Category Archives: Comics

Links to Things

  • The amazing comics site What Things Do—which features complete stories by Sammy Harkham and John Porcellino, among others—is serializing What Am I Doing Here by Abner Dean. I was introduced to Dean’s long-out-of-print work by an article in Comic Art #9, and it floored me—it’s surrealism in the style of classic New Yorker cartoons.

  • Too Busy Thinking About My Comics is a blog I discovered from a link in the comments here. The author (I feel weirdly unsure whether it’s okay to use his name—he signed his comment here, but his blog seems to be anonymous) writes about superhero comics and British pop culture. Admittedly, those aren’t the kind of comics I read these days, but I have fond memories of Keith Giffen and J. M. DeMatteis’s Justice League and sometimes I still like to read about them. But It wouldn’t matter if I didn’t, because this is the best kind of criticism: sharp writing, and musings and insights that hook you even if you thought you didn’t care about the cultural artifact the writer is riffing on. I recommend “The Intrusion Of The Fantastic Into The Mundane No 1: The Thunderbirds Of Edinburgh” and “The Invention Of Loneliness: What Green Lantern Can Teach A Boy That Starro The Conqueror Can’t”, both of which managed to move me.

  • At the other end of the same topic, I once checked some of the later Justice League comics out of the library and my basic reaction was “What is this crap?” I couldn’t follow the Grant Morrison issues at all, and I speak as someone who mostly understood The Invisibles. It sounds like Justice League has now gotten about as dumb as it possibly can. But at least the MightyGodKing blog got a hilarious review out of the deal.

  • “Making Smarter Dumb Mistakes About the Future” is an article by Cory Doctorow about why so many old science fiction futures were so wildly wrong. It focuses on three common mistakes which Doctorow characterizes as “Like Today, But Moreso,” “Just Enough, And No More,” and “That’s Not Weird, It’s Dumb.”

  • The Believer chronicles ancient Roman poetry slams. Apparently they were pretty horrific deals. Juvenal classed them as health hazards.

  • A hectic calendar of literary competitions soon sprang up. At first, the Sebasta in Neapolis (Naples) was the most prestigious event, luring the Emperor Nero himself to compete before a crowd of thousands. The audience was not permitted to leave the auditorium during the thirteen-hour recital; it was said that a woman gave birth during the performance, and one old man feigned death so he could escape to the bathroom.

  • Finally, here’s a fascinating essay on scurvy, and how we gain knowledge, and lose it, and gain it back again.

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.

Links to Things

  • From the New York Times, why English is a great language for newspaper headlines with accidental double meanings.

    Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, “-s.” In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of “to be” — robbing the reader of crucial context.

  • Here’s another New York Times article that interested me simply because it introduced me to a new word:

    In a 2004 essay, he coined a term to describe it: “solastalgia,” a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault … a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’”

  • Catherynne Valente explains what publishers do, and why books are not cheap, and why, no matter how long Kindle owners hold their breath, they’re not getting cheap ebooks or a vibrant self-publishing industry anytime soon:

    I’ve read the slush pile. And in this Orwellian post-publishing dystopia, you will be, too. The mass of ebooks will be unedited, badly written, and horribly presented. And while this is an unpopular thing to say, that’s pretty much the state of self-publishing now. There are a few great self-published projects, and they are buried in an Everest of trash. Essentially, a reader acts as an acquiring editor, sifting through the mediocre, offensive, awful, and laughable for one good book. And readers will usually give up after a few burns.

  • Ann Leckie, on how stories shape thinking, and why we therefore need to think about what stories mean:

    The way to have control over how the metaphors and stories you ingest affect your thinking is to know they’re doing it and to be aware of how they’re working. You have to think about them to do that, have to question them. If you’re a writer, in my opinion you should be doing that as a matter of course, just to improve your abilities. If you’re not a writer, well, pick your own level of analysis. If that’s just “Squee!” fine. But just because you don’t see the subtext doesn’t mean it isn’t there, and worth questioning.

