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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

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Founded just over a decade ago, Toronto-based Koyama Press has quickly become home for some of the quirkiest and most inventively successful comics on the market. Their release of Michael Comeau’s Winter’s Cosmos earlier this year is further evidence. This is the first graphic novel by Comeau I’ve read—and I suspect I’m missing a layered joke since “Michael Comeau” is also the name of a minor character in fellow Canadian cartoonist Bryan O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. The meta effect is appropriate since Winter’s Cosmos is a Moebius strip of self-reflective humor spoofing both science fiction and soft porn comics.

On its surface, the novel depicts two astronauts’ nine-year journey aboard the spaceship Sagitarii-Z to a distant planet in the Alpha Centauri constellation which they will begin transforming with seeds from Earth to ready for eventual colonization. But even that brief summary is misleading, since plot is the least of Comeau’s concerns. Most of the graphic novel depicts the nominal captain’s attempts to stave off boredom: he threatens suicide, he sexually harasses his lone crewmate, he watches porn, he boxes with floating droids, he sexually harasses his lone crewmate, he plays billiards with floating droids, he watches inexplicable videos about self-surveillance, he sexually harasses his lone crewmate—who shows endless, Vulcan-like indifference to his sophomoric prurience while getting off on Modern Botany books and conducting obscure but apparently mission-related work in her laboratory.

But again even that mostly plotless plot summary is misleading—because characterization is not Comeau’s concern either. The astronauts—Captain Jonathan Gerald Hoffstan and Dr. Tracy Anabelle Nguyen—are intentionally two-dimensional caricatures. If Winter’s Cosmos is about anything, it’s two-dimensionality—but not in the metaphorical sense. The graphic novel would not survive translation into another medium, say film or TV or stage or even an animated cartoon, because it is foremost about the paper that it’s printed on.

Comeau is a dizzying visual artist who relishes the cheapness of his images. His primary artistic tool appears to be a photocopier. Page after page of Winter’s Cosmos feature black and white reproductions of photos, cut-out images, and collaged printouts, combined and recombined for effects that would easily find a home in Andrei Molotiu’s ground-breaking 2009 anthology Abstract Comics. Two actors receive film-like credit for portraying the astronauts because Comeau uses actual photographs of the two posed in makeshift space uniforms which he pastes into computer-generated environments adorned with hand-drawn details. Their spaceship is a repeatedly reused stock photo of an 80s-era, U.S. space shuttle. Their equipment includes repurposed images of typewriters, telephones, and car engines that could have been torn from early 20th century catalogues.

The first sentence of the novel, “I’m gonna kill myself!”, appears in a talk balloon on page 12, but the four preceding double-page spreads feature a slowly transforming spacescape of grainy stars and planets resized and duplicated into a thickening pattern of black and white abstraction. That opening sequence sets the artistic tone for the rest of the book, which, even as the captain and the doctor limp through their lurid distractions, is filled with endlessly inventive visual variations framing and reframing the nominal plot. Though a reader can flip quickly through the novel for its sex-driven meta banter, a slower perusal is rewarding. I’m reminded of Talking Heads singer David Byrne’s comment: “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily.” If the promise of sex jokes is enough to trick people into opening Winter’s Cosmos, then they’re served their purpose too.

But while one venture into the captain’s favorite episode of “Puta Futura” may be entertaining, a second and third are less so. And while Comeau’s star-crossed couple can be read as a critique of traditional gender stereotypes—the sexually frigid intellectual female, the childishly sex-obsessed male—they mostly serve for quick gags that say nothing about the actual subject of sexual harassment that they overtly address. Comeau serves his readers better when his characters literally fade from view, and he directs our attention to the photocopied honeycombs of the ship’s engines or the medley of cubes and concentric circles that layer his idiosyncratic imaginings of outer space.

