Saturday, June 17, 2006

More on Toth and Krigstein -- The following letter is from a reader named Daniel, in response to my post The Ghost of Toth:

I have to respectfully disagree with your recent posting about Alex Toth and your comparison of him to Krigstein. I love Krigstein's work (I have both of the Fantagraphics books you reference), but Toth was, by a wide, wide margin, the single greatest and most innovative cartoonist the medium has yet produced. As a draftsman, a designer, and a storyteller, no one has yet surpassed him. He is the only cartoonist whose work has literally made my jaw drop when looking at it, and he
did it again and again and again.

Krigstein brought a complexity to the medium when it was in its (relative) infancy. Yet Toth's work was equally (if not more) complex. The difference was that he pared his work down to its barest essentials till it was as simple as it could be. It almost seems like an oxymoron, but the complexity of Toth's work was masked by its simplicity.

Based on everything that I've read, I think there is a dichotomy in the assessments of Toth's work between the views held by practicing artists (cartoonists, illustrators, designers, etc.) and the views held by the lay audience. The people who always praised Toth the loudest--in life and in death-- were other artists: Darwyn Cooke, Kevin Nowlan, Mark Chiarello, Steve Rude, Bruce Timm, Howard Chaykin, Ronnie Del Carmen, Paul Grist, etc. As a practicing illustrator and graphic designer
myself, I think it takes someone who is a practitioner of the arts to understand just how unbelievably hard it is to do what Toth did, especially since he made it look so easy.

In some of Krigstein's best stories ("Master Race" comes to mind first) it looked as if he was showing off on the page, and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense. It was as if he was raising a flag for everyone to see and take notice of exactly what the medium was capable of producing. You can almost see the blood, sweat, and the tears on the page. Toth, on the other hand, made his work look effortless. He never
showed off. There was no flamboyance in his work. He used the bare minimum number of lines, panels, shapes, and images. He was like the master craftsmen who made Shaker furniture: the work is perfect at first glance as well as at 100th glance.

Anyway, as I've written before, I love your site and enjoy visiting it.

I stand by my opinion that no artist has done more to (to coin a phrase) push comic art forward than Krigstein, but if Toth is behind him, it's by the narrowest of degrees, and as I noted in my earlier post, a lot of the perception involved is down to the circumstances of the availability Toth's work -- I'd gladly pay just about any price for a book on Toth that is as comprehensive and well-produced as B. Krigstein Vol. 1.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Ghost of Toth -- At Warren Ellis's message board The Engine, there's a very good discussion about the legacy of Alex Toth, both in terms of his influence on comic art, and what is and isn't available for modern readers.

When I think of Alex Toth's art, three stories come immediately to mind -- Bravo for Adventure, which was a superbly drawn backup series in one of the 1980s Warren black and White magazines, perhaps The Rook or 1984; the Superman/Batman team-up Toth pencilled and Terry Austin inked that appeared in a DC annual somewhere around 1983; and an aviation-based war story that appeared in an EC Comics titled edited by Harvey Kurtzman, either Two Fisted Tales or Frontline Combat.

My memories of Toth's art coincide with the thread at The Engine because, as you may have noticed, I can't remember exactly what title and issue number any of those stories appeared in. Contrast that to another masterwork discussed in the thread, Bernard Krigstein's "Master Race," which I know appeared in Impact #1; or Lee and Kirby's "This Man, This Monster," which I immeditely remember was published in Fantastic Four #51. Or "Ice Haven," which was featured in Eightball #21.

Those latter three stories are all great examples of the very best of what has been accomplished in comics, and information about them is seared in my brain. Yet, where some of Toth's best work appeared somehow has not been so specifically imprinted on my brain. Why is that?

As noted in the thread, he did a lot of stuff for a lot of publishers, but it's hard to pin down anything you'd call a landmark run (perhaps his Eclipso, which is invoked in the thread, but I think I've maybe seen one of those stories, in an old reprint somewhere, and no real impression remains).

Digression: I just remembered another fantastic example of Toth's artistry: A Black Mask story that was a backup feature in an Archie superhero title in the 1980s; The Fly? How many of those did he draw? 2? 3? End of digression...

