Monthly Archives: August 2010

Prayer/Protest/Peace Peace Peace

There are a few performers who I passed up chances to see, and then they died before I got another chance — leaving me with pangs of regret. Fela was the first, then Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and then I actually had tickets to see Nina Simone but something else came up. Fortunately, I caught Abbey Lincoln at Yoshi’s on a valentine’s day with my wife a few years ago. I don’t know if any other valentine’s day will beat that one.

A voice can transmit many things. Abbey had a beautiful voice, but I think what I treasure most about it is that it’s a voice that seems to embody dignity. It was fun that night to watch the quiet deference of her band, all young men sharply dressed, and all aware of their good fortune to be sharing the stage and the music with her.

I hope the recent spate of obits here doesn’t seem morbid — but one of the perks of having artists in our lives is that, when they go, they leave behind things that are easy to celebrate — things that give us the illusion that they’re still here, sharing the room with us.

I’ve used a recording of the Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach piece above for a “Digital Darkroom” class a few times. It’s a photoshop class, and I find that, with easy access to images from Google and stock photo sites, it’s sometimes hard for students to climb out from under the shipwreck of images that have preceded their ideas — to identify images that come from within, instead of without. To encourage students to pay attention to the stuff that bubbles up from behind their eyes, rather than in front of them. So we shut off the computer monitors and I play three songs for them, for them to listen to with eyes closed, and see what sort of visions appear on their inner movie screens. Then they make sketches and share what each of them saw.

The first song is a song with a strong story, kind of a movie with lyrics. The second song has more oblique lyrics — there are words, but they don’t always connect up in obvious ways. And then the third song is Abbey, abandoning words for raw sound. It can take students to some interesting places.

Here’s a clip of Abbey acting in the 1964 independent film “Nothing But a Man” — might show it in an “independent film” class I’ve been cooking up:

And here’s Abbey in her later period. It’s always different to hear a song from somebody dead than it is to hear one from somebody alive, but the lyric “you can never lose a thing if it belongs to you” has an extra sharpness now:

You can catch an interview with Abbey on Fresh Air here.

R.I.P. Harvey Pekar

I’m slowly trying to get back into the blogging swing of things, and while about a month has passed since Harvey Pekar died, I didn’t want to just let that go by unremarked here. My interest in comics came about partly because I started to forge my cultural identity in the 80s — which seemed, to my teenaged jaded eyes, like a cultural wasteland. Movies and TV were generally abysmally stupid, the music that got played on the radio was usually godawful, the contemporary novel seemed to be in the doldrums, and the fine art world wasn’t a huge part of my consciousness, outside of the NEA performance art kerfuffles. The place where interesting things seemed to be happening was comics. For a variety of reasons, in the 80s comics were detaching themselves from the juvenile subject matter that had long defined them in the U.S. — a whole crowd of cartoonists were creating work outside of the superhero genre, and sometimes outside of anything that could comfortably be typified as a “genre” at all.


Pekar, whose work I discovered in the 80s, probably took comics further than anyone else beyond the zone of fantasy and escapism. His great subject was everyday life — not romanticized or blown up to heroic proportions, but presented warts and all. You could say his work had an ethical relation to the warts. Neurosis, boredom, impotence — it was all perfectly acceptable subject matter, and in fact it demanded to be subject matter, since so much art just sweeps that stuff under the rug. Pekar really opened my eyes to what comics were capable of, and for that I owe a debt of gratitude.

There have been several good obits posted on Pekar — for some shorter appreciations, you could read Phil Nugent:

I remember reading an article about Pekar in 1983–in The Village Voice, as it happens–and sending away for copies of all the issues of American Splendor that were still available. They came a few weeks later and I read them all in one gulp, but I know that the “story” that made the biggest impact on me was the one that began with Harvey waking up on a cold morning, alone in bed between marriages, thinking about how much his life sucked, consoling himself a little by masturbating, picking out which of his worn-out, sorry-looking duds he was going to wear, getting dressed, and going to work, his actions accompanied by one pissed-off thought balloon after another. That was Pekar making, as bluntly as possible, the point that he was put on earth to make, the same point that Arthur Miller once managed to inflate to cosmic proportions by reducing it to four simple words: attention must be paid.

Or Jeet Heer:

Harvey was stubborn and willful, hard qualities to live with as at least two of his three wives would attest. Yet it was his very prickliness which made him a successful cultural revolutionary, a man who through sheer force of will helped transform a children’s medium, the comic book, and turn it into the graphic novel, a venue for literate, adult storytelling. As Harvey often noted, he was born in Cleveland in 1939, just a year after two other Cleveland Jewish boys launched Superman upon the world. Harvey saw his own intensely realistic stories as a response to the type of fantasies found in superhero comics: He liked to call himself Schlepperman, an ordinary Joe who struggled not to save the world but to get through the working day.

The most definitive obit I’ve read was by Tom Spurgeon, at the Comics Reporter.

And there’s a nice selection of panels at John Glenn Taylor’s blog.

Pekar had some minor celebrity as an oddball guest on David Letterman’s show. He got himself booted from the guest list by refusing to be a performing monkey — or at least by committing the cardinal sin of being a monkey with a political opinion. I don’t think Letterman has ever looked like more of a shmuck; for my money, Pekar provided some of the most memorable moments of live television I’ve ever seen.

His work was also adapted into a film, “American Splendor,” that to my mind lost a bit of the meandering, quotidian fundamentals of Pekar’s comics — though it featured a very good performance from Paul Giamatti, as Pekar. Here’s a clip:

FALL CLASS: Watching and Making Documentaries

Under the umbrella of the “Special Topics in Film and Video” class this semester, I’m offering a class I haven’t taught before; I’ve been going over it this summer and I’m pretty excited about it. It’s the sort of thing I’ll only be able to offer once every four years or so — just wanted to post about it since it’s new, and I didn’t get the chance to talk it up at the end of last semester. The pics below are from some of the documentaries I’m intending to screen.

