Notes : 03/07 - 04/07


April 26, 2007

Well, I really socked it to March blog-style, but so far April has got the best of me! In my defense I've had two groups of visitors and have been quite jet-set for the past three weeks. I've made trips to Edinburgh, Scotland and the Dingle Peninsula here in Ireland. Edinburgh had tremendous art resources in its various galleries and museums - perhaps my favorite was the Dean Gallery of the Scotland National Gallery of Modern Art. The three-story Paolozzi sculpture, 'Vulcan', was just incredible. The reproduction of his studio was similarly inspiring.

For your image delectation, I've also got this very groovy Godzilla poster.

Vulcan copyright Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (presumably)

Godzilla (French poster) from

April 12, 2007

Don't worry! I haven't gone anywhere! I'm working on an artist's talk (mentioned in the last post) as well as hosting visitors, first friends from New York and now my parents from Kentucky. I wanted to note that I got a nice EMail from George Waldman. He is the photographer who took (and owns) the picture of Big Bad D for the Metro Times article on Detroit's Hair Wars mentioned in this post. He also provided a link to his portfolio which can be found at Detroit Photo Journalism.

While I'm at it, I'll note that I also received an EMail from a fellow artist concerning my very first post. Julie Rauer EMailed me last Fall and we've had a continuing conversation about our work as artists and our writing as cultural critics (for lack of a better title). Ms. Rauer had written a critical/interpretive reading of an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art which I found and really enjoyed.

March 31, 2007

My wife went to go see the film 300 yesterday. I am working on an artist talk that I've been invited to give in about two weeks, so I declined the movie. If I had gone, I would have wanted to see TMNT.

I'm too old for the Turtles, really. When they debuted, I was 12 or so and had given up toys for my new interest in basketball. I had seen the comics at the store, but I had just made a tentative foray into independent comics through Elfquest (mentioned below). The animated series seemed much more childlike than its boy's market predecessors, GI Joe and Transformers.* The Ninja Turtles are an example of a phenomenon I mention on here occasionally : an altered anatomy (a super form of creature or human) moving between cultures. The Ninja Turtles are American in origin, but owe quite a bit to pop culture ideas of and from Japan. Interestingly, after they gained popularity in America they were re-developed as both anime and manga series in Japan.

Anyway, I have no nostalgia prompting me to go see the film. I've encountered some pretty quizzical stares, even the occasional sad head shake, when I describe my pop culture entertainment here in Ireland. Why would I prefer TMNT to 300 (or Inland Empire, which I may go see)? I think it boils down to the kind of viewer/reader/experiencer I am - I like to have lots of space in a creative work to imagine. A friend of mine who is working on a PhD in English and who studies lots of noir and other unusual fiction remarked to me that he preferred fiction with lots of strange changes of style or even "flaws" because that allowed him as a reader to have more room for interpretation. I suppose I experience something similar. I enjoy some of the confections of pop culture because they become strange enough, through poor craft or just a "bad" idea, that I have a lot of room to imagine. I can make up all sorts of new relationships, motivations, images when things aren't nailed down properly. Certainly, I may be bored to tears by TMNT. I plan on watching it with my nieces and nephews this Summer so we'll see. I still look forward to pop cultural oddities because they sometimes really provoke my imagination, either through idiocy, or very occasionally, sublimity.

* - Yes, I realize GI Joe and Transformers were really childlike, but for a 12-year-old, they seemed very different.

March 31, 2007

I'm not exactly sure where I came across these illustrations, it may have been Monster Brains or it may have been BoingBoing or even Drawn! These images were created by the artist Mahlon Blaine for the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series. I thought they were interesting (certainly obsessively detailed!). A quick Google of Blaine turns up a few sites dedicated to his work, some of which is sexually explicit. These images might take some of their manic line energy and wavy organic forms from Art Nouveau illustrations, as Blaine began his illustration career in the 1920s (although these illustrations date from the 1960s).

