Raymond Pettibon, American Cartoonist

Raymond Pettibon, American Cartoonist
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From the mid-1970s to early 1980s, Raymond Pettibon created a massive body of work for SST Records. He conceived and designed promotional flyers, album cover artwork, and posters most often for the band Black Flag. At the same time, Pettibon was producing zines containing his work. This body of work became recognizable to generations of punk rock fans familiar with Pettibon’s work for Black Flag and other punk bands. Among those fans were many aspiring cartoonists. Raymond Pettibon has been an enormous influence on comics, despite the fact that his work is not widely seen as comics and he is not regularly discussed by comics criticism. It’s past time for this influence to be recognized.

            Born in 1957, Pettibon was asked by his brother Greg Ginn to produce art for his new band Panic, which soon changed its name to Black Flag. Pettibon designed not only the band’s logo, the familiar set of broken black bars, but also anything to do with the band and other work for his brother’s label SST Records. This included album covers, t-shirts, posters, and most importantly, flyers that were widely distributed in the Los Angeles area.. Pettibon continued to produce art for his brother’s band and SST Records until a dispute over unapproved appropriation of his work led him to cease working with the company. Ginn continued to appropriate his brother’s work for a variety of later Black Flag releases. Pettibon has since worked mostly in a gallery art context, exhibiting his drawings and paintings around the world.

            Though many other artists are associated with the punk rock aesthetic, Raymond Pettibon is maybe the most iconic and most uniquely suited to influencing comics. Though he did some work which could be seen as comics, most of his work during the Black Flag period was more in line with editorial cartooning, with single images and short lines of texts. This might explain why his work remains largely undiscussed, though that he was not published throughout traditional comics avenues could also be a factor. This is might also be due to Pettibon rejecting his own work as comics. In an interview with The Believer, Pettibon stated “I wouldn’t want to be defined so much by comics or cartoons. My work is more narrative than that. If you take your basic cartoon, there’s always a punchline or a joke at the end. My drawings don’t depend on that so much.”

Nonetheless, his work should still be seen as cartooning. In other interviews, Pettibon talks about having read comics and taken influence from the work of cartoonists such as George Herriman and Milton Caniff. Pettibon makes great use of the vocabulary of comics; black and white pen lines work in conjunction with words and typography to tell a story. However, Pettibon’s work takes many of these conventions and turns them on their head. Pettibon’s lines vary between precise, scratchy, and thin to uncontrolled patches of frenetic brushwork. Words would be used ironically against the pictures. Familiar cultural icons could be subverted in the space of a single image. The effect created a striking visual representation of the music that Pettibon promoted with his work, echoing punk’s resounding rejection of authority and tradition.
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Several contemporaneous alternative cartoonists seem to have been influenced by Pettibon. Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes are the two most obvious candidates, even if their current work has moved away from a Pettibon-influence aesthetic. It’s hard to imagine Hernandez’s depiction of Los Angeles area punks wasn’t in some way influenced by Pettibon given the many Black Flag references strewn throughout early Love and Rockets stories. One must also keep in mind that Hernandez lived in Los Angeles when  Pettibon was at his most ubiquitous in the punk rock scene, so it seems extremely likely that he had an impact on Hernandez at some level. In a profile on Hernandez in the Pasadena Sun, Hernandez admitted Pettibon’s influence on his own work as he became more involved in the Los Angeles punk rock scene.  In an article on the online website Neumu, Pettibon is mentioned in the same breath as Daniel Clowes as two artists with a  common visual approach, though again Pettibon denies his ties to comics. The stiff figures, heavy blacks, and strong satirical bent in Clowes‘ earliest work clearly echoes the work of Pettibon. Yet these are more surface elements, and Pettibon, as a contemporary to both Hernandez and Clowes, could not have served as an early formative influence. Instead Pettibon’s influence is best felt in the next generation of cartoonists; the artists who were kids and teens that went to Black Flag shows, bought Black Flag merchandise, and saw the flyers designed by Pettibon.
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            Maybe the cartoonists who are easiest to identify as influenced by Pettibon are the members of the Fort Thunder collective. Still, it should be noted that the work of Fort Thunder is vastly different from Pettibon’s in terms of content. Pettibon is mostly concerned with commentary on American iconography and culture. Fort Thunder artists address a variety of issues, ranging from environmentalism to community, and all set in alien or fantasy worlds. Though some of these works could be read as political or cultural commentary, that element is clearly less of a focus than in Pettibon’s oeuvre. However,  there are many parallels between the two sets of artists. Like Pettibon, many Fort Thunder members first became known for their flyers, posters, and other work in association with the Providence music scene. Pettibon’s work can be seen as a direct predecessor to the visual approaches that members of Fort Thunder would take, with visual noise being an important element in both cases. Mat Brinkman’s skuzzy lines made with bamboo pens and graphite in works like Teratoid Heights and Multiforce share a resemblance to Pettibon’s own line work in his various flyers for Black Flag shows. The political rhetoric in Brian Chippendale’s work is hard to imagine without the influence of Black Flag’s or Pettibon’s own political commentary on Black Flag flyers and album covers. In fact, it could be said that Fort Thunder took the way Pettibon’s work was presented and took those ideas to the next level by intentionally making the promotional tools into actual art objects and not just pieces for commercial promotion.

