Tag Archives: Art

Suddenly Some Links Drifted By

Here are some of the links I’ve made note of during the weeks this blog has lain fallow:

My Best of 2010, Part Two

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country

A short novel about a First World War veteran who recovers from PTSD and a broken marriage as he restores a fresco by an unknown medieval artist in a village church. If you have much experience with a certain determinedly whimsical subgenre of story, you may think you know what kind of story this is: over several small, gentle adventures, a menagerie of eccentric locals bond with our hero and bring him out of his shell (shock). There is some of this, yes. But the narrator’s closest relationship is with the anonymous medieval artist: we never learn the man’s name, but by the end of the book the narrator has deduced the outline of his life from his art. A Month in the Country is about the healing power of professionalism and love of a craft, and about how we connect to long-vanished people through the work they leave behind.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

We live in a society where the cream of Wall Street can crash the economy and be rewarded with six-figure bonuses, and the idea of looking into possible crimes in high places is dismissed as looking backwards. So Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, about a student who kills a pawnbroker because he thinks he’s too extraordinary to be held to the same rules as us peons, is as relevant as it’s ever been. Russian novels have a reputation as bleak and heavy stuff, so it might surprise you to learn that Crime and Punishment is also as unbearably suspenseful as any good Hitchcock movie, and at times very funny.

Dry high school English classes (which often expose us to books before we’re ready to enjoy them) train us to think of The Classics as medicinal: dreary, bitter, but good for you. In fact, more often than you’d expect, classics become classics by entertaining the hell out of people.

Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver

The alphabet arbitrarily put The True Deceiver next to Crime and Punishment, but seeing them together made a new connection in my head: both novels attack an Ayn Randish philosophy which has way too much influence in 21st-century America. Crime and Punishment argues against the impulse to divide the human race into a mass of commoners and a special super-creative producer class. The True Deceiver ridicules the mindset that thinks the world is a Social Darwinist tooth-and-claw struggle, selfishness is a virtue, and other people are marks to be exploited for one’s own gain; and that believes thinking this way means one is clear-eyed, realistic, and tough-minded.

The True Deceiver is about two women, Katri Kling and Anna Amelin, whose characters are expressed by their names. Katri is a struggling shop assistant who lives with a huge wolfish dog; Anna a wealthy but financially naive artist who seems as mild as the rabbits she paints for her children’s books. Katri intends to insinuate herself into Anna’s confidence and take over the older woman’s affairs, house, and money. It doesn’t go as she expects. This is a little two-paragraph review, not an analytical essay, so I don’t want to give away too many details, but I’ll say that Anna unknowingly derails Katri with a kind of moral judo throw, and that real strength isn’t what or where Katri believed it was. Everyone comes out ahead in a way that utterly dismantles Katri’s worldview.

(More to come in part three…)

Zak Sally, Like a Dog

Cover Art

Zak Sally subtitled Like a Dog, a collection of his comics from the past decade-and-a-half, “Recidivist #1, 2, and Assorted Garbage.” This subtitle rushes past “too modest” to embrace “misleadingly self-deprecating.” As he explains in his notes, Sally’s not entirely happy with everything in this collection. It’s his figuring-things-out book, a record of how he hauled his work up from “competent” to a level where he could feel good about it. But he’s starting from competent.

None of the stories in this book are bad. Some are uncertain. These are the comics Sally created while he was figuring out what he wanted to do with comics. But the seeds of his style are already sprouting in the first pages of Recidivist #1. There’s thick, organic brushwork–some of Sally’s drawings look like they were grown. There’s a fascination with anatomy–between and within Sally’s stories are detailed anatomical studies which obviously paid off; in the torsos of the “Two Idiot Brothers” you can see every muscle. There are pools of black ink deep enough to lose things in.

Sally often separates text and art. What I mean is that the text would be comprehensible by itself. The interaction between words and pictures are what comics are all about. Some comics achieve their effects by emphasizing one over the other. I think Sally is one of those cartoonists for whom words are the keystone. That can be a bad thing–newspaper and gag cartoonists in particular sometimes decorate words with redundant illustrations–but Sally’s pictures add extra layers of meaning and deepen the text. Sally’s text might mean something on its own, but his text plus his images mean something else, something more interesting.

