Notes from the Underground
Graphic novels come of age – in Monterey County and around the world.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
Oh, what a scene
Oct. 17-18, 2009, San Francisco’s cavernous, airplane-hangar-like Concourse raised its industrial gate to one of the biggest independent comic book conventions in California, the Alternative Press Expo – a kind of Comic-Con for the odd and artsy – and in poured a capacity crowd, fanning out among the 325 comics artists, writers, publishers, sellers and distributors.
There were guys selling prints of Christopher Walken tinkering in a garage, building a robot while drinking a Tab. There was the girl who glued found objects onto construction paper, bound it, and presented each unique creation as a comic book. There was Drawn & Quarterly, a distributor from Montreal, hawking Dave Eggers and Robert Crumb. Jeff Smith, artist and writer behind Bone, a 5-million-selling, 1,300-page epic of a fable, was there, as was Phoebe Gloeckner, 2008 Guggenheim Fellow and creator of the brutally frank The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and Monterey’s Bridgett Spicer of the comic strip Squid Row.
Anime chicks and skater dudes, earnest geeks and pierced co-eds, art schoolers and anxious fans were all there. And Jeff Hoke. He was there, too.
He stood out. Not so much because he was older than the prevailing demographic of those two days, or that he looked serene jammed in the bustling marketplace of vendors, but because his book and his booth looked so much better than the raw get-ups around him. His book was filled with arcane stuff, but meticulously executed, a fully realized hybrid of words, illustrations and layout.
In his own way, Hoke embodied the growing stature of APE’s art form, which spans generations, and has gained momentum in the move from obscure subculture to piercing niches in the mainstream. Though he’s part of a genre that’s growing, Hoke admits he’s still got some ways to go.
“APE is not [entirely] my crowd,” he said. “I’m a fringe of a fringe of a lot of different groups: retired architects, psychologists, weird old guys.”
When asked where he’s from, Hoke replied, “Monterey.”
Getting Lost in the Wonder
There’s this museum outside a city, a hulking stone fortress of Egyptian motifs, Greek columns and Art Deco shapes, guarded by two sentinel statues: a dragon straddling a globe and a bald baby, arms folded. Up its steps, across its castle-like threshold, lies a vast, circular lobby, lined with arches embedded with statues of seven Muses including Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry. The floor is a swirling pattern of fractals emanating from a circle that contains a triangle that contains a circle enscribed with the Latin words gavitas, miraculum and levitas (gravity, wonder, levity). There’s a front desk and a map to the seven exhibition halls of the Museum of Lost Wonder. To continue the journey into this arcane world of science and mysticism, one just needs to turn the page.
Hoke conceived, wrote and illustrated The Museum of Lost Wonder – a 160-page tour through his imaginary museum, inspired by 16th and 17th century invention, alchemy and philosophy – while serving for the last 16 years as the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s senior exhibit designer. There, he’s led the building of the Splash Zone, MBARI’s Mission to the Deep exhibit and a global warming exhibit coming in March.
“I get paid to build other people’s ideas,” he says months after APE, in his modest, third-floor apartment near Cannery Row. A bookshelf grazes the ceiling, heavy with tomes like Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical Symbolism in Psychotherapy by the Jungian Edward F. Edinger. In glasses and brown leather jacket, Hoke’s dressed like a retired Indiana Jones, though his red hair conjures an older, more studious Conan O’Brien. “I needed to work on my own ideas. With [The Museum], I could do anything. It’s a memory palace to put all the ideas I had as a kid.”
Though The Museum of Lost Wonder is appointed with pictures of kids who demonstrate hands-on projects, and cut-outs with which to build models of buildings that look like dioramas of ancient monuments, it primarily appeals to the adult intellect and sense of wonder, to a time when science didn’t explain all, leaving room for the imagination. “The kid in adults,” Hoke puts it. “I like the time period when science was personal. Curiosity cabinets filled with watches, shells, machines next to what they thought were unicorn horns.”
