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22 July 2014

Episode 45: Why Comics?

So this episode was supposed to be about why we love comics, what is it about the medium that we enjoy so much - but as could have been predicted we wander off on some tangents and also discuss the public's perception of comics and why people don't read comics!



We also have reviews of Morella and the Murders in the Rue Morgue, Batman and Ra's Al Ghul #32, Techjacket #1, Batman Eternal, Exit Generation #2, Batwoman, Outcast #1 and Superman #32.

Follow us on twitter @comicsordeath, download us from iTunes and visit us at givemecomicsorgivemedeath.blogspot.com, and come and 'like' us at Facebook



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12 July 2014

Books About Comics: The Rise of the American Comics Artist

The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts
Edited by Paul Williams and James Lyons
University Press of Mississipi
2010




This collection of essays is loosely based around the notion that in recent years (roughly 1991 onwards, following the publication of Maus II), comics in America have reached a level of cultural and academic respect hitherto absent from the medium.  I say "loosely based"as whilst some essays address this conceit head-on, others have a more tenuous connection simply based on the publication date(s) of their subject matter.

Somewhat more confusing is the title of the book itself; I can only assume the artist of the title is intended to be the more comprehensive 'one who creates art' meaning of the word that the comic book implication of the word as someone who draws/produces the visual artwork.  In fact the book address the writing as much, if not more, than the 'drawing' of comics [1].  Furthermore there is also a brief departure to British writers, although mainly within the context of their work published in America.

Stephen Weiner addresses 'How the Graphic Novel Changed American Comics', arguing that the transformation of the medium from disposable entertainment for children to respected 'art' was specifically due to the 'graphic novel' format and the transformation from comic to book.  A broad brush approach means that there is little room for detailed analysis, but it is a useful pointer to key works for the uninitiated.

Taking Weiner's argument a little further Jim Round argues that the Vertigo imprint from DC comics was they key driver behind the graphic novel revolution in '"Is this a book?" DC Vertigo and the Redefinition of Comics in the 1990s".  It's an interesting potted history of how one of America's two major comics publishers embraced the notion of aiming for a more mature audience.  Whilst there can be little argument over the contribution Vertigo has made to the medium, although more in content than form, the essay places its comics in a bubble, and a closer examination of Vertigo's context and contemporaries would have been welcome.


"Signals from Airstrip One: The British Invasion of Mainstream American Comics" by Chris Murray, burrows down even further from the preceding two essays.  Focusing on the success of British writers such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and later pond-hoppers Warren Ellis, Garth Ennis, et al.  I'm not sure that I find Murray's argument convincing that their success was due to their "ironic detachment" from the Americanised super-hero that allowed them to de-construct the genre.  With the possible exception of Moore, the great contributions by these British writers to the medium in America has been to eschew the super-hero genre and produce popular comics in forms that were not previously associated with post-war successful comics (Sandman, The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, Preacher).  Murray does however paint a detailed background of the British comics culture these writers grew up on, as well as addressing their UK published work prior to their 'arrival' in America.

Paul Williams interviews Jeff Smith for an interesting discussion regarding the production and distribution of Bone.  It's nice to see this side of Smith's work addressed; the content here makes it clear that success of Bone has been as much due to getting the comic to the right people in the right format as the story and art.  It covers similar ground to Weiner's ideas on the graphic novel, but with work that was aimed squarely at a younger market.  It is one of a few essays here that stress the importance of libraries in the rise of the graphic novel.


I have to admit struggling through Graham Murphy's "State of the Nation and the Freedom Fighters Arc".  This was predominately due to me being unfamiliar with the Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters comic under discussion.  From the summation in Murphy's essay the commentary of America and patriotism in the comic comes across as somewhat heavy-handed, and slapped on top of a by-the-numbers super-hero plot.

Much more rewarding was "Critique, Caricature, and Compulsion in Joe Sacco's comics journalism", by Adam Rosenblatt and Andrea A. Lunsford.  Like Sacco's work itself it not only addresses the  success of his journalism, and its depiction of people in (the former) Yugoslavia and Palestine, it also reflects on what the work says about Sacco himself, his process, and his objectivity (or lack of it).  Sacco can consider himself one the most unique artists in comics, and as such his work is ripe for analysis. In this piece there is plenty worthwhile discussion of this work, especially insights into his caricature style artwork, that will be of interest even to those not familiar with Sacco's comics.

