Podcast: Classical Pop

Virtual Memories – season 2 episode 14 – Classical Pop

It’s time for a (somewhat) long-delayed new episode of The Virtual Memories Show!

“Picasso said that the way you draw your circle is your style.”

This time, postmodern cartoonist Bob Sikoryak talks about the high/low mashups of his amazing book, Masterpiece Comics, the 1980’s art scene in NYC, the sea change in the acceptance of comics as art and entertainment, the (un)importance of having an individual drawing style, and more!

“It’s amazing to me how comics artists can speak to a generation, and that’s it. When you make something, it’s of your time, no matter what you do.”

We also reflect on the art of mimicry, the history of popular art, and who decides when it’s too soon to goof on Dostoevsky. I’ve been a fan of his work since I first read his Inferno Joe strip in 1989, so getting the chance to sit down with Bob for a conversation was a joy. (He’s the sweetest person I’ve met in comics.)

“My roommate in college said, “If you keep reading those comics, it’s gonna affect your style,” and clearly he was right.”

Bob Sikoryak on the Virtual Memories Show

Photo by Kriota Willberg.

About Our Guest

R. Sikoryak has drawn cartoons for numerous media giants, including Nickelodeon Magazine, The New Yorker, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as for independent publications, films and theater productions. His cartoon slideshow series Carousel has been presented around the U.S. and Canada. He also teaches and lectures on comics and illustration. He lives in NYC with his wife and frequent collaborator Kriota Willberg.

Listen to the conversation!

 About Our Sponsor

This episode is sponsored by Out of Print Clothing! Visit their site and check out their great selection of T-shirts, fleeces, bags and other gear featuring gorgeous and iconic book cover designs.

The Virtual Memories Show is on iTunes! If you’d like to subscribe, visit our iTunes page!

If you’d like to check out past episodes, you can find us on iTunes or visit the Podcast page for all our back episodes, as well as e-mail signup and tip jar! And why don’t you friend the Virtual Memories Show at our Facebook page? It’d make my mom happy.

Credits: This episode’s music is Ambicion Eterna by Thievery Corporation. I recorded the intro on a Blue Yeti mic into Audacity, and the conversation with was recorded in Mr. Sikoryak’s home in Stuy Town in NYC, on a pair of Blue Encore 100 mics, feeding into a Zoom H4N recorder. All editing was done in Garage Band, with some post-processing in Audaity.

Unrequired Reading: April Link Showers

Bizarre! I was just settling in to collect my May Twitter-links for a big Unrequired Reading when I discovered that last month’s load o’ links never went live! So here’s all of April’s great stuff! I’ll post May’s tomorrow!

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It’s time for another month’s worth of Twitter links, dear readers! If you want to follow along, I’m at twitter.com/groth18!

First, the retweets:

RT @mookiewilson86 (paul raff): David Koresh had a better homestand than the Mets.

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RT @ESQStyle Esquire Style: And the best-dressed male guest at the #RoyalWedding is… not David Beckham.

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RT @felixsalmon (felix salmon): Wherein Martin Amis blathers on for 4,000 dutiful but unnecessary words about Christopher Hitchens.

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RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle van Blerk): Client request of the year.

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RT @simondoonan (Simon Doonan): Creative factory: Simon Doonan, My Faves!

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RT @GreatDismal (William Gibson): “WE HELPED YOUR GRANDAD GET LAID” #daytonbootsvancouver

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RT @mattzollerseitz (Matthew Zoller Seitz): “‘After Hours’ exists to prove that ‘Taxi Driver’ actually displayed some restraint. @notjustmovies

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RT @JPosnanski (Joe Posnanski): In honor of touching CNN story, I write a little more about Nick Charles and a moment I’ll never forget.

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RT @asymmetricinfo (Megan McArdle): Why Europe won’t develop as an independent military power

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RT @kottke (kottke.org): Hilarious fake TLC promo

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RT @kylevanblerk (Kyle van Blerk): Bored at work. Photoshopping Bieber’s head onto things.

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RT @questlove (?Love of The Roots): Man. Not even “OJ Guilt” is the proper colloquialism for what I feel after eatin Cinnabon.

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And now, the links!

