Thursday 22 December 2011

I have been recently instructed on how to fix the pictures of the books in the sidebar so that if you click on the image of one it will take you to I did as I was instructed and then clicked on Alec it and sure enough there I was at Amazon. While I was in the neighbourhood, I thought I'd check out what reviewers were saying about the book. One fellow gives it a good four stars and says "In spite of all my caveats..." One of his caveats is that life is somewhat boring and a comic about life (he's speaking generally rather than specifically about me at this point) is likely to also be boring, unless...
"...let's say, Aleister Crowley or William Burroughs or Charles Manson, to name a few, were to write an autobiographical comic, *that* would be interesting. People who's lives and perceptions are really wacked out, they would make interesting subjects for autobiographical comics. ...
... Can't we say that unless you're a real unadulterated unapologetic jerk and willing to expose yourself at your inhuman human worst don't bother writing an autobiographical comic?"
I've been at pains in several posts lately to find a semantic for separating the aesthetic experience of a comic from the routine details of 'what happens' in it. While it is true that this is an understanding of the medium achieved by an adult reinventing his interest in an artistic form introduced to him or her when they were a minor, I would argue that this minor's interest (mine) in The Bash Street Kids, to pick an example, involved an understanding that it was drawn better than other comic strips. Well, let's not introduce the concept of 'art' this early; let's say that I knew this was funny not so much because of what was happening, but because of *how* it was happening.

In fact, I would have been happy to tape portraits of these characters on my wall without them being required to say or do anything. I loved them as cartoon inventions, to phrase it in a way that would have been beyond my understanding. To me they were pals named Danny, Plug, Smiffy, Toots and Sid, Wilfrid, Erbert, Spotty and Fatty.

This is still some way from a *purely* aesthetic appreciation of a comic, and to prove that such a thing exists before moving on I could cite my contemplation a couple of weeks back of a certain technique used to render hair that only happens in comics, or Daniel Clowes scanning and cloning the aged colours from old comics and then using these to make up his own 'palette'. This can't be separated from 'reading' comics because we only arrive at such an affection for them from years of reading the things. It may be compared to a scholar of music listening to the 'voicings' where somebody else might just hear a 'tune' (or lack of one).

We come to love the look of a comic, and the feeling expands to a general one of enjoying the way comics are drawn and composed, and even of the ink and paper. We want to make one. And having made one we're not entirely happy with it. Let's say that we've taken a notion to introduce a naturalistic element. So we base our figures on people we know. But the problem is that the things they're saying and doing are not quite authentic. So let's base these aspects on actual situations that we have observed. And so by increments we've put ourselves in the work.

The purpose of the endeavor was not to tell the world how interesting we are and to compete with all the world's monsters for the attention of a sensation hungry public. The purpose was simply to make comics, and to find ways of improving them vis-a-vis the subtlety of the things we wanted to say. It was, Godlike, to create little people who persuade that they live and breathe in their inky environment. And if they say and do no more than you or I, then that should be enough to endear them to a reader, because commonplace life is agreeable enough that we should like to hold onto it. Grant Morrison, to justify his outlandish fantasy worlds recently said "We already have real life, why should we need to duplicate it?" (quoted from memory) Well, yes we have it today, but today's is gone tomorrow, and if nobody was paying attention, then it is gone forever.

You may say that naturalism doesn't belong in comics and that might be an argument worth having. But introducing naturalism, in large measure or small, is not a new idea. It's been there at least (to pick one that everybody has heard of) since Frank King decided in 1921 to make Skeezix age day by day in real time from a baby to an adult. And, while there will inevitably be many days when not much is happening, that, when you think about it, is a very ambitious thing to attempt.

