Saturday 6 August 2011

AS Byatt on Ragnarök:
"When Canongate invited me to contribute a title to their myth series, I knew immediately which myth I wanted to write. It should be Ragnarök, the myth to end all myths, the myth in which the gods themselves were all destroyed. There were versions of this story in which the world, which had ended in a flat plane of black water, was cleansed and resurrected, like the Christian world after the last judgment. But the books I read told me that this could well be a Christian interpolation, and I found it weak and thin compared with all the brilliant destruction. No, the wolf swallowed the king of the gods, the snake poisoned Thor, everything was burned in a red light and drowned in blackness. It was, you might say, satisfactory."

A big Spread-9

I have circled around and returned to the idea of literalness (see parts 2 and 4). Dave Sim's refusal to be a slave to the literal marked him as progressive from quite early. In the Guys volume that I spoke about already he has a character named Alec MacQuarry who has obviously stepped out of my The King Canute Crowd. When the character shows up in a later scene many pages later he is now, if he is the same character, a version of Alec out of After the Snooter. Here is a panel each of the earlier and the later:

Sim is not interested in explaining this in story terms. You can read it any way you choose. It's not the first time he did this. He has two versions of Oscar Wilde, for example, who are clearly not meant to be the same person (Oscar in Jaka's story and Sebastian Melmoth in Melmoth. he was queried on the mattter in a 1992 interview:
Question: Was Oscar in Melmoth (Sebastian Melmoth) the same character who was in Jaka's Story? People have said you've answered this question differently at different tour stops.

Dave: That was left intentionally ambiguous. If you go by the length of Jaka's hair between issues 75 and 114, Cerebus was on the moon for a longer time than it appeared, or was wandering around dazed for two years. The Oscar character in Melmoth refers to the author of Jaka's Story as a separate person. This was one of the instances where I was ambiguous with a capital "A"; manufacturing two separate, irresolvable interpretations. Nothing frustrates me more than the twentieth century adherence to the notion that you can find out what "actually happened" and that it is necessary for fiction to set out a linear, quantitative and absolute reality for the readers consumption and assurance. I think EVERYTHING is like the Kennedy assassination(s); riddled with inconsistencies, false trails overlapping stories and considerations; distortions wrapped inside fabrications and coated with lies. The sooner we get over the idea that reality isn't like this, the sooner we'll be able to put together a world that fits our circumstances as they are; not as they never were and will never be. I'm not holding my breath.


Friday 5 August 2011

A big Spread-8

S ize is the red herring of the graphic novel. This is a quotation from way back:
"In a recent Comics Journal interview, Dave Sim complains about the use of the term 'graphic novel' for a mere 60 or 100 page story, pointing out for instance that Marvel has issued a set of science fiction 'graphic novels' that adapted sf short stories. How did a short story become a novel by adding (juxtaposed sequential) pictures to it?"
Sim used to think that the whole 6,000 pages (the size, planned and accomplished, of his entire Cerebus) ought to be counted a significant 'graphic novel' if the existence of such a thing were to be acknowledged in the first place, and Sim tended to be ambivalent about that. Before long the terminology got universally confused, so that instead of the work inside the book being the 'graphic novel', it was the book itself (viz. the phrase 'publish it as a graphic novel' as opposed to 'publish my graphic novel in book form', thus you could publish your short story as a graphic novel.) Sim seems to have adapted to usage, so that we may take the above quote as being very early, but let's not get stuck under it as I'm just using this to get to something else.

The issue is not really about size, but rather what we may call 'closed form.' A short story and a novel are both closed forms, which is to say that they do not continue from something else or continue into another thing, like the daily episodes of afternoon tv soap operas. Nor do they put everything back at the end so that they can repeat cyclically for as long as the property has commercial value, like tv detectives. It's worth noting that in comics in the 1970s, at the same time as the 'graphic novel' raised its head, there was also a revival of the short story, somewhat forgotten since the '50s when it was the predominant form in comic books. But note that there's nothing particularly elevated about this, as the short story in comics is usually a horror story of the most trivial sort (I've never understood the attraction of Creepy and Eerie).

Artists always liked the short story. For seven or eight pages they could do their thing without having to follow somebody else's character designs, or continuity, or work over another artist's layouts for the sake of some bigger consistency. And they would usually get to ink the thing too, and have control over the final appearance. Whether they cared that they were asked to illustrate a good story or a bad one is difficult to judge as they usually did the job as well one way or the other. Furthermore, on those occasions when otherwise accomplished artists were given carte blanche to create their own thing they often disconcertingly went with the cliche, as though they really believed in it all along. Thus Steranko and his Chandler, a compendium of well polished film noir plot turns, or Doug Wildey and his Rio, a western in which nothing happens that hadn't happened in other westerns. But artists liked the short story most of all because in a sense they were the star of it, not as opposed to the writer, but to the character.

Closed forms were also a desperately needed way of attracting a general audience, the casual reader, as comic book culture became mired in continuity and collectibles. It was a way of clearing the table before it was too late. But I want to stay with this as an aesthetic idea. To return to the 6,000 pages, an attempt to close a form of such dimensions is like closing the gate on a sheep pen whose boundaries are further apart than any sheep can walk, like Europe say. The parts could go to war with each other. Nevertheless Sim followed his course all the way to the death of his protagonist, as he said he would. Then closed it. Interviewed in The Onion shortly after:
O: ... would you consider a follow-up or spin-off Cerebus series?