Whilst the book as a whole stresses the increased respect within mainstream culture and academia for
the comics medium, it is sensible enough to note a parallel to this was the possibility of financial reward. This is the focus of James Lyon's "Too Much Commerce Man? Shannon Wheeler and the Ironies of the "Rebel Cell".  Using Wheeler's successful 'underground' comic Too Much Coffee Man, Lyons examines the relationship and contradictions inherent in the commercial success of anti-mainstream and anti-commercial culture. Whilst familiar with Too Much Coffee Man,  I was unaware of the degree of the character's, and by extension Wheeler's, success.  It is however interesting to read of a creator who has come through an experience with large corporations with his creative integrity intact.

Chris Ware has become the academics darling of modern comics (today's Spiegleman, more of whom later), and with good reason - his work displays inventiveness and maturity in both form and content.  David M. Ball examines Ware's work in the context of modernist and post-modernist literature in "Comics Against Themselves: Chris Ware's Graphic Narratives as Literature".  Sensibly Ball focuses on a small piece of work from The New Yorker, later reprinted as The ACME Novelty Library NO. 18 1/2, rather than an overview of Ware's work as a whole.  There are some genuiinly thought-provoking insights and the essay sheds new light on an artist that has already had much written about him.  The overly academic language does jar somewhat ("contemporary graphic narratives' characteristic ambivalence about their status as popular cultural productions repeats modernist anxieties about literary value"), but only because most other essays are written in a much more accessible style.


 An interview with Jim Woodring by Paul Williams is a nice change of pace for the book, focusing on Woodring's Frank comic.  With much of the rest of the book focused on the 'literay' approach by comics and it success, Frank is less a "graphic novel" than a demonstration of abstract ideas, with a focus on images rather than an overarching narrative.  Its a timely reminder that there may be mainstream acceptance of comics; but it is very much particular types of comics rather than the medium as a whole.

There is an extremely well written and self-aware essay on "Questions of "Contemporary Women's Comics"" by Paul Williams, that not only provides a history of 'women's' comics but also attacks the notion that comics by and for women are a uniform and homogeneous 'genre'.  For me it sheds a light on work I was not previously aware of, such as Wimmin's Comix and Dirty Plotte, which certainly seem to warrant further investigation.

Covering similar areas is Joe Sanders' "Theorizing Sexuality in Comics". Whilst not one of my favourite essays in the book Sanders does have some very good points to make regarding sexuality and violence in comics.  He also demonstrates that outside of the comics code authority the underground comix of Robert Crumb and contemporaries may have been free to say what they wanted, but what they said wasn't particularly nice. Indeed, read in conjunction with the essay by Williams, it helps demonstrate many of the comics produced by women were a reaction against the infamous underground scene.

Unfortunately one of the weakest pieces in the book is "Feminine Latin/o American Idenities on the American Alternative Landscape: From the Women of Love and Rockets to La Perdida"by Ana Marino.  The title promises much but focuses too narrowly on specific stories from the Hernandez brothers' Love and Rockets and the La Perdida comic by Jessica Abel.  Whilst there are the germs of an interesting subject matter,  the essay comes across more a plot summary of the stories under consideration rather than a real analysis of Latino women in comics.

Ian Gordon takes on the defining work of the maturity of comics with "How Maus Helped Redefine a Medium".  While often lumped in with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns as the holy trinity of 'grown up' comics, Gordon argues that "Maus reinvented comics books for non-comic book readers".  It is a very well researched look at the reception and analysis of Spiegelman's masterpiece in respected print media and academic journals.  Nearly 30 years on from its first publication Maus still remains the go-to comic for demonstrating the potential of the medium.  Yet I cannot agree with Gordon's conclusion that "Maus has made comics respectable"; by his own admission it was an isolated oddity alone in the sea of wider culture and academia.  If comics have become respectable then this has been as a result a broader collection of comics and their creators achieving critical respect close to, if not yet matching, Maus.

"Racism and Jimmy Corrigan as Great American Novel" by Paul Williams tackles Chris Ware's acclaimed comic from an interesting angle.  The issue of race is much more subtle than many of the other themes addressed by Jimmy Corrigan, although closely tied to the more obvious family and generational conflicts in the book.  The essay was an enjoyable analysis of racism within the comic, and in wider American society, which will certainly make for a different experience the next time I read Jimmy Corrigan.

With Andrew Loman's "That Mouse's Shadow: The Canonisation of Spiegelman's Maus" we return again to the seminal 'holocaust' comic.  Loman makes good points about the difficulties in categorising Maus; fiction, historical, biography, auto-biography?  There is no easy box to put Maus in, which of course is one of the reason's for its success (creatively and commercially).  Perhaps more interesting is the light Loman shines on the cartoon animal representations within the comic, demonstrating both how clever they are and ultimately how redundant they are. 

