Tag Archives: Comics

Suddenly Some Links Drifted By

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

The Comics that Scare Me

Mention horror comics and most comics fans picture something like this:

A panel from Four Color Fear.

(That’s from the recent anthology Four Color Fear. Which I will also post about at some point, although in that case the horrific bits aren’t what I intend to write about.)

As that panel suggests, most comics that get classified as “horror” aren’t so much scary as campy. Some people don’t think comics can be viscerally scary at all, and they have a point, but there’s a caveat. As Richard Cook writes in the essay I just linked to:

To the extent that “scary” refers to the visceral, immediate fears that horror movies deliver so effortlessly, the answer is yes. But if “scary” also encompasses the deeply-rooted fears and common anxieties of the readers, then perhaps there is some hope for horror comics.

A recent post at the blog Too Busy Thinking About My Comics about scary moments–scary in the “anxious” sense–which snuck into ordinary superhero comics got me thinking about what comics, if any, give me the sense of creeping unease I get from good weird fiction.1 And the first answer that came was Jim Woodring’s Frank. Which might sound a little weird on first blush to anybody only vaguely familiar with Frank, because Frank looks like this:

The cover of Frank number one.

Frank’s world–dubbed the “Unifactor”–is not immediately alarming (though it gets more so the closer you look). But it unsettles me–something the merely queasy EC tradition of O.-Henry-with-gore horror comics can’t pull off. To explain why Frank is so much more powerful than Tales from the Crypt (and why I suspect the unsettling core of this work might whisper too quietly, or in too foreign a tongue, for some readers to hear) I’ll first have to describe the kind of thing Woodring does.

One story that particularly creeped me out was “Frank in the Ruse Garden.” This is the story that finishes the first Frank collection published by Fantagraphics in 1994; I’m pretty sure it also appears in the big Frank hardcover and the recent Portable Frank. Like all the Frank stories, it’s told without dialogue, and it goes like this:

Portable Frank Cover Art

A leaflet in Frank’s mailbox informs him that he’s won a dream vacation. Unbeknownst to Frank it was put there Manhog, the Unifactor’s resident ne’er-do-well. Which explains why, after a long drive into a stony and desolate landscape, Frank finds a deserted cabin jutting half over a crevasse. The accommodations are ramshackle, the views aren’t verdant so much as vertiginous, and the only entertainment option is the Rev. J. Bufo’s fine book, The Case Against Art. Frank beds down and makes the best of things.

He wakes in the night to pounding and clattering. A swarm of animate hammers are whacking at the porch. Frank chases them off. They come back. Frank stuffs them into a pillowcase and tosses them into the canyon. He’s just chasing down one more that had a go at his car when he trips over a shape which rises out of the dirt to reveal a Great. Big. Momma. Hammer.

Uh-oh.

A chase scene! Lots of really scary-looking pounding from the big hammer! The hammer backs Frank up to the cliff… and overbalances, plummeting to the ravine floor like Wile E. Coyote.

As that last reference suggests, this is, in outline, all very Warner Brothers. Maybe like one of those slightly alarming Robert Clampett cartoons.2 But that’s not what I think of when I read the actual comic. “Frank in the Ruse Garden,” like all the Frank stories, like most of Jim Woodring’s work, is one hundred percent unadulterated Uncanny. Like Jim Woodring saw fever dreams we’d forgotten ages ago, and put them down on paper to remind us.

Woodring’s deep blacks and strong pen strokes have the look of and 18th-century woodcut from a book of forgotten lore. It feels like there’s more information there, revelations for readers who look hard enough and understand the context. And the night scenes of “Frank in the Ruse Garden” have a feeling of darkness and silence and aloneness that’s hard to capture in comics; I know what night feels like at Frank’s cabin, what the nothing-but-clattering sounds like. It feels real enough that, as abstract as Frank appears, I forget he’s a… well, whatever he is. He’s more or less a person.

But mostly what makes “Frank in the Ruse Garden” very much not a Porky Pig adventure is what happens after the big hammer’s last plunge. Frank sits on the edge of the ravine and stares down. In the ravine is the pillowcase, now still, and the great hammer, broken in two, its expressionless eye completely dead. Frank has screwed up. Something unusual and tremendous has gone out of the world. No matter the provocation, Frank should never have allowed the situation to come to this.

This is one of the core conflicts driving the Frank stories. The Unifactor is an animistic world of spirits and strange forces. Time and again, Frank comes in contact with numinous wonders, and fail to rise to the occasion. Frank comes upon a field of floating souls, and grabs one to use as a flying horse. Frank dives into a well ringed with eyes, and emerges mutated and warped. Frank wanders into the House of the Dead wearing a party hat, and it’s, like, awkward.

