Monthly Archives: March 2010

Cartoons From the Other White River

My partner Dennis and I just spent a few days in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rain Forest (the only tropical rain forest in the USA!)  I thought comics would be the last thing on my mind.  Then I read our driving directions, and things got interesting.

There’s  our exit.  Of course, Rio Blanco means “White River”.  Sadly, Juncos does not mean Junction (it means “Reed”, and is the name of a near-by town).

We spent the next two days exploring the rainforest near the Rio Blanco.  We climbed its rocks and swam under its waterfalls.

 And, we discovered its ancient and mysterious cartoons.

Carved into the rocks of the Rio Blanco are petroglyphs created by the Taíno indians in the pre-Columbian era.  No one knows what they mean (not even Wikipedia).

How many other White Rivers have a cartoon legacy?  Let the search begin!

– Robyn Chapman

L’employé du Moi

The Schulz Library just got a whole slew of books from Belgian publisher l’employé du Moi.  Granted I cannot read the text but they sure look beautiful.  We acquired these books following a recent exhibition of work from l’employé du Moi artists put together by l’employé du Moi member and the current CCS fellow, Max de Radiqués.  Max is the creator of Antti Brysselissa and Jaques Delwitte.  I hope that someday these books will be translated or that I learn some french.  Better yet, I’ll get Max to translate them to me.

Click here to see pictures of the Exhibition.

-Chuck

Milton Caniff’s Male Call

Many men and women were unable to participate in World War II due to physical maladies like Little Abner’s one-legged creator Al Capp. Cartoonist Milton Caniff was also unable to defend his country and saw this as an opportunity to donate his time and wit back to those on the warfront. Caniff visited veterans to appropriate true stories of base camp antics and learn GI slang for his army strip, Male Call. While most of world remembers Caniff for his Steve Canyon or Terry and the Pirates strips, he sticks out in my mind for his saucy WWII strip starring one Miss Lace and many, many, many lonely GIs.

Click the strip to see a legible version!

Miss Lace represented the ideal 1940’s woman back home, curvy and innocent, skillful yet would let a man be a man. She was the pin-up girl from your pack of cigs right in front of you. The part of me that really enjoys this strip believes it could have only existed during the time it was created, 1942-1946. Male Call of the War of 1812 might not have been as successful although I definitely would have read it but I digress. Equipped with brains and looks, Caniff also made sure that his sexy personification of home could throw a hell of a punch too.

Embodying the maternal aspect as well, Miss Lace would occasionally give a homesick GI a bit of home cookin’. She would do so wearing her hot-to-trot gowns, which amuses me to no end.

We know Caniff could paint a pretty picture using merely a brush, black ink and white paper. It is his strips that go beyond that which truly entertain us. These hidden gems include the How-To strips such as how to make hats out of surplus equipment:

Are you feeling nostalgic or perhaps just wish to gaze upon some of the most well drawn-panels of American war cartooning? If so, do not hesitate to pick up a copy of Kitchen Sink Press’ release of Male Call (or the much older Simon and Schuster version) should you find one at your local library sale or used book store!

-Jen Vaughn

In the Shadows with Jeff Smith’s RASL

Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known).  Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history.  They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.

Today’s essay is by Josh Kramer.  Enjoy!

– Robyn Chapman


In the Shadows with Jeff Smith’s RASL

 by Josh Kramer

Jeff Smith is of course the cartoonist responsible for Bone. Smith describes this 13-year work as his love poem to Donald Duck, Walt Kelly’s Pogo, and classic Disney animation. Smith’s Cartoon Books was heralded as one of the pillars of self-publishing throughout the 1990s, and the series lives on in a complete 1,332-page one-volume collection and in color versions published by Scholastic. In the nearly twenty years since Bone began, it has gone on to become a canonical work, especially for young readers.

Now, Smith works to escape shadow of Bone without abandoning his readers. While inking some of the last issues of Bone in 2000, Smith watched movies like The Bourne Identity, and began thinking about drawing action-filled sequences set in modern times. He wanted to do a new long comics project that was the anti-Bone. In interviews, Smith has described wanting to do an “adult book” that could have, among other things, drinking, smoking, and sex in it.


