Saturday, 1 September 2007

Talking statues

Melbourne has a few examples of humorous sculpture around the city. Here's one the skinny blokes, and me. I'm the talking one.

I see this kind of thing all around the world, like the bronze suitcase in the central rail station in Madrid, if it's still there. And I find myself thinking about the fate of sculpture in public spaces over the last thirty years, such as Serra's Tilted arc that was put in front of the Federal Government building in Manhattan in 1981 and after much public contoversy, removed in 1989. It was intended 'to alter and dislocate the decorative function of the plaza', cost $175,000 to erect, $35,000 to dimantle, and $50,000 to re-erect in another location.
Melbourne has a similar story (I'm sure most cities do): Vault, more popularly know as The Yellow Peril, a sculpture erected in 1980 at a cost of $70,000 and, after much controversy, moved the following year. Here is an article titled What the sculpture said:

The sculpture, however, was not banished from the City Square simply because people didn’t like it, but because a group of Councillors finally won the debate that Vault was not appropriate to the City Square of Melbourne. Vault, it was decided then, did not represent the aspirations of Melbourne for its City Square, did not say the things they wanted it to say...
Vault, as a sculpture in public, was not only contemporary in its style, material, construction and colour, it did not tell Australian stories. Melbourne was faced with a new type of public sculpture that spoke in a different way.
Perhaps the real problem was that its big blank spaces were an invitation to scrawl slogans, such as the one for 'JOBS NOW' in this old photo:

I am inevitably and mischievously reminded of the tradition of the Talking Statues of Rome. "In 1501 Cardinal Oliviero Carafa put in a small square near Piazza Navona the battered torso of a statue representing Menelaus with the body of Patroclus. Each year on April 25 the Cardinal chaired a sort of Latin literary competition and poems were posted on the statue and occasionally this happened outside the competition period." In this way Pasquino (the name given to the statue, said to be after a well known deformed dwarf) became the first talking statue of Rome. The trick was to sneak out under cover of dark and paste your inflamatory verses or satirical squibs onto the shapeless lump. At one stage the Pope wanted to chuck it in the Tiber to put an end to the mockeries. When guards were put on the statue, the practice was relocated to the colossal staue of a river god at the foot of Capitol Hill. This one was named Marforio and the whole thing became more interesting as Pasquino and Marforio started having conversations. A mutilated colossal priestess of Isis became known as Madam Lucrezia and added a female voice to the comedy.
I love this one:
Via del Babbuino (Baboon) is named after an old statue of a Silenus, which was referred to in derogatory terms as il Babbuino. Its location in the Strangers' Quarter of Rome made it an alternative site for posting pasquinades without a high risk of being caught. Il Babbuino was also used by the large community of foreigners living in the area for lampooning members of the community.
(lots of photos at the link.) update. edit to fix mistake caught by second commenter.

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Friday, 31 August 2007

Melb 3

I was on a panel yesterday with two ladies much older than myself, and most of the audience too. Not sure I talked very many of them into coming over to the dark side. When these old school literary types sign books, I noticed that they have no concept of making that scrawl on the titlepege into an attractive visual flourish. And, perhaps recalling blue carbon papers, they lean very hard with their ballpoint, otherwise you won't be able to still see the imprint on page nine.

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Thursday, 30 August 2007

In Melbourne, me.

Flew out yesterday. Stopped to get book out of bag as the wife of my bosom approached the check-in desk. Looked up and followed her halfway towards the security gate before realising it was the wife of someone else's bosom wearing a similar coat. A McCauley Culkin moment. Anne was at the check-in desk shouting "oi! Where do you think you're going?".
panel with Nicki Greenberg went very well.

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Wednesday, 29 August 2007


J ames Kochalka's American Elf: Sketchbook Diaries Book 1 was one of the half dozen stand-out books of 2004. His Book 2 has the same status this year. The good thing about the new one is that it's in colour. I love the way each day's strip is in its own key of colour harmony. I've picked two from the same page which demonstrate this clearly:

Beginning in 1998 Kochalka took the form of daily strip and imbued it with a life that has been missing from it for a long time. Since then he has made sure his daily round is not finished until a strip is done. Another thing I like about it is the way he carefully avoids any taint of 'continuity'. There is no story here, just the eternal incidentalness of life as it is lived. Another little occasional touch I like is that if he finds himself away from home and in the company of a fellow artist he may invite him to join him as a guest (Or 'ghost artist') in that day's strip. It doesn't happen often, but i love it when I spot one. You may have noticed Campbell drawing himself in a strip in the first volume. Indeed, you may even have been the one who complimented James for getting the campbell style just right. Trondheim appeared in a similar capacity. In this volume I see Craig Thompson drawing himself and James on July 19.
I count it as one of the important ongoing bodies of work in the comics field today. he draws himself as an 'elf', his friends as assorted dogs or whatever, and none of this could ever convince you that the thing is not a real and accurate account of the daily life of now. If you can be persuaded that the best way to experience it is to recieve it 'now', that is, as it comes out, he puts it up daily here. And for the bookshelf version, go to Top Shelf.