Manhog, too, tends to bite off more than he can even get his teeth around. He doesn’t just fail to rise to the occasion–he doesn’t realize there’s an occasion to rise to. Frank wanders down the wrong path because he’s looking for something indefinable, hungry for meaning; Manhog is just hungry. Usually Manhog ends up in worse shape than Frank.

The difference is that Frank is open to whatever experience has to teach him. Manhog never learns; he believes he knows everything he needs to, so his surprises are usually nasty ones. Frank knows the world is bigger than he is, it’s full of things he doesn’t understand, and he actively tries to learn to understand them. He may not do the right thing but in the end he at least learns what the right thing is, even if it’s sometimes too late.

Here’s why I find the Frank stories creepy as well as uncanny, and why “Frank in the Ruse Garden” scared me more than anything from the Vault of Horror, and why it might not scare someone else at all. Lurking under the surface of Frank are philosophical horrors, quietly unsettling ideas: “Good” is not a switch you flip. Rising above Manhog’s level is not a one-time effort, it’s an active, constant process, something you get up every morning and do. For all his good intentions, with the best will in the world, sometimes Frank is still the kind of person who can throw a pillowcase of baby hammers off a cliff. And Frank, as strange as he looks, is us.


  1. Well, relatively recent. Check the date and compare it to this post, and you’ll see just how long it takes me to write a thing these days. ↩

  2. I’m grateful I didn’t see “The Great Piggy Bank Robbery” until I was an adult; as a child I’d have had nightmares for weeks. As it was, I was more than sufficiently freaked out by Tex Avery’s “The Legend of Rockabye Point.” ↩

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.

Dino Buzzati, Poem Strip

Cover Art

Sometimes a book comes late to the party. It walks in bearing beer and waving a hot new album it’s discovered, to find that very CD blaring from the stereo and the guests already drunk. That’s Poem Strip, Dino Buzzati’s graphic novel retelling of the Orpheus myth. I gather Poem Strip was an important comic in Italy; according to one review it was the 1970 winner of the Paese Sera Best Comics of the Year Award. But in English Poem Strip made its first appearance in 2009, and entered like an aging swinger who’s never revised his mustache and still wears forty year old polyester bell bottoms.

Here’s the problem: Poem Strip is absurdly, distractingly sexist. Buzzati drew many pictures of women for this book, and most are at least half and generally some smaller fraction of naked, and even while ushering guests down staircases or staffing the front desk in an office they tend to pose as though for girlie mags. Derek Badman, in his review at MadInkBeard, speculates that these women were in fact traced from girlie mags. He also complains that some of Buzzati’s drawings are crude. I think we have to cut the guy some slack on the art; he was obviously drawing one-handed. It’s a lot like the often-adolescent and now mostly embarrassing underground comics of the 1960s; you get the sense that this is the work of a guy who’s just realized standards have opened up to the point that he’s allowed to publish sexy drawings, and in all the excitement has forgotten that sometimes it’s better not to.

Much of the early part of the book is taken up with a song from Buzzati’s Orpheus—here a rock star named Orfi—called “Witches in the City.” Orfi alternates paranoid ramblings about all the women he thinks are out to seduce him with chanted litanies of names—“Barbara Yvonne Leda Fiorella,” et cetera, as though implicating the entire other half of the human race. Not only are women sirens luring men onto sharp rocks, they’re all in on it together, man. I hope Buzzati got into therapy at some point.

It’s too bad Poem Strip is hiding behind this huge stumbling block, because there’s also a lot to like. Stylistically, it looks like a collaboration between Fredrico Fellini and Glen Baxter, colored with a limited palette. Buzzati references Fellini directly at one point, as well as Murnau’s Nosferatu, Arthur Rackham, and a number of other artists who he credits in his brief forward. He fits his style to the tone of the page, swinging from realism to expressionism and back and still managing to keep Poem Strip a unified whole.

You know the story (at least, you should). Orfi, despite his weird gynephobia issues, has somehow managed to keep a relationship going with Eura. Who dies. In case you hadn’t guessed, this is Euridyce. So Orfi follows her into the underworld, reached through a strange door in the Via Saturna. He’s met by a talking overcoat that at one point calls itself “Kruschevian.” An interview with the translator confirms that the overcoat is a reference to the Soviet premier but unfortunately doesn’t explain the connection. (I wish Poem Strip had a new introduction, or maybe some footnotes.)

