Seeking to disprove stereotypes that comics are merely simplistic or juvenile entertainment for the uncultured; to enlighten the open-minded and encourage the broadening of one's horizons; to examine comics as a text; to deepen appreciation for comics, comic books, and graphic novels as a formidable form of art in all cultures.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Review: Reinventing Comics

There are bigger, better, more in-depth reviews of Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics out there, so I will keep this relatively short.

While most people feel that this follow up to Understanding Comics is either excellent or terrible, I rather think that it STARTS as excellent, and slowly goes downhill so that, by about 2/3 through the book, you're ready for it to end.

Scott begins very strongly. His first couple chapters really captivated me, because he spoke to my heart -- bringing up issues in the study of comics as art, how this movement to take the medium more seriously is important in developing art awareness and thus bring about greater empathy in society. I really was fascinated by his description of how the current business model for the comics industry has come into place and the impact it's had on the prominence of the superhero genre and commercialism of the form. This is all in the first 1/3-or-so of the book, and I loved every bit of it -- it really made the entire book worth reading.

However, as he begins to describe the road to the Digital Age and where comics need to go from here, he begins losing his footing. He rapidly covers the development of the Internet, oversimplifying its history, and then knowingly jumps into predictions and theories that he is aware will soon be outdated due to the rapid rate at which technology moves forward (the book was written in 2000). Some of his predictions are spot-on, some are way off, and his conclusions are questionable.

McCloud challenges the notion that a physical comic book will always be more appreciated than a digital comic, stating that the desire to actually hold a comic in ones hands merely exists because that is what we're used to, and that as we embrace digital comics we will soon abandon that sentiment. This fails to address the concept of ownership that prevails in western culture. How many of us prefer to own a physical CD than just a hard drive loaded with mp3's? There's something inside us that will always want a copy of our media that we can rely on, that is unique and "mine." I don't think this notion will change in a matter of decades.

Another strength he attempts to declare is that digital comics have the potential to allow the reader to see an almost-infinite canvas all at once, not having to limit panels to what can fit on one page at a time. While I certainly see his point, I think this is flawed reasoning. First of all, the reader is limited to what he can view on his monitor. If you create a comic that is large enough to cover the roof of the Pentagon and tell your readers to have at it online, they still will only be able to read portions at a time, and an attempt to see it all at once would result in an image severely scaled-down in order to accomodate a realistic canvas size for a home computer, rendering it impossible to really distinguish images and text. Secondly, is it not an inherent part of the medium to have pages that you flip through? I believe the physical flipping of a page, feeling a slight breeze as it passes your face, sending a wiff of ink and freshly-cut (or musty-old) paper to your nose, is part of the experience, psychologically and emotionally.

I certainly am not against digital comics -- I have been getting more and more into webcomics lately -- but I am rather skeptical of any movement that would suggest that the best path for the medium of comics as a whole is a series of 1's and 0's, that we need to get over this need for a physical comic book -- which is a Marxist idea of unlimited accessibility and lack of individuality in creation and distribution.

As the book went on and on, I found myself more and more ready to put it down. McCloud's easy flow with which he seemed to write his first book was lost in the last half of this sequel, leaving me clueless as to where he was going or how we even arrived to some of the topics he started bringing up, making me have to re-read previous panels so much that by the end I had given up.

I definitely recommend this book due to the excellent illustrations McCloud made (both visually and intellectually) in the beginning, but be aware that it won't leave you as satisfied as some of his other writing may.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Review: Maus: A Survivor's Tale

After letting it sit in my reading list for about 5 years, I finally took the time to read both volumes of Art Spiegelman's Maus, critically acclaimed and widely recognized as a highly influential work in bringing about an awareness of a graphic novel's capabilities as substantial literature. If you're even remotely considering giving comics a chance to be taken seriously, you need to read this book for its artistic and historic significance.

The true-life story of Spiegelman's father surviving as a Jew in WWII Nazi prison camps (including Auschwitz) is not a new one (there are many holocaust survival tales out there), but is nonetheless important, insightful, and engaging! Yes, be prepared to experience the emotions of horror and sadness as the author recounts some of the hell wrought by Hitler and his goons, but also prepare for some thought-provoking questions that will give you something new to mentally chew on.

