Black & White Again

January 31, 2010

Comics are in color too, but I prefer the black and white variety.  Thomas Ott makes stories using scratchboard, rectangles of white material covered with India ink.  The artist scratches to reveal the white underneath – once a popular medium for newspapers since it is so easy to photograph and print.  The image above, from Ott’s Tales of Error, is a wonderful example of the way light can be made to shine out of pure black.

Ott’s stories in that book are full of little O’Henry plot twists and Twilight Zone effects, but I felt they fell flat more often than not.  His images, from what I have seen on the Internet, are all similarly focused on the bizarre, the grotesque, and the plain ugly.  His wordless “novel”, The Number, however, is very successful.

In a series of beautifully designed pages, the bizarre story of a prison executioner is unraveled as he is led on to his doom by a series of numbers on a slip of paper dropped by a murderer sent to death on the electric chair.  At first, the numbers, popping up in unpredictable ways in his life, give the man luck, but that’s gotta change!  Here the man, and his new girlfriend, return home after a successful go at the roulette wheel, using the numbers as a can’t-lose system.

The end of the tale isn’t surprising, but the way that the logic is worked out to its predestined conclusion is nice, and the drawings are wonderful.

Another favorite B&W scratchboard example is Peter Kuper’s comic adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. The expressionistic style of the stark black and white compositions works well with the story, and it is very true to the spirit and humor of the tale.  (Yes, Kafka is funny! )

Finally, a black and white image done with pen and ink, and reproduced in the newspapers of 1925 – a Sunday panel from Krazy and Ignatz, by George Herriman.  I have dipped into these before because they are celebrated widely as a high point of comics, a great 20th century achievement in art and satire, and a deep poetical statement about…well, lot’s of things.  At first, I was merely amused, but found them a bit tedious.  Now, however, having followed them a bit, as Sunday readers would have, I can say that the more I read, the more seduced I am.  They have a unique atmosphere and sensibility:  surreal, dadaist, poetic, satirical, slapstick, and always composed with sophistication and wit.  One never knows what will come next.

The plot line of the series is quite simple:  Ignatz Mouse lives for nothing but to throw bricks at the head of Krazy Kat.  Officer Pup tries to stop him, but usually fails.  Kat seems to take the endless attacks as a sign of true love, because when a brick hits someone else in one strip, he is very jealous.  I’ve not fathomed all the motives of Ignatz yet.

Sounds like a dada version of a Greek tragedy.  Here the Kat muses on the nature and source of time in a typically arid and otherworldly landscape.

Here Ignatz thinks he’s come upon a source of bricks to last him for a near eternity of head-smashing attacks on Kat.

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Foxy Lady

July 5, 2008

This is a late 18th century print by Rowlandson called “Reynard put to his shifts.”  It is from my personal collection, and is one of my favorites because of the dense knot of allusions, mythological, sexual, political, and satirical that it contains.  Just what is it about?

“Reynard” is the French word for fox, and it is sometimes used in English fables (in the land of fox hunting) as the name as an animal character.  The Fox referred to here is Charles James Fox , Whig opponent of the Tories.  James Gillray lampooned him often and viciously, partly because Gillray was, for a while, in the pay of the Tory party.  (Though he didn’t spare James Pitt, the Tory leader, either.)  Here is a detail of a Gillray satire of Mr. Fox  that shows him assassinating British liberty in the costume of a French sans culotte revolutionary.  (He was, for a time, a supporter of that revolution, and Gillray pilloried him as an unpatriotic sympathizer with Napoleon long after the Revolution had devoured its children.)  In my print, Mr. Fox is, of course, shown as a fox chased by some vicious hounds that bark out the names of legislative bills he supported.  A fashionably dressed woman  calls out to him, “My dear fox, get into cover,”  inviting him to run and hide beneath her skirts.  The sexual innuendo is indirect, but clear.  What is going on?

In 1784, the year this print was made, two unusual things happened in British politics:  Mr. Fox had to actually compete for his seat in parliament – usually a seat once gained, was totally safe; and Mrs. Georgiana Cavendish, an educated, brilliant, cultured, and tremendously wealthy noblewoman (shown here in a portrait by Gainsborough – she was famously addicted to gambling) who was a distant cousin, friend and supporter of Fox, went out on the hustings to drum up support for him.  (He won in the end.)  Never mind the Age of Enlightenment, this was not women’s work, and she was ridiculed and lampooned for it.

