Nov
11
2020

The True Origin of M.O.D.O.K.

As you may have heard, there’s going to be a stop-motion animated Hulu series starring Marvel’s M.O.D.O.K. Reading this news, I was struck by how it’s just de rigueur accepted that M.O.D.O.K.–once a “serious” Marvel villain (first full appearance: Tales of Suspense #94 – ed.)–is now a jokey semi-ironic gag character, a character that might, ya know, show up in an animated series voiced by Patton Oswalt.

…or be featured on merch like coffee cups (sadly one tiny foot on mine has chipped off): 

…or–somewhat horrifyingly–be available as a high-dollar statue you can have your own (giant) face 3-D printed onto:

  

This idea of “jokey M.O.D.O.K.” has become so endemic that  I wonder if the general Marvel property-consuming public has any idea that this entire modern semi-ironic M.O.D.O.K. phenomenon has its origin in one very specific event: a self-published zine from 2004 called The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies.

I wrote a bit about the then-relatively-recent rise in M.O.D.O.K.-ery way back in 2007 for the no-longer-with-us comics news site, The Pulse, and interviewed the creator of The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies, Robert Newsome. Given the likelihood of a new wave of M.O.D.O.K. interest, I thought now a good time to post that long-404’d article here to my blog. I’ve abridged the article somewhat, but here you go: 

There’s a whole lot of MODOK going on.

George Bush’s approval ratings may be in the pits, but MODOK’s cultural cache has never been better. Ten years ago, if you’d asked your average fanboy who MODOK was, you’d have been met with a blank stare, but these days you can’t swing a dead cat in your local comics shop without hitting some kind of MODOKery. This once obscure Marvel villain, spawn of Kirby and Lee from a 1967 issue of Tales of Suspense, is now the cock of the walk in the Marvel universe, featured in the recent All-MODOK Ultimate Avengers issue, in which the entire Avengers team become “MODOKs”; starring in his own miniseries, MODOK’s Eleven; getting off one of the bawdiest gags in Marvel’s history in their recent holiday special; and even appearing as a Marvel Legends “build-a-figure,” available only as a piece-by-piece collectable, packed in, one appendage at a time, with other figures.

MODOK’s newfound stardom isn’t confined to the hallowed halls of your local “Android’s Dungeon” comics shop, though. Wandering the isles of indy comics festivals like SPX or MoCCA these days, it’s not unusual to overhear alt-comics hipsters expound upon the virtues of MODOK with the same studied reverence with which they discuss the latest offerings from Top Shelf, Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly. MODOKery has even oozed out of the seedy world of comics nerddom into the (relatively) mainstream world of animation: The Toonami series Megas XLR features an obvious MODOK homage (albeit one with the face of Bruce Campbell) and Disney has even gotten in on the act with their own faux-DOC., Technor, from their series Teamo Supremo.

So, you may ask, “Just who in the heck is this cause célèbre, MODOK?” Let us, as Lewis Carrol quothe, “begin at the beginning.”

As mentioned, MODOK is—like pretty much everything else cool in superhero comics—the creation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. He first appeared in Tales of Suspense in the late 60s and has reappeared sporadically since then, usually to receive an eventual beat-down by Captain America (God rest his soul, supposedly), Iron Man or occasionally the entire Avengers team. If you want to immerse yourself further in MODOK’s history in the Marvel universe, you can find out plenty online, but that’s not really necessary if you’re seeking just to understand MODOK’s appeal; all you’ve got to do is have a look at the guy:

You see, MODOK is an enormous head in a floating chair. He’s a Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing. And also he has little baby-lookin’ arms and legs. And he shoots some kind of ray out of that weird disco amulet-thing he wears on his head. And he’s got a pompadour. Did I mention he’s an enormous head in a floating chair? As the Comics Journal’s Dirk Deppey put it, MODOK’s “so bizarre [he’s] cool despite actually being really lame.” And therein lies the secret ingredient to this recent MODOK revival: a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned, post-modernist tongue-in-cheek irony.

The catalyst for MODOK’s rise from semi-obscure B-list villain to giant-headed belle of the ball was surprisingly obscure: a fanzine—or ‘zine’—from Athens, Georgia called The Journal of MODOK Studies published in 2004 by a supposed “George Tarleton.” Why supposed, you ask? Consult your Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, folks—George Tarleton is MODOK’s real name, and an obvious pseudonym/homage from the scholar behind this “journal.”

The Journal of MODOK Studies—or JOMS as it’s known among the faithful—was an obvious labor of love. Printed on a photocopier, its old skool cred was evidenced by the still faintly visible lines around its pictures and blocks of text, betraying its literally “pasted up” nature. And of course, as its name makes clear, it was devoted to all things MODOK. What’s important about this publication isn’t just its single-minded devotion to MODOKery, though, but rather, that singular vision in combination with its tone: a half awed, half mocking ironic zeal focused on a subject that couldn’t have been more deserving of such treatment, a Kirby/Lee creation that was graphically half genius and half idiocy.

The Journal of MODOK Studies was published in the winter of 2003 and, as mentioned, was clearly a labor of love; according to the indicia, “MODOK is really awesome and this journal is only published because of this awesomeness, and not through any desire to make money…” This first issue begins with a play-by-play narration of MODOK’s original appearance in Tales of Suspense, then moves on to a piece supposedly reprinting the diary of a hapless food service employee recruited by MODOK’s parent organization, AIM (don’t ask). Included as well are MODOK pinups by a number of artists, including Johnny Ryan, Drew Weing and Patrick Dean—as well as a Bob the Angry Flower cartoon by Stephen Notley which introduces the character MODOKMODOK (Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing MODOK). To anyone prescient enough to have been onboard the hovering MODOK bandwagon at this stage, JOMS offered the following congratulatory remarks: “You are to be commended for your interest in MODOK which has lead you to this publication, and if you’ve found the Journal and do not posses such an interest, it is our hope that this publication will create this interest, and a love of MODOK in you.”

And indeed it did—for me and for many others.

The Journal would publish its third issue—and last to date—in 2004. By that point, though, its mission was largely accomplished; the gospel of MODOK had been launched and MODOKery was spreading like a benevolent pestilence. How is it, though, that a humble zine could launch such a revolution? MODOK himself is clearly the catalyst—but to what specifically can one attribute his appeal? Rather than simply speculate, I contacted “George Tarleton,” real name Robert Newsome, of Athens, Georgia, to ask him about the genesis of the Journal and about his enthusiasm for all things MODOK:

BT: What possessed you to create a zine devoted to the “study” of all things MODOK?

RN: MODOK is awesome. That should be all I need to say, because, just LOOK at that guy… But there is some background. My post-college roommate and I had a couple of the MODOK action figures from the Iron Man cartoon around the house and I couldn’t stop looking at the things. [MODOK] really is, I think, one of the best character designs in all of comics. So I kind of developed a mild obsession (if that’s possible). But at the time, there really wasn’t a whole lot of MODOK in the Marvel Universe. I started collecting all the MODOK comics (even the really BORING Sub-Mariner 3-issue arc with MODOK and Dr. Doom) as well as the appearances of MODAM, Ms. MODOK and SODAM. Really. I’d been working on other ‘zines, but I’d gotten sort of bored with them, so I decided to put the MODOK habit I’d developed into print. It just seemed like the right thing to do.

