Monday, 30 July 2012

The Sleep of Reason

Francisco Goya, "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"

Partridge Bark, Mutt Blue and Torvek
Rotinski asleep on the Inner River -
from THE CLIFF Books1&2,

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Of Stolen Swords and Feet

In a previous post I talked about "swipes"--which is when you're ripping off another comic book, either the drawing or the words or both, and you don't realize it.  However, there is also the intentional "borrow," or nod of the hat, or homage... and I'm going to talk about two of my own, to comic book author/artists who particularly inspired me... Frank Miller and Dave Sim.

from Ronin Book 5, pg.18-19, 1984
by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley

As I've mentioned before, Frank Miller's Ronin hit me like a ton of bricks when I first saw it (and fell in love with it) on the shelf of the Silver Snail comic book store in Toronto at the age of 11.  Miller had previously shown he was great by reinventing the Marvel superhero Daredevil as a gritty noir drama with a) lots of ninjas, b) sexy chicks, and c) lots of violence.  The drawings had been great, but still well within the Jack Kirby/Will Eisner lineage of most North American superhero comics.

The big one... Daredevil #181, where
Frank Miller allowed Daredevil/Matt
Murdock's love interest Elektra the
Assassin to get skewered on
her own Japanese "sai" weapon

However, with Ronin he was inking his own work for the first time (Klaus Janson had been inking Daredevil beautifully with thick-brushed photographic panache) and I read Frank saying years later that he wasn't sure how to ink his own work. So he was experimenting.  And I responded really well to that experimentation. 

As Frank Miller's guides on his first own completely self-created, written, pencilled and inked comic book, Ronin, he was adopting two non-North American models... 1. Jean "Moebius" Giraud from France... who adapted the "clear-line" style to science fiction...

Moebius, "Rock City"

Jodorowsky and Moebius, "The Incal"

...and 2., Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub from Japan.  This manga featured long balletic fight sequences with lots of expressive wild crosshatching and very few words, both of which were highly unusual for North American comic books at the time...

Koike and Kojima's
Lone Wolf and Cub

So, the essential ingredients for Ronin were dystopian science fiction (via Moebius) and cynical samurai drama (via Koike and Kojima.)  Of course Frank Miller was already a genius, so it's not like he was really ripping these people off.  He was allowing their language and graphic approach to free him up. 

In addition he left his black and white line work, with its exquisite shakiness and crosshatching, open enough for his wife, Lynn Varley, to paint the glorious colours.  (This was not much done at the time, either.)  These "poetry of violence" action sequences were so dramatic that I was often left breathless after reading them.  So, my own homage to Frank Miller's "poetic violence" a-la-Ronin (with tongue only partly in cheek) is found below...

The Penguinistas and Sheriff Raymont Raymont's posse
prepare to battle it out for control of Nexus Island
& The Equivocal Smattering of Miscellaneous
Territories, Etc., from THE CLIFF-Book Two,
"The Inner River", 2012

And "nod' number two is towards the feet... the feet of Sheriff Raymont Raymont of Nexus Island and the Equivocal Smattering of Miscellaneous Territories, to be exact...

Sherrif Raymont Raymont of Nexus Island and
the Equivocal Smattering of Miscellaneous
Territories, Etc. dives under
the mask of the largest Penguinista
to ensure the continuance of law
and order, from THE CLIFF-Book Two,

Do the Sheriff's feet look familiar?  They should, to anyone who ever read Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark.

Cerebus sits pensively in the rain,
courtesy of Dave Sim and Gerhard

The above image is from the cover of Cerebus # 99/100, the only issue which contained two full- length stories under one cover.  It was also the only issue to print one of my letters--which read, "Dear Dave, Imagine a particularly stimulating episode of Family Ties where Alex has fled to the moon with Kruschev's frontal lobes."  Not only did Dave Sim publish my letter, his response was "Exactly.  And so...?"

(I could have remembered the letter a bit wrongly... I gave away that issue of Cerebus and many other priceless comics that were in the same box.  But that's another story.)

