Final Thoughts from Columbus

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Discarded items–can these surface men do naught else, save pollute?”

–Namor’s opening reflections from The Savage Sub-Mariner #72 (September 1974), by Steve Skeates (w), Dan Adkins (p), Vince Colletta (i), Artie Simek (l), L. Lessman (c), and Roy Thomas (ed.)

If Grass Green is an Afrofuturist, is Walt Kelly a pioneer of American comic art and ecocriticism? For the last two weeks I’ve been thinking of a question Rebecca Wanzo, Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University, asked me about Walt Kelly’s final book, We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us. What might a genealogy of ecocriticism and American comics books and comic strips look like, she asked? What artists and writers should we include? Does environmental awareness in comics begin with Kelly—whose late work, Finis Dunaway reminds us, had an enormous impact on the first Earth Day in 1970—or can we locate earlier examples in the North American comics tradition? And what about examples of ecocriticism in other comic art traditions from around the world?

There are so many possibilities for research, not only in Kelly’s work, but also, for example, in John Porcellino’s comics, especially Thoreau at Walden (and in any number of strips over the years in King-Cat), in Simon Moreton’s recent (and excellent) Grand Gestures, and in Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing (see Qiana Whitted’s essay in Comics and the U.S. South). After our Walt Kelly panel, Nancy Goldstein pointed out parallels between Kelly’s images of factories and smokestacks in the later Pogo strips and Jackie Ormes’s work from the early 1950s. I’ve been trying to think of other examples of an ecological awareness in comics, especially ones from the early 1970s, such as the final issue of Marvel’s The Savage Sub-Mariner from 1974 (#72), which opens with this image:

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While not as elegant as Walt Kelly’s depictions of the Okefenokee Swamp, Dan Adkins’ splash page, featuring inks by Vince Colletta, is atmospheric and evocative. The rope divides the image in half, with Namor, our hero, in the upper right corner, smaller and less distinct than the tire and the black tennis show that fill the rest of the page. The text boxes and the title—“From the Void It Came…”—at the bottom of the page add to the clutter.

For all its atmosphere, this is a difficult page to read, with all sorts of details competing for our attention. Skeates even includes a clever line about the comic book convention of the thought bubble. In the lower, right-hand corner of the page, we read,

He swims…and the thoughts that trail him—past battles forming present memories—these thoughts enlarge like balloons formed from the bubbles created by his own churning movements[,] thoughts that then transform into slow-burning rage.

In rest of the comic, there is a sometimes awkward relationship between word and image—Skeates’ elaborate prose juxtaposed with Adkins’ large, sparsely detailed panels, often in grids of three.

Over the course of 31 pages, most of them filled with advertisements, Namor battles two surface-dwellers, one of whom attacks because, he explains, “we don’t need any crummy fish-men hanging out around here!” There’s a green space creature who blinds the Sub-Mariner and then miraculously restores our hero’s sight a few pages before the end of the story. Finally, there’s an almost happy ending, as the more tolerant of the two dock-workers rescues his friend and exclaims, “Let’s go back to my pad and have a few drinks. I just bought a new professional wrestling magazine!” Is this another narrative, one embedded in the text—two young men cruising, one tolerant, the other filled with hatred of himself and of anyone else who represents difference?

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Anyway, the panels on page 27 are rather tender and surprising. While Namor’s redemption on page 31 is predictable, the first of two panels on page 32—filled with the blue-skinned corpses of Namor’s fellow Atlanteans—returns us to the splash page’s dread and clutter. Look to the right of these final, apocalyptic images and there is an advertisement for fishing poles, lures, and tackle including “50 natural bait lures” and “sure shot action with shrimp, minnows, grasshoppers, mayflies, bumblebees, crickets, leeches”: 

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I’m certain the production staffers who placed this ad at the end of the comic did so without intention or irony. A Marvel comic book published in 1974 is filled with advertisements, usually for products and services targeted at boys and young men. But how do we read this ad for bait and tackle in light of the comic’s focus on pollution, intolerance, and final redemption? How does one shape our reading of the other? In his notes for the Arcades Project, Walter Benjamin describes the consumer products that might illuminate a history of the 19th century: “These items on display are a rebus: how one ought to read here the birdseed in the fixative pan, the flower seeds beside the binoculars, the broken screw atop the musical score, and the revolver above the goldfish bowl—is right on the tip of one’s tongue” (see The Arcades Project 540).