BT: What is the secret of MODOK’s appeal?

RN: Ridiculous Kirby character design. I honestly believe, without the irony that saturates so much of people’s appreciation for comics, especially comics of the ‘60s, that MODOK is one of the most interesting character designs in the Marvel Universe. When you look at him, you’re just drawn in. Why is his head so big? How did he get that chair? Can he brush his teeth? Who made that snappy headband? I found it impossible to look at this guy without wanting to know more.

BT: I’ve heard that you distributed free copied of the Journal to everyone at the Marvel Comics booth at the San Diego Comic-Con. What kind of reaction did you get?

RN: I had distribution through Last Gasp, and people writing me from all over the country, but I couldn’t get one to Marvel. All the copies I sent to them were returned unopened. Maybe they thought it was an unsolicited submission… I don’t know. I wanted them to see it, though. So I went to the Marvel booth at the San Diego Comic Convention and just gave one to everyone working there. I’m not sure they knew what was going on, they all looked pretty confused. Nobody from Marvel really said anything.

BT: Do you credit yourself with the current MODOK revival, and if so, do you have any plans to deservedly exploit the situation for your own benefit?

RN: Yeah, I’m taking credit for it. I know that it’s entirely possible for someone with more influence at Marvel to have noticed MODOK’s brilliance independent of my work, but nothing exists in a vacuum, you know? Plus, I placed enough phone calls to the poor receptionist at Marvel asking if he/she knew what MODOK stood for (nobody ever did) that somebody had to say SOMETHING, right?

I’m thinking about doing another issue soon, but I’m not sure what would be in it. There’s certainly enough out there to write about even without the modern MODOK revival, like the two novels featuring MODOK, or the time Jack Kirby just totally forgot how to draw MODOK, and I still haven’t done my all-MODAM issue!

I was unable to pin Robert down on a date for a possible next issue of The Journal of MODOK Studies, unfortunately, but I believe I speak for fans of MODOKery everywhere when I say, I hope it’s sooner rather than later.

And here’s a small gallery of images from the three issues of JOMS, including comics by Johnny Ryan and Patrick Dean:

As a final note, I’d be remiss if I didn’t pat myself on the back and point out that I was one of the earliest “converts” to The Church of the Semi-Ironic M.O.D.O.K. Shortly after the publication of The Journal of M.O.D.O.K. Studies, I did a kinda-autobiographical minicomic about teaching a summer art program during which the students became obsessed with M.O.D.O.K. In it, I appear as “a M.O.D.O.K.” 

You can read the whole thing here

 

Aug
16
2020

Is the Cover of Detective Comics #1029 Derived from a Series of Fan Commissions?

I may be wrong–and please correct me in the comments if I am–but I believe this recent cover, the cover for Detective Comics #1029, is the first time a fan commission has (kind of) made it to the cover of an actual, published Marvel or DC book.

So, re. “kind of,” some caveats: first, the cover itself isn’t a fan commission, but the basic premise–a villain seated in front of a “trophy wall” of his vanquished adversaries–is. And that basic setup isn’t just from a single fan commissioned piece, it’s derived from a well-known original comics art collector’s very impressive themed collection of “trophy wall” commissions. 

The other caveat: yeah, it’s possible this is a total coincidence… but that seems unlikely. 

So, what about this themed collection? The owner and instigator of this collection is Chris C (I know his last name, but that’s how he appears on ComicArtFans.com, so that’s how I’ll refer to him) and you can see the very first such commission–by none other than Brian Bolland–from 2005 here on his ComicArtFans page

From the description on the page, it sounds like Chris came up with the idea and submitted it to Bolland along with a bunch of other possibilities, but that it was Bolland who ultimately chose the trophy wall premise from among those submitted.

I gave Brian a host of ideas for this piece and he picked the most “out-there” and graphic of them all. I was concerned that he would think it too macabre but he took to it like a fish to water. When you have a living legend of an artist who gets excited about a piece he is working on this is what you get….I am beside myself.

A Bolland original is amazing enough in its own right, but Chris C then apparently began commissioning pieces with the same basic setup from tons of artists. If you go to Chris’s ComicArtFans main page and scroll down to the bottom you’ll see that he’s currently got six pages full of them! It looks like there are about a hundred currently listed.

 

Chris has even purchased an original Ernie Bushmiller Nancy strip that features an a trophy wall gag:

Interestingly, the cover artist for Detective #1029, Kenneth Rocafort, doesn’t appear in Chris’s list of trophy wall commissions. I wondered if maybe he’d done one for Chris and then reused the concept for the Detective cover.

Back to the Joker commission… if it seems vaguely familiar to you, it might be from seeing this amazing cosplay of the image that was making the rounds a few years back. That’s all the same guy, just photo-collaged together. (I have no idea who colored the original commission image on the right or where that came from.)

You may be wondering: why the heck do I know all this back-story about trophy wall commissions, etc.? Well, it’s because I’ve done one. Here’s mine. The artists are given some leeway in their choice of villains to focus on and if I’m remembering correctly, I started off trying to work up an image with The Owl, who’s one of my fave Marvel villains. For reasons that I can’t remember now, that didn’t work out, so I went with another personal fave: Dr. Octopus! 

And you may notice, true believer, that Doc Ock’s still got a thing for Aunt May. 

(The perspective on that framed picture is wrong and it’s bugged me for twelve years!)

As for how Chris C’s venerable “trophy wall” theme made it to the cover of a major DC title: my guess would be via the fairly well-known Bolland piece, but who knows exactly? 

UPDATE #1:

Twitter user Ken Raining pointed out that a somewhat similar premise had been used by John Byrne for a cover of Namor The Submariner… in 1990! This is, though, to my mind only really a surface similarity. The villain here is The Headhunter and the heads here not heroes that are her now-slain adversaries, but just regular ol’ victims–and actually alive with just their heads protruding through the wall apparently. Obviously, we’ve also not got the trademark casually-seated-in-a-chair pose. I’d personally chalk this one up to coincidence rather than there being any real connection between this cover and the Bolland piece that latter appears. Still, though, maybe it’s possible that Chris or Bolland had seen this and it was in the back of their minds when the original commission came together.

(And is that Craftint on that Byrne cover? Be still, my heart!)

UPDATE #2:

Joe Grunewald (of The Beat) has made me aware of this interesting tidbit, that’d I’d never heard about before. (Surprising, since I’m a tremendous Walter Simonson fan!). Apparently the cover to Batman #366 was originally a piece that Walter Simonson had done as a sort of thank-you gift, but which wound up being used as a cover at the insistence of editor Len Wein back in 1984. So, not exactly a fan commission, if we want to get nit-pickey, but definitely an earlier instance of something pretty similar to the “trophy wall” scenario. You can read more about it here.

