PAVEMENT magazine

COMICS COLUMN

December 1998 / January 1999

THE NEW GOLDEN AGE

 

While comics have ceased to be a mass medium, they’re looking more and more like an artform. The past 15 years have seen people like Art Spiegelman (Maus), Chester Brown (I Never Liked You), Robert Crumb and Chris Ware (Acme Novelty Library) achieve critical acclaim in both the art and literary worlds.

The Small Press Expo bills itself as America’s largest convention dedicated to ‘art-first’ comics. Held in Bethesda, MD (just outside Washington, DC) every autumn, SPX ignores the larger ‘mainstream’ publishers like Marvel, Image and DC. Instead, the big displays are by Fantagraphics, Slave Labor and Kitchen Sink Press. Minicomics creators like Jennifer Daydreamer are feted like stars and the Ignatz Awards go to people like Dan Clowes, Chris Ware and Gilbert Hernandez. It’s a sign that ‘alternative’ comics are beginning to move away from the ‘mainstream’ comics industry completely - becoming an industry and a scene in their own right.

Indeed, Chris Oliveros (publisher of Drawn & Quarterly comics and himself an Ignatz nominee for The Envelope Manufacturer) told me they were doing better than ever before, at a time when the mainstream giants are suffering their worst decline in decades. I was at SPX launching my first graphic novel, Hicksville (published by Black Eye Books) and presenting an exhibition of New Zealand cartoonists (Nga Pakiwaituhi o Aotearoa: New Zealand Comics). And from everyone I spoke to, I heard the same theme: this is a Golden Age for comics as an artform; but what a dreadful time for the industry!

Since the collapse of the speculative collecting boom in the early 1990s, comic shops have been closing in frightening numbers, the number of major distributors has been reduced to one, and the sales-figures for leading titles have dropped by up to 90%. The problem, of course, is that during the boom years most comic publishers, creators and retailers were concentrating all their efforts on getting more money out of the same tiny pool of specialist fans; few were working on reaching out to non-fans and convincing them there were comics worth reading. Now that the fan market is disappearing, the industry is having a hard time facing up to the need to get its eggs out of that shrinking basket and finding a place for them in the real world.

But in spite of all this, the small press is thriving. Not financially, necessarily - no-one’s getting rich off of these things - but creatively, things have never been so vibrant. SPX was overflowing with great cartoonists, enthusiastic publishers and even academics, who were attending the concurrent International Comics and Animation Festival (ICAF).

For me, SPX was the last stop on a week-long signing tour with three of America’s best young cartoonists, all of who also have new books out. So I guess I might as well review them.

Tiny Bubbles
James Kochalka
(Highwater Books)

James is a cult favourite on the American student radio circuit, thanks to his two CDs James Kochalka Superstar and Monkey vs. Robot. But he is also one of the most exciting - and prolific - recent arrivals in the comics world. In the past couple of years he’s published several books, including Magic Boy and the Word of God, Mermaid, Quit Your Job and Paradise Sucks. This, his latest, uses his alter ego Magic Boy’s hypochondria as a catalyst for a haunting, lyrical meditation on the fragility of life and happiness in an chaotic, uncaring universe. As you’d expect from Kochalka, there are plenty of robots, cute animals and magical moments. Look out, too, for his forthcoming The Horrible Truth About Comics (Alternative Comics), a beautiful and provocative response to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

The Sands
Tom Hart
(Black Eye Books)

This long-awaited graphic novel by the author of Hutch Owen’s Working Hard is finally out. What seems at first to be a gentle story about an entomologist and her easy-going husband moving out to the desert gradually fragments into a disturbing mosaic of isolation, mistrust and outright hostility. Hart powerfully evokes the feeling of finding yourself in an alien environment and culture where even an apparently friendly gesture can turn out to be a joke made at your expense. He reveals the cost of ignoring your own needs to let your partner pursue their dream. He also challenges the conventions of comics narrative, moving in the third act from novel to poem. This book should be read several times - it just keeps getting better.

Queen of the Black Black
Megan Kelso
(Highwater Books)

A collection of short stories from Kelso’s comic book Girlhero and various anthologies, along with some new work, Queen of the Black Black shows an extremely talented cartoonist reaching maturity. Ranging from intensely personal stories (a middle-aged man rediscovering the adopted child he’d fathered as a teenager) to adult fairy tales (like the title story, in which an aging famous painter mentors a young musician), Kelso’s comics have a rare depth and sensitivity and look beautiful. Few of Kelso’s peers are as good at telling short stories; she’s up there with Adrian Tomine and Jessica Abel - with a mythic quality that neither can match.


Ten discoveries:

1. Mona (an excellent new anthology edited by Robert Boyd) (Kitchen Sink Press)
2. White Death, Robbie Morrison & Charlie Adlard (a harrowing graphic novel set in the closing years of WW1) (Les Cartoonistes Dangereux) ISBN 1-902429-00-1
3. L’Homme Qui Marche (‘The Man who Walks’), Taniguchi (this is the french edition of a beautiful japanese manga, full of quiet observations on everyday beauty) (Casterman) ISBN 2-203-37202-8
4. Le Voyage & Terrains Vague, Edmond Baudoin (the godfather of the New Wave in french comics - beautiful evocative brushwork and lyrical stories) (L’Association) ISBN 2-909020-66-5
5. Mitchum, Blutch (a virtuoso series of books by a younger member of the french New Wave) (Cornelius)
6. Conte Demoniaque, Aristophane (a nightmarish masterpiece by another of France’s exciting new cartoonists) (L’Association) ISBN 2-909020-56-8
7. L’Ascension du Haut Mal, David B. (a dreamlike vision of childhood - this trilogy has been called the best french comic of the decade) (L’Association) ISBN 2-909020-84-3 (vol.2)
8. Stigmates, Mattotti & Piersanti (Lorenzo Mattotti has long been Italy’s finest cartoonist; now he’s keeping up with the New Wave young bloods from France) (Editions du Seuil) ISBN 2-02-034349-5
9. Le Cheval Sans Tete (an amazing anthology from ground-breaking french publishers Amok) (Amok)
10. Black Candy, Matt Madden (the worst nightmare you’ve ever had, made vividly real) (Black Eye Books)

Comics supplied by Gotham Comics, 131 The Mall, Onehunga, Auckland. Ph/fax: (09) 634-4399, email: gotham@comics.co.nz, website: www.comics.co.nz. Mail orders welcome.

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