org/history/societies/vs.html
9. Image source: http://mikelynchcartoons.blogspot.com/2010/01/happy-birthday-peter-arno.htmll, © Peter Arno
10. Image source: http://www.famousdrawings.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/goya_theyve-already-got-a-seat.jpg 
11. Image source: http://seriewikin.serieframjandet.se/index.php/The_Yellow_Kid 
12. Image source: http://www.comicartfans.com/GalleryPiece.asp?Piece=580466&GSub=68 

November 13, 2011

Tintinapprehensions


If you're reading this blog, chances are good you know about the upcoming Tintin movie.1 There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this movie, including its impressive credits list: director Steven Spielberg, producer Peter Jackson (The Lord of the Rings), writers Steven Moffat (Dr. Who, Sherlock) and Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), and many worthy actors including Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Andy Serkis. In other words, there are some very competent people involved with this project and it should prove to be a really fun, really pretty adventure.

I think there are also a lot of reasons to be skeptical or even angry about this movie as well. The first is the why-did-they-do-that-to-my-childhood that I think many people feel about this kind of project. If I remember correctly, my older brother did not want to see the "enhanced" version of the first Star Wars movie in particular because it would feel like a pollution (my word choice) of this very significant part of his childhood. I think that's a very valid point and a worthwhile consideration when choosing which experiences to participate in. I don't think it's exactly the same situation with Tintin, but it's certainly similar.

The second reason to worry about this movie is a general sense of they-won't-do-it-right that can be both snobbish overreaction and also completely on the mark, not that it's unique to adaptations of comics, of course. Sometimes it's just skepticism over the film's take on the story, given bizarre choices like killing off several important and beloved characters in the third X-Men film, some jarringly early. (To be fair X-Men 3 wasn't an adaptation of any specific work, but rather of a set of characters.) Sometimes it's just a feeling that the people involved with the movie just don't "get it," no matter how good their intentions. This is how I felt about the first Hellboy2 film, which I thought ignored a massive load of source material and basic character identities in favor of quick, unsubtle exposition and cheap laughs.

In any case, I think I have successfully cut through these two categories of negativity (not to say I don't share them) and figured out my own specific concerns over the Tintin movie. A major part of the reason that the comics work so well for me is the simplicity of the art. Hergé, Tintin's creator, developed a style of drawing that used outlines, mostly solid colors, and very little else to communicate form, movement and expression. This was the birth of "Clear Line," a style practiced by many cartoonists up to today. It is among my favorite cartooning styles and the kind I aspire to teach myself, someday. 

Hergé's Tintin3

Of course, it's unusual to see a drawing of Tintin this big, unless you smash your face into the books. (I won't stop you.) But it gives you hard evidence of the simplicity of his linework, which is easy to forget about in beautiful sequences like the one below.

From Cigars of the Pharoah:4

However faithful to the spirit of the Tintin stories, the Spielberg film apparently wants nothing to do with the spirit of the art.

Spielberg's Tintin:5

That's not completely fair. The film is very visually accurate in that it follows Hergé's lead on detail in scenery, including vehicles, architecture and clothing style. It is also very visually accurate in that the caricaturish nature of his faces is preserved.

Hergé's Ivanovitch Sakharine:6

 Spielberg's Ivanovitch Sakharine (left):7

But this accuracy is what troubles me. There is something very unsettling about seeing impossible faces with impossibly believable texture. Maybe it's just a case of falling into the uncanny valley,8 but I also feel that having all that textural detail filled in to such depth actually works to distance me from the characters and the story rather than engaging me as one might assume. This is an idea that Scott McCloud discusses in Understanding Comics, where he suggests that "this is the primary cause of our childhood fascination with cartoons [here meaning animated TV shows], though other factors such as universal identification, simplicity and the childlike features of many cartoon characters also play a part. The cartoon is a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled, an empty shell that we inhabit which allows us to travel in another realm. We don't just observe the cartoon, we become it!"9 I happen to think that McCloud may be hyperventilating a bit here, but I also agree for the most part. Douglas Wolk notes in his excellent Reading Comics that this is a problem within the world of comics too. Writing in 2006, he comments that "quasi-realistic painted comics by the likes of Alex Ross ... are very popular, but they suffer from a commitment to looking 'just like the real thing.' Ross's painted upgrades of standard superhero-comics imagery are stiff and glossy, as misguidedly 'realistic' as colorized black-and-white movies... They exude grand seriousness, but they leave too little to the imagination."10

