Monday, September 30, 2013

Portrait of a Sequential Artist

I bought a DVD for my comics class. We hard-working American public school teachers often invest our own money in school supplies. Not because we have to, but because we're doing it for the kids, doggone it.

Anyway, I ordered this:

That's Will Eisner: Portrait of a Sequential Artist, a documentary written by Jon B. Cooke and directed by Andrew D. Cooke. I was watching it last night, making notes as I went so I could give the students questions to answer. My wife was watching it with me. After awhile she said, "Aren't you worried the kids might find this kind of . . . boring?"

I was baffled. "But Loving Wife," I said, "this is about the early days of the comic book industry. What could possibly be more interesting?"

"It's a lot of old guys talking," she said. And it's true. The old guys include Will Eisner, Joe Kubert, Kurt Vonnegut, and Art Spiegelman, and other heroes of mine that I could happily listen to all day, but your average high school student is not going to want to listen to old men talk, no matter how scintillating their observations. Which is why I gave them a handout of questions to answer as we watched, forcing them to pay attention.

That's the theory, anyway--in practice, the students often listen for the answers to the questions and miss most of the context. Education is not a perfect science.

We're going to watch this documentary the next couple of days in class, so I'll go into more detail tomorrow. For now, let me just say that if you are at all interested in the history of the American comic book industry--that is, if you are a true American--then this movie is worth your time.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Corpse on the Imjin

This year I actually have some students who are interested in Superman, which is nice. Sometimes they ask me questions, because I know an absurd amount of comic book trivia--really, absurd--and I can generally answer their questions. For instance, they asked who the first super-villain that Superman fought was, and I told them it was the Ultra-Humanite. My next instinct was to talk more about the Ultra-Humanite--who was not a super-villain in the sense of having super powers, more of a mad scientist with a catchy name--but I must resist that urge. The goal of the class is to develop students' reading and writing abilities. Comic book trivia does not further that goal. So as much as I wanted to, I did not lecture the students on the different varieties of kryptonite. 

We started our look at comic books with Superman because Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman was the first big hit in the history of American comic books. Comic books were originally reprints of newspaper strips, see, and when they ran out of strips to reprint, the publishers bought cheap knock-offs of newspaper strips. Superman is when comic book publishers hit on something new. The success of Superman inspired countless imitators, which led to a comic book boom. 

This is where most of the super-heroes you've heard of come from. Superman came out in 1938, other publishers wanted to get in on that action, and within the next three years you saw the debut of Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Human Torch, and hundreds more. But it wasn't all super-heroes; there were humor comics, crime comics, horror comics, funny animal comics, science fiction comics, war comics, and more. 

Publishers were demanding this stuff, but it was up to writers and artists to produce it. Many were only barely competent, some were terrible, and a few were brilliant. Of those brilliant creators, probably no one was more influential than Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Harvey Kurtzman. You remember Jack Kirby? He's the guy I write about all the time. I've read vast amounts of Kirby, quite a bit of Eisner, and sadly very little Kurtzman. Fortunately, Fantagraphics recently put out this book: 

That's "Corpse on the Imjin" and Other Stories, by Harvey Kurtzman, a collection of the war stories he did for EC Comics in the 50s. When this came out some people complained that the stories are printed in black-and-white, when they were originally published in color, but I think they look great.

Today in class we read and discussed "Corpse on the Imjin," the story they named the book after. It's six pages long, is set in Korea, and starts with an unnamed American soldier sitting and watching corpses float down the river. It ends with a fresh corpse floating down the river. It's probably not the kind of story you would imagine if you heard the phrase "war comic." The students found it pretty depressing, which is an appropriate response.  

While Kurtzman is probably better known as a writer than an artist, he both wrote and drew this, and you can see that he's a world-class cartoonist. The highlight of the story is on page five. The American soldier is in a life-or-death struggle. His only hope is to drown the enemy solider. Look at this:


That is INTENSE. Look at how Kurtzman keeps the focus on the soldier, carefully choreographs his movements, and gradually zooms in. Notice the bold black lines, and how as we zoom in the panels are filled more and more with black. look at the soldier's expression in panel three; check out that layout in panel four. Even as you analyze the individual pieces, you can't quite pin down the magic, the tremendous force generated when you make that transition from panel four to panel five.

Like I said, I haven't read much Kurtzman, but just these seven panels make it clear that he was a master of the medium.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Cheap and Colorful and Exotic

Here's a passage we read in class today, from Gerard Jones's excellent Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book, Chapter 7:

It was a good time for Superman to arrive. The kids born in the late Twenties and early Thirties had never known the thrill of taking a new medium or genre for their own: The kids a decade older had been pioneer audiences for radio, talkies, adventure comic strips, hard-boiled pulps, and science fiction, but a depressed economy had supported little that was new. Now something had come along that adults and older siblings didn't know about, something cheap and colorful and exotic. This was a skeptical generation, too, raised on lower expectations and hard realities. The comics, cartoons, and radio shows had increased the American appetite for fantastic heroes, but at the same time, plenty of adolescents and precocious kids found Flash Gordon and his ilk fairly ludicrous. The humor and excess of Superman made it possible to laugh along with the creators while still thrilling to the fantasy of power. That had always been Jerry and Joe's special insight: You could want the invulnerability and the power, but you had to laugh to keep people from knowing how badly you wanted it.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Superman & Stardust

Errata: Yesterday I wrote about the story "The Girl from Superman's Past." I got the title wrong; it's actually "The Girl in Superman's Past." I thought I double-checked that, but apparently I didn't.

Also, I reread my blog post from the first time I taught this story, back in 2011, and was disappointed to discover that I used the same picture of Superman kissing Lori Lemaris both times. At least the coloring's different.