NBA Action: Bet On It! #IhadSpursandMagicinthefinals

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Ah, #vodka, with your “marketing gimmicks that make getting drunk seem like a gateway to fame and fortune

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The bowling alley of the #Frick: it’s no basement of the Alamo, but still.

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There’s now a computer as dumb as my boss. #thatswhatshesaid

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Joe Queenan goofs on the #gehry glut.

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Is anyone at the #royalwedding sporting a monkey-tail beard?

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Via @khoi, abandoned Yugoslavia monuments of awesomeness.

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Xanadu comes back to life! (Will #MichaelBeck and @olivianj be at the opening?)

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Xanadu: More of disaster than @XanaduMovie? #likedecoratinganuclearreactor #bringbacktheAlexander’smural

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In the movie, I see Billy Bob Thornton as the local, and Pesci as the mobster: #greateststoryever #trustme

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Tefillin: it’s like Jewish blood pressure.” Go, @MitzvahTank! #areyouJewish?

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Will nobody think of the #pistachios?!

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#AllStarSuperman never should’ve released the sun-eater from captivity:

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The Walk of Shame goes #StreetStyle, via @sartorialist

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So VCs are like the AIDS activists of our time?

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I’m all for taking advantage of gorgeous chicks, but sheesh! #modelscam (via @felixsalmon)

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#HaroldBloom and his “elite Europhile glasses” #agon

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Eat lead! #staedtler and #fabercastell at war

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Every so often, I remind myself why I find contempo literary fiction useless and stultifyingly dull

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Go read this #BenKatchor interview! Nownownow! #CardboardValise (just plow through the “what is comics?” section)

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@felixsalmon delivers a (much appreciated) Jonathan Franzen smackdown

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@witoldr on the secret language of architects.

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This #Houdini article escapes from the need to write in complete sentences. #escapeartistry

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I guess I oughtta get around to reading #GeoffDyer sometime, huh?

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In honor of tonight’s season 2 premiere of #Treme on #HBO, check out this interview with #WendellPierce (#BunkMoreland)

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#ChrisElliott has a DAUGHTER on SNL? #igrowold

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Dali makes aliyah!

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Ron Rosenbaum implores us to visit (Joyce’s) Ithaca (but not much else). (I admit I’ll likely skip #Ulysses)

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I’m awfully happy with my @allenedmonds, I have to say

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I look down on my wife. #shekicksmeintheshins

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#Starbury = Jim Jones?

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Is it good or bad that my TV/movie/prose diet is so similar to that of #StevenSoderbergh? #MillersCrossing!

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25 years ago: Graceland and the Gatwick Baby

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“People who drink coffee are different in many ways from those who don’t drink coffee” #whataboutgin?

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Geoff Dyer on being allergic to David Foster Wallace’s writing (his compare/contrast w/Federer is great)

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“You look into the fiery furnace and see the rich man without any name” #wallstreet

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Neat video of @billy_reid at home.

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@simondoonan on camp: “I am not the brightest Art Nouveau lamp in the room…” #needIsaymore?

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NOLA: The Big Hypothetical

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Fun interview with Glenn O’Brien, onetime Warhol employee and current #StyleGuy for #GQ: #howtobeaman #glennobrien

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Ah, get back to me around yer 20th reunion, ya young bastid.

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Neat take on Android, Google’s business model, and moats.

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Authors and broken promises. #Icantgetstarted

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I would prefer not to poke you. #groupmeh

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Um, the good news is that “cancer” doesn’t exist (the bad news is that it’s more complex than anyone thought) #uhoh

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Would it have more success if it were called a “scrodpiece”? #probablynot

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“It’s still real to me, dammit!” #soareconcussions #andearlydeath #wwe

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When Antonioni met Tarkovsky: #shakeitlikeaPolaroidpicture

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RPG = Rocket-Powered Genius (of design) #rocketpunchgeneration

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@rupaul answers all questions, except, “What’s up with the mustache?” #dragrace

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@david_j_roth speaks truth to pizza (I still don’t understand how @pizzahut stays in business here in NJ.)

