Weekly Process Roundup 1/17/11

The weekly process roundup is a collection of sketches, pencils, inks, thumbnails, everything other than finished product, from The Long and Shortbox of It's favorite artists and illustrators, hitting every Friday.

DC Slips Off the Chains of the CCA!

In a country like America, where the right to 'free speech', i.e. expression restricted only by hateful intent, was legally established in the very first amendment to our government's founding constitution, the fact that any art, mode of communication, or media could be censored because of fear of a nebulous 'corruption of the youth' is horrible. That this system of censorship has operated from the 195os into the 21st Century is stupefying. And the final defeat of that is something to be celebrated.

Today, DC Entertainment finally announced its rejection of the approval system of the nearly six-decade-old Comics Code Authority in favor of their own rating system.

[via @Newsarama via DC Source blog]

The Comics Code Authority was formed in 1954 to stem the tide of fear in the US population, mainly engendered by Dr. Fredric Wertham, that comic-books (mostly Horror comics, but others as well) were psychologically dangerous. The good doctor wrote a book titled "Seduction of the Innocent" which treated comic-books as powerful and dangerous tools aimed at children. (Which in a sense is very true.) The other half of the Big Two, Marvel Comics, put out the first mainstream comic-books without the Code's stamp of approval in 1971 and stopped making use of the Code entirely a decade ago in 2oo1.

According to Wikipedia.org with DC pulling out, only Archie Comics and Matt Groening's Bongo Comics will continue to send their comic-books to the CCA for approval.

Hopefully, Archie will follow the series of daring choices they made in 2oo9 and last year and reject the Code as well. Leaving Groening to make a pretty clear decision between being the only publisher still utilizing a sixty-year-old structure of censorship or keeping some shreds of the revolutionary reputation he once had for creating Television's "The Simpsons".

It won't be long now.


UPDATE 1/25/2o11:
It escaped my notice until today that the day after DC announced this news, and I wrote this post, Archie followed suit and announced that in this next month of February they too will discontinue their use of the Code's seal. And that Bongo hasn't utilized the Code or its seal for something like a year.

This was revealed to me by this excellent piece of reporting on Newsarama.com by Vaneta Rogers which posits that, in fact, the CCA is defunct in all but name and has been for a year or more!

[via @mattfraction via Newsarama]

Free speech survives. Censorship was defeated. The good guys win in the end.

New Chicago Comics and The Comics Consumption Problem, Part II

Yesterday, I shared some thoughts about the Museum of Contemporary Art's ongoing exhibition entitled "New Chicago Comics," focusing specifically on the presented work of Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen and how the comics presented in the exhibition, and in particular the way they are presented, tell us something about "comics" as opposed to "comic art" and how that clarifies some of the ways that the form of comics is unique.

Today, I'm going to discuss the work of Lilli Carre and Jeffrey Brown, the other two Chicago cartoonists featured in the MCA's gallery. Although all four artists have a good deal of work at their backs, Brown may be the most prolific (or, he appears to be in terms of books published- Nilsen may very well have more published pages). His comics are displayed in two glass cases at the center of the small room, and what we see is as much process as finished product. Brown uses a new notebook for each of his works (which, when published, retain the notebook size and look) and complete and published works are presented alongside notes, sketches and other ephemera. Accordingly, his work is the most obviously transformed from consumable art into art object by its presentation in the exhibition; we get bits and pieces of individual stories, but totally out of context and surrounded by both pages from other, entirely unrelated, stories and artifacts from the creation of those other stories. Outside of the individual pieces of comic art (which, remember, constitute complete, although not necessarily completely intelligible, wholes), there is not even a real attempt at presenting it as comics like there is with
Hornschemeier, Nilsen and Carre (we'll get to her in a second); Brown's work is presented such that we don't get a complete picture of anything, not even the cartoonist himself. Sure, we're given a glimpse into his work and his process but, ultimately, a glimpse is all it is, and, without the wider context of having read his work, we can't understand Brown as a comics artist, just as an artist in the comics style: by turning his consumable art into art objects, the MCA has turned Jeffrey Brown into Roy Lichtenstein.

