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Saturday, Aug 29, 2009
Jules Feiffer's groundbreaking Village Voice comics delivered a satirical take on current events and paved the way for contemporary strips like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” and David Rees’ “Get Your War On”. This week's Iconographies focuses on The Explainers the recent collection of Feiffer's Village Voice comics.

If you were a Martian trying to figure out America in the second half of the 20th century, you could do worse than to start by reading Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons.  His strips for the Voice basically invented the genre of the adult comic, and that’s adult in the “content which would interest a mature person who thinks about the world around them” sense rather than in the XXX Pussycat Theatre sense. He created a model for strips like Tom Tomorrow’s “This Modern World” and David Rees’ “Get Your War On” which use the medium of comics to deliver a satirical take on current events and the world around us.


Feiffer took on the big public issues of the day. He was the first cartoonist to speak out against the war in Vietnam, he skewered Dwight Eisenhower for failing to support the Civil Rights movement, and pointed out the absurdities of the Cold War and the growing military-industrial complex. He tirelessly highlighted the misuse of language and the abuse of power, drawing on first-hand experience of the latter thanks to a stint in the U.S. Army.


If Feiffer had a recurring theme, it was the refusal of those in power to confront reality, describe it clearly, and take action. Not content to bask in America’s postwar prosperity, he always prodded his country to be better. But Feiffer was not always abrasive: when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, he ran a strip in which a child reads a fairy tale about a handsome prince who woke up a sleeping country—but when the prince was assassinated they went right back to sleep.


Feiffer developed a distinctive style incorporating a flexible number of “frames” which were usually just images separated by white space. They often featured a single individual speaking directly to the reader, like an actor delivering a monologue on stage. That may have been a metaphor for the isolation of modern man but also accommodated Feiffer’s somewhat undeveloped artistic style: his strength was characterization and dialogue, not elaborate backgrounds or action sequences. Concentrating on dialogue let him display his knack for capturing how different types of people presented themselves in speech while subtly undermining their statements with his art.
 
A memorable strip in 1963 featured a spokesman for the peace movement who’s just discovered the reason for the movement’s failure: they haven’t marketed peace as a product. But they’re going Madison Avenue now and as with any advertising campaign, it’s important to find the right tone: “If we’re going to make peace catch on as a product, we’ve got to make it as masculine as war!” How to accomplish this? By borrowing the language of the Pentagon, so peace councils become “Peace Commands” (Peace Comms for short) and peace workers become “Trouble Shooters” who run programs with themes like “Peace Escalation.” He concludes: “Gentlemen, once we make the image of peace more warlike, our fund raising problems will be over! I’m sure congress will be happy to give us all we want.”


Fantagraphics is issuing Feiffer’s Village Voice strips in bound volumes: the first to appear is Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips 1956-1966 which came out in May. Some of the material treated in these comics is past history: we no longer have to deal with Joe McCarthy or worry about the Soviet Union blowing us all to smithereens. But it’s amazing and somewhat disheartening how contemporary many of them seem.


In 1961 Feiffer drew a strip of a well-dressed man explaining the news business to the unwashed: publish diverting trivia and press releases and leave real reporting alone. “Free press? We’re a nation of trade journals!” The only reason that’s not totally current today is because we barely have any newspapers left worth paying attention to. Even the Village Voice, once a leader in investigative journalism, has today become just another free weekly from New Times Media. So criticizing newspapers may soon be a nostalgic pursuit tantamount to complaining about the scratchy sound from your record player or that the keys on your typewriter are sticking.


Feiffer’s greatest contribution may be his enduring portraits of notable types among his fellow private citizens. He views them through a rather jaundiced eye and of course they’re studied in their neuroses (cultural note: neurosis is a basic emotion for New Yorkers) and totally full of themselves, but so vulnerable and human at the same time. He ceased cartooning for the Voice in 1997 but his characters live on in popular culture.


There were Bernard and Huey, two masculine archetypes who would later turn up as Sandy (Art Garfunkel) and Jonathan (Jack Nicholson) in Mike Nichol’s 1971 film Carnal Knowledge. Bernard was timid, reflective, and sensitive and never got the girl, while Huey was confident, oblivious and had to fight them off with a stick. And of course Bernard could never figure out what he was doing wrong, while the women who went home with Huey saw no contradiction in declaring that they like sensitive guys only to ditch him every time for the brute.

Then there was the leotard-clad modern dancer perpetually offering a “dance to Spring” or a “dance to the loss of innocence” which always began optimistically and frequently ended with her twisted up like a pretzel or cowering in the corner. She’s still with us, most recently as the subject of a production at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in 2009.


Pointless (and often self-imagined) personal competitions were a regular theme, and often music was the battleground. In those days it was jazz rather than indie rock but the spirit was exactly the same. A Feiffer beatnik confidently proclaims that jazz was invented by Steve Allen in 1955 and is taught at the New School.  “If you don’t like it, you’d better learn. It’s the coming thing.”


