Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What Happens When You Leave Town for a Couple of Weeks

An update, which is all I can manage:

I am back in Burlington, and back at my desk, but most of my comics stuff is still packed up in cardboard boxes. I may have a post in me about comics encountered in my travels, but it's not going to rival any of Mike's recent reports from the field.

While I was gone, however, it turns out that my voice appeared briefly on All Things Considered.

The interview was recorded when Dupuy and Berberian were in Soho, and I certainly wasn't expecting any of it to wind up on the air. But there you go: three or four more seconds out of my fifteen minutes.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

La Bande Dessinée à Rennes, part deux

I have a few last comics-related items to report from my time in Rennes last week. Comics actually got name-checked during one of the plenary lectures of the Arthurian conference, along with adaptations of Arthurian literature into other media. And at the big Arthurian exhibit at a museum in town, there was a copy of a bonus volume that accompanied a nine-part BD rendering of the Arthurian saga in a highly Celticized version (e.g., the character known to English speakers as "Gawain" appears as "Gwalchmei," while "Merlin" is known as "Myrddin"--whence Matt Wagner's Mirth from Mage, incidentally).

The conference organizers also gave us little touristy books about Rennes which featured a few items about the city's local comics connections, including some heavyweight French comics. The artist Franquin, creator of Spirou and Gaston Lagaffe and recipient of the first Grand Prix at Angoulême, passed on the production of the Spirou strip to Jean-Claude Fournier, a Breton cartoonist who ran a studio in Rennes. Astérix and Latraviata, a recent volume in the venerable series about antique Gallic antics, includes scenes set in the ancient Roman site that later developed into the city; the volume was appropriately launched in Rennes, with co-creator Uderzo contributing this drawing for the event:

And a few volumes of Tintin have been released by a Rennes-based publisher as translated into Gallo, a Romance language spoken in upper Brittany, including Rennes, and unrelated to neighboring Celtic Breton. Observe the similarity of Gallo to French in this cover to The Secret of the Unicorn (Le Secret de la Licorne in French):

That's all well and good for BD proper. But I was also delighted to see some revolutionary appropriation of good ol' American comics by King Kirby himself, in a poster promoting a socialist organization. Here's the poster as I found it pasted to what looks suspiciously like a refrigerator by the side of the road:

"Dare to change everything--it's now or never" it proclaims: Oser tout changer; c'est maintenant ou jamais.
And here are some details of panels with their newly revolutionary dialogue! When anger bellows...

...a wind of panic blows...bankers go mad...

...the cops get agitated...

...Good people grow worried...

...and [illegible] question...

I have to say, while Kirby may have caught some flack for the square appearance of some of his characters back in the late 60s/early 70s--especially all the men wearing hats out of doors--I think the energy and drama of his cartooning work great to convey a sense of revolutionary urgency here in a diverse group of persons old and young, male and female, black and white. And suffice it to say that I could not imagine panels by Curt Swan or Wayne Boring being convincingly repurposed in this way. Vive la révolution!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

La Bande Dessinée à Rennes

Yesterday I celebrated Bastille Day in the beautiful city of Rennes in Brittany. I had come for an academic conference on Arthuriana, but it didn't start until today, so I spent le quatorze juillet on a stroll around the city with my camera at the ready. Its half-timbered houses are kind of intense:

The concierge at the youth hostel had kindly marked some noteworthy sites on a map for me, so I knew to look out for streets like this one, whose dense crowding, as much as its use of timber, attests to its age:

But—and this I swear—I was not deliberately looking out for this window display, just across the street from the church of St-Sauveur:

Apparently, my comics-store-locating fu is still very much active. Luckily for my wallet and my suitcases, the store was closed for the holiday, though I was tempted by this item:

I was less tempted by these items for sale at a specialty art boutique, although I do enjoy les aventures de Tintin:

The figures in the next window of the store, both Smurfs and Tintin-related, were even less appealing, though I do still own a few Smurfs from my childhood days. But then, my wee plastic Smurfs didn’t cost hundreds of euros:

More appealing—and a hell of a lot more affordable—were the Tintin items available at M’Enfin Librairie, a BD-specific bookstore (which was also, thankfully, shuttered). I’d consider paying 9 euros for a stuffed Milou/Snowy doll:

And I kind of wish the store had been open so I could have sent Isaac one of these Tintin postcards (buddy, you’re getting a card with touristy scenes of Rennes; deal with it):

Of course, if I had managed to get into the store, could I have stopped myself from buying some of these mini-comics, gloriously displayed on a spinner rack?