So Toth's influence was pretty wide -- as mentioned in the thread, we'd hardly have Steve Rude without him, and countless other very good artists have learned volumes by studying the way Toth used black ink and negative space -- but it seems unlikely any publisher would be able to put together a truly representative volume of the very best of the man's art. Too many copyrights, too many publishers, too many stories, not enough landmark moments or key runs.

I don't agree with the poster in The Engine thread that claims Toth was more of an innovator than Krigstein; I don't think the next ten guys in line thought as much about what could be done in comic art or accomplished as much, with as many obstacles in his way, as Krigstein did. And luckily Fantagraphics has two enormous and vital books dedicated to Krigstein's achievements, B. Krigstein and B. Krigstein Comics, which are mandatory reading for anyone who wants to enter a discussion of the peaks comic art has reached, and the potential yet untapped.

But Toth was a master artist, there's no doubt about that. If I were writing it today, certainly I would include him in my essay Ten Great Comics Artists, but perhaps it's this diffusion of Toth's impact over time that led me to neglect to include him.

It's telling, though, how many of the artists on that list demonstrate at least some, and in one case very powerful, influence by Toth's artistry.

I'd love to own the thousands of scanned pages Steven Grant talks about in that Engine thread; maybe someday, it will be legal and possible for such a project to happen, whether on a CD ROM, or more preferably in print, where Toth belongs.

In any case, at least people are talking about him again.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person -- Miriam Engelberg's "Memoir in Comics" details in a sardonic, straightforward manner her battles with cancer over a period of years. The book seems built-to-order for the segment of NPR's audience that is into a certain kind of graphic novel, and certainly Engelberg is an NPR listener, with frequent references to the network's programs. If she hasn't been vetted by Fresh Air, surely she will be by the end of the month.

You're not going to buy Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person for the art; Engelberg's text introduction details her early, abortive attempt at finding a collaborator to draw her comics. Ultimately she took matters fully into her own hands, and if the result is a potentially less elegant visual depiction of the events herein, it certainly is more immediate than just about any other style could easily to imagined to convey. Think of a slightly less experienced John Porcellino and you'll have a grasp on the style of the artwork. A quick glance at a page of colour art on the site (link likely to change, from the looks of how her site is set up) tells me that the book would have been considerably more effective visually if it had used that sort of colour, as it makes the flat images pop out more, but again, this is not a book you're buying to luxuriate in the art. You're buying it to learn about Engelberg's life and her battle against breast cancer.

Millions of people have experienced cancer, to be sure, but depictions of the endurance of illness over time are rare in comics; Pekar's My Cancer Year and the online-comic-gone-graphic-novel Mom's Cancer are the only other ones that come readily to mind. Engelberg's style of storytelling is firmly in the Pekar mold, a series of observational anecdotes with a powerful cumulative effect lending verisimilitude and a sense that the reader has learned, if not volumes about what it is to suffer a serious, life-threatening illness, at least a lot about the author's particular experience.

Engelberg keeps her tongue in cheek even in the darkest moments, reflecting with wit on such matters as the reaction of friends and acquaintances to her cancer, her own reaction to the disease in herself and others, and the various manners in which she attempted to distract herself from her ordeal while deepest in its tumult (hence the "Made Me A Shallower Person" in the title).

It's not a fun story, per se, but it is compelling, dramatic and at times very funny. I would not have expected, going into the book, to find myself laughing out loud, but there are moments where Engelberg's observational skills allowed no other response.

At some time in your life, you're very probably going to know someone with cancer; hopefully it won't be you. But as a journal of the experience, Engelberg's book is invaluable in the way it lets you into the thought process a cancer survivor goes through, and it's hard to imagine someone reading this work and not coming away at least a little better informed, if not better prepared.

Visit Mirian Engelberg's website.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Codename: Black Death #1 -- Did you see the season finale of The Shield a few weeks back? It featured one of the most shocking, visceral and disturbing moments in the show's history, as one of the least-ethical characters on the show murdered another far-from-innocent character in a particularly gruesome manner.

It was, as I said, shocking and disturbing; my wife actually was yelling to no one in particular, "He did not just do that! No way! HE DID NOT DO THAT!" And unlike me, my wife never yells at the TV.

But she was so immersed in the story and so outraged at the horrific act she just witnessed, because for the past five years The Shield has delivered "unique characters and compelling stories," something likewise promised in a text piece in this first issue. The Shield gives us what it promises. Codename: Black Death does not.

