Something For The Sofa

I seem to have read a lot of books these past few months that involved the modernist tradition of driving around or across America, something which, as a non-driver I am unlikely ever to do but which as an idea haunts my dreams nevertheless. Most enjoyable was James Sallis’ Drive which is hard-boiled Noir distilled to its essence and immensely enjoyable as a result. As I read it I couldn’t help thinking what a great comic it would make. I thought the same about Liza Ward’s Outside Valentine, which is a terrific fictional account of the Starkweather murders of 1958. Of course this history has been visualised in film through Badlands, but again, it would make a fabulous comic and in my mind I see Eddie Campbell scratching out a disturbing and desolate Nebraskan landscape. Willy Vlautin, meanwhile, does add his own deft illustrations to his The Motel Life. This is a fine, sparely written book in the clipped, precise American tradition of, say, Hemingway, and is heartily recommended. And, hell, if it’s good enough for David Peace it’s good enough for me.

But what of real comics, I hear you cry. Well, fitting neatly into that theme of traversing the USA is the reissue of James Vance and Dan Burr’s Kings In Disguise (Norton books). The ubiquitous Alan Moore writes a fine introduction, and hell, if it’s good enough for Alan Moore... Kings In Disguise is essential reading, and from Vance’s perfectly paced story to Dunn’s evocative and exquisitely drawn panels is a treat of a page-turner. Not that anything much happens. Or rather, whilst a whole hell of a lot happens, nothing really changes. And although this is a tale set in the ’30s Depression that takes in worker versus corporate conflict and the struggles of the hobos, it inescapably says as much about contemporary America as it does about that country of the ’30s or indeed of Reagan’s ’80s when it was originally published. Society, it seems to say, is riddled with conflicts and structures which are placed by those in positions of power to maintain their status quo. The American Dream is a sham. Life is hard, and then you die, indeed. There is downbeat desolation in this tale, but also a certain kind of hard-edged hope, a beatitude of vision that uplifts in a quiet way. And if the last few panels recall the end of Kerouac’s On The Road, with Dean Moriarty walking off into the night, dreaming of the father he never found, then that’s likely no surprise, for the connections from the great migrations of the Depression to Kerouac and the Beats are inescapable after all, and it’s a fine literary tradition.

I wrote previously about how Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s Lost Girls was Top Shelf’s most important publication. Well, perhaps less important but no less enjoyable (and certainly shorter) have been Jeremy Tinder’s Cry Yourself To Sleep and Max Estes’ Coffee And Donuts. Tinder’s offering is a beautiful little thing that throws together three main characters in a heart-warming confection peppered by the obligatory poop jokes. There is the angry, perennially poor rabbit; the guy lost in his head writing autobiographical fictions; the soulless robot who seeks a sliver of happiness and humanity. Together they tell tales of those struggling to make connections, and if that’s hardly earth shattering then that’s okay, for these tales always need to be told. And when they are told with such perfect, quietly assured poise, it’s impossible to resist.

Max Estes is impossible to resist too, and Coffee And Donuts is a fabulously simple tale of good guys against bad guys (or technically, good cats versus bad cats) and the simple delights of a tasty breakfast. Estes has a deceptively simple, loose style, and his use of circular and elliptical panels through which characters and speech balloons often break is an inspired choice. John Darnielle gives it a big-up on the cover, and hell, if it’s good enough for John Darnielle…

Okay, enough about cats, what about the superheroes? Well, was it just me, or was the reception to Superman Returns this past summer somewhat less than rapturous? It’s a shame, because it wasn’t a bad movie. Sure, it was no Batman Begins, but it was pretty good regardless. It was well supported by promotional books too, but there’s nothing surprising about that. Pick of the crop for me was the excellent Superman Cover to Cover collection from Titan. Like it’s Batman counterpart, it’s a fabulous journey through not only the history of the character and the comics, but also through the multitude of styles employed by some of the finest cover artists in the business. One for the sofa on a wet weekend for sure, and perfect for Christmas.