And indeed, Smith’s current title is decidedly unlike the work he is best known for. RASL is a story about an inter-dimensional art thief, who uses technology he has invented to jump back and forth stealing the same paintings from different dimensions. He is a scientist who talks with a Raymond Chandler narration. But the titular character is no Humphrey Bogart; his girlfriend is a prostitute and he gambles and drinks away all his money. Smith combines a love of psychics and fringe science with a love of noir storytelling and aesthetics. Two questions loom over this work: Would a rotten character work in the lead part? And, would Smith be successful with another long-running title so different from Bone?

In regards to the first question, Smith’s protagonist works extremely well as a mysterious anti-hero. There’s nothing “normal” about Rasl, but he is instantly relatable. In terms of genre, Smith somehow manages to make fringe science and detective fiction fit together brilliantly with a splash of Native American myth. The uncertainty of quantum mechanics jives perfectly with detective-style narration. This isn’t classic noir where there’s some big mystery that the reader is being distracted from by incomprehensible twists and turns. However, it keeps to the genre in that more and more is revealed as the story progresses, now well into inventor Nicola Tesla’s crazy biography. Smith is currently working on RASL number seven, and so far issue number five stands out as the best. Tangential elements of the plot come together, and the story really begins to make sense.


Beyond the basic story there are fascinating things going on under the surface. Rasl uses thermo-magnetic engines to travel in “the drift.” This is a painful process and it takes days for him to recover. To return to a specific plane, he has to bring his focus to “zen perfection.” Perhaps Rasl’s flight between two extremes is a metaphoric representation of Smith’s own artistic struggle. Smith also employs a very successful narrative device of cutting up a sequence with other panels, like a stone falling into water or a “man in the maze” symbol.


Even more interesting to me are the changes taking place in Jeff Smith’s art. One of the key elements of noir style is of course, noir. While Bone had plenty of spot blacks, RASL may be more black overall—rich with the contrast of the Arizona landscape. Perhaps the southwest setting is a tribute to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, of which Smith read heavily at the Ohio State University library as a young cartoonist. In fact, comics-heads might be interested to know that Smith now uses some of Milton Canniff’s own brushes that were given to him by the OSU library. Everything else is drawn in blue pencil and inked with a Winsor Newton Series Seven size one brush.

And it’s those tiny details drawn with that tiny brush that make this a Jeff Smith comic. Just as Smith traveled to Nepal to sketch and study Katmandu as a model for the city of Atheia towards the end of Bone, Smith’s research in RASL is apparent. Because all of the parts of the story, even the more sci-fi elements, are presented plausibly, nothing distracts and pulls the reader out of the narrative. Smith cites his influences for RASL as movies like Blade Runner and books like those by Arthur C. Clark, where the stories tend to transcend normal genre conventions.

As for the question of success, the first issue of RASL sold 20,000 copies when it debuted in February 2008. It’s hard to put this number is perspective, but it still seems affirmative in the context of contemporary direct market sales. Smith originally planned for RASL to last only three years. However, after writing three issues a year for 2008 and into 2009, Smith announced on his blog in May 2009 that beginning with RASL number five, the book would be 24 instead of 22 pages. Also, starting with number six, Smith changed to a “bimonthly” or “at least five times a year” schedule.

Every incarnation of Bone seems to get either smaller or more colorful. Because of this, Smith had wanted to print the individual issues of RASL at a larger size, but retailers warned him not to, so it has been printed at normal comic book size from the beginning. However, the paperback collections will be nearly twice-up at 10 inches by 14 inches. The first six issues and the oversize collection of issues one through four—called The Drift—are available wherever comics are sold or through Cartoon Books on Boneville.com

– Josh Kramer

Note: Information for this post was taken from interviews in the posts and podcasts of Indie Spinner Rack, Comixology, iFanboy, The Electric Playground, SDCC’s Panels message board, and last year’s graduation ceremony of The Center for Cartoon Studies.

A Hole Only a Cat Could Fill

We used to have a hole in our collection.  A hole that was deep.  A hole that ached the most on MONDAYS.But then a gift was left on our doorstep during the dark of night by a man named Steve Bissette.

And now we feel so complete.Now all the cats are scratching to get in.

-chuck forsman

Steve Ditko and Mr. A.

Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known).  Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history.  They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.

