Archive for the ‘Sequential Art & Comics’ Category

Introducing Scott McCloud

Wednesday, April 1st, 2015

One of the best things about being a professor? Getting to meet scholars, authors, and artists you’ve long admired.

Cassie Hester: Scott McCloud Poster (based on art from McCloud's Understanding Comics)

Cassie Hester: Scott McCloud Poster (based on art from McCloud’s Understanding Comics)

Yesterday, the comics artist and theorist Scott McCloud was on campus, along with his lovely wife, Ivy. I was lucky enough to spend some time with them, and also had the honour of introducing Scott before his talk.

I thought I’d reproduce my remarks here.

Scott McCloud’s new and wonderful graphic novel, The Sculptor, follows the fortunes of David Smith. This is a David Smith who is not that David Smith–not the famous American 20th-Century sculptor whose works can be found in MoMA, the Guggenheim, and Tate Modern. Rather, he is just David Smith, a young sculptor who, it so happens, shares his name and vocation with that other guy. And, as we discover, they both share the name with a whole herd of other David Smiths. The phone directory, which David Smith consults, confirms the unsettling news.

You should, of course, buy a copy of The Sculptor after today’s talk, and immediately increase its value by asking its author to sign the words “Scott McCloud” within it. I am here to say a few words about this Scott McCloud. For he is not, let me be clear, the bassist-slash-musician Scott McCloud, or the Scott McCloud from Spring Valley High School, and nor is he Scott McCloud the tow truck driver from Accurate Auto Attention. (Thank-you, internet, for the research assistance.)

Today we will be lucky enough to listen to another Scott McCloud—one of the comic world’s foremost practitioners and thinkers. He is, among other things, the author of gripping and beautiful stories, like the Zot! comics and The Sculptor; he is an explorer and champion of webcomics and of the “infinite canvas;” he is one of the creators of the 24-Hour Comic, in which certifiably insane artists attempt to make a 24-page comic book in a day; he is the editor of the Best American Comics: 2014; and he is the author of the trilogy Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics, three brilliant and mind-opening books that use the language of comics to explore the comics world.

Understanding Comics turned me onto comics. It taught this art historian that comics are an art form, too, and that I should pay attention to them and teach them. In the book, Scott McCloud (and his cartoon alter-ego) provided me with a model for the kind of lecturer I wanted to be: instructive, philosophical, and serious, yet also engaging, funny, entertaining, and generous.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never managed to live up to this. But I did somehow persuade the authorities to allow me to teach a class on comics and the graphic novel. When I set my students Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, I know that this is a book that will speak to them. It’s a book they read and reread—a book that changes them. And many of these students are, I note, here today to experience, at long last, the real McCoy.

All the other Scott McClouds are, I’m sure, very fine Scott McClouds, but if you were to ask them today “Are you that Scott McCloud?” they would, I like to imagine, be obliged to say: “No. I’m here. And he’s giving a talk at Mississippi State.”

So without further ado, please join me in giving a warm welcome to Mr Scott McCloud.


Photo by: Megan Bean


Suffice to say, it was a wonderful day and Scott’s talk left the audience buzzing and, as it happens, thinking about monkeys.


super professor monkey

Want to comment? Click here.

4/2/2015: Hels, from Art and Architecture, mainly, writes: “You acknowledged the issue with comics and academe clearly. “Understanding Comics turned you onto comics. It taught this art historian that comics are an art form, too, and that you should pay attention to them and teach them”. Even then you still had to “somehow persuade the authorities to allow you to teach a class on comics and the graphic novel”.

Has not it ever been so! Proper art history dealt with paintings, sculpture and architecture! Decades ago when I was wanting to write a post-graduate thesis on Huguenot silver art during the late 17th century, I even found it difficult to find a supervisor within the Art History Dept at my uni.

Comics? I think I would never have found a supervisor back then!





Taking the Mickey: Censoring Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen”

Friday, September 26th, 2014

[This post records my contribution to Banned Book Week, which was delivered at MSU’s Mitchell Library as part of a faculty read-out. My thanks to Rachel Cannady for the invitation and for organizing and chairing the session.]

Banned Books Week Read-Out at MSU's Mitchell library

Yours truly at MSU’s Banned Books Week Read-Out  (Grisham Room, Mitchell Memorial Library)

Unlike almost all of my fellow presenters today, I have the luxury of being able to read you the entirety of my story. Ideally we’d have the book between us and we’d turn the pages together. Alas, powerpoint and digital projection will have to do. I’ll show the book double-page by double-page, and a digital “wipe” effect will be our page turn. Even if we’ll miss the reaching out, the touch of the paper, the breath of displaced air, and the gentle crackle of the turn, something of the revelation of the fresh page will, I trust, survive. Hands, mouth, eye… touch, voice, brain—such is the gloriously sensuous world of the picture book. Nobody has created and charted this terrain better than Maurice Sendak.

So without further ado, I give you In the Night Kitchen.

[Dear blog reader, in lieu of my own voice, I can give you something better. Click here to see a video of James Gandolfini reading the story.]


Mickey, dressed and undressed

Yes, I have heard of Mickey. Too often, and especially at this time of year, what I hear involves censorship. What’s all the fuss? There are the usual stories of the book being removed from libraries, and of copies being bought en masse from bookshops, in an attempt to take them out of circulation. (Some people, let it be noted, really need that ECON 101 class.) Mostly, there are tales of a subtler and more insidious form of censorship—an expurgation of the offending detail. For, as a character, Mickey comes fully endowed, endowed (certainly) with fun derring-do, with inventiveness, and also showing moments of testiness, doubt, and swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

Moments of Mickey. Top: fun, derring-do, inventiveness. Bottom: testiness, doubt, swagger.