Now I started out mentioning Liza Ward’s excellent Outside Valentine, and it sprung into my mind again upon reading Renée French’s gorgeous The Ticking (from Top Shelf). This beautifully rendered book tells the tale of Edison Steelhead, a boy who inherits his father’s deformed face and whose mother dies during his childbirth. Edison’s obsession with recording his environment through drawing is perhaps an obvious metaphor for the idea that beauty can be found in the strangest and most ‘grotesque’ of places, but it’s a powerful metaphor nonetheless. Indeed it’s this infatuation with drawing that reminds me of the fictionalised Caril Ann Fugate character in Ford’s novel. I can easily see Fugate similarly scratching out studies of strange masks, flies and deformed fingers; drawing as a kind of visual archaeology of the world around and inside, a means of making an individual sense of the insanity. Of course I’m aware that I’m being quite intentionally disingenuous by scribing a connection between The Ticking and a real life character that helped inspire movies like Natural Born Killers and True Romance, but that’s all part of the fun. In truth The Ticking probably has more in common with Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ in that it carries a feeling of calm serenity through a story that is peopled with dark and damaged characters. This air of poignant loss and searching for acceptance is in part down to French’s tenderly rendered pencil illustrations, perfectly spaced and paced framing and sparse hand written text, all of which combine to make The Ticking a delicate treasure to cherish.

If The Ticking is a masterpiece of monochrome understatement and restraint, then Matilda Tristram’s 'Monster Madness’ strip for issue one of the Bad Idea magazine is an explosion of insane post-feminist sex-obsessed psychedlia. It’s effectively an autobiographical strip that, ahem, ‘climaxes’, in a depiction of the creation of her Pearl Necklace mini comic. A key frame has an imaginary Matilda suggesting that her comics must “subvert oppressive sexual aggression” and that in addition, she must “make it silly”. Which pretty much sums the whole thing up neatly. Matilda’s comic is mad, multicoloured and very, very rude. It fits in admirably next to articles about Death Metal in the Holy Land and the Mormon invasion of Brighton. I love it.

I’m going back deep into my past now, to the summer of 1987, when I was a student at the Glasgow School of Art, just finishing up my first year. The Degree Shows were always exciting times, both scary and inspirational. In 1987 there was lots of terrific work, but one thing that really caught my eye was a tiny printed booklet called The Art of Letterwriting (is not dead)  by Angela McKay. It only cost a pound and really it was priceless. I bought several and sent them to friends and lovers. I wonder how many still have them. I kept a copy to myself of course and have looked at it many times in the past nineteen years. It always makes me smile. I’d love to say it was available once more, but although that’s not the case, I can say that I was more than delighted to recently come across Angela again in the guise of her Charismatic Christina and Bird of Paradise booklets which are collected as Book Portrait, which costs a fiver and comes in a plastic bag with a rather fine pink badge. A Brighton resident of seventeen years, I’m pleased to see that Mackay’s trademark scratchy and deceptively childlike style is still intact and gloriously engaging. Contact for details of how to pick up a copy.

Going even further back in time now, and the name of Will Eisner is rightly legendary in the world of comics. He’s right up there with Jerry Siegel, Joe Schuster and Bob Kane, which means it’s no surprise that he should also have been inspiration for one of the central characters in the glorious novelisation of the Golden Age of comics that was Michael Chabon’s epic Kavalier and Clay. I’m sure Chabon’s novel helped to convince many people that comics can be fascinating and otherworldly. I know it quickly led to me an infatuation with Eisner’s classic Spirit stories of the early 1940’s, which are collected in a beautiful hardcover archive series by DC. It’s a collection of Eisner’s work from the 1980’s into the ‘90s however that’s caught my eye this month. Norton’s publication of Will Eisner’s New York collects four distinct graphic novels from that period to collectively tell a story of a city which is by turns magical, mythical and magnificently maddening.

So there are tales of people and buildings’ lives and deaths criss-crossing; sketches of neighbourhood street scenes and daily dramas acted out against the tableau of the urban landscape; musings on the life that invests the inanimate details of the streets. And through it all stream a multitude of characters magnificently hewn from two-dimensional paper with pencil and ink. There is an inescapable and irresistible evocation of love and devotion in Eisner’s work, both to his city and to his art, and that lifeblood pulses through every page of this collection.