That might sound like a dig at Lichtenstein- it's not. He intentionally did what I think must be accidental here, but that is another possibility that we must file away for consideration later. Instead we turn to the work of Lilli Carre, who's presentation proves incredibly intriguing. Carre, like Hornschemeier and Nilsen, has bits and pieces of her work (most notably a several page sequence from her graphic novel Lagoon) hung on the wall, presented as examples of her comics but coming through mostly as examples of her comics art instead. Like a portion of the Hornschemeier wall, a section of one of her graphic novels is presented; it is coherent and whole in its own terms, but without the knowledge of what comes before or after. The part of Lagoon that is shown is impressive in terms of art, all inky and black with these thin little white lines and bulbous white figures that seem particularly strong surrounded by all that oppressive ink, and I would very much like to read the rest of it. In this format, it is fully legible, but the effect is similar to that of attempting to read bits of the copy of The Three Paradoxes used to wallpaper the plaster opposite Carre's work, with the exception that the whole thing is inherently more honest. There's no possibility that one could read the whole of Lagoon while standing there, and so a viewer feels less cheated by the transformation of a work meant to be read into a work meant to be viewed, for it can be both read and viewed- it is both coherent consumable art and an art object.

Of course, the coming together is imperfect- we see a whole, yes, in fact we see several wholes coming together to make another whole, all intelligible on their own and yet... all missing something important, that is, the other wholes that add up to a whole piece of graphic literature. On the Carre wall, however, there is one piece that represents a perfect comic together; something that is both a complete work of consumable art and an art object:
It's titled My Dreams Have Been Quite Strange Lately and it's a hand made, two sided, accordion book: small enough to be presented, as a whole, in the exhibition.

(Incidentally, if you want a better picture of the book- it's beautiful- Carre has some high-res close ups on her website. I thought about including those instead of this, but this shows the presentation as well as the work itself, so I stuck with what I took at the show.)

The fact that we can read the whole thing as presented means that, in the terms we have been discussing here, it's a perfect synthesis of art meant for observing and art meant for consuming- My Dreams Have Been Quite Strange Lately, as presented by the MCA, is a oasis of possibility in a dessert of confused terminology and intentions. Is New Chicago Comics presenting comics or comics art? Which is it intending to present? Which is it actually presenting? Carre's book, delicate and handmade, is the eye of the storm that is the exhibition- it provides a look at the fascinating limitations of the show, while suggesting the possibility that the presentation of comics in a gallery, the presentation of comics as art objects, need not be as disorienting and ultimately disappointing as the presentation of The Three Paradoxes across the way. It would be hard to manage, certainly, and one might need an awfully large space, but it is certainly possible, and it would be incredibly interesting to see, to both view and consume, on a macro scale. Imagine the whole of Sandman or Asterios Polyp, presented as both consumable art and art object. Surely, it would be something magnificent and interesting to behold.

This is a problem related to the unique essence of comics, and it's an essential piece of The Comics Consumption Problem puzzle. New Chicago Comics is a great exhibition, not least because it exists in the face of such interesting questions, and if you're from Chicago (my kind of town) or there for any reason before the end of January, you should check it out; the MCA is free on Tuesdays, so you have no excuse. You should also check out the various works of Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carre, Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen; each has fantastic qualities, and each has its own subtle charm, a charm I expect will increase when I can take in complete works. I plan on adding to my library from their bibliography; I will let you know what I find when I do.

