Tagged: Maus

Marc Alan Fishman: Comics Are Good For Learnin’

So it came to my attention by way of an amazingly nice lass that some forward thinking teacher-types are slowly coming around the bend. Yup, they are looking toward comic books, those evil things, as potential fodder for their classrooms. Gasp! And, as it would seem, this very nice girl asked me – little old me – to give my two cents on the matter. And because I love killing two birds with one stone, I figured this outta make a great li’l rant to share with you, my adoring public. Of course, I realize now I admitted to the glee I feel when I commit aviaricide. Well, there went my fan-base. Tally ho!

I know back in the olden days, comics were largely seen as kitchy wastes of ink and paper. Kids buried in them were potentially violent sociopaths just waiting to commit crimes of laziness. But by the time I was in school they were starting to be called graphic novels. Thanks in large part to the artsy works of Art Spiegelman, Joe Kuburt, and Will Eisner, the medium as a whole was slowly pulling itself out of the low-bro.

That being said, I was never assigned a graphic novel to read for a class. Nor was I able to select one for independent book reports or the like. Even within the realm of studio art classes I was nixed the ability to cite Alex Ross as a major influence without scoffs. But as Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a changin’.”

If I were to suggest opening up a classroom to comics, well, it’s a simple issue – do it. Comics are easily one of the best gateways to literacy I can think of. Truth be told, the first books our parents read us (and I’m reading to my own boy now) are gloriously illustrated. Dr. Seuss, a one-time newspaper comics guy, is just panel borders away from sharing shelf space with Daniel Clowes. In the earliest of classroom settings I’d start with the recognizable. Art Baltazar and Franco’s Tiny Titans is as accessible a comic as I know of. But more than just being kid friendly, the book is funny, bright, and charming. So much so that I was an avid reader of it long before I was even married, let alone a father. And because it uses semi-recognizable super hero sidekicks, it’s easy for kids to relate, and learn to read.

Tiny Titans aside, there’s always Jeff Smith’s tome of toonage, Bone. The long running series blends laughs, mysteries, and adventure. If kids can’t find something to love there? Well, then I’ll eat my hat. Come to think of it, I don’t own hats anymore. Note to self…

Beyond the early readers, the always-tough-to-please nine year olds (perhaps through 13 or 14?) are going to start dividing themselves. Girls have cooties. Boys are messy. The division of the sexes may make many a teacher feel like comic books will degrade into the capes and cowls for the boys and leave nothing for the girls. Nay, I say. Nay! Both the boys and girls can take heed that I myself grew to love comics at this tender age due to the long-running Archie series. And Archie, unlike his more heroic counterparts, seems to have found a way to stay with the times, without diverging into the too-real, too-gritty, or too-angsty. Consider also the Adventures of TinTin. Long before it was a computer-animated movie, it was a comic. A great comic. And don’t we all laugh a bit when we recount the Scrooge McDuck comics of yesteryear? That book was doing Inception long before Chris Nolan was firing up the vomit-comet to film anti-gravity fight scenes.

The real meat and potatoes for me though come right at adolescence. Here, our kids are primed to learn that comics are more than just good fun. The Pulitizer Prize-winning Maus (by the aforementioned Spiegelman), Jew Gangster (by the late and beyond-great Kubert), and A Contract With God (by Will Eisner) all help teach that the medium of comics transcends the super power set. And sure, they all hold quite a bit of Jewish lore to them… so allow me to expand beyond Judaica.

Mike Gold himself turned me on to Stagger Lee by Derek McCulloch and Kings in Disguise by Dan E. Burr. They are both amazing reads. And please, don’t get me wrong – comics at this tender age need not be without a twinge of the supernatural. Watchmen might as well be a high school freshman class in and of itself. Frank Miller’s Sin City and or 300 are far better on page than on screen, and on screen they were both pretty amazing.

And let’s not leave Marvel out of this. Kurt Busiek’s Marvels singlehandedly brought me out of a four year freeze of comic book reading. It’s insightful, and a beautiful take on super heroes from the human perspective. And I’ve little column space left to suggest even more here… Empire by Mark Waid and Barry Kitson, Astro City, Batman: Year One, Runaways and Y: The Last Man all spring to mind. But I digress.

Suffice to say, introducing comics to a literature program shouldn’t be that hard to tackle. The fact is the medium itself makes open discussion far easier to instigate. More work to enjoy than watching a movie, without the scariness of endless pages without something beyond words to look at means less barrier to entry. For those learning to read (or who have trouble with it) comics are a gateway drug to amazing new worlds. For those already well versed in literature, comics offer an endless string of independent authors bringing original takes on the world that combine their plots with art that tends to force us to stop and appreciate. Akin to indie films, comics at any age offer more than the commercial world. Thanks to a bit of knowledge gained at this year’s Harvey Awards (thank you, Ross Ritchie), I leave on this thought:

 “The French codified it well: they call it “The Ninth Art.” The first is architecture, the second sculpture. The third painting, the fourth dance, then there’s music, poetry, cinema, and television. And ninth is comic books.”

Now, the question is: if it is indeed the ninth art of our world, comics should not be considered for the classroom. They should be compulsory.

SUNDAY: John Ostrander


Mike Gold: Bad Taste Tastes Good

I am of the opinion that “bad taste” is a good thing. It’s the most ridiculously subjective concept imaginable: what offends me (admittedly, very little) might be absolutely awesome to you, and we each have a right to our opinions.

