Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics

I was sixty pages into Understanding Comics when I realized it had already earned a spot  in my top-ten favorite nonfiction books.  Don’t ask me what the other nine are because I had never thought about my top-ten favorite nonfiction books until that moment.  I just know that Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art is one of them.  This is a graphic novel about the theory, history, and art of comic books.  What hooked me though was McCloud’s presentation of how the human mind handles images and language, and he does it within the comic format.  It is nothing short of genius.

McCloud begins the book trying to answer the question “what is comics?”  The definition he comes up with is “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer.” He goes on to examine that definition by looking at how comics have evolved through human history, from the Aztecs to the 1400s to modern day.  What we often consider to be a childish form of entertainment today is a form of communication that seems to have been natural to humans since our beginning. And McCloud argues that comics are a legitimate art form that has largely gone unstudied.

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It is chapter two that begins to look deeper into how images affect us.  I found it fascinating, and like I said, by chapter three I was hooked.  McCloud’s theories are not really new.  Marshall McLuhan, Will Eisner, Neil Postman, and others have written about how media affects us, but McCloud’s presentation makes all the difference for me.  What’s Marshall McLuhan’s famous saying?  The medium is the message?

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McCloud goes into the theory, the nuts and bolts if you will, of comics making- panel arrangement, the different types of transitions, the style of art, time, line, and color.   What keeps all of this accessible to those of us who aren’t artists is the fact that McCloud always brings it back to how the reader is a participant in all of this.  A discussion on how time is handled in comics didn’t mean much to me until I saw how I create the time and motion from the ink on the paper.

Another recurring theme is how all of this is a relatively new art form in terms of being examined and pushed to its limits.  Novels, poetry, music, art- virtually everything that could be done has been done.  McCloud argues that comics still have a lot of unexplored territory.  He touches on how some artists and writers have experimented with the aforementioned aspects of comics, like time and color. He encourages new writers and artists to do more.

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I would have loved to have used this book when I taught High School English.  I’m sure it would have saved the lives of some of the gang members I taught.  As an English major, I feel slightly cheated that this wasn’t in the curriculum.  It should be required reading in College English classes, but as McCloud states, new art forms are judged by their predecessors.  Any study of language, art, and what it means to humans would greatly benefit from Understanding Comics.  Am I laying it on too thick?  I can’t say enough good things about his book.  Art Spiegelman, author of Maus,  writes this:

Cleverly disguised as an easy-to-read comic book, Scott McCloud’s simple-looking tome deconstructs the secret language of comix while casually revealing secrets of Time, Space, Art, and the Cosmos! The most intelligent comix I’ve seen in a long time.

The Cosmos, people.  It doesn’t get any better than that.  Check out Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art here.

Ruins by Warren Ellis

I recently read Marvels by Kurt Busiek and was impressed with the originality of the story and the art.  I was asked if I had read Ruins by Warren Ellis, which is evidently the sequel but in an alternate universe.  Ruins is comprised of two books:  “Men On Fire” and “Women In Flight.”  Like Marvels, Ruins follows photojournalist Phil Sheldon, who is again trying to write a book about super heroes.  In this alternate timeline, instead of documenting super heroes being super, he is trying to make sense of a nightmare world.  The book opens:

For every kiss, a bullet in the face.

For every action, a reaction.

For every event, there exists in potential,
A mirror event, an exactly opposite possibility.

If the world you know is one of Marvels,
Where heroic women walk invisibly through horror,
And men of fire ride the upper reaches of the air…

…Then only a misstep or a stopped heartbeat away,
Is a world of Ruins.

Ominous stuff.  And for good reason, I guess. This book is very, very dark.  How things get to this point is not quite clear.  Phil Sheldon has a premonition that something good could have come of all these “paranormal” stories, but instead it has gone terribly wrong.  He is dying and racing against the clock to make sense of it all and finish his book.

