Classic Comics Criticism: Black Hole Son-In-Law

My in-laws’ tradition (on my wife’s dad’s side) for the big family gathering on Christmas eve is that everyone draws the name of another family-member and buys a present for that person. This is probably totally normal to the rest of you, but it’s an alien concept to me because

a) I’m Jewish, and

b) I don’t have much extended family on this continent, so there was never any mass gift-giving event.

Two years ago, my father-in-law drew my name and smartly went to my Amazon wish list to find something for me. So, surrounded by my new in-laws, most of whose names I can’t keep straight, I opened my gift and discovered . . . the hardcover collection of Charles Burns’ amazing serial, Black Hole!

What a great gift! I immediately thanked my father-in-law, started flipping through the book, and then asked, “You, uh, you didn’t read this, didja?”

Here’s a review I wrote of the fifth issue in that serial:

From TCJ #203, April, 1998:

Black Hole #5 • Charles Burns • Fantagraphics, $3.95

burnstailI’m sure glad I didn’t go to high school with Charles Burns. Black Hole harkens back to Burns’ “teen plague” strips, but this time Burns has dropped most of the sci-fi elements that filled his earlier work, keeping only the sexually-transmitted plague that causes strange and awful physical mutations to teens. The comic is a compelling, creepy look at the social interactions and sexual longings of the painful period of American life. The latest installment revolves around a conversation between a girl who’s got the plague and the guy who infected her. The episode narrated by the infected girl, delves into a flashback of her experience with the plague, developing into a rumination on her status as sexual pariah. Taken as a metaphor for teenage pregnancy, HIV, STDs and every other sexual secret we keep, the concept of teen plague has grown increasingly effective as the series has gone on. Through the awkwardness of their dialogue, Burns conveys the fragility of these kids’ lives, illustrating the mixture of sexual longing and confusion that characterizes our high school years. Visually, the book is a treat, albeit a dark one. While burns has refined his art style, it’s not overly different from his past work. His page layouts are more imaginative, and that’s probably a function of drawing for the comic book page and not for the dimensions of a syndicated strip.

Classic Comics Criticism: Catch as Katchor Can

It’s time for the first official installment of Classic Comics Criticism! By “Classic,” I mean this consists of the reviews I wrote for The Comics Journal back in 1998. Sure, it may sound like a cheap-ass way to make a new recurring feature, but I challenge you, dear reader, to go back to what you wrote 11 years ago and try not to wince!

In that spirit, I’ve only cleaned up typos. I promise I haven’t done anything to rectify my utter lack of critical apparatus (esp. since I doubt I’ve improved on that front in the intervening decade).

Our first CCC isn’t a review of a comic. Rather, it’s a writeup about a lecture/slideshow delivered by Ben Katchor, genius cartoonist. He won a MacArthur grant, so it’s okay to call him a genius. I haven’t seen new comics from him in a while, and I’m hoping he didn’t go the Caden Cotard route and begin working on a mammoth theater piece encompassing his entire life.

(UPDATE: Apparently, he’s gotten into staging opera and “musical tragicomedy,” which may be a worse fate. Oh, and he’s doing a monthly color one-pager for Metropolis magazine! Yay!)

Anyway: I’ve adored Ben Katchor’s work since I first saw it in some alt-paper in the early ’90s, so I was happy to be a TCJ correspondent for his lecture, esp. since it gave me the opportunity to meet him and get a sketch of Julius Knipl and an autograph in my copy of Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay.

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From TCJ #201, January, 1998:

The Deliberate Tourist

“It’s useless. He doesn’t understand. We speak two different languages which happen to share many of the same words.”

