Recently I've had a few different people ask me about how I copy other cartoonists' drawings in my own comics. I never really considered why I was doing comics-as-criticism before, or even where I got the idea -- it just felt right, so I did it. I talked about it a little in this interview, among other places, and having to think it through enough to answer questions about it has been interesting. Basically, for me making written criticism of a visual medium is always going to have some feeling of artifice to it. The comics criticism I enjoy reading is usually historically based, or it addresses some aspect of the "world of comics" that goes beyond the work on the page. I can see everything in the comic for myself, and explaining it out in words when it's all right there gets more and more tiring unless those words are really really good. You ever read something like Dostoyevsky and wish you could understand the original Russian? Or Baudelaire in the original French or whatever? Writing book reviews and close readings feels like working as a translator -- certainly a worthy endeavor, as well as a craft of great subtlety and value -- but it gets to a point where I want to use comics to talk about comics.
I feel a far greater understanding of (say) Guido Crepax's brush lines when I'm trying to make the exact same shapes and thicknesses with my own hands than writing "Crepax used his brush like a stonemason uses a chisel" or something. And hopefully people see the powerful, enduring aspects of others' art when they see the parts of it that translate to a copied drawing made by someone else. I think that's why homages, much as they're sometimes derided as unthinking or lazy, are such a popular, enduring part of comics art. They're the natural, pure way for artists to talk about the work of other artists, and they give insight into the work of both copier and copied by allowing viewers to see what of the original is strong enough to remain and what's been overpowered by something new.
Homage is really just the tip of the iceberg, though. There's a surprisingly rich tradition of great comics artists using their work to engage in criticism beyond the affirmative, even fannish big ups of direct homages. Comics that use their own medium to illuminate or question or parody or redefine other, older comics are definitely out there, and they've reached a fairly high level of brilliance a number of times. Here, in chronological order, are a couple of good ones.
- Will Eisner on Al Capp, Chester Gould, and Harold Gray in The Spirit, 1947.
You have to know some pretty arcane comics history to even get close to understanding this one, but it's fascinating nonetheless. The plot of this seven-page short hinges around how Li'l Abner cartoonist Al Capp used to parody other popular newspaper comics -- most notably Chester Gould's Dick Tracy, in the farcically violent, almost surrealistically sarcastic strip-within-a-strip Fearless Fosdick. When Capp's avatar (Al Slapp, natch) is almost murdered, the Spirit interrogates his world's versions of Gould and Little Orphan Annie cartoonist Harold Gray, assuming that the merciless satire they've fallen victim to would be enough to drive anybody into a homicidal rage. More than anything else, Eisner uses this strip to parody parody, asking with tongue firmly in cheek whether Capp the funny-page satirist mightn't be wasting his time. "A Voltaire of the comics, eh?" the snickering Spirit asks the comics-syndicate boss who first tells him about the case.
What follows is perhaps the most farcical of the character's many farcical investigations. The New Deal-liberal Eisner's version of the arch-conservative Gray is a moneyed, elitist fool, catered to by servants and eventually found to be beyond suspicion of the murder attempt because he only uses gold bullets. "Lead bullets, indeed!" he roars. Eisner's treatment of Gould is just as mocking -- while Dick Tracy began as a straight, hard-boiled noir comic in the Prohibition era, by this point Gould had reached the strange, often downright baffling "Two-Way Wristwatch Radio Era", in which the lantern-jawed police detective's adventures became more and more outlandish and alien. The Spirit's visit to him reveals a dissipated figure, driven hopelessly insane by Capp/Slapp's "damage" to the character he had "slaved to make believable". Each cartoonist parodied is drawn to look like one of his most famous creations: Capp is a midget, bucktoothed version of Li'l Abner, Gould is the thick-lined, fedora-ed, slightly frightening Dick Tracy, and Gray is the blank-eyed Daddy Warbucks. Eisner clearly has fun lampooning Gray's lumpy, rounded drawing style with characters that look like cylinder-armed refrigerators and go blind when the white ovals of their eyes are painted over with ink. His criticism of Capp's comic-strip parodies is less successful, if more thought-provoking: Eisner certainly succeeds in making the whole enterprise look thoroughly ridiculous, but does so with a comic-strip parody of his own, deflating his point a bit. Regardless, it's fascinating to see one of comics' grandmasters engaged with three others in such a lively, almost careless fashion, and the story that comes out the other end is even borderline comprehensible!
