Saturday, October 29, 2011

Eisner at Rio ComicCon 2011

Denis Kitchen at entry to Eisner exhibit - photo by Stacey Kitchen
Last week, CAPE partner Denis Kitchen and the Brazilian filmmaker Marisa Furtado co-curated an exhibition called The Living Spirit of Will Eisner. The show was on display at Rio Comicon (Rio de Janerio) for 4 days, it will reopen in mid-November at the Centro Cultural São Paulo (November 15 to December 18, 2011). It features 107 works by Will Eisner, plus a unique bronze sculpture of The Spirit, sketchbooks, publications and other materials related to Eisner's life and long career. At this link, you can see many photos of the exhibit,

Friday, October 28, 2011

Conference - Beyond Dynamic Adaptability

Earlier this week, I attended the Beyond Dynamic Adaptability conference, the second in a series of free events, aimed at helping artists and arts institutions deal with the rapidly changing cultural & economic environment in the US. The conference was sponsored by The San Francisco Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts (The San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund).  It was held at the Marine’s Memorial Club/Hotel on Sutter Street, a classic 1920’s Beaux-Arts hotel that was originally dedicated as a “living memorial” to the U.S. Marines who served in the Pacific during World War II. I was relieved to see that they had refurbished the theatre since the last time I was there, although the leg room in the balcony still reminds me of flying coach (and not in a good way).

Anyway, the theme of this year’s event was adapting to on-line social networking. Museums, symphonies, creators, theatres, small arts organizations, and nearly everyone else involved in the arts is trying to get a handle on how contemporary, plugged in audiences want to participate in the arts, and how they can best communicate with this audience. Financial survival is a big issue, as artists and arts organizations find themselves in a squeeze between reduced arts funding in general, and an audience that isn’t stimulated by the traditional formats arts institutions have relied on for decades. One of the conference participants told the story of talking to a representative of a government grant-giving entity, who said (paraphrase) “You want people to participate in the arts? People are doing everything for themselves now, painting, dancing, singing on street corners. You people should declare victory and go home.”  Not a great message if you’ve dedicated your life to your craft and want to make a living at it. What to do? This theme of inclusion, the expectation of audience participation on some level, has been the theme of almost every arts conference I’ve attended in last three years. This event was particularly interesting because audiences in the SF Bay Area must be about the most plugged in and culturally active community in the country aside from New York.

Although there were many points of interest, I found the opening panel to be the most entertaining and informative. John Killacky (Exec Director, Flynn Center) moderated a panel that included Ben Cameron (Doris Duke Charitable Foundation), Dante Di Loreto (Exec Producer of Glee and American Horror Story), Josephine Ramirez (Program Director, Irvine Foundation), and Nina Simon (Exec Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History &; author of Museum 2.0).

Cameron (see his TED session on YouTube, above), really encompassed the goals and challenges discussed throughout the entire event ) asked, “what if the current arts environment is comparable to the religious reformation that happened in the 16th century”? Technological advances like the printing press allowed more people to learn and communicate, and they began to question whether they actually needed a mediated religious experience, many decided that it was possible to talk to God without the Church as a middleman. Cameron sees contemporary arts institutions in the position of the Church, trying to keep their footing as they figure out how best to work with an audience that has endless other options for learning, cultural participation and entertainment.

Di Loreto, probably one of the most sought after producers in Hollywood, commented that he was humbled by his co-presenters, and wasn’t sure why he was invited to participate. He had a good story to tell though, as a huge part of the stupendous success of Glee is driven by fans participating in social media. He told us that when the pilot of Glee aired, no one involved in the production had any idea that fans would begin to post their own videos mimicking the performances and choreography.  Glee was a success, the moderator commented, because the producers decided not to enforce copyright infringement instead of zealous protecting their brand and image, allowing the community to form organically. Apparently, Say a Little Prayer for You was a fan favorite, and Di Loreto showed a fan video by “The Chunky Hunks,” as an example.  He said he was blown away by the enthusiasm of the fans, and hoped that his quirky new show, American Horror Story, could generate the same kind of energy.

He was followed by Ramirez, who was Vice President of Programming and Planning for the Music Center in Los Angeles before coming to the Irvine Foundation.  She presented research the IF had undertaken to understand audience involvement and expectations, from the receptive (spectator) to complete participation (audience as artist) and several variations in-between.  Her chart is really worth a thousand words, you can see it here on the Irvine Foundation site.