For me, some of these new questions/learnings were:

  • With all of these tales about holocaust survivors, we tend to put them on a pedestal and laud their bravery and tenacity, among other amazing qualities. But what of those who DIDN'T survive? Are they less deserving of praise/recognition, any less brave/strong? It seems like there is a simple answer at first, but how does society generally, really respond to this question? Maus reminds us that, while willpower and strength played a part in the ability to survive the terrors of WWII prison/labor/death camps, perhaps the largest factor that determined who lived and who died was mere luck of the draw.
  • Does holocaust survival really "end" with the end of the holocaust? What of post-holocaust life, recovery, and endurance? And how does the holocaust affect the next generation -- the survivors of the survivors? Maus certainly gives some interesting insights into this and makes this horrific part of world history more personal, while at the same time more impacting as we see the lingering effects of mass murder and torture still raging in the world over 50 years (at the time of the book's writing) after it was stopped.
  • What is the purpose of writing about the holocaust? How does it affect the author, and what does our (as a nation) reaction to it influence its message (specifically in a negative connotation)?
Perhaps one of the more refreshing visual aspects of this work is Spiegelman's simple-yet-effective art style. While more commercialized comics publications emphasize a very detailed, pure drawing style, Maus keeps it to the basics. Certainly the author has an eye for art, as displayed in his pacing and layout techniques, but he uses cartoons like you'd see in the morning newspaper to address a very serious topic. I'm positive there are several reasons for this, but here are a couple that I thought of:
  • Basic cartoons with minimal lines generally make it easier for the reader to associate with the characters therein. Don't believe me? Imagine if Garfield were told with photographic realism. Putting yourself in the shoes of Jon Arbuckle would be much more difficult, psychologically, because the detail doesn't allow for your mind to fill in the gaps and be quite as interactive. If Jim Davis used photographs instead of drawings, his readership would likely be very different. (I hesitate to say that the readership would drop, because I don't think a higher level of photorealism is bad -- it just expresses itself differently and would probably affect the thematic and narrative content of the comic).
  • Similarly, given Spiegelman's desire to use animals to represent real-world people, more simplistic line art makes such otherwise-fantastic scenes easier to take in. If he'd drawn the fur and bone structures more realistically, and thrown in various gradients of shading, the reader would constantly be aware of how ludicrous it is to have cats and mice walking upright, wearing clothes, and reenacting scenes from the Holocaust. It's just more effective this way for this particular story.
I recommend Maus to literally everyone -- its subject matter is far-reaching and accessible to many age groups, and it's an important case study in the argument for comics as art. Go give it a read!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Rob Liefeld Art Criticism

Back in the early nineties, comic book art in pop culture took a turn for a more edgier, grittier look and feel than it had previously been (and is now), reflecting, perhaps, the stereotypical generation x-er that the publishers were catering to. Writers began focusing less on the shining, boy scout do-gooder heroes and produced stories that more prominently features the anti-hero. Characters like Wolverine, Catwoman, Lobo, and Deadpool became popular for their sarcastic attitudes, no-holds-barred approaches to attaining their goals, and their lack of self-righteousness and morality that seemed to drive the more melodramatically angelic Superman and others who had been conceived in the golden and silver ages of comics.

In this period artists like Rob Liefeld stepped into the limelight, capitalizing on their ability to mass produce gritty, "cutting edge" work that teenagers were going for, stuff that wasn't as clean-looking and handsome as what they were used to being exposed to.

While it's certainly interesting to study Liefeld's work as a reflection or influence on readership and the medium, this is an interesting article that, to me, exposes some of the issues raised by lack of appreciation for comics as a potential to be more -- both by creators and publishers who are looking for the most efficient ways to squeeze pennies from consumers, and by a readership that didn't demand more than mass-produced, superficial entertainment in return for their hard-earned money. For example, ake a look at Liefeld's interpretation of Captain America. What on earth is going on with that chest? Could he not see from the initial stick figure pose that this was going to turn out looking like Cap had shoved a love sac down his shirt and drawn pecs on himself with a sharpie?

I think that Liefeld was/is a talented artist, but I also think he knew he could get away with less than 100% of his effort and still make a fortune. Additonally, as he was in high demand at the time, he probably stretched himself too thin with a heavy workload in the interest of making a few more bucks.

In any case, I think the criticism is a fun and insightful read, but be warned: there is some language in there that you wouldn't necessarily feel comfortable repeating at next Sunday's services.