Here’s the original piece and the cover as it appeared:

Aug
01
2020

Anatomy of this Year’s CXC Poster

Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC) is one of my favorite comics festivals–and that was the case well before I was a Columbus resident–so it was a real honor to be asked to do this year’s poster. The event just officially released the poster along with a preliminary guest list, all of which you can find on their site here

I noodled around initially with a number of different concepts for the poster and was leaning toward just doing a scene of the show floor with everyone as anthro/animal characters, but at the time I was brainstorming I was also setting up a unit for one of my classes on cut-away illustrations, something I’ve always had a soft spot for. Here’s an example: 

It dawned on me as I was putting my class presentation together that I should figure out a way to incorporate a cutaway into this year’s poster design, and thus I immediately switched gears and begin working up a design based on some kind of cutaway. I would think back to this moment many times as I spent hours and hours painstakingly rendering miniature interior spaces on the poster–“Why didn’t I just do the damn animal thing?!” Anyway, this was a great excuse to take a deep dive into comics’ wealth of amazing cutaway drawings. I rounded up tons of them, but here’s one of my favorites: The Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building:

And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t post maybe my fave cutaway illustration of all time, this Richard Scarry ship, which I’ve written about previously:

Given that the festival takes place at multiple locations (or did take place pre-COVID. Obviously the poster concept seems somewhat bittersweet in retrospect, since the event’s wisely gone virtual) it’d only be fair to try to do cutaways of all of the man locales. I can’t recall exactly what possessed me to do a space-themed image, but I guess in a bid to make things as complex as possible for myself I decided I’d combine the locations not just into a space station, but into a space station that spells out “CXC.” Here’s my initial rough:

And, obviously, if there’s a space theme, there should be aliens and astronauts–as you indeed see in the final poster. There were a lot of steps, obviously, between my little rough sketch above and the finished image, and a lot of design choices going on–some just referencing the various Columbus festival locations and others relating to the overall SF theme. So here, just for fun, is a “dissection” of the various visual elements in the final design:

 

Columbus Locations

Starting from the top… This section is the Columbus Metropolitan Library, where the sales portion of the show is usually held:

The cutaway inset is the upstairs gallery where the tables are set up. Incidentally, this is a beautiful space. One of the things I really like about CXC is that it’s in a bright well-lit space, unlike a lot of cons which are in convention centers or hotels which can often have windowless, bunker-like areas for events.

I needed some elements for the curve of the upper  “C” and grabbed them from the Franklin Park Conservatory–a location totally unrelated to the show, but it’s a cool building! 

Again, not a location that’s associated with CXC, but I threw in a bit (upside-down) of Columbus’s amazing downtown Topiary Garden:

The main “X” element is the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Have I mentioned that the Billy Ireland, right here in Columbus, houses the world’s largest collection of original comics art? 

… and its cutaway view is the Billy Ireland’s reading room where you can look at any of their 300K-ish originals, as these folks in the poster are doing:

Moving into the lower “C” now, this section is the Wexner Center at OSU.

I couldn’t find a picture of the auditorium or a screening room, so its inset is just kinda freestyled it, but I did have the audience watching Tezuka’s Simba the White Lion

The tail end of the last “C” is a building at CCAD. That’s actually a dorm, not a classroom building, but hey, I wanted a building that wasn’t that tan concrete color. Aesthetics over accuracy, I say!

I just kinda made up the CCAD classroom in the inset, but needless to say, I’m familiar enough with the inside of CCAD classrooms that this wasn’t a problem for me.

 

Space Elements:

The space itself is, of course, “Kirby Krackle,” which at this point–along with stuff like Ben Oda-style war sound effects, and Stan Sakai’s skull/death emanatta–has just kinda become part of comics’s visual language. For what it’s worth, when doing krackle digitally (the whole poster is digital/Clip Studio Paint) I start with a “base coat” from a custom Kirby Krackle brush in black, then go over by hand adding in black dots… then erasing out some white ones. Just using the straight brush doesn’t look right. 

 

The biggest space design element is of course the astronaut–who is being used by him/her-self for things like a custom bookplate, sand-alone logo, etc. For the suit design, I went to two of my all time favorite movies: Alien and 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I’m a SF nerd.) You can see I’ve grabbed a number of design elements from the 2001 suits, most obviously the great orange color. I’ve always loved the bold colors of these suits.

I’m also grabbing elements from the beautiful deep sea diver-inspired suits from Alien. Comics connection! These suits were partially designed by the great French cartoonist, Moebius:

 

Typography

Speaking of SF movies, pretty much all the typography in the poster is done in Eurostile Bold, which has become the go-to for pretty much any SF typography. The great Typeset in the Future blog did a massive post on this typeface.

The typeface at the very bottom is OCR-A, a typeface developed for optical character recognition (duh) and which looks like an old monotone CRT monitor display, as you see in lots of old SF movies. In fact, once the guests to the show are announced, they’ll appear in green type on a black background to emulate exactly that. (Guest names here are–obviously–placeholders. As if!)

The alien typeface is this “alien” font, which the designer was kind enough to let me use for the poster:

It’s not typography per se, but if you’re a fan of Alien, you probably recognize the little checkerboard symbol in the bottom right:

That’s part of  “Semiotic Standard,” a set of symbols developed by designer Ron Cobb that you see all over the Nostromo in the film. Here’s the full set:

Cobb says the “hazzard/danger” symbol (the checkerboard) was deliberately made to look like the logo for pet food brand Purina because the Nostromo‘s crew were “alien chow.” Incidentally, Ron Cobb is another comics-connected element to the poster: in addition to his well-known work on films like Alien, Total Recall, etc. he’s a pretty good cartoonist, too!

Over 280 of Ron cobb’s Cartoons

 

And finally…

Just for fun, I threw in the cover to one of my favorite comics. In the lower right corner of the library/show floor inset you can see a little furry alien with a copy of Eightball #13 in his mitts!

 

Apr
29
2020

Back From the Old School: Showing Motion via Repeated figures in a Single Panel

Lately, I’ve been noting a lot of panels like this in the comics I read and it’s made me wonder about what exactly this technique is, how how it works, and where it came from:

What it is:

This is from Cyril Pedrosa’s recent (and amazing) book L’age d’or, which is now out in English as The Golden Age. What’s going on here formally (and the dialog isn’t really important to it, so you don’t need to be able to read it) is that each set of horses and riders in this image is are the same horses and riders; they’re just progressing through time over a static background. It’s not a technique you see a ton in comics, but once you’re aware of it you’ll find it cropping up more often than you’d suspect in your reading. 

So, what are we actually seeing here formally? Repeated images (usually characters) in comics, moving through time and space over a single background, without the use of gutters/panels to create sequence or explicitly dictate reading order.  

