Chain 8: Comics
In late 1995 I gave up smoking, which put an immediate, temporary end to my writing. I couldn’t write and not . . . but neither could I do absolutely nothing. A couple of smoke-free weeks into it, I took up cartooning, which I had abandoned ten years earlier after having been fired as “house cartoonist” for the SF Weekly. For ten years I hadn’t, out of bitterness, drawn a single panel, nor paid any attention to the world of comics. I became an obscure coterie poet. I moved to Minneapolis and published small-press books by all my friends, books with titles like Possible Floor and And/Or and: Or and Or. I became a minor hero for a handful of completist librarians.
It didn’t take long, once I was able to admit to myself what I had abandoned, before becoming nostalgic about the days when I would sit in the Chatanooga on Haight Street and spend hours sketching comics and reading Lynda Barry, Matt Groening, Gary Panter, Bill Griffith, Mark Beyer, et al. I began to make occasional trips to Dreamhaven, Comic Book College and other stores that trafficked in underground comics. It’s no exaggeration to admit that nothing could have prepared me for what I discovered.
Sometime in the early 90s, the comics industry as a whole experienced a major boom. Not only had sales gone through the roof for the two major publishers, D.C. and Marvel, but there was now a plethora of independent and self-publishing ventures—prominently displayed as though there was actually an audience for this stuff. More impressive than the exponential increase in non-superhero comics was the work itself. Julie Doucet’s Dirty Plotte was a revelation, for the jagged, black-heavy art as much as for her raw feminist stance (panel after panel of cartoon Julie severing men’s penises from their bodies). Not even the Freak Brothers were as nakedly abject, as human, as either Mary Fleener or Joe Matt in their explicit autobio comics Slutburger and Peep Show, respectively. Was there any precedent for Joe Sacco’s mind-blowing comics-journalism vehicle Palestine? Or Aleksander Zograf’s Psychonaut, which combined straight reportage of current events in war-torn Serbia with renderings of the cartoonist’s dream-life? The clinchers, in 1996, were Daniel Clowes’ Eightball (especially the serialized “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron”) and Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library (in particular the Beckett-like “Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Boy on Earth”). Fortunately, both are popular enough that I don’t have to attempt to describe them.
It’s now the summer of 2001, some five years later. The comics boom is over (the curious reader can check back issues of The Comics Journal ca. 1995-99 to follow the rise of Diamond Distribution and the simultaneous demise of every other comics distributor). But every week I discover something new. Last week it was a number of self-published titles: John Pham’s Epoxy, Jessica Abel’s Trazo de Tina, Tony Consiglio’s Double Cross, Matt Madden’s Así Pasan los Días and Kurt Wolfgang’s Low Jinx. And, despite the supposed comics slump, “graphic novels” and book-length collections of non-mainstream comics artists are being published at an impressive rate.
All this said, the present volume is not, and had no intention of being, any kind of overview of the “current state” of comics—which the reader can readily find in anthologies from Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, The Small Press Expo, Stripburger, Blab and elsewhere. What it is is a collection of comics, collaborative pieces, and comics-inspired writing and performance-documents arriving out of and negotiating a variety of disparate contexts. It’s a kind of “proof” of the impact the language and milieu of sequential art, both recent and historical, has had on so many of us—as well as a document of the extent to which “high-brow” art forms, concerns, strategies and techniques have seeped “down” into the realm of comics. It’s a conversation between diverse forms.
I had originally set out to comment on specific pieces in this collection. But it finally seems superfluous, especially given how many of the artists have supplied process notes along with their work. I do want to thank Jena Osman, Juliana Spahr and Janet Zweig—the Chain “J” Girls—for putting all of these artists in dialogue with each other. I’m hardly an authority on matters of aesthetics, but still . . . I don’t think there’s anything more generative, even & especially in the realm of the arts, than conversation.