I Hate It When This Happens

Solicited by Marvel earlier today:
Pencils by GURIHIRU
Captain America’s Day One!
He’s got the strength. He’s got the training. But has he got what it takes? A ragtag Special Forces unit takes Captain America on his first mission of World War II. Their orders? Don’t get him killed! But when the low-profile assignment draws the attention of Baron Strucker, the future Red Skull and half the Nazi
army, it’ll be a crash course in super heroics for Marvel’s first Avenger!
48 PGS. /One-Shot/Rated A …$3.99
Y'all may or may not remember, but way back during SDCC '10, in July, this was announced as an ongoing, to premiere in January. I wondered where it was, and now I know: it's a one shot, coming out in April. My feeling at the time was that it was going to be a similar quality as the sadly canceled Thor: The Mighty Avenger and my feeling now is that the cancellation of that book probably has something to do with the minimizing of this one. It's too bad, too- I still love Gurihiru's design for Captain America.

New Chicago Comics and the Comics Consumption Problem, Part 1

Although I go to school in the Hudson Valley, when I'm on break I often return to the region where I was born and raised: Chicagoland. Although I haven't lived in the city itself since I was but a young'un, I consider myself a product of its culture and geography and am a proud booster of even its lesser points, particularly now that I go to school in a place where New Yorkers rule the roost. The bit of this that drives my friends craziest is my insistence that ketchup doesn't belong on a hot dog, but it manifests itself in all sorts of other, smaller and less kooky, ways.

When I learned that Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art was featuring the artwork of four Chicago comics artists, I figured it was a way to get a fix for a bunch of my passions all at once, and it was the first stop on my tour of three of the city's art museums during my last week at home. Of the four cartoonists featured (Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carre, Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen) I am familiar with precisely none, but each section of the small exhibition had its own charm and I was quite fond of all the work presented. Upon walking into the small gallery, you first encounter Hornshemeier's work; it's sort of goofily earnest and uses familiar and popular styles to distinguish between different parts of his stories. His ideas have a pop art flair to them, which is one of the things that draws me in about his work, and they rely on our knowledge of products, stories and styles that exist and our sense of those things that could exist in that context. As part of his section of the gallery, the entirety of his short graphic novel The Three Paradoxes is pasted to the wall like wallpaper, and it was at this point that I was struck by something rather remarkable: just as changing the format in which we read comics changes the way we understand them, changing both the way and the context in which they are presented also, radically, changes the way that we understand them.

Now, I am not an art historian and am an amateur art critic at best, so I am going to warn you before I go on that this might be put in a vocabulary that is rather gross in terms of those two practices. If you are willing to stomach what might be a little bit of clumsy word choice, I think what I have to say will be worth your time.

With that said, it is pertinent to begin at the beginning of this discussion and, for me, the root of this branch of the Comics Consumption Problem lies in the question of comics as art objects rather than consumable art. I have long maintained that comics are for reading; to collect them for collecting's sake or, worse, to buy one in order to frame and display it seems to me to miss the point. There is a great joy in reading a brilliant piece of comics literature that's not that much different from the great joy I get when viewing a Picasso (and there are few things I love more than a brilliant Picasso, which is perhaps another artifact of my Chicago upbringing), but only when I use it as it was intended, that is, as a work that is to consumed as a collection of smaller, individuated, images meant to be understood together. The Picasso is complete on its own, but one of the unique features of comics (as opposed, perhaps, to the whole of sequential art) is that when a part of comic is presented- be it a panel, a splash or a multiple page spread- it is both complete and incomplete, a whole that requires other parts to be fully understood. Thus, when a comic is displayed as an art object rather than consumable art it is complete but not necessarily fully intelligible- we can see it and we can we know it, but whether there is truth to what we see and know is entirely dependent on other wholes that we can't see.

This is one of the things that makes comics unique.

The exhibition attempts to get around the problem by displaying the whole of Hornshemeier's The Three Paradoxes, in order, on the wall. It's a very impressive sight when one takes it all in, but it is also functionally illegible. The pages go from the floor to the ceiling, and there is simply no way that a viewer of any reasonable stature could consume the work as a whole. Instead, we see and understand parts of it- wholes in themselves- but the whole of the wholes is intelligible only as impressive art object rather than as consumable art. Put simply, although The Three Paradoxes is obviously comics when taken as a whole presented as a book and although the parts of that work that a viewer can actually approach and read in the gallery are also comic wholes- incomplete wholes, but wholes nonetheless- but, the way it is presented in the gallery, it is not a comic. It is, instead, art made from comics.