It’s worth noting that Paul Gravett has a great post on a lot of the same general subject matter here–although he doesn’t draw fine distinctions between what could be seen as a few different varieties of repeated image techniques. In Gravett’s article–which appears to be written in 2008–he’s springboarding his discussion off of Gianni De Luca’s (he’ll be mentioned below) extensive use of this technique in his adaptation of Hamlet. Toward the end of the article Gravett has this to say:

While it would be possible to catalogue still more cases of this effect, no doubt in Chris Ware’s output or in manga, from what I have found so far they amount to little more than certain special panels or pages – fascinating efforts, experiments or oddities – but mostly they bear no comparison for me to De Luca’s huge skill and sustained use, not only in Hamlet but also Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest.

This statement may still be true. I wonder, though, if the extensive use of this technique in L’age d’or wouldn’t put it at least in the same ballpark as Ge Luca’s work far as cartoonists really digging in and exploring how this technique can be applied? It’s used pretty extensively throughout L’age d’or and its sustained and repeated use by Pedrosa there is certainly unlike any recent comic that I’m aware of. It’s part of the meat of the story and how it functions–certainly not one-off oddities. 

What it isn’t:

There are several formal devices in comics that look a lot like this technique on the surface. Some function similarly in a formal sense, and some just resemble it superficially but function differently. Here are three formal devices that bear some resemblance to what’s going on in the above image, but aren’t exactly the same thing:

1) Repeated image to represent speed – This is probably the most common sort of repeated image you see in comics. In this Carmine Infantino Flash panel, for example, we understand that there are not actually five identical people here; it’s an image of a single person moving very quickly. And, much like that L’age d’or panel, that character is moving through space and there’re no panel borders breaking up this motion. 

So, why don’t I think this is the same thing? Scott McCloud gets to the root of it in his discussion of this device in Understanding Comics:

 

“Photographic.” “Film.” This is a device that’s mimicking the effect of a camera. It’s primarily optical rather than diagrammatic.

I think this idea is supported by the (as far as I can tell) total absence of this sort of device in any kind of visual art until after the invention of the camera. (I’d love to be proved wrong, though. If you can find one, let me know on the comments!)

Further, I think supporting the idea that this is different from what we see in that L’age d’or panel is looking at how it’s used. This type of repeated image–the type that emulates a “motion blur” is pretty much always used as a visual indicator of speed. It’s not a coincidence that you see this employed a ton in comics like, well, The Flash. In contrast, I think it’s pretty clear that that L’age d’or panel is not supposed to indicate that the characters are moving quickly; if anything, it evokes a languid  conversation that’s happening over an extended time as the characters meander through their environment. 

Linguist Neal Cohn refers to comics effects where images are repeated to indicate speed or motion as “partial reduplication” (“partial” because only the moving parts of the objects are duplicated visually),  as seen here in this slide he shared with me via Twitter:

My gut feeling here is that, of those images above, the left two are somewhat different formally than the right two. The right ones are pretty clearly mimicking a photographic effect; the left two seem to me to be maybe an extension of this photpgraphy-based language that’s mixed in more with comics’s native diagrammatic abilities. But, that’s a bit of hair-splitting for some other time, perhaps! 

2) The polyptych – I’ve seen several different terms for this particular device, but “polyptych” is what McCloud calls them and that’s what seems to have stuck. The polyptych is kind of a catch-all comics term for any time a single background/location is subdivided into multiple panels. Sometimes a polyptych is simply this–a setting divided into panels–as in this panel from Master of Kung-Fu. There’s nothing moving here, no repeated figures:

Other times, there’s a repeated figure included, which brings it very, very close to our original L’age d’or example, as here in this Gasoline Alley strip:

Unlike the L’age d’or panel, though, we have the added element of division by panels/gutters. The figure is repeated once in each panel. You read it left to right, top to bottom, with the grid dictating your reading movement. 

You can find a great decade-by-decade index of these things online here.

3) Transformation – This, again, has some superficial resemblance to our original panel, but to my mind is pretty different functionally. The classic image of this is a character transforming from one state to another, like The Hulk, as we see here in this slide from Neil Cohn:

We’ve for sure got a repeated character in this kind of thing, but not the sense of a lot of time passing, as we get with the L’age d’or panel. The backgrounds (such as they are) are singular, but there’s no sense of motion being communicated here–the character is not moving through the background space. 

Where did it come from?

So, one thing that interests me about this thing that we see in that L’age d’or panel is how it’s simultaneously comics-y and not comics-y.

It’s very comics-y in that it’s using two-dimensional art to show the passage of time and it’s doing so in a way that’s diagrammatic rather than completely mimetic. It’s not comics-y, though, in that it’s more primitive(?) in a way, since it doesn’t utilize one of comics’s main formal tools: panels. Despite how esoteric discussion of this device may seem at first glance, there’s a common almost-version of this technique that I’m betting even non-comics people know pretty well: the famous “map” comics of The Family Circus.

In this case, though, we don’t get the repeated character as he moves throughout the background–just an indication of where he’s been on his journey.

And <shocker… it may not even be a map at all, according to Bill Keane. Mind blown!

So, back to the origin of this thing… here’s another example of it, from Vincent Vanoli:

I don’t think it’s just coincidence that both the Pedrosa image and this one are from comics that take place in a Medieval-type setting. In both cases, I’d bet the artists were lifting this particular technique from what is, as far as I can tell, its true origin: Renaissance and Medieval art.

Here’s The Tribute Money, from the 1420’s by the painter Masaccio:

Note that this is not just a crowd of people; it’s a story with the same characters repeated as they move both physically through the background/space and through time.  First, at the center of the painting, a tax collector is demanding money; then, off to the left where Peter and Jesus are pointing, we see Peter getting some money out of a fish (The Bible is weird, y’all!); then, finally on the far right of the painting, Peter pays the tax collector.

Similar deal here in The Journey and Meeting of Saint Anthony with Saint Paul the Hermit by the Master of the Osservanza from the early 1400’s:

Some more of these things:

As mentioned, once you’ve seen a few of these, you start to keep an eye out for them. Here’re a few that I’ve noted over the past few months: 

This is from Javier Pulido’s great run on She-Hulk a while back. One neat thing about this one is how you’re moved through the scene in a back-and-forth way that takes you all the way to the rightmost side of the two-page spread, then back to the left-facing page to continue reading.

This is an example from Gianni De Luca, who–as noted by Gravett–uses this technique a ton.

Here’s a beautiful spread from Hicotea: A Nightlights Story by Lorena Alvarez. The reading order of this one threw me for a bit initially because you have to start at the bottom. You then go up the stairs, then “fall” down to the floor on the right.

Yeah, it’s yet another one from L’age d’or, but I had to throw this one in since it’s an example where each individual long panel is a self-contained example of this technique, with them all functioning as a sequence showing the character moving through three different environments. 

I’m throwing this spread from Kyoko Ariyoshi’s manga, Swan, into the mix here as an interesting example that I think kinda-is and kinda-isn’t what I’m talking about. It satisfies the base requirements: repeated figure, moving through a single static background, no panel borders, not a visual shortcut to connote speed. But, it seems to be so overly photography based–and the background so non-essential to how it works–that I’d probably not fully characterize it as being exactly the same thing as the examples above. Like most attempts to put formal comics techniques into strict categories, there’s always a fair amount of wiggle room. Some of De Luca’s work, particularly in Hamlet, seems to skate this fine line as well. 