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Is there a Damien Hirst level to unlock? #jeffkoonsmustdie

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By @mattnycs: Vote for the man in the small hat: a rabbi runs for office … in Uganda: Parts I and II #really

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Hot chicks with (old) douchebags: #Iblamesociety #Ialsoblamehotchicks

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No Shakespeare in Topeka? #talentnotgenius #billjames

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#Koppenburg: why I don’t bike. #whoneedstheexercise?

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Accidental Mysteries: masked #seenandunseen

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GREAT piece by @comicsreporter on a trip to the #centerforcartoonstudies

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Because, as we know from #chrisrock, books are like Kryptonite to… certain people: #padandquill

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The Perplexitude of Hilfiger

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Darkness at Noonan: #tomgoestothebar (happy 60th, Tom Noonan!)

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And I close this month’s edition with a non-link:

“I used to believe that worry was a talisman against something bad happening to you.” thx for the wisdom, @ConanOBrien (& @MarcMaron)!

Man Out of Time: Comics

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

There are three major problems I have with writing about comics for this “favorites of the decade” post:

  1. One of my best pals is a comics critic, and I always feel like I’m coming up short when I try to discuss comics around him.
  2. I can’t draw worth a damn and always feel like I’m coming up short when describing the visual side of comics.
  3. I have no idea what constitutes the “of the decade” part of “favorite comics of the decade.”

See, I love Chris Ware’s book, Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth, but, while it was published in 2000, it’s actually a collection of comics published in the ’90’s. Do I include that, or do I only consider books in which most of the work was originally published this decade? Because so many comics are first produced as serials, I’ll have to make an arbitrary ruling on this.

Because it really was a hell of a decade for collections of pre-2000 work. There were massive volumes of the Hernandez Brothers’ great Love & Rockets comics, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo Sunday comics (reprinted at their original size!), the first volumes of the complete Popeye strips by E.C. Segar, Charles Burns’ Black Hole, the three-volume collected Calvin & Hobbes, Humbug, Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s gekiga books, Bill Mauldin’s Willie & Joe, the World War II Years, Jim Woodring’s Book of Frank, the complete Peanuts series, Tales of the Bizarro World (the 1950’s reprints), Scott McCloud’s Zot! from 1987-1991, and a million more great collections. Had it come out on time, the collected Alec comics by Eddie Campbell, The Years Have Pants, would have been at the top of my comics list, even though many of the comics in it are pre-2000. (One of my pals says he just found a copy in a comic store, but I’m still waiting for an Amazon delivery of it.) I have no idea if it’s a great time to be a reader of mainstream/superhero comics, but it sure is a blast to be a “literary” comics reader (with a steady job and decent income) in this era.

So I’ve tried to confine this list to comics that were mostly of this decade, but this would’ve been a much easier task at the end of the previous decade. Then I could have just recited the litany of usual suspects — Dan ClowesEightball, Pete Bagge’s Hate, Beto & Jaime Hernandez, Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, Seth’s Palookaville, R. Crumb’s Mystic Funnies and Self-Loathing Comics, Woodring, Panter, et al. — and seemed smart enough. Perhaps I’d have tossed in a somewhat obscure short story by David Mazzucchelli (Discovering America), to look even smarter!

But I’ve fallen off in my comics reading in recent years. It seems that the comics I most want to read are also the ones that take the most time to read. With my work and entertainment priorities, I really have to shut everything off to make time for good comics. I don’t think there’s a dearth of good new work; rather, there’s definitely a ton of new, likely worthy comics this decade that I simply haven’t read: Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (my only nod to The Bush Years theme for this series), Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Craig Thompson’s Blankets, Gary Panter’s Jimbo’s Inferno and Jimbo in Purgatory, Al Columbia’s Pim & Francie, Lynda Barry’s What It Is, and on and on.

It’s sad, because comics have been part of me since I was a little child; they’re my first language, and I wish I could keep up with their conversation more than I do with novels, music or film. I have dreams occasionally about wandering through unreal malls or shopping plazas, and visiting the comic shops. I don’t recall if I ever find Hicksville-esque Comics That Should Have Been on those dream-walks, but there have been enough good ones for me to offer up another list:

Favorite Comics of the Decade

Wimbledon Green (2005) – Seth – I may’ve missed a step or two in Seth’s progression, but this is the comic where he seemed to get away from autobiographical comics and/or lead characters who bear an astonishing resemblance to Seth. The sketchbook style of the work seems to free him from an over-reliance on a 1940’s

New Yorker

cartooning style (which he employed very well, but had become too much of an identifier, in my opinion). The fragmented storytelling style presaged his next book . . .