The last panelist was Nina Simon, a force of nature that took over the non-descript Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and made it a model of artist/visitor collaboration. Her advice was both funny and practical. “Tell your staff to get furniture off the street, when your trustees see it, they’ll gasp and give you better furniture” (this information was tweeted by about 20 attendees).  Post-it notes were one of the stars of this conference, as the audience input mechanism of choice. Simon used post-its to get visitor commentary on exhibits, suggestions on improvements, and to find potential volunteers. I haven’t been to this museum in years, I’m going to have to go back there now, and check it out.

The conference included several arts performances. The one that most sticks in my mind was a short playlet by Liz Duffy Adams presented by the Crowded Fire Theatre Company, Talkback, A Play about Talkbacks, in which several actors posing as critical audience members give post-performance feedback to an actor, actress, playwright, director and dramaturge sitting onstage. After a few comments, it becomes clear that the play being discussed is Hamlet. “The cast is too big. It’s too long. Who the Hell is Yorick”? By the end, the critics were demanding a complete rewrite, which the playwright ultimately refused. “He’s not going anywhere with THAT attitude,” the “Director” commented.  Another piece that really exemplified the theme of the day was Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, 2052 people singing separately yet together through YouTube. I missed “The Art Bar” which had a whole afternoon of performances.

I finished the morning with three short sessions by Alan Brown & Rebecca Ratzkin (WolfBrown); Linda Ronstadt & Eugene Rodriguez (Los Cenzontles); and Jessica Lustig (Artistic Director, YouTube Symphony). Brown and Ratzkin were commissioned to create a report for this event, exploring the bell curve of audience participation from the initial decision to buy a ticket, through the performance and resulting post-performance response. Lustig spoke about how she began the YouTube symphony, the audition process, and the 2011 Grand Finale concert with Michael Tilson Thomas at the Sydney Opera House (embedded below). Ronstadt and Rodriguez spoke about their long collaboration and the importance of passing on cultural traditions.

After lunch (Café de la Presse, yay!), there were breakout panels. I choose one about how to invite audiences into active collaboration. This one was moderated by Nina Simon, and included Rudolf Frieling (SFMoMA); Rene de Guzman (Oakland Museum of California); Jessica Lustig; Sabrina Merlo (Maker Faire); Sean San Jose (Intersection for the Arts/Campo Santo); and Lise Swenson (filmmaker). The thing that was fascinating here was listening to the experiences of such a diverse range of cultural producers with very different problems and solutions. As an arts professional, and as a web designer that specializes in usability, I was intrigued by the issues raised in this conference, loved to hear the war stories of the participants, and most of all, was happy to be exposed to works and artists I was unaware of that are using the new technologies with great results.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Sept Gallery View

I hope this post will mark my return to more frequent blogging. I’ve been distracted with other things, and got behind both on writing, and all the art that is on view in San Francisco’s galleries and museums.  In an effort to get back on track, I recently visited three downtown galleries:  Modernism, the Cartoon Art Museum, and Crown Point Press.

The front gallery at Modernism featured large black & white photos from Michael Dweck’s Habana Libre series, a look at the exclusive world of the privileged class in Cuba. While these were really spectacular, I must admit that the number one thing that always attracts my attention is the gallery director’s office, which is a maze of stacked art books that happens to have a desk in the middle. I’m a book loving art historian, and I just know that there are treasures to be found in there. But alas, rooting around in stranger’s offices while they aren’t around could get you arrested, so I view it much like another work on display.

Le Corbusier, Coeur Sur La Main (1948)
Pulling myself away from this visual eavesdropping, I found myself promptly sucked into an extensive selection of works by Le Corbusier (part of the Modern Masters: Works from the 1910s to 1960s), particularly, his  Coeur Sur La Main (1948), a smallish piece with a split personality. Is it about opposites, male & female? A man exploring his feminine side? Even the head/face seem androgynous. I was fascinated with the cool/warm contrast and the paint splotches in the white area on the left. When you see the piece in real life, the orange spatters look very much like blood.  I also spent a lot of time looking at Fernand Leger’s Troncs D’Arbre (1928). The organic forms and strong verticals  gave it a dominating presence, even though it is not a large piece.

A couple of blocks away, the Cartoon Art Museum had several exhibits of interest. 70 Years of Archie, Green Lantern, Last Stop Troubletown, and Cartoonists Remember: September 11, 2001 – 2011.  I’m sorry to tell the Archie fans among my readers that I wasn’t blown away by this exhibit. I have great nostalgia for the Archie comics of my childhood, and recognize the importance of Archie as a social and cultural mirror. As an art exhibition, the drawings, all done in the standard Archie style, didn’t show a lot of variation. They were all well-drawn, with a good choice of stories, but the differences between the artist’s interpretations of the characters was very nuanced.