But I’ll be blunt: like almost all boys (and naked boys especially) Mickey has a penis. To be sure, it’s a modestly-sized and apparently well-behaved penis, but it’s a penis nonetheless. And though it only appears in about five of the book’s panels, to the censorious mind it may as well be everywhere. In the Night Kitchen has been reduced to a cock-and-balls story. And though Mickey also has a backside, this apparently only bothers a subsection of the offended.

Our subtler censors acknowledge the merits of Sendak’s book in unexpected ways. As we are about to see, they have devoted time and labour to the job of rectifying Sendak’s “lapses” precisely so that the book might stay on the shelves, albeit in an altered and diminished form.

So let the wild fashion rumpus begin!


Mickey number 1 is wearing the very latest in cobalt-blue swimming trunks—useful for the child who insists on swimming in milk.

78662While this little Mickey’s fetching briefs nicely complement his unruly shock of black hair.

7093296881_29003e966b_oOur third Mickey is trying to “make it work” with a white-out diaper, complete with fastener.

10706318_10204982208498863_1311719033_nAnd our final Mickey has donned a sloppily constructed and semi-transparent paper slip, which—truth be told—seems only to encourage us to look further. As Sendak himself has noted, sometimes such “quaint quickie briefs are downright kinky.” Case in point!

(An aside: even google managed to fudge Mickey’s nudity in a otherwise charming animated doodle they made in honour of Sendak. We see Mickey jumping from the plane and into the bottle, where he disappears into the opaque milk, never to emerge again. Given the long history of discomfort with Mickey’s nudity, this appears to be a case of bottling out.)

I’m going to go out on a limb and state that however fine these unknown artists are, not one of them improves upon Sendak’s art.I rather wish that they had invested in a copy of the “Coloring Book” version of In the Night Kitchen, where they could have embellished Sendak’s art ad infinitum.

Instead, these additions stick out and are not all-of-a-piece with the rest of Sendak’s exquisitely colored world. This repeats the self-defeating logic of censorship, which tends to draw our attention to the censored object, rather than away from it. Mark Twain comments on this phenomenon in A Tramp Abroad­, while considering the statues of Rome and Florence. “These works,” he notes “…. stood in innocent nakedness for ages [but] are all fig-leaved now…. Nobody noticed their nakedness before, perhaps; nobody can help noticing it now, the fig-leaf makes it so conspicuous.”

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo's David, V&A Museum, 1857

Fig-leaf for a plaster cast of Michelangelo’s David, V&A Museum,  circa 1857

Stephen Colbert put his finger on these matters (aesthetic integration, censorship, attention) during an interview with Sendak. Playing the role of outraged moralist, Colbert produced a copy of In The Night Kitchen that had had all the offending parts cut out in neat circle…. only to be collected in a zip-lock bag.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

Stephen Colbert, In the Night Kitchen, and a bag of bits.

As the Encyclopedia of Censorship summarizes the matter, the chief charges leveled against In the Night Kitchen are that the book desensitizes “children to nudity.” “… If nudity is acceptable in a kindergarten children’s story,” worries a concerned source, “how can I teach my children that Playboy is unacceptable?” One thing leads quickly to another and, before you can say “slippery slope,” we find claims like this: “children are taught their private parts are private. This book is contrary to this teaching.”

It is inconvenient for these critics that the structure of the narrative underlines the fact that Mickey is usually dressed and, indeed, that this is the normal state of affairs. His nudity accompanies his free-floating journey into the dream world of the night kitchen, where the usual rules are suspended. Concealing Mickey’s nudity both dilutes dream logic, where nudity often plays an important role, and interferes with an important and delightful sequence in the story: Mickey’s progression from blue pajamas, to nudity, to a sticky romper suit of partly cooked batter, to this suit’s milky disintegration and a return to nudity, to the security of a blanket, before finally ending up back in those same blue pajamas.

Mickey's Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Mickey’s Progress: pajamas, nudity, suit of batter, nudity, blanket, pajamas.

Big Mickey and the breeches

To an art historian, all these unwarranted and ham-fisted interventions bring to mind a story about the biggest Mickey of them all: Michelangelo. Famously, soon after the artist’s death, his Last Judgment was subject to an aggressive cover-up campaign; draperies were painted over the genitals and backsides of many figures.Daniele da Volterra, the artist responsible for many of these additions promptly acquired the nickname “Il Braghettone” (“the breeches-maker”).

Figures from Michelangelo's Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

Figures from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment (with added drapes), 1534-41.

But the potential problem had been recognized three decades earlier, when Michelangelo was still painting the work. Giorgio Vasari tells the story:

When Michelangelo had completed about three quarters of the work, Pope Paul went to see it, and Messer Biagio da Cesena, the master of the ceremonies, was with him, and when he was asked what he thought of it, he answered that he thought it not right to have so many naked figures in the Pope’s chapel. This displeased Michelangelo, and to revenge himself…. he painted him [Cesena] in the character of Minos with a great serpent twisted round his legs.


Vasari omits to mention exactly what the snake is doing to Minos-slash-Cesena: you can see for yourself that the punishment fits the crime. And though I certainly wouldn’t want to consign Mickey’s censors to hell, let alone subject them to this particular torment, I wish I could have magically shown them Michelangelo’s figure just before they set about “correcting” Sendak’s work.