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The story is very fragmented and abstract, jumping from place to place as Sheldon visits the surviving heroes and witnesses.  We know there has been a war, that the national guard has killed at least most, if not all, of The Avengers. Professor X has somehow become President (I’m assuming by using his mental powers) and has become evil and reclusive.  A lot of the X-Men are mutilated and imprisoned. the Fantastic Four never survived their trip into space. Ellis systematically goes through the list of heroes and shows their bizarre and horrific fates with little to know explanation.  Things just didn’t work out.  It’s not a nice world.

Cliff and Terese Nielsen handle the art in book one, and Chris Moeller joins them in book 2.  The watercolors are well done and give the books a dreamy feel to compliment the nightmare quality of the story. The images are often shocking and gruesome. It is definitely not one for the kiddies. I guess Moeller takes over about halfway through book two, because the style changes.  I find that a little annoying.   His colors are brighter, which I think changes the feel that has been established up to that point.

There is a strange two page sequence in book two where Phil is all of a sudden beside a lake. It seems like a dream sequence, but again, there is no explanation given.  The grass is green; the colors are bright.  It is a drastic change from the grays and browns that permeate the books.  Phil muses, “These people, these paranormal ruins of men– They were dropped on the world like a stone. Their shockwaves have touched all edges of my world.”  He compares this to dropping a stone in the lake and waves slowly making their way to all the shores to make sure we understand the metaphor and theme.  A little girl walks up and asks if he is lonely and invites him to a picnic.


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That scene sums up the major differences between Ruins and Marvels for me.  Busiek’s story was very structured.  It flowed through different historical periods, illustrating people’s varying responses to the heroes.  The themes were subtly woven throughout narrative.  It stood on its own.  Ruins, like the  previously mentioned scene by the lake,  is very scattered and random.  The structure emulates the confusion and panic Sheldon feels, but without any background or orienting narrative, it can’t stand on its own.  And in order to link it all together with a theme, Ellis has to be heavy-handed (ie- stone thrown in lake metaphor).  It was okay because I had already read Marvels and understood what point Ellis has making, but without that reference I’m not sure it would make much sense.  I felt the writing just wasn’t on par with Marvels.


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Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

My goal was to read 50 books in 2009.  I was about twelve books short in December, so I started to scarf down graphic novels.  I can knock those out in a day or two usually.  I don’t care what anyone says; they count towards my total.  My final for the year was 44 books (about 6 graphic novels).  I’ll do better this year. I promise.

In that last desperate sprint of reading, I read Marvels written by Kurt Busiek and painted by Alex Ross.   I was too cool to be seen reading comics in 1994.  My loss.  This is a phenomenal series, and one of the most original concepts in comics I’ve seen.

The series covers some of Marvels classic stories, but the events are told from the street-level perspective of a common man- photojournalist Phil Sheldon.  It examines how real people might act and feel in a world full of superheroes.  Busiek’s writing captures some pretty interesting themes.  The philosophical and theological implications the series brings up are interesting.  When the masses need saving, they love the marvels like idols.  When the masses are bored, they fall into celebrity worship and consumerism.  When the masses feel small in comparison to the marvels, the masses want them dead.  What’s also interesting is that the marvels continue to “save” the masses, even though they know how fickle the masses’ devotion is.

Alex Ross’s artwork is exceptional.  The series covers the 1940s to the 1970s, and Ross captures each time period perfectly.  His street-level views are cinematic and completely original.   The story combined with the art puts this one near the top of my graphic novels list.

Book Review: 5° and Other Poems by Nicholas Christopher

five degrees and other poems is a poem of thirty-five interlocking parts that combines a seemingly strange set of images and subjects to form a whole.  The poem takes place in a mysterious city in which it is 5°.  The subjects seem totally disconnected- Houdini; John Dee, English mystic and mathematician; Paul Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh; Nazi occupation; Persephone and the underworld; and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Each poem could stand on its own, but when read in sequence the images of iron, exploration, nightingales, ice, stars, coins, and angels begin to connect the poems intimately.  There are allegorical and fantastical elements, but I’ll leave that to the individual reader.  Christopher’s writing is very accessible, which is a way of saying that he doesn’t write holier-than-thou-snotty-abstract poems that take a PhD in literature to “understand.”  At the same time, he is an inventive and skilled poet.  5° is an enjoyable read that sparks the imagination.