My favorite sequence is the novel’s last. After boredom has finally hobbled the captain’s brain, he believes he’s only in a simulator and (spoiler alert!) opens an airlock and spaces himself and the doctor. The last seventeen, wordless, two-page spreads unite the estranged characters in an atom-like configuration as the ship’s droids twirl around them like electrons. At the story level, their bodies appear to travel through a black hole and plummet to the surface of their destination planet which erupts into slow-motion plant life, fulfilling their mission to “fertilize” a new home for Earth. At the graphic level, the sequence fulfills the promise of the briefer opening as well as two other wordless visual sequences of the space launch and a later narratively ambiguous depiction of the ship’s engines. These moments are Comeau’s most visually involving, loosely motivated by narrative need, but grounded fully in the playfulness of his anarchic artistry.

If Winter’s Cosmos is Comeau’s Alpha Centauri, I look forward to what fruits his new planets will bear next.

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[A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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In honor of the mid-term elections this week: here’s a three-figure blurgit of Donald Trump descending that damn escalator in the Trump Tower lobby way back whenever that was he announced his candidacy:

I almost named it “Descent” or “American Descent,” meaning into hell, but I prefer the reference to Duchamp. Of course, Trump is not–thank god–literally nude–he just always embodies a kind of brutal, ugly nakedness for me. The image is so distorted it’s almost opaquely abstract–which seems fitting too. It’s actually a digital photocollage incorporating these three video stills:

Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2” is based on a photo sequence too, one from Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 Animal Locomotion:

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Duchamp’s image is an art classic, but President Theodore Roosevelt hated it as an example of the “lunatic fringe” in early 20th century art:

“Take the picture which for some reason is called “A Naked Man Going Down Stairs.” There is in my bathroom a really good Navajo rug which, on any proper interpretation of the Cubist theory, is a far more satisfactory and decorative picture. Now, if, for some inscrutable reason, it suited somebody to call this rug a picture of, say, “A Well-Dressed Man Going Up a Ladder,” the name would fit the facts just about as well as in the case of the Cubist picture of the “Naked Man Going Down Stairs.” From the standpoint of terminology each name would have whatever merit inheres in a rather cheap straining after effect; and from the standpoint of decorative value, of sincerity, and of artistic merit, the Navajo rug is infinitely ahead of the picture.”

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Roosevelt, like Trump, wasn’t a stickler for fact-checking little details like the actual name of Duchamp’s painting, but in Roosevelt’s defense, I doubt Donald Trump has any awareness of let alone opinions about early 21st century art, lunatic or otherwise. In my defense, I’ve been increasingly obsessed with Muybridge and recently created this Duchamp-esque variation:

As well as this male nude counterpoint, which I now find myself calling “A Well-Dressed Man Going Up a Ladder”:

But when it comes to Trump, I always picture him descending:

Descending and, if this isn’t a jinx on the mid-terms and the next two years, fading away. Here he is descending from that horrific Access Hollywood bus:

But I think a far more satisfactory and decorative descent will be from Air Force One, as Trump vanishes into a lunatic fringe chapter in American history books, becoming just a cheap straining after effect:

 

 

I’ve claimed in previous posts that all you need to create a comic is one image, one character in one pose, and the rest will follow. So I thought I’d give it a try and shine a light on my own creative process.

I began with a doodle–which just means drawing without any particular goal in mind. This figure emerged:
I was trying to keep it simple–and so repeatable, a key to cartooning. I didn’t know anything about this guy, including whether he was a guy or not. I liked his balletic arrogance and so extended the pose into a four-part action:

And then I thought I’d reverse that forward tilt with a backward reaction:No idea what was pushing back, I was just playing with the shapes of the body. Since I told my students they need to know their doodle-originated characters from multiple angles, I tried a front view:

That wide open chest seemed a little too wide open, and so I added an emblem, one that imitated the geometry of the body:

Put it together and I had an 11-part action:

Which felt like too much. So I divided into two pages and converted the first half of the action into some kind of superheroish energy blast:

Which I didn’t love even after converting it to white by changing the background color:

 

Then I noticed that the exclamation point on his chest could shift 90 degrees and become the energy blast. Also, the garish colors were giving me a headache, so I converted to black and white:

I still had the second page of action, and though I thought shrinking and compressing the exclamation-point beam would convey that he was meeting some irresistible force from beyond the page edge, it didn’t quite work. But I did like the new zigzag reading paths that replaced the three-row layout:

So I scrapped page two and added words to page one, giving it a poster or splash page feel. I’d also realized that the “energy blast” was really just a giant flashlight. The chest emblem evolved as well, into a sort of changeable thought bubble, expressing the figure’s mental state through punctuation marks. Some white highlights gave him some needed depth too:

But then why would the light stop mid-beam? Since it wouldn’t, and since the page would look better if it didn’t, I extended it.

Here’s my final result:

The full title is What If? Philosophical Thought Experiments of Superhero Comics. I co-wrote it with Nathaniel Goldberg, and we’re now entering production stage with Iowa University Press for a fall 2019 release. That means copyedits, indexing, proofs, and–my favorite–cover design. For my first book with Iowa, I found a photoshopped image of Napoleon in a Batman mask. It turned out the artist lived in Iran and was thrilled to have his art featured on the cover. This time I’ve discovered an even more obscure digital artist: me. Instead of Photoshop, I’m working in archaic Word Paint, using an idiosyncratic collage technique I’ve been slowly developing over the last year. Most of these wouldn’t work for cover art, but it’s a fun experiment. Each combines multiple sources digitally scissorsed into gridded strips and layered over and over.  My favorite is the last, which I sent to Iowa. We’ll see if they like it enough to put it on the cover.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First let me admit that Robert Crumb’s erotic comics creep me out. I realize Robert Crumb wants to creep me out, that’s the point of Robert Crumb, he’s sexually creepy so of course his sexually explicit comics are going to be creepy too (though his word-for-word adaptation of The Book of Genesis is a wholesome, beautiful work of comics genius, not a fig-leaf of creepiness in all of that Garden of Eden nudity).

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Phoebe Gloeckner creeps me out too—but in the opposite way. Though Crumb-influenced, Gloeckner doesn’t cartoon her own damaged desires but those of the damaging men around her. Her sexually explicit images document not just her abuse but the shame it made her feel and the process of overcoming both through drawing.

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Given those double poles of creepiness, I’m surprised then by how uncreepy Fiona Smyth’s erotic comics are. Though equally explicit and often far more bizarre, they are infused with delight rather than shame. Unlike Gloeckner, Smyth documents pleasure not exploitation. And though Crumb’s excesses suggest wanton freedom, they seem to mask his own kind of inversely expansive shame too. Smyth is simply having fun. As one of her drawings declares, “Why not embrace the deluge?”

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Koyama Press has collected a decades-spanning retrospective of Smyth’s comics works. Somnambulance begins with half-page strips of inch-high panels from the mid-80s and concludes with a ten-page sequence of full-page panels dated last year. While the 366 pages fully showcase the evolution of Smyth’s whirling production, according to the brief introduction by Canadian poet R. M. Vaughn, a complete collection would fill at least another volume or two.

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Though the edition includes no table of contents, each strip and zine and mini-comic and solo show and serialized episode is identified and dated in the bottom margin of each page—with a generous range of unpublished work mixed in too. The edition allows a few breaks in strict ordering, but the effect is overwhelmingly chronological, showing the evolutions of Smyth’s consistently energetic output.Image result for fiona smyth drawn

The early 90s receives the largest segment, over a hundred pages, with major highlights from Vortex Comics and Drawn & Quarterly. The most recent decade is the briefest, though the 54-year-old artist continues to produce monthly if not weekly art. Koyama Press could have included a biographical essay or timeline for newcomers (myself included), but instead let Smyth’s art stand for itself, overshadowing the circumstances of the artist who produced it.