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind!

Published in 1970, two years before I was born, I somehow missed In the Night Kitchen as a child. Mickey caught up with me much later, when I was spending an inordinate amount of time reading to my own kids. This, I discovered, is one of the pleasures of parenting: you suddenly have permission to revisit your favorite childhood books, as well as hunting down newer books or new-to-you books. Children will insist on having the same books read to them again and again. So, from the adult reader’s point of view, there’s a simple test of quality: a good children’s book is one that hasn’t driven you mad after, say, three dozen readings.

Sendak’s book passes this test with flying colours, and I want to mention just a few of the reasons why I love this book, and indicate some of the ways it has stimulated me aesthetically and intellectually. To do so is, in part, a way of resisting the impulse to censor, which insists on a partial reading of the book at the expense of all other responses.

milk in the batter

For starters, take Sendak’s language, which is simply fun to read, especially out loud. With its alliteration, rhymes, and rhythms, there’s a musicality to his words, as though they are aspiring to song or to jazz. Reveling in its own riffs, the book’s plot seems to emerge out of verbal playfulness: Mick and Milk, Mickey and milky, Mickey’s way and the milky way, Mickey the milkman, and even—perhaps—the idea of slipping a Mickey (to add something that really shouldn’t be there).

img011 - Copy

The story is also an elegant homage to Winsor McCay, one of the founding figures of modern comics, and particularly to MacCay’s greatest creation, Little Nemo. Both Nemo and Mickey are boys whose dream adventures begin and end in bed. Sendak uses the visual language McCay helped to invent and adapts it to the picture book format.

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Winsor McCay, Little Nemo in Slumberland, 1905 (excerpts)

Consider, for example, the brilliance with which Sendak handles the motif of rising and falling objects. As Mickey emerges out of bed, he tumbles from one double page to the next. At the same time we immediately understand that, as we are turning the first few pages, we are also falling between three floors—a descent only completed when our battered hero is dispatched into the “Mickey Oven.”

The rest of the book spins an intricate web of further ups and downs.Mickey jumps down into bread dough while the moon ascends, and his yeasty plane rises up as the moon descends.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Mickey rises and the moon sinks.

Then—playing the cockerel—he heralds the rising sun and slides down the milk bottle. But where does he land up as he escapes through the floor of the Night Kitchen? Back at the top of his bedroom—a space that by all accounts should be some three stories above him.The ending of the book continues the motion established in the first few pages, and if we combine the opening and closing sequences, as though turning them into a single page from a  comic book, we get a clear sense of the beautifully paradoxical world that Sendak has created.

In the Night Kitchen: Three double pages as a single page.

Three double pages turned into one page.

The night kitchen is below Mickey and above him; he is in the night kitchen and the night kitchen is in him. As an object set into motion, Mickey finally comes to rest. Sendak, as they say in gymnastics, helps him stick his landing.img036 - Copy (539x640)Through his beautiful handling of word and image—where each has its own appeal, and one adds to the other—Sendak creates something wonderful and catalytic. To paraphrase William Blake:

There is an art of words
And an art of picturing
And there is an art of arts
In which these two arts sing.

In the Night Kitchen is both a book about a dream and the stuff that dreams are made of.



When I agreed to give this talk, I decided to check up on the Mickey in our own library—just to see how he was faring. There’s good news and bad news. The good is that no Mickey has been tampered with; the bad is that there is no copy of the book in the MSU library system, excepting a copy in the Meridian campus. So since, like morning cake, we need more of Mickey not less of him, I would like to finish today by donating a copy of In the Night Kitchen to the library.


MSU’s Mitchell Memorial Library, and the inside cover of my In the Night Kitchen gift (now accessioned)

But if anyone meddles with this Mickey…. well I won’t hesitate to summon Michelangelo and beg him to go and mess with their dreams.


[Send comments, questions, and cake to]


Spidey’s (Art History) Sense

Thursday, May 10th, 2012

It was the fourth and last exam of the semester, so I was surprised to find a new (yet strangely familiar!) name on an answer sheet.

Mr Parker ignored the first half of the test (multiple choice questions) but felt strangely attracted to section three, the unknowns. For he, too, has a secret identity! But rather than guess who had made the images, he opted to draw them. Quite sensitively, I might add.

To unmask these super artists yourself, click here and here.

For the final section of the exam, the comparison essay, Mr. Parker called in a more physically imposing friend to help him out. “Spidey take test? Hulk take test, too!”

Alas, FERPA regulations forbid me from disclosing whether the exam passed or failed. But I can say that this professor is regularly amused by his classroom comics.

Objects of Perpetual Renewal

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2011

I’ve recently finished writing an encyclopedia entry about Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli’s award-winning graphic novel. (Warning: plot spoilers ahead!) There were, predictably, many aspects of the book I wanted to explore in more depth than the assignment’s constraints allowed. So this blog entry is devoted to one such aspect: the book’s interest in the possibility of renewal or rebirth.

Renewal! Every time I type the word I feel myself wincing a little. Potentially, it’s such a clichéd topic–the stuff of self-help manuals and TV psychology. Yet Mazzucchelli manages to handle the theme with a deft, if insistent, touch. It’s certainly found in the book’s main plot, which concerns Asterios’s attempt to reinvent himself after personal tragedy (a failed marriage and an apartment fire). But the theme is not limited to plot and character development: it also resonates with some of the objects that are referenced in the book. And I’ll finish this post by leaving Asterios behind in order to consider how other art objects similarly participate in this idea of renewal.

