Archive for the 'Comic strips and cartoons' Category
Carl Barks, Ghost of the Grotto (1947).
We never need an excuse to write about comic strips or comic books. We’re fans and, just as important, we think of them as having important connections to film. We’re particularly fond of classic funny-animal comics, from Krazy Kat (the greatest) onward. So I got a double dose of pleasure reading Mike Barrier’s Funnybooks: The Improbable Glories of the Best American Comic Books. It taught me a lot about the history of some favorites, and it set me thinking about some overlaps and divergences between film and graphic art.
No Girls Allowed
Like Mike’s Disney book The Animated Man, Funnybooks is at one level a scrupulously researched business history. It explains how publisher Western Printing and Lithography (of Racine, WI) became the center of a thriving industry. Before the mid-1930s the company’s juvenile line came out chiefly under the Whitman imprint. Its illustrated storybooks licensed characters from Disney and comic strips like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie. But Hal Horne and Oskar Lebeck pushed toward creating comic books proper, those inviting items that could compete with the superhero titles that were emerging. Their instincts were sound: Western’s comics, distributed by the Dell company, sold hundreds of thousands of copies.
After several tries at compiling daily comic strips into a single volume, Lebeck turned to original content. In the early 1940s he hired Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, and John Stanley. All had worked in film animation (Kelly and Barks for Disney, Stanley for Max Fleischer), but they adjusted to the demands of more static cartoon art. Into the rise and fall of Western and Dell, Barrier weaves the personal stories of the three creators and their less famous peers. Funnybooks is at once industrial history and a collective biography.
John Stanley, the least known of the trio, was brought on to do stories of Little Lulu, the stolid, crisply-curled girl created by Marjorie Buell. Stanley wrote and drew the entirety of the first book in 1945. The cover presents a heroine as blank as Hello Kitty and a background grid as febrile as a Chris Ware design. Afterward, Stanley chiefly served as writer on the Lulu stories, providing other artists with detailed scenarios and sketches. The panels might be somewhat stiff, but the plots were admirable. Often turning on mean childhood pranks, they were steeped in spite and petty revenge.
I remember enjoying Lulu’s stories, especially their verbal comedy. When Tubby (I think it was) hits Lulu with a pie, he says, “I’ve thrown a custard to her face.” Lulu replies: “I liked breathing out and breathing in.” This was probably a post-Stanley passage, but the fact that I’ve remembered it for sixty years indicates the ways grown-up jokes can stick in the unformed brain. (I knew Boris Badenov before I knew Boris Godunov.)
Mike is very good on the bitter humor that Stanley puts on display as Lulu and her girl pals skirmish with Tubby and his gang of sexist bullies.
His characters were never vulnerable to the suggestion so often made about the children in Charles Schulz’s comic strip Peanuts—that they were adults masquerading as children. They were instead children whose quarrels and schemes echoed adult life.
Lulu evolved, Mike shows, into a trickster who constantly showed up the boys, even as she herself was sometimes slapped down. In one story a rich boy, seeing Lulu longing for pastries in a shop window, doesn’t consider buying her one. Instead, he buys the shop and drops the shade on the window. Walking away on his golden stilts, “he felt very happy because now the poor little girl wouldn’t have to look at things she couldn’t buy.” Another compassionate conservative.
Stanley drew many other characters, including Bushmiller’s Nancy and the ingratiating Melvin Monster. His career fizzled out when comic-book publishing hit hard times in the 1950s. He wound up working in a factory that made aluminum rulers.
Walt Kelly fared better. In the beginning he he worked on many series but he gained fame with his own creation, the enduring swampland of Pogo Possum and his friends. “Ensemble comedy,” Mike calls the remarkable menagerie Kelly assembled.
At first speaking in mangled Southern accents, Pogo, Albert the Alligator, Porkypine, Howland Owl, Churchy la Femme (another joke passing over kids’ heads), and a host of other creatures developed a patois as bizarre as the rodomontade you hear in Coconino County. Characters sang nonsense songs, recited garbled poetry, and engaged in pun-filled miscommunication. The wordplay was enhanced by lettering adjusted to different characters, notably the Gothic script associated with Deacon Mushrat and the circus-ballyhoo font employed by con artist P. T. Bridgeport.
Slapstick went along with the verbal pyrotechnics. Kelly’s fluid line created complex equivalents of movie pratfalls, each one enlivened by fussy details (check the bear’s glasses below) and punctuated by unique sound effects. Barrier reports that in one Kelly comic, a cannon explodes with the sound “FRED.”
In all, eccentricity was the watchword, usually accompanied by food, or characters trying to get it. Albert had a disconcerting habit of accidentally eating his friends. Any of the crew might launch into retelling a classic children’s story featuring the entire cast. These were fairy tales not so much fractured as splintered. In all, it’s astonishing how many pictorial and verbal gags Kelly could cram into four daily panels.
Kelly, a superb draftsman, learned the secret of round forms in his Disney days, and Mike traces how this tendency toward cuteness helped make Pogo a success. But Kelly also had a nutty sense of humor that set him apart from other Western/Dell artists. Mike surveys Kelly’s range, from liberal political cartoons to Our Gang comics, and he treats with care how Kelly’s work included both racial caricatures and more affirmative images of African Americans.
Mike shows how Kelly’s talents outgrew the Dell family. As Pogo and his pals became more popular with intellectuals, the comic-book format proved a rickety vehicle for the artist’s ambitions. Kelly shifted his energies toward daily and Sunday strips that attracted nation-wide attention, not least for satirizing Joseph McCarthy and the Jack Acid (aka John Birch) Society. Pogo’s swamps, I thought at the time, became the liberal counterweight to Al Capp’s reactionary Dogpatch. Like Doonesbury and Calvin & Hobbes later, the dailies became incorporated into best-selling books published by Simon & Schuster. Those collections, to be found on every college kid’s bookshelf in the 1960s and 1970s, made Pogo as much a part of the official counterculture as Frodo Baggins. “We have met the enemy and he is us” became the slogan of a generation.