Today’s essay is by Pat Barrett.  Enjoy!

-Robyn Chapman

Steve Ditko and Mr. A.

by Pat Barrett

Mr. A, a creator-owned character of uncompromising principle who appeared from the late ‘sixties through the ‘seveties, is often cited as an example of an artist’s principals getting in the way of his art. It’s true that Mr. A. comics are a much less entertaining read than the Stan Lee penned adventures of Steve Ditko’s prime years. (Together, Ditko and Lee created the timeless characters,  stories and universes of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange.) On the other hand, many fans of Ditko, the master craftsman, prefer to ignore the cranky ranting all over Mr. A’s pages, and to view the work only as stunning examples of elegant page design and expert visual storytelling. 

But really, there’s no separating this art from the artist. Ditko’s command of the medium bursts forth because of the passion he is committing to his singular vision. Even though it sees itself as straight and narrow, that vision is as twisted and weird as Ditko’s unique faces, compositions, costumes and dreamscapes.  Which is what makes these comics so compelling.

Ditko had sharpened his teeth on monster comics for Charlton and Marvel before bringing his unique sense of angst and dread into the land of super heroics. His character’s faces are often caught in grotesque grimaces, fraught with emotion, and their hands are gnarled and twisted, pinkies thrusting out while middle and pointer-fingers jab down. These seething, tortured souls helped the Marvel “House of Ideas” unleash a new level of complexity into the goings-on of a formulaic kids’ genre.

He had a falling-out with Marvel, and returned to Charlton, the publisher with a tight fist around its money and a loose grip on its editorial reins. It was then that Ditko created The Question, a journalist-vigilante who wears a trench coat, fedora, and some sort of flesh-colored mask that completely obscures his facial characteristics. This hero was ruthless with villains, and punished crime wherever he encountered it. He saw his actions as just to a point of perfection, following Randian principles of unfailing objective logic, and acting as a uniquely qualified (and self-appointed) dispenser of virtue.


But The Question was only a warm-up. In an interview with the fanzine Marvel Main, Ditko explained, “I didn’t want to do Mr. A, because I didn’t think the Code would let me do the type of stories I wanted to do, so I worked up the Question, using the basic idea of a man who was motivated by basic black & white principles.” Not about to make it in the colorful pages on the newsstands, Mr. A. was appropriately destined for a life in black & white underground comics.

Mr. A. debuted in 1967, in the third issue of Witzend, a collection of more artistically fulfilling side projects by mainstream comics professionals led by Wally Wood. In his very first panel, the Objectivist hero addresses his readers directly, stating his case that in moral life, there are no shades of gray, only evil or good, black or white. The hero stares at us, blank, emotionless. There’s a montage around him showing that his calm face is actually a metal mask, and that evil is truly disgusting. At the story’s end, Mr. A. beats up a nasty juvenile delinquent, ironically named Angel, and then allows the kid to fall to his death from a city rooftop. Mr. A. explains that he feels no remorse for this act, and proclaims that to pity the murderous teenager would be to abuse the avenger’s emotions. As Ditko put it, “Where other “heroes” powers are based on some accidental super element, The Question and Mr A’s “power” is deliberately knowing what is right and acting accordingly.”

Gone are the clay feet of classic Marvel heroes. Gone is any sense of dilemma or complexity behind a hero’s mask. Instead, we see a man who has declared himself judge, jury, and certainly executioner, and a creator who has used his creation as a mouthpiece to lecture his readers on Ayn Rand’s philosophy. 

At the climax of her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, the book’s hero quotes Aristotle, declaring that “A is A…a leaf cannot be a stone at the same time , it cannot be all red and all green at the same time, it cannot freeze and burn at the same time.” This speech might as well be the “origin story” for Mr. A., who sees nuance as only moral compromise, which leads inevitably to corruption, and eventually, out-and-out evil. So, somehow, this means that he must go out in the streets, throwing business cards marked on one side by equal halves of black and white, to kill what he sees as evil people.



Following Ditko’s retirement from comics, there have been heaps and piles of remorseless antiheroes brandishing violent justice from panel to panel. But what makes Mr. A. fascinating, and bizarre, is that his creator doesn’t see him as an antihero. Far from it! To Steve Ditko, this guy is the absolute shining icon of goodness! Mr. A. is without a doubt the unique and perverse vision of an auteur. 