While I was writing the above, Matthias Wivel has developed an earlier observation of his from a couple of months back into an lengthy essay at the Hooded Utilitarian:
"...such criticism is often informed by a kind of ideological Puritanism that has gained traction in our current culture of taking offense — a Puritanism often blind to aesthetic quality, resistant to uncomfortable discourse, and prone to censorious action...
In the case of Habibi, it seems to me facile and unproductive to harp for too long on its sexism and Orientalism. Yes, it offers both and it suffers from it, but why does that have to be the full story? It is simultaneously, and obviously, a book so generous in intent and so voracious of ambition, that such criticism risks coming off as petty and, more importantly, ends up lacking in resonance."
These critics he refers to are not unlike the first one quoted above, whose interaction with an artistic work does not go much beyond a simplistic 'what happens' in it. I mean on the level of a statue being naked rather than on the finesse of its chiasmos. Allowing for exceptions of course, they do not have a concept of what the 'aesthetic' aspect of comics might consist of beyond being obliged to acknowledge that Thompson is very good with the pen and brush. It's as though the Thompson who drew it might have a different worldview from the one who typed it, or from the other one who thought it all up in the first place.

(Bash Street Kids)



Blogger Ray Davis said...

"It's fine for what it is but it would be a lot more interesting if Emma Bovary had been murdered."

"There are some good survival tips but Mr. Defoe should have learned that a romance needs a prince as a hero."

This fellow hasn't done his research. In my Yeatsian youth I read heaps of Crowley, all of it more boring than any "Hi & Lois" strip. I love Burroughs's two most "realistically" autobiographical books -- Junky and Queer -- but both are ruthlessly deadpan. Virtually all schizophrenic writing is hellishly dreary and the songwriting of Manson in particular doesn't promise anything better.

Your memory-quote from Morrison describes why his work leaves me cold. The only people who claim to have "real life" or "reality" boringly at hand, like a remote control locked on a dead channel, are those who haven't noticed much of "real life" or "reality". I can't imagine -- at least not since puberty -- a real material thinner and duller than Batman or Superman. My favorite fantasists work in genre to escape the formal bounds of mainstream realism (or, say, the formal bounds of romance comics), not to ignore experience.

23 December 2011 at 10:13:00 GMT-5  
Blogger h.n. said...

The stuff lists are made of..Authors more interesting than what they create, great art made by dull people.. A similar point could have been made about Frederick Rolfe. Or P. G. Wodehouse.

23 December 2011 at 16:01:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Unknown said...

Life is not boring but can be endlessly fascinating. The things we do and the reasons we do them are worth thinking about, and a good artist can make us see our lives in a new and different way, and reveal aspects we may never have thought about. Surely that is one of the prime functions of art, to enable the viewer/reader to see things differently?

24 December 2011 at 05:33:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Frank Santoro said...

Forgive me if this is off topic -
I just got your self published edition of How To Be An Artist in the mail for Christmas. Read it this morning. I'd seen bits here and there - where I couldn't say - but never read it in one go. It's amazing! Like a personal genre of comics history. Thanks.

26 December 2011 at 10:17:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

thanks, Frank, much appreciated.

26 December 2011 at 11:41:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Ethan said...

Dear Eddie-
As perhaps one of "those critics" I would like to distance myself as much as possible from views like that of your idiotic reviewer.

What I find it hard to communicate to interlocutors such as your yourself (and Wivel) is that there is sometimes content that we cannot simply get over, ignore, push to the side to consider the aesthetic elements. If Craig Thompson (or any other artist) were to do a book rooted in Aryan fantasies of Nazi Germany with rodent-like vile Jewish villains or white supremacist imaginary narratives of American slavery with picaninny black slaves I would hope you would not find it acceptable no matter how great his level of craft.

We are not harping because our heads are stuck in some book of Marx. We are complaining because these portrayals are deeply hurtful to us personally. My partner and I tried reading Habibi and we couldn't get through it.

Which is fine. Nobody has to like everything. Thompson has a right to make work which is repulsive and odious to certain audiences.

29 December 2011 at 08:48:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

I'm swiftly losing sympathy with your position. And I can't take any more of this, so i'm closing the comments.

29 December 2011 at 17:40:00 GMT-5  

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