A peculiar affinity with those damn Ducks
If Funnybooks has a protagonist, it is Carl Barks. No wonder. Unlike Stanley, he both wrote and drew his books. Unlike Kelly, he was anonymous. A modest worker prized by all who knew him, he simply spent year after year turning out the beautifully crafted adventures of Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge, and their associates. He was, it seems, born to make funny-animal comic books.
Mike Barrier is a long-time Barksian. His 1981 Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book is at once a biography, an appreciation, and a catalogue raisonné of this master of precision artwork. The new book fits some of Mike’s earlier arguments into the wider tale of Western and Dell, but he has also deepened his ideas about the nature of Barks’ achievement. He is able to expand his recognition of Barks’ gift for characterization, mood, and emotional expression.
Instead of merely recycling an iconic character from the Disney animated shorts, Barks gave Donald his own town, Duckburg, populated by a new cast of characters—Gyro Gearloose, Gladstone Gander, the Beagle Boys, and others. Barks, it seems, gained this creative freedom because everyone at Western admired him. Mike quotes one old timer who calls Barks “the genius of the group. . . . He had a particular affinity with those damn Ducks.” Barks once thought he could support himself raising chickens. Fortunately for us, he turned his poultry fascination to comic books displaying elegant storytelling.
Here’s where Mike set me thinking about some relations between film and comics. He points out that a panel often needs to convey the passage of time—not through movement, as in film, but through devices for suggesting interplay among characters and their environment. The staging of the action, the composition, and the placement of dialogue balloons all create a rhythm of reading. Whereas Japanese manga can split an instant into many single, striking images (and thus create very long books), American comics developed ways to suggest the ripening of the story, moment by moment, within each panel.
My last Pogo panel featuring the self-aggrandizing hound Beauregard is a good example.
Without the balloons, the image would be a snapshot, but the balloons produce a temporal flow. The most prominent balloon, filling about a quarter of the frame, reports the frog urging Beauregard to jump. The next balloon that we notice, snuggled against the first, shows the bug trying to exploit the rescue (“Step right up”). Farthest right, Beauregard replies to the bug, talking diagonally past the frog. The speeches are the usual Kelly demotic, incorporating low slang, literary references, and pompous rhetoric, and the order in which we read them and attach them to action accentuates the differences in diction.
Barks could create this sense of rhythmic duration with his ready-made chorus of Huey, Dewey, and Louie. In this panel from “Frozen Gold” (1944), the cascade of balloons assumes a left-to-right reading and creates a pulse capped by Donald’s brusque reply.
Most panels don’t create such a dense sense of time unfolding. That is more commonly achieved through several panels depicting a stretch of action. Or sometimes inaction. In a wonderful passage, Mike discusses how Barks uses a pause to suggest Donald’s growing guilt feelings after sending the odious Gladstone to the North Pole. At first he gloats, but then in a series of panels he starts to question what he’s done.
Barrier takes this page as a turning point in Barks’s evolution as an artist. Eight panels, some without action. convey a deepening psychological state, capped with an image of Donald crushed by his imagination of what could happen to Gladstone. The sense of food stuck in Donald’s craw is nicely hinted at by two motion lines near his neck.
Instead of stretching action by a pause, the artist can accelerate it through ellipsis. Here’s a lovely Barks passage from “Christmas on Bear Mountain” (1947) that’s somewhat filmlike, and yet not. Huey, Dewey, and Louie are checking out a snowstorm and Donald approaches with his telescope. The suggestion is that he approaches their window from off right, with only a few steps until he gets there.
Now comes the first ellipsis: The boys have left the window, and Donald is already spotting what he thinks is a bear. This is very concise storytelling. A sharp change of angle shows another ellipsis: the boys are back at the window identifying the squirrel.
In the “cut” between panels 3 and 4, Donald has disappeared. Where’d he go? The next panel shows us.
The jumps in time are covered by the smoothly varied compositions: 1 and 2, sitting side by side, flow neatly, while 3 and 4, overlapping pictorially, actually cover a time gap. The gap is filled by panel 5, a nice variant on what we saw in 1 and 2. You’d seldom find cuts like these in a film, though I’d welcome somebody trying.
I don’t want to give the impression that Funnybooks is a theoretical study. Mike Barrier, who has thought seriously about the aesthetics and history of comics for fifty years, has given us another precious historical account of this extraordinary popular art and three of its masters. It’s up to us to recognize how his discoveries can shed light on pictorial storytelling generally.
P.S. 28 April 2015: Funnybooks has been nominated for an Eisner Award. Congratulations to Mike! Another fine nominee is Thierry Smolderen’s The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay (University Press of Mississippi), translated by Bart Beaty & Nick Nguyen.
My illustrations are drawn from The Best of Walt Disney Comics 1944 and The Best of Walt Disney Comics 1947 (Western Publishing, n.d.); Walt Kelly, Pogo: The Complete Dell Comics, vol. 2 (Hermes, 2014); Walt Kelly, Pogo: The Complete Syndicated Comic Strips, vol. 2: Bona Fide Balderdash (Fantagraphics, 2012); and Little Lulu Color Special (Dark Horse, 2006). The model sheet of Donald heads comes from Mike Barrier, Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book (M. Lilien, 1981), 43.
Thanks to Hank Luttrell of Twentieth Century Books for helping me find some rare items. And be sure to check Mike Barrier’s encyclopedic website. His 23 April entry rounds up several reviews of Funnybooks.
If anyone reading this doesn’t know Scott McCloud’s superb surveys of the art and craft of comics, I should mention Understanding Comics (Morrow, 1993) and Making Comics (Morrow, 2004). Both books contain many observations on how comics manipulate time.