Even today, Pettibon’s work influences and inspires many of today’s notable alternative cartoonist. There are many elements a modern cartoonist can pull inspiration from his body of work; a commitment to a DIY aesthetic, expressionistic linework, and a variety of imagery. It also helps that Pettibon’s work is still incredible accessible in a variety of forms, from his Black Flag covers to a large volume of his promotional posters recently made available on Vice’s website. When this is taken into account, it’s easy to see how whether directly or indirectly, he’s exerted an influence on a range of contemporary artists from Michael DeForge to Julia Gfrörer. Of all modern cartoonists, Josh Bayer’s work might be the easiest to compare to Pettibon’s work. Bayer has made claim to Pettibon’s work as an influence on him growing up and in many interviews discussed the direct influence that Pettibon has had on his own work. Bayer has taken this further having collaborated multiple times with Pettibon, who is also a contributor to Bayer‘s Suspect Device comics anthology. Pettibon’s influence has come full circle in that he has influenced comics and now contributes to them on a semi-regular basis.

            Despite a lack of critical recognition, Raymond Pettibon’s work has provided inspiration to a variety of modern American cartoonists. From the early alternative cartoonists such as Jaime Hernandez and Daniel Clowes to later ones like Josh Bayer and Michael DeForge, Pettibon’s influence can be clearly felt. Hopefully this assessment can provide an entry for the artist to be considered as a significant contributor to the comics art form.

The Fuse #1


The Fuse #1

Words by Antony Johnston
Pictures by Justin Greenwood and Shari Chankhamma
Published by Image Comics

Science fiction is a genre that comics can do better than any pretty much other artistic medium. The art form’s fusion of words and pictures to communicate a narrative is best suited to the genre’s tendency towards world building and social commentary. Unlike film which has budget or novels where images can vary between how people interpret worlds built with words, comics has no budget to restrain imagination while visuals clearly express the world a creator imagines. So when science fiction is done poorly or even worse, boringly, the comic becomes a chore to read and look at. This is the problem with the new Image comic The Fuse. It’s a comic that has a high science fiction concept at its core, cops on board a space station, executed in possibly the most uninteresting way possible.

The basic premise of The Fuse is as follows; Ralph Dietrich transfers up to a space station nicknamed the Fuse. His first day on the job he’s paired up with Klem Ristovych, whose previous partner retired, and gives Dietrich a hard time. On the first day, someone murders two homeless people, who are called “cablers” and the two of them are the only detectives for the entire space station. So much of this first issue reads like the pitch for a television series or like the episode of a tv show and less like a comic. The pacing reads like Johnston wrote scenes in the comic with commercial breaks in mind which doesn’t really work in comics. Part of this seems intentional; Johnson writes an essay that appears in the back of the issue about his love for the procedural genre and how he enjoys shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad. Still if I pay $3.50 for a comic then I want to read a comic and not read a TV show episode. I’ll go to iTunes or Amazon if I want to pay a similar price to watch a cop show or watch Law and Order reruns for free on cable.

Everything in this first issue is communicated to you via Klem who talks less like a person and more like your standard “seasoned vet” tv cop. Klem is full of cop clichés; she’s old, she’s not keen on a new partner, and of course, has seen it all. There is the “twist” that Klem instead of being the grizzled old man is the grizzled old woman but in this issue she’s given so little to do that it’s not particularly interesting. The fact she hasn’t said “I’m getting too old for this shit” is maybe the only genuinely surprising thing in this book writing wise. Ralph Dietrich, on the other hand, is such a non entity in this issue it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to stick around to hear his story. If you’re trying to sell this as a cop story in a science fiction world to a comics reading audience, it would probably help by making protagonists that don’t seem like the kind you could find in every other police procedural possible.

There are some things to like that Johnston does well though, mostly with the dialogue in that no two characters talk alike. It’s easy to tell Klem apart from Dietrich simply by the way they talk. Right now too many writers write dialogue for every one of their characters in the same rhythms and mannerisms which reveals more about the writer than the character. Dialogue should be used as a tool to explore the character and subtly reveal things about either the character or the plot. Johnston does this but unfortunately does it in such an obvious way and everything these characters say telegraphs exactly who each character is supposed to be. It get’s boring after awhile.