Rowlandson himself, did several satires of her political canvassing, including these two, which show Mrs. Cavendish suckling foxes at her breast, and buying votes by selling kisses.  Other less subtle prints show her groping tradesmen, not just kissing them, or playing with voters on a see-saw balanced on a penis fulcrum.


There is an additional association:  the theme of “Reynard put to his shifts,” i.e., the hunted fox at his wits end, was a common theme in popular culture of the day.  Here is an image by Carrington Bowles (1779) that shows one representation of the story with some commentary:

Reynard’s Last Shift may be read satirically as a comment on the upper-class hunters’ callous indifference to the disruption their sport brings down upon a peasant family. But we know as well that the image takes place within a narrative that here begins to yield other possibilities, among them the lascivious joke of the huntsman grabbing tail, highlighted by his reach between the legs of the alarmed woman. There is also the problem of the two genteel bystanders, woman and man, whose amused nonchalance is so striking. Is this cruel indifference or is it just possible that the young man’s gesture and her gaze indicate that they share our lascivious joke, setting up a complicity with the viewer? And indeed who are we as the imagined viewer? Possibly our 18th Century counterparts—the purchasers for a print like this—would be more of the “middling sort” who would see themselves as neither gentry or peasant, but there were always openings for alignment one way or the other. It could be that part of what made “jokes” like this so resilient in the period was a fluidity of the social structure in which the boundaries were unstable, even while readily recognizable within the visual delineation the prints suggested through such markers as dress.
from Clark University

This sort of close and entertaining analysis of satirical prints from this period of English history is found in abundance in Vic Gatrell’s fabulous book, City of Laughter:  Sex and Satire in Eighteenth-Century London.

In this image, Georgiana is given a sort of [mock] heroic aspect, standing tall and firm, while fox cowers beneath her skirts.  The dangers to Fox’s political personna are apparent – Karl Rove is not an original thinker.  My sense also is that Rowlandson here is alluding ironically to the myth of Actaeon, with which he was certainly familiar, as would any man of his standing, all of whom were educated on the classics.  That unfortunate man, Actaeon, loved nothing so much as hunting stags with his hounds, but one day he accidentally happened on the goddess Diana naked at her bath.  She splashed and cursed him, he metamorphosed into a stag, and his own beloved hunting dogs pursued himand tore him to pieces.  He couldn’t even form words to call to them to stop.  Here, the goddess is his protector, simultaneously saving him, and by implication, emasculating him, I think.


Metamorphosis

December 10, 2007

gillray_butterfly.gif

In Nabokov’s autobiography, Speak Memory, there is a chapter in which he takes a break from his sometimes tedious nostalgia about the comings and goings of his aristocratic family and describes the origins of his “mania” for butterflies. Of course, he was a serious collector and respected lepidopterist all of his life.

The image of men with butterfly nets has often been used in movies and TV for comic effect, but apparently his experience was that it was regarded as simply bizarre. Here he describes the impact of his boyish hunts on the startled Russian country people:

“I would see in my wake the villagers frozen in the various attitudes my passage had caught them in, as if I were Sodom and they Lot’s wife.”

Marvelous simile there, a movable city of sin, the burning metropolis of Sodom, plowing through the countryside leaving a trail of salt/stone figures, transfixed by its passing. And here he addresses the frightening aspects of transformation as he comes across a caterpillar on the path:

“…a strange creature…in a frantic search for a place to pupate (the awful pressure of metamorphosis, the aura of a disgraceful fit in a public place).”

I think it was Joyce Carrol Oates who identified the “gothic” element in Dante’s Inferno, as those passages in which characters experience in helpless terror the changing of their bodies into something else. (The “disgraceful fit” reminds me of Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his epileptic attacks, always ecstatic in the end). Transformations and horror, as with Actaeon, werewolves, American and otherwise, Jekyll-Hyde, vampires male and female, and even the Incredible Hulk.

actaeon.gifwerewolf.gif groon_p15jpg.gif hulk.gif

(The image at the top is by James Gillray, and shows a celebrated naturalist Joseph Banks.)