The reason I invoke The Shield as I reflect on Codename: Black Death is that there is a scene in this first issue similar to that memorable scene on from the show's season finale. In Codename: Black Death #1, we see a prosecuting attorney and his family wiped out by a bomb planted in their car, in order to put a halt to the case against a banker whose business is said to be a front for a huge money-laundering operation. With the help of a high-placed politician, the family is killed, and the underling who pushes the button setting off the explosive device that takes their lives chuckles "Heh heh heh, problem solved."

Now, the basic construction of the scene on The Shield was the same; the victim of the explosion is the only person who can testify against the Strike Team. The victim is not planning to, but the killer who takes the victim's life doesn't know that, so there is a layer of irony and drama added to the scene. Again, elements totally absent from the similar scene in Black Death #1.

Crucially, though, is the aftermath. On The Shield, the killer's grief and remorse at what he has done is palpable; you know that the second he's committed the murder he wishes more than anything that he could take it back. He did what he did because he is trying to protect his fellow crooks, men he loves like brothers. But he loved his victim, too, so there's an element of very human conflict introduced into the moment.

Contrast that, if you will, with "Heh heh heh, problem solved." The nameless, faceless thug who carries out the execution of an entire family feels nothing about what he has just done, most likely because the writer of the scene has thought nothing about what a real person might feel about carrying out such an horrific act.

Codename: Black Death is two-dimensional and sub-professional, but I can't say it isn't readable. I actually read it twice, wanting to be sure I had a handle on just why it's so unimpressive. It is typical of most amateur wanna-be superhero comics, in that it puts the origin story of its protagonist far ahead of the inclusion of any true human drama or attention to craft that would in any way distinguish it from more professionally-produced superhero comics.

In short, the world does not need Codename: Black Death, Agents of Talon or Devil's Claw, the three titles that are forthcoming from the ironically named Triumph Media Entertainment, LLC." There are plenty of superhero comics out there already, and virtually all of them are better than this.

The last time I gave a negative review to a comic that lamely emulates corporate comics, I actually got a phone call from one of the creators who wanted to explain to me what I was missing in his comic. I think in the course of that call that I actually was able to explain to the guy what he could do to at least make his book marginally better. So remembering that conversation, let me emphasize that I am sure that all the creators involved in Codename: Black Death are working as hard as they can to make the book as entertaining and compelling as they can.

The problem is that their very best is nowhere near the level of even Marvel or DC's most mediocre talents. While the people who created this comic book may someday make very good, professional superhero comics (as meager a goal as I might find that, personally), they have not done so yet, despite the claims of their text page. Codename: Black Death is the sort of thing that I imagine someone like Erik Larsen or Todd McFarlane was creating in their bedroom when they were 11, but thanks to the fact that it was much harder then to get a work into actual print, the only people who had to read it were friends and family members, who no doubt praised their work to the heavens, because they loved little Erik and Todd very much.

Comics like Codename: Black Death should be created in private and enjoyed the same way, as a way for their amateur creators to work on their craft and eventually perhaps even improve themselves. They should not be sent out into the marketplace full of promises they don't keep, with the expectation that everyone will love it as much as their friends and family told them they did, at the same price as much better comics that actually deliver on their promises, however limited those promises may be.


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Five Questions for James Kochalka -- I last interviewed James Kochalka in January of this year, and while updating some stuff on my Kochalkaholic! blog, I noticed just how much has happened in Kochalka's career in the short few months that have passed since then. So I decided to once again ask him a few -- five to be precise -- questions about what's happened and what's about to happen in his life and career as a cartoonist and musician.

1. It's been announced that the long-awaited James Kochalka Superstar CD Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly will be released this August 29th. You and the band are planning a tour to coincide with the release of the CD; give me your best and worst-case scenarios for how the tour might go.

We're really planning a couple long-weekend length mini-tours. The first one, we'll do four days in a row nearby here... maybe Boston, Providence, New York City, and somewhere else close? It's amazing that we've never done anything like this before, and simple and pedestrian as it is.