The Rule of Seven

While writing about Asterios Polyp, I noticed that seven-year intervals separated some of the plot’s more notable dates, especially those concerning the eponymous character’s marriage. Thus:

1986: Asterios marries Hana
1993: Hana files for divorce
2000: Asterios’s apartment burns down and he leaves Manhattan. A changed man, he reunites with Hana some months later.

Little about this carefully planned book seems accidental and this, I would wager, is no exception. A marriage that lasts seven years evokes the “seven-year itch,” and in the conversation below this popular theory is raised by one of the book’s minor characters. (Click on the image for closer look.)

The book connects “the itch” with a rather simplistic theory of cellular regeneration. Yet the pattern of Asterios’s own story (and especially the repetition of the seven-year interval) suggests that there might be something to this “rule of seven.” And if it doesn’t seem too far fetched to consider how biology might shape personality and behaviour, then what about culture? Might humans have created certain artifacts that speak of this condition, of the perpetual renewal that underlies our perception of consistency and continuity?

The Shrine and the Axe

Asterios, who’s a “paper architect” and a former professor of architecture, provides us with an example of one such object. He’s just helped a friend build a tree house (“the first house I ever built”) and is thinking about wooden structures: “There’s a Shinto shrine in the town of Ise”, he remarks, “that’s considered the most sacred shrine in all Japan. It dates back to the fourth century, but since the late 800s it’s been ceremonially razed and rebuilt every twenty years, using traditional techniques and materials. At any given time, no single piece of the structure is older than two decades.”

More precisely, the shrine is rebuilt on an adjoining site, only to return to its previous location twenty years later, when the shrine is next rebuilt.

Communicating structures: one present, one vestigial: it would be hard to think of a more apropos example for Asterios to have at his disposal. He’s haunted by the knowledge that his identical twin died when he was born.

These two periods (seven years and twenty years) are, as it happens, brought together in one of Asterios Polyp’s pages:

A second example suggests itself by studying Asterios’s most striking physical feature. Almost always seen in profile, his head is a perfect semi-circle, with its points terminating in the back of his hair and in the bridge of his beaky nose. Two concave scallops complete the effect, carving out his nape and the lower portion of his head, respectively.

Although his head’s been compared to a hammer, I tend to see the upturned blade of an axe.

Asterios-the-intellectual loves binaries, and so it’s obviously appropriate to associate him with an object that’s used to split things in two. But thanks to philosophy’s well-known “axe paradox,” the implement also connects to our central theme of continuity and renewal. The paradox runs something like this: an axe’s handle breaks and is replaced; the axe’s blade then breaks and is replaced. None of the axe’s original material now remains, so is this axe the same axe that we started with? Philosophers call such paradoxes “puzzles of material constitution” and you can read more about them in a wonderful online resource, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (An aside: I wonder whether Mazzucchelli toyed with referencing the Ship of  Theseus, which has obvious similarities to both the axe paradox and to the Grand Shrine of Ise. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Asterios is compared to Orpheus who, like Theseus, was one of the Argonauts.)

Asterios has, then, this paradoxical continuity and change written all over his head; he has it in his mind, too, as he thinks of the shrine; on a biological level, we are encouraged to wonder whether in the year 2000 he is even the same man Hana divorced seven years earlier, let alone the same man who married her in 1986. He certainly looks more-or-less the same, but his personality is decidedly humbler, mellower, and more altruistic.

Chalk Figures and Candy Pours

Thinking about this theme in Asterios Polyp, and about the wonderful Grand Shrine of Ise, I began searching my mind for more examples of art that might fit this general category. There are vague parallels to be drawn, perhaps, to the world of restoration, where works have often been retouched multiple times over the centuries, and one sometimes wonders how much (if any) of the original artist’s “hand” survives in the current object. But here are two other kinds of art (one ancient, one modern) that might count as objects of perpetual renewal.

I love the chalk hill figures of southern England and the oldest of these is thought to be the Uffington Horse (circa 1000 BC).

These giant figures have to be refreshed periodically, if they are to remain visible. The weathered top layer of chalk is removed and fresh chalk added. The horse I see today, in other words, is not quite the one I would have seen in my youth. And even the general lines of these figures appear to have shifted and changed incrementally over the years, like a river shifting course. Like Heraclitus’s river, perhaps. Sometimes–as with the notorious Cerne Abbas Giant–even major aspects of the figure have changed.

My final example is taken from contemporary art. Confronted with one of Felix Gonzales-Torres’s trademark candy pours or paper stacks, the museum visitor is free to take some candy or a piece of paper. Periodically, the materials are topped up. The titles Gonzales-Torres gave to the candy pours sometimes established a connection between the sweets and named individuals: Untitled (Placebo-Landscape–for Roni) or Untitled (Portrait of Marcel Brient). Most poignant of all, perhaps, is the 1991 work he named after his recently deceased partner.

Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of a pile of multi-coloured candy, filling up the corner of a room. The sensual experience that the work provides becomes a tribute to Ross’s memory, and the weight of the pile (maintained at 175 pounds) links the work to his “ideal” weight. It has become the museum’s responsibility to ensure the proper functioning of the work, to weigh and replenish its sweet “cells.”

I’m sure there are many, many other “objects of perpetual renewal,” but I’m struggling to come up with them. So this is where I ask you, dear reader, to perpetuate and replenish this post by suggesting your own examples.

