Thursday, December 14, 2006

Samuel Zagat

Look at him, how he sits there and reads baby stories.

Rooting around in the files...

Samuel Zagat (1890-1964) was a cartoonist and photographer, part of a small group of left-wing Jewish artists who flourished in the socialist press in the early part of the 20th Century. I had never heard of him before I found this cartoon in a disintegrating book about the New York Jewish immigrant experience a few years ago.

Zagat drew a strip called "Gimple Beinish" (1912-19) for the Yiddish daily Warheit /Varhayt in New York. He was also an editorial cartoonist for the Daily Forward. A book of his drawings was published in 1972.

The strip here, featuring Hanne Pessl, was originally in Yiddish and reads right to left.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Twilight of the Superheroes

Deborah Eisenberg, the U.S. Alice Munro, was on the CBC last week talking about her latest collection, Twilight of the Superheroes. The title story is about a cartoonist who lives through 9/11 and it has some interesting things to say about the idea of superheroes as a metaphor for Empire. Eisenberg states her case plainly in a Bookninja interview from last summer, where she discusses the Superman movie:

"It's both heart-rending and nauseating that the national impulse would be to seek solace and reinforcement at this moment, in, for instance, Superman as a representation of moral action. I can't claim to be an expert on the cast of Marvel Comics, or, in fact, to know much of anything about any of them, but nonetheless, they're present even in my inhospitable consciousness. So it seems that they must perfectly express something about our culture.

And I suppose that what it is they so perfectly express is our desire to understand our disproportionate power as power that's unambiguously and inevitably used for the benefit of humanity. Even in regard to the Unites States of the Second World War, this view might have merited a raised eyebrow or two, but now it's shockingly self-deceiving at the least, and pretty brutal. It seems to me that not only is there an enormous longing for what we imagine to have been a time of innocence in our recent history, but that there's also a sort of willful childishness, or, to put it another way, a self-congratulatory coyness in the way imagination is collecting around these figures now. Even the nostalgia doesn't seem quite authentic. It's as if there were something endearing, something loveable, about trying to maintain this view of ourselves as childishly innocent and good even though we know very well that it's not accurate – something gallant and charming. This is a form of bullying, in my opinion; a demonstration that we can afford (temporarily, anyhow) to hold on to these consoling charades of power-with-integrity, however degraded, even laughable,we understand them to be.

Born in 1945, Eisenberg probably missed out on the first wave of superhero comics and was not quite 10 when "Superduperman" appeared in MAD. She was graduating from college when Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko were repopulating New York with superheroes and was well into her adult life when Batmania and Wonder Warthog were stirring up the kids, so she can be forgiven for mixing up her publishers. In any case, everyone knows that outside of a few arrested adolescents like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, serious writers don't read superhero comic books. Nevertheless, Eisenberg still makes a few interesting points. Even if mainstream kids comics can't be expected to engage with adult themes and political issues, what about Hollywood? I've seen enough of the current crop of superhero movies to know that they are trafficking mainly in the same thing the comics have got by on for generations --escapism, power fantasies, and nostalgia. I'm less familiar with the current superhero comics world since the heavyhanded Watchmen metaphors of the 1980s --the world of The Authority and Identity Crisis. Outside of Dan Clowes' "The Death Ray" (or for that matter, David Boring), are there any contemporary superhero iterations that deal with their own limitations as a genre in ways that are not just pat or satirical? Is it even really possible or necessary? Are superheroes bad for us? Adorno said "After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry." Should we say, after 9/11 it is barbaric to draw superheroes?

I leave the final word to that other great philosopher, Sergio Aragones:

"It's the super-hero syndrome, exactly. [...] It's out of our power to solve. It's defeatism --you can do nothing about it. It's like "I surrender." The only way I can solve my problem is with a super-hero, or an astronaut, or somebody from outer space, or God helping me. And this is like throwing your gloves on the floor. When you have to fight, then you think you have a solution, but when you don't want to fight any more, that's when you go to total despair and then you go looking for some super-heroes to solve your problems. Which is very bad. I don't think those movies give any good messages. That the only love you find is with mermaids or with things from outer space. No! No! No! Reality is what can save you."


Wednesday, December 06, 2006


Another fundraiser for the Wright Awards.

This time around, it's Chester Brown's original pencils for the Wonder Woman page he donated for the previous auction last summer. It's a fascinating view of his working methods. The difference between these loosely assembled drawings and the finished art sold earlier is striking (Chester's pencils are pretty tight but I think he still edits when he inks --Wonder Woman's ass looks rounder in one of his pencils).

Chester uses many smaller pencil drawings to compose a page. He draws each panel --and sometimes each figure in each panel-- separately. He does the same thing for all of his lettering and word balloons. He then lays all of the separate pages into the order they are supposed to read in, places a piece of paper on top, and traces over them onto his final art with a brush. He documented this process in his short story "Showing Helder" in an early issue of his comic book series Yummy Fur.

Anyway, the Wonder Woman drawings are now being auctioned off on ebay:

The organizers of The Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning are delighted to announce their third fundraising auction: a one-of-a-kind piece of original art by groundbreaking Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown.

Considered a pioneer of the 1980s alternative comic renaissance, and undeniably one of the form’s most original and refreshing talents, Toronto's Chester Brown agreed to lend his distinctive style to the superhero genre as a gesture of support to the Wright Awards. The result was a stunning interpretation of the comics' first female superhero: the Amazonian princess known as Wonder Woman. Inspired by a page from one of Wonder Woman's earliest appearances, these drawing are the Original Pencils used in the creation of the artwork from our last auction. These pencils provide a rare glimpse into Chester's creative process. By looking at these pencil drawings, you can follow Chester as he composes a page of original art, from rough sketches to word balloons. There are over thirty individual drawings included in this auction, each averaging approx 6" x 4"!