The book also includes twenty-five lyrical and narrative poems, including one of my favorites, “Terminus.”  These poems range from the reflective coming-of-age poem “The Quiñero Sisters” to a reflection on the Los Angeles riots in 1992 in “May Day, 1992.”   “The Palm Reader” gives the reader a glimpse into the all-too-human life of a – wait for it – palm reader. Her husband, drinking a beer, serves lunch to the kids in the living room on paper plates. Several of these poems also contain mystical elements, which seem to be a favorite of Christopher’s.  “Your Father’s Ghost” contains a taxi driver with one are, one eye, and one ear.  The car only has wheels on one side.  In “Bees,” each of the five stanzas give a short magical quality of bees, ending with Cellini’s statue of Medusa with bees for hair instead of snakes.  The statue emitted a low hum.  These poems are intelligent and well-crafted; every reader can find something valuable that he or she can take away from this collection.

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Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

When I finished this book, I wasn’t sure whether I should cry or start stockpiling assault rifles and canned food.  Hedges argues that while Americans were busy being entertained and pleasured, corporations and the industrial-military complex have brought American democracy to its death bed.  Yes, in the past tense, as in we’re almost done and we don’t even know it.  If Hedges is correct, it is already too late to change the system.  I don’t agree with all of Hedges politics, but I think he has definitely reported what will likely be the demise of the U.S.

Hedges divides his argument into five sections.  The first deals with Americans’ obsession with entertainment.  Hedges argues that we have become a polytheistic society worshiping celebrities, athletes, and charismatic politicians and preachers, because they represent what we wish to be. We no longer want to deal with the complexities of reality.  We don’t want to have to think too hard about complex issues.  We want to live in the fantasy world of celebrities, reality TV, and sports. We want to be lied to, because the lie makes us feel so much better about our lives.  We have created a culture of illusion.

Hedges next section deals with the porn industry in America and what he calls “the illusion of love.”  I felt this section was unnecessary and didn’t flow with the rest book.  Basically it is a more extreme example of what is discussed in the first chapter.  The illusion men get from the product is that they can control and use women as commodities.  Interesting stats- porn made $97 billion in 2007, and GM and AT&T rake in 80 percent of the profits from porn made in the U.S. Hedges connects the moral decay and desensitizing nature of porn to Abu Ghraib and war in general.  It destroys compassion and empathy and creates a feeling in the user that he/she is a god.

In the third section Hedges attacks what he calls the “elite” schools of higher education.  Hedges argues that Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like create the next leaders of corporations and government; however, these schools have failed society by become corporatist themselves.  They no longer teach true critical thinking. Professors who question the system or challenge the status quo are ostracized.  Morality and the common good are not mentioned.  Finding solutions to maintain the current corporate systems and defense projects are the top priorities.

The next section attacks “positive psychology,” which many corporations and institutions, including the United Nations, are adopting.  Essentially, there are psychologists who make a living from teaching/brainwashing people to lie to themselves. It is terrifyingly similar to Huxley’s Brave New World where citizens walk around quoting happy slogans they’ve been taught from birth totally unaware that they live in a totalitarian state.  Scary stuff.