Student Work, Fall 2010

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

A few months ago, I blogged about the books we would be reading in my Art of the Graphic Novel class this fall. One eye-blink later, and it’s already the end of the semester.

For their final projects, I gave students the choice of either writing a research paper or creating “an original contribution to the medium of comics accompanied by a two-page artist’s statement.” I also required that their work fit Scott McCloud’s definition of the term ‘comics,’ as seen below.

Scott McCloud, from “Understanding Comics”

It may not surprise you too much to learn that, given these options, almost all art students will choose to make something, rather than write a research paper.

The better responses to the assignment not only demonstrated an understanding of the course material but also managed to be entertaining, funny, or moving. What follows below is a selection of these.

The first three works consist of entirely original material; the remaining four are visual “settings” of preexisting song lyrics or poems. Other than this, the works are incredibly varied in style and approach. I’ll introduce each student’s work using some quotations from their artist’s statement. We’ll start with the humorous work, progress to more serious themes, and finish on some downright apocalyptic material.

Er… and one more thing. Have I mentioned how lucky I feel to work with such talented students?

Hal Teasler’s The John Connor Show
My contribution is a short illustrated children’s book about a new born, stand-up comedian named John Connor Teasler, the son of my brother. He was born November 18, 2010 in Starkville, Mississippi. I would often look at the baby and wonder what he was thinking. Could he think? Is he even aware of anything going on? He could open his eyes, but could he ‘see’ and make sense of anything? The only way you could try and make sense of what he was thinking or feeling was through the facial expressions that he made. The use of facial expressions became a major component of my work.

[Here are the first12 pages of Hal’s 26-page book.]

Sara Renfroe’s My Furry Roommate
I took a lot of inspiration in the creation of my comic strip from comics like Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, and Popeye. I have always been interested in those strips because of their characters, the styles in which they are executed, and simple colors. I wanted to do my comic like the ones in the Sunday papers, a funny story that is told in six to eight panels. I didn’t want to do just black and white because I felt like the color added more personality to the comic.

Don’t get me wrong; I love my dog very, very much. For the most part she makes me very happy, but there are times when I’ve wanted to give her to the pound.

Ashley Jackson’s The Female Heart
The course of a breakup for a female is a tough and trying period of time in which poor decisions are made that are fully governed by emotions. The breakup occurs and the stages are played out in my graphic novel called The Female Heart. The novel is a parody commenting on the strange emotions us women go through after being broken-up with.

Stage One: Confusion. “Is he leaving? Yes.” “Is he really leaving? Yes.” “Am I all alone? Yes.” This stage immediately follows the dreaded breakup where the female is surrounded by a haze in which she cannot seem to function. She realizes that her significant other is no longer there and that their relationship has come to a screeching halt: rather a dead-end where he dropped her off and drove away. She realizes the relationship has truly ended and it sinks in quick and strong.

[Here’s the “Confusion” stage of Ashley’s book. Subsequent stages are (2) Depression, (3) Anger, and (4) Naivety.]

Mary Katherine Blackwell’s The Mountain
“The Mountain” is a folk murder ballad written by my brother Drew Blackwell, a local bluesman. In six verses, he relates the story of a bootlegger who murders a drunken hobo in order to fabricate his own death so that he can leave his nagging wife Molly and move away with his lover Mary.

The red triangle is used several times throughout the comic in reference to the mountain as indication of the actual place where the murders were carried out and its associated dread; but it is also strongly symbolic of the moral scenario the main character finds himself in: a passionate love triangle.

I decided from the start not to use a grid layout because I felt that the page turn in between frames greatly added to the suspense of the plot. I enjoyed the way the change in paper color transitioned the reader from frame to frame. It has the same effect of a page turn except that it happens in the middle of a two-page spread.

[Here are some sample pages from Mary Katherine’s 48-page book]

Steven (and Ashlei) Joshlin’s Me and the Devil Blues / Strange Fruit
My intention when converting “Me and the Devil Blues” to visual form was to mix mythological elements of his life and narrative presented in the song.

“Strange Fruit” is filled dark and haunting imagery. Originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, it was inspired by a photograph showing the lynching of African Americans. It was later put to music by Billie Holiday and became one of her signature ballads.

On both comics I broke down the songs into individual verses. For each verse I drew one large panel illustration. Within each illustration are smaller panels, mostly detail and moment-to-moment shots. Some of these are invented (or details of the main illustration) while others are details explicitly mentioned in the song.

[Here are some sample pages from the two works]

Stephanie Faerber’s The Raven
My graphic novel version of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” was my first attempt at illustrating a story of any kind. I used a grid based layout, breaking the pages into nine panels, seven on two occasions. While the text flows from panel to panel, only every other panel has an image to accompany the text.

I created the artwork through a combination of Adobe Illustrator and pen work. Much of my imagery is based on reference photos of similar objects from the internet.

[Here are two (non-consecutive) pages from the work.]

Corey Childers’ F# A# ∞
I chose to create a comic based on the album F# A# ∞ (pronounced “F-sharp, A-sharp, infinity) by the band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Though the album is mostly instrumental, each of the three tracks has a few lyrics at the beginning, which provided the basis for my comic.

For the artwork, I chose to use watercolor and black India ink, as I felt they would be good media for the dark tone of the album. The visual style creates an unsettling feeling, much like the album’s music. I purposefully exaggerated much of the contrasts in lights and darks to help accomplish this.