March 30, 2007

This 1935 print of the Australian Bunyip was found on Monster Brains. Monster Brains is a neat blog featuring a wide variety of images of monsters. Some of the images are historical, while others are done by contemporary artists and illustrators. I thought this print was pretty enigmatic, not only for its grey washy background, but also because the artist was unconcerned with developing a realistic anatomy for the creature. The abstraction of the head in particular is such that I wonder if the artist spent a lot of time with Surrealist art (given also that it was done in 1935).

March 29, 2007

Ron Turner Cover Collection on Flickr, found on BoingBoing.

I struggle a bit with how much structure is necessary for an image. Sometimes you wonder (if you're in the habit, as I am, of making worlds-within-worlds of detail in an image) whether or not you just have something to hide. Are the obsessive detail and mark-making simply obscuring a tentative image? In other words, are you just trying to cover up a base image that you fear isn't strong enough?

My sister was showing me the new Elfquest books recently (a story series which stretches back to 1978) and lamented the new, more simplified art. Apparently, the artist, Wendy Pini, had always envisioned the world of the story as being animated and was gradually drawing toward a smoother, animation-ready look. What's interesting is that according to my sister, Mrs. Pini noted that the earlier artwork had a considerable amount of loving cross-hatching and detail to obscure parts Pini thought weren't drawn well. I don't think that's the whole story - the success of the Elfquest publications were in part due to their matching up to a period of back-to-the-land culture in America. Books like the Foxfire series (which were also on our home bookshelves) and the renewed publication of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings*, to name two disparate but connected literary strains, generally point to a last gasp of exhausted utopian Sixties spirit before the onslaught of the slick, geometric, economic Eighties. I think Elfquest is part and parcel of that craft-oriented spirit with curly, crusty ink renderings that could almost pass for being burned in wood.

Elfquest was a major part of growing up - it was the first non-mainstream comic I read. I've mentioned it briefly before, writing about the manga B'T X. I'll probably get around to a longer discussion of the series at some point.

The reason for the digression - I think the Turner covers work quite well because they are detailed but with a sense of serious purposeful planning. Thankfully that planning doesn't drain them of their verve. The covers also nicely contrast some high-keyed saturated oranges and reds with drained blues and greys. Lastly, and this is maybe the most important part, is that they are simultaneously flat in affect (and thus the color tends to carry the space, which is nice) and yet also softly molded in places for some subtle dimension.

In a nice reversal of our general ideas about color and space, the background is generally brighter and warmer than the foreground which also contributes to the buzzing of the overall space (see the white of the space suit in the last cover or the pink behind the robot). The thin white halo around the foreground figures could be thought of as a bit of a cheat (to bring them back in front), but overall I think the color and organization is quite strong. In a final note, it's nice to see the typefaces contribute so well, too.

* - I've read somewhere, long forgotten, that the Seventies had a wave of "Frodo Lives" graffiti as a new generation discovered the books, which languished a bit on their initial publication after World War II.

March 25, 2007


March 17, 2007

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Our friend Elaine is taking us to our first hurling match (the sport of Cuchulainn) today. We'll also try to catch part of the Ireland/Italy rugby match, what with Ireland's Six Nations hopes on the line. I've been watching a bit of rugby here as it's the closest sport here in Ireland to basketball. Hurling is very exciting too, but it has the wide-field quality of soccer or hockey. With rugby, you as a spectator are much closer to the action and see more basketball-type plays - one player using skill, guile and spacing to move through other players. I've tried to watch soccer and can certainly understand its excitement for people who grew up with it. But as an outside watcher it seems a great majority of the plays involve kicking the ball into a crowd and hoping that someone has the luck and angle to head or boot it in.