The last section encapsulates everything and deals the death blow.  While we have been watching coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, fantasizing about “gonzo” porn, and repeating the new happy slogan we learned at work; corporations and the industrial-military complex have bankrupted the country and are preparing for a police state.  Almost everything you see, read, and hear is controlled by 5 or 6 corporations.  Hedges states that they are already under-reporting how bad the economic crisis is and will be.  The Obama administration has no power against these forces.  In fact, no one is allowed to run for President in this country without millions of dollars from the corporations.  It sounds like doomsday prophesies, but Hedges’ evidence is very convincing.  He quotes reports from the Senate Armed Services Committee and the U.S. Army War College, among many other credible sources.  What I found most convincing is the reminder that history shows us that after the economic collapse in the 1930s, America experienced the most extremism it has ever seen.  When the Wiemar Republic collapsed economically, Adolf Hitler came to power.  When Czarist Russia failed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power. What kind of demagogue will America produce?  We are not prepared to face that kind of reality. I’m afraid we will embrace any illusion presented to us, no matter how immoral or deadly.

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Stitches: A Memoir by David Small

If stitchesyou have ever questioned whether graphic novels can be as poignant and powerful as traditional novels or memoirs, Stitches proves that they can. In fact, I don’t think David Small’s memoir could be told as powerfully in any other format.

David’s mother was a “difficult” person to live with, and everyone in the house retreated into their own forms of silence. Tragically and ironically, David is left a virtual mute at the age of fourteen after what he thought would be a simple operation to remove a cyst in his throat. It was cancer, but no one thought he needed to know that. As his family crumbles under his mother’s austere dictatorship and his father’s belief that he gave David the cancer, David finds his voice through art and escapes the mental illness that seems to haunt his mother’s side of the family.

stitches1stitch_01The simple artwork in Stitches captures the mood of the Small family perfectly. Pages will go by without a word, beautifully capturing the silence and agony David was experiencing. It would take pages and pages of text to describe what Small is able to express in a few simply rendered panels.

This is a great graphic novel and memoir. Check it out here.

Another great ARC from ijustfinished.com

Redemption Song: The Ballad of Joe Strummer by Chris Salewicz

Joe Strummer TelecasterI was in the market for a telecaster after I regretted selling my custom built Warmoth tele.  The thing about the Warmoth I loved the most was the neck.  It had a unfinished smooth feel to it that felt very “worn in.”  After a little research, I stumbled on the Joe Strummer edition Fender Telecaster, which is heavily reliced.  The neck was supposed to have a great feel, so I bought it. I went on a Clash kick, which led me to borrow the biography from a buddy at work.  Strange how we end up where we are.

It took me longer to read the 613 pages than I originally guessed, and I have a lot of excuses.  My wife and I had our fourth child, a second daughter. We now have an even set- two boys and two girls.  I’ve been busy with the kids and various projects.  The book is dense, a veritable Moby Dick of rock biographies.  But the truth is, I’ve just been slack in my reading habits. Revolution Rock

When I say the book is dense, I mean Salewicz includes dizzying amounts of details.  I think he recorded every trip Joe made to the pub.  In case you didn’t know, Joe was powerful thirsty.  That’s not to say the book isn’t good.  It’s very good. But you have to be committed to finishing it.

I was a little wary at the beginning because Salewicz obviously adored Joe Strummer, which often leads to biographers airbrushing their subjects’ warts and blemishes.  Once you get past the first three chapters, which recount the funeral, some of Salewicz’s last moments with Joe, and a trip to Joe’s ancestor’s home in Scotland; Salewicz gives a very balanced account of Joe’s life – his faults, as well as his virtues.

The book is fairly evenly divided between Joe’s early years, his years with the Clash, and his solo years.  If you don’t know, The Clash began as a punk band in the late seventies, but quickly turned into a genre-breaking band fusing punk, rock, reggae, and world music.  You’ll learn, with plenty of specific examples, Joe loved people.  The cast of characters is endless and includes some unusual suspects.  He genuinely loved music from all over the world, especially reggae, cumbia, and African music.  He always had a “ghetto blaster” with him.  Joe also loved a bar and could talk the owner into keeping it open until dawn.  Perhaps his last great love was a campfire, which connected all of the above – people sitting around drinking, talking, and listening to music.