Lloyd Dangle's last Troubletown Cartoon, 2011
This contrast (or lack of) was made clear to me when I walked into the Green Lantern exhibit in the next gallery. This long running character has been endlessly reinterpreted, yet is somehow always Green Lantern. Beginning with a 1944 Martin Nodell page from All-American Comics, the exhibit took me on a journey through the evolution of the character though the work of such artists as Gil Kane, Mike Mignola, Bill Sienkiewicz and Brian Bolland, with recent works by Alex Ross, Mike Grell and animation model sheets by Darwyn Cooke and Glenn Wong.  I was surprised not to see work by Neil Adams, who had one of the most memorable runs on the title. He was mentioned in the press release, so some complication must have happened.  On the whole, it was still a good exploration of the character.

Mutts 9/11 tribute panel by Patrick McDonnell
It was very interesting to see Cartoonists Remember, the collection of 9/11 tribute strips while seeing many of them in print in the Sunday newspaper was still fresh in my mind. I found that I was drawn to strips that commented on the complex emotions we all felt about that day without directly referencing the image of the Towers themselves. Mutts seemed like a visual haiku in its pure simplicity. The blue sky and open space allows its message, “heal” room to breathe, and soothe our anxiety. Several of the works were from strips I’ve always liked that aren’t published in the SF Chronicle, or strips I’d never seen before. I appreciated the chance to see them, and to see 20 or so of these strips all together on one wall.

I also enjoyed (and have always enjoyed) seeing Lloyd Dangle’s work on Troubletown. Dangle retired his quirky, opinionated strip after a 22 year run, and I will miss seeing it. I also remember his passion for artist’s rights and the Graphic Artist’s Guild. This retrospective did him proud, showing his evolution artistically and politically.

Wayne Thiebaud, Mountain Smoke, 2011
Over the years, I have seen many exhibitions of the work of Wayne Thiebaud. Large museum or small gallery, his work never disappoints. Wayne Thiebaud: Mountains, a series of 5 drypoint etchings, is the latest output from his decades long working relationship with Crown Point Press.  Even at this small scale, his humor and skewed perspective are clear. There is a companion group exhibition of landscapes ranging from Robert Bechtle’s photorealistic works to a color field print by Anne Appleby. I especially liked Ed Ruscha’s Van Ness, Santa Monica, Vine, Melrose (1999), a map-like view of these famous LA intersections that really captures LA in its grand grittiness.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kim talks Genesis at SJMA

Kim talks Genesis at SJMA
I had a great time at the San Jose Museum of Art yesterday talking about the evolution of Robert Crumb's career and the Genesis Illustrated. I was surprised by the great turnout for a lunchtime lecture, and people had interesting and insightful questions and comments about the Genesis project.

Thanks again to Lucy and Paulina in the Education Dept. of the museum for inviting me.  This is the last US show scheduled for the tour. I've heard that it's making a stop in London, and then will be featured in a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris in April. Genesis will be in San Jose until Sept 25th. I hope everyone will take advantage of this last chance to see Crumb's Genesis in its entirety.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Kim at SJMA

Here's a short announcement about my lunchtime talk at the San Jose Museum of Art in conjunction with the Crumb Genesis show 9/7 at noon. I saw Crumb speak about this work last Halloween at the SF JCC, and posted about it here.

R. Crumb
The Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb, 2009 (Chapter 1, page 1)
Pen and ink on paper; 14 3⁄4 × 11 1⁄2 inches
Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York
Photo: Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. From the web site
for the Genesis Illustrated exhibition, San Jose Museum of Art.

More App Censorship News

Given the issues we experienced with controversial images on our Comix Classics iPhone app, I was happy to see that Apple has loosen up a bit on LGBT-themed comics that seemed to have nothing objectionable going on.  As reported by the Comics Beat, Teleny and Camille, Glamazonia: The Uncanny Super-Tranny, and Rainy Day Recess: The Complete Steven’s Comics were finally approved after a year of wrangling. As you can see at the link and in the screen shot below, these are pretty tame.

A page of colorable valentine's cards from
Rainy Day Recess: The Complete Steven's Comics.