Among the store’s more expensive merchandise, I was most impressed by this diorama based on the cover to Coke en Stock (The Red Sea Sharks):

Compared with the 250-euro Smurfs, that Tintin set’s a bargain at 49.95 euros. Here’s the original cover (photographed from the postcard), for the sake of comparison:

Another (closed) bookstore showed some of the advantages of buying comics in France as opposed to the States. Not only do they have fresh works by Dupuy & Berberian…

… but they’ve got a jump of several months on us Americans when it comes to Art Spiegelman’s reissued version of Breakdowns (which I’d previously seen in Paris as far back as Purim):

Believe it or not, I passed still another BD-specific bookstore, the aptly named Album/la référence BD:

Here it was the Studio Ghibli merch that tempted me, but again I was spared by the store’s being closed. That also protected me from this intriguing mix of my medieval-literature and modern-comics interests, a BD series based on the Roman de Renart (the medieval “beast epic” whose vulpine protagonist gave his name to the modern French word for fox, renard, replacing the Old French goupil):

(I also included the neighboring comic based on the work of Raymond Queneau, given the influence of his oulipo movement on the oubapo movement that has enriched French comics—of which more in a later post).

At this point, I was quite prepared to see no further evidence of comics in Rennes. But there were to be three more sightings in my first twenty-four hours here. At the restaurant where I ate dinner, one of the dishes on the menu was a fish tartine called “Le Capitaine Haddock” (I didn’t have my camera with me, but take my word for it). And earlier I passed by a gaming store that caters to the D&D crowd but which also had some comics- and horror-nerd items for sale. I thought this pairing of world-destroyers from Lovecraft and Marvel Comics was quite fitting, really:

Incidentally, my sightings today weren’t all comics-related, as I kept my eye out for Arthurian sites and objects, as well; but these little comics-related statues of Tintin and Galactus do remind me of one of the many Arthurian items I spotted—for even the windows of antique stores cater to the doll-collecting nerd, albeit of the Round Table variety:

The most delightful Arthurian and comics-related sightings, however, had to be those toward the end of the afternoon in the rose garden of the enormous Parc du Thabor (which apparently features over 900 types of rose in just one small corner of its grounds). Among the many rose varietals I saw were flowers named for King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Courtoisie. But there was also this flower, which definitely crowns the BD-related features of Rennes:

And with that delightful tribute to the co-creator of Astérix, I bid you adieu for now!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Christoph Niemann's "Abstract City" and the Taxonomy Thing

On July 1, the illustrator Christoph Niemann posted an "opinion art blog" entry to the New York Times website about his sons' enthusiasm for the New York City subway system (an enthusiasm that borders on fandom, given the way the MTA has shaped their encounters with the world around them). If you haven't seen it yet, click here to scroll through it; it's really quite delightful.

As soon as I saw it, I emailed it to some of my friends, and Isaac wrote back thus:

"That's awesome. Is it a comic? Who cares. It's fun."

I heartily concur with Isaac about the awesomeness and fun of Niemann's piece, which I described in my email as "a series of pictures and captions" without noting that a number of the pictures employ word balloons. But I found myself brooding a little about his immediately-disavowed question: "Is it a comic?"

I think Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics is largely to blame for the ontological angst that hovers around works on the margins of what seems to be incontrovertibly comics. As useful as McCloud's work on comics has been, his taxonomical tendencies can be a mite pernicious in throwing up borders between what is/are comics and what is/are not (and I'm deliberately waffling on the number of the verb here because McCloud makes an issue out of it in a dogmatic way). Mind you, the borders themselves are less pernicious than the effort expended on policing them. There is value in reflecting on the different ways a single-panel drawing and a multi-panel strip create meaning, or on how a pantomime comic differs from a verbose visual-verbal blend, but I find myself bristling at the shibboleths of either sequentiality or word+image as the sine qua nons of comics, as pronounced by McCloud and R. C. Harvey, respectively.

I do think that the question that McCloud and Harvey raise is important--namely, what is/are "comics"?--and the question is important largely because precision of vocabulary can clarify discussion and yield finer distinctions. But I also think their answers to the question delimit their subject by limiting it too much. The problem, at least as I see it right now, is that both of them are looking to define comics too much in terms of positive attributes. In approaching the subject of comics, positing less might mean granting more in terms of the semantic reach and syntactic play of the form; and by using these linguistic metaphors I have just tipped my hand.

In short, I am very much persuaded by the Saussurean approach that Thierry Groensteen takes in his Système de la bande dessinée/System of Comics. Saussure's fundamental General Course in Linguistics announces as its goal a definition of the object of inquiry for linguistics, only to conclude that the object of inquiry is language itself. This conclusion might seem banal to the point of tautology were it not for the fact that his definition of language (or, better, his approach to language) is so trenchant and consequential. Rather than attempt to define language as, say, a collection of words and rules to be tabulated (as one might define comics as "a sequence of pictures" or "a verbal-visual blend"), Saussure describes it as a differential system of making meaning, where meaning lies precisely in the difference between signs rather than in any inherent, absolute meaning possessed by an individual sign (a meaning that does not, in fact, exist)--and Saussure suggests that the sign as linguistic unit need not necessarily be verbal (despite his understandable reliance on more formally linguistic evidence from speech and writing).

