April 2014 Filed in: Graphic Storytelling
A few years ago, I discussed a story idea in which mutants can exchange each others' superpowers when they have their best sexual climaxes yet. The longevity of their borrowed power is dependent on the quality of their sex. In one deeply conflicted love story, a mutant finds out the hard way that his lover is unrestrainedly in love with the villian. They ultimately use that to their advantage and destroy him.
Imagine my curiosity when I heard about Matt Fraction's Sex Criminals, in which superheroes can freeze time when they have sex. It will be my weekend reading! Here's a Wired article on it.
When I experience a creative block, I find comfort in the unfinished art, unused ideas and rendered thoughts of my favorite artists and writers. They are just about all the stimulation I can handle. But, more importantly, they assure me that there is virtue in the process, even if it leads to incompleteness. Sketchbooks provide the cables I need to jumpstart my batteries, but with some irony. Here, the movement is usually not forward as much as deliberately circular, like in a Ferris wheel. It is exactly the kind of thoughtless frisson of excitement I seek. It is predictable, palpable and yet thrilling, with a definite end. When the ride stops, I will have unwound and reached a state of relaxed alertness.
Brandon Graham gets me there with his randomness and pop-culture nostalgia. This particular sketchbook of his is a bric-a-brac melting pot with all his tongue-in-cheek playfulness and purposely terrible handwriting, spelling, and some excellent graffiti-calligraphy. Unlike his main works, his sketchbook is more organic; Here, his drawings evolve and fill up space as he goes along, but at the same time, everything he draws is measured and proportioned, and makes sense as a whole. He brings a comical anachronism to his work. He appropriates pieces from reality and incorporates them in his avant-garde retro-futuristic steampunk world, so that his fantasy happens in a commonplace that is bound in a fuzzy space between the immediate-past and the near-future in an alternate world!
He is fixated with pastiche, so half the fun is in the discovery, and the other half is in making sense of that discovery, and feeling smug about cracking all the memes, the allusions, his weird humor full of cheesy wordplay and idiosyncrasies, and finding all the trivialities. You are required to have your eyes peeled at all times. You see close-ups and long distant views of the same things from different perspectives, each revealing something the other does not. I am almost afraid to make eye-contact with any part of a page, or dive in and explore a reef of drawings, because I might get lost in there forever, and will have to force-rip my eyes off of that part of the page to get to another part. And then, I am nervous that I may have moved on prematurely without taking everything that he had to offer!
He has a lot of fun with products, brand names, warning and instruction labels, and advertisements. There are clues to his many literary and artistic influences in the way he structures his story and does his artwork. His bubbles capture the shapes and sounds of everything visible, so that they are all exploding to say something. Text and objects get mixed up and lifeforms become things, and things become lifeforms and everything’s a deconstructed version of something familiar that now serves an unexpected and odd purpose. It is as if the alien city in his book is conjoined with our post-modern urban aesthetic at the hip. The ingenuity and absurdity of the modded contraptions in his book may be difficult to replicate in the near future with our limited technology. But, there are some kickstarter projects there waiting to be created in our cyberpunk future!
Sometimes I haven’t the slightest what some of his sketches are about. Those, I pretend are in a different language (some of them really are), and I decode them in my own way.
Walrus is a great book to pick up ideas on what to read next (as is his blog and his interviews. See here and here). Seeing your favorite authors mentioned in fine print in some corner of a busy page full of drawings, makes them seem like they are all part of the same cool club, and you have somehow become a part of it by recognizing that! He also takes a lot of mainstream comic characters and puts them in his sci-fi world. It’s like finding Spider-Man in Spirited Away. But, you also find yourself in it, with him, and his wife and co-artist, Marian, so that the sketchbook is a fourth-wall-breaking self-reflexive adventure of love-puppies and comic heroes in a Walrus world!
You would wonder how an artist who indulges in sillyness in every bubble moves a plot along. That’s if you haven’t read King City or Multiple Warheads. His serialized comic books detailed from the macro to the very micro will tell you how it’s done!
(Plug: Here's an assorted collection of graphic works I love from India. It is called Obliterary Journal and is one of my favorites.
I devoured the first volume wholly, entirely and many times. It's funny how it keeps coming back alive, to be devoured again and again. I'm waiting for my parents to visit and bring me the second volume from India. It's so pricey here).
The painting above is Bill Watterson's tribute to Petey Otterloop from Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac. It is Watterson's first public art in more than 15 years, and was done for Thompson's Parkinson's fundraising project that over hundred cartoonists contributed to.
Watterson is a very selective endorser. He's also a media recluse. So when I read his foreword praising Thompson's Cul de Sac, I was eager to read it just to see what was so special about it that made him not want to contain himself.