For the second mini-tour we're looking for some insane fan or comic book store or college to front us the money to fly wherever they are, and then we'll build a tour around it. Similar things have happened before. A fan in Norman, Oklahoma flew us down there for his birthday one year, and last year a comic book store in Houston, Texas and the college radio station at Rice University teamed up to fly us down for
some show.

Best case scenario? This is all I'm really looking for: we all have a great time, band and audience. I'm hoping just to break even, but we expect to actually lose money.

I guess... worst case scenario... I can't take the strain of playing four shows in a row and I lose my voice, the shows are poorly attended and we lose money on the trip, and then while we're sleeping on the floor of some insane fan's apartment and they kill us in our sleep.

2. The song "Hockey Monkey" by yourself and The Zambonis was the theme song of a Fox TV series called "The Loop" that debuted this year, and the song has gone on to gain significant radio airplay. How this experience has affected your life and your work?

It has not really affected my life and work in any way whatsoever, that I've yet noticed. We got $25,000 for the song, but we split that five ways. Certainly the song was heard by millions and millions of people, but it hasn't led to huge sales. It did give us inroads to commercial radio. Up until now, my stuff has only been played on college radio, but after the show premiered we took a chance and sent the Hockey Monkey single out to 400 commercial and modern rock radio stations. Of those, I think about 20 or 25 started playing it. Most significantly, the SIRIUS satellite network started playing it on their most popular music channel, Alt Nation. It quickly climbed the charts there, eventually becoming the #1 most requested song. It's still way up there, it's been high on their charts for a couple months now. They've played the song HUNDREDS of times, it's unreal.

Now, I will get money from BMI for all this airplay and television play eventually, but I don't know how much. BMI's payment schedule has like a one-year delay. So this time next year I should know what it all adds up to.

3. This week sees the release in comic shops of the third issue of your teen superhero team comic Super-Fuckers. What can followers of your comics work look forward to in the next few months?

Oh, other than the third SuperF*ckers (#277)? Nothing, I guess. I'm working on the fourth issue right now, I'm halfway done with page 12. It's too early to tell with issue 4, but issue 3 is absolutely gruesome! Gruesome is my new cool word I'm going to start using to replace "awesome."

I forgot, there's a great comic in the booklet for Spread Your Evil Wings and Fly. That comes out August 29 in the USA, and a day earlier in the UK. Anyhow, the comic is titled Genius in the Basement, and it's about a monster living in my basement. But it's really about me.

In the fall, Book Two of American Elf will come out, unless Top Shelf goes out of business before that. It will collect all my diary strips from 2004 and 2005, in full color no less.

I'm also just finishing up my first children's book for Random House. It won't come out until August 2007, and we're not sure what the title will be. It juxtaposes alternating pages of verse and comics. The editing process is really intense, but we've hammered my usual loosey-goosey storying-telling style into something as solid as the great classic childrens books, I think. Here's a few of the titles we're looking at: Squirrelly Gray and the Magic Nut, Squirrelly Gray's Rainy Forest, or When the World Was Gray. Actually we've got a list of dozens of titles, so many it's impossible to choose. I think we'll go with the most simple... just plain: Squirrelly Gray.

4. For the past year or so you've been an instructor at The Center for Cartoon Studies. Tell
me what you've learned about cartooning and cartoonists as a result of your work there?

Here's what it really takes to be a great cartoonist: You've got to have the fire and the will-power and at least a little spark of genius. I knew that before, though. It's exciting to be a part of the school, though. It's just fun to teach. It's fun to help them become better cartoonists. I'm not down there a lot, but I love it when I am. It's inspiring.

5. A few years back you quit your job at a Chinese restaurant (and even did a comic about it, coincidentally enough called "Quit Your Job") to devote yourself full-time to your comics and your music. If you could go back in time to your last day at that job and tell your younger self what the next few years would be like and maybe give him some advice, what would you say to that younger James Kochalka?

That would be weird and scary, to meet the younger me. Meeting an even younger me than that, maybe college age would be the scariest of all. But I suppose the younger me would be scared too, so it would all even out.

Anyhow, I had no idea making a living as a cartoonist would be so goddamn easy. I didn't need any advice, all I needed to do was work hard and hustle, and I did that. Now... if I could go back and meet the much-younger me instead, maybe I could teach the much-younger me how to knuckle down and how to hustle and I could've jump-started my career a decade earlier.

Visit James Kochalka's


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