Build a Beach Head – James Sturm & Art Baxter’s 1998 Response to Understanding Comics

(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.

The Comic

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.


4 pings

  1. Jose-Luis says:

    Thanks for uploading this comics gem! I was a student of James’ and it’s always nice to stumble upon an old comic I never knew existed. It’s lovely that this comic is set on a tiny island, and I think a lot is still relevant, especially the abuses of “communication” by advertising and the uninformed, the cartoonists’ love of an image or subject to begin an exploration, and the odd nature of comics as “not serious” and a fear of pretentiousness. I think, especially now with the internet, many cartoonist aren’t as by commerce as they once were. Comics started out to sell newspapers, but now it’s basically free to upload your comics online. Of course, very few people are making a living on comics, and I wonder how that affects the growth of the medium.

  2. Chris Schweizer says:

    Thanks for posting, Ben! I’ll pass this on to my students.

  3. Ben says:

    @Chris – No problem! I hope your students find it interesting. If you’re making print copies and that PDF doesn’t reproduce well, just email me and I can get you a non-compressed for web version of it that might look better.

  4. Ben says:

    @Jose-Luis – That’s a good point about online comics posting–something that was totally unforeseen by most folks at the time. I’d love to find out if James and Art would still argue, in 2011, that there’s not really a solid critical mass of excellent comics.

  5. James Sturm says:

    Thanks for posting, Ben. And there has been an overwhelming amount of great comics that have been published since Art and I worked on that piece.

  6. J. Overby says:

    You’re probably already aware of Dylan Horrocks’ response to McCloud’s polemic, but if not, it’s a worthwhile read – turned my head around…

  7. Ben says:

    @J. Overby – Yeah, I’ve read that for sure. I think that Horrocks attributes a sort of vaguely malicious hucksterism to McCloud that’s not accurate, but I agree with a lot of what he has to say, particularly the idea that, “He doesn’t try to convince us that his definition is more ‘correct’ than any other, nor that it most accurately describes what people usually mean when they use the word ‘comics.’”

    I think any post-19th century definition of something isn’t going to be of the “Everything that’s X, and nothing that’s not X” variety. You need to look to how a word is used in order to determine its meaning. The fact that people pretty much universally refer to, say, The Far Side as a “comic” but would never call the Bayeux Tapestry a “comic” indicates to me that something’s awry with this line of thinking.

  8. J. Overby says:

    Ben- Dylan’s essay was somewhat dramatic in its portrayal of McCloud as self-serving propagandist, but a necessary opposing viewpoint. I think UC is an incredible book, truly the first structural analysis of “the medium,” but, you’re right, it defined “comics” in rather strict formalist terms that unfortunately still persist as axiomatic.

  9. Loris Z. says:

    Hello Ben,

    Thanks for posting this. I’ve always been curious on how and what were the critics and questions posed to Understanding Comics at the time it came out. I remember buying a Spanish edition of it for my 18th birthday, in 1999. It cracked my head open, it was the right book at right time. Time and experience taught me that many of the things exposed there aren’t necessarily like that, but ever now and then I get back to it and see something new. that’s a great thing to see in such a book, that after all this time you can still find new things on it, even if you disagree with them :)

    Best regards,


  10. Ben says:

    @Loris – I agree. Whatever one makes of the various individual claims made in the book, whenever I re-read it I always come away with some new insight, or at lest something new to think about comics-wise.

  11. Angelina Fernandez says:

    Ehhh I don’t really agree, but it’s definitely interesting. I guess that I don’t agree mostly because I’m from a different generation? The comics that I was raised with weren’t super hero comics, or comics that pander to their audience, simply because I wasn’t interested in that sort of thing so I never took the time to seek it out. Because of that, the stuff that I’ve read has been really good. Maybe this was a prediction. The comics world IS changing. DC and Marvel are struggling, and independent creators are gaining ground. And it’s these independent creators who are telling stories with these essential truths.

  12. Emily says:

    I don’t understand the beef with McCloud — he himself says many times within Understanding Comics that if the reader has a differing opinion or thought on [insert subject here], he would be happy to hear it. He makes an honest effort to continually say that he doesn’t have the right answers, and is just making sense of it as he sees it.

    And to the person who said that this was “the first structural analysis of the medium” — are you sure you read this book? Mr. McCloud even REFERENCES Will Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art, which was published 8 years prior to Understanding Comics.

  13. Ben says:

    @ Emily – Regarding your last point, yeah there’s for sure all the Eisner stuff before–not to mention tons of other cartooning “how-to” books. The McCloud book, though, was arguably the first to really dig into the formal aspects of the medium–to really see what makes comics “tick.”

    Regarding the second point, though, I guess I don’t think that thinking critically about and reacting to Understanding Comics means that people have a “problem” with the book. Isn’t, as you say in your comment, that exactly what McCloud says wants/expects in the book itself?

  14. Aaron says:

    This is great! Thanks for posting.
    This is such an apt response to McCloud’s somewhat starry-eyed “hopes” for the work of future cartoonists. It takes McCloud’s general message that much further by stripping away the “romance” and making the clear distinction between the ideal and the actual.
    After all- comics don’t exist in some magical sphere- floating down to us mere mortals every so often. They are made by humans. And humans are, of course, subject to pre-conceived notions, bad ideas, and a wide range of motivations- (not the least of which is commercial.)
    I applaud you for making this accessible to your students. I think this should be a required adjunct to Understanding Comics in every class setting.
    Ideally, it would simply be appended to the book itself in future editions.
    This kind of “socratic dialog” is very healthy for comics. It doesn’t detract from McCloud’s work at all- but makes it stronger.

  1. “Innocuous bland fare or work that panders…” says:

    […] Ben Towle has posted the entirety of a 7 page comic from 1998 responding to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics by Art Baxter and James Sturm. It’s quite an interesting read and makes a number of salient points. You can, and should, read the whole thing right here. […]

  2. Newscast for August 14th, 2011 | The Webcast Beacon Network says:

    […] Responce to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics In short people suck and not everyone should be allowed to communicate and not every idea should be expressed.  Cartoonist should not focus on reaching the most people but advance comics as a art form creading deeper and more meaningful work. Original Source: Ben Towle – via Kleefeld on Comics […]

  3. maketh says:

    […] James Sturm’s and Art Baxter’s permission, he has posted the full comic online, along with new thoughts by both creators. (Source: […]

  4. Drawn! The Illustration and Cartooning Blog says:

    […] With James Sturm’s and Art Baxter’s permission, he has posted the full comic online, along with new thoughts by both creators. […]

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