guttergeek formerly discontinuous review of graphic narrative; now just discontinuous

Eisners 2017

I watch the Emmys, the Golden Globes. I have watched every Oscars for the last 50 years—and I will almost certainly watch all the rest of them until they finally hang up this whole "film" thing—and never once have I walked away feeling that the ceremony conferred any meaningful honors on the best work of the previous year. But it is a spectacle, a ritual, a strange act of purgation in which Hollywood pretends for a season to be something it is not (and of course, therefore, inevitably has no idea how to judge itself). And it is all Hollywood, which is for me a world apart and a world for which I have at best loving contempt.

For those of us who inhabit our gutterworld, of course, comics is different. I find sitting through the comics awards programs deeply painful. I can't help but feel the disappointment of anyone in the room who worked so hard and didn't win (or, worse, did not get nominated), the self-doubt of everyone who did win ("Do I deserve this? Can I ever make another book?"), and the frantic desperation of everyone called on to play the role of hosts or presenters who cannot wait to retire to the anonymity of the crowd. For a small and intimate community, awards are frankly gut-wrenching things. I myself managed to skip all three of the ceremonies for which I was nominated for an Eisner, not because I couldn't bear to lose in public (as a loving hanger-on in the world of comics, it truly was just awesome to be invited to the party), but because I couldn't bear for people to feel the need to extend to me comfort and support that others deserved and perhaps needed more.

In fact, so wigged-out do awards in comics make me, that in all my years of writing about comics, I have largely avoided the topic. But I feel compelled for some reason to pause over last night's Eisners, to celebrate some fabulous nominees (some of whom also were fabulous winners).

The big star of the evening was Sonny Liew who took home three awards, including Best Writer/Artist. He is totally deserving, but perhaps most exciting is to see the orbit of America's still-provincial understanding of global comics begin to expand to include Singapore. I expected him to win in the "Asian" category (despite there being some terrific work nominated), but winning Writer/Artist is a meaningful step towards something like a truly international awards ceremony.

Still, Writer/Artist included some fabulous cartoonists doing some of their best work, including Tom Hart's heartbreaking masterpiece Rosalie Lightning, one of my very favorite works of the decade, along with Jessica Abel and Box Brown, who I admire like hell and also really like as people. Yeah, I kind of hate comics awards.

I try not to complain about the winners, and really what's the point, since the Eisners try to appeal to all and thus inevitably must disappoint everyone. But the Best Single-Issue/One-Shot award was a disappointment to me only because I wanted Noah Van Sciver (Blammo) or Ben Passmore (Your Black Friend) to win. But it was very cool to have these books acknowledged on this stage, and hopefully everyone will grab a copy of them.

I cannot complain about Vision winning best limited series or Saga winning best continuing series. Seems more than fair enough in both cases. Same for Jughead in Humor and Lemire and Ormston's Black Hammer winning Best New Series (Black Hammer should not work—haven't we done this conceit before?—and yet it does, really well. So, yeah!). Raina Telgemeier's Ghosts winning in the "9-12" category was as close to a slam dunk as could have been imagined (if bookies had odds on Eisners, it would have been something like a 1:10 bet) and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl winning in the YA category will outrage no one (although I personally would have loved to see Abel's Trish Trash: Roller Girl of Mars win that one).

I thought the Anthology category was one of the toughest this year, with so many worthy titles. I'll confess, I actually think the least accomplished anthology of the group won—Love is Love—but it was dedicated to such a good cause it is impossible to get agitated about it. Island is the best anthology comic in years, Kramer's 9 was a return to form for the illustrious alt anthology, and Spanish Fever was an important contribution to our understanding of a world of European comics beyond France and Belgium. They should pass out awards to all of them, honestly.

In Reality-Based Work (one of the dumber category names in the Eisners), again there were just too many deserving titles (including the aforementioned Rosalie Lightning). But in the end there was only one inevitable winner: the third and final volume of the remarkable March. What John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell accomplished with that series has probably done more good for the world of comics (and, hopefully, in the world at large... although I am less confident in my ability to judge the world beyond comics) than any other title since Maus.

I was thrilled to see Jason Shiga's completely batshit insane Demon win "Best Graphic Album—Reprint" (why "reprint"? because it was published first online?). I just got my hands on Volume 3 of the series, and it just keeps getting better (and more deranged).