In another strip, a middle-class gentleman is determined to puncture the pretensions of those who claim to be cool. It’s become difficult since everyone has learned the “right” books to buy and the “right” records to listen to: yes there were recipes for hip non-conformity in the 1950’s just as there are today. But not to fear, he’s found the solution to unmasking the pseudo-hip: he sneaks over and turns on their radios! If they’ve left it on WQXR, they’re busted! The take-home message:  take care to change the setting on all your radio dials to an approve station before throwing a party, lest an undercover hipness detective be on the guest list.


Here’s a final image which should prove that the more things seem to change, the more they really don’t. Two small boys inspect a crater. One explains that programs for public housing and school construction were proposed to boost employment, but were politically unacceptable as government interference with the free market. Then a bomb fell out of the sky, leaving a huge crater, and workers had to be hired to fill it in. So the solution to unemployment was found by accident: the government started a bomb-dropping program and put people to work filling in the craters. As the boy concludes, this leaves everyone happy because “Nobody complains about national defense.”


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Thursday, Aug 27, 2009

The Fantagraphics release of the first volume of Jules Feiffer’s Village Voice cartoons, Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips 1956-1966, is an amazing time capsule into an era when the Voice stood for investigative journalism and individualistic writing, and people were just starting to realize that the personal really is the political.


Feiffer had no intention of inventing the adult comic strip in 1956. After working with Will Eisner on The Spirit and serving in the Army, he wrote several book-length comics which he was trying to get published.  But no one wanted to take a chance on an unknown writer who wrote adult satires illustrated in a style associated with children’s comics.


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Monday, Aug 24, 2009
Faction reads almost like an indie press catalogue.

Indie comics are seemingly predisposed to be hit or miss. With the diluting and distilling effects of the big press system removed, independent comics are allowed to fixate on the machinery that drives comics. Whether this be the direct evaluation of comic mythologies, experiments with style, or pure metacomic commentary, independent comics appear to be obsessed with the shape of the mainstream in which they do not find themselves.


Sometimes this is to great effect. In the ‘80s, a wave of what-makes-a-hero-a-hero smartly flooded the racks. The ‘90s saw both Will Eisner resurrected through a deluge of comics about quotidian issues and heroes and R. Crumb be plagiarized over and over. This trend begged the question, “How far can the medium of graphic media be taken?” Finally, the ‘00s found the medium in a sort of comic shevirah as graphic media fractured from a certain solidarity into every imaginable — and, often, bastardized — form. The indie presses in the naughts gave us the literary adaptation comic, the “abstract” comic, the internet-inspired comic, superhero revivals galore, and countless other genres and sub-genres. To wit, the graphic taxonomies have reached a critical mass.


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Sunday, Aug 16, 2009
In writer Mark Millar's visionary recasting of Superman as a Soviet dictator, questions of personal and social identity become the staging point for a central drama around global justice.

Is Superman, in many ways the paragon of American virtue, a product of being socialized in American values, or is there something innate in his character which seeks out these uplifting and humanizing values?


In this Wednesday’s Iconographies, PopMatters Comics writer C. E. McAuley explores the global role of the United States as sole remaining superpower with a close reading of Superman: Red Son.


Using the nature-vs-nurture debate as its starting point, Red Son explores the possible ramifications of expansionist policies by a global superpower.


What lengths would superpower go to, if it knew it was doing the right thing? And what lengths could be justified.


Red Son is not only a careful unpacking of the core characters of the Superman mythology, but a dissertation in the persuasiveness of ideology.


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Monday, Aug 10, 2009
'Big things are waiting for you just around the corner... Move forward to meet them. Don't spend your life frozen with fear.'

All these years later, it is still a thrill ride. Waid crafted a truly endearing vehicle for Flash, six or so months or major storyarcs, and six or so months of fillers.


Issue 91, ‘Out of Time’ is one such filler issue. Effectively both coda to the ‘Trial of Wally West’ storyarc told over the four issues prior, and prologue to runaway hit, ‘Terminal Velocity’. ‘Out of Time’ fits in with another long-running creative project of Waid’s; the superhero neurosis of Wally West. In the watershed ‘Return of Barry Allen’, Waid established the Wally West character as an essay in superhero psychology. Wally’s powers were waning, we discover, because of an insecurity limiting his capacity to adopt the mantle of his mentor Barry Allen.


But after defeating the villainous Reverse-Flash, and excising the ghost of Barry Allen, could Waid still tap the psychological as source material for Wally’s story?


In ‘Out of Time’, Wally (overcome by an incapacity to save all lives) uses Johnny Quick’s speed formula to boost his already impressive superspeed. But the plan falls apart. The boost of superspeed means Wally’s frozen in time. Once time starts up, the lives of three helicopter pilots might be lost. Zen guru and speedster, Max Mercury, boosts his own speed to deliver a message to Wally: ‘Don’t be afraid, live in the moment’.


The real treat of course, is Mike Weiringo’s hyperreal cartoonish style. As Max Mercury slows down, colorist Gina Going uses the masking effect to illustrate his return to ordinary human speeds. But beyond the colors, it is the tilts and outcroppings that make this sequence what it is. With Wally catching the falling Max, then donning his mask Ringo illustrates how Max’s point has hit home. Ringo’s playful artwork reminds us of the ordinary heroism of facing our fears, and thriving.


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