Ivory-tower takes on comix 

The book of the moment for comic book fans may not be a comic. In the Ten-Cent Plague (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), author David Hajdu (whose Billy Strayhorn bio Lush Life and Greenwich Village history Positively 4th Street both earned praise) turns his yen for pop-culture examination toward the four-color throwaway stuff that held teen and pre-teen minds captive like little else in the post-World War II years. Hajdu provides a little general history of the medium before getting to the guts — the garish world of EC titles, the zombies and gangsters and blown-apart soldiers — that caused adults such consternation. He recounts the famous scare-mongering study by Frederic Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent (which had such impact that comics embarked on a program of self-censorship that was still nearly universal when I first encountered Batman and Superman in the ’70s), but goes beyond the usual McCarthyism parallels to demonstrate how comics actually did spawn a generation of rebellion. By arguing that early comics had an influence over ’50s teen culture that rivaled the music of Elvis and his kin, Hajdu shows that Wertham was onto something, however reactionary he was in his crusade.

One young victim of Wertham’s “plague” grew up to use the form for art that even the Pulitzer folks had to honor. Art Spiegelman, co-creator of Raw and author of Maus, unveils 300 pages worth of influences and theories in Conversations (University Press of Mississippi), a collection of interviews in the mode of UPM’s long-lived series of filmmaker interview anthologies. The Q&As date all the way back to 1979, when RAW Books was so young its namesake mag hadn’t yet debuted, but stretch forward to the post-9/11 work In the Shadow of No Towers; and while a couple are from mainstream papers like L.A. Weekly, the large majority come from sources that even a good library wouldn’t have in its archives.

While Conversations is all words (even excerpts from Spiegelman’s comix are startlingly sparse), Guy Delisle goes the other way in Albert and the Others (Drawn & Quarterly), the latest in D&Q’s “Petit Livres” series straddling the fence between comics and art books. Here, the often wordy Delisle (his Pyongyang and Shenzhen are essentially work-travel diaries) delivers short narratives with no dialogue at all. The two- and four-page stories, printed in monochrome, each focus on a different character and more often than not involve some cleverly rendered slapstick, a bit of frustrated romance, or both. I hope these strips make their way overseas, where their freedom from the language barrier would make them ideal reading for the Asian animators Delisle once worked alongside.

Meanwhile, evidence of Spiegelman’s pop-drunk attitude is on view in Comix! (Lars Müller), the latest in a series of small books exploring various trends in graphic design. This international anthology catches Superman flying into public safety announcements, documents the appropriation of Tintin’s Clear Line look for political campaigns, and finds Roy Lichtenstein’s influence practically everywhere. Despite its modest size, the survey offers an impressive range of styles, including a good deal of Punk-inflected work that RAW would likely have been proud to publish.

Finally, a big album in the Art/Photo section will appeal to some comics fans: Amalgam: Paintings and Drawings 1992-2007 (Allen Spiegel) presents the gallery work of Kent Williams, who’s known to Wolverine fans as the illustrator of the late-’80s Meltdown miniseries. Amalgam discovers Williams steering far from graphic novels and even farther from superheroes (ie., there’s not a masked crimefighter in sight); instead, we see drawings in the mode of Egon Schiele, paintings of mottled nudes, and mixed-media work that owes a debt to Sandman cover artist Dave McKean. An introduction sets Williams in the context of painters like James Ensor and Frida Kahlo, but the work presented here, which also nods toward more contemporary figures like Basquiat and Murakami, is hard to extract from the comics/commercial illustration/fine art netherland inhabited by a number of talented artists in the last decade or two.

More by John DeFore



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