Attending Ben Katchor’s slideshow and lecture, “Cities of the Mind: Street Navigation and Carfare City,” is like taking an extended journey through the cartoonist’s Julius Knipl comic strips. While it’s typically quite difficult to life a comic off the page, Katchor achieves this feat with relative ease. This is a credit to the strength, profundity and humor of Katchor’s writing, which loses nothing in spoken form. The program, approximately 45 minutes in length, includes a monologue on the hidden meaning of the travel industry, an audio-recording of one of Katchor’s “radio-comics” for National Public Radio, plans for a new city in which private and public life become inextricably merged, and an accumulation of place and proper names that seems to have been shaken free from the pages of a Yiddish-to-Greek lexicon. Katchor begins the show with an invocation of sorts, welcoming his audience to Trampoline Hall, a location that crops up infrequently in his strips. The attendees are invited to remember their childhood visit to the hall; Katchor reminds the audience of the sand in the cigarette ashtrays and the indelible impression it made upon them. With accompanying panels from his strips continuously projected behind him, he immediately draws the audience into his fictive city, which is always New York, no matter how different the names are.

The first half of the lecture discusses the importance of remaining a tourist in one’s own city. The speaker raises to epiphany the moment of approaching an intersection from an unfamiliar direction, a concept that informed the entire evening. Progress and man’s reaction to it are the basis for most of the jokes and the false histories.

I don’t mean to treat the program as a serious lecture. Still less do I want the speaker to be mistaken (necessarily) for Ben Katchor; the man who vigorously inveighed against the travel industry and the Golyak Travel Agency in particular that evening bore little resemblance to the soft-spoken, perpetually rumpled individual who afterward signed copies of his books and drew head-shots of Julius Knipl looking at something in the middle distance. First and foremost, the lecture is an entertainment, filled with Katchor’s strange characters, places and products. Harold Alms, impromptu speaker, is mentioned, as is the American Tapeworm Sanctuary over on Purkinje Island. And Katchor’s delivery on most of his jokes was impeccable; attendees belly-laughed during much of the lecture.


I’m curious, though, as to how the lecture has been received elsewhere in the country. Katchor has performed the lecture for more than a year in such locations as the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the National Yiddish Book Center near Amherst, MA, the St. Louis History Museum, the KGB Bar in New York and several bookstores around the city. Its humor seems particularly New York-oriented, but perhaps it transcends this through its ties to Yiddish culture. The flagship of the “Julius Knipl Syndicate” is the Forward, a Jewish weekly formerly published in Yiddish, and both Amherst and St. Louis have strong Jewish populations.

The funniest part of the lecture is its “intermission.” Before the second half of the lecture, Katchor plays an audio-recording of “The Directory of the Alimentary Canal,” a strip he adapted for NPR. The “radio-strip” revolves around a defunct weekly directory that enumerated the gastrointestinal condition of every resident of the city. The strip’s narrator discusses the importance of such a directory, how restaurant and theater openings hinged on this information. During the strip, Julius Knipl attempts to reach various leads over the phone, only to learn that each of them is “indisposed” at present. Throughout, a voice-over reads from the directory: “Eagle, M. 104 Moly . . . Aerophagy, colitis, sluggish bowel . . . Eaglet, T. 36 Samson . . . Proctalgia, fugax, gas, diarrhea . . .” Voicer were provided by Jerry Stiller, “Professor” Irwin Corey, and others. Evidently, this was the last Julius Knipl “radio-strip” that was produced. Some listeners sent outraged e-mails to NPR, protesting the gastric extravaganza. Still, Katchor reported that the network received a record number of e-mails calling for more episodes when the series ended.

The second half of the lecture is adapted more or less from “The Evening Combinator” serial from Katchor’s most recent collection. The speaker presents his plans for a city designed to resemble the area around an elevated subway line. However, in Carfare City, the electric streetcar will run directly through residents’ apartments at 15-minute intervals. This combination of transit and private life creates a state of “transportational flux,” in which “modern man never has to go home . . . he can travel between ‘home’ and the ‘world,’ but never have to reach either end point.” By running a streetcar through the apartments, says the speaker, “the mysteries of private life become the details of a passing landscape.

