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Maus vs. Watchmen

24 Oct

There are two graphic novels that get mentioned in circles where people do not read graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These two titles are considered more “literary” than your average comic book fare, and for good reason. Maus did earn a Pulitzer Prize, among other acclaims, and Watchmen is the only graphic novel to receive the Hugo Book Award. The two works are very special, and couldn’t be more different: Maus is a roughly-drawn, black-and-white memoir, while Watchmen is a full-color superhero story with some social commentary. Why, then, do both of these books get bandied about by smarty-pants comic book snobs? You’d think that fans in general would eschew one or the other, being that they are so contrasted. It would be like if your two favorite foods were chocolate and parsley.

The main thing that Watchmen and Maus share is that they’re in their perfect medium: comics. As straight text books they would be too complicated, as cartoons or movies they lose all of their frozen-frame nuances. Maus is primarily the retelling of the author’s father’s experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Europe. He does so by portraying the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other ethnic groups as various animals. In the second book in this two-part work, the author addresses the reader directly, in human form, but with a mouse mask obscuring his face. This is a gimmick that would not work in written form, it would make absolutely no sense. Watchmen is even better-suited for the comic book format since it is at once a commentary on comic book history and the superhero genre, as well as an engaging narrative about a compelling cast of fictional characters. There is even a comic book within Watchmen, a pirate-themed title called Tales of the Black Freighter, the events of which parallel occurences in the main tale, in (what has since become) traditional Alan Moore style. Indeed, I worried about how this might be handled in the Scott Snyder film version of Watchmen; to have a meta comic within a movie isn’t very meta at all. Happily, they excised it from the movie altogether and instead told only the surface story, leaving the unworkable comic book commentary in the book where it belongs (there was a butchering of Tales of the Black Freighter in horrible cartoon form on some DVD editions, but we can pretend it didn’t happen.)

What interests me is that these two wildly different books get mentioned so often during discussions of the genre. We’re certainly not suffering from a dearth of graphic novels, high-falutin’ or otherwise. The obvious answer is that these were two of the first graphic novels to treat the genre seriously–not the first, but two of the first (he wrote, trying to stave off a lot of angry comments by comic book nerds). These books came out in the 1980s, which is an important decade for comic books for two reasons: one is that the model for comics distribution changed so that publishers could ship books directly to comic book stores. This affected comics because it connected the fan base more securely to publishers, who were no longer jockeying for position on the same racks that carried People magazine and Newsweek. But the other thing that happened in the 1980s, the thing I believe is more profound than and may have contributed greatly to the creation of a direct distribution model, is that baby boomers entered the middle class en masse, and started to pine for their younger days when they’d read Silver Age comic books, safely nestled in their nuclear fallout bunkers and dreaming of Russian space dogs. Or something like that. My father, one of the aforementioned baby boomers, had tomes upon tomes collecting various comic books and comic strips from his childhood, and throughout my time growing up would regularly bring home newer editions. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that I was seeing something relatively new and unique to my parents’ generation, who had grown up squirreling comics in the bottom of their clothes closet, only to have them thrown away by mom during freshman year away at college. For my part, this reference material gave me the opportunity to learn about Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and EC’s The Vault of Horror. I was able to read an entire year’s worth of Popeye comic strips, then put that aside to look at the origin issue of Plastic Man.

As mentioned before, I don’t buy “floppy” comic books, I prefer the collected trade editions and standalone graphic novels when it comes to my panel stories. I think this is partially owed to the fact that there were so many comic book books around my house when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that it might be weird to own and pursue such things. My dad is very literate, always reading two and often three beefy books at a time, but that doesn’t stop him from poring lovingly over old issues of Donald Duck or the collected Barney Google strips. I think that this is a somewhat modern mindset: many of my peers do the same as I do, ignoring floppy comics and waiting patiently for them to appear as inevitable trade editions. So you might see me reading The Epic of New York City on the subway, or you might see me reading Vertigo’s Preacher comic series. Arguing whether or not comic books are actual art or should be taken seriously is dead, you either think comics are worthwhile or you don’t. Now the discussion turns to: what are the greatest examples in the medium of notch-bound graphic novels and collected trade editions?

The answer, apparently, is Maus and Watchmen. I’ve recommended these books many times, the former for people who have never read a comic book or any sequential art beyond the Peanuts comic strip, and the latter for people who have fodt memories of reading funnybooks as a kid, but haven’t so much as cracked the four-color cover of a comic in decades. Each seems to serve its purpose, both books routinely impress their readers. In fact, the persistence of these titles as viable books is a testament to their validity. You can go back and read the first issues of Spider-Man and learn of his origins, his awkward teenage gawkiness and struggle to use his powers wisely. But you could never appreciate these comics without the context of their production. Watchmen and Maus, both works fixed in specific times and real places, endure long after we stopped giving a shit about The New Teen Titans and their decidedly yuppie angst. Which is the better title? That’s impossible to say, for while they can be compared on basis of genre, they can’t be compared on many other levels. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say Watchmen is the better book, because it is printed in color. Take that, Spiegelman.