DOCUMENTARY CLASS: WATCHING AND MAKING DOCUMENTARIES

Spec Topics:Documentary – DART 480 1
CRN: 80087
Class 10:00 am – 12:45 pm MW

Filmmakers have created documentaries for a wide variety of reasons: to expose injustices, to explore history – or sometimes simply to tell an irresistible story. Most documentaries exert the fascination of the “real,” demonstrating the adage that truth is stranger than fiction.


In this class, we’ll watch several contemporary and historic documentaries, applying various documentary techniques to the production of short, student-directed documentaries. FinalCut Pro will be the primary software used. Methods and topics will include:

1. Using narration to shape what people see and understand.


2. Cinema Verite – the movement to abandon narration, to let footage “speak for itself,” without imposing a meaning through interviews or narration.


3. Using photos and recreations to give visual dimension to events that weren’t captured on film or video.

4. Documentary and propaganda – examining how documentaries have been used to shape opinion, focusing on the Nazis’ use of documentary (and how documentaries exposed the truth behind the propaganda).


5. Nature documentaries – exploring how documentaries about animals often impose human values on their activities.


6. The “found footage” documentary – using public domain and stock footage to tell a story – sometimes even a story that is directly opposed to the intentions behind the original footage.


7. Experimental documentaries – using reality toward poetic ends.


If you want to see a draft of the syllabus (I’m still tweaking it), drop me a line at clanier [at] sierranevada [dot] edu, and I’ll send it along.

Silent Witness

This is the last month for a show I’ve been included in at The Collection, in Lincolnshire, England. It’s the first time I’ve had art shown in England, and I’m very honored to be included in the exhibit, which features work by several artists I deeply admire — artists whose work has served as inspiration and model for my own process. The exhibit, called Silent Witnesses: Graphic Novels Without Words , focuses on comics that tell their narratives in purely visual terms, without resort to word balloons or captions. My interest in the format (which arguably goes back into history far beyond the time people were thinking about “comics” as a medium) is an interest in a purely visual language: a language that stands apart from (while being related to) spoken and written language. The curator, Darren Diss, chose artwork from my wordless comic “Combustion,” which tells the story of a soldier lost behind enemy lines.

Here is a sampling of the artists on display (not necessarily the work being shown at The Collection). Click on artist names to see more info or more work. Firstly, there are pioneers of the form:

Max Ernst, who I briefly blogged about last year.


Frans Masereel, whose masterpiece “Passionate Journey” directly lead me to “Combustion” (the ending of “Combustion” is actually a tip of the hat to, and a sort of inversion of, the end of “Passionate Journey”).


Otto Nuckel


Lynd Ward


Laurence Hyde


There are several contemporary artists whose work I’ve avidly devoured:

Hendrik Dorgathen


Eric Drooker, who I worked with on the upcoming “Howl” movie:


Jason


Andrzej Klimowski


Peter Kuper


Shaun Tan


Jim Woodring

And several artists whose work I’m glad to have been introduced to, thanks to the show:

Lars Arrhenius, who had work at the NMA a few years ago:

Matt Forsythe


Alexandra Higlett


Zoe Taylor


Sara Varon

Here’s the press release for the show (they used a panel of “Combustion” for it, which was nice):

Silent Witnesses: Graphic Novels Without Words
Curated by Darren Diss

Artists include: Lars Arrhenius, Hendrik Dorgathen, Eric Drooker, Max Ernst, Matt Forsythe, Alexandra Higlett, Laurence Hyde, Jason, Andrzej Klimowski, Peter Kuper, Chris Lanier, Frans Masereel, Otto Nuckel, Shaun Tan, Zoe Taylor, Lynd Ward, Sara Varon and Jim Woodring.

This exhibition brings together the work of internationally recognised artists and illustrators from around the world working in Graphic Novel form. Spanning publications from the early twentieth century to the present day, the works contained in the exhibition are distinct in that all use the capacity of images alone to communicate narrative, functioning entirely without the use of text.

The exhibition celebrates the book form and in particular the Graphic Novel as an increasingly popular medium for artists and explores its enduring appeal to readers of all ages. By focussing on works without text it examines the underlying structure and mechanics of developing a Graphic Novel, exposing it as a unique art form. It looks at the Novel in the true sense, as an extended sequence conveying a narrative. The show includes preparation and working drawings, writings, flat plans, sketch books and character studies and associated works alongside complete book-works to reveal the various developmental stages in creating a Graphic Novel.

The exhibition combines works from a wide range of cultural contexts, from modern popular Graphic Novels, with scratchboard images by Eric Drooker produced for his novel ‘Flood’, to woodcuts by Frans Masereel for his his 1925 work ‘Die Stadt’, to original drawings by Sara Varon for her well loved books, ‘Sweater Weather’, ‘Robo and Hund’ and ‘Chicken and Cat’. Also in the show will be a large scale flat-print version of ‘A-Z’ by Lars Arrhenius, a novel produced on the iconic A-Z map of London. Shown in print form it allows the viewer to scan the intersecting narratives sewn through the map in a single image, creating ever new readings.

Works for the exhibition have been loaned to The Collection from the British Museum, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Klinspor Museum, Offenbach, Scott Eder Gallery, New York, and from the exhibiting artists.

The show’s curator, Darren Diss, is an established illustrator and Senior Lecturer in Illustration at The University of Lincoln. He has a specialist academic research interest in Textless Narratives.

And here, lastly, are a few pictures taken at a preview of the show — looks like they did a terrific job, it all seems very attractively laid out. Wish I could’ve hopped the pond to see it in person.