You Can Go Anywhere You Want But You're Here
Welcome to Matt Seneca Comix; if you've been before you know the score, if you've never come here lend an ear. If you just don't know at all, I'm a comic book artist and critic. For the past two years and change I've been making comics, blogging at Death to the Universe, and contributing writing to various and sundry other fine websites. Over the past year I've been using this site as a dedicated home for my comics work, mainly because my original blog wasn't formatted in a way that accommodated much more visual content than a panel at a time.
As my critical writing grew more and more popular during 2010 (still not a phenomenon I entirely understand), it started to feel like posting my own comics at Death to the Universe was an imposition on readers who weren't there for me specifically, but any old discussion of the comics I happened to be writing about. That was fine for a while, but after my first year of blogging I started to get bone tired of continually holding my thoughts on the comics medium to some kind of critical/academic standard. More pressingly, I found that creating my own comics was a great deal more important to me than writing about other people's, and the time and energy I spent on writing took a sharp dip as I started spending every free second at the drawing table. The casual audience for my critical writing mostly went away, and the people who stayed seemed at least unopposed to checking out links to my comics work here and at the site for my continuing graphic novel, Affected. But I still felt like a cartoonist in writer's clothing, tied to a brief period of past internet notoriety for doing something that wasn't my main interest anymore.
So long story short, I've upped sticks, and here you are: the newly integrated, pretty-lookin' home for both my comics work and whatever criticism, theory, notes, or "dude, this comic is crazy" talk I'll be cooking up in the forseeable future. The complete Death to the Universe archive has been imported to this site (check the index at the bottom of the page), and I'll be linking here to all the more serious critical work I do for The Comics Journal, Robot 6, and Comics Alliance, which are my main hangouts when I decide to change back into more writerly drag for a bit. I'll also continue to direct your eyes toward Affected, which is my main comics-type pursuit these days. Actually, why equivocate, it's my main pursuit in life. Ouch. That being said, though, I want to take this opportunity to change the way I blog about comics -- to get rid of the critical facade that's started to feel so cumbersome and talk about comics as a cartoonist first, which is how I'm interacting with them. Less reviews and proselytizing, more fun and genuine appreciation, basically.
The book that's currently obsessing me is... well, I think it's just called "R"? That's the only English on the cover, anyway, besides the name of its artist, Kaneko Atsushi. As you can probably tell from the cover image above, it's a Japanese import, literally too cool for the comic shop -- if ever there was a serendipitous record store find, this would be it, tucked in with the Frank Kozik gig poster books, with which it shares at least as much spirit as, say, Jack Kirby. It was wrapped in heavy-duty plastic when I found it, but that cover is fucking baller, and I recognized Atsushi's name from somewhere. I figured it out once I took the gamble and brought the thing home: he was one of my favorites from Taschen's functionally useless but also kind of awesome Japanese-comics art book, unexpectedly titled Manga. (Functionally useless because the clearly translated-into-English text reads like the drunken ramblings of a crazed manga fan with little understanding of what makes comics unique, and the emphasis is placed on covers and pin-up style drawings; kind of awesome because there's still no better guide to who's-who in the world of Japanese comics. The scope of the book goes well beyond artists who've made it to English translation, but the information given and work excerpted is so maddeningly uncommunicative that it's almost impossible to tell who's actually good and who's just popular or historically important. A classic case of a noble goal stymied by poor execution. But I digress.)
The comics in R -- yeah, I'm just gonna call it that -- are taken from Barfout, which nearly 45 seconds of exhaustive internet research tells me is a Japanese magazine that features photography, fashion layouts, et cetera, in addition to comics. It's a milieu that makes sense: the manga in this book is a lot more Flaunt than Flight, featuring people who look either awesome or seedy (or awesomely seedy) hanging around looking bored, absently chatting, and having casual sex with each other before the inevitable sickening violence cuts in. It's all very pop, the kind of thing Paul Pope spent a good decade trying to achieve over here before it became all too clear that the last thing the American comics audience wants to acknowledge is the existence of actual cool people who enjoy their lives. Maybe the words are on some Michel Houellebecq level of ironic comment about modern life, but I highly doubt it: Tarantino seems more like Atsushi's wavelength, right down to the way even nasal amputations and frozen bodies stuffed into refrigerators are framed with a fetishistic glamor usually reserved for celebrities.
