This week: So behind, but I don’t want to blow three weeks of stuff on one triple-length column, so I’ll be putting up three columns this week and then try to get back on schedule for next week’s. Today: the different goals of Crumb and Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, three short thoughts on stories from NYCC and, of course, What I Read.
CRUMB: GENIUS, CRAZY PERSON
IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME since I’ve seen Crumb, at least ten years, and I’m not entirely certain I saw the whole thing back then in my early or mid teens. Picking up the new Criterion edition from the library, I was surprised by the details that had stuck with me—the sexual gratification Crumb gets from his own drawings—and by what I had forgotten—the near-overshadowing of Robert Crumb in the film by his brothers Charles and Maxon.
I realized only partway through that the scene I remembered most vividly—Crumb finishing an interview to jump onto the back of a waiting woman, who carries him away—is in fact from American Splendor, which explains why I remember it so well, as I’ve seen that film much more recently. Instead, Crumb treats viewers to the more disturbing scene of a pestering Crumb coercing an unwilling ex-girlfriend into giving him a similar ride at a museum exhibit of his work, climbing onto her as she tries to get away before reluctantly giving in, the camera crew following along.
That’s a fairly telling moment of this portrait of the artist. It’s not a film that is very interested in delving very deeply into comics or Crumb’s place in the field, which is likely a factor in its appeal outside of the comics world; it’s more a look at a very strange and talented artist and his even stranger (and perhaps more talented?) family. Which is not to say it completely ignores Crumb the artist—it quite successfully translated printed pages into moving-picture material without resorting to animating it, and some of the most transfixing moments are of Crumb drawing. Much like how people who saw Jack Kirby draw have described the sight, Crumb has that ability to just draw, with no underdrawing or no outlining, just filling in detail from one edge until a picture is complete.
Crumb the human being is harder to spend two hours with, but no less fascinating. There is no requirement that artists be moral paragons, but in Crumb’s case it is precisely his artistic accomplishments that allow him to get away with open misogyny and possible racism. At least one commentator says that Crumb unleashes his unfiltered id into his comics, and Crumb himself notes that he doesn’t think much about why he draws the things he draws. That lack of reflection is borne out when he is asked about how he draws black people, and rather than answer the question, he argues that only “white liberals” complain. I find that unlikely, but we next see a white woman object to and two white men defend Crumb’s portrayal of blacks. No black art critics are asked their opinion. It’s admirable that the film doesn’t shy from this element of Crumb’s art, but it is surprising, given that the film brings it up, that it doesn’t try very hard to confront it. Nevertheless, it is clear that what many of the interview subjects of the film respond to in Crumb’s work is a combination of its outre element (we are talking about Underground Comix here) and its unquestionable artistry—what message, if any, it actually has is secondary.
Crumb’s actual statements about the world aren’t particularly different from any other “hippy” (in quotes since Crumb notes that he was never actually able to fit in amongst hippy circles) artists out there, though we see enough of his general attitude that we can speculate many of his opinions come as much from his psychology as his politics. For instance, it’s hard to say if his complaints about logo T-shirts being “walking advertisements” are a political stance or a symptom of misanthropy. There’s an undeniable conservative streak at play in the notion that the world of decades ago, before his birth, were a better time.
The other subjects of the film are an interesting bunch as well. Aline Kominksy-Crumb comes across much more forceful, confident and louder than her husband, and he seems at times overwhelmed, a dynamic that reminded me of Soon-Yi Previn, Woody Allen’s wife, in Wild Man Blues. I found myself wondering if this type of relationship is something that quiet, neurotic artists are attracted to.
Crumb’s brothers Charles and Maxon play a large role, and the brotherly dynamic between the three is presented as a formative influence on Crumb’s art. In the bits of childhood artwork we see, Charles is at least as good as Robert, and already stranger. At the time of the filming (he killed himself shortly after), Charles was living with their mother, completely divorced from the outside world, and it’s almost a picture of what Crumb could be imagined to have become had his own art not become so wildly popular and allowed him to enter the outside world without ever really adjusting to it, parts of it instead reshaping around him, as in his museum piggyback ride. We see less of Maxon, but he also seems lost, talking about getting in trouble for molesting women and seeming most at home on his mat of nails (he didn’t have enough wood to make a bed of nails).