Watching England's victory over France last weekend, I was reminded of the thrill of basketball as Shane Geraghty eluded several defenders in a great zig-zagging run that ended with a last-second pitch back to a teammate for a decisive score. The Irish commentators were gushing with pride as Geraghty's parents are Irish and he originally played for Irish teams before joining England's squad. Meanwhile, Ireland's star fly-half, Ronan O'Gara, is in fact American-born. I've only really been watching the Irish Six Nations games and a few of the Heineken Cup games that feature Irish teams. O'Gara is by all accounts one of the best players playing and Ireland is currently a formidable team.

I've only seen a bit of hurling as well, so I'm looking forward to today's game. Cuchulainn's skill at hurling comprises a large part of the tales of his early life. He earned his initial renown by defeating hundreds of boys at a time in pitched hurling battles. Later he is christened "Cuchulainn" (literally "hound of cullen") after slaying the slavering Hound of Cullen with a well-hit hurling ball. The Gaelic sports network here bears his original name : "Setanta". One of my Irish artist friends, Ivan, played competitive hurling in his teenage years. I had an interest in playing before arriving in Ireland but after seeing the speed with which people swing the hurling sticks and the proximity of stick to head, I decided against it.

(L-to-R : Kamen Rider's Kame Bazooka, Kamen Rider Hibiki's Todoriki, Hulkling and Kame Bazooka again)

March 16, 2007

It's odd how things can be dredged up out of your memory randomly by a little surfing on the Internet. Jason of Star Command. Huh. I watched that show. I think this guy is the only thing I remember about it, though. (L-to-R : Drago from Jason of Star Command, Hibiki from Kamen Rider Hibiki and Gigan from the Godzilla movies)

I'll be writing more on Kamen Rider soon as it's a fun, wacky show that just won't quit!

March 14, 2007

Detroit Hair Wars

Don't you hate when you live somewhere forever and then later find out that really, really cool stuff was happening there without your notice? I lived in the metro Detroit area for five years; I worked in the city and then completed graduate school in Ann Arbor. I never knew about hair wars. Not the first thing. I was totally oblivious, and this guy (pic right) lived in my city!* Not only is he a seamstress, but he is training to be a television wrestler! Why must I be tortured and tossed on the tempests of fate?

This Metro Times story has some terrific quotes from the participants as well as some great pictures. The picture for this post is taken from the article. You ought to read the article, but the summation is that Detroit hosts an intra-city hair competition amongst stylists to see who can create the most spectacular new style. This goes way beyond bobs versus mohawks and "on some whole other stuff" as they say. Flying helicopter hair, zippered compartment hair, 4-foot spider-web hair. This is not to even mention the costumes, which you have an example of here. The competition has it all.

The article also has an interesting subplot concerning race : as of the article's writing (2004), it was the first year for white contestants.

I love this description of Big Bad D. :

Big Bad D. is one of them, having first ventured into hair after he was laid off from the assembly line. To say Big Bad D. exudes masculinity is a comical understatement. A former professional bodybuilder, he's currently being courted by the WWE, the nation's premier group of pro wrestlers. This is no surprise, given his hulking 6-foot-4, rock solid, 300-pound frame. He hasn't cut his hair in more than a decade: his snakelike dreadlocks and braids are wrapped in bits of leather and twine, and graze his kneecaps. His daily wear includes a shirt torn at the chest, revealing rippling pectorals, and a pair of alligator claws hanging at his waist. His voice is a guttural rumble, and his gravelly laugh jarring enough to shake the floorboards.

* - Detroit, for those who haven't been there, is actually lots and lots of cities agglomulated into one metro area. That's certainly not unusual for American cities but Detroit has taken it to punishing proportions. Yes, I made up "agglomulated."

** - Photo, for the Metro Times, is copyright George Waldman.

March 13, 2007

I came across this image of last year's family reunion and thought I'd put it up here. That's me in the hat.