Aack. Pphppt.

21 Oct

I’ve gone on at length about many of the strange and relatively adult things I was exposed to as a child which influenced my world view. While I am somewhat of an outcast because I truly believe that giant apes want to engage in inter-species sex with blond women, I’m grateful to have seen and appreciated these works instead of being fed a steady diet of Smurfs and Chuck E. Cheese. There is one thing I loved as a kid, something that influenced me more than watching The Young Ones, more than reading reprints of Zap! Comix when I was in the third grade, more than viewing The Last House on the Left at age nine at the behest of my brother. That influential thing was a comic strip, one which I like and which my father hated, and that comic strip was Bloom County.

I got into Bloom County in 1984 or 1985 from regularly reading the funny pages. For my younger readers, the funny pages were a collection of printed webcomics that used to exist in these things we called newspapers. Up until Bloom County, the comics section of the New York Newsday was largely full of ancient strips long past their prime, some of which are still being made today: Hagar the Horrible, Johnny Hart’s B.C., and Garfield. Garfield was considered cutting edge at the time. Do they still make those oblong Garfield collections with the shitty titles like Garfield Gets a Triple Bypass and Garfield Farts? There were a million of them, even when I was grade school. By now the numbering of new volumes probably has to be expressed in scientific notation. The Newsday’s only source of ironic wit was Doonesbury, which I never found very funny. I’ll expand on that some other time if I feel like it and remember to do so.

Newsday picked up Bloom County and, at first, I didn’t get it. I was pretty informed for a nine year-old, but I had no idea who Jeane Kirkpatrick and Tip O’Neill were. If you weren’t Gary Hart and getting front page headlines, I was largely unaware of your existence. But I liked the art of Bloom County, and that most of the animals talked (or slobbered in a very human-like fashion), and most of all I liked that the strip’s protagonist, Milo Bloom, was a dumpy-looking nerd kid in glasses. For you see, I was a dumpy-looking nerd in glasses. I identified with him, despite the fact that I had a curly, brown Caucasian afro, and that he was much wittier and well-spoken than I. I thought I was that witty and well-spoken, which is all that counts. So I kept reading the strip, and then I began reading more and more of the newspaper just so I could understand the topical jokes. By the time I was in the sixth grade, I was more politically informed than any of my peers (a small feat, mind you, since we were all around eleven years old). I had Bloom County to thank for it.

Many of my grade school drawings were direct copies from Bloom County, and even today when I doodle characters with spectacles they look suspiciously like Milo. Old cassette recordings of me doing comedy skits with friends were lifted from various Bloom County strips I adored. I had a stuffed Opus the Penguin doll (really, who didn’t?) but he wasn’t my personal favorite character. I rode for Milo, and sung the praises of this comic even as the artwork got notably more sloppy–particularly the lettering, which began to look like scrawled shopping lists. I hung in there until the bitter end, 1989, when Berkeley Breathed pulled the plug after securing the rights to his own strip from some clever (and dickish) contract negotiations. I owned all of the collections, but having read the strip devotedly for five years I knew there were some key omissions. Well Idea & Design Works has seen fit to publish the complete run of Bloom County in a five-volume series called Bloom County: The Complete Collection. If you were as moved by this comic strip as I was in my youth (word to Keith Knight), then you’ll want to have this. The jokes are now largely irrelevant, however, so if you’ve never seen or cared about the strip before, then you can pass. For my part, I will use this space to formally throw my support behind Bill the Cat for President in 2012. Phbbpt.

A Comic Strip That I Like and Which My Father Hates

24 Feb

Really, this subject could fill a blog all its own, and it could be retitled, “Comic Strips That My Father Didn’t Introduce to Me.” As a rule, anything I have ever tried to share with him is automatically determined to be stupid and puerile. To the contrary, anything he has ever shown me is brilliant beyond explanation, and no matter how much I’ve professed to enjoy it, I never truly enjoy it in my dad’s eyes. These facts don’t, however, stop him from expounding at length on the work’s great properties. And it’s not like I show him Garfield and he shows me work by Jean Giraud, no his favorite stuff is Popeye and Barney Google.

But this essay isn’t about my dad, it’s about a comic I like a lot: Tom the Dancing Bug by Ruben Bolling. I’ve been following this comic since the 80s, when it was featured in the Village Voice alongside Life in Hell and Lynda Barry’s comic (which I LOVED as a kid.) Around 1988, I got a subscription to Funny Times and kept following him there. I think the strip is reasonably funny, and the art, while nothing outstanding, is clean. I mean, it’s no Ziggy, but it’s pretty good.

