Thursday, March 24, 2011

Will Eisner Show at MoCCA

These photos are from the opening reception for the Will Eisner's New York exhibition at MoCCA in New York, curated by Denis Kitchen and Danny Fingeroth. The show will be up through June 30.

All photos by by Gary Dunaier. You need Flash to see the slideshow above, if you can't see it, click here.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Berkeley Breathed at the Cartoon Art Museum

Berkeley Breathed. Illustration from Pickles & Pete.
Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.
In the first volume of the collected Bloom County (IDW), Berkeley Breathed claims that he was destined for a career as a Starbucks barista, that his 1987 Pulitzer Prize was a huge mistake, and that the “accidentally subversive attitude” in his strip was inspired by dead-line pressure and lack of sleep.  He (and the companion essay by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell) reminds of us of what the early 1980’s were like: Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson, the Star Trek films, Charles and Diana, the hostage crisis, and what wasn’t there, such as the internet as we know it and MTV. There are significant parallels, Mullaney & Canwell point out, between the 1980’s and today (economic problems, trouble in the Middle East, polarized political rhetoric).  At that time, before our attention span was splintered by cable news and the internet, most people, young & old still read newspapers. “It’s fair to state,” Mullaney & Canwell say, “that Bloom County may have well been the last newspaper comic strip to fully capture the nation’s attention.”  This may be true… it certainly had mine; I couldn’t wait to read it every morning. For all his modest posturing, Breathed was a master at getting to the heart of pop culture and human nature.

Berkeley Breathed. Self Portrait.
Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.
With this context in mind, I went to the Cartoon Art Museum to see Bloom County to Mars: The Imagination of Berkeley Breathed, a selection of key original artworks spanning from the beginning of Bloom County to his recent work as a concept artist for the film Mars Needs Moms. The show is in the main gallery, and seems to be evenly split between black & white drawings for the strip, and color illustrations from his many book & film projects, including his work for Secondhand Lions and Flawed Dogs (one of my personal favorites).

The tone is set by the first work on display, Breathed's “first and last” editorial cartoon for the Austin American Statesman. This 1980 cartoon, Honky Trek: The White Flight perfectly spoofs the famous poster for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, with a trio of middle class Texans taking the place of the Star Trek cast and a truck towing a U-Haul trailer in place of the Enterprise.  If there is any lack in the bounty of this show, it’s the absence of any representative strips from Breathed's early work on The Academia Waltz (for the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper of the University of Texas, Austin). I can’t tell, from reading the commentary in the Bloom County collection if they were in bad condition or Breathed is simply embarrassed by his early work.

Whatever the reason, the viewer loses a chance to see the early development of Breathed’s humor and drawing style, and the first appearances of many of his cast of characters, Steve Dallas, Cutter John, the Hare Krisna guy. What follows are some of Bloom County’s greatest hits:  The Empire Strikes Back spoof, where the cast celebrates the breakup of the Ma Bell monopoly only to sight the Death Star on the horizon (the AT & T globe logo, 7/1/84).  A misunderstanding between Opus and a Sony Walkman wearing woman that results in the line “Godzilla ate Arafat with asparagus on a bun?" (10/31/82). Dialogs with the monster from the closet of anxiety. Gary Trudeau sentenced to hang from chains in the Dungeon of Misbehaving Cartoonists for missing deadlines (8/17/83). A spoof of the (then) ubiquitous audio cassette commercial with Milo getting his hair blown back ala Pete Murphy from Bauhaus (Is it live or is it Memorex? 6/13/83). I had forgotten how topical the strip was, taking on Apartheid and having Bill the Cat woo (or be wooed) by Jeanne Kirkpatrick who sends him a box of chocolates shaped like Nicaragua (85). This section of the exhibit ends, fittingly, with Bill and Opus looking in their underwear to “take a hard look at the thing that brings meaning to men’s lives” (7/25/93)

A 7/31/82 cartoon that introduced Bill the Cat is one place where the viewer is able to really observe and contemplate character development in the strip. Bill is still very cat-like, and is presented as a send-up of Garfield and the overcommodification of that character. Bill is not upright, wearing underwear, or sporting the extremely bug-eyed look we know and love later in the character’s development. Yet, his essential “Bill-ness” is there, you just know there’s something manic-depressive about this cat. After looking at the whole range of the strips on display, I was taken with how the later drawings still had meticulous detail, but the line work grew much more expressive and looser. I suppose Breathed would claim that this was due to lack of sleep. ACK!

The show is rounded out by one or two representative strips from Outland and Opus, and then continues with Breathed’s color work. I found it fascinating to see his technique on these up close, the hard ink lines filled in with soft yet defined highlights and shadows in a watercolor/airbrushed looking style. His use of lighting is excellent. I was mesmerized by the way that this combination of soft and hard, light and shadow led my eye through the painting.  On the whole, I’d say we are lucky that Starbucks missed out on a promising barista, and Breathed pursued another career.

Berkeley Breathed. Concept art from Mars Needs Moms.
Courtesy Cartoon Art Museum.
Breathed is a special guest at WonderCon this year, with a spotlight session on Saturday. IDW is sponsoring a silent auction and reception for Breathed to benefit the Cartoon Art Museum and the Hero Initiative at the museum Saturday, April 2 from 8pm to 11pm (sliding scale).