From Alex Ross's Shazam! The Power of Hope:11

It's technically impressive, and very pretty, but it's ultimately alienating because it leaves nothing for your imagination to fill in, and it's the same problem I have with the Tintin movie. Of course, I get it: if you were inclined to perfect the art of the high-density computer-animated film, it is a logical choice because of the very qualities that turn me off of the project. And maybe filling in the minute detail is actually a way of honoring the fact that it's a motion picture adaptation, doing exactly what its source material couldn't do -- Watchmen, after all, stunk in my book because felt like a movie that just used the comics as storyboards, truly honoring neither medium.

Nevertheless, I remain skeptical. If I see Tintin, I'll be sure to write about it here; don't hold your breath.


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Notes
Top Image Credit: http://www.heyuguys.co.uk/2011/07/23/comic-con-tintin-panel-and-press-conference/, © (presumably) Paramount Pictures
1. The Adventures of Tintin at Internet Movied Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0983193/
2. I just wanted to take a moment to apologize for my inconsistent italics here. I'm having trouble keeping track of when I'm referring to a character, a franchise, or a title, each of which would be treated somewhat differently. Sorry!
3. Image source: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/showbiz/bizarre/3182572/Michelle-has-a-fabulous-new-blond-quiff.html, © Casterman
4. Image source: http://jlutes.wordpress.com/2008/05/07/the-power-of-suggestion/, © Casterman. Apologies to Jason Lutes, who wrote this blog post in 2008. I obviously took these ideas to heart, but I hope my post does not feel like a rip-off.
5. Image source: http://www.shadowlocked.com/201111052236/reviews/the-adventures-of-tintin-the-secret-of-the-unicorn-review.html, © Paramount Pictures
6. Image source: http://www.ilovecomixarchive.com/A/Adventures-of-Tintin/The-Adventures-of-Tintin-3/15308550_mJhts/7/1145416682_nv4bu#1145413578_NZCxg, © Casterman
7. Image source: http://cgeverything.co.uk/2011/09/19/new-adventures-of-tintin-stills/, © Paramount Pictures
8. The uncanny valley at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncanny_valley
9. McCloud, Scott. (1993). Understanding comics. New York, NY: Harper Perennial
10. Wolk, Douglas. (2008). Reading comics. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.
11. Image source: http://www.alexrossart.com/, © Alex Ross and DC Comics

November 6, 2011

NC Comicon Report-Back

This Saturday I attended the NC Comicon1 in Morrisville, NC, and it was just great! It had been a long time since I'd been to such an event, and I really had no idea what to expect. I attended partly out of personal interest, partly to see if I could make some allies for my Comics Librarian quest, and partly to witness an event from a programming perspective. Last year, my co-worker Amy Godfrey and I put on Durham County Library's first ever Comics Fest,2 and, while I'd consider it a success, I still feel like I have a lot to learn about organizing events like this.

One highlight of the day was a panel discussion entitled "History of Comics and Comics as History." The "History of Comics" portion was given by Will Hansen, Assistant Curator of Collections at Duke University's Edwin and Ted Murray Collection.3 Using examples from the collection, Hansen gave an excellent overview of the history of American comics, demonstrating comics' impact on popular culture and vice-versa. I was particularly interested to learn the ways that WWII affected the popularity of superhero stories. They were especially popular during the war, when even fictional heroes were a welcome addition to the fight against Japan and the European Axis, but their popularity dropped off after the war's end due to an actual or perceived lack of interest after the fictional heroes' real war was won.

For the "Comics as History" portion, UNC Ph.D. candidate Ben Bolling4 presented a fascinating argument for considering superhero comics as a demonstration of the idea that history is not monolithic or totally "knowable" by individuals or cultures. Bolling described the ways that, because of their ongoing, serial nature, superhero comics allow readers to engage in the characters' stories at any point in the timeline and engage , in spite of the periodical changes and revisions made by successive generations of publishers and comics creators. This engagement is possible because of what Bolling calls "irreducible elements," including traumatic events like Bruce Wayne (Batman) witnessing his parents' murder, but also significant interpersonal relationships like that of Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and Mary Jane Watson. I hope to feature both Bolling and Hansen in this blog at a later date.