An example of Sally’s experimentation with word and picture is “The End is Here, Now,” an autobiographical strip set on New Year’s Eve, 1999. It’s drawn in a three-tier grid. The panels are split horizontally. Above, straight text tells us what goes through Sally’s head: he’s amazed at the passage of time, he feels like something big should be happening. Below, comic panels with word balloons show us what he says and does: he wanders, has a drink, tries to climb a fence, and winds up at a party. The narration and the comic run in parallel, each independent until, in the next to last panel, Sally has a sudden and hazily understood realization…

…And, for the first time, the narration halts with a colon and jumps across to the word balloon. The narration and the pictures connect at the moment Sally’s internal monologue connects with the world. The last panel breaks the visual pattern set by the rest of the comic: an image of Sally looking up at the sky is framed by his thoughts at the top and the bottom.


For me, the most fascinating thing about Like a Dog was the afterward. Looking over my “Links to Things” posts, I notice I’ve frequently linked to articles about writing. Which is a little weird. My creative outlets are comics and drawings; I don’t have any ambition to write books, just reviews and blog posts. But I do read a lot. I like knowing how the books I read were written. (I often think people like me are the real audience for those “how to write a novel” books.) I like knowing how the comics I read were drawn. I can’t help feeling that Penguin Classics are superior to other books, not because they’re classics, but because they have introductions and footnotes.

In his afterward, Sally discusses the background of each strip in the collection. The strips collected in Like a Dog tell the story of how Sally learned and honed his craft. The story ends with Sally taking joy from the act of creation, but getting there was a hard trip. “My comics terrified me,” he writes. “I hated my comics, and I hated myself for making them; and, when I wasn’t doing that, I hated myself for not making them.”

Which is what really got my attention, because, man, I feel like that all the time.

Sally remembers worrying so hard about his craft that he was unable to start. I still get like that. I’ve found I have to be of two minds… first you have to get something down, without worrying about whether it’s any good; at that stage worrying will stop you cold. Then you have to switch modes and be hyper-critical, because inflicting half-assed failures of craft on your audience is disrespectful. You have to revise until the work is good enough to send out into the world. When you release the work you have to switch modes again, separate the finished work from your ego, because it’s in the hands of the audience and, good or not, some of the audience won’t like it, and you can’t take it personally. (Me, I only wish I had that problem–hardly anyone reacts to my work at all.)

Admittedly, that last paragraph was a detour; I’m trying to review Like a Dog, not my brain. And maybe this bloviation about craft is a little pretentious coming from, basically, a gag cartoonist. But it’s part of why I connected with this collection. It’s encouraging to learn that somebody this good has felt the same kind of self-doubt and worked his way out of it…. and that maybe it’s not so bad if, years after the fact, your early work embarrasses you. That just means you’ve learned something.

R. O. Blechman, Dear James

Cover Art

Dear James is R. O. Blechman’s entry into the “Letters to a Young Something-or-other” genre which has sprung up in imitation of Rainer Maria Rilke. In recent years books have been addressed to young mathematicians, young activists, young conservatives, and young novelists. The McSweeney’s website offers “Letters to a Young Plumber” and although I have not investigated this phenomenon in detail it would not surprise me if someone had written letters to a young rat-catcher.

No one seems to be writing letters to old people. It’s sad.

Anyway. Blechman is writing to a young illustrator. Not a real young illustrator, in this case, so it feels a little weird when he compliments his imaginary correspondent on his latest gig. But the conceit frees Blechman to take a casual, conversational tone and the book is more fun for it. That probably has a lot to do with why the “Letters” format has been popular lately.

Blechman touches on all the stages of an illustration from idea to print, and wider philosophical issues about art (How do you juggle creativity with a day job? What’s the difference, if any, between high art and low? And why are we doing this at all, anyway?). One idea that will be obvious to most artists but new to some readers is that art is work.

Not everybody gets this. For instance, there are people who think writers just sit down and, y’know, write. (There are writers who thing people just sit down and write. Recently I came across a blog post by a writer who claimed writing wasn’t work, it was just typing. I made a mental note to avoid his books.) These are the people who end up self-publishing horrid first-draft novels about elven vampires and cluttering slushpiles with nonsense.

There are people who think cartoonists and illustrators just draw. Maybe they’re especially fooled by scribbly and deceptively simple art like Blechman’s… but he wrestles with his ideas, draws multiple versions of an illustration, worries about the best and clearest way to communicate what he wants to get across. In one case, even after an illustration is accepted by the New York Times, he decides he hasn’t done his best work, and before the deadline he goes back to the editor with something better. It’s a struggle, but he’s also having fun. Dear James manages to communicate both the struggle and the fun.