A reader might be able to ignore these problems if the art was able to really transport you to living on a space station but sadly artist Justin Greenwood doesn’t seem capable of that. The bar for art in science fiction comics has been set pretty high lately with the variety of excellent artists on fellow Image book Prophet, such as Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, and Giannis Milonogiannis, to Nelson Daniel’s cartoon grunge look and Ulises Farinas’s hyper detailed art on IDW’s Judge Dredd books. Compared to those artists, Greenwood’s pages lack personality. These pages are executed in a fashion that is readable and the figures have some body language but there’s so little imagination in them. Greenwood renders the exterior of the space station well but his rendition of the interior leave much to be desired. There’s no sense of the culture and neither does the art captures any of the little details that really give you sense of life there like signs, street vendors, and garbage. For an environment that supposedly crowded, the streets and buildings seem remarkably clear and empty. The only visual personality in this comic comes from Shari Chankhamma’s colors. Every now and then, Chankhamma adds a little grunge and inserts little background details into the art to give it detail. She does a nice use of non-traditional colors like oranges and purples as background colors to give the effect of their being a sun in an entirely interior environment. Unfortunately, this is not enough to make up for the lack of imagination in the other visuals. Also a big detail that is bothersome; this is cylindrical space station and there is no hint of it being one on the interior. No signs that there’s life surrounding these people from various angles. It’s an odd choice to but seems in league with the relative lack of imaginative.

The Fuse #1 is an unremarkable introduction to a new series. Here is a mediocre science fiction comic in a market where science fiction comics with imagination and personality abound. It’s hard to imagine anyone who is interested in either visually engaging or well written science fiction comics wanting to pick up this book. This book would be better served carving it’s own niche instead of occupying the ones created by it’s inspirations.

Prophet #40

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Art by Malachi Ward

I want to do a longer write up on Brandon Graham and company’s current run on Prophet at a later date, probably when issue 45 comes out. However for now I really want to talk about this latest issue. This issue is a culmination in many ways, both artisically and narratively.

Narratively, the series has had a lot of disparate elements floating throughout it building towards something and this issue we got our first real glimpse of what is going to be become Prophet; Earth War. As Brandon Graham is wont to do, he’s upended expectations on what exactly this war will be. Graham is generally known as an artist and I think one of the great things about Prophet is showcasing his many strengths as a writer. Graham’s spent the past 20 or so issues building up to this issue and the moment shit hits the fan in this issue (and when you read it, you’ll know it), is the moment all the little moments and little characters seem to come together. He’s good at building issues as stand alone stories but using those stand alone stories as chapters of a much larger whole. It’s how any good long form fiction should be constructed. Prophet has been very good, often great genre fiction and much of that has been thanks to Graham’s authorship.

Artisitcally, the series has been all about collaboration. It’s been about Graham collaborating with his artists (primarily Simon Roy, Giannis Milonogiannis, and Joseph Bergin III) towards creating a singular visual approach. Towards that end its been about those artists collaborating with other artists to get towards that goal. Prophet’s long used various artists on specific issues (or even specific sequences in issues) and sometimes it’s worked more than others. This issue the approach reaches an apex. All of these visual collaborators create an issue where it comes across as singular visually. It’s no longer quite as jarring to pages go from Simony Roy’s sinuous looking line to Giannis Milonogiannis’s manga influenced thin line overload. Some of that is thanks to Malachi Ward who provides a good middle ground between the two. However; I also think it’s that this whole team has been doing this book for almost 2 years at this point and I think they’ve figured out how to really play off each other to make a more visually cohesive comic. Here the whole team is working as one unit and it’s a glorious looking piece of work.

This is how collaborative comics should be working. For me, Prophet has long been the best genre comic on the stands and this issue is a testament to that. Here Graham and his many collaborators start building towards their finale and I’m eager to see where we’re going.

WHY MARVEL REPUBLISHING MIRACLEMAN SEEMS TO BE TREATED LIKE SUCH A NON-ANNOUNCEMENT AND IT SHOULDN’T BE…

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This past weekend at New York Comic Con, Marvel Comics announced that they had finally cleared the rights for reprints of the 1980s comic Miracleman. This came four years after Marvel made the initial announcement they purchased rights to the character. The big announcement was made with Neil Gaiman, via video, talking about how the previously unpublished issue #25 would be released and his run on the series being completed. Later confirmed by the publisher was that Alan Moore’s work on the title would also be reprinted. However; when announced at NYCC this news came sandwiched between discussion of a George Romero project and whatever’s going on with Spider-Man. It’s a curious way to talk about comic that laid the foundation for much of the genre of superhero comics today and possibly an indicator how this material will be treated.

Before discussing why this feels like a non-announcement, let me discuss why this material is important. Alan Moore’s Miracleman is a foundational superhero comic in the same way that Ditko and Lee’s Spider-Man is; it basically changed the way creators treated the genre. A deconstructionist superhero comic, Miracleman is a work that functions both as an adventure comic and a commentary on the very nature of the genre. Alan Moore took this approach to superhero comics as part of a series of deconstructionist superhero stories in the 1980s, the other two being V for Vendetta and Watchmen. V for Vendetta looked at the vigilante as anarchist, Watchmen asked what it took for an individual to dress up in a costume and “enforce justice”, but Miracleman was the comic that asked what it would be like for gods to walk among men. Moore’s love of science fiction writing and his very real fear of nuclear annihilation informed his approach to this material. Alan Moore was a child of the 1950s and 1960s and the paranoia of nuclear armageddon and the violence of those times seeps into every panel of this comic. It’s not a pretty picture as superheroes basically lay waste to the entire city of London and then “benignly” take over the world by the end of Moore’s run on the book. It’s a comic of it’s time but Miracleman has anti-authoritarian themes that reverberate today. Neil Gaiman’s run on the book, which never saw completion, explored the world after the main character turned Earth into a “utopian” society. Gaiman, who has admitted he’s not very interested in superheroes, mostly had stories exploring how people lived in the new world created by these gods. While many of the surface elements (much of the last third of Moore’s run is graphically violent) have been replicated, Moore’s exploration of the superhero as a god among us and Gaiman’s look at how people live in a utopian society both possess potency for the genre today.