Today in class we had a brief discussion about Superman. One of the students said that he doesn't really like Superman because he's too powerful, and so everything is too easy for him. This is a common complaint. If your hero is nearly all-powerful, how can there be dramatic conflict in the story? Jerry Siegel figured this one out early on. Though Superman is able to deal with any criminal who shows up, he still has trouble with his love life. From his first appearance, he's interested in a girl who only has contempt for him when he's dressed up like a civilian. The secret identity, and the love triangle, are important parts of what make Superman work. Look at "The Girl in Superman's Past"--there's plenty of conflict, and Superman's powers are useless to resolve it.

My students also read a Stardust story by Fletcher Hanks. Stardust is a Superman imitation written and drawn by someone who completely misses the point of Superman. Instead of living among humanity, Stardust lives on a private star. Instead of being a hero, he's a bully.

Like Jerry Siegel, Fletcher Hanks had to solve the narrative problem of how you make a story about an all-powerful protagonist interesting. Hanks's solution was to spend most of the story focusing on the criminals, showing their evil deeds in lurid detail, with Stardust only showing up at the end to punish them. Stardust is less a character than a source of terrible retribution, inflicting more gruesome carnage for the readers' delight. This plot structure works surprisingly well, though I don't think you could keep it going indefinitely.

My students had a write a short essay comparing Superman to Stardust. Probably their best observation is that while "Superman" sounds masculine and heroic, "Stardust" sounds like a stripper's name.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kiss the Mermaid Good-Bye

We live in the Golden Age of Comic Strip Reprints. Behold:

These are the books I took in last week, to use as visual aids as we focused on newspaper comic strips. Want to read a Krazy Kat Sunday page? There they all are on the top of that stack, 1916 to 1944, collected in 13 beautifully designed volumes. And there at the base are 24 years worth of Peanuts comics, including all the glory years of the 1960s. I started bringing the books home today. They're heavy; it takes awhile to transport them.

Here are the books I brought in for our discussion of Superman:

Men of Tomorrow, on the top there, is prose, not comics. It's probably my favorite nonfiction book I've ever read.  I can't recommend it highly enough. It gives the whole story of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, of how they created Superman when they were still kids, and how they sold the rights for one hundred American dollars, and the long sad history of lawsuits and poverty and heartbreak that followed.

The third book down is Superman from the 30s to the 80s, a slightly later edition of the book I checked out from my school library in 1983 and read cover to cover. Out of all the stories that are reprinted in this book the one that stuck with me over the last thirty years was "The Girl From Superman's Past," Over time all the other details from this book faded (at least until I bought a used copy a few months ago) but I always remembered the story about college-age Superman falling in love with a mermaid.

"The Girl From Superman's Past," AKA the Lori Lemaris story, originally saw print in Superman #129 back in 1959. It was written by Bill Finger and Wayne Boring, two creators who don't get enough credit. Wayne Boring doesn't get talked about much these days, even though he basically defined the look of Superman. Bill Finger is pretty much the textbook example of a comic book creator who doesn't get enough credit--in fact, it's contractually required that he not get the credit he's due--but we'll talk about that more later, when we get to Batman.

So many Superman comics focus on various romantic entanglements or schemes or rivalries that ultimately come to nothing. Because "The Girl From Superman's Past" is, obviously, set in Superman's past, it can tell a story of doomed romance that has a beginning, middle, and end, with no need for maintaining some kind of romantic status quo.

There's a melancholy tone to these old Superman stories that I find appealing. Superman's a great guy, and he does what he can to help people, but his home planet blew up, his foster parents are dead, he can't commit to a romantic relationship, and there's no one else like him in the world. "The Girl From Superman's Past" is literally a children's story where the hero reminisces about the only woman in the world he was ever willing to marry, and how it turned out that the two of them could never be together. "And now he will always be alone. THE END."

My students' homework for tomorrow is to read "The Girl From Superman's Past" and answer questions about it. Will they respond to this story's wistful melancholy as enthusiastically as I did? Almost certainly not, but I'll let you know.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Suddenly, Weeks Later!

I wanted to get back into the habit of blogging every day, but I got sick, and, uh, a few weeks passed, and . . . let's not dwell on the past, okay? I'm here now, if only for a moment.

Since I last posted, we read the first three chapters of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, and then took a test over those chapters. The main ideas boil down as follows:

Chapter 1 - McCloud's definition of "comics," AKA, "Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer."

Chapter 2 - The continuum between "realistic" and "abstract," and the difference between icons, symbols, and pictures. Also: there's nothing wrong with cartoony drawings.

Chapter 3 - The magic of closure, and the six types of panel-to-panel transitions. We spend a lot of time practicing identifying panel transitions. They still never quite got aspect-to-aspect, so I eventually told them not to worry about it, since it hardly ever comes up in American comics. Except in Hellboy.

After all that I figured the students needed a break from the scholarly stuff, so we spent a week looking at newspaper comic strips, with an emphasis on Little Nemo in Slumberland, Krazy Kat, and Peanuts. On Tuesday they spent most of the class reading Peanuts comics, which is not only good practice for reading comprehension but is actually good for the soul. On Wednesday they each researched a different big name newspaper cartoonist, and on Thursday they took a quiz.

Which almost brings us up to date. Today (by which I mean Monday, though I'm writing this shortly before midnight) we moved on past newspaper comics, to the birth of the American comic book. Ah, the American comic book! Is there any subject more fascinating? To you, maybe. I tell you what, if I had been as interested in finance as I am in comic books, I would be a very rich man. But who needs material wealth, when you have handsome reprint volumes of Carl Barks duck comics on your shelf?

Tomorrow: more about Superman!