Looking back at my blog entry on Tintin, I think that the sense of time unfolding within the frame is what Hergé was getting at when he picked a certain image of Captain Haddock as the essence of his method. In the same entry, I suggest that Hergé was creating continuity and ellipses in ways similar to Barks’s Bear Mountain story. Still, Hergé offers more tightly constrained choices of angle and less drastically changing compositions.
Manny Farber, undated photo. Courtesy of Patricia Patterson.
This entry is part of a series on 1940s American critics. The earlier installments are here, here, here, and here. Because of the complexity of Farber’s career, I’ll devote a second entry to him shortly.
Emanuel Farber is the most currently celebrated critic of my three Rhapsodes of the 1940s. He is the cinephiles’ favorite, and his tastes, his ideas, and his prose have had enormous influence. His collected writings, edited by Robert Polito in a bulky Library of America edition, come festooned with praise from Scorsese, Schickel, Corliss, Wolcott, Sragow, Rosenbaum, and William Gibson. “The liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country ever produced,” notes Susan Sontag.
Out of many candidates, here’s a specimen of how Farber carried the controlled ecstasy of the 1940s critics into the 1960s. A 1969 essay on Hawks describes His Girl Friday:
Besides the dynamic, highly assertive pace, this Front Page remake with Rosalind Russell playing Pat O’Brien’s role is a tour de force of choreographed action: bravado posturings with body, lucid Cubistic composing with natty labels and hat brims, as well as a very stylized discourse of short replies based on the idea of topping, outmaneuvering the other person with wit, cynicism, and verbal bravado.
The outpouring of words, the piling up of adjectives and modifying phrases, the ellipsis (no time to spare for ands, let alone periods), and the sideswipe reference to modern painting all bear the signature of a critic who knows how to make enthusiasm infectious. Even the repetition of bravado within the same sentence, which looks like an amateur gaffe, rings with its own—well, bravado.
He’s no less adept at the honorable American craft of hilarious grousing. Where Agee gave us elegant, if sometimes tormented, efforts to be fair to all, Farber can be fed up in the Mencken mode. He picks Larry Rivers, Dave Brubeck, and Twelve Angry Men as examples of the new middlebrow confidence man.
The figure who is engineering this middle-class blitz has the drive, patience, conceit, and daring to become a successful nonconforming artist without having the talent or idealism for rebellious creation. The brains behind his creativity are those of a high-powered salesman using empty tricks and skills to push an item for which he has no feeling or belief. Avant-gardism has fallen into the hands of the businessman-artist.
In all, Farber bequeathed us thirty-five years of good dirty fun. But his keen intelligence was launched during the era that preoccupies me at the moment: America in the 1940s.
Farber’s career falls, almost too neatly, into periods. From early 1942 through 1946, he reviewed films for The New Republic and published occasional art criticism there and elsewhere. Then he stopped writing for over two years. In early 1949 he signed on at The Nation, taking over after James Agee left. (“He made sure I got the job and I made sure I lost it.”) He reviewed film and some visual art until January 1954. For other venues he wrote longer pieces, many of them now famous. After another hiatus (1954-1957) he resumed writing film criticism, often with Patricia Patterson, before stopping altogether in 1977.
His most influential work starts in the Nation phase, from around 1950 on. He began to celebrate B-level crime films and hard-guy studio directors (Hawks, Walsh, Fuller, Siegel). As his purview expanded, he came up with labels like “Underground Film” and “White Elephant Art” and “Termite Art.” Then came his dense appreciations of Godard, Fassbinder, Michael Snow, and other 1960s and 1970s filmmakers, as well as extended essays revisiting action directors of the classic era.
The dominant image of Farber’s tastes didn’t arise by accident. When he compiled his essay collection Negative Space (1971), he included only two pieces from the 1940s proper and a few from 1950. In at least one case (“John Huston,” a portmanteau piece from 1949 and 1950 reviews), he revised what he had originally published to reflect his rethinking of Huston’s value. The anthology relied heavily on recently published pieces. His longer-form pieces like “The Gimp” (1952) and “Underground Films” (1957) set the tone and framework for the collection.
The writing he selected for Negative Space reinforces another aspect of Farber’s image: the aesthete cowboy. Farber had played football and baseball in high school and, instead of turning his painting skills to commercial illustration, he became a carpenter, a trade that sustained him for decades. He seems to have been at home in the pugilistic Abstract Expressionist circles of the 1950s. Clement Greenberg claims to have bested Farber in a fistfight, although Farber scared him. (“He could have beaten me up. . . . He had big hands.”) Years later Andrew Sarris reported that Farber nearly clobbered John Simon at a critics’ meeting.
In print, Farber punched at all weight levels and liked to work in close. He said that Agee “paid out tribute like a public-address system.” He called Sarris “a boneless Soupy Sales,” and found Susan Sontag “catlike” and possessed of “a confidence that her knowledge is all-purpose (if contracted, she’d show up in Vietnam).” The man who admired tough noirs declared Rock Hudson a Mother’s Boy and confessed: “I don’t understand the belt people get out of overwrought feminine pictures.”
Like anybody who cares about classic or modern films, I’ve learned a lot from Farber. In this and the next entry I want to put him in the context I’ve been sketching in the previous three entries in this series. I want, through him and Agee and Tyler, to grasp some possibilities of American film culture in the 1940s. In their usually tireless denunciations of the weekly fodder, what did these smart people think film had been, was, could be? What, to put it abstractly, were the aesthetic prospects of Hollywood cinema?
That means focusing on his early career. Rather than pinpointing traces of what would come later, a task admirably executed in Polito’s introduction to the Library of America volume, I pretend for most of these two entries that late Farber never happened. That is, I’m considering a very young man trying to make his way in the New York scene at a moment of cultural ferment.
We’re so attuned to late-phase Farber that turning to this hero’s apprentice work may seem to court disappointment. But from the start the writing is racy and engaging, and not so densely impacted as in his late phase. Moreover, he has long been considered our critic most sensitive to the look of the movies. By rummaging first in his youthful art reviews, we can get a better sense of exactly what his criticism owes to the visual arts, modernism in particular. The result, which I’ll present in the followup entry, wasn’t quite what I’d expected.