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Tuesday, 28 August 2007

That'll be me off up the road.

Packing to go to Melbourne. here's a review I wrote a few days ago. Recommended. Unless you're an eejit.


"Oh Skin-nay, c'mon over! Smooch is gittin' a hair cut."

Clare Briggs
has for a long been among my favourite cartoonists. I first discovered him in The Time Life book of the century (This Fabulous Century?), where he was one of two cartoonists spotlighted. Feiffer got a couple of pages in the 1950-60 volume, and Briggs in the 1910-20. Later I found a collection from Dover Books, back when Dover still had decent sewn bindings. That book's cover was a wreck however and I dismantled the whole job and kept it in my files as loose pages. At least that way I was able to more or less rearrange them into chronlogical order. That's the annoying problem with reissues of Briggs. You can never just get a run of the stuff and get a sense of his day to day routine of producing for the newpapers. It's always rearranged according to 'themes.' And the present book is no different. It's a facsimile from Drawn and Quarterly of a book that originally appeared in 1913, collecting daily cartoons that appeared under the motto heading In the Days of Real Sport. Briggs had several such headings that he would, I presume, employ at random as the mood took him. Others included When A feller needs a friend, and It happens in the best regulated families, There's at least one in every office, and How to start the Day wrong. This was a standard practice in those years, and you might find other cartoonists using less gentle titles such as Things you see when you're out without a gun, which may well be where the saying originated.
They used to call them 'Panel comics,' and I still do. It was probably Briggs' fellow midwesterner John McCutcheon who started the style. Each one is a panoramic picture with more than one thing happening, and characters and catch phrases recurring. In Real Sport for instance, there is nearly always a kid calling 'Oh Skinnay!' to some other kid outside of the picture, with the running gag that we never get to see this 'Skinnay.' there's another recurring pair in these cartoons, a boy blowing his little brother's nose. I can't even say there are a lot of varations, (Aw shucks another cold! blow now....or just...'HARD!') but I always look for the little pair.

The current volume is useful for getting a look at Briggs' state of play at the year 1913. There are sixty cartoons, arranged approximately Jan-Dec even though they're taken from three years 1911-1913. I would have preferred the facing pages to have more cartoons instead of the verses that were composed for the 1913 book, but what the hell, let's not be picky. Many of the situations are universal, including one that made me laugh out loud because we do the same thing in our house every week. The verse begins: "Don't go to any trouble, ma, pa says each Sunday night./ Don't fix the table- we'll all just pick up a little bite..." In the picture there are a handful of kids lounging around the kitchen eating according to their own inclinations, with crumbs and stuff everywhere, while Ma complains; "My goodness- I might just as well set the table and get a regular meal as go to all this bother."

One odd choice was the one to reconstitute the original extra colour of red, which fills all the flesh areas with pink and was introduced into the original book but was of course absent when the cartoons first appeared in the newspapers. Funny thing is, when I made a joke of the traditional 'extra colour' in The Fate of The Artist by having Honeybee demoted from the front/back four-color pages to the interior two-color pages, quite a number of my readers, as far as I can tell, didn't know what I was talking about.

Most useful is the essay at the end by Jeet Heer, who makes a very good point that never occurred to me before. The first generation of strip cartoonists were big city people east and west coast, New York (Outcault, Opper, Dirks, McManus) or San Francisco (Tad, Goldberg, Fisher, Swinnerton) (even if they didn't technically originate there). But in the '20's and '30s the leading figures were tending to be from the midwest such as Briggs, King, Caniff, and celebrated the locale of their upbringing, making for quite an overall change in style and outlook for the cartoon medium as a whole.

Here's a page from the Dover book (vintage 1924) that doesn't appear in the D& Q. They're all of the same stripe. I have a feeling I may have selected it because it goes all the way back to that Time/Life spread:

And here's one of his 'Movie of a man...' cartoons (vintage 1926). they're always funny:

Links: Briggs' earliest comic strip success was A. Piker Clerk
But his most enduring was the colour sunday page of marital blitz, Mr and Mrs


Monday, 27 August 2007

Since I've now got to give a talk on the subject...