– Pat Barrett

Comics in the Classroom: Creating Independent Readers

Note: Steve Bissette and I are teaching a course in contemporary comics history (Survey of the Drawn Story II, as it’s properly known).  Our students are required to submit an essay, in blog form, on an aspect of contemporary comics history.  They are restricted to the period of 1969 – present.

Today’s essay is by Beth Hetland.  Enjoy!

-Robyn Chapman

Comics in the Classroom: Reading is the Best!

by Beth Hetland

So here we are at The Center for Cartoon Studies, churning out comics monthly, weekly, and sometimes even daily. Aside from becoming famous, what are we going to do with this vast output? Where can we take the comics medium? How can comics impact society? How can we use our powers for good? Fear not blog-reader, I have some suggestions.

Currently in the United States there are over 8 million children from grades 4-12 who do not read at grade level.  The majority of public school systems work with a curriculum whose goal is to have independent readers by the third grade. The drop off between emerging readers and skilled readers who can comprehend and analyze complex text is astronomical.  There are three main obstacles that children struggle with on the path to becoming a skilled reader.  They are: a difficulty understanding alphabetic principles, failure to transfer comprehension skills of spoken language to reading, and absence of motivation to read or a failure to develop an appreciation of the rewards of reading.  Now the first two I think are definitely challenges that the school systems have under control as far as teaching children techniques and methods to conquer those principles; but to convey to a child the importance and pleasure in reading or to keep them motivated to continue to read? This is where I believe comics in literary education programs could really soar.

Starting in elementary school, children are already learning to associate images with words to put together how to tell a story.  After all comics are, at their most basic, pictorial storytelling. Utilizing comics in a classroom of emerging readers can really connect with them on several different levels. The children will be learning new ways for storytelling and narrative to work cohesively with imagery.  Not only that, but when you teach children to read with a variety of books, odds are they will find something they really like. One of the most disappointing things when I moved from picture books to chapter books was the lack of pictures.  Some of the young reader chapter books will use a chapter heading or page as an illustration but it was never, never enough. I think that’s a common place for children to stop feeling motivated to read.  They don’t have the images that they were originally drawn to and they’re expected to struggle their way through text only pages. If the story isn’t interesting, kids are going to put that book down. Comics could be that saving grace for the child who finds picture books too easy but chapter books too challenging or uninteresting.  The best part about comics for a reader in that limbo is that comics will continue to become more challenging while keeping the images.  The narrative devices will always continue to fluctuate and grow from genre to genre, that way there is no plateau of literary growth for the reader.

Children learn to read through a variety of devices.  For example to learn the word ‘dog’ a parent or teacher would show a picture of a dog, say ‘dog’ and point to the word ‘dog.’ But think if they were introduced to the concept of dog through a photograph of a dog, a stylized or “cartoon” illustration of a dog and letters forming the word ‘dog.’ Most children begin to make this transition from concrete to abstract through picture books, with a single illustration on each page. Comics can take learning to the next level, asking kids to follow a sequence of illustrations that form a story. A book like Owly (by Andy Runton) provides an opportunity for young children to “read” the pictures in order and follow the story. They will get to verbalize the story, which reinforces the concept that ink on a page can be translated into ideas and words. In addition, the characters “speak” in symbols, providing another opportunity for children to make the connection between abstract images and language.


Before a child is ready to read text, comics can give them practice in understanding the information on a printed on a page.  They will gain the same basic skills that will help them when they make the leap to chapter books; tracking left to right and top to bottom, interpreting symbols, and following the sequence of events in a story. Sequential art provides plenty of opportunity for connecting the story to the child’s own experiences, predicting what will happen, inferring what happens between panels, and summarizing, just as they would do with a chapter book. The advantage of comics is that children don’t need to be able to decode text to learn and practice comprehension skills.

It makes my heart feel pretty warm and fuzzy to read all these articles that are arguing the same literate point for comics. And, to top it off, those articles are posted, researched and shared by teachers! As soon as the district administrators get their acts together and see all these advantages of comics in the classroom I think that the literacy of so many schools will just rocket off the charts, ZIFF!

 – Beth Hetland