Piet Mondrian. New York Boogie Woogie (1941).
Farber had trained at art schools in California before he married another art student, Janet Terrace. After living for a while with Farber’s brother in Washington, D. C., the couple moved moved to Greenwich Village. In January 1942 Farber’s first art review for The New Republic appeared. When Otis Ferguson left the magazine for the Merchant Marine, Farber took his place as film reviewer. He had just turned twenty-five.
Once ensconced, he found himself alongside two of the most formidable critics on the cultural scene. Clement Greenberg and James Agee, both born in 1909, were only eight years older than Farber, but they had a big head start. They overshadowed him, both at the time and for decades afterward.
Farber was reviewing visual art for The New Republic before Greenberg began doing the same at The Nation, but Greenberg was far more famous. He had published two major essays in Partisan Review, then the Bible of the progressive literati. “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939) had kicked off the mass-culture debate that would surge through the next two decades. Showing the same knack for sharp-edged synthesis, Greenberg’s 1940 essay, “For a New Laocöon,” made a strident case for abstract art as the culmination of ambitious western painting.
Greenberg asserted that painting had for centuries been dominated by other arts, notably literature. Modern art had lifted the veil and revealed painting’s unique conditions of existence. From Courbet and the Impressionists to Cézanne and the cubists, painters had come to recognize that painting’s power lay not in telling stories (“illustration”) or portraying the world as photography could capture it (“illusion”). At last the painter, secure in knowledge of “the opacity of the medium,” could create new visual experiences solely through line, color, and form. Purism was the painter’s duty.
Greenberg benefited from a vacuum in America’s popular and elite press. While abstract art was widely accepted in Europe, most American critics were ignorant, hostile, or both. Many major magazines had no art critics on their rosters. Academics focused on earlier eras, and journalists either ignored or mocked abstraction and the other major movement of the period, surrealism.
Greenberg, an amateur painter, had no scholarly training in art. Most of what he had to say was old news to painters and scholars in the modernist camp. He derived most of his ideas about technique from lectures by the influential émigré Hans Hofmann. But Greenberg told a good story, and he treated modern art as initiating a new epoch in the history of visual expression. The progress of painting, loosely tied to changes in social structure, led inevitably to the defiant austerity of abstraction. As a subtle reader, brilliant polemicist, and shrewd packager, Greenberg managed to get the intelligentsia excited about one major wing of new art.
The readership of Partisan Review numbered only about eight thousand, but they were the right eight thousand. In late 1942, Greenberg expanded his campaign to the pages of The Nation. There, as the magazine’s first art critic, he ceaselessly promoted “the direction in which the pictorial art of our times must go in order to be great.” By the end of the decade, the painters Greenberg came to champion—Pollock, de Kooning, and a few others—would be recognized as modern masters, and he would be hailed as a prophet.
Farber’s views were partly in harmony with Greenberg’s. Like most critics, he took abstract art and surrealism to be the primary trends of the moment, and he valued the emerging Abstract Expressionists highly. He saw problems with “illustration,” especially that which was as melodramatic as Thomas Hart Benton’s. He could talk about picture planes and fidelity to materials with the best of them. But his criteria were pluralistic and his analytical categories surprisingly traditional.
Contra Greenberg, Farber’s reviews discuss pictures in relation to their subjects as well as their techniques. He analyzes compositions with art-school finesse, pointing up triangular designs and strategic symmetries. He doesn’t concentrate wholly on abstract art, and he respects representational masters like Max Weber and Utrillo (in a startlingly gushy review). Above all, Farber values feeling. Where Greenberg asks if a painting falls into step with the march toward purism, Farber looks for emotional expression.
In several passages we can read a covert dialogue with Greenberg, but they also represent Farber’s distinct aesthetic. Snippets from his 1942 reviews add up to a manifesto pleading for the importance of emotion—that of the artist, and that of the viewer.
The really important part of the painting—the feeling that the artist wanted.
The essential function of painting [is] the honest individual emotion put down forthrightly without too much regard to the weight of centuries of painting already done, and conventions already explored.
The artist is supposed to react emotionally to his environment in color and line, if his audience is ever to.
Weber [The Rabbi, 1940, right] always pushes a gesture, a stance, or simple area of color to its fullest emotional presence. There is never any doubt of what you feel from any spot in his canvas.
Extreme morbidity dominates John Flannagan’s sculptures.
[Tchelitchew] manages to convey his gloom no matter how badly he paints. . . . There’s a place for a wider scope of emotion in painting, and this Russian artist shows how moving and universal extreme introspection can be in painting.
[Chagall’s] greatness is in expressing himself completely and freely into everything he paints.
I have yet to see a painting which reminds me of [picture] planes, and I’m sure that Rousseau wasn’t feeling planes when he painted tigers.
By 1945, Farber has become perfectly explicit.
The purist argument inevitably starts by narrowing painting down to a matter of designed line and color on a flat surface instead of showing that design is constantly driven, controlled, and ordered by the expression.
Art criticism had always sought a balance between analysis of the painter’s craft and a consideration of how the craft conveyed meaning and feeling. The result gives evidence of the artist’s personality. Farber’s adherence to this traditional view didn’t block him from appreciating new art. It simply allowed him to treat all art as potentially exciting.
In order to appraise how well artists achieved expressive form, Farber mobilized his unique gifts as a writer. His style, alternately probing and slangy, could make subject, theme, design, and emotion come alive. In a Fletcher Martin picture “a horse tosses a cowboy sky high, but the painting is done with ease and no weight thrown around. The wise handling of rhythmic line and feathery color is enough for this artist to get across the action.” As for Goya:
When his pictures were allegorical, Goya moved from naturalism to supernaturalism, to goats, donkey-people, chinchilla rats, and the witches and brownies (nice witches), and in either approach there is the definite human imprint, the unmistakeable earmark of man. It is a matter of detail, of his driving deeper and harder into the idiosyncratic detail, so that it is realized at its most knobby, crooked, or bent likeness.