Furthermore, when I mailed Dave my first self-published effort at the age of 18, Entropy (1990), he sent me a cheque for ten dollars and an encouraging note.  He was a staunch advocate of self-publishing and hated the idea of editors.  Even before the Internet he made his comic book a soapbox for expressing his opinions and interacting with fans in addition to regularly delivering the content everybody came for.

Cerebus was the first comic I ever saw to feature such elegant, black-and-white linework, sometimes stencilled lettering, often with no panel borders, also a wide range of photo-realistic to extreme-cartoony characters interacting with each other on the same page, as well as wide social and political satire mixed with physical gags and nods to other comic books; and last but not least, long story-arcs where you really got to know and love the characters.

I absorbed the drawings but never tried so much to copy them.  It was Dave Sim's writing and sequencing that indelibly effected me.

Oh well, that's it for now.  Does all this stuff about comic books really matter?  Does the Sistine Chapel ceiling really matter?

“What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists?  In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”                                  
                                                                      - Woody Allen

"The Inner River", 2012

Friday, 27 July 2012

Two Maxims to Live By

Your life has a porpoise.


Everything happens for a raisin.

The Most Uncompromising Artist I Know

Here are two videos I recently made of the most uncompromising artist I know, Ezra Azmon, playing violin on the streets of Toronto.

(The sound and image quality are not perfect; but the attempt is to capture this sharing of Bach in the midst of urban 21st century life...)

Ezra Azmon, July 24, 2012
Toronto, evening

Ezra Azmon, July 26, 2012
Toronto, afternoon

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Confounding Images

Comics are a kind language; I know for sure that some people just don't "get" them.  Like ballet, or poetry, if you didn't grow up reading comics it can be pretty hard to pick one up and get anything out of it when you're "grown up."
This is even true across cultures... my wife, who grew up reading Japanese manga-style comic books, doesn't enjoy North American-style comic books.

Charlie Brown, from Charles Schulz's "Peanuts...
what I grew up with

Conan the Detective, by Gosho Aoyama...
what my wife grew up with.

(As to the amazing potential of the visual language of comic books, Scott McLoud said it all and more in Understanding Comics, and so did Will Eisner in Comics & Sequential Art: Principles & Practice of the World's Most Popular Art Form!)

At any rate I was fortunately exposed to great comics from a young age, mostly via a comic-geek high school student of my father's who gave us stacks of dog-eared and yellowing Archie, Dennis the Menace and Silver-age Marvel Comics reprints like Spiderman, The Fantastic Four, X-Men and also Superman

There was my dad's old stack of MAD Magazine from the late 1950's to the early 60's.  I especially loved the spoofs in them where it looked like Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy, Nancy, Bumstead, Superman and other familiar comic strip heroes were doing and saying things they weren't supposed to.

But I still had to figure the language of comics out for myself; and I spent many hours immersed in these fascinating pictures and stories.  Two particular images I remember now were particularly confounding.  I just never "got" them until much, much later...

From the Star Wars movie adaptation comic book, 1978,
drawn by Howard Chaykin and Steve Leialoha

When I was six years old I could not make any sense of the above drawing of Princess Leia.  Was it one face, or two faces?  The reason being that one half of her face was pink and the other was blue!  I found it very disturbing. 

Fortunately at that age I didn't have to confront Picasso's Cubism...

... which by now has been sequed into comix language by geniuses such as Art Spiegelman.

But the comics panel below, which I encountered when I was eleven, really bothered me...

Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, RONIN, Book 3,

I first saw Frank Miller's reimagination of Daredevil at the corner store in the early 1980's, but with Ronin he galloped over the traces and challenged everything possible about what North American mainstream comics could be.  For me Ronin  was, and still is Frank Miller and North American comics' most exciting masterpiece.

What bothered me about the panel above though at the age of eleven was the waiter carrying the tray with the drinks in the middle of the panel, on the left-hand side.  Look at his chest!  It goes in a straight line down from his collar.  That was not how chests were supposed to look...  and the rest of him was weirdly squared-off, like the pixellated computer game graphics at that time... 