This is very definitely not the same thing as what’s under discussion, but I wanted to point it out because it’s such an interesting (and early for comics) example of the Flash-style “ghost image to connote speed” thing. The three figures here seem to be used much like the Infantino Flash image above, but the two trailing images here are actually other boxers who have previously trained at this same location–and run on this same stretch of road presumably. 

What the heck do we call these things? 

You may have noticed that amidst all the discussion of this thing, I’ve been conspicuously avoiding actually referring to it by name. That’s mainly because it doesn’t seem to have a fully settled-upon name–and the ones that are used are kind of awkward. But there is some writing on this type of comics device and obviously, in those writings it has to be referred to by some name.

Neil Cohn uses the term “reduplication” to generally refer to any of these devices that involves repeated drawing of the same thing. I like this term, partly because it’s fairly simple and straightforward, but also because of what it means. As Neil explains, “[reduplication] in language is repeating a form to create added meaning. ‘I’ll have the salad-salad, not the potato salad.'” In the case of these comics, this makes a lot of sense: that second (and third, and fourth, etc.) drawing of the figures in, say, that She-Hulk panel create added meaning. He refers to the kind of thing I’m discussing here specifically as “polymorphic reduplication,” although he also seems to use this term for instances in which reduplication is used to show motion. So, this seems to include both the thing I’m discussing, but also more broadly includes something like that Flash panel.

In that Paul Gravett article I mentioned way back at the beginning of this, he goes through and catalogs a few different terms people have used for this technique. Among the labels he turns up is “continuous narrative,” which comes from a book not specifically about comics, but about Renaissance art: Story and Space in Renaissance Art: The Rebirth of Continuous Narrative by Lew Andrews. (A book I’m now going to investigate for sure.)

Charles Hatfield used the terms “undivided polyptych” and “synchronistic” in his book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature for these sorts of panels. “Undivided polyptych” has a straight-ahead appeal, since “polyptych” is already a term in comics that people know. “Polyptych,” though is a bit problematic in itself since it’s been appropriated from the world of non-comics art where it’s used to refer to artworks that consist of several individual physical frames/panels stuck together–which may or may not have any narrative content, may or may not even have a continuous image, and don’t seem to ever be used to connote motion:

Whatever these things are called, I’ve become (obviously) fascinated with them. Part of their appeal to me is for sure just my attraction to any sort of  formal experimentation that pushes comics’ conventional “toolkit” of techniques. Beyond that, though, I think the reason I’m drawn to this very specific type of use of repeated image (rather than the “motion blur”/photography-derived technique, or even the slightly more comics-y Gasoline Alley-type polyptych) is that it so clearly shows that two of the main things that we comics people are specifically very concerned with–visual narrative and using two-dimensional space to show the passage of time–are things that, in fact, have been concerning artists in general for centuries.  

 

 

Mar
22
2020

The Vasquez Rocks of Comics

Even if you don’t recognize the name “Vasquez Rocks,” you’ve likely seen the rocks themselves. The Vasquez Rocks are a group of distinctively-shaped rock formations outside of Los Angles that have appeared in many, many T.V. shows and movies–from Westerns like Bonanza (and Blazing Saddles!) through to relatively modern films like Little Miss Sunshine and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. If, though, like me, you’re a Star Trek fan, you’ll know these rocks from many, many appearances in the franchise–both in its film and T.V. versions–beginning with the TOS episode, Arena, in which Kirk famously fights the Gorn:

So, do we have a Vazquez Rocks of comics?

Now, when I say, “the Vasquez Rocks of comics,” I’m not meaning literal appearances of the Vasquez Rocks in comics–although, that has happened. Here, for example, French cartoonist Christophe Blain has inserted them in his most recent Gus adventure. The rocks are only one of many, many references in the book to old American Westerns–including, coincidentally, a cameo by Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley (who was also in numerous Westerns).

No, when I say “Vasquez Rocks of comics,” what I’m getting at are locations that appear in different comics repeatedly because of the ubiquity of a particular reference image that turns up in images searches! I first noticed this phenomenon when working on the very first story in Four-Fisted Tales, a story that takes place during the battle of Verdun in WWI. Here’s a panel from the story:

Months after drawing that panel, though, I happened upon a review of this comic–which also deals with the battle of Verdun:

I knew immediately what the story here was. If you do a Google image search for “battle of Verdun” this will appear on about the eighth or ninth row in the results:

This artist and I had both done the same Google image search and both decided to incorporate the same image into our comics (for obvious reasons–it’s a pretty striking image). Once this phenomenon came to my attention, though, I started keeping an eye out for it.

Here’s another one. This image is from Trench Dogs (another coincidence: it’s published by Dead Reckoning, who also will be publishing Four-Fisted Tales). It’s the interior of a submarine. 

When I saw this page, it looked familiar… because I’d seen the photo ref image that I’m certain it was based on. It turned up via Google image search both when I was researching subs for my previous book, Oyster War, and for a story with a submarine in Four-Fisted Tales. While not nabbed quite as whole-hog as the Verdun example, you can see elements of the photo incorporated into the Trench Dogs page–even down to the wheel/chain thing in the very last panel. 


I did a similar thing with it in Four-Fisted Tales: just grabbed elements here and there (although, most of this image is based on a more modern bit of photo ref, since it’s a WWII sub):

So, I hereby decree that henceforth, this phenomenon of cartoonists swiping from the same photo ref image be referred to as “Vasquez rocking.” 

Note: I will update this post as I catalog more images of comics Vasquez rocking… and of course, if you spot any such Vasquez rocking out in the wild, leave a comment or hit me up on twitter!

Mar
09
2020

From the Sketchbook: Dogfighting Dogs!

I’m certainly the five billionth person to do drawings of dog pilots (when they “dogfight” they’re literally dogs!! Get it?!) but for whatever reason, I recently wound up doing a batch of quick watercolors of dogs in WWII-era pilot gear. Well, “for whatever reason” isn’t entirely accurate; the reason is at least partially that I had just watched the recent documentary, Spitfire, about the WWII fighter plane of the same name. (Streaming on Amazon Prime btw. Watch it!)

So, here’re a few dogs:

But, hey, when I went to get pictures of these from my sketchbook, I remembered I’d done a couple of cats too! So, here they are:

If your first thought on seeing those was, “Hey, that’s kinda like MAUS, where the various factions are depicted as different animals,” that was pretty much a thought I had as well–except what came to mind was one of my fave “funny animal” comics, Apocalypse Meow (or Cat Shit One, as it’s known in Japan). Sadly out of print for ages here in the U.S., it’s a war comic with antro characters set in Vietnam. 

Anyway, I like those cat and dog WWII characters, but I doubt I’ll ever do anything with them. I’m in the middle of a military/war book at the moment (Four-Fisted Tales) and when that’s done, I’m going to jump back on my antro animals book (In the Weeds), so I’ve kinda got both the “military” and the “animal characters” bit on the roster already.