The overall experience of creating my own comic for this class was quite interesting and challenging, and the things I learned throughout the course greatly helped in the process–specifically, the transitions between panels, and the reasons for making characters iconic rather than realistic.

[Here’s the title page and two later pages.]

Orpheus Redux

Monday, November 29th, 2010

I’ve just been asked to write a short (2,000 word) essay about David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp (AP). I’m ridiculously excited by this prospect: AP is a beautiful book and one of my favourite graphic novels of recent years.

Asterios Polyp, Snake Bite

It’s not giving much away to say that, among other things, AP retells the myth of Orpheus and focuses on its most memorable section. Orpheus descends into Hades to extract his wife, Eurydice, who’s been killed by a snake (see above). But having charmed the gods of the underworld with his song, Orpheus loses Eurydice again when he fails to fulfill their one condition. To bring Eurydice back,  they stipulate, Orpheus should not look back until he has returned to earth (see below). But who could resist?

Asterios Polyp, Looking Back

Mazzucchelli engages with the famous myth in at least two ways. While Asterios’s life loosely parallels Orpheus’s, his romantic rival (the choreographer Willy Ilium) attempts to turn the myth into a performance, Orpheus (Underground). In a fit of pique, Willy abandons his project upon learning that a friend “has scheduled a revival of Gluck’s Orfeo–as the highlight of his spring festival!”

Asterios Polyp, Willy cancels Orpheus (Underground)

We shouldn’t take Willy’s outrage too seriously. For a start, his own methodology is essentially derivative: he creates his productions by “excising sequences from famous dance compositions and reassembling them into new works”. And then, of course, there’s the fact the story of Orpheus has been told and retold for centuries in plays, poems, the visual arts, and music. In addition to Gluck’s work, Wikipedia lists some seventy (yes, seven zero!) other Orphean operas, dating from between 1600 and 2010.

My own favourite version of the myth is Ovid’s, which starts book X of Metamorphoses. Here’s what I particularly like about it: after describing Eurydice’s “second death,” Ovid turns the grieving poet into the narrator of the rest of that book. It’s easy to forget it when you’re reading this part of Metamorphoses, but some of Ovid’s most famous stories should be imagined as having been selected and sung by the mournful Orpheus, not simply told by Ovid. He sings, or they sing, of love tragically lost (Venus and Adonis) and love implausibly won (Pygmalion and Galatea). The stories gain resonance because we see them emerging out of Orpheus’s experiences and hopes. We are asked to imagine singing of such beauty that it can wring tears from its audience–and that means us.

I’ll be thinking a lot about Orpheus, in all his manifestations, while I write my essay about AP. So let me finish by asking you this question: What’s your favourite version of the Orpheus story (in any medium) and why?

Redon, Head of Orpheus, 1881, charcoal on paper

Quotoons or My Troubles with Cows

Sunday, October 10th, 2010

What’s a quotoon? It’s a meeting space for quotes and cartoons. It’s a quote disguised as a cartoon or vice versa. It’s a portmanteau word, which connects it to Lewis Carroll, which has to be good.

I thought I just made the word up but then googled it and (no surprise) discovered it’s been made up already. So I’ll credit the infinite combinatory possibilities offered by the English language and exploited by human creativity.

Whatever the historical record reveals, in my mind the inventor of quotoons (the thing, not the word) will always be Mr. Carl Carbonell, otherwise known as Carl  O’Captain Carbonell. Carl graduated from my department’s Graphic Design program in the spring, and has been sailing the perilous seas of unemployment ever since. That says a lot about the current job market since Carl is a wonderful artist and designer. That’s my opinion and it must be right because HOW Magazine tells me so.

A few years ago, Carl began livening up the rather earnest pages of our university rag, The Reflector, with his quotoons. He would (1) pluck a quote from the mouth of a friend or from the ambient university ether, (2) attribute the words to a source (admirable scholarly touch!), and (3) submit the words to his own peculiar brand of elaborate visual embellishment. The Reflector and its readers then (4) reaped all the benefits.

The knowledge that Carl was making these quotoons must have had a curious effect on the people around him. What if, they must have thought to themselves at some point, one of my pithy aphorisms, hilarious asides, or asinine remarks suddenly finds itself isolated and enshrined by Carl?

In my case, of course, it was an asinine remark.  No, a bovine remark.

Carl Carbonell Quotoon

And so it was that one morning, over my customary nine o’clock coffee, I opened The Reflector to find my own words staring back at me. Curiously enough, the quote had something resembling a speech bubble attached to it, within which was my name. My quote seemed to be speaking me into existence. Take note, critical theorists!

After the initial surprise and pleasure had subsided, I confess I felt a little twinge of concern. MSU, where I work, is a land-grant university. It prizes itself on its agricultural courses, its dairy products, and its holy–no, I mean holey–cow. (And if you really want to see a holey cow, click here, but I take no responsibility for your clicking.) Heck, we may be the Bulldogs, but we ring our cowbells with pride. And here was I blaspheming. I’d been caught uttering a vaguely cow-phobic sentiment.

Let me explain the context of the quote. As far as I recall, I was chatting to Carl and some other students in an art department hall about the work of Garrett May, a painting student whose BFA thesis committee I was serving on that semester. Garrett grew up on a cattle farm and his paintings are of creatures he’s known and looked after for years. It shows.