Unfortunately, none of this material has seen print in years. Rights to the characters and stories were in various legal limbos and court cases between a many people claiming ownership. Many people have made claims the material would be repackaged and reprinted only for some new hurdle to pop up blocking publication. Several professionals for years have said this material would never see the light of day again because of the various legal issues. By the time Marvel bought the rights to the character, it came across as yet another person claiming that they were ready to publish this material. Now four years later, they’re going to.

So why does the announcement have none of the impact that a work of this level normally might have? There are a number of factors here that need to be considered.

1. Alan Moore
One of the things most people noticed about this announcement is that Alan Moore’s name has not been mentioned once in press releases or even at the initial announcement. A lot of the interest in this material isn’t so much for the Gaiman stories but Moore’s work on the book and rightly so. This is work entirely foundational to a generation of people who read it. Alan Moore though wants nothing to do with North American comics publishers. He’s made it a point that any material he did as work for hire is not to bear his name in reprints. On top of this, more readers today associate Alan Moore with his opinions of current comic books (his opinions are not flattering) than with his groundbreaking work in the 80s and 90s.

2. Previous announcements about this material
Many announcements on when this material would be reprinted have been made over the last decade. The last time any of this was collected over 20 years ago. Message boards in 2001 became very excited when it was announced Todd MacFarlane and Neil Gaiman were working to get the material. Then nothing happened except a lawsuit between the two ostensibly about Miracleman but in the end about two other characters as Gaiman claimed MacFarlane had no claim to the work. Once that was settled, Marvel announced buying the character back in 2009. It’s been four years since that initial announcement and it’s become a recurring gag at cons to ask about this material in Marvel panels.

3. Superhero comics from the last decade
One of the hallmarks of Miracleman is the graphic violence in Alan Moore’s third arc specifically issue 15. The city of London is destroyed in utterly brutal terms by the villain Kid Miracleman in gory detail by artist John Totleben. Until that point in comics, supervillains had rarely been portrayed as sadistic as Moore and Totleben portrayed Kid Miracleman, a psychopath whose superhuman powers had utterly corrupted him. The violent and savage display of power was the logical end result of the story that Moore built over the course of 15 issues. It’s a terrifying spectacle that comes from a very real fear of the time, nuclear annihilation and abuse of that power by individuals in office. However, in the last decade, superhero comics have seemed to take the surface elements of this story and used them ad nauseum. Massive violence of this kind is seen on a regular basis in issues of superhero comics, often for cheap shock value. It’s hard to see how a work like this is going to appeal to this generation of readers when many will see the surface elements and dismiss this comic on that level, not appreciate much of the context and subtext of this work.

4. Presentation
It’s been reported in many news reports on the republication that this series will be reprinted serially. It’s a very strange decision in this day and age. Marvel has recently been experimenting with original material presented as graphic novels for some of their characters. In a time when readers live in a golden age of reprints, printing Miracleman as a series of well packaged collections seems like the ideal move. It’s hard to see why this material is being reprinted in such an outdated fashion for reprint material other than maybe for Mark Buckingham to catch up and draw the last issues of Gaiman’s run on the book. The other issue is if this presentation will take into account both the history of the character and the context of the original stories publication. These are stories produced by the terrors that had boiled up in a Post World War II and Post-Vietnam world and used to explore the myth of the “superman”. It’s hard for this to seem like an important genre comic when there’s 6 variant covers offered for every issue. It’s a sales tactic but to me to say that Marvel is marketing this like every other comic they have instead of in the way they want market it; an important work.

There’s many other reasons that I haven’t mentioned here. There are still rights issues with the work that haven’t been addressed. Its not been addressed if any of original creators on the 80s series will see money from this. Apathy in general towards Marvel because of their past treatment of creator’s rights in general and for some the company that won’t award Jack Kirby’s heirs money publishing work mired in creator rights issues seems like bitter irony. The possibility exists that Miracleman as a character will be integrated into the Marvel Universe proper, a move that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense in general.

A lot of apathy exists for the reprinting of a work that is a foundational piece of genre fiction. There are many reasons, some justified, and others not so much. Possibly this will be seen as another comic in a long line of brutal superhero comics or as just another “event book” from publisher known for both. In the end, fans of superhero comics should be excited that a book denied being reprinted for too long once again can affordably sit on their shelves.