George Sprott: 1894-1975 (2009) – Seth – . . . which was flat-out amazing. Expanded from Seth’s series of one-pagers in the NYTimes Magazine’s Funny Pages, this gorgeous book tells the story of lecturer, TV host, Arctic explorer, philanderer, one-time seminarian, Seth intersperses his not-so-omniscient narrator’s descriptions of the man’s life with interview-style passages with the people who knew Sprott. The complexity of the character belies Seth’s cartoony style, drawing the reader (this reader) into the life of a small-city semi-celebrity. I think it’s a remarkable comic; it’s my favorite of the year and may just be #1 among this list, too.

Ice Haven (2001) – Daniel Clowes – Only a few installments of Clowes’ Eightball were published this decade, but man were they good. Ice Haven is a repackaged edition of Eightball #22, and uses a number of different cartooning styles (in short bursts of a page or two) to tell the story of a small town in which a child may’ve been kidnapped in a Leopold & Loeb scenario. Clowes has a new book coming out in 2010, and I’m guessing that, if I’m writing this sorta post 10 years from now, it’ll be high up on my list.

The Death Ray (2004) – Daniel Clowes – Another standalone issue of Eightball (#23), this one sorta pays homage to 1970’s comics. It tells a “realistic” but utterly fractured superhero story, laden with Freudian weight and a deeply disturbed “hero.”

Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow / The End #1 (2006 / 2007) – Anders Nilsen – This guy’s fiancee got sick and died in a hurry, and these two books are an attempt to work through his grief. It has some of the saddest passages I’ve ever read in a comic and, even though the second volume ends on a somewhat redemptive note, I’m still sure that if I meet Nilsen I’ll want to give him a big hug and reassure him that life’s not that bad.

Jaime Hernandez‘s body of work – I have no idea how to relate the ongoing magnificence of Jaime Hernandez’s comics. In this case, the arbitrary decade-mark is silly. He and his brother Beto have continually produced some of the finest comics in history for nearly three decades now. Jaime’s comics from 1998 to 2007 (or so), collected in Locas II, a 400+ page volume, show a master storyteller working at the top of his game. Pick up the two Locas collections, and get to marvelin’.

Safe Area Gorazde / The Fixer (2001) – Joe Sacco – Comics reportage from hell on earth. In this case, Sarajevo during the war in the 1990’s. Sacco’s comics journalism is unprecedented and unparalleled, while his eye for caricature marks him as a mutant David Levine.

Achewood (2001-present) – Chris Onstad – The only online comic I follow, and one of the most bizarre and funniest things I’ve ever read. Shortly after we adopted Rufus, we came home to discover that he’d stolen one of Amy’s bras from the hamper. Thanks to Achewood, we could simultaneously quote Lyle, who said, “I’m lickin’ this bra! Found it at the police station!”

I Killed Adolf Hitler (2007) – Jason – It’s no Inglourious Basterds, but this 48-page time-travel-with-a-twist tale by Norwegian cartoonist Jason is one of the more delightful comics I’ve read. Several of Jason’s works have an O. Henry twist to them, but they’re a joy to read.

Kevin Huizenga’s body of work – A while ago, I asked my comics critic pal Tom who the good young comics talents are. I’d looked around at indy comics and had concluded that no one had stepped into the role once held by those usual suspects I mentioned above. Tom pointed me toward Kevin Huizenga and Sammy Harkham, and I have to say that they’re the two best young (under 40) cartoonists I’ve seen this decade. I’m putting Huizenga on the list because I’ve read more of his work, but I don’t have an individual favorite comic by him. Still, he’s good enough that I can recommend you pick up just about anything he’s published, esp. his Glenn Ganges comics.

