Chicks dig comics, Sean is the world’s foremost Kliban expert, and Wonder Woman was originally named Suprema. But you knew all of that already, right? Welcome back to Not By Manga Alone!
This month Sean pushes onward and upward, in his quest to read all the Kliban ever—this month he checked Two Guys Fooling Around With The Moon And Other Drawings off his list. Megan meanwhile, goes meta with The Comic Book History of Comics and Chicks Dig Comics.
Two Guys Fooling Around With The Moon And Other Drawings | By B. Kliban | Workman Publishing – After seeing Kliban’s two collections of Playboy cartoons, going back to the sketchbook collections is a relief. Not that they were bad, per se, but this feels like the real, unrestrained Kliban. Ugly, grotesque caricatures; sexual humor too risque even for Playboy; and of course a combination of wordplay and art like no other. The art in particular attracted me this time. It’s quite bold, with strong, thick lines and absolutely no attempt to make the characters and situation anything other than funny. In fact, in many ways the funny art helps to relief a few of the more controversial comics. Again, Kliban has no patience for corporate America or art critics, and both get savaged here. And even if Kliban wrote sexual punchlines for Playboy, some were a bit too weird even for them. The “earmuffs” gag, notably, features a self-portrait of Kliban as its focus—possible wish-fulfillment, if it weren’t so bizarre.
That’s what you really read these collections for. There’s a bit of sexual or political humor, but for the most part all this is just strange. Far stranger than anything The Far Side or Fusco Brothers ever hoped to come up with. There’s a series of Johann Sebastian Bach puns that are deadpan in their simplicity. There’s a couple using a sheet of plywood as if it was a swimming pool. There’s a clever variation on the “child won’t eat his vegetables” situation. It’s not perfect—several gags are here simply to pad out the book, or are simply TOO strange, and Kliban can be sexist at times. But again, this isn’t an author whose books you read just to laugh out loud, although you will several times here. But more often, you may cock your head to one side and go “huh?” Some gags need a bit of figuring out first, which is what B. Kliban is best at. – Sean Gaffney
The Comic Book History of Comics | Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey | IDW — Near the end of The Comic Book History of Comics, Van Lente says, “The industry might not survive. Should it?” It’s a smart and important question. Van Lente is talking about the great content industry boogie man, the digital revolution, and more specifically, torrents. Comics downloads probably do, as he argues, eat into the Big Two’s profits. They probably eat into their potential profits too, which is an even more ominous prospect for the health of the supposedly dying American comics industry. There’s a generation of comics fans who expect everything to be free—because in their experience, everything IS free. Downloading is easier than visiting a comic book store, especially in remote or rural areas. Downloading illegally is easier than navigating that weird digital back catalog thing Marvel offers. Comixology though, is easy to use and it’s cheap. And there are new and interesting ventures. Last week’s launch of MonkeyBrain Comics sent paroxysms of joy and terror through the industry, and for good reason. Cheap, high quality, creator-owned, digital indie comics? My god! The industry might not survive. Should it?
The Comic Book History of Comics traces the medium from its origins in newspaper cartooning, through the funnybook explosion, the crippling era of post-war censorship, the various booms and busts of a newly superhero-oriented industry, to the the challenges the industry faces today: the slow decline of the direct market, and the digital revolution. While this is a history of American comics, Van Lente and Dunlavey make smart—and necessary—visits to the British, French, and Japanese traditions. You can’t talk about American horror and fantasy comics without mentioning Metal Hurlant (and it needs to be said: Metal Hurlant is just the best). You can’t talk about the 90s grim and gritty trend, or the explosion of female readership, and the push into bookstores without talking about the “British invasion” of creators like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis. And frankly, you can’t talk about contemporary comics without talking about manga.
The book is pretty much delightful. Dunlavey’s pencils, layouts, and numerous visual quotes make it a fun and easy read. And while Van Lente’s clearly done his research, and has serious and important things to say about the industry and the medium, his tone is breezy, more pop history than academic—and thank god. He quickly and efficiently leads us through the shift from newspaper funnies to funnybooks, as not just a thing that happened, but a radical shift for both creative and business reasons. He keeps the focus both on the ongoing creative transformations within the medium and its presentation—panels, subject, art style—and the economic factors both intersecting with and driving those changes. Why did so many early anthologies have a “house style”? Well, so the artists would be replaceable! Why did horror and crime comics all but disappear for a while? Why was Batman so milquetoast, for so long? Well, because of the comics code. And also because of the subsequent shrinking of the market, and the retreat of publishers into the few things that did still sell—namely, goofy, semi-nostalgic superhero stories. This dual narrative is crucial, because you can’t talk about the history of commercial art, without talking about the commerce.
The Comic Book History of Comics is at its best when covering the great moments and movements in comics history—at its worst, perhaps, when dealing with contemporary issues. Also—what do you really want to say about Stan Lee, guys? There’s a bit of an untold story there, as the famous writer/editor/huckster is depicted as a blithe kind of sinister—maybe the rat, who torpedoed Simon and Kirby’s scheme to working for both Timely (later renamed Marvel), and for themselves on the side—definitely an egomaniac who stole Kirby’s thunder—but was it intentional? Is Stan the badguy? A vaudevillian self-promoter and hack? Or was he just another overworked, underpaid cog in the comics machine, who stumbled into fame and found that he liked it? This is unclear. Unlike the rich, layered depiction we get of Kirby, Bill Gaines, and so many other comics heroes and villains, Stan Lee is little more than a mustache, a pair of glasses and a grin. Van Lente and Dunlavey don’t shy away from making judgements—Disney: definitely a visionary, also an epic asshole—but Lee is left a bit of a mystery.