- Guido Crepax on Alex Raymond in Valentina, 1972.
A few years after introducing the world to the photographer and inadvertent adventurer Valentina Rosselli (the heterosexual male portion of said world took special notice), Crepax turned away from the sexy spy-adventure stories he'd been placing her in, and toward his signature character's psychosexual history. 1972's "Valentina Intrepida" tracks her development from the moment of birth to the morning before she steps into the espionage-action whirl of the first published story she appeared in. It's an unutterably beautiful portrait-in-comics that uses the form to create a life as rich and deep as anything in any form of fiction -- the only other comic to come close in Chris Ware's "Lint", which basically swipes its formula wholesale. Up to and including the homages to previous comics greats that Crepax throws in as visualizations of Valentina's first, pre-adolescent erotic fantasies.
Crepax shows a young Valentina being completely swept away by early newspaper adventure strips, Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and then Lee Falk's The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician. The dashing heroes become fixtures in her fantasy world, replacing the toy soldier she used to imagine dancing with, grown up into a beautiful ballerina. She is a bejeweled, silk-draped beauty object in the standout Raymond sequences, pulled this way and that by powerful bronzed arms, melting into submission to anyone who can take her away from the constant violence spreading across the pages. Crepax's reading of the sinuous, decorative Flash Gordon drawing style (no small influence on his own art) is note perfect, spotlighting a deep understanding of Raymond's brush techniques and compositional methods. Considered next to Crepax's ultra-modern, jazzy lines and sleek, polished layouts, Raymond's style looks clumsy and incredibly antiquated -- Crepax is as aware as any critic that the best of Raymond hasn't aged well -- but it retains an incredible power, the classical posing and oddly straightforward framing almost closer to medieval tapestry than action comics.
More fascinating still is Crepax's focus on woman-as-sexual-object in Raymond, directing readers' attention to something that was always implicit in Flash Gordon, but never stated outright. It's especially shocking -- even objectionable -- to see Valentina as a character-free, trophyesque "Raymond girl". Crepax's creation has a solid case as the most fully-realized female character in comics history, and to see her suddenly thrust into the typical-action-comics-girl role of passive... victim? spectator? prize? forces a consideration of genre tropes as sheer misogyny. But it's more than that. These are Valentina's own fantasies Crepax is showing us, and they also beg questions about the willingness of "damsels in distress" to accept their roles -- or at least the potency of the role as a sexual possibility. Crepax sees a whole world of erotic entrapment and complexity at play in Raymond, but rather than pick it apart like an armchair psychiatrist, he rebuilds it on the page in flowing lines worthy of the artist who inspired them.
- Art Spiegelman on George Herriman in "High Art Lowdown", 1990.
"High Art Lowdown" is my favorite non-Maus Spiegelman comic, the one where his impulse toward doing smart things with the comics page feels most necessary and least contrived. It's a collection of single panels and short strips crammed onto one big square canvas, the overriding purpose being to ridicule a "high/low" art show at the New York Museum of Modern Art. It's a blazingly virtuosic, ingenious piece of satire, cleverness and rage blasting from it in equal measure -- comics criticism as a vehicle for a wider critique of culture and art. Cenered in the tangle of MoMA-eviscerating gag illos and sarcastic hosannas to turn-of-the-century Preparation H ads is a three-panel homage to George Herriman's Krazy Kat, a.k.a. The Best Comic Ever to those who've given the medium enough study to encounter it. Spiegelman emphasizes the raw power of the scratchy Herriman line with slashing, angular strokes of ink, contrasting it with the cold blandness of a Roy Lichtenstein pastiche that reminds us of how "the real political, sexual, and formal energy is in living popular culture", as opposed to reinterpretations of yesterday's trash. To underline his point he draws a giant dick-shaped cactus into the corner of the strip's final panel, giving Herriman's sweeping desert an explicit sexuality lacking from Lichtenstein's plastic blondes.
