Asterios Polyp is an amazing mechanism of a story, a beautiful machine for putting on display the dialogue between Enlightenment and Romantic thinking...moreAsterios Polyp is an amazing mechanism of a story, a beautiful machine for putting on display the dialogue between Enlightenment and Romantic thinking: Duality and Nonduality brought together to form a duality, but a duality which turns nondual as the two elements interact.
This is one of those stories in which absolutely everything - every character, every color, every font, every stylistic choice - appears to be on some level a blatant storytelling device, a cog in the machine. The whole machine is so smooth and slick, and the core story is so simple and old, that the book itself ends up being like Asterios himself: it weighs duality-nonduality, apparently evenly, and then ends up heavy weighted on the side of duality - but by implication. Then again, it may well turn out on second reading that there's a whole bunch of nonduality lurking in the background (or rather, getting covered up), like Asterios' (ex-)wife Hana - in which case this thing is not just metafiction but HELLAmeta.
And believe me, I WILL be reading this again.
The story? It ain't so original. The device which the story serves? The ideas aren't new, but OH SHIT the device is new.
My comics artist brain is going to be dissecting this for the next couple weeks at least.(less)
I was hoping that some of these shorts (I was about to write "short stories," but "stories" would seem to need, you know, -things- and -people- in the...moreI was hoping that some of these shorts (I was about to write "short stories," but "stories" would seem to need, you know, -things- and -people- in them) could provide a visceral new experience, if not "beautiful" or engaging in the way that more traditional comics can be then at least a whole new punch in the gut, akin to listening to experimental noise or drone music.
A couple managed to excite me - most notably R. Crumb's "Abstract Expressionist Ultra Super Modernistic Comics," which I had read previously and already treasured. The core of that piece, though, is a joke on the supposedly highbrow modernist art that Crumb detested. He succeeds at the joke so brilliantly by creating a parody of highbrow modernism much more immediately engaging and better-crafted than most actual modernist art, and yet still appreciable as a masterful and vibrant piece of absurdist abstraction in its own right. As a final zing, the piece parodies both the sly allusions to and extremely indirect evocations of sexuality that pervade various corners of Modernism, while simultaneously making fun of the sexual self-parody in his own work (and perhaps even engaging in said self-parody).
Of course, much of the rest of the material is actually something quite the inverse of Crumb's work - instead of being a complex, fun and zingy parody of conceptual and visual artistic abstraction in comics form, it simply takes that sort of work and introduces, straight-faced, into a sequential format. This means that the bulk of the book suffers from the exact same characteristics that Crumb was satirizing: the great difficulty with which most viewers relate to the work (effectively asking the reader to make most of the communicative effort), the requirement of substantial theoretical knowledge for some of the work to be appreciated at all, the frequent seemingly intentional aversion to communicating any human emotion whatsoever, and accompanying all of that, the assumption that such work must by nature be highly dense and sophisticated, and that a viewer who gets nothing out of it must be dense, uneducated, a simpleton.
I am not about to condemn an entire genre of art; I am a firm believer in the maxim that all genres and forms should be considered at least theoretically capable of producing great work, that one should make a solid effort to approach a work on its own terms, that no form or genre can be proven bad because all of the work in that area has by definition not been produced yet. The new evidence is always coming out. I also understand that different brains loaded with different experiences, ideas, etc. appreciate different qualities in creative works, and that is a good thing - that's how the various genres and forms got established in the first place.
I love me some Andy Goldsworthy, and I find a few of Richard Serra and Pat Steir's works very striking. However, my brain just isn't configured in the right way to find the majority of super-abstract and non-figurative highbrow art, or the majority of concept art, satisfying on a visceral level. This is not for lack of exposure; I have been to plenty of exhibits, looked at plenty of books, taken classes. I live blocks away from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA).
I'll tell you how I do appreciate many of these comics, though: as wonderful technical exercises, explorations of closure, rhythm, layout, movement, color, the nature of the panel, the nature of line, and the evocation of representational forms that may not actually be there. As a comics artist, I find many of these ideas exciting, and would like to use them myself. However, in the completely abstract form in which they are presented, many of these wonderful formalist ideas become simple diagrams, losing much of their impact.