DS: No. Cerebus is my attempt at a literary work. A literary work doesn't have follow-ups or spin-offs. It's ridiculous to think about More Crime, More Punishment or The Sons & Nephews Karamazov.

(which dovetails nicely with my earlier discussion of literariness.)


Thursday 4 August 2011

A big Spread-7

(still talking about Dave Sim and Cerebus...)
A round 1970 the comics medium was recognized by its more progressive afficionados, mostly in Europe, as a worthy art form of our times (e.g. the 1967 exhibition in at the Louvre). Conversely, American comic books entered into a dismal and conservative phase. The '70s saw the rise of the independent comics producers, but these were fannish efforts in the high fantasy genre with their invented maps and cosmologies and all. I thought The Lord of the Rings was a literary masterpiece, and The Silmarillion even better, but I could never see the point in building a whole imitative genre in its wake, in prose or comics or whatever. There was First Kingdom (1974-) Cerebus (1977-), ElfQuest (1978-). (The anthology Star Reach (1974-'79) was in there too and Pekar's American Splendor started in 1976, but for obvious reasons I'll leave that out of the argument). In the decade that supposedly saw the introduction of the graphic novel, the best comic was Doonesbury, a newspaper strip. It seemed that until Spiegelman launched RAW in 1980 that American-style comic books had chosen to be just another of the geeky genres. Indeed, since the '70s they've never been able to break free of that thoroughly earned public reputation.

I didn't pay much attention to Sim's Cerebus for a long time, until the mid-'80s when I noticed that it was cut from quite a different cloth from the others (plus most of the new ones that had come along in the interim). It would be wrong to say that it didn't take itself seriously, more correct to say that Sim didn't see taking things seriously as being at odds with having Groucho Marx shuffling around in there, or Mick and Keef from the Rolling Stones. In the genre of high fantasy, this would normally be felt to have broken the spell somewhat. Our consumer culture conventionally wants its fiction in general and its fantasy in particular to come packaged along with all the stuff for putting it together, like IKEA furniture. But with Cerebus I looked for issues in which actual people were hauled in. And it was to play their own part and not that of a character. I always felt that Sim saw in a person a way of diverting the thrust of his story rather than fitting in by way of an inoffensive cameo. An early favourite of mine was Issue #92 (nov '86) which had a caricature of the comicbook publisher Bill Marx, with whose imprint there was a possibility of me getting involved. Reading an issue of Cerebus is certainly no way of giving a person an audtion, but I just had to look.
"The springboard for this story-line was a dinner that I enjoyed, courtesy of Harry, at the Now & Then Books 15th Anniversary party. Also in attendance and seated directly opposite were Seth and Bill Marks of Toronto's Vortex Comics artist and publisher of Mister X respectively."
"I don't recall hearing Seth say more than five words so I had to improvise his voice.
I decided to use Diana Schutz's."

Caricature is one of the foundational cartoon skills. Sim presumably studied the work of Mort Drucker in Mad, but until Sim, nobody had integrated caricature into a narrative so well since the great Walt Kelly in Pogo. (in this case however, he obviously didn't know that Seth was going places or he'd have paid more attention to the face than the voice)

That same year, 1986, Sim released the first of his 'phonebooks', High Society, at 512 pages. Reading his rationale now, he appears to have seen this at the time primarily as an expedient manoeuvre rather than a goal in itself. " I have arrived at this decision for a number of reasons (a) the difficulty involved in keeping each volume of Cerebus in print at all times, (b) the convenience of being able to introduce new fans to Cerebus with two large volumes and (at most) two dozen back issues, (c) a manageable format for someday having all 300 issues available, (d) the opportunity to expand Cerebus' exposure by making it available in bookstores." Nevertheless, the first volume that he created with the phonebook in view from the beginning is perhaps the most integrated, and perhaps satisfying, volume in all of his oeuvre, Jaka's Story. He began it in the Sept. 1988 issue, with the book's finished title at the top of each issue for the first time, and concluded it in July 1990. The phonebook was out in Oct 1990. It remains one of the most important of graphic novels. From Sim's own introduction:
"It contains no heroes and no villains; merely people set in motion and in orbit about each other. Like Wilde's ill-advised action against the "screaming, scarlet Marquess' it begins innocently enough and plays itself out against a highly moral backdrop to an all-too human ending which defies (in the case of thinking persons) convenient or reassuring conclusions."
I re-read it recently and enjoyed it like visiting an old friend.

next: about size.


Wednesday 3 August 2011

If you're around Sydney this month, don't forget this. I don't want to be standing up there with my arse hanging out and nobody in the audience. My part is a free event, but go and book your seat now (link below).

* M * O * N * E * Y *.


It possible to make money out of comics?

The subject is money. As explained with no authority whatsoever by a man who draws pictures for a living. Featuring unpublished illustrations, histrionics, humorous asides and totally useless information, including how Campbell became incorporated just so he could write and draw Batman, and what went wrong with that; how his accountant goes to work in a sarong and bare feet because he fancies himself as an artist. As well as Campbell's weeklong visit to the mysterious tropical island of Yap, to get the inside story of the ancient stone money for his next book.
Venue: Studio
Dates: Sun 21 Aug
Time: 12pm
Register Now!

Also on the bill:

ROBERT CRUMB’S OLD TIME JUKEBOX: a selection of old-time tunes chosen by RC will be played by Mic Conway and his Captain Matchbox band with Crumb on mandolin. I think this event is 45 bucks.


And on Sunday, Crumb is interviewed on the concert stage by Gary Groth.
complete program.