 

A Zoo in Winter

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A Zoo in Winter
by Jiro Taniguchi

Jiro Taniguchi has made a career of making comics about journeys.  His characters and narratives navigate territory in both physical (Quest for the Missing Girl) and metaphysical ways (The Times of Botchan). A constant in his work is imagery of a protagonist walking, with one of his collections titled “The Walking Man”. The journey itself is central to Taniguchi’s work. His protagonists are on a path that, while never clear, will inevitably lead them to either catharsis or enlightenment. For him, it’s never important where his protagonists eventually end these journeys but how they get there. So it makes sense that when Taniguchi created the autobiographical A Zoo in Winter it would be a work that was about journeys both physical and metaphorical.

The physical journey of this book involves young Hamaguchi, a fictional avatar for Taniguchi, moving twice at the beginning of the book. The first happens before the story starts with him having moved to Kyoto to find work with a fabric company in their design department. After an incident involving his boss’s daughter, Hamaguchi goes to Tokyo to find work. Here he takes a job as an assistant to a popular manga artist and begins his career as a mangaka. Throughout the book, there’s journey’s both seen (leaving the studio to explore Tokyo) and unseen (at one point, the manga artist Hamaguchi works for goes to America leaving his assistants time off). It’s the journey that various characters take that drives the action of the book. The events of the book are started when the Boss’s daughter leaves to join her lover at a zoo while another major event in the book happens only when Tamaguchi walks to a bar.  People are shown constantly traveling by various methods and the only time people are still or sitting is when they sit down to draw manga. Taniguchi takes great steps to show the importance of venturing into paths both known and unknown. Every path requires an action that will lead to reaction that is either positive or negative which shapes our lives.

The other important journey here is the metaphysical one, the path to becoming an artist that Hamaguchi takes. The thrust of the book is Hamaguchi’s quest to become an artist and what drives him as one. This path is the more difficult of the two shown constantly through the book. His early goal of creating patterns for a fabric company become fruitless when he realizes that his company outsources that work to other companies.  As he becomes a mangaka, the path becomes more treacherous. Hamaguchi witnesses that various difficulties that making comics presents. One co-worker created comics at one point only to continue his career as an assistant while another spends an agonizingly long time creating his own manga only to be rejected when he finally presents it. The path of becoming an artist is never glamorized in this book with several scenes dedicated to the long hours and continuous mentions of the deadlines that loom over artists. Ultimately though it’s the path of the artist and its difficulties that Hamaguchi will find most fulfilling and satisfying in his life. By the end of the book, he’s had one of his stories published in an anthology which normally would be the end of this journey. However, the path he’s on at the end of A Zoo in Winter won’t be the one Hamaguchi remains on in his life. The characters know the work Hamaguchi submits isn’t one they expected from him. We as readers know that Hamaguchi will continue down different paths being that he’s an avatar for author Tanaguchi and that this is one such work.

It’s hard to write this look at Tanaguchi’s portrayal of the manga industry and not think of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s masterwork A Drifiting Life which covers similar ground. Though not nearly as in depth as A Drifting Life, A Zoo in Winter is a companion piece to that work.  Mentions of the Japanese anthology Garo and Yoshiharu Tsuge’s short story “Screw Style” dot the later parts of A Zoo in Winter, works hinted at coming to fruition in  A Drifting Life. If anything it shows the path that one artist took in parallel to another.  It’s not a major statement from a master in the way A Drifting Life was about Tatsumi and his life in post-war Japan. It is though an important minor one of Tanaguchi looking at the path his life went from an older perspective.

Winners of the Comics Workbook Composition Competition 2013

Wow!  We are truly humbled by both the quantity and quality of the submissions to the Comics Workbook Composition Competition 2013.

Choosing the winners in this contest was much more difficult than we imagined it would be.

Congratulations to all who created and submitted work for this contest. We really enjoyed reading each and every work.

-Frank Santoro

A list of the winners of Comics Workbook Composition Competition 2013 can be found here.

Congratualtions to all the winners of the competition. Frank Santoro put together a set of rules that allowed a number of people to create some very memorable and visually intriguing comics.  Mr. Santoro is one of comics best critics and educators, also helping inspire me to create this blog and write about comics in my own way. I highly recommend looking at any of these comics

AN APPRECIATION OF JACK KIRBY’S COMIC BOOK CHARACTERS

Originally appeared on the Notebook on Comics tumblr

I wrote this appreciation a few years ago when a friend asked me who my favorite Jack Kirby characters were. Today would have been the 96th birthday of Jack Kirby who passed away almost 20 years ago. For anyone following this blog who is unaware, Kirby created the visual language of what makes up superhero comics as we known them today. While most superhero comics on the surface are visually a 180 from the surface art of Kirby, whose drawing style was uniquely his, his way of staging action, his dynamic perspectives, and ability to convey drama is imitated to this day. During his lifetime, he gave readers a multitude of characters and concepts that fans of superhero comics are familiar with to this day. Kirby’s characters continue to stand the test of time and here’s a list of six characters that I continue to enjoy to this day.

