by Rey Armenteros
As an art instructor, I need to be aware of the various art books on the market. Though I have known about Hogarth’s line of books since my days in college, I never felt the need to ever pick them up, and my reasons always settled on the fact that the instruction we readers were getting was not how to draw, but how to draw like Burne Hogarth. Throughout his line of “Dynamic” books, he usually uses his drawings for examples, and his strong style dripped off these books, undermining any attempt at a universal approach to drawing.
However, I finally bought two books a couple of years ago, and it was for the strangest reasons anyone could have. It was during a Gil Kane kick that I had, and the more I looked at Kane’s work, the more I realized that his structured anatomy had parallels in the Burne Hogarth school of approach. So, I wanted to also look into Hogarth, and instead of buying his more popular comic strip work on Tarzan, I decided to buy his how-to books solely for the reason of admiring the stylization of his work.
In one more twist to this story, I ended up using his book, Dynamic Anatomy, as a means to study structure and found that all of my early assumptions about the book were true but were also not true. It is not an ideal anatomy book, and what may push a contemporary audience further back is his stilted prose. (Burne Hogarth, for those that don’t know, was one of the co-founders of School of Visual Arts, and this striving to carry an “educated” tone is overdone here.)
I don’t know what decisive verdict I could give this book. It has good and bad points that seem to work off each other. Overall, it’s good if you seek to draw in this manner and to follow this very particular structure, but it’s bad for almost anything else, even if ultimately I did have some use for it.
by Rey Armenteros
Held in the art space, Think Tank Gallery, in the Fashion District of Los Angeles, CALA is a comic book event that brings together some of the best alternative comics creators. I went in and explored the inspiring work of dozens of creators. It immediately brought imagery that I sought to use in my own work.
Having met Robert Goodin at the Long Beach Comic Con in September, once again, I passed by to talk about The Kurdles. When I discovered Farel Dalrymple was there, I approached his table to give him my thoughts on The Wrenchies, which I happened to have finished just a couple of days before. I wanted to talk to Ryan-Cecil Smith about his work, about living in Japan, and about Tim at the Deconstructing Comics podcast, but he had stepped out. Making it a point to go back and see him later, I stepped into the presentation hall to see the discussion with Jaime Hernandez.
For me, the feature event of the whole program was the talk that Jaime Hernandez was going to give. After the presenter asked him questions about his work, the floor opened to questions from the audience, and I was slowly confounded by how no one acknowledged his status in the field. As Jaime was asked question after question about his working methods, I wondered what the new generation knew about the older comics. Here we had someone who was to alternative comics what Shakespeare was to English Literature. Along with Wendy Pini and Dave Sim and Jaime’s brother, Gilbert, Jaime was one of a half a dozen creators that made the alternative scene come to life when there was nothing else on the map but corporate product. It was not the land of plenty we have around us today. If not for them, we may not have been sitting in that art space partaking of this fine venue of artistic creation.
In the end, a question occurred to me and I asked about the layout he had been using in recent years with the eight-panel grid (which made me no better than anybody else, since what I really wanted to do was give him a standing ovation). In the layout he had been using in The New Stories, I was reading into it things like Alex Toth’s last issue of Hot Wheels and some of the theories that Frank Santoro has brought up about losing the center in certain comic book page formations. But Jaime simply answered that he needed more panels per page when there was more dialogue, which is what he needed during the Hopey and Maggie scenes. Whenever the action returned, he went back to six panels. In hindsight, Jaime felt that it was not fair since Maggie and Hopey were not populating much of the action scenes lately, so they were only ever showed from midsection up.
Since no one commended him, I took the time after the convention panel to approach and tell him how much of an inspiration he was, and I recounted my first Love and Rockets experience (Love and Rockets #3) and how much of a game-changer that was – how much of a revelation in the world of comics. I shook his hand, and when I went back onto the convention floor to speak to Ryan-Cecil Smith, I changed my mind and found that this was the perfect note to end on. I went out onto the pavement and found that I was genuinely joyful, almost as if I didn’t know why.
by Rey Armenteros
Two days ago, I wrote this: “Today, Shigeru Mizuki died,” and I didn’t know what else to say to follow it up. Words were not coming to me. What stunned me was that I am now in the process of reading the Showa series, and I was elated by the fact that he had been able to survive an incredible number of life-threatening moments and that he was 93 and still a practicing cartoonist. The very fact that Mizuki as an infantryman survived World War II is nothing but a miracle.