Space Invaders, the first and last video
game I was ever good at

I just could not wrap my head around what had gotten into Frank Miller when he drew that waiter who looked like a cardboard cutout.  Did Frank get lazy?  But if so, why did the rest of the comic look so awesome?

Of course now I realize that he was experimenting with stylization; borrowing the flattening and patterning techniques of say, Henri Matisse...

or more likely, Matsushika Hokusai...

File:Great Wave off Kanagawa2.jpg

It was a good challenge to my assumptions that these artists experimented with the graphic conventions of comic books.  I'm glad they were restless, and I'm glad I was disturbed.  We're all the richer for it. 

Here's to confounding images!


On a related note about the potential of comics to communicate in their unique words/graphics combo, here is an article about using comics to teach doctors, shared with me by my friend Janet Glasspool!

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Comic Books and Freedom

Are comic books about freedom?

For some writers and artists they are.

Above is the final scene from comics genius Dave Sim's Cerebus the Aardvark #50.  His first "graphic novel" or extended novelistic storyline, "High Society" ends with the revelation that the narrator has been writing his triumphant political epic on a prison wall the whole time. 


This scene, so sad and poignant at the end of an epic that was often farcical, still leaves me teary-eyed.

The below story by French comics legend Moebius is also a mindblowing ode to freedom...

I first read this story when I was 13 or 14 and it was like a puzzle-- challenging me to understand the prisoner's "double evasion."  First he magically and calmly levitates, thereby refuting all the premises of Western science.  Then the ogre guard shoots him, and he dies... but in so doing he transcends the tyranny of his oppressor, because he surpasses the material world and corporeality itself! 

What a game-changer!

But there is also the freedom of  Robert Crumb, who gloriously gave full expression to every lustful impulse society would have him repress...

I found his comix on the bottom shelf of Pages Bookstore on Queen St. West, in Toronto, at the tender young age of twelve... along with Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly's RAW Magazine, Bill Griffith's Zippy the Pinhead, Vaughan Bode's sexy hallucinations and Chester Brown's Yummy Fur.

RAW Magazine

Zippy the Pinhead

One of Vaughn Bode's scrumptious
and dangerous science fiction vixens

Chester Brown's "Yummy Fur"

These comics were about freedom from social convention, freedom from making sense and freedom from consensus reality itself!  In a more serious vein, they acknowledged the power of comics to channel the unconscious and assault conventional thought structures.

I challenged myself to be as courageous and unrestrained in taking dictation from my own subconscious.

Somebody who looks a lot like me literally "opening his mind" from
THE CLIFF Book One: "My Helicopter"  (Prologue: The Dream of the Elephant and the Mouse)--soon to be released!!

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Whither the Penguin?

Poopsie the Penguin is so omnipresent that he completely escaped notice in my previous post about THE CLIFF: Books 1 and 2, coming out soon!


But who exactly is Poopsie the Penguin? (Other than the hinge and silent turning point of all the visible and invisible universes.) 

He made his first appearance in  1989 when he was searching for employment (originally in Entropy, self-published in 1990--reprinted in FEAR ITSELF: Matthew Brown's Comix Compendium 1988-2004 published by Editions TRIP, 2011) ...

That same year he also accidentally destroyed the world (originally in Entropy, self-published in 1990--reprinted in FEAR ITSELF: Matthew Brown's Comix Compendium 1988-2004 published by Editions TRIP, 2011) ...

In 1991 he narrowly avoided being cooked and eaten by his Grade 3 teacher (originally in "Milk with Knife," Fear Itself #2, 1992 published by Gogo Guy Publications--reprinted in FEAR ITSELF: Matthew Brown's Comix Compendium 1988-2004 published by Editions TRIP, 2011) .

In 2002 he rode his tricyle up a mountain in search of enlightenment (originally in "The Samsaric Ocean," Fear Itself #6,  published by Ambient Zero, 2002--reprinted in FEAR ITSELF: Matthew Brown's Comix Compendium 1988-2004 published by Editions TRIP, 2011)...