Essex County Trilogy (2009) – Jeff Lemire – Okay, this is one of my quirky ones. I met Lemire in May 2009 at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. I bought the first installment of his Essex County trilogy, Tales from the Farm. I was mighty impressed by his story of a superhero-obsessed kid on a little farm in southwestern Ontario, dealing with the death of his mom. Lemire’s loose, scratchy inking made for lovely expressionistic pages. (Sure, maybe the kid looked like he was in his 50’s some panels, but hey.) This fall, I picked up the mammoth (500+ pages) edition containing all three of Lemire’s interlocking Essex County stories, as well as some side stories and ephemera. I think I dug this for the same reason I liked The Straight Story; the stories are earnest without being corny. The closest he comes to cheating is also the one moment that sorta choked me up, so I’m gonna let him slide. I can’t decide if he’s one of those “next generation of great young cartoonists” or if he’s “just” going to do good, strong work for the next dozen years. He’s moved from independent publisher Top Shelf to do a couple of series for the DC-owned Vertigo imprint; I’m sure the pay’s better, but I’m ambivalent about the work he’s produced for them. Which is its own conversation/blog post: am I really okay with an artist (in any field) who produces one really good work and never reaches those heights again? I like to think I am, but I still feel disappointed when subsequent works fall short. This is a lot more than I intended to write about Lemire’s comics.

All-Star Superman – Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely – The only superhero book on my list. Over the course of 12 issues, Morrison affectionately fuses modern storytelling and styles with some of the wackier elements of Superman comics from the ’50’s and ’60’s, ultimately elevating the character to the archetype of sun god. And it includes a 2-part story featuring my all-time favorite Superman concept: Bizarros. In this case, Superman discovers that, on a planet of 5 billion Bizarros, all meant to be the opposite of normal, one turns out to be the opposite of the opposite of normal. (He calls himself Zibarro and spends his time writing poetry and feeling misunderstood.)

Asterios Polyp (2009) – David Mazzucchelli – I just don’t know what to make of this book. It’s so phenomenally drawn and well-designed that I was floored when I read it, but there’s a sterility/flatness to many of the characters that undercuts Mazzucchelli’s story and the theory that underlies it. In that sense, it reminded me of the worst aspects of a Novel of Ideas. To its credit, it still has plenty life in it. it’s an important comic, just breathtaking in parts, and I’ll definitely give it more readings, so it makes my faves of the decade list.

Louis Riel (2004) – Chester Brown – This story of Canadian politician and resistance fighter Louis Riel is a beautiful, stark change of pace from Brown’s surrealism and his autobiographical tales. Also, it was the first book my wife ever bought me.

Fred The Clown (2004) – Roger Langridge – He portrays slapstick better than Lee Evans performs slapstick. No, not the wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills! The other Lee Evans! Roger’s all over my honorable mention list, but this is the book that I’ll flip through when I’m procrastinating downstairs in my library.

The Book of Genesis (2009) – R. Crumb – If you don’t get comics, you don’t get comics. If you do get comics, then you know that Crumb drawing an adaptation of the first book of the Bible is All That. After all, he is, to quote Robert Hughes, “The Brueghel of the second half of the 20th century,” or somesuch.

Honorable Mention

A Drifting Life – Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Nextwave, Agents of H.A.T.E. – Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen

Exit Wounds – Rutu Modan

Unstable Molecules – James Sturm, Guy Davis

Little Nothings – Lewis Trondheim

Delphine – Richard Sala

Omega: The Unknown – Jonathan Lethem, Farel Dalrymple

Fin Fang 4 – Roger Langridge, Scott Gray

Let Us Be Perfectly Clear – Paul Hornschemeier

The Muppet Show – Roger Langridge

The Perry Bible Fellowship – Nicholas Gourewitch

Promethea – Alan Moore, J.H. Williams III (eh…)

Planetary – Warren Ellis, John Cassaday

Kramer’s Ergot #7 – Everybody

Epileptic – David B.

Introduction | Music | Movies | Comics | Sports | Books

Classic Comics Criticism: Langridge Barrier

In honor of the trade paperback release of the most entertaining all-ages comic I’ve read in forever, The Muppet Show: Meet the Muppets (as well as the 2nd ish of The Muppet Show: The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson), this week’s Classic Comics Criticism celebrates Muppets writer/artist Roger Langridge!