The collection ends with an interview of Scott McCloud by Paul Williams.  McCloud is an excellent choice as his Understanding Comics, and to a lesser extent, Reinventing Comics, anticipated the very theme of the book; cultural and academic respect for comics.  Whilst a brief interview it does touch upon one of McLoud's key notions that the medium will adapt its form for digital platforms.  In that sense the comics under discussion in the book are already 'old comics' and the medium's place in the conciousness of the wider culture could well change (for better or worse) as it grapples with new technology.

Any collection or anthology runs the risk of varying qualities of its submissions, and The Rise of the American Comics Artist is no different.  Yet even the less enjoyable essays here have something worthwhile to say and/or serve as useful pointers for where to look for more investigations into their chosen subjects.  One disappointing issue I had was the lack of images to accompany the text - a common problem in comics criticism.  Those pieces that did include images of the comics under discussion were much easier to understand and appreciate.  For such a visual medium much critical and academic work on it remains wedded to text only formats - an issue reinforced by the subjects under discussion which invariably tend towards the literary rather than the visual (and this book is no exception to that).

Overall The Rise of the American Comics Artist is very good addition to the expanding world of comics criticism and analysis, but the essays are suitably varied enough and well written that even causal readers should fine the book interesting and enjoyable.



[1] Many of the works addressed are by those who write and draw their own material, rather that the production-line division of labour commonly associated with American comics.  To me there is still no satisfactory word in the comics language for such people; generally they get lumbered with the generic and clunky 'creator' tag.

29 June 2014

Episode 44: State of the Nation

We take our annual look at the industry sales figures to see how comics are faring in 2014, and which publishes are the winners and losers.



Plus our regular reviews roundup including United States of Murder Inc #1, Trees #1, Demeter, Nailbiter #1, The Festival, MPH #1, Andrew the Giant: Life and Legend, and C.O.W.L. #1.

Follow us on twitter @comicsordeath, download us from iTunes and visit us at givemecomicsorgivemedeath.blogspot.com, and come and 'like' us at Facebook


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All figures for sales were taken from comichron.com - go and check them out!

Below are the graphs that we used when discussing this episode.








Episode 43: Waiting For The Trade

In this episode we discuss the pros and cons of monthly comics and collected editions/trade paperbacks.  Is price the only consideration?



Plus reviews of Avengers AI #12, Rai #1, New Avengers # 17, The Immortal Iron Fist: The Complete Collection Volume 1, Batman Eternal #3, The Fabulous Lives of The Killjoys, and Southern Bastards #1.

Follow us on twitter @comicsordeath, download us from iTunes and visit us at givemecomicsorgivemedeath.blogspot.com, and come and 'like' us at Facebook



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Time and Tide

We've been gone a while folks but we're back! We've had a multitude of issues but should be back on track now. We have a backlog of 3 episodes now going on-line. We considered ditching them and starting afresh as they were recorded a few weeks ago, but hopefully you'll find the topics we discuss are not tied to the time we recorded them so it shouldn't matter when you listen! The reviews will be a tad old, but maybe they're just in time for the trade!

Thanks for listening peeps, and we hope you enjoy. We will now be back to a much more regular schedule.

Episode 42: The Supporting Cast

This episode we take a look at the oft ignored and under-rated creators on comics - colourists and letterers.  What do they do, and what difference do they make?



Plus reviews of the movies Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Spider-Man 3, along with comics Moon Knight #1, Red Team #7, Survive and Real Heroes #1.

Follow us on twitter @comicsordeath, download us from iTunes and visit us at givemecomicsorgivemedeath.blogspot.com, and come and 'like' us at Facebook.



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6 April 2014

Episode 41: Jim Lee: Superhero Superstar

Superstar artist Jim Lee becomes the 2nd inductee into the Give Me Comics or Give Me Death Hall of Fame.  From Alpha Flight to Superman Unchained we look back at his work, how he changed the industry, and why he deserves his spot in our Hall of Fame.



Plus reviews of Jupiter's Children #4, Marvel Knights, Judge Dredd Megazine #346, New Avengers #15, Hilda and the Black Hound, Animal Man #29, Silver Bullets: Uber Alles Edition and Daredevil: Road Warrior.

Follow us on twitter @comicsordeath, download us from iTunes and visit us at givemecomicsorgivemedeath.blogspot.com, and come and 'like' us at Facebook


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