I imagine any discussion of comics and the American environmentalist movement would require an analysis of the relationship between, for example, Walt Kelly’s We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us and Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” from his 1971 song cycle What’s Going On. How might this final issue of The Savage Sub-Mariner from 1974 be read in relation to Jimi Hendrix’s “1983…(A Merman I Should Turn To Be)” from his 1968 double-record Electric Ladyland? That miniature Afrofuturist rock opera imagines a world so devastated by nuclear war that the protagonist, like Melville’s Ishmael or the space hippies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Wooden Ships,” looks to the ocean for escape and survival.

What “1983,” “Wooden Ships,” “Mercy Mercy Me” and even the Sub-Mariner share in common is the sense that our only possible salvation from the environmental catastrophes of the present involves the prophetic use of the imagination. Like the time-travelers of Chris Marker’s 1962 film La Jetée, in which, the narrator tells us, a nuclear holocaust has made space travel impossible, our only hope lies in our ability to move not in space but in time through an act of memory: “Space was off-limits. The only hope for survival lay in Time. A loophole in Time, and then maybe it would be possible to reach food, medicine, sources of energy” (read the fill English translation of the script here).

In Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye, we encounter an Afrofuturism that engages with the present by calling into question our stewardship of the environment. What is the connection between Marvin Gaye’s radical transformation of what was possible for Motown and for soul music and the Sub-Mariner’s struggle with the “surface men” who, he says, do naught else, save pollute”? This Sub-Mariner story is clearly another product of the “relevance” fad that swept comics in the early 1970s. But would it be possible to trace the origins of this socially-conscious form of popular storytelling to the American psychedelic rock, r&b, and funk of the late 1960s?

There’s a story here waiting to be written. Here are a few other places to begin: in Dianne D. Glave’s 2010 book Rooted in the Earth: Reclaiming the African American Environmental Heritage; in Finis Dunaway’s already-mentioned article on the first Earth Day in 1970; in Richard Todd Stafford’s recent Popular Culture Association paper on ecocriticism and Joe Sacco’s comics. I also wonder if Heidi MacDonald’s call earlier this week for a closer analysis of the idea of place in the work of artists including Julia Gförer and Lilli Carré might be understood as an invitation for an ecocritical reading of these contemporary comics. MacDonald points out, for example that

There is a large body of comics work, mostly by males, that deals with the sea and exploration (Nick Bertozzi, Kevin Cannon, Drew Weing, Cristolphe Blain) WHO WORE IT BEST?

Would an ecocritical reading of Anders Nilsen’s Rage of Poseidon be possible? If so, what shape would it take?

I’ll end with a few more notes from Benjamin:

Method of this project: literary montage. I needn’t say anything. Merely show. I shall purloin no valuables, appropriate no ingenious formulations. But the rags, the refuse—these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them. (See Benjamin, The Arcades Project 460)

Thanks again to Jared Gardner, Lucy Shelton Caswell, and all the other great folks at OSU for the opportunity to be part of the Academic Conference at this year’s Festival of Cartoon Art at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum. It was a wonderful opportunity to see old friends and to meet new ones. For a more detailed final analysis of the Festival, see Tom Spurgeon’s detailed notes and photos at The Comics Reporter.

Grass Green’s Afrofuturism: Notes from Columbus, Part 2

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A copy of Richard “Grass” Green’s Xal-Kor, The Human Cat #1, New Media Publishing, August 1980

In a letter dated January 1962, Jack Kirby offered advice and encouragement to aspiring comic book artist Richard “Grass” Green. In the letter, published in the June 2002 issue of Roy Thomas’s Alter Ego magazine, Kirby explains some of the more technical aspects of drawing comic books. “In regard to comic magazine pages,” Kirby writes, “I rule mine to a size of 12 ½ X 18 ½ and divide them into thirds. The size of the individual panels should depend on the artist’s dramatic sense.” Before closing the paragraph, Kirby adds, “Actually, you will find that scenes with the most movement will demand larger space.”

Tom Spurgeon points out Green’s “particular fondness for Jack Kirby and the superhero genre” in an obituary published in The Comics Journal #247 (October 2002) shortly after Green’s death from lung cancer at age 63. Encouraged by Kirby’s letter, Spurgeon writes, “Green became one of the most prolific fanzine artists of his time, contributing pin-up art, adventure stories and parodies to the parade of publications upon which mainstream superhero companies built their fervent, dedicated modern audiences.” I thought again about Green and his work after John Jennings’ talk last week at the Festival of Cartoon Art. John’s talk, “Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection,” included selections from his striking collaborations with Stacey Robinson. Jennings and Robinson sample images from Jack Kirby’s comics in a series of paintings that imagine, for example, what Galactus might look like if he and the Silver Surfer teamed up with Sun Ra’s Arkestra. You can see a few slides from John’s talk on Gene Kannenberg’s Flickr page.