Incidentally, those images were done with a materials combination I just recently started fooling with and very much like: watercolor, then finished with carbon pencil (and a bit of gouache for highlights). Here, for example, is a recent drawing of an alien I did using the same technique:

Jan
05
2020

What I Read in 2019

In past years I’ve done a list of all the comics (and comics-related stuff) I’ve read, with a short write-up for each item. This year, that’s just not feasible given the amount of material I read and the time I have available… but here’s my list for 2019 with a few comments on things here and there. 

Note that there are most certainly books I’ve forgotten to add to my list that I’ll no doubt remember after I’ve posted this, and there are for sure a ton of mini-comics in particular that I read quickly then prematurely filed in my office minicomic heap without recording them. 


Charlotte Impératrice (FR) – Matthieu Bonhomme

Charlotte Impératrice : 1. La Princesse et l'Archiduc - un ...

Bonhomme is a French cartoonist who is sadly not well-represented in English translation. This book begins a multi-volume story of Carlota of Mexico. The art style is a bit more neo-realistic than previous Bonhomme stuff I’ve read and the coloring is really interesting: it seems like an attempt to pair flat coloring of figures with limited palettes and  extensive use of gradients for backgrounds. Some of the big panels and spreads in here are mind-blowing. You see his process for one in this video.

Here – Richard McGuire

Here by Richard McGuire Review :: Comics :: Reviews :: Paste

The basic conceit of the original strip this book’s an expansion of is so brilliant that it’s literally changed the formal language of comics. I enjoyed reading this, but there’s an air of of “remaking Stairway to Heaven” to the project. Still, I’ll take what I can get from McGuire, who doesn’t do actual full-on comics very often. 

The Invisibles volumes 2 & 3 – Grant Morrison

The Invisibles: Book 1 by Grant Morrison graphic novel ...

I’ve been a big fan of this series ever since it came out, but had not read the full third series until now. That third installment is a bit haphazard for sure, but the second volume–still my favorite volume–is pretty great even on a third (fourth?) read.  I’m still listening along with The King Mobcast as they go through the series. 

Born to be Posthumous – Mark Dery 
Bezoar # 3  – various artists
Beneath the Dead Oak Tree – Emily Carroll
Audubon: On the Wings of the World – Fabien Grolleau

Atomic Empire – Thierry Smolderen and Alexandre Clérisse

Culture SF - Souvenir de l'empire de l'Atome

This book is worth checking out for its aesthetic alone. As you can see above, it’s got a late 50’s/early 60’s advertising art/UPA thing going on that’s unlike pretty much anything else you’re gonna see in comics (all done in illustrator, apparently, as you can see in this video). I was pretty surprised that this book didn’t make more of a splash… but (inexplicably) all the promotion I could find for from its North American publisher didn’t have any samples of the interior art! The story is fascinating and ambitious–and I admit I didn’t fully get the ending–but it’s definitely one of my favorites of the year.

Beyond the Windy Isles – Hugo Pratt
Celtic Tales – Hugo Pratt

Image result for Celtic Tales by Hugo Pratt

Beyond the Windy Isles is absolutely great stuff–just what you want from Corto Maltese: seafaring proto-Han Solo adventures drawn in Pratt’s exquisite “about to fly off the hinges” style… Which is what makes Celtic Tales such and odd bump in the Corto road. It’s odd both story-wise and art-wise. The stories find Corto in land-locked European settings that don’t really give Pratt a chance to show off his best chops, drawing stuff like vegetation and water. And, as weird as it sounds to say, some of the drawing in this volume does kind of fly off the rails. Things are sloppy. Characters are off-looking, Don’t even get me started on the story where characters from Arthurian legend help Corto blow up a WWII sub (or something like that).  

Guirlanda (FR) – by Lorenzo Mattotti and Jerry Kramsky
Frankenstein – by Junji Ito
The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo: The Monster Mall by Drew Weing
I, Rene Tardi, Prisoner Of War In Stalag IIB Vol. 1 – Jacques Tardi
Popeye, Vol. 1: I Yam What I Yam – E.C. Segar
Popeye, Vol. 2: Well Blow me Down – E.C. Segar

Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies – Marc Singer

Arguably the most important book about comics in 2019–and for sure the one that stirred the most controversy. I wrote a post with my thoughts on it here.

Emma G. Wildford (FR) – Zidrou (Writer), Edith (Artist)
Lone Wolf and Cub Omnibus Volume 2 – Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima
Little Bird #1 & #2 – Darcy Van Poelgeest and Ian Bertram

Witch Hat Atelier vol. 1 & 2: Kamome Shirahama

Image result for witch hat atelier

My favorite manga of recent vintage. The first volume is slightly rote story-wise–it’s the classic “regular kid discovers they’re actually a super-special magic user and winds up at wizard school” bit–but, by the second volume things begin to differentiate from the standard “wizard school” narrative and get interesting. The really unique magic system outlined in the book is one of its best features, as is the gobsmackingly pretty Moebius-inflected (but still obviously manga) artwork. 

The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of MUTTS and the Art of Patrick McDonnell – Patrick McDonnell

Image result for The Art of Nothing: 25 Years of MUTTS and the Art of Patrick McDonnell

This is a big, beautiful retrospective art book celebrating the first 25 years of the newspaper strip, Mutts. It’s filled with scans of original art, early advertising/illustration art by McDonnell, color guides for Sunday strips, and selected “best of” strips. Mutts is one of the few currently running truly great newspaper comics and it’s great to see it get such a high-caliber milestone retrospective.  

Sobek – James Stokoe

Image result for Sobek - James Stokoe

This one may be a bit difficult to track down, but it’s well worth it. It’s an abjectly ridiculous (and I mean that in the absolute best way) story about a crocodile god that begrudgingly heeds the calls of his worshipers to do battle with a rival deity. As with all things James Stokoe, the art is jaw-dropping panel after jaw-dropping panel of exquisite detail and bonkers color.   

Pope Hats #6 – Hartley Lin
Oishinbo – Izakaya: Pub Food – Tetsu Kariya and and Akira Hanasaki
Le Journal de mon Père (FR) – Jirō Taniguchi
The Columbus Scribbler #3 – various artists

Bill Blackbeard – The Collector Who Rescued Comics – Jenny E. Robb & Alec Longstreth

Image

You’ve gotta get this one at The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum here in Columbus! If–like me–you were obsessed with the old Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics as a kid, you know who Bill Blackbeard is. This short comic, illustrated by Alec Longstreth (Basewood, Phase 7), is a quick history of his life and influence, based on research by Billy Ireland’s Jenny E. Robb. 

Ready for Pop – Hurk

In Review: Ready for Pop by Hurk – downthetubes.net

Hurk is apparently a staple of the indie comics scene in the U.K., but not well known here in the U.S… which is too bad, because this book is fantastic. As you can see, it’s got a great 90’s-esque indie comics look to it that’s all but vanished here in the U.S. largely as a result of the ubiquity of color printing. The story’s set in mid-60’s London and centers on a pop singer who’s been inexplicably shrunken. Nicely drawn, fun, and funny–pick it up if you can. 