The real meat is in Atsushi's drawing, presented in eye-popping brightly colored tones that blow away the monotony of single-hue comics art. It's the same effect all the cool alt-comics kids in America are using risograph printing to achieve, but where riso is low-fi this book is all gloss, lavishly printed on high-quality paper. It's the perfect mode of presentation for Atsushi's slick, flashy artwork, which foregoes most of manga's common stylistic mannerisms for a style that fuses Japanese blocking with a very American-comics approach to figuration and a European clarity of line. Atsushi can flat out draw -- everything in here is inked with a brush, and while the rougher edges of the tool never surface, every line is still charged with an asymmetrical, hyperactive energy. Nothing stays in one place for long. Imagine a softer, more fluid Shaky Kane or a Seth Fisher who swapped out meticulousness for grace. From the package on in, this is comics as legitimate pop art, the thing everyone in America seems to be looking for fruitlessly. Of course, Atsushi's lucky that comics are already a part of the cultural conversation in Japan, but it's not like everything with word balloons gets to be cool over there: even in its wildest moments, this is material that always keeps some level of focus on maintaining a dialogue with popular tastes. Which, sure, we don't want all of ours like that, but maybe one? or even two? Could be worth a try, guys, all I'm saying.
This book also contains stickers. I just had to throw that in.
Roy Crane is the other big name in my head right now, which isn't necessarily anything new. I've gone to the plate for his work plenty of times before, but my appreciation for it was always somewhat reserved, an intellectual thing. It gave me plenty of pleasure to read and look at Crane, sure, but more because I could see how elegant his artistic strategies were, how much new ground he was covering, where his influence would become important, than because of any grand passion. All this despite the fact that Frank Santoro and Paul Pope, two of my most heavily respected old heads, have just about gone into transports when I mentioned his name. Well, I finally got it. Maybe it's a little weird that this is the panel that woke me up to Crane's genius?
I guess (I hope!) it doesn't matter how you get there as long as you eventually make it. The secret with Crane, for me at least, is taking the panels out of context as you read them -- sure, you can keep the story boiling in the back of your head, but every Crane panel is a unique act of drawing that stands on its own and tells a story all by itself. Brandon Soderberg recently mentioned how every drawing by Raymond Pettibon looks like a panel out of the greatest comic of all time, which is the deal with Crane; of course, he's actually making comics, but the stories aren't as transcendent as just looking at the art and thinking about its milieu is. The real story is seeing a great artist navigating the world Crane did his best work in, one where institutionalized racism and sexism were so wedded to the routine of daily life that the populist action comic strip millions started their day with could feature the hero telling a romantic interest, and I quote, "you're about the cutest little trick I've seen in a coon's age" without skipping a beat.
Crane's drawings are vigorously cartooned but also deeply subtle and considered, every element of every drawing there to achieve a distinct purpose, sanded down and blurred out by the grit of the cheap ink and newsprint that bore them forth. They speak of something far deeper than the blood-and-thunder content they propel. And his cartooning is more than a foundation stone for American superhero comics, it's a Platonic ideal of comic book artwork. There's Herge before Herge in Crane's bouncy brushwork and the line his character designs walk between goofy and strapping, Tezuka before Tezuka in the way he simplifies eyes and hands, raises the roof in action scenes, and his minimal, achingly elegant use of black and white spaces. But it's also distinctly American, and I don't just mean in its brand of racism: that spanking panel plays into a very real sense of cartooning as unmonitored artistic territory, where you can do whatever you want as long as it sells and nobody complains. The newsprint grit, the off-model faces, the demonic look in the eye; that picture feels like it was beamed in from somewhere intense and wild, which makes it way crazier that it's really from the mainstream culture of seventy years ago. I had to sneak Crane's hero Buz Sawyer and his Navy commander Pops Smith into my own comic, I've been so obsessed with this stuff:
And to wrap up, I'll leave you with the art of George Barbier, who for my money beats the pants off Aubrey Beardsley at Art Nouveau, and cartoons more expressively to boot. Tasty. You can still get one of those great old Dover paperback collections of his work pretty cheap if you look around. All this is hand colored, by the way, at an original size only a little bigger than it appears here. Amazing stuff, get those desktop backgrounds changin'.