Towards the close of his lecture, John suggested a link between Kirby’s idea of the Source and George Clinton’s vision of the Funk. The Black Kirby images, John explained, are remixes of Kirby’s art and concepts. I began to wonder if Grass Green’s comics, especially the Xal-Kor stories, might be read as significant, early examples of Afrofuturism.

In order to tell the interdimensional tale of Xal-Kor’s fight to contain the evil of Queen Roda and the other citizens of the planet Rodens, Green created a cosmic landscape of bizarre creatures, dynamic action, and slapstick humor. After producing work for Kitchen Sink, Charlton Comics, Renegade Press, and Eros Comics, Green returned to Xal-Kor in a collection published by TwoMorrows in May 2002. The splash page from the TwoMorrows collection, featuring inks by Angel Gabriele, is an image of Xal-Kor in a state of suspended animation:

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In Green’s 1980 version of Xal-Kor, a character that first appeared in the fanzine Star-Studded Comics in the 1960s, we learn of the ongoing battle between Xal-Kor’s people, the Felinians, and the Rodentites, who have travelled across time and space to reach earth. The “native rat people,” the narrator tells us on a page outlined in traces of Kirby krackle, plan to “rule all of ol’ Universe VI, starting with planet Felis!” The narrator then adds, “—Naturally, the Felinians don’t DIG the idea worth a sh t, and the result is WAR!”

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In “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose,” Mark Dery describes the Afrofuturism of African American writers, artists, and musicians ranging from George S. Schuyler to Sun Ra, Jimi Hendrix to Octavia Butler, Charles Saunders to Jean-Michel Basquiat. “The notion of Afrofuturism,” he writes, “gives rise to a troubling antimony: Can a community whose past has been deliberately rubbed out, and whose energies have subsequently been consumed by the search for legible traces of history, imagine possible futures?” For Grass Green, the answer to this question involves the “movement” and the “larger space” Kirby described in the January 1962 letter.

The 1980 Xal-Kor, The Human Cat includes several apocalyptic fight scenes in which Planet Felis’s champion defends his people and the earth from the Rodentites. Green’s pencils, featuring inks by Howard Keltner, are strange, exciting, often funny, always engaging. At his best, Green draws with a flair that suggests a Midwestern Raymond Pettibon in love with Jack Kirby, cats, and Chicago (although, in Xal-Kor’s world, the war between the Felinians and the Rodentites takes place in Grande City). When Xal-Kor arrives on earth, he employs “his unique mental powers” to transform himself into “basic cat form” before a domestic shorthair—a creature still “in the primitive stage of my ancestors of eons ago, before entering the 4th dimension and hyper-evolution!”—leads him to a breathtaking cityscape. These earth cats might be primitive, but, in Grass Green’s universe, they climb skyscrapers:

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In the first panel of the next page, Green and Keltner include a detailed street scene, one with traces of the urban landscape featured in the artist’s controversial Super Soul Comix #1, published by Kitchen Sink in October 1972. In The Comics Journal’s 2002 obituary, Denis Kitchen suggests that Green “never seemed interested in race relations or politics as subject matter, to my frustration.” Later in his discussion with Tom Spurgeon, Kitchen remarks, “I sometimes wondered whether his raunchy humor disguised experiences too painful to relate or whether he felt his own experiences weren’t interesting enough to tell. But he made it clear he had no interest whatever in creating serious comics.” In Super Soul Comix #1, however, Green takes aim at American racism and hypocrisy as he revisits (remixes?) the tropes of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby’s Captain America. And even Xal-Kor—for all its fanciful, comic (cosmic?) touches—includes evidence of Green’s desire to challenge stereotypes of race, class, and gender common in most superhero comics.

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In the text box of the panel’s upper-left corner, the narrator tells us, “Xal-Kor sees and studies all the various peoples from many different walks of life, listening to the talk, learning the myriad expressions…” A balding, middle-aged executive insists that he is happy with his job; a cop chases a boy on a skateboard; three young men marvel at the kid’s speed and daring; two women discuss their relationships as the man behind them, his head turned, remarks, “That kid needs a gud whuppin’!”

