Hey You Guys,
How are you? I am fine.
Bil Keane, the artist behind Family Circus died. I am certain that someone must have drawn one of those comics about Jeffy exploring the neighborhood with the dotted line behind him that ends at a tombstone.
Anyway, here are my personal opinions on some funny books.
Walt Disney's Donald Duck: Lost in the Andes
I've wanted this book to exist in exactly this form for years and now it's here, sitting on the desk next to my hands as I type this. I almost want to stop typing so I can reach out and take it in my hands and reaffirm that it's real and not a wishful hallucination.
If you've never heard the name Carl Barks, then you probably see this book and wonder, "What makes this Donald Duck comic so great? Is this, like, an ironic VICE thing? DId I just get VICEd?" This is no goof, this book is the first in a series of volumes collecting some of the best examples of comic bookery ever produced. Carl Barks worked on Disney's animated cartoons before switching to Donald Duck comics. He pumped out these stories fast and in total anonymity. No one knew his name or who he was, but his stories were recognized for their superior quality and adventures. He was commonly known for years as "The Good Duck Artist" until his identity was made public in 1959. There's something intensely beautiful about that and it gets to the heart of what makes comics one of the purest of the visual arts.
So much of the art world has been consumed by the sensibilities of the fashion world. People seem to be more turned on by the personalities of the artists and their ability to create a scandal or have some cool story. People are as interested in the story of the artist as they are with their creative product. It's like you're an artist third and a fashion model/party promoter first. There's something saintly and noble about producing work that is being loved and absorbed by millions without a single person knowing who you are. He had three marriages and was ripped off pretty bad by crooked art agents toward the end of his life, but he always looked so upbeat in photos.
If you're in your 20s you might remember the Disney Afternoon cartoon Duck Tales, about Uncle Scrooge and his three nephews and their crazy adventures. The Duck Tales cartoon was based on the comics and characters that Carl Barks created. Indiana Jones was also inspired heavily by the Carl Barks duck comics. In many ways these comics feel more similar to European adventure comics like Tintin or the Smurfs than they do with other American comics. The lines are so clean and bouncy and the stories all seem weirder and more sophisticated than run-of-the-mill children's shit from that era.
The title story concerns Donald discovering that some of the cubic rocks at the museum he works at as a janitor are actually square eggs, and this leads to an adventure with his nephews to the Andes in search of the source. He comes upon a completely square culture where every thing and person is made of 90 degree angles and they all speak in Southern dialects. There's another about zombie curses. Another great one involves us peering into Donald's nightmares and at the end we discover that they're related to how much anxiety the women in his life cause him. Getting to see into Donald's mind is a weird and rare experience.
Years ago I asked and prodded Fantagraphics' Eric Reynolds about the possibility of them releasing Carl Barks books, but at the time a crappy company called Gemstone owned the Disney license and they were squandering it. They went out of business and Fantagraphics made my dreams come true with this perfect book. For $25 you get 200 pages of some of the most important comics ever made and about 30 pages of the story of Carl Barks' life along with story notes and annotations. This is a fucking steal.
Thank you, Fantagraphics! Your books continue to give me bright bursts of joy even in the grimmest of times!
Velveteen & Mandala
This is a Japanese comic that has a confusing plot that slowly circles around what's happening in the book. The focus is on two teenage girls who live in a deserted field and have made their home inside an abandoned tank. It starts with a dream that the main character, Velveteen, has in which she runs down a tunnel, sees a plane dropping a payload of bombs on a television, and then complains about her breakfast to a non-present mom. When she wakes up she talks to her immature friend Mandala about how she has considered running away from home, and is told that they ran away weeks ago. At first it seems as if the girls are spending their days playing war games and avoiding growing up. Planes overhead are a repeated image, and we eventually become aware that the world the girls live in is infested with zombies and that they haven't just run away but are survivors of some sort of pandemic or bombing or something. We see the girls have a disjointed series of experiences that are all fun to read and see. Things get more intense as our understanding of the situation the girls are in becomes clearer, and it wraps up nicely in a way that's not totally clear but still satisfying.
This comic reminds me a lot of FLCL, if you're familiar with that cartoon. The characters spend a lot of time by themselves talking about nothing and then having scary science fiction confrontations. The fourth wall is broken—there are points where RPG video game menus appear as part of the comic and the characters make references to popular Japanese cartoons. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes Takashi Miike movies, FLCL or stories that seem to fall apart and reform as soon as you think you understand them.
What The Hell Are You Doing?: The Essential David Shrigley
David Shrigley is a pretty big sensation. He's the guy who makes comics that people in the fine art world like, so it probably won't hurt him too bad if I say hyper critical things about him. David Shrigley is good and his comics are entertaining, but I don't think he's great. Sometimes his cartoons are funny. Sometimes they are very funny. Sometimes the drawings are OK. Sometimes they are better than OK. I wouldn't say that they are essential.
Combining one or two images with text is awesome. You look at the text and then there's a beat and then you look at the image. Or maybe you look at the image first and then the text. But there's something great about the rhythm of looking at the image, which you can absorb with minimal processing, and the text, which requires reading and then comprehending. It's a visual way of doing a setup and then a punchline for a joke. Sometimes Shrigley makes images in which time is passing, but most of the work is some sort of crudely drawn image that might take a little while to process and then you read the text and your brain puts the things together and magic happens. While Shrigley does this well, it's hard not to compare his work to internet memes. Even though this book is good, there's nothing in it that's as good as "Hello, yes this is dog" or "I heard you like cars" or the best of the Spiderman memes.
I like David Shrigley. If I met him and he wanted to hang out and draw I would eagerly agree because he seems like he's probably a good and funny guy. The thing is that a lot of my friends have made work similar to this. That's good because I like work like this, but I don't see his work and think, "How did he do this? What sort of brilliant mind could come up with these ideas?" because they seem like good ideas from a good artist, but not great ideas from a great artist. Unless me and everyone I know are great artists. I mean, Souther Salazar has done stuff very similar to the work in this book.
I kinda feel like what David Shrigley is making are comics that people who think they're cultured intellectuals aren't afraid to frame and hang in their homes.
If you are reading this I do not begrudge you your success, but I do think there are a lot of people doing similar work. Your work is yours and it is special, but I am pretty sure I've seen better.
See you next week!
Previously - Nick Gazin's Comic Book Love-In #37