In 2004 he made his first appearance as a private detective (originally in Varanasi: A Crime Story," Fear Itself #7, published by Ambient Zero, 2003--reprinted in FEAR ITSELF: Matthew Brown's Comix Compendium 1988-2004 published by Editions TRIP, 2011)...

And just last year he met Honky the Pig, Death and Justin Bieber (in a strip which was rejected by the TCAF, 2011 newspaper.)

But the big question in 2012 is... DOES POOPSIE THE PENGUIN MAKE AN APPEARANCE (AS SILENT HINGE OR OTHERWISE) IN THE CLIFF: Books 1 and 2 , soon to appear??

Only his hairdresser knows for sure!

Monday, 23 July 2012

The Double-Swipe Files

The Comics Journal used to have a feature called "Swipe Files," where they would basically accuse an artist of plagiarizing, either intentionally or unintentionally.  For example, before many North American comics readers had heard of the Argentinian comics genius Jose Munoz, an American comic book artist suddenly and radically changed his drawing style and attracted a large following--that is, before the Comics Journal compared the American guy's panels to those of Munoz and found them to be exact duplicates!  This, despite the fact that the Munoz originals were from gritty noir detective stories and the American guy's were from goofy superhero yarns!   And still the American guy insisted he hadn't known he was ripping off Munoz, despite dozens of examples to the contrary.

Munoz was also a huge influence on how I tried to draw.

Carlos Sampayo and Jose Munoz's noir
detective, Alack Sinner

But the Comics Journal's "Swipe Files" feature opened an interesting can of worms... just how original is any artist's work, anyhow?  For example, superhero comics today owe a lot to the 1980's work of American comics genius Frank Miller... but now that I've been avidly reading quality reprints of 1950's and 1960's American comics classics, I can see that Miller was just ripping off Jack Kirby (as did an entire generation, and rightly so.) 
The thing is, when you're drawing you have to get the stuff on the page; you may or may not realize that the images crawling out of your pencil, pen and/or brush are derivative or imitative of another artist's work.  Then again, you may be fully aware and intend it as a sort of sly homage!

What I've realized in the past few years is that any number my own comics panels that I thought were completely original turn out to be swipes!

So I'm sharing them.  Particularly these ones, because EACH IS A DOUBLE-SWIPE.  Either in drawing, or writing, or both.  That's right!  Each of  the following examples seems to derive FROM TWO SEPARATE SOURCES!  And since the sources are so great, it gives me great pleasure to share them.

From my comic: Poopsie the Penguin getting a lift home from
his Grade 3 teacher, Ms. Milk -
from "Fear Itself" #2, 1991

Jean "Moebius" Giraud and his wife driving into the
unknown, from Moebius' groundbreaking
"La Deviation (the Detour)", 1974, pg2

President Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan and
some scientists driving to the interdimensional
portal from Chester Brown's classic "Ed
the Happy Clown," 1987, pg96

It feels good to get that one off my chest since I drew that Poopsie story in 1991, and over the years it bothered me that I seemed to be swiping both Moebius and Chester Brown... not coincidentally, two of my all-time favourite artists.

The next is both more recent, since I just wrote and drew it for the soon-to-be-released THE CLIFF: Books 1 and 2; and more ancient, since it seems to draw on sources from the 1950's and '60's!  I'm sure I must have read a reprint of "Superduperman" in my dad's pile of old Mad Magazines when I was a kid; and a reprint of Fantastic Four #11 in a pile of old comics given to us by one of my dad's high school students, also when I was a kid.

From my comic: Rabbit and Partridge Bark discuss a debt
in the forthcoming THE CLIFF Book Two:
"The Inner River," 2012

From Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood's classic Superman parody,
"Superduperman" - MAD Magazine #4, 1953

The landlady sets a mysterious stranger straight  
"The Fantastic Four" #11, 1965, pg3

The next example is no big mystery... at least the first swipe. I was on a French-learning exchange in Jonquiere, Quebec in the summer of 1993.  We had made a promise not to ever, ever, EVER speak English during our 3-week sojourn in bleuet (blueberry) country.  And I actually kept that promise, the happy consequence of which is that I can now get by in French. 