And, not for nothing, there is sheer representational skill: “Goya could draw a bull out of this world.”
But when an overblown concept created chaotic form, as with Benton’s war series “Year of Peril,” Farber called foul.
His painting now is apt to be Jesus on the cross, being harpooned from the ground by fascist goons and from the air by the light of a Messerschmidt. . . . There are a dozen different dominant colors in this painting and no relationship between any of them. They cross each other out. The conception is one of disunity since each form is dissociated from the others in the picture.
In German, a Farber is a dyemaster, and Farber lived up to his name in being especially sensitive to color’s contribution to the viewer’s response. Greenberg famously misunderstood Mondrian’s theories and ascribed to New York Boogie Woogie colors it didn’t have. By contrast, Farber licks his lips when he tells of Chagall’s lemon suns and raspberry patches of ice. The “testicle-like fruit” in a painting glows like gold velvet, and Farber often notes “color rhythms,” the ways in which a single hue varies in shade. In one painting Milton Avery expands “the vividness of the main color—the St. Patrick’s Day green of the wall—by a scaled off series of dulled, almost dried greens.” When an artist fails at color, as most watercolorists do, Farber calls the results anemic “for both pictorial and emotional reasons.”
Greenberg, implacable foe of mass culture, denigrated certain painters as “comic-strippers.” But if like Farber you’re looking for feeling in art, why not try the comics? After all, cartoons are designed to elicit a laugh. If they’re really good, they’re not just reliant on the dialogue or the caption; they have to be drawn funny. Just as Agee brings to Monsieur Verdoux analytical techniques characteristic of literary criticism of his day, Farber tries out traditional art-historical perspectives on the most vulgar form of popular imagery.
His virtuoso 1944 column on comics displays a connoisseur’s delight. As with film, comics’ Golden Age had given way to mediocrity—even as a youth Farber was looking grumpily back at the old days—but while deploring the current adventure and soap-opera strips, he finds time to praise Bushmiller’s Nancy (with its characters bearing “identical fire-plug shapes, two-foot heights, inch-long names”), The Bungles Family (with their memorable noses), and the almost completely forgotten Silly Milly.
Silly Milly is drawn in typical McGovern style, as though by a wind current, and has a prehistoric animal for a hair-do, a very expressive, giant-size eye, and a perfectly oval profile. It is one of those comics with animated décor, like “Smoky Stover,” with adjoining family portraits shaking hands, and one that tries for laughs in every part of the box. . . . It is one of the most sophisticated of comics, smart-alecky, corny, sloppy and half unlikable, but produces its eyedropper of humor each day, without fail.
Another form of popular illustration is practiced by the Mexican artist José Guadalupe Posada. Clement Greenberg calls him limited in talent but fairly skillful, chiefly because he sensed the power of black and white “as sheer color.” Farber, the practiced artist, explains the starkness of Posada’s design as partly necessitated by scale (the bigger pictures are “the size of a slice of bread”) and method (cutting in type metal leads to “closed, mean forms” and “staccato movement”). He doesn’t forget subject matter either, offering a casual inventory of Posada’s lurid scenes.
He was especially interested in showing executions and murders, which he depicted at the moment when the murderer’s knife was on its way through the victim’s throat, or just as the firing squad had emptied their guns. But he also leaned heavily on fires, collisions, accidental deaths, and he did two good illustrations of what the end of the world might look like.
Lyonel Feininger was one of the few serious painters who took up comic-strip art, and perhaps that knowledge led Greenberg to dismiss him in a few lines. In the same amount of space, Farber conjures up the unique Feininger look:
A make-believe world like that of a little boy’s fairy story, with its scratch-lined, bug-like people, scalloped bridges, Toonerville trains, streets and houses like those in the movie “Dr. Caligari,” four-masted schooners (than which there are none more wondrous) in candy green seas under the inevitable yellow moon like a child’s scissor cutout of the letter C.
In exactitude Farber outpaces Greenberg. Whenever the two reviewed the same shows and books, comparison favors Farber’s lively, funny analyses. Greenberg predictably yields up gaseous generalizations and stern pronouncements about the inevitable future of painting or, more ominously, the historical fate awaiting the painter he’s reviewing. Consider the two men’s handling of William Steig’s morose little book The Lonely Ones. Steig was later known as a cartoonist and author of children’s stories, but in the mid-1940s he was making a reputation as a satiric artist along the lines of Saul Steinberg.
Greenberg takes Steig’s drawings as capturing the way that modern people use personal confession as a weapon. They admit their loneliness but also seek pity in a self-aggrandizing way. Although Greenberg praises Steig for conveying ideas sharply, he concludes that what Steig gives us are cartoons, and thus “not quite art.” His drawings rely on stereotyped imagery and don’t meet modernist criteria. Line “is not felt for its own sake”; everything is given in comic-strip symbols, like raised eyebrows for surprise. Accordingly, Greenberg doesn’t bother to analyze Steig’s technique.
Farber drills deeper. He diagnoses Steig’s first book, about neurosis, as less disturbing than this new volume, which teeters toward psychosis. Farber grants that Steig sometimes falls back on comics technique, but in his best work his line has expressive qualities. It “defines sharply and cold-bloodedly the very crux of a crushing moment, the core of a disturbed personality.” Even when he’s not portraying people, his work is shot through with anxiety. There could hardly be a more unpromising picture than this.