"I thought the best newspaper comic strips were long gone, and I've never been happier to be wrong. Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac has it all--intelligence, gentle humor, a delightful way with words, and, most surprising of all, wonderful, wonderful drawings.
Cul de Sac's whimsical take on the world and playful sense of language somehow gets funnier the more times you read it. Four-year-old Alice and her Blisshaven Preschool classmates will ring true to any parent. Doing projects in a cloud of glue and glitter, the little kids manage to reinterpret an otherwise incomprehensible world via their meandering, nonstop chatter. But I think my favorite character is Alice's older brother, Petey. A haunted, controlling milquetoast, he's surely one of the most neurotic kids to appear in comics. These children and their struggles are presented affectionately, and one of the things I like best about Cul de Sac is its natural warmth. Cul de Sac avoids both mawkishness and cynicism and instead finds genuine charm in its loopy appreciation of small events. Very few strips can hit this subtle note."
Apart from the foreword, the only other time I saw him in the news was also when he made the Petey Otterloop portrait!
"I thought it might be funny to paint Petey “seriously,” as if this were the actual boy Richard hired as a model for his character. At first I intended to do the picture in a dark, Rembrandt-like way to accentuate the “high art” of painting vs the “low art” of comics — the joke being that the comic strip is intelligent and the painting is idiotic — but the picture went through quite a few permutations as it developed.
I found it interesting how the comical distortions in a cartoony drawing become freakish and grotesque when they’re depicted more three-dimensionally. (You sometimes see this in computer rendering and animation.)
Anyway, by the end, I wasn’t sure whether the painting came out funny or creepy, but I hope it’s intriguing somehow. The result surprised me, so I enjoyed it."
So it is undeniable that Watterson is obsessed with Richard Thompson, and it is making him less reclusive.
Both artists will be featured in The Ohio State University's Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum’s new exhibition galleries from March 22 to July 6, 2014.
Mental Floss shared an except of a rare and exclusive interview with Bill Watterson on their website. The full interview will be published in the December issue of their magazine.
Also, next month, Dear Mr. Watterson, a documentary film about Bill Watterson will release in theaters, and video-on-demand. It is available for pre-order on their website.
While we are on the subject of binging on Bill Watterson, here are
His 2010 interview, (his first since 1989); and
His 1989 speech at The Ohio State University.
He offers a wealth of insight on everything from his work to comic art and comic business.
Sooraya Qadir (Dust) is a young Afghan Sunni Muslim mutant, with Sandman-like powers. She is rescued by Wolverine from slave trade in Afghanistan and brought to X-Mansion for training. She wears the abaya and niqab and observes traditional Islamic etiquette.
She is one of those characters who plays a prominent role in New X-Men and Young X-Men series, and saves the day on many occasions; still, most of the conversation around her is about her defending her faith-based choices; One wonders what motivated the writers to think up her character, in an otherwise secular series.
Most of this dialogue on Islamic faith is intriguing for several reasons.
One, because it happens over many volumes. Sooraya to everyone is a muslim before she is a mutant.
Two, because Sooraya's character was conceived right after 9/11.
Three, because it adds a new slant to the dialogue about hypersexualization and objectification of female superheroes in comics.
Four, because, in a world where mutants are misunderstood and discriminated against by humans, this discussion seems a bit captious.
Five, because the comic offers little information about the beliefs of other X-Men characters' from other parts of the world that are specific to their culture!
Six, because her faith is presented as being restrictive, and she as being one-dimensional, which is lamentable given she is an adolescent girl!
Seven, because it makes me deliberate on the similarity between the typical superhero costume and the hijab in relation to both secret and self-evident identities, visual iconography and symbolism!
The good news is, we now have another perky hijabi superhero in a more real, non-X-men universe! Qahera, an Eqyptian superwoman, fights misogyny, Islamophobia, and offers her own brand of droll humor.
I recommend using the Index to navigate through the Qahera comic strips and FAQs!
There is a lot that goes into making a superhero look seductive and heroic, especially when transforming the characters on page to screen, because their costumes are manifestly impractical to wear. The costumes are meant to perpetuate the unhumanness of superheroes, which is all nifty on paper, but on screen, to be both as faithful to the original as possible without the costumes coming undone and looking silly is a onerous task. Given the challenge, it’s amazing how badass and irresistible today’s superheroes look! What’s more, they even got a style update; Out with the mullets, bellbottoms and pouches.