Life, in the overcoat’s view, is like an ocean whose tides are set by death’s huge gravitational pull. In the afterlife, the absence of death creates a different emotional landscape. The dead can’t die again, can’t be injured and have no need for physical pain, so they have fewer things to fear. They have less to lose, and fewer reasons for sadness. With all of eternity to play with, anything can happen; life’s possibilities never close off. Knowing the answers to the ultimate questions, they have no sense of the uncanny. They have no need to pass on their genes to a new generation, so no need to feel passion.

To placate the dead Orfi sings to them about what they can no longer feel. This is the best and most substantial passage in the book. Buzzati illustrates an old man who “checks his mailbox for the hundredth time but there’s nothing there,” dried leaves on the wind forming “strange ghosts in the sky,” a bogeyman floating over the city. Every image gets at least a page to itself. The art here is mostly at the expressionist end of the scale, as much designed as drawn, and weirdly evocative. A thing that rises by the side of the road and reaches out to a traveler is depicted pretty much as a blob, but it’s scary as anything.

Finally, Orfi finds Eura, and loses her again—but not the way you’re thinking. This is where Buzzati kind of redeems himself in terms of gender politics. Usually this myth treats Eurydice like the rope in a tug of war. She dies, Orpheus drags her out from Tartarus, then she’s yanked back because of something Orpheus does. But in Poem Strip Eura refuses to follow Orfi out of the underworld at all. Eura doesn’t mind being in the afterlife. She’s in the right place. She’s dead.

And maybe, Eura hints, the afterlife isn’t a cold, passionless place after all. Love is not absent, and she and Orfi will be together again when the time is right. It’s Orfi who’s yanked away from the flatly prosaic afterlife to the land of the living. Poem Strip returns to the themes of Orfi’s song in the last few pages, depicting swirling storms and “turreted clouds of eternity.” the disturbing, uncanny world of the living goes about its business as Orfi stands in the Via Saturna, holding the promise of Eura’s ring.

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.

Comics for Health Care!

I’ve linked to these in blog comments elsewhere, but haven’t yet done so on my own blog.

First, Kevin Huizenga discovered Superman plugging universal health care in a 1952 issue of The Adventures of Bob Hope. (Isn’t it amazing that there was once a comic called The Adventures of Bob Hope? Today, Bob Hope would be a gritty, morally questionable comedian whose kid sidekick died violently at the hands of Dorothy Lamour, and he’d get killed off by an evil Bob Hope from an alternate universe and be replaced by Bing Crosby and then come back to life as a zombie.)

Second, here’s a pro-health-care Steve Canyon strip from… I can’t quite read the copyright… it looks like 1949. Steve Canyon was cold war propaganda and Milton Caniff wasn’t exactly a hippie. So it’s interesting that, in extolling the virtues of the Free World, Caniff is proudest of exactly the things modern conservatives decry as “socialism.”

Harpies and Peanuts

Wilde attributes this joke to Carlyle: a biography of Michelangelo that would make no mention of the works of Michelangelo. So complex is reality, and so fragmentary and simplified is history, that an omniscient observer could write an indefinite, almost infinite, number of biographies of a man, each emphasizing different facts; we would have to read many of them before we realized that the protagonist was the same.

—Jorge Luis Borges, “On William Beckford’s Vathek

In the early 16th century, aspiring artist Bartolomeo Torri was thrown out of his teacher’s home after he got a little too absorbed in his anatomy lessons: “for he kept so many limbs and pieces of corpses under his bed and all over his rooms, that they poisoned the whole house,” wrote Giorgio Vasari. Cherubino Alberti fixated on medieval siege engines and filled his home with model catapults. Later, Franz Xavier Messerschmidt believed he was pinched and abused by a “Spirit of Proportion” who could be warded off by pulling grotesque contorted expressions, which Messerschmidt recorded in sculpture.

The cover of Born Under Saturn

Margot & Rudolf Wittkower’s Born Under Saturn is a history of “the Character and Conduct of Artists,” as the subtitle puts it. And, yeah, a lot of these guys are characters. Others were normal, well-behaved types, but, honestly, you’re not going to read this book for Rubens or Bernini. But Born Under Saturn isn’t a freak show. The Wittkowers are analyzing popular ideas about artists, and although stories of eccentricities, feuds, and crimes make this book more readable than a straight academic treatise they also serve a purpose: the varied mass of biography breaks down cultural stereotypes about artists.

Continue reading Harpies and Peanuts