But Farber explains:
In the rendition of Nerves (a ball balancing precariously on the edge of a table) perspective, tilt of the table, light and line all contribute to the fact that the ball will surely fall off, but when? In this particular drawing it is interesting to notice the details, which are so few and so unobtrusive as to go usually unnoticed—the conception of the unnaturally shaped shadow under the table is highly erratic and sprawling in contour, recalling the loose, watery, uncoordinated state of the nervous breakdown. This is in contrast to the sharp, ordered, concrete world of the table. Steig shows you the eerie, unsubstantial level to which the ball is about to plunge. The drawing of the table is equally interesting, because it carries, despite its unswerving realism, the feeling of the underprivileged little people that infuses everything that Steig draws.
You won’t find, I think, anything as fine-grained in Greenberg’s 1940s reviews. Farber the practicing artist finds emotional qualities in what Greenberg discusses, vaguely, as style and concept. Farber agrees that Steig’s line isn’t “felt for its own sake”; it’s felt for feeling’s sake. If he can get this much out of this simple drawing, you can imagine what he can do with Cézanne, Mondrian, and Robert Motherwell.
Farber’s unpretentious emphasis on feeling as carried by form allowed him to do what the other Rhapsodes managed in their own fashion: to simply sidestep the mass culture debate and face popular art straightforwardly. Farber’s blunt acceptance of images, high or low, on their own terms is given great force by his style, a world away from the inflations of Greenberg and the obiter dicta of the Partisan Review cohort. Farber’s colorful commentary—form plus feeling, scrutiny of detail, combustible diction—would become even more stirring when he moved to film reviewing.
This series continues here.
I owe immense thanks to Kent Jones for expansive email conversations about Farber (and Agee). Thanks as well to Jim Naremore for corresponding with me on some particular points, and to my long-time friend and colleague J. J. Murphy, who helped me understand the 1940s art scene. In addition, Kent’s just-published essay “Critical Condition” bears directly on matters discussed in this entry and the whole blog series.
Deep thanks as well to Patricia Patterson for permission to reproduce the photograph of Farber surmounting this entry.
Indispensable to anyone writing about Farber, or film, is the superb Library of America collection edited by Robert Polito, Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber. His art reviews remain uncollected. A bibliography is available in the catalogue Manny Farber (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1985), n.p. I’m grateful to Eric Dienstfrey for his help in rounding up these items.
I’ll supply some more references and links for Farber’s film criticism in the next installment. Here, though, I must signal the vivid memoir written by Janet Richards, Farber’s first wife. Common Soldiers: A Self-Portrait and Other Portraits (Archer Press, 1979) includes recollections of their years in New York and their time with Farber’s family.
Useful surveys of American abstraction and its context are Irving Sandler, The Triumph of American Painting (Praeger, 1970) and Dore Ashton, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (University of California Press, orig. 1972). The major player in that game was Clement Greenberg. “Towards a New Laocöon” is included in The Collected Essays and Criticism: Vol. 1: Perceptions and Judgments, 1939-1944, ed. John O’Brian (University of Chicago Press, 1986), 23-38. My quotation about the necessary direction of pictorial art is from “Review of an Exhibition of Andre Masson,” 99, and the observations on William Steig come from “Steig’s Gallery: The Lonely Ones,” 137-138.
On Greenberg, the standard biography is Florence Rubenfeld’s Clement Greenberg (Scribners, 1997); Greenberg’s report on vanquishing Farber is on p. 82. (“He was so neurotic. He could’ve beaten me up.”) A less adulatory account is Alice Goldfarb Marquis’s Art Czar: The Rise and Fall of Clement Greenberg (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 2006). Greenberg’s “New Laocöon” essay implicitly draws on sources including Sheldon Cheney, A Primer of Modern Art (Boni and Liveright, 1924) and Expressionism in Art (Liveright, 1934) and James Johnson Sweeney, Plastic Redirections in 20th Century Painting (University of Chicago Press, 1934). A primary influence on Greenberg was the teaching of Hans Hoffman, sampled in Search for the Real, ed. Sarah T. Weeks and Bartlett H. Hayes, Jr (Addison Gallery, 1948).
One last note. Janet Richards records in her autobiography the couple’s trip from California across the country. Driving through Wisconsin, they stopped by my home town.
We thought then we would live in Madison, a lovely small college city. We even rented a room with a stove and a sink in it. But after Manny had been to the Labor Council and discovered that the wages in Wisconsin for second year carpenter’s apprentices were too small even to pay our rent, we left Madison.
If Madison’s 1939 wages had been higher, the fate of American film criticism would have been very different.
Lyonel Feininger, Angler with Blue Fish II (1912).
A fan’s tattoo, from Dear Mr. Watterson (2013).
Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, was probably the best cartoon draftsman since Carl Barks and Walt Kelly. His versatile line could be thick or thin, fluent or jagged. His coloring was rich, his layout experimental in the Herriman vein. His energetic picture stories provided zany humor and an unsentimental look at childhood imagination. If Schulz treated kids as miniature adults, complete with obsessions and neuroses, Watterson saw Calvin as an adolescent in a child’s body, a rebellious teenager-to-be surrounded by adversaries and fools. Schulz’s Peanuts kids suffer in thin, wriggly lines, but Calvin’s mood swings from rage to rapture are rendered by manic exaggeration in the classic cartoon tradition. Meanwhile Hobbes, contrary to his name, exercises a gentling effect, becoming a tolerant Superego to Calvin’s Id.
Watterson was the Pynchon of cartoondom. His studio in Chagrin Falls, Ohio yielded a solitude rare for a publishing celebrity. He almost never appeared in public and seldom answered mail. In one of his rare public gestures, he criticized syndicate power, the tired old strips put on life support, and the scramble for licensing deals. Accordingly, he permitted no merchandising beyond book collections. Any Calvin and Hobbes toys or T-shirts or decals you see around you are DIY handicraft. After ten years Watterson simply halted the strip, an abnegation that drove his millions of admirers to despair. And he has remained reclusive.