All in all, Crumb is an amazing character study of a truly bizarre family and the one member of it who went on to become one of the most influential comics artists of all time. How he became that isn’t really touched on, but what his life was like in the 1990s once he had achieved that is expertly and surreally captured.
Later in the same week, I decided it would make an interesting contrast to watch Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, several copies of which had been floating around the Dark Horse offices after being given away at this year’s Eisner Awards. And the contrast is indeed stark. While Crumb focuses on personality over comics history, Portrait of a Sequential Artist is much more about the comics tradition Eisner arose from and his influence on the comics field. While the majority of commentators in Crumb were art critics, most of Portrait of a Sequential Artist’s are cartoonists (Trina Robbins is the only person interviewed in both films). Portrait of a Sequential Artist is clearly the product of great admiration for Eisner, but it is not particularly personal, and there are no revelations to be had about Eisner’s life or work. It’s a perfectly workmanlike piece of filmmaking, and will no doubt be useful to students of comics history, but it is not itself a work of art as is Crumb. It’s difficult to imagine Portrait of a Sequential Artist gaining an audience outside of the comics world. Which might be fine; as a comics devotee, I found it quite enjoyable, if not uniquely so.
THREE QUICK THOUGHTS ON THREE NYCC ITEMS
NOT A LOT actually jumped out at me from my 3,000-mile vantage on NYCC, but here are three brief items that played to some of my specific obsessions:
- All DC and some Marvel regular-length comics to be $2.99
As a buyer of comics, I can’t help but be pleased. What I find more interesting, though, is something I’ve been wondering for a while in light of all the online discussion of pricing: do many regular comics shoppers pay full cover price or close to it? I’m in a fairly privileged position right now, in that the price increase from $2.99 to $3.99 was largely counteracted by the employee discount I get for working at DH changed from 20% to 33% at roughly the same time (meaning my cost per comic only went up $0.28). However, I’ve often gotten discounts between 15% and 25% for maintaining a pull list at different stores, and I assume this to be the case with most fans who follow comics closely enough to comment frequently on the Internet, but I feel like I don’t hear it mentioned often (incidentally, long before I followed the business side of comics, the first time that the policies of a major publisher affected my budget was when my local store dropped its discount from 25% to 20% thanks to Marvel’s Heroes World self-distribution debacle). When commentators do the math, it always seems to use $3 and $4 as the only numbers in play. The average cover price of comics is well covered, but I’m curious what the average price-per-comic a reader with a pull list actually pays.
On a related note, I’m sure Marvel was probably planning their announcement before hearing DC’s (how could approval for reducing prices on several titles be received within an hour?), but it wouldn’t be entirely surprising to learn otherwise after their performance in the wake of DC being the first company to announce a digital royalties program: “We had one first! We just didn’t tell anyone. Including the talent receiving the royalties.” [Ed. note: whether Marvel’s announcement was a reaction to DC’s or not, the recent release of January solicitations makes one thing about it clear: it was not true.]
- Invincible Iron Man will revert to old numbering with issue #500
Does this mean Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca have to give back their Best New Series Eisners?
- Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming to launch all-ages superhero comic
Bendis is a consummate pitchman and given to hyperbole, so I’ll wait until its released to see if it really turns on concepts no one has ever thought of before (Bendis is currently making the same claim about the upcoming year of Ultimate Spider-Man), but his style of dialogue and Oeming’s art style seem ideal for a kids’ book, and I like the idea of Marvel trying some kids’ superhero comics not based on existing characters. I’m looking forward to this.