  • Finally, Dan Nadel has new information on Herbert Crowley, the cartoonist who created one of the most interesting entries in Nadel’s book Art Out of Time, the brief, bizarre strip The Wiggle Much. Unfortunately, as I write this Nadel’s current blog is having technical problems and this post seems to have vanished, but if it reappears, be sure to take a look—it included some tantalizing cameraphone photos of Crowley’s sketchbooks.

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.

Links to Things

As sometimes happens, especially as winter is coming on, I’m exhausted. There will probably be no new comics this week. I may manage a post or two on the blog. In the meantime, here are some links. I can’t remember at this point how I found them:

  • A New York Times story from 1896 celebrated the death of the three volume novel. (To read the actual story you’ll have to download a PDF.)

    The system had a deleterious effect upon literature because it required every novelist to spread and pad out his story so that it would fill three volumes, without reference to the normal length of the story he had to tell. Anthony Trollope, in his autobiography, ackknowledges this necessity and naively explains his own methods of padding. The result was a school of fiction which was verbose on compulsion, and in which writers had to beat out their stories as thin as possible that they might spread out over the greatest space.

  • An interesting Dutch newspaper comic panel, introduced by the blog The Fabuleous Fifties. The art has a great design sense, and it’s amazing the effects the artist gets with a few simple pen lines. The tastefully colored Sunday strips put the character into a surreal environment, and then deliver a great sight gag in every panel.

  • A review of Zak Sally’s Like a Dog, which made me very interested in getting this book:

    Sally quit his band, settled down, bought his own press and has become comfortable with the process of making and publishing comics. He’s quick to deflate his own sense of self-satisfaction, along with the idea that anyone’s got it figured out. In the end, he says, “it’s the work that counts”. It’s what mattered when comics frightened him, and it’s what matters now that he’s more settled. While Sally wanted to provide the reader context and his own view on his work (because he liked that sort of thing reading other collections), his opinion about his art was no more or less valid than the reader’s.

  • Seth on cartooning:

    I often find that when I’m drawing, only half my mind is on the work — watching proportions, balancing compositions, eliminating unnecessary details.

    The other half is free to wander. Usually, it’s off in a reverie, visiting the past, picking over old hurts, or recalling that sense of being somewhere specific — at a lake during childhood, or in a nightclub years ago. These reveries are extremely important to the work, and they often find their way into whatever strip I’m working on at the time. Sometimes I wander off so far I surprise myself and laugh out loud. Once or twice, I’ve become so sad that I actually broke down and cried right there at the drawing table.

  • Peter Watts explains why scientists don’t always write happy emails:

    Science doesn’t work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven’t any of these guys ever heard of “peer review”?

Links to Things

Some links, without much in the way of commentary:

  • Scott McCloud on criticism.

  • Cory Doctorow on science fiction’s relationship to the present.

    For some years now, science fiction has been in the grips of a conceit called the “Singularity”—the moment at which human and machine intelligence merge, creating a break with history beyond which the future cannot be predicted, because the post-humans who live there will be utterly unrecognizable to us in their emotions and motivations. Read one way, it’s a sober prediction of the curve of history spiking infinity-ward in the near future (and many futurists will solemnly assure you that this is the case); read another way, it’s just the anxiety of a generation of winners in the technology wars, now confronted by a new generation whose fluidity with technology is so awe-inspiring that it appears we have been out-evolved by our own progeny.

  • Technology journalists from 1984 on the first Macintosh.

    The Macintosh uses an experimental pointing device called a ‘mouse’. There is no evidence that people want to use these things. I dont want one of these new fangled devices.

  • Dresden Codak, on the ancestry of Michael Crichton.

  • Frank Rich on the meaning of the “balloon boy” incident.

    Richard Heene is the inevitable product of this reigning culture, where “news,” “reality” television and reality itself are hopelessly scrambled and the warp-speed imperatives of cable-Internet competition allow no time for fact checking. […] None of this absolves Heene of blame for the damage he may have inflicted on the children he grotesquely used as a supporting cast in his schemes. But stupid he’s not. He knew how easy it would be to float “balloon boy” when the demarcation between truth and fiction has been obliterated.