I think the right title probably won for Best U.S. Edition of International Material. Dark Horse's edition of Moebius's The World of Edena is just stunning and a treasure for all fans of the late master's work. Still, I hope Paco Roca's Wrinkles gets some love, as it is a special work by a Spanish cartoonist who deserves a lot more fans here in the U.S. (again, part of the problem with U.S. comicdom's blinkered vision of the world, which includes Japan, France and America and often forgets about the rest of the planet's long history with the form).

If any title other than The Complete Wimmen’s Comix had won the Best Archival Collection/Project—Comic Books prize I probably would have blown a gasket. Fortunately, my gaskets were safe. Best Comics-Related Book was probably the only other category I was prepared to go to pieces over, but again the voters saved me by giving the Eisner to Michael Tisserand's Krazy. Phew.

Best Archival Collection/Project—Strips was a tougher category, and while I love Peter Maresca's Sunday Press edition of Dick Tracy, I was really rooting for Barnaby to finally get some bling. Ah well.

Finally, I feel I should probably say something about the Best Academic/Scholarly Work award. Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation by Carolyn Cocca took the prize, and it is a strong volume. Among the nominees, the book deserved the prize. But those of us who follow academic comics scholarship closely cannot help but wonder what went wrong with this year's nominations: where, for example, was Scott Bukatman's Hellboy's World, Hillary Chute's Disaster Drawn, Ramzi Fawaz's New Mutants, and Christopher Pizzino's Arresting Development—all of which are major works and significant interventions in the field? Still, not really complaining here. I am grateful to the Eisners for having the category at all, an acknowledgment by comics professionals of the growth and (I hope) utility of comics studies as a field.

Ultimately, these awards for us comics folks are really a chance to reflect back on the year that was, and to recommit ourselves to the year to come. There will always be blind spots, missed opportunities, and Monday Saturday morning quarterbacks kvetching about it all. But while Hollywood pretends to be a community once a year, comics really is one, and it is one that seeks always to make of itself something better than it was before. As someone who has been hanging around these parts for the better part of a half-century, I know for certain that it does and will.


In Search of Lost Webcomics

I have a query. And a plea.

First the query. I am teaching a graphic medicine seminar, and we recently focused on Miriam Engelberg’s Cancer Made Me A Shallower Person (2006).

I first read Engelberg’s work in book form, unaware of its existence on the web the book’s publication. So when a student asked me what the original online publication looked like, I suggested we use the seminar’s break to see what we could find online.

We found very little. Engelberg’s LiveJournal, which she set up after the book deal was arranged at the suggetion of her publisher, still exists, but the links to what was the original site for the comics’ posting ( is now dead. The Internet Archive turned up only a couple of snapshots of the lost site, none of which featured more than 3 of the original comics and none with any blog discussion or comments, if there indeed ever was any (I suspect not).

I probably would have been able to avoid obsessing over it if not for a passing reference in one of Engelberg’s late entries in her LiveJournal, from August 17, 2006, in which she let her readers know that she was entering a home hospice program. Even as she is facing the worst possible news and at the end of a very long fight, however, she mentions that she “did manage a new cartoon today,” and that she is “going to try to put up a new comic of the week but it may be in black and white this time (or Photoshop color).”

Engelberg’s post suggests that the black-and-white familiar to readers of the book was not the only format in which her comics were originally shared— some were in color, and presumably hand-colored (given the suggestion that the pressures of late-stage cancer might force her to turn instead to Photoshop for her color work).

Digging a bit deeper with the powerful if blunt instrument that is the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to recover one late post to her site’s “Comic of the Week” page, presumably the last one posted to the site (all earlier posts to the page are unrecoverable using this tool). The color was a revelation:

So here’s my question: did anyone out there in comics-land archive the site?

And here is my appeal: save all web comics! By which I don’t mean simply download the image files to a hardrive. What we need if the history of this moment is to be recorded is for a systematic and redundant system to be put in place by which we might archive entire sites—commentary, comments, correspondence and even when possible ads—so we can see these comics in future decades as they were originally published, read and engaged with.

