Author Archive

Context: Fort Thunder

by on Nov.05, 2010

Johannes and I were just talking and he pointed out that many Montevidayo readers, those who are not extensive readers of comics, might be interested in what I think are some of the formative historical works and movements that inform contemporary work. So I hung up the phone with him and decided to write this. Hopefully, I’ll do a series of posts like these. Just suggestions of things to check out as way of building a context when looking at comics, cartooning, visual narrative – that kind of thing.

I think a good place to start discussing the source of some of the more avant-garde or form-challenging work being created today is to consider what was happening in Providence, RI a decade ago. (The contemporary work that I’m talking about includes comics published by presses like Picture Box, which I hope to write more about.) At the center of the Providence scene was an old warehouse, venue, workspace, housing complex called Fort Thunder.

This was the center of both the noise rock scene and the indie comics scene happening in the city at that time. Brian Chippendale, member of the band Lightning Bolt and a comics creator, is the best place to start to understand Fort Thunder. Chippendale sheds cartoonists’ traditional anal retention of exact tools, and particular lines, and preciousness. While in many ways his work (including his recent Ninja) explores the role of traditional genres in comics, they resist the expectations of that kind of work. His smudges and palimpsests and cross-hatching will never be confused with the perfect blacks of Jack Kirby (or the deft Rapidograph lines of Robert Crumb, for the matter). This is maximalist work. The lo-fi approach is indicative of much of the “alternative” art created in the late nineties. (Think Pavement’s approach to classic rock.) There’s something about the Fort Thunder work that often makes people say, “What is this shit?” at first look. But the lines compel you not to look away, to find the movements and the shapes and the coherence hidden with the nest of marks.

Other Fort Thunder artists include Mat Brinkman. His work is also characterized by crowded pages, and an obliqueness that hides an essentially “boy”-inspired adventure story:

And the more accessible work of Brian Ralph (he builds up those beautiful thick lines with a Uniball pen):

And I think the work of CF (Chris Forgues) very much follows in this tradition.

The next place to go from here is a discussion of fine artiste and cartoonist Ben Jones and techno-maximalists Paper Rad.

Oh, and, of course, the single creator who made this work possible is Gary Panter. Let’s talk about him next time. (Then we’ll talk about Paper Rad, and then look at the reincorporation of the conventions of traditional genre comics into these deconstructed pages in the work of Frank Santoro, and discuss his own fresh, new term  for what the kids are up to: “hybrid comics.”)

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shouted rage

by on Oct.28, 2010

Doesn’t it seem like everybody just shouts at each other nowadays? I think it’s because conflict is drama. Drama is entertaining, and entertainment is marketable. Finding consensus and common ground is dull! Nobody wants to watch a civilized discussion that acknowledges ambiguity and complexity. We want to see fireworks! We want to the sense of solidarity and identity that comes from having our interests narrowed and exploited by like-minded zealots. Talk show hosts, political candidates, news programs, special interest groups…They all become successful by reducing debates to the level of shouted rage. Nothing gets solved, but we’re all entertained.

The above comments were made by Calvin during a walk in the woods with Hobbes in 1995.

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Last Two Pages of ASTERIOS POLYP

by on Sep.15, 2010

I waited a long time to read Dave Mazzuchelli’s ASTERIOS POLYP. Let it sit on my shelf for a year with its heavy spine looming over me each night. I was expecting a lot from the this book, and I wanted to wait for a special time to read it. This summer was hellish in New York, so the recent cool weather was occasion enough. (And we’d been waiting how-many-years for this mysterious epic Mazzuchelli was working on – so what’s one more?) The book didn’t disappoint. I think Douglas Wolk said in a review of Asterios Polyp that modernism came late to comics. (My reaction is, really? Because Winsor McKay and Lionel Feininger and the their contemporaries certainly didn’t seem ignorant of modernism in their work). But, where I’m with Wolk, is that modernism has flourished and remained in the practice of American comics over the past decade or so, the bookends being the beautiful epics Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware and Mazuchelli’s Asterios Polyp, both structurally dictated sentiment-fests that rest more comfortably alongside the novels of 80 years ago rather than those written 30 years ago – in tone and form.

The penultimate two pages of AP struck me just right. They worked. Good. But then there were two more pages. I’m still trying to figure out if they were the right call. I want responses here from those who’ve read the book. What do you make of the last pages two pages of Asterios Polyp?

(If you haven’t read it yet, then do so. And then let me know what you think.)

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Todd Baxter's Owl Scouts

by on Sep.03, 2010

The other day when Johannes wrote “the greatest works of atrocity kitsch is not that which tries to make atrocity more ordered, less crass, but which goes straight through it,” and I said, “Exactly.” Then I find Todd Baxter’s series of narrative photos, OWL SCOUTS, and I think, “That thing Johannes wrote the other day doesn’t work here.” The artist’s control is all over these compositions, everything is exactly in its place, right where Baxter wants it. Which sounds life dead, lifeless, unthreatening work. Except I think these OWL SCOUTS are anything but. Despite Baxter’s obvious particularity, the works maintain a palpable mystery, and, I’d venture to say, crassness.

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System-Building vs. World-Building in Comics-Making

by on Aug.06, 2010

Those of us who draw comics think a lot about the fight on our page between words and pictures. Are the words doing too much? Do the images borrow too much from another medium? And sometimes we feel a guilt concerning the possibility of our medium’s reliance on other forms.

In search of a critical binary to discuss this struggle between word and picture, form and reference, Jason Overby has come up with the descriptions “world-building” and “systems-building” to describe the poles of comic-creation. I think this spectrum is useful. Useful as a creative tool (more than a critical one). It offers an artist an ability to understand his choices, when and why his comic is dictated by the marks on the page (screen, etc.), or when it is dictated by a desire to create (or simplify) an exterior environment.

Francois Schuiten’s work, which Ken refers to below, is quintessential world-building (reflected in his architect characters).

Schuiten has a stage, and tells us how to look at it.

Overby offers up his own work as essential form/word-driven comics.

Overby allows the grammar of text and page to dictate.

Where the application of the world/system-building binary gets interesting is looking a work like that presented in Andrei Molotiu‘s Abstract Comics anthology (a selection of which we featured recently at Action,Yes). My instinct is that this would be a book of formalist, system-driven comics. But, my instinct is wrong. The abstract-nature of these works (and how Molotiu defines ‘abstract’ is another discussion) often comes from extreme feats of simplification, essentialism, or cartooning, rather than an emphasis on marks or the nature of the panel, or the page itself.

Janusz Jaworski, untitled (System Wins!)

Jeff Zenick, from "Because" (World Wins!)

Makes me want to pop the hood on my own comics and smack the engine around with a monkey wrench for a good long time.

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