Image result for fiona smyth somnambulanceThe volume does include one non-Smyth page, a hand-drawn intro by Canadian comics artist Seth from 1991, preparing new readers to enter her “fully realized world” with “characters popping out of nowhere” who have “a complicated history that runs back thru years of paintings and mini-comics.” The statement is equally true almost three decades later—though repeated imagery and subject matter takes precedence over recurring characters. Still, it’s fun to follow the scattered installments as Juggs the Milkman and Dick the Detective give way to Gert the Mannequin—who later seems not a mannequin at all—as well as one of Smyth’s few lead male protagonists, Toad. Other characters are less namable, with hints of perhaps Smyth herself in a Catholic high schooler’s apparent memoir about fearing that God would impregnate her like the Virgin Mary.

But the volume is less about character and more about style. These are cartoons in the simplified and distorted sense, but Smyth is no minimalist. Her panels are packed with details, often purely abstract lines surrounding foregrounded figures posed in endless variations of impossible sexual positions. Though the images are almost always about sex, a slow study of each page reveals surprising nuance, with an unexpected attention to the non-sexual content—the swirls and cross-hatchings of the larger world. Smyth often patterns every centimeter of her panels, so that when an undrawn expanse of white appears, it juts from the page. “Somnambulance” refers to sleep walking, and though the volume title evokes Smyth’s “Nocturnal Emissions” series, it also suggests a stylistic approach, a kind of trance-like doodling. Though her images are crowded and hectic, they convey a slow calmness in their rendering—the deliberate, unhurried energy of an artist leaning over her artboard, filling it edge-to-edge with loving detail.

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Smyth’s lines are also clean. Where Crumb obsessively pencils deeper and deeper into a figure’s anatomy, Smyth achieves her shapes with single, confident pen strokes. And since Crumb’s sexual creepiness is embodied in his style, Smyth’s conveys a more balanced sexuality. Her figures aren’t weighed down by their rendering. And where Crumb and Gloeckner disturbingly exaggerate genitals, Smyth’s array of breasts and penises often appear in delicate proportion to the rest of a figure’s equally fantastical body parts. Superhero comics of the same decade featured heroines with breasts larger than their heads and nipples barely contained by scanty, skin-tight costumes. Smyth’s fire-erupting vaginas seem paradoxically wholesome in comparison. Smyth also appreciates a range of body types. This is not Barbie Doll erotica, a fact made explicit by the “Heavy Girl Press Zine” excerpts, though the aesthetic is suggested throughout.

This is not to say that Smyth is simply documenting the joys of sexuality. Her art contains plenty of the grotesque too. Demonic figures appear as often as frolicking cartoon animals. But while Catholic guilt sometimes serves as a kind of plot point, it never prevails. The female protagonist of the lone bestiality story written by Patty Flowers feels a sudden “intense body repulsion I’d never experienced before” and then guilt “like I had sexually abused him,” but she and her dog Fluffy ultimately reconcile, “probably thinking the same thing: ‘wrong species.’” A Crumb story would never end with characters choosing not to have sex. And a Gloeckner would never allow those characters to escaped untraumatized.

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[A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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While primarily a publisher of some of the most engaging new works in the comics form, Drawn & Quarterly also delves occasionally into reclamation projects, introducing contemporary North American readers to out-of-prints Japanese gems. While my knowledge of is limited—Katsuhiro Otomo’s 80s Akira and Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka’s early 21st century Pluto are the current manga titles on my shelf—I was delighted when D&Q re-released Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s The Push Man and Other Stories, a set of 1969 manga that are so un-manga in tone and subject matter that the author coined his own term (gekiga) to differentiate his slice-of-life, working class realism from the fantasy and science fiction norms of the medium.

Earlier this year D&Q re-released another un-manga manga classic, Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy. Originally serialized in Garo magazine in 1970, Hayashi documents roughly the same historic moment as well as the same urban setting of Tokyo. Both authors also center their narratives within the intimate spaces of taboo romantic relationships. But despite similarities, no reader could mistake the two works. Tatsumi’s naturalism provides detailed backgrounds and consistently rendered figural characters. Preferring an idiosyncratic style of cartoon impressionism, Hayashi leaves his panels sparse and gives his characters simple, anatomically peculiar shapes that can shift according to situation.