Ten years in the making, the book compiles Hoke’s fascination with the mix of emerging science and ancient mysticism during the Age of Enlightenment, and omnivorously absorbs ideas from Carl Jung, Edinger, Galileo, Aristotle, Buddha, cosmology, epistemology, ontology. Its seven chapters, named after the stages of the process of alchemy, including Calcinatio (fire) and Sublimatio (air), open with a full-page drawing of each fantastical exhibit hall, followed by written exposition, exercises, icons and insets that elaborate the principles of each process as they relate to myth, philosophy, history and science. The Calcinatio chapter covers fire as creation myth, fire as Big Bang theory, fire as the “aha” moment of clarity. “Try this with a friend,” reads the exercise. “No tools required.”
The elaborate drawings are modeled after classical etchings like Gustave Doré’s Illustrations for Paradise Lost. The illustrations of kids demonstrating the exercises are a wry homage, sourced to the Dover Publications and How and Why Wonder Books of Hoke’s childhood.
It’s an intriguing, rich work, so it’s a wonder it isn’t more widely available locally; Hoke says the Seaside Public Library carries it, and it’s available for purchase at his own website, www.lostwonder.org. “I’m doing WonderCon at San Francisco’s Moscone Center in April,” he says. “It’s like [San Diego’s] Comic-Con North. My audience is just not here [in Monterey]. It’s in the city.”
Because his book is a hard-to-define anomaly, it settles, maybe uneasily, in…
The Realm of Graphic Novels
A man who calls himself Night Owl reclines on his sofa to watch TV with a woman who calls herself Silk Spector II. Old friends and teammates, the two begin to kiss and disrobe to make love. But without his costume and gadgets, Night Owl – real name Daniel Dreiberg – feels psychologically impotent, and his body follows suit.
A woman and three children, all Jews living in the Nazi-imposed ghetto of Srodula in Poland, discover that the Gestapo is rounding up everyone for transport to Auschwitz. “I won’t go to their gas chambers,” she says. “And my children won’t go to their gas chambers.” She poisons the children and herself.
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A shy, Christian teenage boy at Bible camp meets a girl who shares his fidelity to faith, but he finds more awakening inside him than spiritual kinship. His attraction to her first settles in when she sleeps and he can only look on in wonder.
These scenes come from the pages of Watchmen, Maus and Blankets – comics all, but of a different strata now commonly referred to as graphic novels.
Graphic novels have been called, variously, trade paperbacks, non-superhero comics, art comics and sequential art – the definition is still in contention. Even Merriam-Webster doesn’t get it quite right: “a fictional story that is presented in comic-strip format and published as a book.” Take out the word “fictional” and the definition veers closer to reality.
The term “graphic novel” is a signifier differentiating serials like Archie, Boondocks and Superman from long-form works like Joe Sacco’s Palestine, a journalistic dispatch, in comic drawings, of conflict in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In general, comic books are staple stitched while the thicker graphic novels are book bound; graphic novels are drawn in comics style but don’t contain ads; a series of comics, book-bound, is a graphic novel; a graphic novel must have panels in a sequence, or else it’s a picture book; finally, these rules are subject to change. (And probably will.)
Once Upon a Time
The first Golden Age of comics occurred from the late 1930s to the late ’40s, spawning Superman, Batman, Captain America, The Spirit, Wonder Woman and others. It ended around the time of the 1948 U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, 1950s McCarthyism and the subsequent restrictions of the Comic Code Authority, which regulated content – de facto censorship – for mainstream titles, denoted by a stamp-sized label on the cover. From the late ’60s well into the ’70s, underground comix (note the spelling) like Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers by Gilbert Shelton bucked the CCA by depicting stories of sex, drugs and counterculture mores. But they existed on the periphery; it wasn’t until the late ’80s that mainstream comics unshackled their pages from the restrictive codes.
“The Comics Code used to be on 90 percent of comics,” says Bobby Gore, who opened Current Comics in Monterey and Salinas, which just celebrated its eighth anniversary this past Valentine’s Day, on the advice of Sylvia Panetta. “Now, there’s hardly any.”