Showa is a series of books that tells the history of the Showa Era of Japan (1926-1989) through all of its tides and developments done in comic book form. It employs Mizuki’s signature style of having simple, cartoon figures populating realistic backdrops. The backgrounds are so realistic that they do nothing to assimilate the simple line drawings of characters. This is important because it may say something about Mizuki’s approach and why he has chosen to work this way in many of his books. The gritty realism is obviously pulled from photo references, and they exhibit a labor-intensive rendering approach that must have been an uphill battle, panel by panel. However, the pages flow quickly for the reader as Mizuki moderates the speed not by the elaboration of the drawings but by how much narrative he places per page; often, there are few words, and the detail of the photo renderings are not enough to slow you down to admire all the work. In fact, these pictures of WWII planes blowing up over rough waters and important leaders signing documents act in the opposite manner: they show familiar pictorial archetypes that can be glanced quickly. These images are covered in crosshatched textures that provide a surface “grime,” that also serve to push the reader back. It is a use of detail made to be ignored rather than pull you in.
The general narrative begins with a plain, third-person treatment that is translated here in present tense. I don’t know if this were the verb tense the Japanese was originally written in, but in English, it feels quick, simple and current. It is one of the reasons some fiction writers use it, so that the events feel as if transpiring right now. This general narrative soon reveals itself as the words of Mizuki’s Rat Man, who eventually comes in to lace the events with a deadpan tone of incredulity. He serves the reader in ways that would show a sardonic, questioning attitude to the decisions made by the Japan’s leaders. At times, the Rat Man interacts with the powerful people, making comments or asking questions, and these historical figures either ignore him or answer his comments with their own cynical replies. The other narrative voice is that of Mizuki himself. In Showa, we have not just a rendition of a chunk of history but a personal account of Mizuki’s life as they were shaped by the times. Mizuki enjoys a special place in that he was a witness to the entire period, and the story of his life and family are interweaved with the larger events.
In the art, the cartoon characters serve as counterpoints to the realistically-drawn movers and shakers that seem so distant by comparison. However, when a famous leader is shown saying something, his physiognomy is reshaped into simpler lines showing bonehead expressions. These moments are interspersed with photo imagery culled from history. Replete with cold, photographic impressions, the series’ use of this strategy is not as effective throughout the work. At its worst, you get nothing more than an image that goes with the text, as when the narrative mentions a return trip for Mizuki that he did by train and it is accompanied by the mundane, redrawn photo of a train doing its thing.
However, as I get to the last book, these techniques begin to feel mechanical. If you read all four books, you will have read 2,000 pages, and it is difficult to sustain interest for that long. In this last book, the war is finally over, and we get snippets of Japan’s rise from the ashes as it climbs into the status of a global economic powerhouse. The episodic nature of events in this book is fragmentary with the only real cohesion being Shigeru Mizuki’s own personal life trials. It feels like now that the war is over, it is more difficult to coalesce a suitable narrative for all the various things that happen over the next thirty to forty years. A much larger timeframe is enveloped in this book than the other three put together. It makes me wonder if tackling on the entire Showa period may have been more than anyone could have worked with and still maintain unity in the work. When the narrative breaks down into one unrelated event after another, I feel that Mizuki is striving to catch up with the rest of the era and end it already.
As I was reading this last book, I was also wondering if he had only shown those aspects of the later Showa period that he happened to have focused on when they were transpiring in his life. There were several bizarre murders that he might have brought up to show the changing psychology of a modernized Japan. The deaths of a couple of famous actors are mentioned. World events are brought in to show how they influence Japan. All of these episodes felt sporadic, and the art did not help. By now, all this grainy photorealism begins to raise ideas in my head that he and his assistants were likely working from photocopies of photos, which would have made the decision of where to place the blacks, for example, already delineated by a machine. Indeed, some of these historic moments were nothing more than a grainy snapshot of the moment without even bothering to copy them in a drawing. A great amount of these images do possess the mark of degenerated photocopies. They’re quite ugly, and I felt in the first couple of books that this was a strength since it was counterpoised with the cartoon drawings. As I’m nearing the 2,000-page mile marker, I’m not even looking at these pictures anymore. It’s just too much of the same process of a very long work.
In sharp contrast, Onward to Our Noble Deaths is a work of his that uses the very same techniques but succeeds on every level. It is a unified story that is a fraction of the size of Showa. There may be something in the respective sizes of these two works and their respective successes; any theme, any technique can overstay its welcome.
One saving grace in this last volume of Showa is the creative way he incorporates fantasy or dream elements into the general line of events. There are moments in his life where he dreams of situations that at first seem real but soon reveal themselves to be dreams or otherworldly moments. Since Mizuki is tied to the world of yokai (ghosts from Japan), this fits with the work he is doing on his yokai manga and the interests he has had in ghosts since childhood. In one inspired moment, he has a writer acquaintance of his who has shown up in the narrative suddenly take over the narration from the Rat Man and claims that he can do a better job. It suddenly brings you out of a stupor and makes you realize that this is a living, breathing account instead of a mere recording of history. In the end, Mizuki’s playful treatment of the material and his warm outlook on the era make these four volumes of his work a notable reading experience and an artistic account of a remarkable life.