In Cold Blood : Daniel Clowes – “Ice Haven”

“You want to know why we did it? Because we damn well felt like doing it.”

In 1924, two seemingly well-adjusted young men from “good families” abducted and murdered a 14-year-old boy because they were convinced they were bright enough to get away with it. They were indeed bright, perhaps remarkably so, but Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb got caught almost immediately, their “perfect murder” botched in a way that would be laughably idiotic if the circumstances weren’t so horrifying. (To wit, Leopold dropped his custom-made glasses at the crime scene! D’oh!)

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The Crime of the Century long before O. J. Simpson, the Leopold and Loeb case is at the chilling core of Daniel Clowes’ “Ice Haven,” a “comic strip novel” about the small titular town, where a boy named David Goldberg has disappeared. Has he been done in by a local L&L admirer?

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If Lloyd Llewellyn , “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” and “David Boring” are, at least nominally, surreal mysteries, “Ice Haven” is more about what happens on the periphery of a mystery: David’s disappearance is an excuse to look at the lives of his family, his neighbors, his schoolmates – the surprisingly expansive circle of people touched by the loss of this most insignificant of lives, (and it’s no slight; David himself embraces his own insignificance with stoic pride.)

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Clowes, like most of his peers, is a child of the comic strip, and it’s in the Sunday Funnies format that “Ice Haven” unfolds; but although there are Schulz parodies here, (and “Nancy” and “Little Lulu” allusions and, heck, even nods to “The Flinstones”) these strips are mainly riffing on their own Daniel Clowes-ness.  That would be self-parody if “self-parody” didn’t usually suggest creative bankruptcy; to the contrary, there’s wealth in this slim volume. Think of it as Clowes’ illustrations for “Our Town” as inhabited by Nabokov characters. A listing of the novel’s wacky cast would read like a chapter index, and give too much away. Go saunter through “Ice Haven,” and meet its denizens. In the words of Random “Not Thornton” Wilder, (the town’s bespectacled, self-proclaimed bard): “It’s not as cold as it sounds.”

RATING: COOL! Perhaps too brief for MASTERPIECE!!!

P. S.:

“While prose tends toward pure ‘interiority,’ coming to life in the reader’s mind, and cinema gravitates toward the ‘exteriority’ of experiential spectacle, perhaps ‘comics,’ in its embrace of both the interiority of the written word and the physicality of image, more closely replicates the true nature of human consciousness and the struggle between private self-definition and corporeal ‘reality.’ ”

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Does This Have Enough Ls? : Daniel Clowes – “Lloyd Llewellyn”

“Eightball” would be Daniel Clowes’ first real achievement, with cynical shorts like “Art School Confidential” and “Devil Doll” padding the serialization of “Ghostworld” and “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron.” “David Boring” would be the on-its-own breakthrough, and the first graphic novel I read that truly impacted me in subtler, novelistic ways. (“Maus,” after all, was non-fiction; subtlety is not among the many attributes of “Watchmen.”)

But before “Eightball” and “David Boring,” before becoming one of the most important graphic novelists of our time, Clowes had some doodling to do for Fantagraphics, and “Lloyd Llewellyn” was his first experimental comic, a Mad-Magazine-influenced send-up of everything 50s:

Greasers! Hepcats! Squares!  Flailing Robots! Barflies! B-Movie Space Punks! Everything to which exclamation points can be appended!

An average Lloyd Llewellyn detective tale starts much like a Lew Archer noir; but soon, Lloyd gives up all pretense at detection and devotes himself to keeping a straight face amid the increasingly surreal twists. Of course, straight faces are easy to keep when you’re this simply drawn. When Lloyd Llewellyn resurfaced in early issues of “20th Century Eightball,” the drawing technique was about 200 times better, and the lounge-noir gimmick was so gone that a “Lloyd Llewellyn Adventure” could simply involve vitriolic ranting. (I love when misanthropy is unleashed, as it is in Clowes’ classic “I Hate You Deeply” or in Ivan Brunetti’s ‘Schizo.’)

“If you aren’t either a) exactly like me only a little worse at everything, or b) a pathetic yes-man to my every changing values and shallow opinions, I HATE YOU DEEPLY!”

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH; the best was yet to come.

Far Out, Far Underground : Robert Crumb et al. – “Zap Comix”

ABOVE: What’s Zappening?

Rarely is the word “seminal” as doubly appropriate as it is when talking about the goo-splattered pages of Robert Crumb’s “Zap Comix.” The American underground comix (only an X would do) had its big bang there in 1967, when Crumb drew “Zap #0.”

ABOVE: Plug Burn

Or so goes hippie legend.

As Spain (the cartoonist, not the country)  humorously put it decades later in “Zap #14”, after the gold rush, during the de-mythologizing process: “And what’s this s**t about Crumb starting underground comics? He may have put out the first comic but me and Kim Deitch were doing comics for the East Village Other before we ever heard of him, and before us was Bill Beckman, Trina and Nancy Panizika. Just setting the record straight.”

Sure, but Crumb was the pater familias of the Zap clan, (which included Spain, Victor Moscoso, S. Clay Wilson, Gilbert Shelton, Rick Griffin, Robert Williams.)  Crumb’s work was the big umbrella under which the lot gathered to hash out the future of counter-cultural funnies. Crumb made it easy: he hovered sardonically above the hippie movement, bemused by the LSD-driven non-sense, (although not beyond partaking.) That meant his satire reached wider than San Francisco.