READ THIS WEEK:
- Action Comics #893 by Paul Cornell, Sean Chen & Wayne Faucher and Nick Spencer & R.B. Silva
- The Authority: The Lost Year #12 by (Grant Morrison,) Keith Giffen, Jerry Ordway & Kevin Nowlan
So this series was pretty much a train wreck, which disappoints me to say, as I like Keith Giffen (I’m currently enjoying Doom Patrol, where Giffen is having better luck reconfiguring Morrison concepts). I bought the first Giffen issue, but have picked the rest out of the DC comps that a few higher-ups at Dark Horse receive and are kind enough to share, and wouldn’t have continued with the series if I hadn’t been able to do so for free. It’s pretty much a test case in why there’s no point in continuing a creator-centered series without that creator. When the Morrison/Ha Authority relaunch began, it was a big deal, and when it collapsed that was unfortunate. Wildstorm’s subsequent decision to revisit the series later and retrofit it into a “lost year” between the old Authority and the new, post-apocalyptic one is mystifying, and while the storyline, which has seen the Authority adrift in the multiverse, visiting a series of alternate versions of itself, has a vaguely Morrisonian flavor to it, Giffen doesn’t seem to have had either enough information about Morrison’s original plan nor room to go off on his own, and the series has just lain there as a result. This final issue is composed entirely of denouement, with some of the better art the series has seen post-Ha, but there’s not much for Ordway and Nowlan to draw, as the issue is more concerned with explaining the theme of the series than in depicting its fallout, and its necessarily anticlimactic, as we already know what will happen next.
- Batman Beyond #3 by Adam Beechen, Ryan Benjamin & John Stanisci
- Booster Gold #35 by Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, Chris Batista, Pat Olliffe & Rich Perrotta
- Fantastic Four vol. 1 HC by Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo, Karl Kesel, et al.
Read this after my recent survey of the last of the Old Marvel Fantastic Four issues, and it is certainly a fresh start. The first issue features an oblique look at the origin and a new P.R. firm (never seen again) for F.F. Inc., in response to the in-story lack of interest in and loss of sales by the company. It’s a clear reference to the state of the franchise itself, and Waid and Wieringo set out to modernize and reinvigorate the series, and it works for the most part. Wieringo shows a great feel for the characters, giving each a unique personality through body language, and he has no trouble drawing a multitude of strange settings and creatures Waid picks up the characters pretty quickly, too, although it takes most of the book for it to look like he’s not trying too hard, and the family stuff never entirely gets away from saccharine. There are plenty of good ideas, like Johnny being made CFO of F.F. Inc, as well as some facile ones like Reed defeating a more occult-powered Doom by admitting he doesn’t understand magic (a variation on “You can’t copy the Justice League’s powers; we just disbanded the Justice League”). All in all, it’s high-energy, light stuff, which was exactly what the franchise needed after the absurdly complex and continuity-heavy run that preceded it, though the result is that ten years on it doesn’t seem as special as it once did.
- Fantastic Four in… ¡Ataque del M.O.D.O.K.! by Tom Beland & Juan Doe
I don’t really know why I found this less satisfying than Beland and Doe’s first take on the FF (I somehow missed the second). Doe’s art and coloring have improved, and the stark red flashbacks of the new hero character are a highlight. The story feels a little too comfortable, maybe, Reed and Sue enjoying themselves in Puerto Rico, the appearance by M.O.D.O.K. seemingly an afterthought. It’s also more overtly in Beland’s romance vein than the other issue, with a flashback to Sue and Reed’s early courtship and a new origin for Mr. Fantastic’s name, neither of which I bought. Similarly, Beland’s shout-out to his independent series True Story Swear to God was too cute. Still, with a story that’s light as air and for looking so good, I can’t say the issue was a bad time, and I’ll still be tracking down the middle story that I missed.
- Love and Rockets New Stories #3 by Gilbert & Jaime Hernandez
What to say that others haven’t? I’m not steeped enough in Jaime’s work to say that his contribution to this volume was his best ever, but it was very, very strong work, and the reveal at the end so surprised me that I immediately reread the story. Gilbert’s main story is a rush and actually pretty funny in a sick way. The “Killer” story was the first in which I realized her relationship to Fritz, though perhaps this is again because of my lack of close reading. I’ve been enjoying the way that Gilbert’s stories and stories-within-stories have interacted, though without being entirely sure why. This volume also led me to wonder to what degree the brothers are aware of what the other is up to, since the stories seemed to strangely reflect each other in ways that previous volumes haven’t. Reading this also made me realize that, while I am caught up on Gilbert’s Love and Rockets vol. II material, I’ve fallen behind on Jaime’s, so look for me to correct that in the next few columns.
