(Edit 8/8: There’s also a bit of discussion about this strip going on in my Google+ stream. If I have you in one of my circles, you can join in there.)
I’m currently teaching an Introduction to Sequential Art class for The Savannah College of Art and Design and the primary text for the class is Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. There’s no denying the importance of this text and I gain new insights on comics every time I read it. I think, though, that it’s important to question and think critically about works like Understanding Comics and not simply accept them as gospel because they’re presented to you as being The Text. To encourage such thinking among my students, whenever I teach a class that has McCloud’s book on the reading list, I always have my students also read Art Baxter and James Sturm’s 1998 response to the book: a short seven-page comic called A Response to Chapter Nine : Build a Beach Head, which ran in The Comics Journal #211 (April, 1999).
I mentioned the Strum/Baxter piece on Twitter at the beginning of the semester and I was surprised to learn how few people were aware of the piece and when I went to find a link to forward so folks could read it I came up with nothing. I had a couple of people contact me directly wondering if I would scan and email them a copy, but I thought I’d do one better: I emailed James and Art and asked them if it’d be OK for me to post the comic online. Not only did they generously agree to let me do that, they both provided some really interesting background commentary on the history and thinking behind it.
So, here it is: Jame Sturm and Art Baxter’s (www.artbaxter.com) A Response to Chapter Nine : Build a Beach Head–as both JPGs and a single PDF download–followed by comments from James and Art.
Here’s the whole thing as a single PDF: link (~25M)
From James Sturm:
I believe the issue of TCJ was intended to have a different cartoonist take on a chapter of UC (that’s what I was told). Perhaps not enough of them came through.
I’m inflicted with a genetic disease that allows me to marshall a vigorous opposition with anything I’ve ever said or thought. I enjoyed working on the piece with Art, think it holds up OK, but could also create another comic essay refuting it!
From Art Baxter:
James and I went back and forth on “Beach Head” quite a bit. He had originally written the piece as an essay but suggested the comic format to Tom Spurgeon who was the JOURNAL editor at the time. He asked me to do it because he had moved to my home town of Philadelphia a few years earlier and we had gotten to know each other pretty well. We used to team up on tables at SPX and stuff like that. Anyway, he gave me the essay, and pretty much let me do with it what I wanted. He left soon after on a cross county trek that left me to start laying it out as a strip. Although it was only a dozen or so years ago it was like to stone-age compared to now. I had no computer, internet, email or cell phone. I was pretty much out of communication with James until he checked in with me through out the summer. The only use of the computer was to letter the word balloons with James’ own font using his early Mac. I think I finally finished the art and sent it out sometime in November. It was like: “Get it done already!”
Here are some things I remember.
- The pages were drawn a gigantic twice up. The type was cut out of laser paper and pasted on the art. Since there was so much writing per word balloon, it made it easier for us to get a lot in using a smaller face. If the actual art pages were smaller, the small type may not be as legible as it is now.
- I think that I came up with the “Garden of Eden”/ Island” idea as a basic setting then broke up the essay’s key paragraphs into panels. I also wanted to utilize McCloud’s vignettes as much as possible, putting my own “counter universe” spin on them.
- I did have a few problems knowing what to draw to illustrate an idea in a few places. One notable example is the whirlwind on page 4. I didn’t know what to draw and James suggested the whirlwind. He told me, after he saw it, that it turned out better than he had imagined.
- The “Charlie Brown shirt” zig-zag stripe idea was James’.
- I am in the strip twice on page two and five as the harried big-nosed cartoonist. I was more of a seething maniac in those days.
- We went back and forth on the use of foul language on the final panel of the second page. I think I was the one most in favor of stronger language. James added the “Inkers!” punch-line swiping it from Clowes’ Young Dan Pussey” Dr. Infinity. A year or two ago I read some college instructor’s thoughts on “Beach Head.” He used it in the classroom and really thought the language was deplorable. I felt the language made the point strongly and truthfully. People do have thoughts line that that they wouldn’t dare say out loud. I liked using the language (and nudity) to set our strip apart from Scott’s squeaky clean book.
- I’m the least happy with page three. It’s just kind of blah.
- James thought the kid reading BIG ASS COMICS on page four should be “sportin’ wood.” Who was I to argue!
- You can see my swipe for the center panel on the last page if you check out page 178 of Tezuka’s PHOENIX Vol. 4. I pretty much had the idea to use that design for the island pull-back from the beginning.
- James thought I was getting carried away with the nudity. “Its turning into a nudist colony!” He was right, so we never got to see either Maggie or Hopey splashing in the surf (not that we all haven”t seen that dozen’s of times in L&R). Ironically, James drew himself nude on a JOURNAL cover several years later.
- We had a lot of discussions over this strip. I agreed with most of what James wrote. Most of our discussions were over clarifying points or details. We usually argued until one or the other were too tired to argue anymore. I think we were both ultimately satisfied with the results.
- James did ask and got an extra page or two from Spurgeon so the strip wouldn’t be so cramped. I then had plenty of space to spread out James’ conclusion including silent pause panels which helps to slow it down and pace it better.
- I drew the butterfly on the splash page just to add some movement. I continued it at the end just to add more movement and to reinforce continuity. It’s kind of like Ushi Digart running naked through the desert wearing an indian headdress in a Russ Meyer movie. It could mean whatever you want it to mean.
- The final foot close-up panel was very important to me. I wanted the close to be visual. That line between land and sea was the border of expansion. More great works meant more real estate – an expanded beach head. I wanted to give the reader a momentary pause to let James’ words settle into their mind and let the visual reinforce it. I also liked the reflection of the stars on the sky with the starfish on the beach.
To tell you the truth, by the time we fished this strip I didn’t know what we were trying to say. I had been so involved with the doing of it I really couldn’t see the forest for the trees anymore. I finally made some sense to me years later when I read it with fresh eyes. I do think the thing holds together pretty well as a visual essay and for the points James makes. God knows the list of significant works has exploded in the last dozen years. Not just for original work but also scholarly work and significant reprints of older unseen work not to mention foreign work. One thing for sure is that I had a new respect for Scott doing a whole book in this comics essay format.
I’m interested in seeing what people think about it now. I never saw much feedback from it. I remember Tom Spurgeon brought it up when he interviewed James a few years ago. I got on line too late to see what Scott himself thought about it. It was both a fun and nerve wracking strip to do. It was a fruitful collaboration. Overall I thought it turned out pretty well. It’s kind of interesting that our essay strip and the one page strip by a cartoonist (I can’t identify) are the only two pieces by cartoonists. The rest are by non-artist scholars and critics. All the responses at the time were to the essays by the critics.
Well, there’s way more than you ever wanted to know about this obscure seven-page essay strip.