Dear Mr. Watterson, which won a Golden Badger award at our Wisconsin Film Festival, sprang from Joel Schroeder’s fondness for the strip. He realized early on that interviewing Watterson wasn’t in the cards. So he set out to find ordinary readers who would testify to their love for Watterson’s creation. He found plenty of eloquent ones, but the movie is no mere fanboy indulgence. Schroeder’s travels took him to many of today’s top cartoonists, from Berkeley Breathed to Stephan Pastis, as well as critics and syndicate executives. By outlining the shape of Watterson’s achievement in comics history, Dear Mr. Watterson mutes its admiration with regret, and not merely because Watterson quit at the height of his popularity. The film shows that, as one interviewee puts it, Calvin and Hobbes is very likely the last great comic strip.
Why? The conditions of publishing have a lot to do with it. As newspapers got thinner and smaller, the space allotted to comics shrank. Complex compositions and spacious storytelling became difficult in the slots allotted to Sunday strips, while the daily panel formats were minuscule. Only the sketchiest drawing survives the reduction. The squeeze was starting in Schulz’s day: Peanuts was the beginning of the “minimalist” look of Cathy and Fox Trot. Watterson’s bold drawing style and appetite for scale posed problems for publishing. Ironically, as Schroeder pointed out in his Q & A, the sort of freedom and flexibility Watterson sought would become available a decade later on the Net.
Something else suffocated comics creativity. Just as tentpole films need an array of ancillaries, a successful cartoon demands the womb-to-tomb merchandising that Watterson foreswore. Children need to be hooked on the franchise before they can read. Garfield clothes and toys introduce infants to a pudgy beast that will stalk them throughout their lives, on lunchboxes and calendars and mugs and mousepads and refrigerator magnets and TV shows and “Is it Friday Yet?” placards for office cubicles. Watterson realized, I think, that being surrounded forever by leering images of cute creatures was one version of Hell.
Schroeder, a graduate of UW—Madison, has made a smart, touching movie. It deserves wide circulation and even, I should say, a PBS airing. It’s at once a tribute to a fine artist, a probe into comics history, and a revelation of how integrity can be maintained in the era of Monetization. Turning down hundreds of millions of dollars, Watterson in effect said something that almost no one imagines possible today: I don’t need that much money.
One observer comments that when Calvin and Hobbes ceased, many critics expected its fan base to dwindle, because it wouldn’t be maintained by all the spinoffs. Instead, parents pass down their Watterson paperbacks as family heirlooms. Fans have the lavish three-volume compendium of the strips, which is selling briskly on Amazon, while school libraries are replenishing their holdings of the slim anthologies. Our children are following the adventures of the hyperkinetic brat and his imaginary tiger in the best way: By reading books.
P.S. 2 May: Chris Blunk of Through a Glass Productions writes this followup:
Coincidentally, this past Sunday I met John Glynn, who works at Andrews/McMeel promoting their properties to Hollywood (such as Garfield and Over the Hedge). He was at the Free State Film Festival in Lawrence, Kansas where he showed the Sundance-boosted Small Apartments, also based on an Andrews/McMeel property. He was the first person I’d ever met who has any kind of semi-regular contact with Watterson. Though Watterson retains nearly all ancillary rights to his characters, A/M-Universal consults him on book printings, electronic distribution, etc.
While there were several tidbits that thrilled a fan like me, one item he mentioned particularly pertained to your article. He claimed that traffic at the Universal comics website (www.gocomics.com) is by and large driven by the Calvin and Hobbes classic – i.e. rerun – strips. The majority of visitors to all other comics on the site – including popular current strips like Get Fuzzy, Pearls Before Swine, Dilbert, etc, – arrive through Calvin and Hobbes.
So in addition to being propagated through handed-down book collections, as you pointed out, Calvin has managed to attract new fans and dominate comics circulation even in the new frontier of the web that grew into being long after Watterson’s retirement. And this with no new strips published in the past 20 years.
He told a couple other anecdotes that were similarly surprising. Such as a time in the early 90s when Spielberg was involved in some animation projects (Tiny Toon Adventures, Family Dog, Animaniacs, etc) and made inquiries about the rights to Calvin and Hobbes. According to Glynn, Watterson turned down a direct phone call with Spielberg himself reasoning they had nothing to discuss.
Thanks to Chris for his thoughts and information, and for reading our blog.
P.P.S. 16 July 2013: Gravitas Ventures announces that it will be releasing Dear Mr. Watterson on theatrical and VOD in November.
Dear Mr. Watterson.
Collage by Sigrídur Níelsdóttir.
The Vancouver International Film Festival has had strong commitments to certain types of cinema–Asian, Canadian, environmentally-sensitive documentaries, and perhaps least well-known, arts documentaries. I still recall seeing The Red Baton, a vivid account of Russian musical life under Stalin, at my first VIFF visit in 2006, and ever since I’ve tried to check out at least a few entries in this category. They’re not usually very daring formally, but they do open up areas of the arts that I cherish, and–just as important–areas I’m completely unaware of.
Childhood and the morning of the world
For instance, as an admirer of comic strips and comic books, I had to see Josh Melrod and Tara Wray’s Cartoon College. The institution in question is the Center for Cartoon Studies at White River Junction, Vermont. (Go here for the most educational college catalog I’ve ever seen.) Each year twenty students are admitted for the two-year MFA program, and the film follows several as they move through the curriculum.
Don’t be misled by the black clothes, Kool-aid hair, and cats’-eye glasses. These kids aren’t your usual Art School posers. They want to tell stories. Jen explores menstruation; Al, the 61-year-old Boston archaeologist, takes time off to learn to draw; and Blair the Mormon wants to chronicle his missionary work. Interviews with Lynda Barry, Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, and Chris Ware are salted through this story of intense work, achievement, and occasional disappointment.
One accomplishment of the film is to remind us of the very unusual qualities needed to be a cartoonist. There’s the patience of drawing hundreds of panels, and sometimes the same figure in hundreds of different postures, along with the hours of fine-grain line work and coloring. There’s also the sense that of all artists, cartoonists are most in touch with childhood, that period, as Ware remarks, when each experience is “rich and warm . . . and days seem to last for weeks.”