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Where Adrian Tomine supplied the introductory material for Tatsumi (in the form of a literal Introduction as well as a brief interview with the creator in an afterword), D&Q appends Red Colored Elegy with an expansive, context-clarifying essay by Ryan Holmberg, detailing not only Hayashi’s animation career (working for the “Disney of Asia” on the TV series Wolf Boy Ken for example) but also the graphic novel’s subgenre of the anti-marriage romance (translating roughly as “cohabitation,” though I sense the connotation would be closer to “living in sin”) as well as the novel’s impact on Japanese 70s counter culture (spawning a “theme song” single, a film, a TV show, and numerous manga imitations).

While none of this material is necessary to appreciate the novel, all of it is informative and some of it is usefully revealing, since Holmberg’s expansiveness is the inverse of Hayashi’s visual and narrative style. The literal absence of backgrounds (figures stroll across white nothingness or stretch across a floor implied only by their posture) extends to the storytelling approach. No narrated caption boxes or in-scene signage identifies locations as the main character Ichiro (who shares several biographical facts with his creator) vacillates between his job at an animation studio and the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, Sachiko. Instead of establishing the mundane details of setting, Hayashi opens the graphic novel with a headless, inkwell-necked version of the Disney character Goofy expressing Ichiro’s (who goes unnamed) discontent with his studio job until Ichiro turns and punches him in an explosion of ink.

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Hayashi introduces Sachiko’s conflict with her family even more cryptically: a woman’s face literally featureless but for her black tears, an older man’s silhouetted head beside an empty talk balloon. The images—and a dozen like them—establish the emotion of the scene without providing the initiating content that a 1970 Garo reader would have understood from cultural context: her parents are distraught that their unmarried daughter has moved in with her boyfriend. That trauma and continuing premise may seem quaint a half century later, but it is the core of the novel, as the two lovers struggle through their relationship and their attempts to succeed as individual artists.

Appropriately, Hayashi renders those struggles through sometimes obscure, but always evocative imagery. Though, like almost any other comics artist, he draws his characters acting and speaking in particular scenes, a sequence may be interrupted at any moment by a purely impressionistic element, as when the two lovers are about to embrace but are then replaced in the next panel by Snow White scooped into the arms of her Prince. The image reverberates with its pop cultural connotation of happily-ever-after while simultaneously casting doubt that the real-world Ichiro and Sachiko will ever find such effortless closure. The effect is intensified by the Disney characters’ partial resemblance to the two lovers, a departure from Hayashi’s typical style, as if Ichiro and Sachiko are caught between worlds and genres.

Raindrops and lightning often erupt at key moments too, signifying not the pathetic fallacy of an exterior world in sync with characters’ turbulent emotions but pure symbolism since the absence of backgrounds disguises the fact that the scenes are nominally interior. Also, despite his minimalistic style, Hayashi occasionally breaks into an isolated, visual flourish of detail in a photo-based face or crumpled cigarette pack or telephone pole or electric fan, further destabilizing the story world. This is not simply the story of two struggling artist-lovers, but an interrogation of the artistic norms for visual storytelling in general.

Hayashi Seiichi, Red Colored Elegy (1970-71), English translation available from Drawn & Quarterly (2008)

Later, after suffering each other’s absences, betrayals, and violence, Ichiro and Sachiko are replaced not by Snow White and her Prince but King Kong and Godzilla. When Ichiro suggests they break up, Sachiko holds up her fingers like a gun and exclaims: “BANG!” Ichiro sprawls bloody and dead in the next panel—though he ends the novel alive and rolling on the floor of his empty apartment in self-pity. The melodrama is well-suited to the material, as if the actual events are distant, and these images and jagged juxtapositions are just their distilled adaptation. There is little else in the comics world quite like them.

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[A version of this post and my other recent comics reviews appear in the comics section of PopMatters.]

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