March 11, 2007

I was in a Dublin comic shop this week buying a new newstand comic for the first time in maybe fifteen years. I buy trade paperbacks and back issues and non-standard comics all the time. I just haven't bought a mainstream new issue in years and years. But I had read that Paul Pope had contributed a short story to the anniversary Fantastic Four issue out last week and I'm a big Pope fan and have had a recent interest in the FF. While I was scanning the new issue area, trying to make sense of it all, a young teen walked up quickly, grabbed the latest Captain America and asked the clerk "Is this the one where he dies?" I had seen the New York Times piece already and the Metafilter thread on Cap's death so I knew what he was talking about. I just hadn't witnessed that sort of silly speculation in the flesh in a long time.

If you'll permit me a bit of "fanboy" discussion, and by that I mean, discussion of the fanboy phenomenon itself, I'd like to address character change and death in superhero comics. Most fans, or those with blogs anyway, are already cynically predicting Cap's return in three patriotic energy forms.* So, we all bemoan character death as media stunts that will be overturned eventually. This kind of discussion, again in the fanboy blog community, leads to two tropes, which may initially look agreeable but are in fact quite tiresome. Both are nostalgic appeals to the halcyon days before "retcons"** and "grim and gritty." Comics, the argument goes, used to be fun and full of tight, interlocking continuity.

Well, see, not really.

Marvel Comics' origins are in many ways one big retcon. The original companies that later formed Marvel Comics were Timely and Atlas Comics. Their biggest selling comics, sold during World War II and the early 50s, were Captain America, Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner. Superhero comics were on the wane at the end of the war and were almost completely wiped out in the 50s with the arrival of horror and Western titles. Captain America and Bucky died at the close of the war in 1945. They were replaced by different characters donning the mantle of Captain America and Bucky during the fifties who themselves disappeared with the brief end of superhero comics*** before Marvel's resurgence in the 60s.

But The Avengers #4 arrived on the newstands of 1963 proudly emblazoned with "Captain America Lives Again!" It turns out that he had been encased in ice, see. And so he was in suspended animation. Our realism-heavy comic critics of today seem to overlook that in the rush to snark on Cap's current death. His entire existence in the contemporary Marvel universe is the result of a pretty darn corny retcon of his death in the 1940s.

I dislike the ludricous glorified violence of so-called "grim and gritty" comics as much as anyone. For one thing they're terribly boring. But to say that comics of the past were all wacky fun is to have a broadly nostalgic and obscured view of both the Golden and Silver Age and contemporary comics. Were the old fun comics the ones where Thunderbird died? Or where Gwen Stacy died? Or where Jean Grey died? Or Uncle Ben? Characters have been dying in comics from the beginning. Comics have always tried to address topical issues. I went to a recent talk by Grant Morrison and in discussing his role in reinventing Superman in a current series he talked about how the very early Golden Age Superman fought domestic abusers. I'm sure were I to read said issues now they might seem naive or crude, but I imagine to the readers of the day this was topical, even realistic.

Early Batman issues of the 30s and 40s produce a similar effect. While the violence pales next to the excesses of contemporary media entertainment, Batman still capped folks pretty routinely and with no remorse. His primary villain was disfigured from falling in a vat of chemicals. Again, the effect is lessened by our current context, but the readers of the era likely regarded the comics as dark and foreboding.

Where continuity and character death meet (and where we get off the insider critique of bloggers' complaints to some degree) is in the problematic nature of the superhero as a "human" character. Readers complain vociferously and constantly that this or that writer doesn't understand this or that character. That's weird in the first place because that assumes that a character is doing things without the writer writing them. But what's most annoying, and where we join a theme more common to this blog as a whole, is that readers want pretty much the same character over and over again but with different costumes. Readers complain when a character is written with any flaws or any non-standard motivation that "so-and-so wouldn't do such-and-such" because they're "courageous, stand up for what they believe in, strong-willed, smart, decisive" etc., square-jawed, etc. Don't forget "boring, perfect and not a character but a stand-in for my father/mother figure." Every superhero has to be the ridiculous answer to the most banal personals ad. I'm reminded of the country song line "Everybody wants to get to Heaven, but nobody wants to die." In the current registration storyline for Marvel Comics, which I don't much like and which opens a huge can of worms called "realism", readers complain because none of the superheroes, in their estimation, would support the idea of registration with the government. Iron Man wouldn't support it because he's "brave, independent, smart, liberal and helps kittens." Spider-Man wouldn't support it because see above plus he makes wisecracks. Mister Fantastic wouldn't support it because of the above and because he has white streaks in his hair. Captain America wouldn't support it, ad nauseam. The only positive thing Marvel did in the storyline was the one thing fans couldn't stand - they had good people get behind a bad idea and end up disagreeing with other good people.