Wasted Space #1 – Michael Moreci & Hayden Sherman
Egg Cream #1 – Liz Suburbia
Meeting Comics #1 – Andrew Neal
Paul Moves Out – Michel Rabagliati
Pope Hats #1 – Ethan Rilly
Planetes Vol. 2 – Makoto Yukimura
The Pterodactyl Hunters in the Gilded City – Brendan Leach

Canopus #1-#4 – Dave Chisholm

Image

This series isn’t coming out until February, but Dave’s been posting bits and pieces to Twitter intermittently… and he generously let me read an advanced digital version of the series. This story ticks a lot of boxes for me: a SF story drawn in a somewhat cartoony style, great Solaris-esque premise, beautiful coloring, unconventional page layouts and storytelling. Definitely be on the lookout for this in a few months from Scout Comics.  

Tintin and the Picaros – Hergé

Hergé and Tintín..AMAZING !! | El Baúl de Guardián 

So, this may or may not be the end of my couple years’ long chronological read/reread of Tintin (I can’t decide if I’m gonna bother with Alph-Art). This book seems to be largely considered the worst of the late-era Tintin books, but I found it more just rote than anything. Coming not too far after the heartfelt Tintin in Tibet and then the near-meta story that is Castafiore Emerald, this seems (aside from some typical late-era weirdness like odd close-up staging and characters behaving a bit out-of-character at times) this just seems like a standard “Tintin goes somewhere” adventure from the beginning of Hergé’s career. Now the previous book, Flight 714there’s a terrible Tintin book!


See you next year… and read more comics!

Oct
26
2019

Selected Sketchbook Drawings – October 2019

I haven’t posted any sketchbook pages in forever, so here goes… 

Truth be told, I’d weirdly fallen out of my years-long habit of drawing nightly in my sketchbook and have only recently gotten back into it. Why had I fallen off? I’m not exactly sure–other than that I’ve had a lot of “life getting in the way” events happening in the last year and a half or so. And, as I’ve been working pretty steadily on Four-Fisted Tales, I’ve been keeping up with drawing pretty much every day, even if it wasn’t in my sketchbook. Thankfully though I’ve gotten back in the sketchbook habit–and I’m all the better for it. Non-directed drawing is something that I feel is really beneficial, even if you’re working on/drawing a comic regularly. 

(And if you’re interested in more regular sketchbook stuff, I regularly post my sketchbook work to my IG – @ben_f_towle.) 

So, below is just a handful of things selected from either my actual physical sketchbook or from “pages” of digital sketching that I’ve been doing on my Wacom MobileStudio Pro. (I’vs also started regularly attending weekly live animal-drawing sessions at CCAD, but those are so loose and gestural–not to mention hard to scan, given their size–that I’m not including them here.)

Here’s a digital sketch I did of (80’s-era) Madonna. I believe this is from a photo from a semi-recent MOJO Magazine. 

One of the things that’s really helped me get back into sketchbook work is attending a weekly drink-n-draw here in Columbus. There are a few different comics-focused events of the sort, but the one I go to is Tuesday nights at Two Dollar Radio. I make a point to work only non-digitally there and try out new materials as much as possible. (The fact that my office at CCAD is literally a stone’s throw from the art supply store is good for my artistic development… but bad for my bank account for sure.)

This is some experimentation with a carbon pencil. I first got interested in carbon pencils via Mark Schultz’s recent illustration work. He’s able to get them to blend seamlessly with traditional pen and ink work. I’m using it here more like regular charcoal or pencil. 

 

These two characters are obviously digital. As with all the digital stuff here, this was done in Clip Studio Paint. With these I’m using some tone layers in two different percentage values. 

Here’re a few more digital sketches: a whole “page” and then a close up of some kinda weird elephant creature I drew. I’m playing around with a lot of CSP stuff: tone layers, hatching brushes, etc.

Along those same lines (fooling around with a lot of digital CSP stuff) here’s a small, quick digital sketch of my dog that I really liked and a few random animal sketches on a single page:

I spent several of my early drink-n-draw sessions at the beginning of the school year working with my little Cotman watercolor kit. Here’re a few excerpts: a full page of random doodling, a warthog in Edwardian garb (don’t ask–no idea), and some explorations of Akira Toriyama’s (amazing) car designs:

Finally, here’s a handful of ballpoint pen sketches–the first an image of Kathleen Hanna from (again) a MOJO Magazine, then just a few doodles. I taught a unit on ballpoint illustration in one of my classes this term and as a side effect, I’ve been really getting into ballpoint myself. It’s a pretty unforgiving medium, but I love the way you can get anything from a colored pencil-like uniform, smooth color to very obvious hatchy mark-making.

Sep
10
2019

SPX 2019! (And Other Comics Stuff During the Weekend…)

SPX 2019: Third wave of special guests includes Hannah ...

I’ve missed the last two SPX’s, so I’m very excited to be attending this year’s event… but that’s not the point of this (very quick) blog post. In planning my trip, I’ve noted a few other comics-related events that are going on at the same period in the Washington area which don’t seem to be well-covered or well-advertised.


Comic Art: 120 years of Panels and Pages

Weirdly, I can find almost no info about this online, but at the end of the week a comics exhibit opens at the Library of Congress. Here’s about the only thing I found about it online: 

In conjunction with the 25th Anniversary of SPX, the Library of Congress is holding a year-long retrospective of the history of comics. Works from the SPX Collection at the Library of Congress will be displayed from Jaime Hernandez, Bill Griffith, and Raina Telgemeier among others. These works will be shown alongside those of George Herriman, Walt Kelly, Richard Outcault and other historically distinguished comics creators.

The exhibition in the Thomas Jefferson Building on the ground floor behind the gift shop in the Graphic Arts Gallery.

Visitor Hours to the Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building (Tours, Exhibitions, Gallery Talks):

* Friday: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
* Saturday: 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
* Sunday: Closed

 

100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal

There is also an exhibit of Mexican political cartooning currently in D.C., 100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal: Mexico-United States As Seen By Mexican Cartoonists. Here’s the blurb from the Mexican Cultural Institute website:

The Mexican Cultural Institute is proud to announce its newest exhibit, 100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal: Mexico – United States as Seen by Mexican Cartoonists, taking place from September 4 through October 30, 2019. The exhibit collects a brief sample of the thousands of cartoons published in 100 years in the widely known newspaper, El Universal, where almost all Mexican cartoonists of the 20th century have traveled through. This exhibit reads as a nodal part of the history of the cartoon in Mexico and includes a brief representation of the artists who traced and portrayed the history of the country. The pages of El Universal have shown the critical work, with aesthetic greatness, by artists such as Andrés Audiffred, Eduardo del Río Rius, Helioflores and Rogelio Naranjo, who have all shaped Mexican national events with art and humor.