Underground comix have always been controversial, as they often depicted sex, violence and outrageous jokes in order to provoke a response from the reader. Apple's choices in what was ok or rejected was maddeningly inconsistent. I can understand that violent and sexual imagery like S. Clay Wilson's Head First might not be to everyone's taste. But some of the images rejected were very PG, such as Will Elder's cover for Snarf #10, based on Theodore Gericault’s famous painting The Raft of the Medusa or a Frank Stack page with a very subtle nude. Yet Joel Beck's One Dong's Family, a parody of a stereotypical Leave it to Beaver type family featuring anthropomorphic genitalia as the main characters was ok?

I'd like to thank other sites have picked up the Comix Classics/iPhone story building on the Imprint article by Michael Dooley: The Comics Reporter, Comics Beat, Anime News Network, The Publisher's Weekly Daily RoundUpICv2 and Comic Book Resources.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The App Censorship Story on Imprint

Screen Shot from Android version

Today Imprint (the on-line version of Print Magazine) posted an interview with me about the problems we ran into getting approval for the iPhone version of our Comix Classics app due the sexualized content featured in underground comix. It's quite a story, and there are some good graphics. If you aren't squeamish about seeing body parts, check it out.

The screen shot on the left depicts Crumb's artist gallery from the Android version of the app. In the iPhone version Home Grown Funnies was cut, along with 16 other images.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Comix Classics for iPad is Live!

Our Comix Classics: Underground Comix app for iPad is now available in the Apple app store. iPhone and Android coming soon! "Mr. Cape" logo (above) and Cyclops desktop icon by Denis Kitchen.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

New CAPE Web Site is Live!

I'm happy to announce the launch of Comic Art Productions & Exhibits' new web site, just in time for San Diego Comic-Con, ICv2 and the launch of our new underground comix app for iPhone, iPad and Android, Comix Classics (based on the book Underground Classics by Danky & Kitchen). The site features lots of exhibition photos and screen shots previewing the new app!

We have recently established new company pages on Facebook and Twitter (@km_cape). Come visit and let us know what you think!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Late May in New York!

We love New York! There’s just never enough time. We managed to squeeze in a couple nights of theatre, meals with friends, a comics convention and lots of art!

On our day in the Village, we met our good friend Tom Griscom (see his fab photos here), and saw the stunning Eisner show at MoCCA (through 8/14/11). It was great to see so many of Eisner’s drawings and paintings in real life, set in a context that really helped the viewer (me) to understand and appreciate his life and career. I was impressed anew by Eisner’s line work, sense of composition and his intuitive use of body language to lend an immediate sense of personality to his characters. Also included was a smaller show featuring tributes to Eisner by colleagues and disciples. Kudos to curators Danny Fingeroth and Denis Kitchen for assembling an excellent show (photos here).

The Broken Kilometer, photo by Thomas Kellein
We continued our gallery tour with visits to two long term installations by Walter de Maria, The New York Earth Room and The Broken Kilometer, both supported by the Dia Art Foundation. I can’t describe The Broken Kilometer better than Thomas Kellein did in Tate Magazine on the 30th anniversary of the installation: “'There’s a faint hint of incense. The calm that you sense on entering the gallery is only intensified by the creaking of old floorboards. Outside we have left behind us countless boutiques, passers-by and clamorous restaurants. As soon as we step inside, passing a low wall where there are brochures laid out, the magnificent work greets us. Five hundred gleaming gold-coloured rods, receding into the distance, laid out majestically in a five-sectioned plane. Our gaze roams to and fro, lingering on columns, a double-window on the left wall, a white rope in front of us at knee-height. Do not enter, just look. A devotional image with no figure of Mary, no Joseph and no Lord God. Just pure brass, illuminated by some other sun for our benefit alone, it seems.” We were astonished and sat with it for a while, almost meditating. The Earth Room was also amazing, I won’t spoil it with a description if you haven’t seen it. As we were leaving, Tom said “That’s one great thing about New York, amazing things like this are hidden away in old buildings all over the city, just waiting for someone to discover them.”

The Duchess of Guiche, 1784.
Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun
Also waiting was the Met and its incredible collection. I’ve been so many times, it’s like visiting old friends. Among its many treasures are quite a few works in pastel by Degas, a medium which I feel is greatly undervalued. Pastel is difficult to work with, but the texture and the richness of color can be deeply rewarding. I was pleased to see the special exhibit Pastel Portraits: Images of 18th Century Europe. Included among these was The Duchess of Guiche, 1784, a rare surviving pastel portrait by one of my favorite Neo-Classical artists, Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. The detail in the eyes, hair, lace and ribbons is stunning, as well as the fact that this fragile painting has remained crisp and unsmeared over all this time.