I also attended a panel/interview with Howard Chaykin, which was much more interesting than I'd imagined. Chaykin, most famously the creator of American Flagg!,5 was opinionated, incredibly foul-mouthed, and very entertaining. He also had some very interesting things to say about whether comics is an art or a craft (the latter), his influence on younger cartoonists (unhappy about Todd McFarlane's6 being inspired by him), and more. I really enjoyed hearing what he had to say as soon as I stopped cringing, which is great because he totally would've called me out if I'd left early.

Beyond the panels, I had a good time visiting the artist tables (where I was introduced to Jeremy Bastian's excellent Cursed Pirate Girl7) and the crazy, crazy dealer room. I'm sorry I missed the costume contest on Sunday, but there were plenty of good'uns around: a lady Boba Fett, Dax from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and the littlest Mothra. I'm already looking forward to next year's.

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Notes
Image source: http://www.facebook.com/pages/NCComicon/268474463487?sk=photos
1. NC Comicon website: http://www.nccomicon.com/
2. Jarrett Krosoczka's writeup of the Comics Fest: http://thejjkblog.blogspot.com/2011/05/easily-one-of-greatest-days-at-public.html
3. Duke University's comics collections with a link to Will Hansen's profile: http://guides.library.duke.edu/comics
4. Ben Bolling's profile at the UNC Department of English and Comparative Literature: http://englishcomplit.unc.edu/content/ben-bolling
5. American Flagg! at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Flagg
6. Todd McFarlane at Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Todd_Mcfarlane
7. Cursed Pirate Girl at Kickstarter: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/337503446/cursed-pirate-girl-our-generations-alice-in-wonder

October 29, 2011

Batman: Year One, an old favorite


This review was written for the 2012 edition of
Season's Readings, Durham County Library's annual book of reviews and recommendations. Past editions may be viewed at http://www.durhamcountylibrary.org/readers/sr.php.

Update: Durham County Library patrons may find Batman: Year One on the Graphic Novel shelf under the call number Miller, F. And be sure to check out Season's Readings, now available at all library locations!


Batman is probably the least superhero-like superhero: his only inherent science fiction or fantasy qualities are his super-spy gizmos and his improbable strength and coordination. Batman: Year One embraces this plausibility and fills it out with genuine humanity, albeit the humanity of someone who's a little crazy. It is the Batman archetype that has been used ever since its publication in 1986, including Christian Bale's performance in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight.

Year One is a character-driven crime story featuring Bruce Wayne's transformation into the intensely moral but highly unethical vigilante crimefighter that we've come to love. Equally compelling -- maybe more -- is the book's depiction of James Gordon, Batman's eventual friend-on-the-inside, whose journey to becoming Police Captain mirrors Wayne's. It's also a portrait of a harsh but believable Gotham City and its inhabitants; brief appearances by Gotham residents Harvey Dent (Two-Face, but not in this story) and Selena Kyle (Catwoman, but only just) make the portrait extra rewarding.

David Mazzucchelli's pencils and inks and Richmond Lewis's colors, completely repainted for this edition, are beautifully matched, and their artwork is a perfect partner for what is arguably Frank Miller's finest writing. Both art and writing are thankfully free of the cliches found elsewhere, even in Miller's own earlier and later works.

Checking out Batman: Year One from Durham County Library as a boy was one of my earliest encounters with the grand potential of the comics medium. It is still a work that I come back to again and again, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Update: David Mazzucchelli is very unhappy with the new "deluxe" edition of Year One, according to The Comics Journal.



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Notes
Image source: http://cdn.screenrant.com/wp-content/uploads/Batman-Year-One-voice-cast.jpg,
© DC Comics

October 27, 2011

Editing comics with Comixer





















In the expanded edition of Breakdowns, Art Spiegelman explains that he was "jealous of [his] independent filmmaker pals who could shoot footage and edit it after".1 In response, he created "Some Boxes for the Salvation Army", a collection of "memories, story fragments and ideas in different styles to mimic the way non-chronological way the mind works." He "reasoned that [he] could shuffle panels and sequences around after drawing them as long as [he] used the same size panels on a grid."