In a panel cluttered with word balloons, Green includes the voices of characters from a number of racial and economic backgrounds. In panels like this one, Grass Green is more the Walt Whitman of the underground comics page than the George Clinton of the fan press. He imagines a city like the one Samuel R. Delany describes in his book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. Green’s street scene is a space in which what Delany calls “interclass contact” is possible:

Contact and its human rewards are fundamental to cosmopolitan culture, to its art and to its literature, to its politics and its economics; to its quality of life. Relationships are always relationships of exchange–semiotic exchange at the base, in a field where, as Foucault explained, knowledge, power, and desire all function together and in opposition within the field of discourse. (See Delany 198-199)

Green is at his most futuristic when his panels are at their most quotidian: men and woman, old and young, black and white, each one walking, talking, and interacting within a visionary, almost utopian urban landscape–the “movement” that “will demand larger space.”

If Afrofuturism as a style or set of strategies is a means of imagining the future, it often begins with attention to the present, even as it struggles to recover the past. Think, for example, of the heroine of Octavia Butler’s Kindred, or the explorers of Pauline Hopkins’ 1903 novel Of One Blood: Or, the Hidden Self. As Paul Gilroy reminds readers in his classic essay on the Black Atlantic, a sense of location–coordinates in time and space–are essential in any attempt to articulate a diasporic identity: “It ain’t where you’re from,” Gilroy reminds us in the title of his essay, “it’s where you’re at,” a line adapted from Eric B. and Rakim’s classic 1987 track “I Know You Got Soul.” In Grass Green’s world, “where you’re at” is always about what you hear; the word balloons that fill his panels are like notes or chord diagrams on a sheet of music. As Tom Spurgeon reminds us in TCJ #247, after all, Green was also a working musician.

A week after John’s lecture, I am still imagining Captain America on board the Mothership, and I am remembering Grass Green’s shape-shifting cats, his time-traveling rat warriors, and his “strangely beautiful” skyscrapers.

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Photo of Grass Green (1939-2002) from Tom Spurgeon’s obituary, The Comics Journal #247 (October 2002), p. 32

For more about Grass Green’s impact on comic fan culture and the underground comix scene, see Leonard Rifas’s “Racial Imagery, Racism, Individualism, and Underground Comix” at ImageText. Also read Green’s wife Janice remember her husband here at http://www.inter-fan.org. For more on Kirby’s note to Green, see Bill Schelly’s detailed introduction to the letter on pages 25 and 26 of Alter Ego #15.

Next: A few last words on my OSU trip with notes on Walt Kelly, Namor the Sub-Mariner, and an attempt at a genealogy of comics and ecocriticism.

“The Art of the Future”: Notes from Columbus, Part 1

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I spent three days last week at the Festival of Cartoon Art hosted by the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at the Ohio State University in Columbus. You can read more about the Festival and the grand opening of the Billy Ireland’s beautiful new building at Charles Hatfield’s blog and in Christian Hoffer’s article at The Outhouse. Tom Spurgeon also includes several links to photos from the Columbus festivities at The Comics Reporter.

I’ll write in more detail about my experiences at the Festival in my next couple of blog posts. As Charles notes in his report, the weekend was so filled with excellent presentations and inspiring talks with artists, scholars, and critics that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Rather than talk directly about the sessions, or about Jeff Smith and Paul Pope, or about the Hernandez Brothers, I’d like to consider a brief conversation I had with Charles about memory and nostalgia and geography.

How does a sense of place shape our understanding of both space and time? Looking out the window of my room on the fifteenth floor of the Hyatt Regency, I saw a network of grey concrete overpasses, redbrick factory buildings, a Wonder Bread sign in huge red letters. I was in Columbus to talk about Walt Kelly and his boyhood in Bridgeport, Connecticut—his family’s move from Philadelphia to the coast of Long Island Sound when he was only two years old; his father’s work at the Remington Arms Company during the city’s World War I boom years; Kelly’s love of bird watching. In the closing paragraphs of my essay I argued that Kelly is a New England regionalist, an artist in the tradition of other writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Jack Kerouac (Kerry Soper, who presented an excellent paper on race, stereotype, and Pogo, gestures towards this argument in his book We Go Pogo when he discusses the connections between Kelly and Mark Twain. Kerry situates Kelly’s Okefenokee Swamp not in Georgia but in a landscape adjacent to the one inhabited by On the Road’s Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty).

When I imagine Connecticut I remember my father’s law partner, the late Emil A. Petke. Emil was born on March 7, 1913. He died on April 10, 1991, just a few months before I began my first year at Dartmouth College. Emil never had any children of his own, but lived with a cat and a three-legged dog in a house filled with books and newspapers on High Street in Terryville, Connecticut (“Not really on High Street but Emil liked to say High Street,” my dad reminded me in a text message). Emil was also a Dartmouth graduate and sometimes, when he’d been drinking, he would call me and sing college fight songs from the 1930s. I saved a few of his letters, each one written in pencil on yellow legal paper. The letters are filled with advice on how to write. One of them, dated January 1988, offers a lesson on the importance of place. In my Pogo paper, I set out to describe the world of Kelly’s childhood—the two-family houses, the munitions factories, the migrants and immigrants, the birds and the wetlands, the “snakes, rabbits, frogs, rats, turtles, bugs, berries, ghosts, and legends” Kelly describes in the essay he wrote for Martin Levin’s collection Five Boyhoods in 1962.