I think what I like most about the comic is that it seems like something I could do. That’s not to take away from Ruben Bolling or to elevate my own meager artistic talent, but the fact that it seems to be drawn on a piece of 8.5 x 11″ typing paper, inked throughout with the same gauge pen and the cartoon figures spend most of their time standing around, well, it’s near and dear to my own doodling heart. Tom the Dancing Bug is a comic where the art guides you along the joke, and as such the art should not and does not overpower the writing. I feel it strikes a good balance, the pacing between panels is well-done, and come on: Dilbert is still one of the most popular strips in America. Surely we can appreciate Tom the Dancing Bug on the same merits (though we shouldn’t, Tom the Dancing Bug is far more meritorious).

Since entering the online arena, Tom the Dancing Bug has moved around a lot, but his strip can be seen weekly at If you like laughs, if you don’t chatter at length about the movement of drawn lines, and if you’re somewhat left-leaning, you will probably like it. If you don’t like the comic strip, then you’re probably Dinkle, the unlovable loser.

Popeye is the Shit and You Know This

2 Feb

I was raised to like Popeye from a very young age. It isn’t difficult for a young boy to enjoy Popeye, what with the ass-kicking and chick-getting (well, one chick, multiple times) and generally outrageous greatness of the character. To instruct a child to like Popeye is to tell them to eat a heaping bowl of sugared cereal and run around screaming all morning, until a lunchtime temper tantrum lands them in the Naughty Chair. Though my initial liking of Popeye was wholly instinctual and natural, a deeper, nerdier understanding of this fictional character was imprinted upon me by my father, his own obsession with Popeye seemingly unique and not passed down by my grandfather.

It is difficult to describe my father. It seems that whenever I talk about him, I paint a picture of a relatively unpleasant guy. He isn’t really unpleasant at all, he’s just passionate about the things he enjoys and entirely dismissive of everything else. This is not unlike any other pompous type who has refined their tastes to the ultimate, except my dad doesn’t have extremely refined tastes. He likes classical music and has a tremendous collection, and he likes depressing Russian novelists. He also likes Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons from before World War II. He loves Doctor Who. He giddily enjoys underground comix from the 1970s and once had a huge collection of National Lampoon magazines (until I pilfered and destroyed them through poor storage). He enjoys Marx Bros. movies and slapstick shorts from the 1940s and 50s.

My point is that my dad has a pretty eccentric taste which runs the gamut from high art to commercial design and fart jokes. And so it is with Popeye, a franchise he has been waxing about since I can remember. I don’t actually recall the precise moment he decided to school me on Popeye, but if it was like the other times he dropped his brand of condescending science, I suspect the scene was: me watching a post-World War II Popeye cartoon from Paramount on television, he walks in the room and calls it a piece of shit, then alludes to older, better Popeye cartoons, implying that they are so great so as to be withheld from my moronic generation, lest we be too dazzled by their brilliance and stab our eyes out with Transformers toys. The fact of these legendary cartoons having been established, he would then proceed to tell me more about their undeniable awesomeness whenever he happened to catch me watching an inferior Popeye cartoon in television syndication. He’d tell me that the good cartoons were done by the Fleischer Bros., an animation studio that handled Betty Boop and Superman cartoons (not the crappy Superman cartoons that you remember, but other, better, more secret Superman cartoons…)

Then my dad would eventually tell me that these other great cartoons that I hadn’t seen weren’t even the best evidences of Popeye. No, the first, best version of Popeye ran in a comic strip called Thimble Theater in the 1920s through to the 40s (the strip would eventually be retitled Popeye.) Drawn by a guy named E.C. Segar, they captured a movement and wildness that was as indescribable as it was unparalleled. Would that I could see these comic strips, finally I would know beauty. But alas, I am presented with only the inferior, “white sailor’s cap Popeye” as opposed to the incredible “captain’s hat Popeye,” as my dad put it. And so my life was already rendered a pale version of his, a simulation of a much fuller, more interesting time when things mattered.

Around 1987, Fantagraphics Books released some of the old Popeye strips, in a very bad reproduction. The printing was so bad, the ink was barely fixed to the paper and could be rubbed off with your finger. Still, I could see glimpses of greatness through the smudges and blotches, even detecting that elusive movement my father couldn’t stop jawing about. Of course, even staring right at the strips wasn’t good enough for my father, who reminded me over and over that the poor reproductions of the comic strips I was seeing were meager facsimiles of this dimension-shattering piece of serial art. However, I had to admit: my dad was right. These early Popeye comic strips were awesome, as Popeye swore and fought and instructed the reader in proper moral fortitude, they really did kill the Paramount cartoons I was raised on. Right around the same time Fantagraphics released their reproductions, there was a film festival downtown of old Fleischer Bros. cartoons. And you know what? They were fucking awesome. Fuck you, dad, not for being smug but for being right.

Fantagraphics began re-releasing the old Popeye comic strips a couple of years ago; right now they’re about to put out volume five of six. I’m not sure if they’re using original plates or even the original mock ups, but the reproduction is incredible. Well worth checking out if you like Popeye. Chances are, you weren’t instructed to like Popeye as a kid, so you might be unaware of this other, greater character that’s been kept from polite society for decades. Check him out, I think you’ll find him a lot more interesting than that white sailor’s cap Popeye that used to hawk fried chicken.

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