Since my vision of such a systematic and redunant system is clearly utopian, at least given the resources at our disposal, let me redirect my appeal as a stop-gap measure to the cartoonists themselves. There are lots of reasons why cartoonists stop publishing to the web—such as: What begins as an inspiring joy devolves into a source of stress, guilt or frustration—none of which are conducive to art-making. The average lifespan of a webcomic hovers somewhere between that of a fruitfly and a gerbil.

And once folks decide it is time to walk away from a webcomic—or, as in Engelberg’s case, are forced to leave it before their time—it becomes very hard to keep up with the website or the annual payments for webhosting and domain registration.

It is always worth thinking about the history of earlier storage media when making predictions about the future. Film is as good an example as one could hope to find: a vastly popular medium with international reach and lots of industrial and institutional support. At only 120 years from its origins, one might imagine that the history of cinema is fully at our disposal. Sadly, this is not the case. Today, only about 20-25% of all silent films produced in the United States between the origins of cinema and the end of the silent era in 1927 still exist. In some part of the world, that proportion is considerably lower; for example, in Japan over 90% of all film made before 1945 is believed lost forever.

By comparison, if we turn to the history of the print—a technology that is fast approaching its 600th birthday—we are hard-pressed to find examples of “lost” books. Yes, we have lost many manuscripts—papers, letters, unpublished novels—which would have been invaluable to history. But the overwhelming majority of printed books published remain in existence on the face of the earth today.

The story of print is of course a less happy one when we include what are often classified under the broad brush of ephemera—newspapers, magazines, handbills, broadsides, greeting cards, etc. Not surprisingly, these are all things I find fascinating and in a career of trying to learn all I can about them, I know how much is lost. After all, these were the what people used as kindling or to wrap fish, or simply read and shared so often that they were literally loved to death. And yet even here it is amazing how much a historian of popular culture can recover—especially compared to the history of “post-print” technologies.

Most of us know the story of Bill Blackbeard who earned his title as “man who saved comics.” What earned him that legendary title was that he saw the weaknesses inherent in a technology that others saw as savior. Microfilm was marketed to libraries across the country battling post-war space challenges as a way to clear the shelves of all those bulky bound periodicals and newspapers in favor of a storage medium that took up a microscopic fraction of the space. Sure enough, libraries started dumping bound volumes of historic newspapers, and with them the legacy of the color newspaper comics supplement was bound for the dumpster. Blackbeard’s mission was a simple one: to rescue as many abandoned volumes as he could and give them shelter in his home, where he he would devote himself tirelessly to cataloguing and studying them.

Today, Blackbeard’s collection is one of the pillars of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum, where it will survive for many generations to come. Micofilm—which had failed visual texts (especially color ones, like the Sunday comics) from the start—is now all-but obsolete, replaced by digital versions of the same. As is often the case when it comes to the “promise” of technology, we have learned precisely nothing from the failures of the previous generation’s promises.

100, 500, 1,000 years into the future, the technology of print on paper will still “work.” Within a decade of its publication in 1994, the HyperCard version of Art Spiegelman’s Maus was no longer readable on any machine in existence at my very large university. There are many reasons to believe that digital comics will be the future of the medium. But the recent history of post-paper storage technologies has given us no reason to believe that the web will leave us with any historical record by which that future might be charted.

Download, backup, and print your webcomics. Future (and present-day) generations will thank you for it.


Ron Cobb, 1968

Over on the gg tumblr, a small gallery of R. Cobb editorial cartoons from the underground press in 1968:


A Comics Reader's Diary 11/6/16: Jason Shiga's DEMON Vol 1

Here are just a few of the comics storylines I'll be happy to never read again:

  1. Favorite child of kindly inventor discovers after his death/disappearance that he was not so beneficent after all.
  2. Protagonist takes psychedelic drug (or stand-in for same) and has a really trippy adventure. Returns to "normal" but everything is now changed. Or not.
  3. It is really hard finding an apartment in Brooklyn when you are an underemployed cartoonist.
  4. Superhero dies and then has to battle through various vaguely defined realms to be not-dead.
  5. Everyone thinks they are alive but it turns out in the end they have been dead all along.
  6. Superhero turns out not to have the best interests of humanity at heart
  7. In the not-so-distant future everything will be horrible but also pretty kinda cool
  8. In the not-so-distant future everything is pretty cool but also kinda horrible