Carfare City’s raison d’etre is the moment in which a commuter returns home and fails to recognize it. “For a moment,” says the speaker, “you’re happy to  be in this strangely familiar place with its enamel sign bearing your name in two-foot-high letters.” It is the epiphany of the deliberate tourist. The silly but strangely evocative place-names in the city serve the same purpose for Katchor; though the settings are derived from reality, the act of renaming allows the artist himself to remain a tourist.

In all, Katchor’s lecture is a profoundly entertaining program. While it probably has little appeal to those who aren’t fans of Julius Knipl, it might make Katchor’s weekly strips a bit more comprehensible. Katchor himself is a delightful speaker and his question-and-answer session following the program revealed interesting facets of Katchor’s work process without wrecking one’s enjoyment of the strips.

One further note: as enjoyable as the lecture was, the audience was a story in itself. As opposed to a traditional comics-related event, Katchor’s lecture was attended by elderly couples, orthodox Jews, middle-aged men in suits, and only the occasional twenty-something comics reader (like your humble correspondent). Prior to the lecture, a number of attendees discussed the significance of the Julius Knipl comics in their lives. Several recounted their “first time,” reciting the text of the strips verbatim. The reverence in their voices offered up some (although probably deluded) hope for a mature comics readership.

–Gil Roth © 1998

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Seeya next week with more Classic Comics Criticism!

The Blood Club

On Monday, I wrote that I was going to launch a recurring Thursday feature reprinting mean-spirited reviews I wrote for The Comics Journal back in 1998. It was going to be Klassik Komiks Kritikism, but my lawyers have informed me that title could be construed as a sign that I’m a member of the Bloods, like this guy (I thought he was a member of the Inks, but hey):

So beginning next Thursday, get ready for your Classic Comics Criticism Post! Now no one can mistake me for a member of any gang, except maybe the former Soviet Union.

(Alternate title for this series: How To Get Bob Fingerman Pissed Off At Me All Over Again.)

The Nostalgia Journal

Last week, I mentioned that I once kinda maligned the great cartoonist Richard Sala. A commenter who professed to be a fan of both of us asked me for the story. I was a bit suspicious, given the fact that I don’t believe I have any fans, but hey.

In 1998, I wrote a number of short reviews for The Comics Journal. I’d struck up an e-mail friendship with the editor at the Journal, the oft-mentioned Tom Spurgeon, a few years earlier, and he invited me to contribute to the new short-review section. He probably realized early in our correspondence that my longer-form writing tended to lose its way, contradict itself and otherwise become unintelligible, while my snarkiness, witticisms and occasional insights were best limited to a 150-word maximum. I wish I realized that.

The August 1998 ish of TCJ ran my short review of Mr. Sala’s comic Evil Eye #1:

I was under the impression that this comic was going to be sort of an Eightball to the Lloyd Llewellyn of Sala‘s past work. In fact, after his 17-part, 200-page Chuckling Whatsit serial and subsequent collection, I was sure he’d move in a new direction, that he’d say, “Enough with the conspiracy melodramas. Enough with the mysterious stalkers, ritual killings and overlapping cabals!” Alas, that’s not the case. Evil Eye features a new serial replete with the B-move trappings and labyrinthine plots of The Chuckling Whatsit. Don’t get me wrong: Sala’s expressionistic artwork is more delightfully creepier than ever. It’s just the story is utterly stale. The inside cover of Evil Eye promises “thrills! chills!! and shock!!!,” but Sala’s delivered each of these so unerringly in recent years that I’d love to see him tackle a different milieu.

This was harsh. Not as harsh as some of the things I wrote for TCJ in those days, because it does include my genuine affection for Sala’s art and writing. It’s just that I thought that Mr. Sala had run his course with stories of secret societies, severed hands, fortune-tellers and ape-like killers, and was hoping he’d pursue a new direction with his comics.

