One of the thoughts about comics & cartooning knocking around in my head for a while is that the way comics works has something in common with puppetry. I’m not thinking of Jim Henson-style puppetry or the complex animatronic creature-machines that CGI hasn’t quite yet (as far as I know) made obsolescent in the movies. It’s carved or molded puppets that I have in mind, and the kind of performance they make possible or likely — performance not very concerned with an illusion of lifelike action, but built of routines, with a catalogue of stock elements both verbal and visual. I don’t mean to suggest any particular historical connection to puppetry in the emergence of comic books. (Maybe there is, who knows. I imagine it would be a hard thing to demonstrate, if so.) All I’m thinking about here is the way things work, basically, in the comics.
Haven’t drawn anything in months, and I’ve been itching to. Itching worse, this week, because I started playing YouTube comic con sketch demos on the tablet next to me while working at my desk. I should have resisted, because there’s really no time, but finally I dug the sketchbook out of a box. I just wanted to do a little Superman head, something along the lines of these. It started off badly, though, as it was bound to, and I kept playing with it for a long while — contrary to plan in every way.
I’m lounging alone on the screened-in back porch at S.’s dad’s place a few hours outside New York on a Sunday morning, browsing books, smoking an early pipe and on my third cup of coffee. (No one else is up yet.) The house — a 1950s ranch-style out-of-town place now long his and his wife’s home base, where S. spent a good deal of her teens and twenties — is packed with books. All the rooms — bathrooms, basement rooms, hallways included — have full bookshelves. It’s a writer’s haven. I have a bio of Hannah Arendt pulled from the guest room and a Penguin Graham Greene, from a stack of Penguin Graham Greenes in the basement, in front of me on the coffee table I’m propping my feet on.
Darrell Reimer, my internet friend of a decade or so (and one person of a very, very few whom I can pretty much count on to check in here, so that this infrequent writing sometimes feels sort of like a series of letters), remarks in his last on the evocative power of what in the first Star Wars film was a fleeting scene rich — characteristically, for Lucas — in perfected detail. The image that flashes by on screen is a mounted gun that must have been modeled on the Germans’ extraordinarily versatile, much feared and admired ‘88’. These days, I can’t note such a thing without thoughts turning to the infatuation with military machines that I grew up with — that the guys who created the look of Star Wars undoubtedly grew up with — and from there to the War, our great war, as lens on history and tradition in the ‘worldview’ I inherited. I think about this a lot. It’s behind a good deal of my half-serious ruminating on the American comic-book superhero, certainly.
Over the weekend I took a look at a recent interview with Tonči Zonjić, a youngish artist working on, among other things, one of the Mignola titles these days. This bit toward the end, in a longer reply to a question in which the interviewer (also a working comics artist, I gather) expresses preference for ‘comics that are about something more than just light entertainment,’ caught my attention:
I mentioned that it feels like there’s a gap in the middle of comics — simple, ‘normal’ stories, drawn realistically. Outside of Jaime Hernandez’s Love & Rockets stories, or things like R. Kikuo Johnson’s Night Fisher, there aren’t many of them. Probably because it takes a lot of effort and skill to create somewhat less noticable comics. And they’re not really all that simple in the end. But I often wonder why people don’t aim for that. Whenever anyone does it well, like Glyn Dillon did recently, everybody goes nuts! That would be an interesting field to explore.
It’s been kind of tough for me in New York since coming here in December, a rough introduction (owing in part, but only in part, to unrelenting ‘polar vortex’ winter) to living and working in this city of cities. And I don’t love it here to begin with; didn’t come here in pursuit of any New York dream; have a hard time, really, understanding why so many see this ‘here’ as a destination of choice. My failure to be attracted to the great metropolis is something I guess I’ll have more to say about in time. At the moment, though, I’ve got to share a sort of ‘New York, new normal’ incident that I’d have to be a pretty hard case not to get a kick out of or feel some gratitude for, three months in.
Writing this from the New York subway — leaning against one of those ugly painted steel columns on the boarding platform at the moment. In a few minutes I’ll be getting on the G to return from my new employer’s office in Brooklyn to the room I’m renting in Queens, which takes an hour, give or take, depending on how you do it and whether the trains are on schedule.
Noting here a two-week-old article in the NYRB about the Jew-caricature in medieval Europe and its connection to evolving Christian tradition.
In accord with the new devotions, artworks had just begun to portray Christ as humbled and dying. Some Christians struggled with the new imagery, discomfited by the sight of divine suffering. Proponents of the new devotions criticized such resistance. Failure to be properly moved by portrayals of Christ’s affliction was identified with ‘Jewish’ hard-hearted ways of looking. In this and many other images, then, the Jew’s prominent nose serves primarily to draw attention to the angle of his head, turned ostentatiously away from the sight of Christ, and so links the Jew’s misbegotten flesh to his misdirected gaze.
The author, Sara Lipton, teaches history and Judaic studies; I gather she’s been working on the story of the development of anti-semitic imagery for a long time. The article seems intended to introduce her new book Dark Mirror.
This would be a fine occasion, obviously, to pick up again with what I started in May, but I don’t have time for it now. Hope to come back to it in the new year, perhaps.