The rest of the exhibition necessarily deals with this problem, since it is comics (or, more precisely, comic art) presented in a gallery space. Take, for instance, the next artist encountered- Anders Nilsen. Of the work presented, Nilsen's was the most intriguing, as the MCA was showing pieces from his longform work Big Questions, which is about to be collected by Drawn + Quarterly in a beautiful looking 600something page edition (I have already pre-ordered a copy- all of a sudden, that huge Walt Simonson Thor omnibus is no longer the most exciting comics package I'm going to receive this spring). His drawing is magnificently delicate and his characters have personality in their visages and, I think, their voices. I say I think because it's impossible, when comics is presented as art, to understand the ability of the artist as a teller of sustained stories. You can understand individual pages, wholes in and of themselves, but not the overall quality of pacing or storytelling. The collection of Big Questions will be similarly imperfect, although on a much smaller scale- as I have discussed extensively before, a reader will comprehend the work as one long story, but will have no way to know what the story felt like when it was originally serialized. Even if the collection demarcates the place of the original divisions, a reader would have to seek to experience the work in the way it was originally experienced in order to be able to understand it as it was originally understood.

The mechanics of that process might seem complicated, but I suspect they are actually quite simple. That, though, is a discussion for another day. Similarly, a discussion of the rest of the exhibition must wait until tomorrow- and tomorrow is when things get even more interesting.

Ich Bin Ein Berliner!

"Berlin" #17 from drawn & quarterly

American jazz musicians, Communists, Socialists, Jewish immigrants to Berlin, a self-hating writer and Hitler himself have all been characters at one time or another in Jason Lutes' long-running series about the Weimar Republic and its slow, sad, disintegration into the despot state that was Nazi Germany.

I LOVE "Berlin". (I also didn't mind Berlin, incidentally. Beautiful city.)

With all that said I felt let down by this issue. Is this issue at the same quality level as the other issues? Or are my opinions colored by the long wait since the last issue? Issue #16 was my first flush with the pleasure of reading Jason Lutes' brilliant work. Followed by a slow process of collecting most of the previous issues of "Berlin" finally allowing me to read the earliest ones. In which I discovered, in issue #3, Lutes' brilliant use of sound effect lettering which I detailed recently in an editorial here on The Long and Shortbox Of It and which I used as an example in my college Senior thesis.

(For the sake of accuracy and honesty, you should know I have not read "Berlin" #5 through #14. Certain details are lost on me as a result.)

"Berlin" is broken into eight-issue arcs; there will be three of them when the series is complete and then Lutes will move on to another project. So this issue is the first of the third, and final, story-arc of the series. I wonder if the series suffers from the same effect that many superhero series do: after the exciting feeling of an arc's conclusion the shift to an arc's beginning leaves the reader with the 'nothing happened here' feeling. This issue will undoubtedly go down as an important one in the series as it is the first time Hitler himself is shown on-panel.

"Berlin" #17 details several character interactions that don't lead much of anywhere:

-Four farmers work in a field. A very good scene.
-Hitler speaks with a propaganda man (Goebbels, I presume) in a dimly lit train-car.
-Our quasi-main character, the writer Kurt Severing, walks into the Communist Party headquarters, argues with an old acquaintance and leaves disgusted with what he sees.
-Silvia, a young girl, leaves the Communist headquarters and has a night-time conversation about the nature of political organizing and sabotage. Excellent scene!
-Finally, we are treated to young lesbian lovers being discovered in bed but treated as an innocent pair of friends comfortably naked with a member of the same sex. Another great scene.

Only about half of these scenes include involving details or revelatory moments, all are probably necessary set-up for what is sure to be a brilliant final story-arc bringing the entire sad story to the finish line, but still... What gives? 'Writing for the trade' in an underground comic? If there is over two years between issues, there should be a modicum of a self-contained nature to the story. drawn and quarterly's website even bills the new issue as:
"The beginning of the third book of the acclaimed historical trilogy. The long-awaited first chapter of Berlin: City of Light, the final volume of Jason Lutes' epic historical series."
~ publisher's online product description
Come now. Any product should awesome on its lonesome and the story feels incomplete here. Though, the issue undeniably ends well.