Thor by Chris Giarrusso
Getting back to comics, we attended the NY Wizard World spring convention. It was held on two floors of the Penn Plaza Pavilion. It reminded us very much of WonderCon about ten years ago, back when it was still in the Marriott’s basement in Oakland.  We enjoyed chatting with Craig Yoe, who was very proud of his Archie history from IDW, and his show Comics Stripped which is still on view at the Museum of Sex over on 5th Avenue. We chatted with Jerry Robinson (The Comics: An Illustrated History of Comic Strip Art), and got this cute “Mini-Thor” sketch from Chris Giarrusso. I also picked up a copy of the graphic novel Aaron and Ahmed: A Love Story from James Romberger (and Jay Cantor with Jose Villarrubia) and a very interesting independent comic about life on Earth as seen through the eyes of Martians called Martian Debut by Antonio Romero. We had a good time, but the space was chaotic and stuffy. The autograph area downstairs was unbearable (no crowd control, tight space).

We rounded the visit out with Broadway debuts by two veteran actors: John Larroquette, who was very funny starring opposite Daniel Radcliffe in the classic How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, and Ellen Barkin as part of the tight ensemble cast of The Normal Heart. Both very much deserve their Tony nominations. Honestly, Succeed could have sucked if it came off feeling really dated, but Radcliffe had great energy and was perfectly cast, and we were blown away by the inventive retro design and choreography. Normal Heart, the 1985 AIDS drama by Larry Kramer, was touching, funny and grim all at once. Joe Mantello, Barkin and the rest of the cast all gave powerful performances.

For some reason, all our friends craved Italian on this trip, and we enjoyed meals at Angelo's on 57th, Emporio and Il Corallo Trattoria in the Village, and our personal favorite, Bond 45 in the theatre district. All these places were different as night & day, but all good.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Wolverine Sings!

Hugh Jackman in SF.
Photo by Joan Marcus
Hugh Jackman in Performance, May 3-15 at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco.

This was a fun show! Jackman charmed and joked with his adorning audience from beginning to end, gleefully poking fun at the dichotomy of his action hero Hollywood persona and his life-long love of musical theatre. Throughout this entertaining song & dance show, stories and references to Wolverine kept coming up, most humorously a video bit that juxtaposed Wolverine and Peter Allen, and a continuing joke with his “personal trainer” insisting that the studio needed Jackman to bulk up.

While Jackman is a talented performer, the heart of this show seems to found in his interaction with the audience and his personal stories. He laughed and joked and wandered through the first three rows of the audience, cheering on audience members who brought glow sticks, flowers and feather boas. He answered people that called out to him, and remembered people’s names if he had heard them. It was one of the most intimately engaging nights I’ve spent in the theatre for a long time.  There was an excellent band, 2 female back-up singers, the “trainer,” and a couple of Australian performers. He even brought the Curran’s stage manager out on stage for a bow.

The show itself mostly worked, the few rough spots were quickly forgotten in the energetic pace of the evening.  Jackman has a quick wit and a strong voice; he’s the perfect musical theatre leading man.  The show opened, as Oklahoma does, with Jackman off-stage singing Oh What a Beautiful Morning (“There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow…”) and it was easy to visualize him starring in Trevor Nunn’s production of the show. He followed this with some high energy show tunes, and a very funny version of Fever that got a great audience response. There was a movie songs medley that mostly worked, Staying Alive was hysterical and I’ve Had the Time of My Life was great. Then it sort of took a bad turn, as my husband commented, it’s really hard for a man to successfully perform Lady Marmalade. Things picked right back up with a series of Peter Allen numbers and a very funny story about his early role as Salesman #8 in The Music Man (he sang all the parts in the rapid fire opening number of the show himself). Luck be a Lady Tonight was a natural fit. I hope someday to hear him try some Sondheim.

My favorite parts were two ballads Billy Bigelow’s Soliloquy from Carousel (nailed it!) and Peter Allen’s Tenterfield Saddler and a hearfelt tribute to the Australian outback and the aboriginal people that included him singing Israel "IZ" Ka'ano'iKamakawiwo'ole's version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and hope to catch him again on Broadway in the future.