Overcome by remorse after my insane rant the other day, I thought it would be more civilized to write a polite explanation to my host at the Brisbane Writers Festival, who I suppose cannot otherwise complain about all the publicity I'm giving it here. Thus I've cut and pasted, from a longer email, the explainy bit, which may interest those of my readers who are not yet sick to their stomachs with the whole disquisition. (If you make the effort, I promise a good punchline, and if you're new here, hey kids, you can cut and paste this into your homework and call it your own. If you steal my explanation rather than somebody else's i won't need to browbeat you later.)

Firstly, the works of Tezuka are great works indeed, no slight intended there. But the issue at hand is one of eras rather than achievements or intentions. It's like when my grandmother used to refer to all pop music as 'jazz,' bless her.

In its most ideal conception, the 'graphic novel' idea originates in the early '70s. It tends to reject the superheroic characters of the comic books, and instead hearkens back for its inspiration to the characters of an earlier period, of the first twenty or thirty years of the century. It begins when various publishers started to collect in handsome hardcover editions those old comic strips, lying forgotten except by the antiquarians of popular culture (e.g. the huge and gorgeous Nostalgia Press collected Little Nemo from 1970), and critical writers started appearing to discuss them in the terms of serious art and literary criticism. The trend caught the fancy of a generation of enthusiasts who had been taking the monthly comic books very seriously through the sixties, when it became not uncommon to find college students reading the things (well, supposedly). It was a simple step from there to the conception that, since wit, truth and charming artistry could be found in the best of the old things (in the poetic improvisations of Herriman's Krazy Kat for instance), that it would be possible to conceive new and ambitious works using the simple formal elements of the daily comic strip, that the great novel of our times could be composed just using these. Note that the concept of the graphic novel, and the name too, existed before any examples. The theory preceded the fact, in other words. Spiegelman's winning of the Pulitzer was the event which confirmed once and for all the concrete validity of the abstract theory.
(It is argued, with justification, that this is not entirely true, and that the quest to match the abstract to concrete has turned up many examples from the history of illustrated books, such as the woodcut novels of the 1930s. For historical clarity it's best to classify these as 'antecedents' of the 'graphic novel')

However, in its more corrupted version, among people who are so wrapped up in the comic book thing that they can't really recognise a fine idea from a second rate one (and I'm not saying there are no good ideas in comicbooks, but talking about a general perception among their readers and producers), the only difference they can see is one of format, thus to them 'graphic novel' is just a highflown name for the old news-stand thing presented in a bound format. I think this is the version that will win out in the end because in our modern world, the greatest power of all is the steamrolling power of stupidity (and as you've observed, it is the source of my accumulated disillusionment). There is an exreme version of this mindset that cannot even grasp the concept of formats, and to them there isn't even that distinction, it's just a synonym for comicbooks.

Anyway, it has been my hope that a literary festival might be receptive to the subtleties of the idea in its finer conception, and I press ahead intent that I may yet win the day. The works of my fellow guest, Guy Delisle, would be a very good example of what I mean. They deliver information and observation to the modern reader in a way that satisfies the most rigorous standards of art/writing/journalism.

But wait! There is yet another voice of disagreement. This is the crowd that have mostly come in late and are trying to impose a logic where they don't see it growing of its own nature. Thus they look at something like Delisle's book and say 'You called this a 'novel' but it is hardly that. Let's call it a 'graphic memoir' since that would be more logical.' These are the annoying people who arrive late at a bibulous soiree and start putting the furniture back in order while you're still sitting in it.

Entirely relevant to the above, that cheeky Nicki Greenberg has put me in her comic Smackdown!! Campbell vs Greenberg Title Fight

not related at all, a quote:
"There is a point at which the sane man believes a doctrine and says 'yes'- beyond which he disbelieves it and says 'no'. That is why the mentally sane have such an uncomfortable time in a world compose largely of doctrinal lunatics."
Leonard Woolf, quoted in Victoria Glendinning's biography.

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Sunday, 26 August 2007

The Sunday Age.

The article in the Melbourne newspaper The Age came out as well as could be expected. That's the glamorous Nicki Greenberg on the cover. They've made it look like the slug character is feeling her bum, intentionally I presume.

The subject was the lead feature with a spread and a full page. You won't be able to read it here. I'll link later if I find an online version.

My piece took up most of the third page. You might be able to click and enlarge it enough to follow its drift.

Shaun Tan, Bruce Mutard and Bernard Caleo got honorable mentions.

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