There’s a good write-up on the show on Mike Rhode’s excellent blog of D.C. area comics events: 100 Years of Cartoons in El Universal

The Institute is located at 2829 16th St., NW and here are the hours:

Monday-Friday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Saturday: 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunday: Closed


See you there! 

Aug
13
2019

Forest vs. Trees in Marc Singer’s Breaking the Frames

At this point it’s not news that Marc Singer’s recent book, Breaking the Frames: Populism and Prestige in Comics Studies, has stirred up a fair amount of controversy. It’s a testament to the provocative nature of the book’s assertions that this controversy has spilled out beyond the usually insular world of the book’s chosen subject matter–comics studies in academia–into the wider sphere of comicsdom in general. I’m case in point; while I do teach illustration at an art school, I’m by no stretch an “academic,” but I bought and read Breaking the Frames shortly after its release. I’ve noted as well much discussion of the book on Twitter (most notably via Kim O’Connor’s weekly chapter-by-chapter read through) and it’s been brought up at more than one beer-sodden post-con get-together I’ve attended. And of course it’s no doubt been a subject of much chatter I’m not privy to in academic circles.     

When I read through Breaking the Frames I took detailed notes, thinking I’d do (as I now am in fact doing) a blog post about the book and my thoughts on it. Now however, some seven months after the book’s release, I doubt I have much to say about the minutiae of the book’s particular arguments that’s not already been hashed over in some other more widely-read venue. I do, though, have a couple of–as the title of this post hints at–very general points that I took away from my reading.

What Comics Studies is Studying

The first passage in this book that made me stop and do a double-take occurs before the book proper even gets going. It’s here, at the end of the introduction, where Singer lays out how the book is organized:

This certainly wasn’t intended as any sort of “bombshell” proclamation, but I did a full stop when I read it–not because I doubted its veracity, but exactly the opposite: I recognized it as true. In laying out the organizational scheme for an analysis of the field of comics studies as a whole, Singer just casually drops that you can basically divide the types of comics that the field actively engages with into exactly two genres: superhero comics… and non-fiction/memoirs.

Imagine reading a book on the current state of film studies that–without much further comment on the matter–divided itself into a section on high school summer vacation comedies and a section on nature documentaries. Before you got much further, your first thought would most certainly be, “Well, there’s clearly something wrong with the current state of film studies that’s not related to the actual practices within the field, but rather what material the field is engaging with.” And that’s exactly what I thought here.

The most interesting, exciting, active, popular, and engaging work in comics in the last twenty or so years has been occurring in areas like YA/all ages comics, indie comics, webtoons, mini-comics, webcomics, and manga. This obviously isn’t germane to the particular arguments that Singer will later go on to lay out in Breaking the Frames, but fact that comics studies is apparently not engaging much with these vital areas of contemporary comics (other than some instances of crossover with memoir) seems like a pretty major systemic problem that should merit some discussion. 

Singer acknowledges this in passing in the same section, saying that works outside these two general areas (as well as concerns about marginalized creators who have to this point been excluded from canon) are, “not a part of this book, which takes as its primary subject comics scholarship in its present form.” I’d argue that what comics scholarship is not taking as its primary subject in its present form is just as important as what it is.

 

Comics are Made out of Little Drawings

Here’s the another very odd (to me, anyway) thing I noted in Breaking the Frames:

This is a passage in which Singer quotes a scholar discussing Frank Miler’s The Dark Knight Returns. Again, this isn’t notable in itself, but it is notable in the context of the overall book in that it occurs on page 80–a full third of the way through Breaking the Frames–and it’s the first time artwork is mentioned in any evaluative sense.

Comics are made of drawings. That’s arguably their defining feature. And yet, the fact that comics are made up of drawings is often completely ignored and they’re discussed solely in terms of their plots–no differently really than if they were prose stories.

This has been a peculiar trait of comics academia for as long as I’ve been aware of it. It’s not wholly unsurprising given that the field of comics studies originated within academia from English, literature, communications, etc. departments. It is, though, damn strange. 

Somewhat related, I noted on several occasions that discussion would drift without any explanation from comics to TV shows or movies about superheroes and then back again to comics. In these sections I found myself stopping in my tracks and wondering, Why are we talking about Smallville or some Batman movie in this book that’s ostensibly about comics criticism?

To be fair, the latter chapters of the book engage a bit more with the artwork than the initial chapters do, but again, this tendency to conceptualize–and write about–comics as simply narrative seems to be a large holistic issue that should bear some addressing before getting into the particulars of current comics studies. 

 

Why are we Talking about This Book?

An observation of a somewhat different nature than the two above: reading Breaking the Frames really highlighted for me that comics that are discussed and viewed as important among comics fans and cartoonists, and comics that are discussed and viewed as important among comics academics form a Venn diagram in which there’s for sure some overlap, but also substantial areas that don’t intersect. The most surprising example of this for me was the amount of attention that Breaking the Frames pays to Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner

I don’t think I’ve heard a fellow cartoonist or anyone I interact with on Twitter (or elsewhere online) even mention Nat Turner in the last decade, yet Breaking the Frames concludes with a nearly fifty-page chapter on the book (which, admittedly, I mostly skimmed, having not read Nat Turner recently enough to really engage with such a granular discussion of it). This is in no way a knock on Nat Turner (I love Kyle Baker’s work); just an observation that this is one of many books which are apparently canon in academia but which for whatever reason don’t occupy the same space discourse-wise outside of academia. 

I noted as well some other interesting and peculiar apparent disparities between attitudes about comics in academia and the comics talk of more general fans/practitioners. Singer devotes a fair amount of effort to “defending” comics–and in particular superhero comics–as an art form from its supposed marginalized status. Is comics still “marginalized” within academia? I genuinely don’t know… but there’s definitely a “chip on the shoulder” vibe to a lot of that sort of discussion in the book that seems more in line with the early 2000’s than now–at least to someone looking in from the outside.

Similarly, there’s almost an entire chapter devoted to pointing out something that seems obvious on its face to me (and is acknowledged by pretty much everyone it’s come up in discussion with): that Marjane Satrapi’s drawing style is derived stylistically in a large part from David B. (who was her mentor for a while). This is apparently a matter of some contention within comics academia.

 

Breaking the Frames is Good and You Should Read it

That fact that this book has caused a bit of a kerfuffle is, to my mind, a good sign that it’s addressing things that need to be addressed. The points I raise above, as per the title of this post, are just a few “big picture” observations about the book–and are admittedly observations coming from someone well outside of comics studies. As someone who makes–as well as teaches–comics, it’s fascinating to see how people engage with work on the page. I’ve likely overplayed the “kerfuffle” aspect of Breaking the Frames, as a substantial portion of it isn’t Singer directly criticizing the work of other comics scholars, but him engaging directly with comics himself. Some of these comics are works that I’m interested in (Chris Ware’s work, Persepolis, Alan Moore’s work, etc.) and some of it not, but Singer’s writing is always interesting, engaging, and well-argued. 

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