The others were more IN it, but more insular for it. Griffin and Victor Moscoso were definitive masters of psychedelic poster art: Griffin was down with the Grateful Dead, and Moscoso (perhaps the most formally artistic of the crew) practically plastered the Summer of Love with his eye-melting posters.  Spain had even biked with the Road Vultures gang whose adventures he chronicles. The biker territory is also amply covered by S. Clay Wilson in “Zap.” Wilson’s intricate-yet-chaotic art is inventively vulgar, using slangy stream-of-consciousness text that convolutes itself into resembling that of William S. Burroughs, but he returns to his obsessions, (bikers, pirates and zombies) so frequently that it gets tiresome. Robert Williams could also be shocking in the pursuit of the psychedelic, but weird as his Coochy Cooty character is, I wager Williams will always be most remembered for his “Appetite for Destruction” artwork.

Spain: Bwaaaaaaa

Griffin: Anagrams rock!

Moscoso: Whoooaaaahhhh

S. Clay Wilson: This was pretty much the least graphically obscene Wilson drawing I could find.

Williams: Bon Appetite

It made sense for Crumb to be the first to give up on “Zap” in the 2000s. (WELL, Griffin, who had become a born-again Christian in the 70s, died in 1991, but that was hardly a voluntary retreat.)  It’s not that Crumb had gotten too big for his buds after the unlikely mainstream fame brought by Terry Zwigoff’s biographical documentary. It wasn’t even that he was busy with his other work, (Crumb was always effortlessly prolific). He was simply aware that the times, they had majorly a-changed. The kids had moved on to Daniel Clowes by then, and far-out stories of Haight-Ashbury freak-outs were from a world as distant and quaint as P. G. Wodehouse’s. Late-comer Paul Mavrides, (whose work I know very little about, beyond the fact that he contributed to Shelton’s “Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers”) was brought in to the fold to make up for Crumb’s absence, but it wasn’t the same.

In 2014, Fantagraphics published the final issue of “Zap” (thus far), which means the anthology endured for nearly 46 years. That’s a longer stranger trip than anyone could have reasonably anticipated.

RATING: Trashy MASTERPIECE!

The Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Getting Hate Mail : Adrian Tomine – “Optic Nerve”

ABOVE: Tomine or not Tomine?

I’ve changed my views on Adrian Tomine over the years. “Optic Nerve” (his anthology of graphic short stories) first impressed me with its sensitivity; then irked me with its semi-“emo” ethos; and now saddens me with its keen depiction of what it was to a depressed hipster watching the 20th century end itself in a brutal cocktail of Prozac and Valium.

So what if Tomine was heavily influenced by Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez Bros.? If you’re a modern day graphic novelist and you’re in no way influenced by Daniel Clowes and the Hernandez Bros… maybe that’s a flaw to be corrected. So what if he got so suddenly big that I recall even my humble, unhip college Barnes & Noble dedicated a section of its walls to Tomine’s designs? The New Yorker famously fell in love with him.

And sure, he can deliberately cater to the depressed.

ABOVE: Pretty Grief

Neither his obvious inspirations nor his sudden success merited the odd vitriol that “Optic Nerve” elicited from its own fans. Interestingly, it was the letters column of “Optic Nerve” that served as the finest conduit of “Optic Nerve”-backlash. Tomine adopted an open, “publish everything negative” policy that implied either masochism or the thickest of skins, (and I say that as someone who questions the validity of my existence if some anonymous hatar so much as points out my freequnt tipohs.)

Scattered among letters from prominent correspondents like Ivan Brunetti and Julie Doucet are creepy love propositions, bizarre assaults on Tomine’s perceived commercialism, and useless advice: (“Can I send you a naked pic? You totally get me, and I’m not too fat, I promise.” “I noticed you drew a ‘Godspeed You! Black Emperor’ poster on a wall. You poser! I bet you don’t even really like them, you Urban Outfitters puppet! Screw you already!” “Don’t sign your stories on the last panel! Everything always has to be about you, doesn’t it?” “I don’t like the way you’re drawing eyes these days. Why can’t you draw them like before? It’s so disappointing to see you change so much!” “These stories are just the same as before. It’s so disappointing to see how little you’ve changed!” “Your last story was off, somehow. I can’t say why, exactly. I just didn’t like it, for some reason. Fix that problem, immediately.” )

Above: Bubbly

 

Witness a then-unknown James Kochalka scolding Tomine for not being as perceptive, naturally talented, and generally awesome as James Kochalka:

“To me, it seems like you’re not particularly wise beyond your years. You don’t seem particularly knowledgeable about what makes humans tick. To me, it seems like you’re only as good as you are simply because you work very hard at it. Sometimes, it almost seems like you’re trying too hard. (…) To me, it seems these stories don’t automatically call to be treated in this manner. Please, flow freely into your work.

To me, it seems like James Kochalka is not a particularly eloquent correspondent. (Maybe he should “flow freely” into a “How to Write Letters to the Editor” workshop?) It should be noted those aren’t the complaints of a teenage fanboy threatened by an idol’s perceived sell-out, but the letter of a man nearing his 30s, just shy of his own sell-out period. However, Kochalka’s letter does succinctly summarize the douchy hipster ethos with this line:

“I’ve been enjoying your work, but I’m beginning to find the critics tiresome.” By “the critics” he means critical praise: “I like you, but now that the critics like you, I don’t like that I like you.” (I wonder how “tiresome” Kochalka finds critical praise, now that he’s also a recipient of it.)

I’m kidding, James Kochalka! “American Elf” 4Evah!

RATING: NEAR- MASTERPIECE!