5. Ego the Living Planet
This guy is one of Kirby’s weirder ideas and one that shows off Kirby’s logic when it came to storytelling. Stan Lee had Galactus show up again in the pages of Thor and Kirby’s response to when Stan Lee needed a threat for Galactus was simple; a sentient planet. Many artists have drawn Ego over the years even Kirby himself like here.
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But I’ve always found this version of Ego on the first page he appeared to be even creepier. This is one of many photo collages that Kirby often experimented with throughout his tenure at Marvel in the 1960s (they showed up a lot in Fantastic Four). His photo collages were eerie and I thought really hammered home Kirby’s ability to convey the strangeness of the universe his heroes inhabited.kirby02
I love that the ultimate foe for Galactus, Kirby’s greatest force of nature, was a planet that could fight back.

4. Black Bolt aka Blackagar Boltagon
I’ve researched this and Black Bolt’s name really is Blackagar Boltagon, more Kirby logic for you there.  Kirby was great at creating characters that weren’t just people, they were forces of nature. Black Bolt is a great example of this along with being visually impressive. His costume design is one of Kirby’s greatest but what I love about Black Bolt is that as the most powerful of the Inhumans, Kirby never draws him as being anything but solid. He’s basically is a wall and full of rigid poses. Black Bolt always appears like he’s a wall that can’t be torn down.
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To compliment this, Black Bolt has an ingenious super power; his voice is a weapon. It’s a clever commentary on the nature of a leader’s word (Black Bolt is leader of the Inhumans). Here’s a man whose very words literally level kingdoms. He only speaks when it’s absolutely necessary and even then it’s never to its full power.
kirby043. The Thing aka Ben Grimm
As with any of these characters, I could talk about Ben Grimm all day. Of any of Kirby’s characters, Ben Grimm is really his most straight fowardly autobiographical. Many of the elements that make up Aunt Petunia’s favorite nephew were taken directly from Kirby’s own life. He’s Jewish, had an older brother who died at a young age, and grew up in a relatively rough neighborhood (Ben Grimm’s Yancey St. is a stand in for the Delancey Street where Kirby himself grew up). However the quality that always sticks out for me is that Ben Grimm is a character that never gives up.
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He’ll get his ass kicked by the Hulk, clobbered by Galactus, or get his ass handed to him by any number of foes but he never gives up. Ben Grimm may not be the prettiest person in the Marvel Universe but man is he one of the bravest and toughest much like the man who created him.
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2. Mister Miracle

My appreciation for many of my favorite characters in comics came out of reading Grant Morrison’s JLA run in the mid-Nineties because Morrison has a way of looking at characters that makes you appreciate them. There were several great moments in the book and one of them came towards the end where the JLA is about to face a huge galactic level threat and someone invades the Watchtower with ease. That someone? Mister Miracle, the man who can get out of any trap, who nonchalantly tells Steel “You guys better beef up your security.” It’s that moment that just perfectly defines a character and in this case, one Scott Free. It made me go back and try to learn more about the character ultimately coming across various issues of Kirby’s Mr. Miracle run.

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Mr. Miracle was another character directly inspired by Kirby’s life; Scott Free and Big Barda’s relationship was based around the one Kirby had with his wife Roz, who inspired Barda. He was the show man and she was the firebrand. The two complimented each other just like Scott Free and Barda. I don’t know if they were the first superhero couple to start out married but it made for an interesting dynamic in comics.

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The thing I’ve always liked about Mr. Miracle is his superpower; he has a mind that knows how to escape from any trap. The idea of being able to escape from anything probably came from his own freedom from Marvel and certainly inspired by his friendship with former escape artist Jim Steranko. It’s a unique idea and something that allowed Kirby to use his artistic talents to good effect. No matter how ridiculous or how dangerous something was, Scott Free could get out of it.
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It’s hard to write about Scott Free without also writing about his wife Big Barda. The two are interconnected and writing about one does a disservice to the other. Also it does a disservice to what might be Kirby’s greatest and most dynamic female character. Big Barda is a rarity in superhero comics; a female character who is portrayed as a complex individual.
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In classic Kirby tradition, Barda is a study in dualities. At her core, she’s Scott Free’s wife. She’s a beautiful woman who has no problem showing off her figure or helping her husband out with his escape performances. She’s supportive in a way that’s familiar to a male audience.
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She’s also a warrior though. She aids her husband but she stands on her own. She is never subservient to him and it says something that in the relationship, Barda is the most physically powerful. She doesn’t hide the fact that she has a temper or that she could crush things in her bare hands.
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However, the relationship between Big Barda and Scott Free is complimentary. They’re both individuals who have escaped the world Apokolips and its influence. His mental prowess compliments her physical one. They fight and have their disagreements like any couple but in the end they know each other better than anyone else. It’s a ying-yang relationship indicative of healthy relationship that you don’t see too often in comics.
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1. The Demon aka Jason Blood
The classic Kirby character trait is that every character is a juxtaposition of two opposites. The Thing is a man trapped in a body he doesn’t want. Reed Richards has to live with the fact that it was his genius that mutated his whole family. Mister Miracle lives with the fact that he was raised on a world that is in opposition to his own beliefs of freedom. The character for me that best embodies the Kirby duality is Jason Blood, the Demon.
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A man who during the Kirby run shares a body with a demon though later writers seem to think he’s merely possessed by a demon. He’s one of the great anti-heroes of comics. A monster who tries to do good but in the end wants to do evil. There is a constant struggle between Jason’s human side and Etrigan who has no desire to return to the human form that was put on him.
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He’s also one of the great designs of characters in comics (even if he’s lifted wholesale from a Hal Foster Prince Valiant comic).
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In many ways, I think The Demon is Kirby’s most autobiographical. He was a man that was extremely intelligent, cultured, and aware of the world around him. Yet he was also still the street tough from Brooklyn. He was a man constantly trying to reconcile his artistic side with the fighter that was inside him, a struggle epitomized by Jason Blood and Etrigan. For me Jason Blood Etrigan are one of the all time great characters in comics by one of the all time greats.
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AN APPRECIATION FOR THE ART OF JAE LEE IN X-FACTOR 84-86