I was fortunate enough to be the editor and, along with ComicMix co-conspirator John Ostrander, co-conceiver of a DC Comics series called Wasteland. It was the black hole of humor, a monthly love-letter to bad taste. The stories usually had a point with enough wiggle-room in each concept to cause the reader night sweats. John wrote the series, often in tandem with improv legend Del Close, and we had a rotating gaggle of extraordinarily gifted artists as our visual collaborators. We’d have four going at any one time: three doing interior stories and one doing the cover. The one who did the cover in month one would do an interior job in month two, and so on. The artists usually came up with the cover concepts.

I only rejected one Wasteland cover. Drawn by Bill Wray, it happens to be my favorite. Those of you who are familiar with the Wasteland run might wonder just what it would take to cross my line. What it took was my concern for the continued existence of the comic book shop retailer: if not for the fact that we had to sell the thing, I would have published the cover about a hobo fishing off of a bridge into a sea of floating dead babies in a heartbeat.

 (Just for shits and grins, I took it to editor-in-chief Dick Giordano anyway. He took one look at it, laughed, and said “You already rejected this!” I miss Giordano a lot.)

All of this is my way of reviewing a truly wonderful new book, [[[Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See]]] by Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker and publisher of TOON Books. Under her editorship, The New Yorker’s covers shifted rather rapidly from inoffensive fodder to litter doctors’ waiting rooms into a powerful agent provocateur lurking on the newsstands with the sole purpose of confronting our assumptions and values.

Well, not quite every week. Perhaps their most infamous of these covers rests atop this column; it is among the many that has acted as a pie tossed in the face of the pathetically uptight. Most of these covers are reprinted in Blown Covers…

… and so, as the title suggests, are many that didn’t make it. Most of those reprinted in this tome are certainly print-worthy, and to be fair, many didn’t make it because somebody else beat them to it, including Mad Magazine, which also employed the aforementioned Bill Wray. Some… simply… crossed the line. That inevitable, damned line.

Reading Blown Covers is great fun. Just looking at the pictures is great fun, but reading about the decision-making process should be de rigueur for anybody who thinks editing stuff might be a legitimate way to earn a living. Quotes from the artists abound.

My favorite of these rejects was one that wasn’t even offered for publication: it was done by Art Spiegelman, a frequent cover contributor and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, to his wife, the aforementioned Ms. Mouly. It was a drawing of a cattle car overstuffed with Jews on its way to a Nazi concentration camp. One guy was on his cell phone… and his über-cramped neighbors in the cattle car were annoyed and pissed.

What? Too soon?

Like I said, Blown Covers is great fun. Give it out as Christmas gifts to all your relatives.

I will.

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See • Françoise Mouly • Abrams Books • $24.95 retail, also available in electronic editions.

THURSDAY: Dennis O’Neil and the Secret To Getting Hired In Comics!


DENNIS O’NEIL: Christmas Gift Fun

The good news is, the Christmas gift list is shorter this year.

The bad news is, the Christmas gift list is shorter this year.

But enough gloom, for ‘tis the season to be jolly, ‘tis it not?

And judging from the number of cars in the mall parking lot, the season ‘tis jollier’n hell. Don’t these shoppers know about the mess the economy’s in?

Did I mention fa la la la la la?

And now a quick trip into the Chamber of Curmudgeons, significantly emptier since Andy Rooney’s gone. But (entering the chamber) I am the guy who once commissioned a magazine cover depicting a skeleton in Santa Claus garb holding an empty sack, so my curmudgeon cred is intact. And I proclaim:

It used to be so much easier, dang it!

Buying gifts for comics geeks, that is. Because there really wasn’t much choice. Back in the Pleistocene, when I was reading my first comics, Batman or a Superman might serve as an also-gift, what’s called a stocking stuffer, but even a not-too-bright gradeschooler knew that a comic cost only a dime and there had to be something else under the tree.

Later, much later, after the first Batman hardcover graphic novels turned out to be good sellers – best sellers in the limited world of comics – an editor or two was yearly tasked with producing a hardcover for the holiday trade. It was sometimes difficult for the editors, but a good deal for people seeking a present for that snotty nephew who always had his head in them funny books. A couple of sawbucks and – problem solved.

Now… big changes. As a stereotype, that kid with the buried head no longer exists. Comics have attained full parity with other forms of story delivery. You’re not expected to be dumb if you read the stuff. You can, with good conscience, buy a graphic novel for almost anyone you know who likes to read. Or use something comicy to introduce a reader to something he/she hasn’t yet discovered, and might enjoy. You doubt? Hey, Maus won a Pulitzer.

But your choices aren’t limited to Art Spiegelman’s masterpiece. Lordy, no. The monster book mart in the aforementioned mall has a wall full of comics stuff: manga, hardcovers, paperbacks, reprints, originals…that’s not counting the novelizations of movies over in the science fiction section and…that’s not counting the growing list of books about comics.

Cost? All the way from four-five bucks to – brace yourself – four hundred American dollars for the deluxe edition of Star Wars comics published by Abrams and also available in a more modest edition. (Okay, I wrote the introduction. But I don’t get royalties. We’re honest curmudgeons here in the Chamber.)

My recommendation? How about, all of the above? Or: if you’re a book person, you probably like to browse. So browse, on online or off. If you’re likely to be the gift recipient, drop hints. You know how to do that. You’re smart. You’re a comic book reader.

FRIDAY: Martha Thomases