Pulp Fashion at the Legion

Eleanor of Toledo, 2006 by Isabelle de Borchgrave
I love the Legion of Honor. I’ve been going there for so long that many of the masterworks in their collection seem like old friends.  The current special exhibition Pulp Fashion: The Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave (February 5, 2011 - June 12, 2011) was amazing. I was mesmerized by her highly detailed, life size costumes created out of paper.  The high-light of it, for me at least, was a gallery featuring costumes based on fashions worn by the Medici family.  It was as if all those endless slides I viewed in art history classes came to life.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

PCA/ACA San Antonio

San Antonio River Walk
The Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association's national conference, in conjunction with the Southwest Texas regional chapter, was held in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago. Hundreds of scholars converged on the San Antonio Marriott Rivercenter for this always amazing convention, with presentations on everything from Tarot Cards and Medieval Literature to Buffy and Twilight (and every imaginable topic in between, the program looks like a phone book!). Comics scholars come out in force at this convention, and between the national conference, and the the fact that the SWTX-PCA has an active comics contingent on their own, there were around a hundred papers on comics and related subjects presented.

panel from Captain
America #125,
May 1970
I was honored to chair a session with a group of excellent presentations. Kerry Soper's Doonesbury Goes to War discussed Trudeau's treatment of BD's war injury, and the way that war and wounded servicepeople are depicted in comics. Brannon Costello's presentation Fascism and Mass Culture in Howard Chaykin's 'Blackhawk' focused on Chaykin's use of motifs and layouts from propaganda posters and advertising. Laura Perna talked about the eerrie nature of Charles Burns' comics in her presentation There Was Something Screwy Going On: Viewing Charles Burns' Comics through the Lens of the Uncanny.  My own paper, Censorship and Super Bodies: the Creative Odyssey of Margaret Harrison, concerned my on-going research on the British artist Margaret Harrison and her life long relationship with the Marvel Comics character Captain America, as a foundation for inquiries about world politics and gender (previous posts).

Aside from hearing many interesting presentations, I enjoyed having some "face time" with my fellow comics scholars, many of whom were previously just names on the Comics Scholars listserve. I enjoyed Randy Duncan's progress report on his research into the Superman: Grounded storyline, Yuri Shakouchi's presention on Beat Culture and Beatniks in MAD Magazine, and Russell Johnson's analysis of fan culture's response to Grant Morrison's Hypercrisis. There was a tea sponsored by the SWTX-PCA that celebrated Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, authors of the Comics Studies Reader and recipients of the Peter C. Rollins Award.  The special session of the Institute for Korvac Studies was a fun and mystical experience. The PCA national conference always has a good exhibit hall, and as usual I have additions to my already groaning bookshelves. They also have an excellent tradition called "the paper table" where everyone brings 10 copies of their paper, and the papers are sold for a dollar to sponsor student travel to the conference. I always end up with lots of papers, because it's a great way to dip into other areas, and to get more detail on papers of interest (presentations are only 15 minutes).

I had mixed feelings about San Antonio itself, although I probably didn't have enough time there to do justice to such a large city.  The hotel was right next to the Alamo (it's the 175th anniversary) and the River Walk area. I admit, coming from California with our wealth of great Mexican restaurants, I wasn't very impressed with that part, but there's a big variety to be had, and I enjoyed my meals at the Zuni restaurant and the comics section dinner at Luciano's. I did feel a little sorry for people I'd talk with at the hotel that were looking for Vegetarian or Vegan meals, as it seems that San Antonio, at least in a touristy area like the River Walk, isn't real accommodating that way. I did really enjoy the conference though and the staff at the Marriott was unfailingly nice and helpful.  Next year, Boston!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Saturday at WonderCon 2011

View of the exhibit floor above the DC Booth.
WonderCon has grown up. My husband Marc and I started going around 10 years ago when it was in the basement of the Downtown Oakland Marriott, now it truly looks like San Diego Comic Con junior. For the last two years I’ve had a conflict with other conference that I attend regularly and had only been in & out on Sunday afternoons, so the crowd on the exhibit floor Saturday really took me by surprise. Although I have no real statistics on the matter, I saw a lot of bodies around the booths and money changing hands, so I hope all the exhibitors did well this year. Here are some notes on sessions I attended on Saturday:

Over at the Aspen Comics spotlight session, I felt that the company as a whole recovered fairly well from the tragic loss of Michael Turner. Soulfire continues to be one of my favorite fantasy series. One thing I’ve always liked about their books, and hadn’t realized was an conscious company policy, is that they don’t do many crossover books. They feel, rightly I think, that each of their specific books is set in its own world, and there aren’t many ways to bring those worlds together that aren’t really contrived and illogical. Personally, I’ve been suffering from Brightest/Siege/Crisis burn-out, and I wish some other companies thought this way. They also said that they have finally got a solid team working on Fathom, another really interesting and unique title.