With that in mind, Thierry Groensteen’s Saussurean approach to comics as another kind of linguistic system may help to clear the air somewhat. Groensteen avoids a kind of grammatical taxonomy that looks for ever-smaller discrete units of meaning, pointing out the folly of an approach that would try to create a morpheme out of a brushstroke, say. What matters is the articulation of relationships (what Groensteen calls arthrology) across the space of a comic (where space is understood, in good Einsteinian fashion, to have temporal consequences that are never absolute in themselves).

So it doesn’t matter, ontologically, if a comic uses words or not: words are just another possible meaning-making element that relies on difference. In the case of comics, the difference between the verbal plane and the visual plane may indeed bear meaningful consequence beyond the words or the visuals themselves considered separately--though how or whether to separate words that are embedded in the visual field within the graphic device of a balloon is another matter. As Isaac put it in his guest stint on the Thought Balloonists blog, "Can the two aspects of innovation or expression really be disentangled that way? If so, why not separate storytelling from drawing style, to make a third graphed dimension? Where does the hair-splitting stop?"

Taking that as my cue not to gas on too much longer, I would just suggest that another great virtue in a linguistics-derived approach to comics is that it might free up the subject to enjoy as much variety as language enjoys. To be sure, some linguists have occasionally failed to attend to the nonstandard uses of language found in, say, poetry; nevertheless, poetry exists (eppur si muove!). Likewise, Niemann's piece may not fully satisfy either McCloud or Harvey as to its status as a comic (Is it "sequential enough"? Do the panels without words or letters reduce to "mere" drawings? How do the captions function alongside the images?)--but I would prefer to think that it is extending the resources of comics, as poetry extends the resources of language, rather than somehow failing to attain to some orthodox formal standard. Besides which: it's fun. And that's mostly what I cared to share in this post.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Elijah Lunettes of Walton Well Road

In the neighborhood of Oxford known as Jericho, on Walton Well Road, there is a series of townhouses whose doors are surmounted by sculptural lunettes featuring scenes from the life of the prophet Elijah. I figured this out mostly thanks to the last lunette in the series: that whole chariot of fire deal is pretty memorable. But most of the other scenes were unfamiliar to me, owing to the gap since my last attentive reading of the books of Kings, so I appreciated the excuse to revisit 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 2 in order to figure out what exactly was going on.

Our story begins with Elijah being fed by ravens (one of which seems to have lost its head in this first lunette; and if you ask me, those ravens look rather eagle-like):

Next Elijah reassures the widow of Zarephath that she won't starve if she shares her food with him:

Continuing with the theme of Elijah's meals, the third lunette shows an angel providing Elijah with a jug of wine and a loaf of bread (but no Rubaiyat, apparently):

Later, Elijah speaks with God while hiding out in a cave. At least, that's what the biblical text describes; the sculptor here has personified God in the figure of an angel (a license sanctioned by Genesis, where God appears to Abraham in the figure of three angels):

Here's Elijah recruiting Elisha to be his attendant by throwing his mantle over him:

And here's Elijah confronting wicked king Ahab at the vineyard of Naboth, for possession of which Ahab has had Naboth murdered:

Elijah later gives Ahab's son Ahaziah the bad news that he will die in the sickbed where he is attempting to convalesce from a fall (nice potted plants, here):

Shortly before Elijah's departure from this world, he uses his mantle to split a stream, Moses-like, in company with Elisha:

And there goes Elijah, in a ride suitable for Parliament-Funkadelic (though he fails to adopt the gangster lean):

I like these lunettes for their charming understatement. Some highly dramatic scenes from Elijah's career are overlooked in favor of quiet moments of sleep, hunger, and concealment. Even the miraculous departure of the fiery chariot is strangely static, given the erect verticals of the human figures (as well as of Elijah's mantle, which stands in a tall bundle below the chariot, ready for Elisha to take it up). This quality, along with the oddly stunted proportions of the characters and the oversized foliage, reminds me very much of medieval manuscript illustration.

Mind you, I'm a little sorry that there's no tenth lunette to show the sequel to Elijah's career, where Elisha, still finding his voice (as it were) in the role of Elijah's successor, curses some children who mock his baldness, thereby summoning up a pair of she-bears who maul forty-two of the brats. To paraphrase the words of Christian rocker Bill Mallonee, "You might say they learned some healthy respect." (But please note that I do not endorse the mauling of anybody, by bears or otherwise.)

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Further Hiatus

Please note that any comics ordered between now and July 23 won't be shipped until July 27. I'm going to be away from my computer and away from my stash of back issues for a couple of weeks. I hope to resume normal blogging, drawing, and shipping (plus other normal things) at the end of the month, from my comfortable new home in Vermont.

Meanwhile, I hope Mike will take up some of my blogging slack, though I know he's also in transit and away from the computer for much of this month.