Another issue is the treatment of digital comics piracy. The Comic Book History of Comics rigorously researched—I say, as a non-expert—and packed with anecdotes and data (no annecdata). This is a big part of why it’s such a fun read. But this fades away, necessarily, when dealing with contemporary issues. It’s hard to talk about comics distribution and the demographics of the readership right now, because the data isn’t very clear or very deep. How much does piracy cut into publisher’s profits? We don’t know. What percentage of the readership is female? We… don’t really know that either, because the direct market can’t give us reliable figures, and the Big Two have only recently started surveying their readers. And too, as any pundit will tell you, contemporary commentary and predictions are hard. I mean, I think ventures like MonkeyBrain Comics are the next big thing, but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the publisher will be a minor footnote of history. It’s easier for Van Lente to organize the history of comics into broad themes and movements than to do the same with a transformation that’s still unfolding.
We don’t know if the industry as we know it is going to survive. And should it?
Of the early days of sweatshop comics, one creator says, “We wanted to be splendid, somehow.” That’s kind of the takeaway for me. The Comic Book History of Comics is the story of an artform still creating itself, while also paying the bills on time. And while I’ve maybe lingered more over its flaws than its virtues, it is splendid. Like Tom Spurgeon says in the introduction, this is necessary book. We need this history of comics—more and many varied histories of comics. So basically this. More of this. – Megan Purdy
Chicks Dig Comics | ed. Lynne M. Thomas and Sigrid Ellis | Mad Norwegian Press — It’s not actually a comic. It’s a book of essays and interviews about comics, chicks who work in comics, and chicks who love comics. I initially picked up the anthology because I’m, you know, a pretty loud geek feminist, and because of Kelly Thompson’s essay. (I’m preparing to interview her, so it was kind of a twofer). I have a lot feelings about Chicks Dig Comics, and they’re decidedly mixed.
To begin with, audience. Or, what is this book’s intended audience? I’m not sure, and the book doesn’t seem to be either. In the foreword, the editors say, “The title of this book describes a phenomenon so manifestly self-evident that we find it difficult to come up with more to say on the topic.” This stopped me short. Is the book intended for chicks who already dig comics? Chicks who would perhaps like to try out comics, and maybe also dig them? “The industry”? Guys who dig comics, who haven’t yet internalized the fact of female readership? I’m not sure. Compounding this confused messaging is the cover design. I read this book at work—during lunch, boss, I swear—at school, and on transit. Everyone wanted to know what I was reading. Everyone thought I was reading some adorable shoujo adventure story. The cover is attention grabbing, and that’s great. Not so great that even after checking out the title and subtitle, they couldn’t figure out what it was. Who is this book for? I don’t know. (These are the questions that keep me up at night…) That said, having checked out Chicks Dig Timelords and similar books, I have to admit that this kind of cover may be a genre convention—unfortunately, the intended “serious! also fun!” tone didn’t translate well to the uninitiated.
The anthology opens with an introduction by Mark Waid and an essay by Gail Simone. While I don’t object to the presence of men in a book billed as “A Celebration of Comics By the Chicks Who Love Them,” I have to wonder at the choice of a guy to introduce the topic. It reads less passing of the torch, than sop to the potential male audience, or an “all clear” for any potential male readers. “Mark Waid digs that chicks dig comics. Also Greg Rucka and Terry Moore.” Gail Simone’s essay hits many of the same points as he does. Both are personal retrospectives of the changing demographics of the industry and fandom. Basically, “When I was a kid not that many girls read comics, and now lots of girls do, and that is great.” All of which is true. When Mark and Gail were kids, girls weren’t a particularly visible or catered to segment of the comics reading population. Because of this thematic repetition, I’m left wondering why the editors didn’t lead with Gail’s essay. Is the book indeed for guys? Did they want a big name to anchor the book?
But this is all about the framing—you want to know about the content. A few of the essays are too brief or too light, and a couple of them are eminently skippable, but many are fantastic. The interviews and retrospective essays especially bring it. Carla Speed McNeil on how she broke into comics, and self-publishing then and now—fascinating! Terry Moore on the “why” of drawing—yes! Sara Ryan’s essay in script form—fantastic! The unevenness of the book made it a not always fun read, but there’s enough solid stuff here to make up for the bad. Sara Ryan’s Nineteen Panels About Me And Comics is tight, neatly constructed, quick, and genuinely interesting. I turned it into a recs list—her passion made me passionate about titles I haven’t even read. Jan Van Meter’s Vampirella: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Page Turn is the comics-reader origin story I didn’t know I was looking for. It’s about monsters and horror and the closed world of childhood, in which horror fiction can be not just scary stories but hope—hope for justice, hope for yourself, hope even, for lesser monsters—and hope that one day, we too might be sexy space vampires with cute boyfriends. And that Kelly Thompson interview I got into this for? Awesome.
It’s undeniably true that women are present in the comics industry and fandom, in a way they weren’t in the recent past (remember, girls and women were big comics consumers before and after WW2!). We’re a loud demographic, sometimes angry, sometimes overjoyed. And slowly, even the Big Two are starting to get that our money too is good money. Those are, as the editors point out, self-evident facts. I love that a book like Chicks Dig Comics exists, and I hope that there will be more books like it. – Megan Purdy
[…] Megan checked out The Comic Book History of Comics and Chicks Dig Comics, while Sean continued his Kliban excavation in Not By Manga Alone: Supreme and other drawings. […]