Salewicz writes towards the end of the book, “…Those who knew him, that international group of interconnected old souls who formed his and The Clash’s posse, knew he wasn’t Saint Joe. No, he was much more interesting than that.”  Joe felt his biggest mistakes were firing two of the four essential members of The Clash- Topper Headon and Mick Jones.  But throughout his life, he wasn’t the easiest person to work with.  He had trouble handling situations, especially if they involved people close to him.  He could be the kindest guy in the world giving bums $50 bills, but whip a microphone at the drummer’s head on stage for missing a change.   He would apologize later, but the damage was usually done.

As with most biographies dealing with a hero, the reader wants the hero to rise above the fray (synonym of “clash,” me trying to be clever).  Joe was able to maintain his integrity through the years and revive his career in the late 90s and early 2000s with his last band, The Mescaleros.   But he was still heavily abusing substances  and just generally not taking care of himself, often only getting four or five hours of sleep.  His relationships with the muscicians in the band were often shaky, but perhaps that’s what fed his creative energy.  His last album, completed posthumously by the band using Joe’s guide vocal tracks, is a great, driving rock record.  Something Joe had been striving to make for years.  He officially died of an undiagnosed congenital heart defect, but one has to think that the alcohol, drugs, and late nights took years off his life.

On an interesting note, the book literally fell apart as I was reading it.  Large chunks of pages came unglued from the spine.  I’ve never had that happen before, so I’m not sure if I did something to cause it or what.  The bad thing was I borrowed it from a buddy at work, so I ended up buying a copy to replace it.

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The Watt from Pedro Show

mikewattMike Watt, former bass player of the Minutemen, has a podcast- The Watt from Pedro Show.  He recently played a band I’m fond of on New Years Eve- Fester Feelies.

If you haven’t seen we jam econo yet, you should check it out.  It’s a great documentary about The Minutemen, who defined indie.

The Watt from Pedro Show

Touching From a Distance: Ian Curtis and Joy Division by Deborah Curtis

touching-from-a-distanceI was a little shocked by Touching from a Distance.  The biopic Control, which sticks to the mythical post-punk  ideal of Ian Curtis as a tortured epileptic poet / musician who was torn between his love for two women, is based on Deborah Curtis’ memoir.  She even had a hand in producing the biopic.  What’s shocking is Deborah does not champion that myth in her memoir.

Deborah makes it clear very early in the memoir when discussing the budding stages of her and Ian’s relationship that Ian had some issues that went beyond the typical late-teenager brooding.  He told her from the beginning that he had no intention to live past his twenties.  He loved the melodramatic.  He had wild mood swings and was often unpredictable and awkward socially.  One day he was kind and generous, the next he was controlling and cruel. As Ian and the band become more successful, Ian shut Deborah out of that part of his life, going so far as to tell the band and friends invented stories about Deborah and their home life so there would be no communication between the two parties.  He became a master manipulator, juggling two lives.

It would be easy to chalk up Deborah’s recollections as that of the scorned woman, but I felt she was genuinely trying to figure out the big question everyone has when a loved one commits suicide- why?  And I don’t think she felt obligated to safeguarding his mythical rock status if it kept her from getting closer to answering the question.  It was a liberating read in the sense that the fans rarely get to see how petty, selfish, and cruel our heroes are.  We hold them above such base human characteristics.  The media sells the myth.  We focus on the talent, the art, as if that is all that makes them who they are.

Deborah never doubts or demeans Ian’s talent.  She often applauds his work ethic and drive.  He was a great performer.  The music is what it is- beautiful and original.

But in the end, Ian had little connection to the realities of life.   He went from living with his parents who took care of him, to living with Deborah who took care of him, to being in a band where the manager took care of him.  His mental disorder, whatever it would have been diagnosed as, was compounded by the fact that he never had to focus on anything outside of  himself, and everyone wanted him to give more.  Ultimately, he did the most selfish thing he could think of.