- Neonomicon #2 by Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows
I can honestly say I have no idea what will happen next. Well, I have a pretty good idea of what happens immediately next, but considering there’s still half of the series to go, I have no idea where it’s going. Having read this issue before hearing any Internet buzz, I was pretty surprised by how quickly the situation deteriorates into serious horror and found the sexual violence within much more disturbing than mainstream comics generally accomplishes, for whatever that’s worth.
- The Purple Smurfs by Yvan Delporte & Peyo
Basically Blackest Night with smurfs. Notes in the book say this was even originally called “The Black Smurfs,” but was changed in America for fear of sounding racist. The highlight of this collection is the very funny “The Flying Smurf,” with a member of the village deciding that he will create wings to fly with and the problems he causes for everyone else in the process.
- Scarlet #2 by Brian Michael Bendis & Alex Maleev
Still holding my complete attention, in spite of a few plot points that stretch credulity somewhat, as noted in the letters column. Issue two reveals the series to be the inverse of Warren Ellis’s Reload from a few years back. In that miniseries, a former spy (I think; going from memory) assassinates the President of the United States and goes after several other U.S. leaders, under the theory that the country is being run by organized crime and that someone needs to exterminate those criminals at the top. By contrast, Scarlet takes a bottom-up approach, reacting to street-level injustice and following it up the chain as the titular character learns that the crooked police officer she has targeted is tied to greater corruption. There’s long been a debate as to whether lasting change is instituted by top-down leadership or grassroots movements—this was one of the key ideological disputes between the presidential campaigns of Hilary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008—and Scarlet’s repeated references to something that she has to ask readers to do for her seem to represent some sort of grassroots movement in the making, leading to what Bendis has promised will be a story of a new American Revolution.
The character is appealing as well, as we don’t yet know a lot about her, but from spending nearly every page with her, we have a good sense of what she is like. Alex Maleev’s portrait of Portland is impressive in its mix of specificity—I recognize most of the locations—with a unique artistic approach setting it apart from either a more idiosyncratic look like Matthew Southworth’s in Stumptown (interesting that there are two recent series making such extensive use of Portland as a location; though considering how much of the comics scene is based here, maybe it’s more surprising that there aren’t more) or a strictly fumetti look. There’s a connection between this depiction and Maleev’s depiction of New York in Daredevil, and while both are heavily photo-referenced, they are also both identifiable as the work of the same artist.
- Sweet Tooth #14 by Jeff Lemire
- Tiny Titans #31 by Art Baltazar & Franco
- Twin Spica vol. 3 by Kou Yaginuma
I like that Japanese cartoonists have no qualms about mixing sci-fi with magical realism, approaches that seem at odds, but which can heighten each other through their incongruity. This series continues to charm me, and I admire the structure of each volume, balancing the continuation of the ongoing story with a few short backup stories that fill in characters’ pasts.
- Weird War Tales by Darwyn Cooke, Ivan Brandon, Nic Klein, Jan Strnad, Gabriel Hardman & Steve Pugh
Cooke’s story, in which dead soldiers from all across history gather periodically to reminisce and reenact war games, glories in war as noble, heroic and fun a bit too much for my taste, but its such an absurd notion that serious moral concerns roll right off it. It’s also great to look at, and the only story in the anthology that is genuinely weird or memorable. Steve Pugh’s contribution is sadly limited to a single pinup, though as a darker complement to Cooke’s story, it’s a haunting piece.
Images of Criterion Edition of Crumb © Criterion Collection. Images of Iron Man © Marvel Characters, Inc. Images of Takio © Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming. Images of Twin Spica © Kou Yaginuma