While the young Spiegelman was "too scatterbrained" to make a large enough body of panels to make for a compelling experiment, his dream has nevertheless come true, in a sense, with Comixer (pictured above), a new app for the iPad. As Steven Heller reports, "With Comixer, players “mix” cartoon panels to create their own stories, the way a deejay mixes tracks to make a new song. The dozens of panels are designed to work together in endless combinations. The stories can be funny, action-packed, suspenseful, or totally wacky."2 I hope that someone will create a similar app for use with the panels from "Some Boxes", if only to demonstrate to Spiegelman the potential fruits of his abortive labor.

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Notes
Image: http://comixerapp.com/
1. Spiegelman, Art. (2008). Breakdowns: Portrait of the artist as a young %@[squiggle][star]!. New York: Pantheon. Breakdowns at Pantheon: http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/graphicnovels/catalog/display.pperl?isbn=9780375423956
2. Heller on Comixer: http://imprint.printmag.com/daily-heller/comics-mash-up/

October 26, 2011

Seven forty-whaaat?

If you recognize the Dewey Decimal System classification code in the title of this blog, you're probably (a) a library-type like me or (b) a comics reader and library patron who has learned the number out of necessity, also like me. If not (and even so), what follows is a brief explanation of why I picked good old 741.5 for my title.

Real quick-like, the Dewey Decimal System is a classification scheme; that is to say it's the thing that says which book goes on which shelf. It has many limitations and many critics, but it is nevertheless the scheme that most public libraries use for most of their materials. I have mixed feelings about the Dewey Decimal System, but I'll save those thoughts for another day.

Basically, the scheme works by breaking the whole of human knowledge into each groups, each with its own 100s place.1 700 is "Arts and recreation", 740 is "Drawing and decorative arts", 741 is "Drawing and drawings" (so, both the act and the product) and 741.5 is "Comic books, graphic novels, fotonovelas, cartoons, caricatures, comic strips".2 741.5 is then broken down further based on country of origin and other details. Of course, some libraries (including mine) break comics out into their own collection that doesn't always fit into 741.5, but books (and comics) about comics will always be found there. (More about comics classifications to come.)

So there you have it:
741.5 and then some!

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Notes
1. Dewey hundreds, tens and ones places: http://dewey.info/
2. 741.5 briefly explained in a 2006 post at 025.431: The Dewey blog: http://ddc.typepad.com/025431/2006/02/comicbook_conun.html

October 21, 2011

What's that supposed to mean?

So, what do I mean, I want to be a Comics Librarian?

To be completely redundant, I mean that I want my specialty as a librarian to be the world of comics. I want my co-workers, fellow librarians and patrons to know that they can come to me with any question about any aspect of comics and get a good answer or a good reference. I want to be an advocate for comics and comics readers in the library and beyond.

But before I can do all of that, I have a few items to tackle (in no particular order):
  • Making sense of the various names we use for the medium -- comics, graphic novel, etc.
  • Getting familiar with its history
  • Establishing a working definition
  • Exploring how comics relates to other media, especially film, prose and visual art
  • Understanding, to the degree possible, the experience of first-time comics readers
  • Having a sense of how comics are different and alike around the world and across genres
  • Learning the history of comics' treatment in libraries
  • Getting to know the world of comics today: its readers, creators, publishers, critics and so on
  • Compiling a bibliography of works to help me (and others?) along this path
In the meantime (and at any time), I would love to hear from anyone who considers him/herself a Comics Librarian for any age group. What are you up to? How's it going? What can we do to help each other out?

October 20, 2011

This is the Intro

Hello there!

My name is Patrick Holt, and I'm a public librarian working at the Durham County Library in Durham, NC. I'm also a lifelong comics lover, and I've decided, once-and-for-all, to formally merge the two interests and declare the professional goal of becoming a Comics Librarian. This blog will be my way of thinking out loud as I sort through the awkwardly overlapping worlds of libraries and comics. I hope to generate ideas and questions that will help me better understand and communicate the issues at hand; with that in mind, I hope to hear from anyone who wants to pose questions, call shenanigans, or otherwise jump into the conversation.

Something you probably won't find here is discussion of comics for children and young adults / teens. It's not something I oppose by any means, but it's just not my specialty. Thankfully, there is a lot of good work being done in these fields, including quite a lot by my own co-workers.

On occasion I may also nerd out about my interest in science fiction, spy novels, and this way cool Amish-vampire-romance I can't wait to start! Also art, design, music, movies, tv, video games, board games and so on. (Fear not: all will be tagged appropriately!)

Looking forward to it,
Patrick