What I had no idea, however, was that there was in fact one story I was dying to read above all other possible stories in the best of all possible worlds. This is the story Jason Shiga, the mad genius behind Meanwhile, Bookhunter, and Empire State, has produced with Demon, his new multi-volume epic which he somehow convinced the usually quite respectable First Second to publish. In other words, what I have been waiting for all these years without knowing it was the story involving a suicidal sociopath who, unfortunately for everyone in his path, cannot in fact die, who learns to use commit suicide with ever more creative and ingenious weapons—including the masterstroke of this volume, a piece of damp toilet paper found in the buttcheeks of an overweight prisoner shaped and hardened with dried semen into a shiv. You know you need to see this, too.

Seriously, this book is insane, and of course also a brilliant intellectual problem-solving exercise, as one would expect from Shiga's work. It is a loud shout-out to comics at their most off-the-hook, socially-irresponsible, and straight-up reckless, a side of comics we are always at risk of losing in this age of the "graphic novel" and "comics studies" unless it is replenished occasionally with the dried semen of way too much liberty. In this respect, Shiga is a true patriot—and maybe the true heir to the Founding Fathers, in whose name his protagonist speaks that timeless cry for liberty, "Suck my private-sector balls motherfucker!"


A Comics Reader's Diary 10/30/16: Dustin Harbin's DIARY COMICS

I love diary comics. I have read all the strangely angry diatribes out there about how diary comics are 'self-indulgent,' 'narcissistic,' and/or 'boring' (as if there's anything more self-indulgent, narcissistic and boring than a blogger ranting about diary comics). For me, they are fascinating reading. Maybe part of it is that I meet so few people these day—being a 50-year introvert married to someone even more introverted than myself doesn't make me a busy butterfly on the social scene, and health issues make social planning a game of russian roulette in which I more often lose new friends than make them by having to cancel at the last second. So, diary comics are my window into the lives of others. I read their lives, or what they choose to share of them within the constraints of the comics form and the often-gruelling disciplines of the diary routine, and if I am lucky, I eventually get to "meet" them at a comics festival ("will you sign my book, Ms. Diary Cartoonist?"), keeping to myself the fact of our 'friendship.'

Actually, that sounds pretty creepy when I write it all down like that. Pretend you didn't read that, and let's start over, shall we? {Cough}

All of this is to introduce a new 'feature' in this on-again/off-again review site, in which I try out for myself the daily disciplines of diary comics, albeit in my case not making comics but briefly sharing my thoughts on the comics I have read each day. As my memory starts its long process of flickering out to blank, this will help me remember what I read before I am half way through it ("gosh, this seems familiar: where have I read something like this before?"), and allow me to share some impressions to compensate in a small measure for no longer regularly reviewing comics.


I somehow missed Dustin Harbin's Diary Comics when Koyama Press published it, so it was an unexpected treat to get to catch up with it a year later. Harbin's diary comics are some of the most gentle, generous and understated in the genre. This volume selects from a series of mini comics Harbin compiled from 2010-12, a period in which he was struggling with depression, beginning and ending and restarting a relationship, and struggling with the daily pressures of life as an artist: deadlines, self-doubt, conventions, and money challenges. And yet despite all of this raw material, Harbin never shares more than he is comfortable with, and never more than we need to know. Even when his relationship ends, we are not privy to the reasons why: it is a private matter and not for this public diary. The same is true of the depression clouds that hover always at the back of the panel: their root cause, even the precise triggers that sets them free, are not matters for discussion.

But Harbin's restraint—both in his art and his text—does not have the effect of keeping the reader at arm's length. Quite the opposite: the lack of specifics in these cases functions as an openness that allows the reader to see their own life in the details not filled in, making the whole more, not less, personal and social. Against the stereotype of the confessional diary cartoonist exposing their every wart and hangnail (which is true of almost no diary comics I can think of, despite jeremiads to the contrary) Harbin knows that there are limits to what we can or should know about another. That is after all what keeps us coming back to learn more about each other—the hope that in testing the limits of what we can know about another person we might begin to push the limits of what we can hope to learn about ourselves.


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