Thursday, July 29, 2010

Are all the “Action Chicks” in the music business?

Since getting home from San Diego, I’ve been ruminating on an interesting but ultimately unsatisfying Comic Arts Conference panel I attended called “Where are all the Action Chicks”? Meaning, “Where are all the strong female lead characters in TV, Film and Comics”?

Kramer, Stuller & Misiroglu
The panel seemed promising (and had a huge line for a CAC panel). The moderator Katrina Hill (, see summary here) was joined writer/scholars Jen Stuller (Ink Stained Amazons) and Gina Misiroglu (Encyclopedia of Women in Popular Culture) who both did a heroic job of summing up the history of female heroes in Film, TV & Comics in ten minutes each. Comics writer Marjorie Liu (Black Widow) and the always insightful J. Michael Stracznski (Thor, Wonder Woman, etc…) were there and had interesting things to say but left early. Rounding out the panel was a bevy of media chicks & actresses including Jill Pantozzi (MTV Splash Page), Adrianne Curry (America’s Top Model, who was dressed in a Princess Leia Slave costume), Cindy Morgan (TRON), and Clare Kramer (Buffy).  Morgan told an interesting story about an on-line campaign to pressure the producers at Disney to include her in the new Tron: Legacy film, but otherwise, this panel seemed to kept circling around the usual litany of complaints with no real substance or suggested solutions.  I didn't disagree with most of what was said, but with all the brains in the room, I hoped for more. The fact that Angelina Jolie, arguably the chief female butt kicker in film these days, was just there the day before promoting Salt went without comment.  I think the public actually enjoys seeing a strong female heroine, but it has to be the right female heroine.  We need to figure out how to keep building on our successes. It will be interesting to see how Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is handled in the upcoming Avengers film.

2010 The New York Times Co.
One of the panel participants asked “where are the women who could really kick some ass?”  I’ll tell you… have you seen Christina Aguilera lately? An article in Sunday’s New York Times (Pure Gaga: Spectacle Rules by John Caramanica) got me thinking about this.  Here are all these ladies in pop music: they are rich, famous, have athletic bods, wear crazy revealing costumes, and they can dominate an audience (Photo: Lady Gaga, foreground left, and BeyoncĂ©, right, in the "Telephone" video). The point of the article was a compare/contrast between the sincere, singer-songwriter Lilith Fair style performers (not doing well) and the outrageous spectacle of the Lady Gaga generation bad girls.  Maybe the general public wants distraction from their problems instead of introspective confessions?  I don’t know, but if you are looking for women in spandex that look like they could kick some ass, here they are.

JMS & "WW 601 Players"
One comic heroine that is still kicking ass is Wonder Woman, who just got a controversial reboot by DC and J. Michael Stracznski. Although I understand some people’s concerns about the change to her iconic outfit, personally I’m glad to see her wearing clothes that she can actually fight in without her breasts or butt falling out.  It’s funny in a way that Wonder Woman is finally getting to cover up and Lady Gaga and BeyoncĂ© in the photo above are obviously referencing her and not wearing much, but I digress…. I bring this up because I witnessed what must have been a ComiCon first at the JMS spotlight session, a staged reading of a comic book.  Bummed out that Wonder Woman #601 wouldn’t be out in time for SDCC, he brought in 4 voice actors (the "Wonder Woman 601 Players") and had them do a dramatic reading of the characters, while he narrated and the drawn pages were shown on the big screen.  Overall, I like this change. JMS is strong in character development, and I loved his reboot of Thor and his mythological world. I’m not sure how this version of the character will fit within the DC Universe (or if DC will completely screw it up when the next big crossover event comes along), but I’m willing to give WW & JMS a chance (here's another review I agree with).

Ronald Searle, Ray Bradbury at 90

This Channel 4 News clip interviews British artist Ronald Searle an the occasion of the opening of a tribute exhibition at the Cartoon Art Museum (London) as he turns 90 (!) Coverage includes an extensive feature article in this month's ArtNews by William Feaver (not on-line at this time).

Weller & Bradbury
Also turning 90 is Ray Bradbury (pictured here with his biographer Sam Weller), the author responsible for my interest in reading science fiction.  At the San Diego ComiCon, where he has been a guest every year since the convention started 41 years ago, the standing room only crowd gave him multiple standing ovations, and sang "happy birthday" to him before leaving.

During Q & A time, people often get sort of teary and thank him for being such an inspiration. A couple years ago, someone asked "how does it feel to know that you've inspired all these young writers." With a expansive wave to the audience he said, "You are all my bastard children, and I love you."  We love you too Ray.

60 Years of Beetle Bailey: A Tribute to Mort Walker

This show, which is on display at the Cartoon Art Museum (San Francisco) through September 19, is exactly as the title states; a celebration of the Beetle Bailey comic strip, which was first published on September 4, 1950, and of the career of its creator, the prolific and hard working cartoonist Mort Walker.  Brian Walker, cartoonist, comics historian, and Mort’s son, curated the show. I was curious about this show, as the SF Chronicle dropped the strip a few years ago when they reformatted the comics page and it had been a while since I've seen it.