Lutes' art is as sharp as ever. Smooth and fluid. Never a line out of place. Beautiful street scenes. A character's facial reaction upon being kissed is ever-so-slightly spied in the quarter of her face visible to the reader while adorable squiggles and a sweat drop (synesthetic visual character 'emanata') spring out of the spot their faces touch.

A bit of a lagging story in this one, but gorgeous art and smart storytelling more than make up for it. I am unshaken, still looking forward to more. I am a "Berlin" fan.

It's still the best indie comic-book coming out right now. Ich bin ein Berliner.


Quote For The Week 1/17/11

The one-line to take away from this interview: If MIGHTY THOR is AVENGERS then JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY is SECRET AVENGERS. MIGHTY THOR storms the gates of Hell. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY sneaks in the back door and ends the threat with a single strike. MIGHTY THOR doesn't know that JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY exists, despite Thor being in it. It's a mythological black-ops comic, with a rotating team organized by the most Machiavellian figure in the whole Norse pantheon.

-Kieron Gillen, in this interview with Marvel.com on the newly announced Journey Into Mystery, which he'll be writing with Doug Braithwaite on art. The new title (well, actually the old title- Thor reverts to its old title with #622) will coincide with Matt Fraction's new book The Mighty Thor, which will have Olivier Coipel on art duties. I'll be sorry to see Pasqual Ferry go- his work with Fraction may have been the best comic of 2010- but, given that I get three of my favorite creators in return, I'll take the trade.

Update: It looks like we're not going to lose Ferry after all- Rich Johnston says that he'll be doing the art for the Fear Itself crossover, and then returning to The Mighty Thor when the crossover is finished. Sweet.

Everybody Needs A Little Bit Of Extra Dough

I'll admit that when Marvel announced the new Abnett and Lanning written Heroes for Hire ages ago, I was mostly interested in the comic because it meant more time for my boy Danny Rand, also known as the Immortal Iron Fist. When the book premiered last month, but with Danny nowhere to be found, I was pretty impressed anyway: the premise, that Misty Knight plays Charlie to a group of angels that changes with the needs of each mission, was pretty clever and the down to earth feel, rotating cast, and slick artwork helped seal the deal. That said, I thought the twist at the end of the issue was a cheat- too cute for its own good, I felt like it ruined the initial premise and replaced it with one that was exploitative and not nearly as interesting.

As the month wore on, though, I softened on the matter and, by the time I purchased this book on Wednesday, was ready to give it another go. The initial premise remains the same, and the mystery behind who it is that's really pulling the strings (that's a hint, boys and girls) deepens a good deal, with the added bonus of a detective on the case. The dual premises promise to intersect in interesting ways, and I'm curious where the book goes after what's going on right now is resolved, so that's enough to keep me around. It helps that the action is good and that the main plot of the issue is such a delightful Silver Age sort of goofy- if Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning can keep balancing two different story lines with two very different tones we'll have a very solid comic book on our hands, if not necessarily a classic.

Brad Walker's art is slick and stiff, a style that usually turns me off but works pretty well here. His art has enough motion to keep me interested and it's explosive enough to keep the uncultured teenager in me very, very happy. Given that, though, I think the book would look better if the lines were just a little bit wider and the colors weren't so gaudy. It works great for the action scenes but, as the dual stories progress, I suspect a little more finesse is going to be needed and I would hate to see what should otherwise be a great story ruined at the last second by inappropriate coloring.

Still, the book is besting its growing pains in fine fashion and, with a promised Iron Fist on the horizon, I have to stick around, at least long enough to see if the quality maintains its upward climb. This is a book that's worth a look, if you have an extra three bucks burning a hole in your pocket. Hell, it might be worth a look anyway.