Justin Green can partly be credited for that. Paul Gravett, of Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know, writes that Green’s 1972 Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary was an “astonishing self-flagellation of Catholic guilt and obsessive-compulsive disorder” that freed Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb to delve deeper into their personal lives and into taboo subjects.
In 1985, Will Eisner published Comics and Sequential Art, a treatise that approached the craft of comics as a serious medium, like film or painting, inviting writers and artists to strive for higher artistic aspirations. They did. Acclaimed comics writer Neil Gaiman described this new era – reflected in the graphic novels of today – as a “second Golden Age.” A characteristic is that “non-superhero graphic novels” are primarily written for adults, the bigger, slicker books being priced out of reach of kids. Their stories are wildly diverse and mature, from Brian Fies’ wrenching Mom’s Cancer to Frank Miller’s reimagined Batman in The Dark Knight Returns to – no lie – the 9/11 Report.
Academia has been curiously, ever more enthusiastically, examining graphic novels. University of Illinois professor of library and information science, Carol L. Tilley, is championing comics and graphic novels as a medium in their own right, one that can impart not just reading aptitude in the young, but a sophisticated, holistic grasp of artistic communication. Her argument is supported by studies released by the school last November.
Time magazine deemed the medium substantial enough to devote Andrew D. Arnold on a web column, time.comix, on it for five years (he signed off in 2007 with an article titled “The End”).
“I noticed more media and researchers were citing Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics,” says Jonathan Osburg, who teaches English at Monterey Peninsula College. “Andrea Lunsford at Stanford and Henry Jenkins at USC, formerly of MIT’s Media Lab, were teaching [graphic novels].” The curriculum for Osburg’s English 43 class, once shy of a full house but now filled to capacity with a waiting list, includes graphic novels by Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Alan Moore (Watchmen) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman). “We study mythology, conventions, how comics manipulate time, how it uses one sense – sight – to convey all five senses,” Osburg says.
Monterey County Free Libraries counts hundreds of graphic novels in its collection, but the rapid evolution and vast variety of titles have created odd juxtapositions. At its Seaside branch, they are classified as “young adult,” reside next to the children’s section, and are labeled with a sticker with the word “BAM!” exploding like from a ’60s Batman and Robin episode; but that sticker is also affixed to Fies’ Mom’s Cancer, whose cover depicts a woman, bald, neck bandaged, staring sleepily into a void.
A librarian at the Salinas Steinbeck Library winced at the prospect of carrying a popular title called The Walking Dead: “It’s unbelievably violent.”
Graphic novels are a Wild West of reading, traversing unchartered territory with soaring imagination, but also plunges into darker regions. Alan Moore is a literary giant within and outside of the genre, but his V for Vendetta practically advocates for terrorism against totalitarian governments. Robert Crumb’s catalog, barring his faithful comic reproduction The Book of Genesis, is an id-run-amok blast of sex, neurosis and anger. Ariel Schrag’s Awkward and Definition, poignant memoirs of her high school years, written while she was still in high school, contain detailed scenes of her experimentation with sex and drugs.
All this free expression has triggered push-back. Last year an Iowa man was convicted of possessing Japanese comics that were deemed “obscene visual representations of the sexual abuse of children,” in violation of the 2003 Protect Act. It’s the first conviction under that law for cartoon art, calling into question the artistic and literary merit and freedoms of the medium. Phoebe Gloeckner also drew the sexual abuse of a child – herself, at the hands of her step-father. It was done with detached irony masking seething anger, arriving at artistic catharsis. Could she, too, be convicted?
The caveat is “parents beware.” The same rules that apply to Internet usage, video games, movies and TV when it comes to kids apply to graphic novels. But really the issue is moot. Today’s non-superhero graphic novels are adults talking to other adults, with fidelity to their stories, not censors. If they contain sex, violence or subversive stuff, it’s usually a reflection of the real world. Sacco’s comics journalism in Safe Area: Goražde, about the Bosnian-Serbian war, portrays its cost in gruesome detail, but any protest over that is distraction from the real obscenity – the war itself.