Garrett May, Dillinger (36x60 inches), 2010

I really love Garrett’s work. But for me the subject is forceful and psychologically involving because–yes!–cows freak me out. Just a bit. For the city or town slicker, cows are things generally encountered on walks or drives through the countryside. They stare at you. They startle easily. They, no doubt, are gentle and good mannered, but their bull companions are certainly not. Anyone who, like me, grew up going for long walks through the English countryside (and occasionally had to out-sprint an enraged bull or vache enragée) knows these things to be true!

Fortunately no-one at MSU–with the possible exceptions of Carl and Garrett–really cared about my troubles with cows, and enough time has passed for me to raise this subject again voluntarily. Carl graduated and his quotoons, alas, disappeared from The Reflector. (I hope he returns to them sometime.) And, at the end of that semester, a herd of cow paintings graced the walls of the Art Department Gallery, indicating that Garrett had successfully negotiated his thesis show.

Meanwhile, the Professor continues professing but should, on occasion, learn to keep his mouth shut. For as surely as halls have ears, art departments have art students.

Postscript: visit Carl Carbonell’s award-winning website (

Art of the Graphic Novel: A Visual Bibliography

Tuesday, August 24th, 2010

I’m sometimes asked for graphic novel recommendations so–as a convenient response to this question–I thought I’d share the texts I’m teaching in my Art of the Graphic Novel class this Fall (2010). You can find the ten required texts at the end of this post, presented in the form of a visual bibliography.

I’ve chosen the books for a number of pedagogical reasons but, as a group, they should also serve well as a good basis for a collection of graphic novels. They were published over the last three decades–some as recently as within the last year.  Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, and Other Tenement Stories (1978) is routinely claimed to have been the first graphic novel. I’m not asking my students to buy this book and have instead opted to show them the sixty pages of the title story as a slide-show. (It’s fun and instructive to convert comics into a slide-show and then think about how the loss of the book format changes our experience of the work.)

Will Eisner, A Contract With God, p23

Eisner used the then relatively obscure term “graphic novel” to describe A Contract With God and to distinguish it from his earlier comics. Now, for better or worse, we’re stuck with the phrase. These books all contain graphic elements, though one (The Arrival) contains no recognizable words. Only a few might really be considered a “novel” in anything approaching the usual sense. Several are memoirs; Watchmen compiles materials originally published as twelve separate comic books; Kafka introduces a major author’s life and works; Buddha provides an epic account of a religious figure’s life; and Understanding Comics is an entertaining investigation (part critical theory, part performance) into the nature of the comics medium.

Most of our class time is devoted to discussing these book-length works, but we also read some shorter (and cheaper!) pieces. A few years ago, The New York Times resurrected the idea of the “funny pages” in its Sunday Magazine and for a while it published comics in one-page weekly installments. Most of these were then made available online, as PDF files. It was a glorious if short-lived experiment and one that provided me with some great teaching material. You can still find the contributions of Daniel Clowes, Jason, Megan Kelso, Rutu Modan, Seth and Gene Luen Yang on the NYT’s website. (Clicking on the names in the previous sentence will take you to the relevant section of the NYT’s webpage.)

Finally, we look at some online comics, a couple of Chris Ware’s remarkable animations (made for This American Life), and two wonderful films: American Splendor and excerpts from Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb.

So much GREAT material. I’m looking forward to the semester ahead.

Here’s the Visual Bibliography. (To find out something more about each work, click on the image of its cover.)

Alice seen from the North East

Friday, May 21st, 2010

There’s a work in the Tate Gallery called Britain Seen from the North by the sculptor Tony Cragg.  In it, the familiar outline of England, Scotland and Wales is rotated anticlockwise ninety degrees, so that what is usually north now assumes an “easterly” position.  As if this isn’t confusing enough, Cragg places a male figure to the left of the prone island.  From his point of view, as he looks down the length of Britain, Scotland is near and the south of England far.  North is south and south north.

Tony Cragg, "Britain Seen from the North," 1981, Tate Collection

It’s a topsy-turvy world, this Britain, but the artist is surely proposing a cultural reorientation as well as a physical one.  Cragg, a Liverpudlian working during the Thatcher years, hints at the way Britain is not usually seen from the north at all but from the south, where the heart of British economic, cultural, and political power has traditionally resided.

In Alice in Sunderland, the cartoonist Bryan Talbot aims to affect a similar transformation in the way we view Lewis Carroll’s most famous creation.  And he succeeds, I think.  We have been seduced by the popular image of Carroll as the quirky Oxford Don who creates the Alice stories “on the ‘golden afternoon’ of July 4th 1862,” while rowing down the Thames with Alice Liddell and her two sisters.  Instead, we should look again at Alice, this time from the north of Britain or, more precisely, from the north east of England and the town of Sunderland.  “Well before the Oxford boat trip,” Talbot writes, “the roots of Alice are firmly established in the North East.”

The argument is not original.  As Talbot freely acknowledges, it can be found in Michael Bute’s book A Town Like Alice’s.  Yes, there’s the obvious aural congruence between “Sunderland” and “Wonderland.”  More compellingly, Talbot (like Bute) connects aspects of the Alice books to the North East and Sunderland, and itemizes the manifold connections both Carroll (Charles Dodgson) and the Liddell family had with the area.  The families hailed from the North East and this shared identity would have become obvious in Oxford, where Charles Dodgson found himself working under the Dean of Christ Church, Alice Liddell’s father.

