At what secret thought does she smile?

January 20, 2010

I visited this exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum today.  This drawing is a cartoon for a fresco, in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, created for the Princess Eleonor of Toledo, by Bronzino.  The woman in the drawing is one figure in the crowd around Moses as he strikes a rock in the desert to make water gush forth (yellow square in image below-right).

And here you will stay…

August 26, 2009


How did I not know that Richard Sala’s Delphine No. 4, the final issue in his reworking of the Snow White story, had been published?  I just happened to wander into Forbidden Planet, and there it was, with some looking, on the shelf!

The story is sort of like Snow White from the Prince’s point of view, and it’s dark, gothic, and a downer.  Did you think there would be a happy ending?  (That’s as much as I’ll give away.)  No, Sala is into the rich soil of the real stories behind the Disney fairy tales.  They are not that hard to find – just go to Brothers Grimm.  You may be surprised at how goth they are!  (And for a wonderful essay on fairy tales in the raw, check out Robert Darnton’s book, The Great Cat Massacre.)

Sala’s style here is at its most muted, more “realistic,” less far-out weird than his stuff has been in the past – this suits the tone and pace of the story.  His art in Delphine is like a subtle basso continuo that sets off the hysterical, shrieking, hilarious weirdness of earlier pieces like One of the Wonders of the World. It’s  one long tone-poem on obsession, frustration, longing, illusion, fear, and some other not too pleasant topics.

One reviewer commented:

He is a sorely under-appreciated storyteller and I’m not sure why that is. Perhaps because his influences are decidedly anachronistic, out of pace with current pop culture in spite of the work being deeply entrenched in popular culture’s folklore

I hope he’s getting the attention he deserves, but I don’t keep tabs on the comics business world.  The reviewer makes a fine point when he touches on the paradox that Sala is out of sync with todays pop culture (explicit sex, vulgarity, explosions, violence, knowing irony and sarcasm…am I a crank?) while his work is “deeply entrenched in popular culture’s folklore.”

Sala doesn’t make “references” or “allusions” to “pop icons.”  There’s nothing knowing or arch about him.  He has absorbed vast realms of imagery and literature, and he writes and draws what he loves – in this sense, completely “in genre.”  (What is his genre, though?)  I see him as an exemplar of the personal mythologist, and as it happens, his myths are very sympatico with mine!  A very brief and incomplete list of “influences” that I detect in reading him:

Judex, Dante’s Inferno, Dashell Hammet, Film Noir, Grimm Brothers, Surrealism, Max Ernst, literary grotesque (depictions of monstrous transformations) and Gothic, Louise Brooks, Poe, Kafka…

The Mole's destinyAnd speaking of Kafka, at his new site, Sala has an old story, Herman, the Human Mole, that brings to mind that author’s story, The Hunger Artist. (Also Nightmare Alley).

This story is in my favorite Sala vein and style, and has now supplanted Wonder of the World as my all-time favorite.   It features a variation on this character from 13 O’Clock, another favorite.  Outcast, Peter Lorre-, sensitive-type.

Reading this story is like diving into a maelstrom of genre-moods:  noir, geek stories, tortured adolescent, loser kid, crazy misunderstood artist, mama-fixated psycho, I-was-framed-for-murder, culminating in a sick and hilarious reprise of the feral-child cum geek.  Is this what artists are?  Is this a self-portrait?

Jim Woodring and …

October 18, 2008

Jim Woodring is the latest comics artist to come to my enthusiastic attention.  Though he no longer does comic strips, he is legendary for his color and black and white stories about Jim – autobiographical I guess – and Frank, a humanoid figure who wordlessly moves through a landscape that exceeds the bounds of  the surreal.  In fact, to use that term, “surreal,” to describe him is to sink to cliche.  His stories of Frank are dreamlike and terrifying, but in a way that lacks the self-conscious arti-ness of so much surrealism, while being no less powerful.  I’d say, his images smack more of what I have experienced in my rare spells of delirium, but his stories all make sense, often moral sense.

The color page below will give you an idea of the eerie weirdness and humor that “Frank” brings to the world.  You can visit this link to see a faithful animation of his Frank character, but I think I like the regular old ink-on-page comics better.