This artwork marks the Montreal-born artist’s first-ever piece of superhero art ever - a fact that makes it both historically significant, and a guaranteed collector’s item.

The Wright Awards were established in 2005 to recognize and spotlight the wide array of talented cartoonists working across Canada. The premiere award event recognizing the art of graphic novels and comics, The Wrights are named in honour of Doug Wright (1917-1983) whose humourous strip Doug Wright's Family graced newspapers and magazines across Canada for nearly 35 years.

Chester Brown is one of the pioneers of the 1980s comic renaissance and one of the art form’s most acclaimed talents. He began self-publishing his critically regarded comic-book series Yummy Fur in 1983. In it, Brown serialized his first four graphic novels: Ed the Happy Clown (1989), The Playboy (1992), I Never Liked You (1994), and The Little Man (1998). His Louis Riel was published as a graphic novel in 2003 and was the first graphic novel to make it to the Canadian national bestseller list as well as bestseller lists worldwide

All proceeds will benefit the 2007 edition of The Doug Wright Awards for Canadian Cartooning, which will be handed out next year in Toronto.

Snow in the Comics

Part 1 of 3

by BK Munn

It's snowing again this morning, putting me in mind of snow in the comics. Trying to remember my experience of snow in the comics, the first thing that comes to mind is Peanuts which always was very seasonal in its rhythms. Although other daily strip cartoonists did winter-themed gags and even created snowy adventure storylines (I think the final episode of Caniff's Terry and the Pirates took place on a snow-filled runway), Peanuts is really the winter strip par excellence, a position that was ratified with the animated Christmas special back in the 1960s. Outside of the strips, U.S. kids comics creators like John Stanley, Carl Barks, and the Archie gang always published season-specific issues. As well, I'm sure I read the occasional superhero comic as a kid featuring a chilly, John Romita Spider-Man brawling over snowy New York City rooftops. But the first time I think I really noticed snow as an actual presence and plot device in a graphic novel context was Cerebus.

At some point in the early 1980s, Dave Sim seemed to decide to make snow a major character in his High Society graphic novel. I'm sure there was snow in earlier issues since much of the series was a parody of the Barry Windsor-Smith Conan comics and I'm pretty sure there was at least one issue of Conan that featured barbarians fighting frost giants in the wilds of Hyperboria, or wherever it was that Conan was from, but Sim's use of snow in these later Cerebus issues really struck a chord with my 13-year-old self.

The first snow-themed issue I remember is Cerebus #44, "The Deciding Vote". Fans (or maybe just Sim) later called this the "wuffa-wuffa" issue, after the sound the lead character made when walking with snowshoes. The plot of the issue, Cerebus following an old farmer around in order to solicit the geezer's vote for Prime Minister, took a backseat to the slapstick images of Cerebus trying to navigate his way through snowdrifts and the drunken antics of Sim's superhero parody character The Roach. Y'see, Sim the artist was telling us, Cerebus's attempt to transform himself from barabarian to politician is an uphill battle and even the elements are against him.

Things only got worse for the character as the book progressed: Cerebus' time in office seemed to take place over the course of one long winter, which meant that the snow hung around. Sim seemed to take great delight in drawing the characters in the midst of blizzards or contrasting the heated conversations of his characters with the serenity and quiet of the outdoors. The story, and Cerebus' political career, culminated with an invasion of the city by barbarians. Sim told the story in a series of long panels, ending with his now-isolated character walking off into the distance into a sea of white.

Snow popped up in the next few graphic novels as well. In Church and State, Cerebus becomes Pope, gets thrown off the side of a snow-covered mountain, and has to spend many pages climbing back up. Meanwhile, other characters stand around in the snow, looking pensive and plotting schemes of vast socio-political importance. During this time, Sim's assistant Gerhard really started to make his presence felt in the series, drawing highly-detailed walls, cityscapes, gargoyles, etc, all blanketed in layers of snow.

I think that, in part, Sim was initially sort of stuck with the northern fantasy world he had inherited from his pastiche of the world of Robert E. Howard. However, he eventually realized that he could incorporate aspects of this universe into the tale to his advantage, using the weather as a major storytelling tool (and in a black-and-white book, snow makes a nice contrast). As well, the world he was creating was starting to take on more aspects of the real world that he was interested in. I used to imagine that his fictional city state of Iest was a brilliant amalgamation of Kitchener, Ottawa, 1917 St. Petersburg, medieval Europe, Carl Bark's Duckburg, and Conan's D&D fantasyland. At the same time, I sometimes resented the enormous use of white space in Cerebus, an indication I thought of a certain amount of cartoonist laziness. And after awhile, the device takes on a strained air (not unlike the device of using a cartoon aardvark barbarian as the lead character in a 3000 page graphic novel about religion, politics, and gender relations). The depictions of falling snow still are very affecting, as long as one of Sim's gross caricatures is not in the panel, maybe because falling snow is still evocative of a certain sense of nostalgia (childhood, holidays, etc). Overall, and despite the general failings of Sim's project as a whole, I can still appreciate these early Cerebus stories for their modest attempts at depicting the Canadian landscape in graphic novel form. Really, a very sophisticated and sustained, at times subtle use of nature for such a young artform.

Next time: the forecast calls for more snow
Part 2
Part 3