Spiegelman's larger point, I think, is something every comics fan will agree with to at least some extent. Who wouldn't rather read a run of Krazy Kat than look at the portentous surrealist paintings it inspired? The issue of sexual energy in Herriman's work is more difficult -- depending on the image one has of the kindly, gentle Herriman, perhaps even slightly troubling. Maybe it's just because it's shown in such an explicit, over the top manner, but I personally can't help but think that phallic prickly-pear overstates Spiegelman's case just a bit. Krazy Kat as a font of pulsing sexual energy? I'm not sure. That said, it's still a thought-provoking bit of critique; the window it provides into thinking about sexuality in Krazy Kat is a valuable one. Herriman's constantly shifting, endless landscapes were a liminal, beautiful fantasy space, erotic in and of themselves. And there's not really any way to argue the fact that Krazy Kat was a comic about the sadomasochistic relationships between hermaphroditic (or at least gender-bending) beings. I'd imagine that looking into Herriman's own sexuality is a bit too much like looking into your grandpa's for most comics historians -- but if anyone ever does, there's surely a great deal to be written on Krazy Kat's amorphous, iconoclastic sexual aura, and Spiegelman deserves praise for pointing out that side of a comic that still gets the better of critics across the medium.
- Josh Simmons on Batman in Batman, 2007.
Pretty much every alternative cartoonist worth his or her salt has some "superheroes are kind of silly, aren't they" strip or other kicking around in their catalogue, and the same thing holds true for critics of the medium. It's a good point, and one worth making again and again in a comics culture so thoroughly over-dominated by the adventures of Adonises in lycra, but nobody's ever made it with the conviction and intensity that Josh Simmons' bootleg Batman minicomic exudes. Regardless of content, the act of making a comic about a corporate-owned superhero is an act of criticism, a commentary on the creator's subjective interpretation of a character that was around before and will be around after them. The bootleg superhero comic, then, is the critic/artist's rebuke to the system. Why can't I tell my version of the old story without risking a cease-and-desist notice, the bootleg creator asks, and there is no answer but the obvious: because your version threatens the parent company's ability to make money from its trademarked icons for some reason or another. Whether that reason is subversive autocritique or lack of the prescribed craft elements (this one has both), the simple fact that artists who want to innovate using these characters are forced to do it in bootleg form is one of the more damning indictments of corporate hero comics that I can think of.
Simmons is aware of all this, of the charged, dangerous status his comic's very existence as a non-commercial object gives it. On the most obvious level the book is a rhetorical examination of the Batman character's endpoint, a kind of thought experiment-in-comics about the problems with Batman's obsessive, fascistic war on crime. It's the dark place DC Comics will never let their biggest moneymaker go: Simmons presents a Batman gone rogue, mutilating criminals' faces "to set them apart", because, as he reminds us here just like in every official Batman comic, he won't kill. In the DC comics, this uncrossable line is a magic totem that keeps Batman the housebreaker and assault artist and vigilante and villain-torturer a "hero" -- in Simmons' comic it's his downfall, the reasons for the horrifying violence we see him inflict on a hapless, passed-out junkie.
In the most intelligent take on the character in decades, Batman isn't a hero anymore. Is this, then, really a "superhero comic" at all? And if leaving the heroism behind is the only way to make interesting comics with these characters anymore, is the very idea of the superhero dead? Like any good piece of criticism, Simmons' comic leaves room for discussion, but also has an opinion of its own. The unforgettable final page shows Batman tearing away at himself, first removing his glove and then ripping off his own fingernail. The subtext is clear: even the quintessential superhero is less interesting as a superhero than a human with an all too human, frail mind. The overgrown nail of hero comics is ripped off with these pages, and what remains is the new territory open to alternative comics. It's an impassioned, devastating commentary on the current state of the comics industry and the superhero genre in general, one that uses the medium itself to make its points.
In a way all comics art is comics criticism, or at least in-depth analysis. Every artist's work both displays and explicates an approach to the medium, distinct ideas about storytelling, pace, form, and every other element that goes into the making of comics. One can easily read an artist's influences as affirmative criticism of the work being drawn from. But there's something vital to bringing the silent discussion of these things that every comics page is out into the open by really talking about them, putting readings of or opinions on other artists' work into new stories, mixing the old ideas with the new. Comics-as-comics-criticism is a vital field, one that relies on the pre-existence of others' creative work just as all criticism does, but is just as much the creation of new work, action and reaction combined into one. At its best, it leads its readers to the same understanding that its creators have reached, the ink lines and panel borders that form the path to the destination more beautiful and indelible than any written words could hope to be.