Mort Walker is one of those lucky people who learned what their passion and talents were at an early age and never stopped.  According to his bio, he published his first cartoon when he was 11 years old.  In his teens he contributed to newspapers and magazines, and worked for Hallmark Cards. In 1943, he was drafted into the army. Four years later, he was discharged as a first lieutenant. He graduated from University of Missouri in 1948, and then worked for Dell Publishing in New York.  He got his big break when King Features accepted Beetle Bailey for syndication in 1950.

There are 3 things I enjoy seeing in a show like this: the evolution of the cast of characters, the growth and change in the artist’s drawing style, and how cultural influences effect the strip.  This show did a good job presenting all three, and also provided some insight into the process of a working cartoonist and his studio.

The show begins with a couple of cartoons from a 1937 strip called The Limejuicers (sailors were called this because of the British navy’s practice of giving them a weekly allotment of citrus juice to help avoid scurvy), featuring Captain Salty Sullivan.  Mort, who was born in 1923, would have been 14 at the time.  These drawings have a very traditional style of illustration, with detailed backgrounds and fleshy, well-defined characters.  By the time the Beetle Bailey strip finds its mature look around the 1960’s, the backgrounds are spare and stylized.

Like the backgrounds, the style of the characters also evolves. In the beginning, Beetle Bailey is a college capers strip, based on Walker’s own memories of his college days. Early versions of the main character, Spider, show a thin, lazy guy with a hat over his eyes. Spider is renamed Beetle, and takes his last name from John Bailey, an editor at the Saturday Evening Post, who first encouraged Walker to create the strip.  After Beetle enlists in the Army in 1951, the character we are most familiar with emerges. Although the depiction of the Beetle character grows more stylized as time goes on, it is the character of Sargent Snorkel that really got my interest.  In the 1950’s, his body is triangular, with a long face, a big nose, and a serious underbite with two protruding bottom teeth.  He seems unbalanced. By 1960, the character has become the solid, round, grouch we know.
Bailey Exhibition at CAM,
photo by Andrew Farago.
The show includes social/cultural issues in several ways.  The strip ebbs and flows in its popularity with publishers in response to its stand on social issues (like bringing in Lt. Flap, a black character, in 1970) or in response the strip’s perceived disrespect of authority during and after wartime.  Three rejected strips from the 1990’s position General Halftrack’s obsession with Miss Buxley as a case of sexual harassment on the job.  Walker seems to sum up his “philosophy in the comics” in a 1970’s cartoon featuring the character Plato, who writes “Al Capp once said ‘you can’t draw a picture of a dog without making a statement on the condition of dogs.’ All cartoons therefore contain observations on mankind and society. Some cartoons are just more obvious in this regard.”

Over 60 years of daily strips, Walker’s observations on the conditions of daily life in the imaginary world of Camp Swampy have entertained generations of readers.  The show wraps up with descriptions of work at Walker’s studio, and representations of the trappings of fame: a photo with Nixon at a charity event, a mailer for fans, an animation cel from the 1990’s. On the whole, an interesting and new view of a comic strip that has become an institution.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Scott Greene: Trouble in Paradise

I was happy to stumble upon Scott Greene’s solo show Capitulare de Vita at the Catherine Clark Gallery (in SF, through August 21), as I had seen his fascinating painting Ship Shape at the Albuquerque Art Museum when I was there in February. I had no idea then that Greene, a graduate of CCA in Oakland and SFIA, had roots in the Bay Area. Above is his oil painting Expulsion II (2010, 48 x 76 inches).
When discussing this painting in a recent review in the SF Chronicle, Kenneth Baker writes “Expulsion II reprises a scene often depicted in European art: Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden after the tasting from the Tree of Knowledge. Greene's divine bouncer - no mere angel with a flaming sword - wields a flame thrower. The fleeing Adam, an apple still in his mouth, goes down on all fours, hinting that the Fall reset Homo sapiens' evolution.” I agree with Baker, as far as he goes with this, but I think there is more to this intricately detailed work than that. In a "corporatocracy" (as Greene would call it), we are lulled to inaction and complacency by our endless hunger for information (or knowledge), fed by the net, our cell phones and our satellite TVs, apathetic to the growing threats to our way of life. In Greene's painting, the "snake" is a thick cable, luring/linking us to all this technology. To me, Greene’s “divine bouncer” is an eco-terrorist, a harbinger of ecological disaster (what if the oil spill in the gulf went up in flames?) or a symbol of global warming, which could someday drive us from the garden, leaving us to begin again.
Elsewhere in Baker’s review, he contrasts Greene’s painting with computer animation, and wonders if “Greene's art makes us ask whether history and technology have finally consigned handmade representation to the status of hobbyist nostalgia, like, say, scrimshaw. The question has arisen repeatedly since the invention of photography, and contemporary painting remains haunted by the prospect of ultimate obsolescence.” It seems we are back to the old “painting is dead” idea (or maybe just "resting," like Monty Python's "late parrot"). Maybe I am particularly sensitive to this argument because I spend a great deal of time focused on comics, another art form whose demise is rumored to be either averted or hastened with every new technological innovation. I feel strongly that artistic skill and narrative storytelling will always have a place, especially in the area of political and social commentary. While we may all enjoy the current offerings by Pixar and Dreamworks, or mixed media pieces in the gallery, Greene’s works, like well-crafted political cartoons, capture the moment, and make us think. What does Baker think the foundation of computer animation is? I’ll tell you… handmade concept drawingsby talented artists that are great storytellers. Humbug.

Photos - San Diego Comic Con 2010