Is it any wonder then that writers get fed up and kill these characters off when after 400-some-odd issues they still can't write any kind of story other than the hero heroically heroes his way around and heroes the heck out of the villain.

This brings me to the more pernicious corrupter of superhero comics and it's not lack of continuity or lack of fun. It's an ever-increasing desire to copy movies. Now that comics have translated to big money movies, the comics themselves are increasingly being written with the dumbest Bruckheimer tropes. It's sloppy in any visual medium to have to use a dateline to locate the story but in one where you can draw as many pictures as you like it seems extra stupid. Rather than making creative transitions or attempting to use the visuals to create an experience, contemporary bang and boom superhero comics just jerk you from place to place with "New York 11:15 pm" typed on the page. Should I be checking my watch while I'm reading the story? Does it matter what time it is?

Of course comics have been imitating movies and television for quite some time, too, so that's nothing new either. But the latest big event crossovers from the mainstream companies seem to be devoid of any of the strengths of comics. Rather the creators have placed one movie still after another and written words on top so it's a comic.

So, it was interesting to check in on Ghost Rider last Friday for only my second movie theatre viewing since I came to Dublin last September. Critics have roundly panned the film and I think some of that is an unfair (and boring) expectation that all superhero movies are going to be the mature, realistic (emo-fest) film that was Spider-Man. Nicholas Cage's performance as the beflamed titular motorcycle hellion was refreshingly weird. Rather than give in to the sensitive, but square-jawed trend, Cage opted for a downright goofy, puppy-dog-eyed man-child. To be sure, the movie lost its nerve at points and Johnny Blaze ended up with some leaden platitudes, but I mostly found myself willing to go on a corny, heavy metal ride.


* - Mimicking something to do with Superman's return from an equally media-driven death.

** - Retcon is short for "retroactive continuity". Something that was written originally one way is now understood to be something else. "Oh you thought he was dead. No, he was in a hospital with amnesia."

*** - Obviously I'm leaving out DC and a few other publishers here. DC, in particular has not had the same kind of supposed continuity as Marvel anyway.


PS - While writing this entry I came across this blog entry from Silver Age Comics, which shows a second death for Captain America during the Silver Age. That is some beautiful Kirby and Steranko art. Batroc, Ze Leapair!

March 7, 2007

Sometimes I aspire for my art to meet this standard:

"The whole thing is the visual equivalent of a moronic clip-art jumble sale poster designed in the dark by a myopic divorcee experiencing a freak biorhythmic high."

(From a Charlie Brooker review of a new mobile phone in The Manchester Guardian, linked to from BoingBoing.

March 4, 2007

Pink Tentacle has a terrific post up about Edo-period drawings of kappas. The kappa is a turtle-like folkloric creature from Japan known for luring the unwary to a drowning death. There are many more lyrical depictions of the creature featured in the post. Pink Tentacle is a great blog spotlighting a pretty wide variety of aspects of Japan. Other good blogs about Japan include AltJapan (good for giant robots and other pop culture), Neomarxisme (an expat in Japan writing about contemporary Japanese culture and politics) and PingMag (a Japanese-based, English-translated design and art web magazine).

I also pointed to Pink Tentacle before, noting a post from there about dekotora.


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