This is a review I’m kinda proud of. As I mentioned in a few weeks back, I actually got a message from one of the Langridges (Roger, as I recall) about how happy they were to find out that someone actually “got it”. I think this led to my receiving a bunch of Rogers’ mini-comics (like this one) later on, which I’m sure survived my last move in 2003.

If you’re trying to get kids into comics and you were a fan of The Muppet Show, you’ll do just fine by starting ’em off with Roger’s Muppet book. Zoot Suite? Wait till they’re a little older.

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Zoot! Suite • Roger and Andrew Langridge • Fantagraphics Books

Is there something perverse about waiting for the conclusion of a story based on Zeno’s Paradox? If so, then label me a pervert. The story in question, “The Journey Halfway,” from the Langridge Brothers’ Zoot!, began as a relatively light jab at the Kafkaesque workings of the DMV. Over the course of six issues, as Zoot! grew increasingly bizarre (and, one presumes, unsaleable), the story evolved into a traipse through Beckett’s theater, then launched into a near-death experience culled out of Finnegans Wake. And then Zoot! was canceled.

I held out a minor hope that there would be a wrap-up of some kind, a final installment of the Langridge Bros.’ criminally underappreciated comic. That idle optimism faded just around the time the brothers’ work began appearing in various comics from DC. I wrote off Zoot! and “The Journey Halfway” as another casualty of the comics marketplace, buried in the graveyard with Puma Blues and Big Numbers.

Coming across Zoot! Suite, then, was like Hanukkah in March for me. This 80-page collection includes several short humor strips from Zoot! and a previously unpublished coda of sorts, but its main attraction is the “conclusion” to “The Journey Halfway.” After four long years, would Mr. Bodkin at last find out what had become of his impounded and possibly demolished car? Would the meaning of his unnamed friend’s Joycean trip to the afterlife be made clear/ Would the actor playing the lead in Waiting for Godot ever show up at the theater?

Ultimately, of course, no questions are answered. Though Bodkin and his friend seek a shortcut home (through a graveyard, naturally), they never get more than halfway. Despite this pre-set limitation — Bodkin’s friend describes the paradox on the second page of the story — Andrew Langridge (the writer) manages to make this odd story work remarkably well by playing off the absurdity of the premise. The brothers’ work in Art D’Ecco achieved the same trick, beginning with absurdist humor and somehow bringing on authentic, if existential, human feeling.

This is a difficult feat, not only given the logical premises of the story, but also because of Roger Langridge’s strange artwork. It would seem that his cartoonish, at times Muppet-like figures would be suited for the collection’s gag strips but not its 50-page serial. Somehow, Roger manages a full range of expression with these seemingly limited figures, while managing to play up their physical appearance for several sight-gags. Further, with its mixture of tones and ross-hatchings, Zoot! Suite‘s artwork gives its ludicrous figures weight, bringing them into a more arresting visual context.

Besides concluding “The Journey Halfway,” Zoot! Suite also has another previously unpublished work by the Langridges. “I Dreamt I Was In Heaven,” which closes out the book, is a double treat, albeit a befuddling one. Visually, it ties together each of the strange (and, one presumes, unsaleable) cover illustrations for Zoot!. A “roving eye” carries the reader from one absurd setting to the next. For someone who bought the whole run off the shelf, it’s a nice, asbsurdist form of nostalgia, but it would be completely baffling for the (ha-ha) new reader who decides to give this strange comic a shot. Forget I wrote that.

The written story doesn’t pertain in the slightest to the visual one. Instead, it relates the narrator’s dream about an “entrance exam” to get into heaven. The prose is quite graceful and the overall story, in its meandering way, is a delight. In all, the collection showcases bizarre humor (“A Dictionary of Oubliettes” is one of the strangest joke ideas in history) and apparent existential dread via cartooning that would make E.C. Segar proud. While several other strips from Zoot! should have been included (“The Answer,” and “Short Story,” to name a pair), Zoot! Suite comprises a fine survey of a fantastically inventive comic that no one ever read.

Now if they could just get to work wrapping up “The Derek Seals Story” . . .

–Gil Roth, originally published in The Comics Journal #204, May, 1998

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.