Though thoroughly researched, Talbot’s book is, as its subtitle proclaims, not so much a scholarly exercise as a performance, An Entertainment.  Talbot’s cartoon alter egos stand on the stage of the Sunderland Empire Theatre and regale us with tales of the city’s colorful history, from before the Roman occupation to today’s attempts at urban renewal.  Connecting these points, he covers the Venerable Bede, the Civil War, the explosive economic growth of the Ninetheenth Century, and the devastating bombing raids of the 1940s.

I found the Nineteenth Century portions particularly fascinating and surprising.  Sunderland–and this was news to me–was one of the century’s great boom towns, thanks largely to its shipbuilding industry.  (For a while, the port was responsible for half of all the ships made in Britain.)  In short, Talbot’s books does a much, much better job selling the area than, say, the more pedestrian “visit sunderland dot com.”

Bryan Talbot, Map of the North East, "Alice in Sunderland," page 10

Alice in Sunderland is, to be sure, self-consciously overstuffed and hectic, both in terms of its sprawling content and in terms of its welter of competing visual styles.  It comes as something of a relief when, in order to tell some local legend or story, Talbot reverts to a more traditional and spare style of cartooning.  There’s the account of “Jack Crawford: The Hero of Camperdown” (who ensures a British naval victory by nailing his colors to the mast), “The Cauld Lad of Hylton” (a supernatural yarn) and, my favorite, “The Legend of the Lambton Worm.”  The last warns of the dangers of going fishing on the Sabbath, especially if you insult a passing friar (“Be thou on thy way, celibate!”).  Pay heed.

Tenniel's illustration for The Jabberwocky from "Through the Looking-Glass"

The North East, we learn, is particularly rich in stories about super-sized worms (“wurms”), dragons, and assorted weird beasts.  So back to Carroll: And, hast thou slain the Jabberwock?  / Come to my arms, my beamish boy! By this advanced part of the book, the reader should not be surprised to discover that Beamish is a town in County Durham, just a few miles to the east of Sunderland.

One of the many themes running through Talbot’s book is the dynamic and hybrid nature of cartooning itself.  Talbot’s interest in illuminated manuscripts, in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Hogarth’s prints follows the now familiar lines of Scott McCloud’s claim that comics are merely recent additions to a much older tradition of sequential art.  (McCloud even makes a cameo appearance in the text.)  Talbot is, of course, inserting Carroll’s book into this critical lineage.  With its shape-shifting heroine and its sense of play, with its typographical experiments and its famous illustrations by Tenniel, there are few more inspiring books for the contemporary cartoonist.

Consider another recent work–Stitches: A Memoir, David Small’s graphic account of his childhood in Detroit.  Here, art provides the young artist with a refuge from the failings of his own family and peers.  Through his drawings, the small Small immerses himself in a different reality.  His Wonderland of art is a place that offers respite and sustains the imagination.  Connected to the “real world” by a thread, it also provides a position from which things can be looked at afresh, from some other point of the compass.

David Small, "Stitches: A Memoir," p.63

Comics to save your life + SECAC 2010

Friday, April 30th, 2010
Daniel Clowes, final panel from "Art School Confidential"

Daniel Clowes, final panel from "Art School Confidential"

I’ve been interested in word & image issues for all of my academic career–basically since being an undergrad at the University of Birmingham (1991-4).  But I’ve only become seriously interested in comics and the graphic novel over the last couple of years.  There’s no really good definition of the Graphic Novel (come to think of it, there’s no really good definition of the novel, either).  I think of it simply as a lengthy or sustained comic strip.  Reading a Daniel Clowes interview yesterday, this section caught my attention.  He’s talking about his new book, Wilson: “I wanted it to feel like it could take a bullet—like you could hold it in front of your chest, and it’s like, the bullet didn’t make it all the way through!”

The Graphic Novel, then, is a comic that might save your life.

I taught my first class on the graphic novel a couple of semesters ago and am looking forward to teaching the same class this autumn.  Make that almost the same–I’ll certainly be changing some of the texts this time round.  This autumn I’ll also be talking about the graphic novel for the first time at a conference.  So this marks a new phase.  Talking about the graphic novel to a group of my academic peers?  It’s going to feel like a bit of a commitment ceremony…

Here’s the abstract that I’ve had accepted for SECAC 2010. The panel is called “Beyond Ka-Blam!  Teaching Comics in College.”

The Pedagogical Circle: Some Educational Themes in Recent Graphic Novels

The clichéd advice to “write what you know” has, in the hands of comic artists, often been reinterpreted to mean “write and draw what you know.”  One thing comic artists know all too well is just what it takes to learn the craft of comics and then attempt to make some kind of living out of it.

It should come as no surprise, then, that many recent comics and graphic novels focus on the theme of the upbringing and education of the sequential artist.  Recent examples include David B’s Epileptic, Art Spiegelman’s Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@*!, Jeffrey Brown’s Funny Misshapen Body: A Memoir, and (in a more satirical mode) Daniel Clowes’s “The Truth” and “Art School Confidential” (both from his Twentieth Century Eightball).

My paper will examine this autobiographical impulse, particularly as it relates to the comic artist’s education in the following settings: (1) in the childhood home, where text and image are associated with diversion and play, (2) at art school, where the budding artist encounters something forbidding, something called “Art,” and (3) as a professional, when the successful author reflects on how he came to produce the book that you, dear reader, now hold in your hands.

The final category completes the pedagogical circle.  In writing and drawing what he knows, the artist often takes the opportunity to pass on this knowledge to the next generation of “wannabes.”