I'm on vacation, so we'll see how this works: scan-less (sorry!) thoughts on whatever comics my travails through the wilds of Brooklyn happen to bring me in contact with. I'll go for updates every day, but if it's more like every two... well, too bad pal, I'm on vacation.
Gary Panter slipcased monograph (2008), volume 2, by Gary Panter. Picturebox.
Of the two hardcovers that constitute Picturebox's cinderblock-sized testament to the visual power of Gary Panter, this was always the one that appealed to me less. Not that there was anything I didn't like about it, but while the delights of volume 1's paintings, comics pages, model houses, and profusely illustrated biography are about as immediate as it gets (with Panter, anyway), volume 2 is hundreds of pages of sketchbook excerpts. It's a daunting thing to take on, a torrent of rarely sequential, often quite small black and white images that never make any concession to, well, much of anything in their presentation of Panter's ideas about and experiments with pure drawing. If I may, for me this part of the book was always the Fourth World Epic to volume 1's Galactus Saga -- obviously something deeper, more personal, closer to the real thing behind it all, but also tougher to navigate, an experience with achieved instead of instant gratification.
I still stand by that assessment, but I achieved the hell out of it last night. Probably the signature quality of the sketchbook exhibition is its sheer ability to overwhelm, to fade into one ground-up river of broken-klieg linework and scrawled, fractured Dada sentence fragments rather than standing out piece by piece the way the best sequences of volume 1's painting retrospective do. You've got to have a willingness to experience it that way for the real joy to come through: these are, after all, only sketchbook drawings, few if any of which were designed as presentation pieces. Instead of staring into them searching for the hard content of the Jimbo stories and volume 1's biographical yarns, it's best to surrender to the flow of sheer energy and dynamism pounding out of the slashed blacks and whites, flipping the pages as fast as you feel. It's the a biography for Panter's art, about the best that could be given.
It's in these sketchbooks that everything we can see on the pages we're supposed to read came about. Drawing by drawing, day by day, year by year, the sketchbooks are a beautifully sequenced look into the wax and wane of different Panter tropes and mannerisms. Two-panel experiments with minimalist narrative become single-image explorations of increasingly complex, high-contrast black spotting before portraiture and the ratty line take precedence. Months spent countenancing monsters and knife-wielding maniacs blur slowly into a sequence of decayed pin-up shots, and then all depiction bleeds away as Panter turns to unadorned iconographic shapes. It's a riveting display of one artist's total virtuosity, a collection of pure drawings that, in my opinion, might just be better than any other one we've got. But more than that, it's a focused tracking of Panter's interests -- in subject, in technique, in effects produced -- that gives a staggering wealth of insight into the mind behind the lines. You can see Panter pushing himself across this book's progression, watch him mining particular seams of crude from what he's already produced and then go further with them, pursuing certain shapes or approaches until they pay out with tangents of their own to follow. Rarely has any comics-related book brought the reader so far into the twin process of inspiration and creation -- of creating inspiration -- let alone put it on the pages with this kind of unerring accuracy.
For me (today, at least) the highlight comes about two thirds of the way through, with a series of sketches done in Waco, Texas at the time of the media furor and subsequent government-issue armageddon over David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult. After spending hundreds of pages jacked into Panter's most intimate, personal artistry it's easy to sense the feeling these life drawings pulled from the master fantasist. The lines drop any interest in stylism for a quickness, a commitment to the reality of the pieces' subjects, an almost impersonal documentarianism. Seeing Panter in this mode is fascinating on its own terms, but the narrative arc he creates with his panoramic views of the doomed Davidian compound, his deadpan portraits of things like the novelty trucker hats that sprung up in the wake of the nation's sudden obsession with Waco, his massive, scrabbling group shots of reporters and recording equipment swarming around the deserts, is a glowering, burning jewel, easily on par with more traditionally done docu-comics like Kim Deitch's "Ready To Die" or Joe Sacco's books. There's a deep emotional pull to the drawings -- a cynical dismay for the tawdry processional Waco became for a short time in 1993, a sprawling humanist sadness, a bewildered disgust at the inevitability of it all, the horror crawling around beneath the most banal aspects of the media blitz. As a report from one of recent American history's more interesting disasters it's first rate, and as sequential art turned to documentary it's a brave blast of genius, completely unmatched. The eerie, white-lined landscape of the compound at night that closes the sequence reads like a beautiful tombstone, a final warning, a defining image for an America that at a certain place and certain time had both less and more to offer certain people than anything else in human history could have matched.
Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, by Herge. Little, Brown.
Easy come, easy go: I actually found a beat-up copy of this on the subway ride in from the airport, started reading it, and then accidentally left it there when I got to my stop. Oh well. One of my plans for next year was to expose myself to a few of the "comics people should know about" that I haven't experienced yet, and Tintin was at the top of the list. I don't know why I waited this long. Herge is, of course, an unparalleled cartoonist, but when you're engrossed in the stories the gorgeous drawing becomes a background for the perfectly choreographed suspense scenes and highly advanced gags, the plain old meat and substance of "what's happening to the characters". The sweeping sense of adventure, the way Herge gets you invested in the nuts and bolts of his anecdotal tall tales carries this stuff through as much as the formidable visual style. It's plot-based, immersive escapist comics without a great deal in the way of competition (though I do wonder how much Caniff Herge had read and absorbed by the World War II era that produced this particular volume).
That said, what I saw of The Secret of the Unicorn was lighter than Tintin in Tibet, the only one I've read cover to cover, or The Black Island, which I just started. More a seamless collection of farcical encounters than an tightly wrapped narrative. This isn't a knock -- Herge's way with the comics form is so undeniable that there's great joy to be had in watching him block out the simplest pratfalls and misunderstandings -- but I do wonder how the editorial restrictions the Nazi regime the artist was working under when he drew this book (not to mention the incredible amount of stress that must have been a constant fixture in his life at the time) interfered with his ability to plot out more effective long-term work. It was also pretty crazy to see a deeply, borderline-questionably caricatured Jewish villain in like the first three pages, knowing the book's historical context. There's more here, I'm sure, but like I said, I wasn't around to see it. Herge at the top of his artistic game, if not quite killing it as hard as he sometimes did on the writing, is worth the time. Plus, you know, I wanna see what happens next.