Comic Art 9

[24 January 2008]

By Tim O'Neil

Since the first issue hit the stands at the beginning of the decade, the publication of each new issue of Todd Hignite’s Comic Art magazine has been an event. In 2006 the magazine was retooled from its precarious quarterly schedule (after a significant hiatus) and made into a yearly annual, published by the folks at Buenaventura (who also bring us the remarkably consistent Kramer’s Ergot anthology). What had already been a magnificent, one-of-a-kind publication somehow became even better, the heft of a square spine allowing more space not merely for the magazine’s articles but for more expansive reproductions of the magazine’s metier, the comics themselves.

Comic Art distinguishes itself from every other comparable magazine by dint of its uniquely catholic and delectably lavish approach to the history of the medium. The closest thing in terms of intellectual heft to Hignite’s approach is undoubtedly The Comics Journal, but the Journal by necessity adopts a much more critical stance than Comic Art: although that magazine covers history, usually in the context of historical interviews and feature articles, the Journal is most importantly a critical apparatus, and rarely given to effusive praise.

This means by definition that it is less expansive, less forgiving by design to some of the stranger, less forgivable but still integrally important aspects of comics history. The contrast is important because Comic Art manages to walk a very fine line, with no overt aesthetic policy other than what is printed in the magazine is generally laudatory, or at least interesting. If it came out more often the temptation towards actual criticism might prove too strong to resist, but as it is, coming out just once a year seems to be about the right frequency. As it is, every year brings us upwards of 200 pages of pretty fantastic comic art and discussion thereof—why risk diluting an inescapably potent package?

I include these thoughts by way of comparison in order to point out that the comics world can be a pretty negative place. (Some would probably say not negative enough.) Sometimes legitimate criticism gets mixed up with cliquish fan-behavior, in the realms of both mainstream (superhero) and “art”-comics fandom. Although this kind of divisiveness was arguably necessary for a time in the development of modern comics culture—as a way for serious practitioners of the art to differentiate themselves critically from the commercialized mass of superhero comics—it makes less sense now.

For one, commercial success across all levels of the industry puts paid to the notion, once rampant, that every level of the industry existed in a zero-sum death-match with one other. (It’s arguable that the superhero-strong direct market is still something of a zero-sum situation, but there is even evidence that this distinction is fading.) But now, things are more successful all around, and there’s really not a lot of sense in pretending that all comics don’t exist in the context of a straight continuum.

In this respect, Comics Art was actually ahead of its time, proposing as it did a much more holistic vision of the medium. Admittedly, I doubt at this point that it’s had much of an influence beyond the small market of “art”-comics aficionados, but within that supposedly monolithic group there is actually a far more accepting middle ground than most believed existed. It’s far more healthy for the art form that the supposed divisions between “high” and “low” art remain as pliable as possible.

The best example of this attitude in the present volume is a lavishly illustrated spotlight on Tarzan illustrator Jesse Marsh. Producing over 150 issues of Tarzan between the ‘40s and late ‘60s, Marsh has experienced something of a critical revival in the past few years. Marsh’s work presents a slightly more garish variation on the postwar Milt Caniff / Noel Sickles template. His adventure stories are straight-forward in nature but off-kilter in execution, filled with deep chiaroscuro and strange angles. He’s been name-dropped by more than a few influential cartoonists in the past few years—sort of a Carl Barks for the jungle adventure set.

Two of those cartoonists discuss his influence here, Gilbert Hernandez and Adrian Tomine. Hernandez especially seems to have unpacked a great deal of Marsh’s influence in his own work, and the side-by-side examples of Marsh’s art with Hernandez’s advertises just how influential Marsh was in the development of the former’s style. Historian Ron Goulart also provides a nice biographical essay which runs parallel to the Tomine-Hernandez conversation.

But that’s really just the beginning. There’s also an article by Thierry Smolderen on Lyonel Feninger’s work that focuses on his non-comics output, and which is probably unfamiliar even to those who love The Kin-Der Kids. From the medium’s earliest practitioners to the present day, there’s an extended feature on the work of Kaz, the RAW alumni perhaps best known for his punk-rock influenced, discretely disturbing yet strangely amiable work. 

I won’t belabor the point, because it would be easy to simply list all the wonderful things in this book. My favorite feature is probably Jeet Heer’s piece on mid-century New Yorker cartoonist William Gluyas, which even includes copies of correspondence between Williams and Harold Ross on the subject of the magazine’s evolving attitude towards cartooning circa the mid-‘30s. But then, Ken Parille’s look at the simply unclassifiable metaphysical cartoons of Abner Dean, another artist who worked at the New Yorker roughly the same time as Gluyas. There are pieces on Jerry Moriarty, Richard Taylor and George Clark as well as a run of prime late-‘40s, early -‘50s Dick Tracy strips by Chester Gould that serves to whet the reader’s appetite for further volumes of IDW’s great Tracy reprint series.

As much as there is to recommend the magazine, however—and I’d say it’s pretty near essential—the real highlight isn’t even included between the two covers. Each issue of Comic Art is printed with a special “goodie”: last year we had a tiny book of Seth’s favorite obscure cartooning treasures, and this year we have Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice pamphlet. Seth’s book was fun, but this is simply fundamental, and practically worth the price of the whole package.

Brunetti teaches an introductory cartooning course at Columbia College Chicago, and this is the compilation of the lectures and coursework for this series. More than just a course reader, it’s a grammar, a workbook, a toolkit and a sounding board for working cartoonists of all levels. It sidesteps thorny matters of theory (often a thick bramble for those of us who pontificate on the medium) in favor of applicable example and practical knowledge. It’s definitely the type of cartooning course you would expect Ivan Brunetti to teach. There’s something so pared-down and essential in Brunetti’s style—which has at this point been reduced to minutely expressive stick-figures and Schulzian round-heads—that the booklet can’t help but seem more essentialist in conception and approach than the author perhaps intended.

What the field of comics has desperately needed for quite some time is an introductory style manual, and Brunetti’s style is just sparse enough to illustrate essential principles without bogging down in extraneous detail. At the risk of unnecessary effusion, Brunetti has given the cartooning world something very similar to what Strunk & White gave to prose with their Elements of Style.

As much as I love Comic Art, the magazine’s circulation is such that there is no way this release can possibly reach as many people as would benefit from this booklet. What we really need is another edition, aimed at a more general audience, featuring more explanatory illustration but sacrificing none of Brunetti’s economy. Stack this book next to Eisner’s Comics and Sequential Art and McCloud’s Understanding Comics—or rather, don’t stack it at all, but keep it right next to your desk where you can find it at a moment’s notice.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/comic-art-9-by/