Onward and Upward
Though they accounted for one of the few publishing growth areas in recent years, graphic novels have suffered – and enjoyed – the same fringe status as many new variants of culture have, from Impressionism to beat poetry to hip-hop. Urban centers tend to embrace these new movements quickly, as evidenced by the thousands at the Alternative Press Expo. But the creative magnetism of graphic novels pulls them into further reaches. Current Comics, running an anniversary sale until Feb. 20, is going strong.
“Adventure Comics [closed shop] about three years ago,” says Current Comics’ Bobby Gore, “so we’re the only ones left.” (He says Adventure Comics once employed a Salinas youngster by the name of Greg Rucka, now counted as a giant in comics as the writer of titles like Wolverine, Wonder Woman and indie British serial Queen & Country.)
The Salinas Public Libraries have been a proponent of graphic novels. Last July, program managers Garland Thompson (a comics fan who describes them as morality tales) and Lori Wood assembled a series of events for Graphic Novels Month, including a visit and workshop by creators of an Asian-American comics anthology, Secret Identities (as reported in the Weekly’s “Novel Graphics,” July 16-22).
“Graphic novels circulate more than anything else,” says librarian Bjorn Jones. “Movies drive it.”
And vice versa. Chris Arrocena, who works at Current Comics in Salinas, says his grandfather, who read comic books while on tours of duty in Korea and Vietnam, told him, “Hollywood ran out of ideas and turned to comics.”
Proof is plentiful: Watchmen, Dark Knight, Ghost World, American Splendor, A History of Violence, Sin City, Corraline, 300, and on and on. Coming soon: Ronin, Thor, and Y the Last Man.
“My idea of decorating my home is books.” Out of his library of about 4,000 books, he estimates graphic novels account for 250-300, and rising. “Serious authors can’t ignore the genre anymore.”
And they don’t. Former New York Press columnist and author Jonathan Ames has entered the fray with The Alcoholic, a Bukowski-esque tale of the author’s bouts with booze and drugs. Andrew James Thomas, a local co-facilitator and addictionologist, recommends it to his addicted patients, calling Ames “ballsy” and his story “raw.”
Closer to home, children’s book author, illustrator and Carmel resident Belle Yang has jumped into the vibrant arena (as have Deepak Chopra and Stephen King, while Michael Chabon turned in a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about comics). She’s created a soon-to-be-released graphic novel memoir about her father’s family called Forget Sorrow. It’s a natural medium for her, inspired by celebrated works like Marjane Satrapi’s Iranian Islamic Revolution memoir, Persepolis. “The first [graphic novel] that made an impact on me was Maus,” Yang says. “Epileptic, by David B. showed how you can visualize trauma from symbols and iconography – you don’t have to draw the reality. Another book I loved was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. It’s extraordinarily literary, but moves at a fast clip.”
Yang has chosen her influences wisely: Maus was awarded a Pulitzer, Epileptic won the 2005 Ignatz Award for Outstanding Art, while Fun Home was named best book of 2006 by Time, over Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Yang’s own work took three years to complete.
“I put my whole energy, mental and physical, into this book. I feel like the book is my own flesh and blood… I think I’d like to do two more.”
The future of graphic novels is being steered by the urgent stories and devoted craft of writers and artists like Belle Yang and Jeff Hoke, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller, Harvey Pekar, Kaja and Phil Foglio, and Daniel Clowes. But its future must also be aligned with a dedicated audience, one that’s willing to seek and uncover lost wonders, like Hoke’s book.
Abe Wilson has become a voracious reader of graphic novels in the last three years, but until a friend suggested Watchmen, Preacher, and The Sandman, he had been oblivious to the medium.
“It’s not a movie, it’s not a picture, it’s not a novel,” he says. “It has the strengths of cinema and the novel. As a medium, it has no limits; they have grown up.” He waves his hand across the expanse of the Border’s bookstore: “Every genre of fiction and non-fiction is represented in the medium of graphic novels. Even Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.”