I will mine this book for formal ideas, and for that it should prove valuable. However, most audiences are not comics artists (or connoisseurs), and given that even I have trouble engaging in them as anything other than formal exercises or emotionless idea-grams, I can't give Abstract Comics more than three stars.(less)
This admittedly has additional stars from me simply because I harbor an aching love for Franklin C. Ware, and paging through his sketchbooks feeds tha...moreThis admittedly has additional stars from me simply because I harbor an aching love for Franklin C. Ware, and paging through his sketchbooks feeds that aching love of mine by giving me a look into his creative process. Seeing both familiar and unfamiliar strips and characters in their gestational stages and watching Ware develop them in different directions, getting a looksee at his simple sketching practice, seeing him copy other cartoonists - Rube Goldberg, R. Crumb - and try out cartoon styles he never uses in finished work... There are many treasures here. One of the special features unique to the two Acme Novelty Datebooks (as far as I'm aware) is the plethora of more realistic figure drawings in various styles and media, including graphite, pen, and amazingly free and loose brushwork. I admire him all the more for his exceedingly tight work knowing that he is not chained to it - knowing that he can also be gestural, and can attain beautiful results in so doing.
It is also wonderful to be able to read his pages of miniscule notes, recounting dreams and experiences, outlining strip ideas, trying out layouts, and first developing the stories and characters that I have come to love so much. Many drawings have written criticisms beside them; many others have written griping: creative block, headaches, obsessions, sexual frustrations. Many of the same concerns that are so artfully laid out in the finished Acme Novelty Library editions are more directly and personally dealt with here: images of sexual frustration that are more direct and Crumbian than I'm used to from Ware are common.
This also makes Chris Ware more accessible and less intimidating to me as a fellow artist, and is inspiring in pushing me to pay more attention to my own sketching process and generally sketch more. Seeing this work seems to be the nudge I need to respect sketchbooks and take them more seriously as brewing pots for ideas.
That being said, much of the above is probably a bit obvious; if you're not a drooling fan like I am, you may well not care about the contents of the Datebook a whole lot.
The book is as beautifully designed and built as one would expect a Chris Ware book to be, and is done up in what I would call a mainstay Ware style. The main goody he's hidden in plain sight is a small circular timeline of his life on the front cover, which is exploded with added detail on the back.
Only His High Holiness Art Shpeegleman could get away with something like this: he goes for years without publishing a whit of comics, drums up all so...moreOnly His High Holiness Art Shpeegleman could get away with something like this: he goes for years without publishing a whit of comics, drums up all sorts of hype and excitement, and then leaves us with what? Why, a board book! A fancily-printed pamphlet of newspaper pages, 38 cardstock pages total (including the frontispiece, introduction and everything), only 20 pages of which contain his actual original creations. Of course, those 20 pages are all newspaper-style double-page fold-out spreads, so it's really only 10 pages oversize. That means I spent two dollars per newspaper-sized page of comics on this. Mr. Spiegelman loves to be an ego, chain-smoking on stage while he gives lectures in smoke-free lecture halls, and I feel like this format is just another way for him to proclaim his self-importance.
That being said, the book is not without merit. His layouts can be pretty freaking excellent - very communicative, very inventive - and here, they did a smashing job of conveying his paranoia and capturing the general upendedness and gullibility of the nation at the time of the attacks. He seems to be a bit more okay with his own generally assish (I'm coining that word as of now) behavior than I would like, but I suppose that's to be expected. The pages do string together, but they don't really form a story; this book is more a mood-capture than anything.
Spiegelman always says that he views sequential communication skill as being of primary importance, and drawing as secondary. To a good extent, I agree; however, I feel that his work - not just in The Shadow of No Towers, but the rest of it as well - really does suffer from that assumption. He is not a bad illustrator, and had he simply put more effort and care into the drawings, he would have communicated the emotion behind his beautifully constructed pages that much better.
Last but not least, I thought the padding - in the form of vintage newspaper comics reprints - was unnecessary. His evolving relationship with vintage funnies around the time of 9/11 was better communicated by the (frankly well-executed) incorporation of those classics into the body of the comics themselves than by including them at the back in an attempt to make the book a bit thicker.
Both Spiegelman's talent and Spiegelman's hubris are quite present in this collection - the latter unfortunately moreso than the former.(less)