Imagine you’re a ten year old comics reader in fall of 1992. You’ve just gotten into comics because all of the kids on the bus, your friends, are reading X-Men comics. Everyone on this bus has told you that Jim Lee was the best X-Men artist ever. Your first X-Men story is the year’s big X-Men crossover “X-Cutioner’s Song”. The art in it is mostly Jim Lee clones; Brandon Peterson, Andy Kubert, and Greg Capullo. None of those are absolutely terrible artists but there’s nothing that will stick with you other than “Well if Jim Lee isn’t drawing X-Men anymore these guys will do. I guess?” kind of attitude when reading it. Somehow though in those pages this guy got a gig drawing the X-Factor issues for this crossover.

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That’s a Jae Lee splash page from one of the X-Factor issues. It’s very different from the other guys who did chapters of X-Cutioner’s Song. There was enough Liefeld/Lee influence in there for me as a young reader, who was been told Jim Lee and Rob Liefield were the best X-book artists ever, to swallow this pill. There’s exaggerated anatomy, large guns, and people fighting in dynamic ways. I was unaware at the time how heavily this work was influenced by Simon Bisley and Bill Sienkiewicz (even early Mignola), which now are really apparent. Still this was an approach that wasn’t what you normally saw in an X-Book and that was what stuck out to me.

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Jae Lee’s approach was radically different though. As a ten year old, I couldn’t really process it but I know that this is a really weird look for an X-Men comic. Being ten, I referred to it as an “abstract” style. Today I would say that this is what is probably “art school comics”. It clear to me now that Lee is drawing from a lot of outside influences to shape his use of comics. It’s really shape oriented, filled with a heavy use of blacks, and very design heavy. As someone whose almost sole exposure to art in his youth was mostly comics, these were all new ideas for me.

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This is heavily expressionistic work. It’s a lot more transparent to me now Jae Lee at the time didn’t seem to care how anatomy or staging works. Unlike a lot of his peers though, Lee was really interested in ignoring anatomy to see how an idea could be conveyed than some of his peers. There’s not a whole lot of posing on this splash but there is a heavy use of line to convey that this page is all about Professor Xavier. All of the folds and  shadows around the figures are doing the heavy lifting to present the visual information. It doesn’t matter that Professor X has been shot in the head (Lee pays service to this with a small bullet hole) but it matters what the situation this has presented means. I also like that medical Red Cross being positioned to look like an X.
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(I want to point out that Storm and Psylocke here look like they belong in a Patrick Nagel image as much as any of the comics of the 90s.)

Lee doesn’t seem to fear representing things as flat shapes. Everything here on this page is outside of some shadows relatively one dimensional. Three dimensions don’t matter when space relationships are what really interest you as an artist. I don’t know how these people could possibly stand in the same room but I have a real sense of how distinct they look against each other. This is something that Jae Lee is really interested in with these pages, silhouettes. All of these characters read as individuals and as very distinct ones too. Lee is okay with representing things as distinct shapes than as figures.

Representation shapes is really important in these pages. The gun Bishop has in that initial splash page is compose mostly of squares and rectangles. Lee in these issues likes using basic shapes to really guide your eye on important visual information; the large square conveying that Wolverine has the most important news on the page or this image with the giant earth behind Cyclops and Jean Grey are.

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Looking back at these pages and images, I see a lot of things that have stuck with me as I’ve continued to read comics and even look at art. The use of shape, silhouette, and a commitment to finding visual ways to convey ideas instead of more literal ones are things that still appeal to me greatly. Jae Lee has gone on to be come a much better artist but these early issues I think were some of the most interesting looking superhero comics in the time they were released.

Fauves by Warren Craghead

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Warren Craghead ///// Fauves 10 (swim meet)

This is just a quick jot but I wanted to write about Warren Craghead’s series on Comics Workbook “Fauves”. Warren is a cartoonist that I really admire because he has a real commitment to expressionism in art not just in comics. I often hesitate to use the word expressionism because it seems like such a buzzword or short hand but Craghead is maybe comics’ greatest expressionist. He has a line that communicates not just the form of something but a real emotion or idea.

Anyways, I’ve really enjoyed his “Fauves” series over at Comics Workbook because it’s the first time I’ve seen him use color. It’s really inspiring what he does with it because  like his use of line, Craghead uses color to express a number of ideas in image. Take the comic above as an example. Yellow is used as a more stationary color (his figure doesn’t really move much) but the use of blue conveys the water’s ever changing shape. The color is working in conjunction with the line to create this feeling movement instead relying solely on line as so many other cartoonists do.