A few years ago, Giorgio Armani’s Superheroes: Fashion and Fantasy exhibition at Met Museum explored how fashion designers interpret superhero costumes in their modernist creations; It also explored where comic artists draw their inspirations for creating the costumes; say from early 20th century professional wrestling, gymnastics and circus attires; swashbucklers in stage plays; contemporary athletic wear; traditional iconography of the dominatrix (especially in the fetishized costumes of women); paintings such as of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopter; pulp-magazine covers; and various technologies depicting invincibility. The iconography in the costumes (letters, emblems, and such things as stars and stripes) often represent the socio-political realities they depict or are symbolic representations of their specific superhero abilities (such as stealth armors). The superheroes themselves have changed from their earlier boxy profiles to the more lissomely athletic over the years adapting to the aesthetic appeal of the time.
Fashion designers have always maintained that clothing transforms the body and plays a major role in the social construction of identity. It is one of the most visible markers of social status and serves to maintain or subvert structural boundaries. Superheroes exemplify this the most, because their costumes are explicitly designed to serve as a metaphors for identity, transcendent power, erotic spunk, heroism, politics and [American] patriotism (Superman’s costume, for instance, serves no other function); putting them above the law. Would one ever imagine superheroes testifying in court wearing their masks? (More on this later, when I write about The Law of Superheroes).
All one needs is a magical second skin to do the impossible, even if the skin itself possesses no real power. A large part of what we are is defined by our corporeal image. Designers work in the space that helps us create that image, and also unbeknown to us, they artfully transform us into metaphoric art. There is an element of fantasy in all of fashion that elevates it from commonplace to couture, and prosaic to poetry. Models on the ramp are hyperbolic impressions of reality who through exaggeration clue us in on what we will wear (which typically are subdued versions of their ensembles)! They share with superheroes, an obsessive preoccupation with the ‘ideal’ body, power of transformation (or the physical and societal agonies of transformation, such as with mutants), masking one’s identity with one’s purpose, and symbolizing ideas through visual and physical form!
I watched Tarantino’s Django Unchained again yesterday and fixated on Django’s badass costumes. Starting with that blue valet outfit, he came on every plantation scene dressed like a dandy. Costume is where you can visibly appreciate his freedom, especially when you think back to his slave days, when he was walking miles across an arid dessert, chained to the other slaves, none with a stitch on, and with iron shackles eating away at their ankles! To Django, costumes are a symbol of liberation.
And because it is a Spaghetti Western with black and german-immigrant leads, set before the Civil War, the film has two different kinds of period costumes and at least three or four different styles, each with a lot of symbolism. For instance, the valet outfit is inspired from Thomas Gainsborough’s painting of The Blue Boy, which was painted in retaliation to his rival’s statement about art: “It ought, in my opinion, to be indispensably observed, that the masses of light in a picture be always of a warm, mellow colour, yellow, red, or a yellowish white, and that the blue, the grey, or the green colours be kept almost entirely out of these masses, and be used only to support or set off these warm colours;”
Ironically, for a Superhero exhibition, there were only two American designers included!
Here's a Youtube video of the curatorial talk about the exhibition.
This was one of the first comic strips to make it to newspapers (1905–1913), by a man who was also the pioneer of early animated cartoons. Windsor McCay set the standard for Walt Disney and the likes in the later decades.
During this time, a single comic strip usually occupied an entire page in a newspaper, which is a huge contrast to our times where 20 artists share the same space and fight for attention. Whether this points to the popularity of comics, the lack of competition or the lack of other media entertainment is debatable. But, that a newspaper was willing to forgo one entire page for a “child fantasy” comic strip says a lot about what they thought eye-popping images can do to entice readers.
Little Nemo in Slumberland is about Nemo, a 5 year old kid, who falls asleep when the lights are turned off and dreams of a fantastical world with surreal characters. Nemo’s main purpose is to make it to Slumberland where he had been summoned by King Morpheous to be the playmate of his daughter, the Princess. At the end of each strip while he’s on his way to Slumberland, a terrible mishap befalls him leading to serious injury or death, like him turning into a monkey or being crushed by a giant mushroom. In the last panel, he wakes up, screaming in his sleep and a grownup in the household comes to scold or cajole him.
For an early 1900 comic strip, the rendering style is extremely sophisticated and colorful (following the popular art nouveau fashion of that era), with interesting perspective drawings that suggest limitless distance, and a linear cinematic structure. For a children’s fantasy, the adventures in the dream world are really dark and threatening, which may be attributed to McCay’s creative genius. However, a lot of comic writers also consider this his major flaw and write that he focused too much on the drawing than the writing!
Over the years, there have been hundreds of adaptations of Little Nemo, in book and movie forms but none have been as successful as the original… today the original print pages go for $50,000 or more… (and to think that there was a day when people wrapped fish in these masterpieces!!!)
There is a book called Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays! with the best of his works, reproduced in “actual size”, with the exact look of newsprint selling for $120.