I struggled with my revisions for several weeks until Allison and my dad and I visited the Bridgeport History Center on the third floor of the Bridgeport Public Library in late October. With the help of librarians Mary Witkowski and Robert Jefferies, I copied selections from the Walt Kelly and P.T. Barnum clipping files. In Bob Stock’s January 14, 1951 article on Kelly for the Bridgeport Post, I learned that the artist loved watching birds when he was a boy. I read about his grammar school, about his proud parents and their home on 457 East Avenue, about his years as a Disney animator: “Walt Kelly, Who Gives Life to Disney Characters in the Films, Sees Animated Caricatures Fast Becoming ‘The Art of the Future’” reads the headline of Anne Whelan’s Bridgeport Sunday Post article dated June 8, 1941.

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I wrote an essay about Connecticut at my kitchen table here in Chicago for a conference in Columbus. I thought again about Emil’s advice as I worked on the paper’s closing paragraphs.

When I first read his letter, which I have transcribed below, I understood it as advice on how to use description. But, as I read it now, I am thinking instead about location, about both space and time. As you’ll see, my father’s old friend had no use for originality. He alludes to the book of Ecclesiastes when he adds, in a note written in the margins of the letter, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” He underlines the sentence that follows: “There was one creator.” At 14, I read this as another theology lesson like the ones I’d studied since my Catholic grammar school days. But this letter is more an invitation than a writing tutorial. After naming a series of writers and philosophers—a list that reflects Emil’s early-twentieth century Ivy League education—he remarks, “Anyone who likes to read + write can join” this catalogue of artists. To Emil’s list I would add Phillis Wheatley, Walter Benjamin, Anna Kavan, Jack Smith, W.G. Sebald, a few of my heroes and heroines.

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Emil urged me to consider place and time and geography. He doesn’t say, Write what you know. Rather, he says, write what you see, and what you remember. Offer the reader a map, not of the town itself, or of the territory, but of the lunch counter—the napkins, the spoons, the coffee stains, the register, the spare change. The bowl of soup. The “pretty waitress.” The manager. Write descriptively, then? Use details? Be specific? No. Be present. Observe. Remember.

Anyway, this is the letter Emil Petke wrote to me on January 12, 1988. I have saved it all these years in an envelope marked Emil, the name written in my dad’s handwriting, stored in a copy of William R. Bowlin’s A Book of Treasured Poems, published in 1928—one of Emil’s books. He loved Dartmouth, and he loved Daniel Webster, and he loved poetry.  I thought about him a lot when I was in Columbus last week.

 1/12/88

Dear Brian,

When I was in high school in Terryville I was required to write a theme of my choice for the first time.

I had no idea what to do. I read a German magazine to which my parents subscribed. It had a story to this effect:

A young man entered a restaurant, sat at a table and ordered a bowl of soup from a pretty waitress. She served the soup & left. After a reasonable pause he called her back—saying—“Lady I can’t eat this soup.” She responded by replacing it with another bowl. Again he called her back with the same complaint. She called the manager (or owner) who was met with the same complaint. The manager requested a reason because other patrons became attracted by the commotion.

The patron then said, “I can’t eat this soup because I have no spoon.”

I used this story to describe the town & the favorite restaurant therein, its owner/employees, the food & service they offered and a host of other observations I visualized.

The result was an A on the theme even though other members of the class complained that it was an old story.

Admittedly the joke was old hat, but the scene and characterizations were mine.

[Signed,] Judge

N.B. Nota Bene

Always remember that there is nothing new under the sun. There was one creator. All the rest from the prophets, Homer, Virgil, Aristotle, Plato, Confucius, Caesar [Chaucer?], Shakespeare, Milton, Ben Franklin, Jefferson, Schiller, Longfellow, Whittier, Dickens, Kipling, Tennyson and my idol (Dan Webster) are his disciples, working for the benefit of man. Anyone who likes to read & write can join them. [Signed,] EAP [Judge Emil A. Petke]

Next: More notes from Columbus, including how John Jennings got me thinking about Richard “Grass” Green, Eric B. and Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul,” and Sun Ra’s Chicago.