Just a few months later (November 1998), TCJ ran a lengthy interview with Mr. Sala, conducted by Darcy Sullivan. Discussing the recurring “components” (Mr. Sullivan’s word) in his stories, Mr. Sala remarked,

Many artists actually have a specific vocabulary of obsession. Look at Hitchcock: he told very similar stories over and over again, and those are the ones that people love. When he tried to do something different, a screwball comedy or a period piece, people just didn’t accept it. As an artist, your goal should be to recognize your own personal obsessions, your own personal vocabulary, and use it. There was a review of my work where a guy said, “Enough with the mysterious killers and secret societies.” That’s like saying, “I’d sure like Peanuts a lot better if it didn’t have those kids in it.” I mean, that’s what I do. If you don’t like it, read something else.

It’s possible that I wasn’t “a guy,” because of the interval between publication of my review and the interview, but it sure sounds like what I wrote. Now, the point I was trying to make was that Dan Clowes’ Lloyd Llewellyn comic was a young man’s work in a narrow(ish) genre, where the next stage of his career — Eightball — was a quantum leap in terms of sophistication, humor, experimentation, and storytelling. One major difference was Mr. Clowes’ use of stories that directly address/engage the reader — like Art School Confidential, I Hate You Deeply (and its followup, I Love You Tenderly), Chicago, and Grist for the Mill — in which “Dan Clowes” or a stand-in plays the role of (usually irate) narrator. (This wasn’t the only thing I dug about Eightball, but it felt like a significant move away from LlLl.)

What I didn’t really get back then is that not everyone is Dan Clowes (or Pete Bagge). For Mr. Sala, all those recurring themes, locations and components are as direct as he can get. As he put it in that interview, explaining why he’s not interested in characterization:

What I’m writing are fever dreams. One person thrashing about in a world he doesn’t understand. Don’t bother searching for anything resembling a fully-rounded character. Don’t bother looking for any situation that has anything to do with reality. In other words, characterization is subordinate to plot and atmosphere. I’ll sacrifice characterization in a second for atmosphere. I don’t care what the character had for breakfast.

I mean, these stories are basically extensions of my personality. People use to ask me, “Why don’t you do autobiographical comics?” And I would say, “I’ve been doing them. These are my autobiographies.”

A few years after writing my review, I read over my old Sala comics — Thirteen O’Clock, Hypnotic Tales, Black Cat Crossing — and found them much richer than I recalled. Sure, his usual coterie of storytelling elements cropped up again and again, but I saw them now as much subtler symbols, not simply of the mystery-at-hand, but of the roles of mystery and mysticism in the psyche. Of course, I can’t discount the possibility that agents of a secret society had sneaked into my home and replaced the earlier comics with new, stranger ones, but it’s more likely that I’d grown to understand the role of these personal, stylized components to Mr. Sala’s storytelling.

So I realized that my complaint about Mr. Sala’s lack of “development” was like asking Edgar Allan Poe why he didn’t write Last of the Mohicans; it’s not the story he was here to write. Moreover, to continue the cartoonist comparison, Dan Clowes soon outgrew the “personal narrator” device and went on to write some remarkable comics during the past 15 years.

It’s a good thing I didn’t take Mr. Sala’s advice — “If you don’t like it, read something else” — because I’ve gotten a great deal of joy out of his later work. Even if Delphine reads a little too quickly for a book that took almost 4 years to serialize. (I know, I know: Delphine is as much about the textures as it is about the story.)

Now go immerse yourself in some of Mr. Sala’s comics. I’m waiting for Cat Burglar Black.


Cover art to Richard Sala’s Black Cat Crossing.

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Reading over my old reviews as I prepared to write this post, I realized that they really need their own forum, so I’m planning to run “Klassik Komiks Kritikism” every Thursday, bringing you the best of my 11-years-old meanness. Because you’re worth it.

To be fair, I also wrote some positive reviews. In fact, one of my most gratifying moments came when one of the Langridge Bros. mentioned that my longer review of Zoot Suite meant a lot to them at a time when one of them was ready to get out of comics, because it told them that someone out there “got it.” Sure, it sounded to me like the episode of Cheers where Cliff appears on Jeopardy!, but I was happy for the flattery. So I’ll run my good reviews, too.