During those three weeks I hit the sketch in earnest since there was not a whole lot else to do (other than speaking French,) and I decided to do a story in... yes, French.  I was obviously far away from my comic book collection and I'm sure I thought I was coming up with all the surreal images myself; but it seems my homage to French comic book master Jean "Moebius" Giraud was more thorough than I knew!

From my comic: 2 panels from "Corrompu (Corrupted)," 1993
Dialogue in 1st panel: "The mysteries of the body."
Dialogue in 2nd panel: "So, choose a cup."

Moebius, "Le Garage Hermetique (The Hermetic Garage),"
1979, pg46

And somehow at the same time, I was also unconsciously ripping off Chester Brown's "Ed the Happy Clown" again...  

Ronald Reagan falls into an interdimensional portal
via an enormous shit-squeezing machine,
"Ed the Happy Clown," 1987, pg103

And now for two "single swipes"... the first being a nod of the light saber to the biggest possible influence on my life: Star Wars... not only the first movie in 1977 (which I saw at least 20 times, starting from the impressionable age of five years old), but also the comic book adaptation.  Especially the oversized edition on glorious crappy newsprint, several copies of which were donated to us by the same high school student of my father's who passed us dog-eared piles of Archie, Dennis the Menace and reprints of the first issues of Superman, Spiderman, The X-Men and many more.

From my comic: Sheriff Raymont Raymont of Nexus Island and the
Equivocal Smattering of Miscellaneous Territories, Etc. "apologizes" to
Rabbit for doing something incredibly violent at the Nexus Island
Tea Stall in the forthcoming THE CLIFF Book Two:
"The Inner River," 2012

Han Solo "apologizes" to the owner of the Mos Eisley Cantina
for doing something incredibly violent in the Star Wars
movie adaptation scripted by Roy Thomas and drawn
by Howard Chaykin and Steve Leialoha, 1978, pg29

The last is a straight up "Moebius-on-the-brain" swipe--if you turn around a panel 180 degrees from THE CLIFF: Book One, "My Helicopter" (2005.)  This is one of my favourite panels I've ever done, and by accident I realized yesterday that the master had inundated my synapses yet again.  And I don't regret it for a moment.

From my comic: Partridge Bark and Mutt Blue resting
on some foliage after a helicopter explosion,
THE CLIFF: Book One,
"My Helicopter," 2005

Moebius, "Le Garage Hermetique (The Hermetic Garage),"
1979, pg95

So, that wraps up my "swiping" confessions for today.  Of course it's questionable whether my work belongs on the same webpage as Moebius, Jose Munoz, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Howard Chaykin or Chester Brown; but it's my blog, so what the hey!  Many happy swipes, intentional or otherwise, to you!

On a serious note I'd like to express my sincere love and appreciation for the contribution of Jean "Moebius" Giraud to my life. 

I first found out about Moebius from a... yes, Comics Journal interview when I was13 years old (that would be 1985,) in which Frank Miller stated that Moebius was a big new influence on his work.  My parents fortuitously took us to France that summer, and IN PARIS THEY SOLD COMIC BOOKS (OR "BANDES-DESSINEES") ON THE STREET! 

So I bought Moebius' Arzach and La Deviation/Les Yeux du Chat albums, both of which obsessed me for years to come.  Especially the "Absoluten Calfutreil" and "Rock City" stories.  I tried soooooo hard to draw like Moebius.  In fact, that's why I wanted to learn French in the first place... to understand my Moebius albums!  I even had the great luck of getting him to do a drawing for me when he visited the Silver Snail comic book store in Toronto in 1987 (When I was 15 years old.)  But that's another story for another time.

Jean "Moebius" Giraud died in March of this year.  But the endless worlds of his imagination, his poetry, his exultation live on. 

Merci, Jean. 

Thank you, Moebius.