A wonderful line in Neil Gaiman’s introduction to this edition talks about Eisner having been on a lifelong quest for the equivalent of a jazz musician’s search for The Note. Which means, fundamentally, that of all the Golden Age comics stars, Will Eisner’s may not necessarily have burned brightest, but it certainly burned with the fiercest longevity. No surprise then to learn that he was still working with the same passion for his art on his death at the age of 87 as he was at 19 selling strips to Wow, What A Magazine!.
And in a strange quirk of fate, it was for volume three of the Escapist comics (an inspired spin-off that gave real form to the imaginary strip at the heart of Kavalier And Clay) that Eisner drew his last work; a story that brought together The Spirit and The Escapist in some strange post-modern melange of real and fictional history. Which, of course, is where we came in.

Now, do people still get into a tizzy about notions of ‘boy bands’ and ‘manufactured’ Pop? Does the notion of a boy band even exist anymore? I’m so out of touch, I have no idea. It all sounds so quaintly’90s.

I do know that the characters in Tony Consiglio’s 110 perc (out now from Top Shelf) care. Bizarrely so, for these are middle-aged and older characters, lost in obsessive daydreams about the fictional boy band who give the book its title. The band of course is not really the point. The point instead seems to be about the foolishness of clinging to the kind of Pop obsessions best left behind in our teen (and pre-teen) years; seems to be about the fact that as adults we need to be more in tune with the needs of our partners and families, warts and all, than with the minutiae of ‘manufactured’ Pop (as if any Pop is NOT manufactured). Over-arching that of course is an attack on the industry of celebrity and marketing, but I just can’t help but feel that it would have been so much more powerful had the characters been middle-aged ‘Rock’ personas, eagerly buying into the mediated r’n’r rebellion of a corporate sponsored bunch of so-called ‘street kids’.

Also out now from Top Shelf is the I Am Going To Be Small collection of Jeffrey Brown’s gag and humour comics from the past nine years. It’s full of juvenile, crass, self-absorbed, raw, tasteless and tactless tat, and as such is quite, quite brilliant.

Speaking of juvenile and crass, there’s a new issue of James Kochalka’s Superf*ckers out too. Like any good superhero comic creator, Kochalka knows it doesn’t pay to mess with the winning formula. And thank goodness for that, as it means Issue 277 is more of the glorious same: gratuitous swearing, mindless violence, sex, drugs and the collapse of space time continuums by the page full. What’s easy to miss in the rush of manic mayhem of the story, however, is just what a visual treat it is too. The pages are like mini-masterpieces of pure Pop Art comic books psychedelia without falling back on the stereotypical paisley swirls of yore. The panels are bright, brash and just a little unhinged, and I just love the use of multi-coloured inks for the line work on the characters. And you know, when you think of it, Superf*ckers is great proof of Kochalka as a fine colourist, just like Warhol was, if you cared to look beyond the content to the abstract surface.

And what about The Complete E.C. Segar's Popeye compiled recently by Fantagraphics? For anyone familiar only with the cartoon Popeye, this collection of original strips from the 1930’s will surely be an eye opener. For here is a Popeye somewhat removed from the one of spinach fuelled perpetual fights with Bluto. Instead we enter a world of tall tales and rollicking adventure, with Segar as a Mark Twain of comics. These Popeye strips provide a snapshot on the Americana of the early 20th Century; which means a land of immigrants, opportunity and the university of hard knocks. Like Drawn And Quarterly’s publication of the Walt and Skeezix strips, Segar’s comics recall a more innocent and yet simultaneously stranger America, and I love them for it. Indeed, reading Segar’s Popeye strips today feels oddly like reading Kerouac in the mid 1980s. There is a similar sense of reading about a past that I know of only through other mediated channels, and that in these texts there lurks, under the surface, a grittier and altogether more peculiar history. Essential winter reading to be sure.

© 2006 Alistair Fitchett