Following the Aspen panel was the spotlight session on the legendary writer Marv Wolfman. I thought it was interesting to hear his war stories about projects like Crisis on Infinite Earths, but I really liked hearing him speak about his writing process, how he maintained interest in a book focused on an unsympathetic villain for the long run of Tomb of Dracula, within all the limitations he faced on that series; how he built the “family” relationships between the characters of the New Teen Titans and of the Legion of Superheroes by thinking of them in complimentary and conflicting triangles; the complications of researching his latest non-comics work, Homeland: the Illustrated History of the State of Israel (with Mario Ruiz & William J. Rubin). I thought it was odd that he seemed to talk about everything but Blade, but then, maybe it’s a topic he feels has been discussed enough. It cracked me up when he told us that Marvel hired him because they thought it would be funny to have someone named Wolfman writing horror titles.

As a big animation fan, I really enjoyed the Marvel animation session. Geoff Johns started with a tease of the upcoming Ultimate Spiderman series, which looked really good and continued with a full episode of The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (trailer here), which featured the birth of Ultron. It rocked, the audience loved it. Next we saw clips from the anime series Marvel is rolling out starting this July on the G4 Network, starting with Iron Man and Wolverine (trailer here, in Japanese), with the X-Men and Blade in the works. I’m looking forward to seeing more of these. Iron Man and Wolverine seemed like a natural fit with the anime style of drawing and editing, especially Wolverine, who has had so many epic story arcs set in Japan.

Godzilla #1, WonderCon Exclusive
I’m really excited about IDW’s relaunch of Godzilla. I was always disappointed that the Godzilla series published by Dark Horse a few years ago never seemed to find an audience (I own several pieces of original art from that series). It sounds like IDW has established a good relationship with Toho, and has been able to license a dozen of the major monsters in the Godzilla universe (Mothra, Rodan, etc). The art, by Phil Hester, Victor Santos and others really captured the scale, mystery, and kookiness of Godzilla.

Otherwise, we bought lots of books. I was happy to find one of current favorite artists, Marko Djurdjevic, sketching completely unnoticed at the Marvel booth. Marc was happy to catch up with Darick Roberson at the Comic Outpost booth and get an original Witchblade cover drawing from him. I’m sorry to miss the Sunday panel organized by Trina Robbins and Jennifer K. Stuller, A Brief Herstory of Gum Shoe Gals, Spy-Fi Sheroes, and Private Dick Chicks, as it grew in response to the somewhat uneven Action Chicks panel at SDCC last year. I hope it went well, and they repeat it in SDCC this summer.

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).

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Eisner, Jefferson & the City

MoCCA poster

Will Eisner’s New York: From The Spirit to the Modern Graphic Novel (March 1- June 30th 2011) . MoCCA NY,Curated by Denis Kitchen and Danny Fingeroth.

To Eisner's famous 1940's superhero The Spirit, Central City (a thinly veiled version of New York) was as much a character as any of the humans portrayed. The hero, Denny Colt thought of the city almost as a lover, a nurturing entity that would provide for his needs, even though it was clear that there were villains lurking in the shadows. The life force of New York became even more of a focus when Eisner, inspired by the uncensored and often autobiographical work of the underground cartoonists, leaped into autobiography himself in 1978 with A Contract With God. With this book, Eisner reinvented his career, and in the process became one of the pioneers that helped shape the graphic novel.

Eisner's work is often moody and atmospheric. The emotional landscape of his characters are defined by the sun, the rain, the wind, and the mood on the street. The work is filled with lush historical landscapes and gritty urban neighborhoods. The Dropsie Avenue (Bronx) saga tells the story of how the lives of several generations are shaped by their environment between 1870 and the 1990's.  Eisner begins and ends the story with idealized landscapes- farms & gardens, but the beauty found there is always interrupted by the highs and lows of the people who live there. As the story follows the lives in the neighborhood from farm to high class home to slum, crack house and back to the garden again, Eisner's view changes from wide open spaces to dark, narrow streets and interiors. Even though the neighborhood returns to affordable housing and a community garden at the end, it's clear that it won't last for long.

Eisner doesn't take the contrast to the extreme some authors do, but this idea of the idealized, pure country and the demonization of the dark, evil city has been on my mind lately. In real life, good and bad both happen everywhere, yet there's the myth of the wise, happy rural countryside.  It's an idea that has been with us since the parable of the country mouse and the city mouse in Aesop's Fables, but it seems like a myth that holds a strong attraction for many Americans. Even the "Happy Cows of California" milk commercials have their roots in this concept.