The black and white page is from an issue of his “Jim” comics, and as usual, it is more structured along the lines of a wordy narrative…but of course, there is that giant talking frog!  I love this story for its wit, subtlety, irony, and sly philosophy.  It reminds me a lot of Italo Calvino’s story, “The Aquatic Uncle.”  The mastery of tone in this page, keeping to a steady highminded satire while portraying a sexy “girl-form,” a pompous and sensitive frog…prince? philosopher? demon?…and a tense socratic dialog on fear and human potential is amazing.  BRAVO!

…and gore…

Yes, somewhere there is a graduate student laboring on a Ph.D. dissertation on the comparative treatment of gore in Richard Sala, Tony Millionaire (two other of my favorites) and Woodring.  Consider first, Richard Sala:

His “noir”, Edgar A. Poe-esque adventure stories are filled with hacking, stabbing, decapitation, skull crushing violence.  Still, it evinces a laugh because he works within a genre and its anti-universe, always keeping it at a considerable emotional distance from us.  When I see those knives flashing, or helter-skelter piles of semi-clothed dead maidens…I chuckle or leer.

Tony Millionaire goes for the grand guignol, with a devilishly funny twist.  He’s not trying to scare us out of our seats.  More likely, he’d like to get us up and running to the can to vomit in disgust,


even as we nearly choke for laughing.  When I look at his sliced up bodies (Everything always seems to grow back fine for the next page!) and buckets of throw-up, I grimace with disgust and chortle.

Then there’s Jim Woodring.  His violence is cool, often wordless and soundless.  Sometimes we don’t even know what is devouring or mutilating what.  Sometimes, however, it’s just straight out barbarity, but with no visual change in tone from the other actions.  Consider below:  Manhog observes Frank having a picnic with his dolls and grows distraught at his exclusion from the fun.  He rushes in and upends Frank’s picnic spread and runs off.

Later, Frank walks alone, despondent, but he happens on the debauched Manhog sleeping.  Watch him take revenge!

Is there any more clinical depiction of the savagery of human violence?  It is truly disturbing, distilled to its terrible essence by the magic of the strange, ridiculous incongruity of the cartoon format.

Maakies Ahoy!

March 30, 2008


I am always on the lookout for sources of new stimulation, literary and visual. Sometimes this means I stumble on something that has been around for a while without my knowing about it. So it is with the comics of Tony Millionaire. He is known not so much for “graphic novels” as for a syndicated comic strip, “Maakies” that I am sure that I have seen many times – I don’t know where – and for which I now have an intense enthusiasm after reading his latest book of collected strips.

Millionaire (presumably a pen name, though he has denied it) has a style that is rich and detailed. His landscapes recall to my mind those of R. Crumb, though their style is otherwise very different. They do share an intense dedication to the possibilities of black and white ink line work and to exploiting control and detail. I also think of Windsor Mckay (Little Nemo and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend). Another illustrator, one of my favorites, W. Heath Robinson, comes to mind, but in a recent email exchange with Millionaire, he said he’d never heard of Robinson. (“Is he funny?” he asked.)

Maakies (why the name, I dunno) is very funny, absurd, wierd, extremely vulgar, sometimes scatological…I could go on. It also veers into the literary and metaphysical with bizarre wit. I frequently exploded in laughter to tears on reading some of the strips in “With the Wrinkled Knees,” the new collection. The ones I read mostly featured a perpetually drunken crow (Drinky Crow) that seems like Heckel or Jekyll on a bender, and his Uncle Gabby, a mentally deviant (Irish?) monkey. Many of the strips play out in a nautical setting that seems lifted from hallucinations induced by 19th century searfaring stories – Melville’s “Benito Cereno”, Poe’s “Arthur Gordon Pym”, and London’s “Sea Wolf” come to mind, but you need to imagine them through the fog of psychosis or radical inebriation.

Click on the strips below to see a full-size image –

Philosophical Maakies:

Philosophic Maakies

Nautical Phantasy Maakies:

Airship Maakies

Surreal Maakies:

Surrealist Maakies

Escapist Maakies:

Literary Drug Maakies

These strips bring up an arcane association in my mind, the 19th century novel, Atar Gull, by Eugene Sue. That story shared a nautical setting with Maakies, and it was about Gull, a captured African being transported to the slave market and his subsequent escape and adventures. The slave captain is a total opium addict – in fact, so deep is his addiction that he believes his opium dreams to be reality, and he is certain that the hellish life on board the slave ship is simply his bad dreams.