Perhaps that’s why the students radiate that awkward innocence that’s easily mocked. They explain how they didn’t fit in with their high-school milieu; one man recalls that people assumed he was either gay or a British exchange student “because I didn’t contract all my g’s and used proper English.” The great thing students find at CCS, says Spiegelman, is that “instead of being the outcast in art school you get to be with a bunch of other outcasts.” Yet these outcasts bond, forming couples and offering group critiques, and cooperating on projects for conventions and festivals. Cartoon College teaches you a lot about cartooning, but it also reminds you of the vitality of young imagination.
Lou Harrison, whom I knew chiefly as a pioneer of melding non-Western music with classical traditions, proved to be a fascinating figure in Eva Soltes’s Lou Harrison: A World of Music. This biographical account showed me that this man often considered marginal–far less well-known than Copland or Bernstein–in fact thrived at the center of the bohemian world of American music. He went to Mills College, taught at Black Mountain College, hung around with Henry Cowell and John Cage and Virgil Thompson, collaborated with Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris, and conducted the premiere of Ives’ monumental Third Symphony.
Harrison was open to every influence, from Schoenberg’s serialism to Harry Partch’s unorthodox instrumentation. He drew on Korean and Taiwanese music and Javanese Gamelan, and even composed pieces for Geiger counters (as a protest against nuclear testing). The result is music of great delicacy, with sumptuous textures and fluid melodies. Go here to listen to some samples.
Like many of his peers and collaborators, Harrison was gay, and he wasn’t shy about saying so. The partner of his later years, Will Colvig, lovingly crafted unique instruments for his compositions. After Colvig’s death, Harrison struggled to put onstage Young Caesar, a gay-centered opera–for puppets, no less. “Lou was always out of fashion,” reflects conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Unfashionable or not, Harrison left us music of pulsating lyricism and quiet, unforced radiance. The film’s celebration of this American original deserves wide circulation. Now a personal request to Ms. Soltes: How about Alan Hovhaness next?
Then there were two films that opened my ears. I wasn’t prepared for the brawny music of Kimmo Pohjonen, who is on roaring display in Kimmo Koskela’s Soundbreaker (aka Ice Bellows). Along with street mimes and face-painters, accordion playing has become a bad joke, but Pohjonen makes it a contact sport. Built like a torpedo, with short hair razored to a cellbock edge, he plays his amplified squeezebox like he’s grappling with a python. Our musician is first shown tramping across a frozen lake and then plunging through a hole before taking up his instrument and playing underwater.
It’s a nice introduction to Extreme Music, Finnish style. Thereafter, a mixture of concert footage and daily routine takes us into a world like Lou Harrison’s, where any sound can become music. Pohjonen will solo with the Kronos Quartet or with chugging farm machinery (the clip is here). Soundbreaker was the first film I saw in my VIFF visit. After hearing this infectious wahoo music, I ordered some albums. Consider doing the same.
Speaking of Nordic revelations, there’s Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigrídur Níelsdóttir. I can’t do better than quote the VIFF catalog, describing a lady who
decided to become a musician at the unlikely age of 70. Equipped with little more than a cassette recorder, cheap keyboards, common household items, and an adventurous spirit, she crafted an astonishing 59 albums in a mere seven years and became a DIY icon for a generation of Icelandic musicians.
Since some of those musicians include ones I follow, like múm, I had to catch up with Sigrídur.
Born in Denmark to a German mother and Danish father, she learned a little piano as a child. Later, after her sweetheart was lost at sea, she left her parents and made her own way. Parts of her life are hazy, but she wound up in Iceland with several children. Having worked as a shopkeeper, dog-walker, and lacemaker, she settled in old age in a basement apartment, where she began composing at a keyboard she called her “entertainer.”
Thanks to a double-tape boom box, she could dub and redub her compositions, often reusing commercial audiocassettes discarded from her library. Her music and voice were garnished with animal sounds (including barking dogs and cooing pigeons) and kitchenware noises. Eggbeaters made good helicopters, cheese graters evoked shamisens, and tinfoil provided campfire sounds. “Everyone is free to use these things. I don’t charge.” Like the rest of us, she self-publishes.
She filled her apartment with religious images and awoke at 4:30 AM to pray and read the Bible. Music, she says, taught her what the Bible really means. When she couldn’t sleep, she chirped to the birds; for all she knew, she might have been swearing in bird-talk. After 687 original songs, some dedicated to friends and family, she abruptly stopped her musical career and turned to cut-and-paste art. Her collages, like her music and album graphics, display simple geometric structures overwritten by doodlish embellishments, marks of classic “naive” or “outsider” art. But now outsider art inspires everyone.
The film, by Orrí Jónsson, Kristín Björk Kristjánsdóttír, and Ingíbjörg Bírgisdóttir, mimics the low-tech quality of Sigrídur’s oeuvre with rashes of graininess, images reminiscent of 8mm and VHS, and some self-conscious animation and SPFX tableaus featuring pop artists indebted to her. But the film isn’t mocking this remarkable woman, who perpetually grins in modest pride. As she tells us, “I don’t think you can do any harm with songs like these, right?” Like Lou Harrison, who was composing in his eighties, Sigrídur easily rivaled the energy and passion of Pohjonen and the kids of Cartoon College. Art keeps you young, as if you didn’t know.
I learn from many VIFFers that Alan Franey, Festival Director and CEO, is the guiding spirit behind the festival’s commitment to arts documentaries, and particularly those focused on music. For this and many other things, Kristin and I owe him our thanks.
10 October 2012: Thanks to Olli Sulopuisto for a major correction; I had initially called Pohjonen an Icelandic musician. Thanks to Olli as well for correcting a misspelled name.
Young Caesar, opera by Lou Harrison (1971).