Jeffery K. Johnson suggests that this idea of the idealized rural life may have taken hold through the writings of Thomas Jefferson and his concept of the yeoman farmer.  In Johnson's article The Countryside Triumphant: Jefferson's Ideal of Rural Superiority and the Modern Superhero Mythology (2010), he describes Jefferson's almost Apocalyptic disgust with the industrial centers of Europe and his belief in the virtues of a rural landscape populated by wise gentleman farmers.  Johnson points out the many ways that this notion has been enshrined in popular culture, and ultimately uses the contrasting examples of Superman and Batman to make his point. Batman lives in the dark shadows of Gotham City, driven by the idea of indirectly avenging his parent's murder in a dark alley. Superman's positive outlook is formed by the home-spun values instilled in him by his adopted parents, the Kents, and he seems to carry an idealized Kansas within him, no matter how dark things seem.

It's this subtext, the yeoman farmer myth, that Eisner masterfully plays with and against in his characterization of the life cycle of a Bronx neighborhood. The young bride who ultimately returns to save the neighborhood, is given 2 acres of land in Winchester for a garden/farm as her wedding gift.  As the neighborhood grows darker and more violent over time, the contrast with the idealized "other place" outside of the city is always under the surface. Only New York provides a canvas big enough to fully explore the dramatic lives of Eisner's characters.

In The Mood by Jules Feiffer, 2011
The MoCCA show will include much of Eisner's autobiographical work, and will be enhanced by a companion show that displays work by artists influenced by Eisner, including Neal Adams, Sergio Aragones, Terry Beatty, Nick Cardy, Darwyn Cooke, Eric Drooker, Jules Feiffer, Michael T. Gilbert, Dean Haspiel, Al Jaffee, Klaus Janson, Jack Kirby, Denis Kitchen, Joe Kubert, Peter Kuper, Harvey Kurtzman, Batton Lash, Steve Leialoha, Michael Avon Oeming, Peter Poplaski, Joe Quesada, Paul Rivoche, Trina Robbins, Jerry Robinson, Stan Sakai, Mark Schultz R. Sikoryak, Art Spiegelman, Wally Wood and Steve Ditko..

Comics in ArtNews

While checking out the March issue of ArtNews this morning (the photography issue), I was pleasantly surprised to see a couple of short reviews of comics.  Even though comic art has slowly worked its way into the museum world, I am painfully aware that it still has a long way to go.  It was nice to see mention of these graphic novels in ArtNews, a mainstream art magazine who would have never thought comics worth mentioning ten years ago.

The art world, ever narcissistic, prefers to hear about comics that mirror and comment on the concerns, habits and stereotypical people found in museums and art world culture. It seems almost myopic in the case of  The Cardboard Valise, the first book published in ten years by Ben Katchor,which is really about the much larger topic of society’s attitudes about diversity and world culture. Katchor’s black & white, edgy people populate a vast landscape of familiar yet imaginary cities.  When the main character visits a museum (this is the section the review focuses on), Katchor tells us “not to take cultural artifacts too seriously,” by showing us a panel of a young curator from the “Museum of Accidental Art” who insists on taking the character’s pants because they have the “perfect disposition of napkin lint on navy-blue pants; they must be purchased by the state, but belong to posterity.” The ArtNews review is not on-line at this time, but you can see Katchor’s work here & here. Design-wise, I also think it's perfect that the book actually comes in the form of a cardboard valise.
The second book featured is Pablo Helguera's Artoons 3, the latest in a series that lampoons pretty much everything about the art world and museum culture.  Helguera works in the education department of MoMA, and I enjoy his inside view of things. In one panel he shows an archeologist scrutinizing a stone tablet, who turns to his assistant and says "The text is incomprehensible... it must an exhibition catalogue."   He also created a very funny spoof of the classic Chicago Style Manual called The Paulo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style. Hellguera also has an active and cartoon filled page dedicated to his Artoons on facebook.

Erro. The Tank Girl is behind him.
Also of interest to comics fans are two full page ads by the gallery representing the Icelandic artist Erro, who has been controversial for his too-close-for comfort appropriation of one of Brian Bolland's Tank Girl covers, and an exhibition review of two shows that explore Hello Kitty, and the Japanese craze for the kawaii (cute) esthetic.