Much like everything else in his work, Warren Craghead has a really defined purpose for the visual elements in his comics. It’s good to see him add another element in his work.

Welcome to the Family by Kat Leyh

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Welcome to the Family
By Kat Leyh

Representation is really important in modern fiction. We as a society live no longer live in isolated national cultures. We’re aware of various genders, sexualities, and national identities. Representing them is incredibly important and it’s irresponsible in this day and age to have work that doesn’t acknowledge this. Having various view points only enriches fiction not hinders it. However, if you’re going to make a point of doing this, let alone making it the purpose of your work of fiction, then do it well. No matter how well intentioned and visually executed it is, the comic “Welcome to the Family” just doesn’t really work because it’s trying too hard to be representative and sacrifices a satisfying narrative in order to do so.

Artist Kat Leyh has made a series of vignettes about the relationship of two young women named Molly and May. They’re in a relationship and they happen to be superheroes. Most of the strips show their day to day activities in a standard superhero world. This episode focuses on Molly visiting May’s family for thanksgiving dinner.

Visually this comic is really lovely. The use of the superpowers is something that really stands out. Recent superhero comics from Marvel and DC, outside of a few books, no longer seem too interested in visually representing the superpowers used by their heroes in interesting ways. The transition from Talula tripping to her splashing is handled beautifully. It’s a moment that could really only work in comics. Molly poofing out of her hoodie and into her bed is lovely. The way Leyh conveys the effects of her powers and how Molly moves with them is a really casual thing that doesn’t happen much in a typical superhero comic. It’s the equivalent of seeing Wolverine open a beer can with his claws or Superman shaving with his heat vision.

Something that a reader can really appreciate in these pages are the small moments and there’s a lot of them. Leyh captures a real sense of place and activity in the house. People cook, others play video games, and some sit on the couch and just sit. There are a lot panels that might come across to some readers as extraneous because they simply depict cooking or people sitting. However, people do these things and it’s an excellent reminder of background information. A family clearly lives in this house and actually occupies the environment. These people act like they have lives and aren’t waiting around for the next superhero disaster hits. Leyh, as an artist, has a way of presenting visual information in subtle but unique ways.

There’s also the colors in this piece which makes these pages look really appealing. While the coloring isn’t used in expressionisic ways, it’s used in ways that serve the story tonally. The muted, almost desaturated tones add this relaxed feeling comfortable feeling to the precedings. They are quiet colors aiding in the many quiet moments in the story. Contrasting colors are used in ways to really identify the characters; most of May’s family is toned in some sort of green while Molly is clearly identified by her red sweater. At the same time, Talula wears and is surrounded by green but has red hair tying her to Molly in a subtle way in the climax of the story. These are really small details but they are also ones an artist should consider when using color in a narrative comic.

This is a lot of praise but unfortunately while this is a visually striking comic, the narrative just doesn’t work. Much of this is because there is no central conflict in the narrative. Instead there’s two conflicts that don’t feel like conflicts; Molly feeling out of place and overwhelmed in May’s family and Molly keeping her powers a secret. Neither of these conflicts ever seems to make much sense mainly because Leyh seems to go out of her way to make a very accepting world. Leyh is keenly aware of how underrepresented women, lgbt individuals, and people of color are in superhero comics. So in this comic, she’s tried to make a corrective of that; we have a lesbian couple as the stars, pair of uncles in a gay relationship, a functional mixed race family, and children who have been adopted. There really need to be more functional families in fiction and families that are filled with diversity like this one. The problem is this doesn’t work because having such an accepting family works against the one of the conflicts. There’s never really any doubt that Molly will fit into the family. There are no personality conflicts with an unfamiliar person or philosophical disagreements with someone else. As an audience we’re told that Molly just feels overwhelmed which doesn’t mean much when an audience doesn’t know why.

On top of that is Molly’s dilemma in revealing her powers to May’s family. This would normally be a subplot in a larger story. This is used in what is the climax of the story so a reader has to wonder whether it was meant to be a bigger element of the story. This type of plot element might be a metaphor for acceptance in another story but doesn’t work here. Again we have a really accepting family not to mention one keenly aware May and all of the uncle’s adopted children have super powers. So what’s the big deal with revealing them to another family? There’s no explanation of why she feels so reticent to share this part of her. This conflict clashes with everything else around it. By the time we get to the big climax of Molly’s reveal, we as an audience are still scratching heads why she was so worried about being accepted in the family or what problems saying she has powers would have. The two problems never really dovetail into each other in any satisfying way.

This is a visually satisfying comic with a narrative that has a lot of problems. Kat Leyh is an incredibly gifted artist with a way of presenting various things that work well in the comics medium. The subjects in the comic are one that can be a real shot in the arm for a genre that sorely needs one. Unfortunately, Leyh’s desire to represent groups in a genre known for its lack of representation works against her conflict. The narrative is handled in a way that doesn’t necessarily offer an alternative to the stories it’s trying to correct.