Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Scholarly Jumble

My recent studio show, “That Girl Eats Too Much!”, which featured nine new installments of my ongoing Cartoon Jumbles series of gouache illustrations, offered me the rare opportunity to comment directly upon my own work. For use in her daily blog, Art To Go, Regina Hackett, art critic for the Seattle Post Intelligencer, asked me to choose one of the new works and explain it in a brief caption. Sitting down to my keypad, I quickly found myself waxing effusively upon the series, wherein I take two divergent cartoon characters (Little Lotta and Galactus in the show’s title piece) and place them in a semi-abstract assemblage, based on color, form, and character mythos. Selecting an image that pairs Betty Boop with Andy Capp, one entitled “An Adult Conversation”, I attempted to offer a heady flurry of descriptive verbiage, as equally a jumble as the image it depicted. Quickly fancying myself a precocious mix of Robert Hughes and Joseph Campbell, I was soon enjoying this little diversion in artistic self-interpretation, so much so that I then proceeded to write descriptive captions for each of the nine new illustrations, in the process resurrecting an old alter ego, an eminently pompous, windy critic named Andrew Land.
Having opted to forgo using Land’s imaginary articulations in the show, I’d like to present them now, along with the works themselves, in the hope they might prove amusing.
The nine new Jumbles are currently available for purchase at Comic Art Collective.

Little Lotta & Galactus
Entitled “That Girl Eats Too Much!”, this starring piece in the show is a keen counter-dressing of two seemingly wholly disparate characters of comic book lore. Little Lotta, the over-sized, voracious eater of Harvey Comics fame, fits snuggly into the armored tunic, skirt, and headpiece of Jack Kirby’s interstellar giant, Galactus, the god-like world-eater. Here, the endlessly-hungry child is literally offered the earth and the moon, upon which she is blissfully feasting, striding the vastness of space. The obsessive appetite of each character serves as a conceptual linchpin, giving the playful tone of the Harvey milieu equal gravitas to that of Kirby’s mythic earnestness and operatic grandeur. Interestingly, Galactus feeds himself in order to literally survive an astronomically-demanding metabolism, while Lotta eats to empower herself with the massive caloric intake necessary to give herself super-strength. The starving god and the adrenalin addict, two forces destined to meet at the Dionysian dinner table. – A.L.

Fred Flintstone & Alley Oop
Here we have “Laughable Origins”, another combination in which the jumble effect has coalesced into something approximating union, but this time it is the corporal form that has more readily merged, the clothing remaining in a stubborn state of apparent disapproval. Exploring the similar, yet oppositional form of these two essentially brutish prehistoric characters, Hanna-Barbera’s Fred Flintstone and V.T. Hamlin’s Alley Oop, we find Flintstone’s three-toed foot seeming like a broken parody of Oop’s more authentically-muscled appendage. The image appears to comment upon their primitive iconography, one being the Jackie Gleason-based everyman with the large, almost over-bearing eyes, the other a more competent model of patriarchy sporting a mere pinpoint optic, made expressive only by an extensive, pencil-thin eyebrow. Their composite creation seems to be making the case for man’s binary evolution, that of the progress of his physical aptitude, along with his simultaneous mental/emotional digressions. An eminently bi-polar ancestor, if there ever was one. – A.L.

Bullwinkle & Mark Trail
Calling this piece “Animal Husbands” is clearly suggesting there is something more than a professional interest between park ranger, Mark Trail, star of the long-running newspaper strip created by Ed Dodd and Jack Elrod, and moose, Bullwinkle, star of the revered The Bullwinkle Show, created by Jay Ward and Alex Anderson. The intimate coupling pictured is both homoerotic, hands holding nuts, placed near to groin, and embryogenic, Trail appearing within the womb-like frame of arms, and the unquestionably phallic snout of Bullwinkle (to say nothing of his orgiastic countenance). The white-gloved finger of the moose, positioned for insertion before his extended nostril, is only further indication of the inherent sexual energy of the piece. It is interesting to note the tryst is taking place in the fall (the brown leaves spelling this out) and not the spring, the traditional season of such physical attraction. Am I going out on a limb to suggest the artist is none-too-subtly criticizing the alternative lifestyle, indicating it being the path to a “fall” from grace? Or is this just me over-thinking? The particulars do look quite happy, after all. – A.L.

Betty Boop & Andy Capp
Entitled "An Adult Conversation", this semi-abstract image portrays the inebriated tumult of limb and leer that is the inevitable outcome of a meeting between two iconic cartoon archetypes of yesteryear, Betty Boop and Andy Capp, the floozy and the barfly of the comics page, created by Grim Natwick and Reg Smythe, respectively. Focusing on the thinly-veiled carnality of each character, the artist seems intent on assembling the Freudian aspects of their trademark anatomies, in such a fashion as to playfully hint at these adult considerations, which have, over the years, been denuded and all but erased from their respective mythologies. Here we have Capp’s scarf, protruding erect and red from Boop’s thigh, while Boop grasps Capp’s penis-like foot, her golden necklace vaginal about her wrist, Capp’s other leg positioned for fornication, his thumb rising in approval towards Boop’s garter, as Boop herself seems to be considering Capp’s all-too-phallic, pink-tinged nose, the iconic part in her hair a invitation to further penetration. As all of this implied sexual activity proceeds, Capp’s beer sports an overflowing head, Boop’s martini a cherry, Capp’s cigarette end rising in apparent excitement, watched with interest by Boop’s satellite eye, its heavy lashes pubic in form. A Bacchanalian display of the potent libido which sits at the wellspring of most true pulp concerns, if I’ve ever seen one. – A.L.

Mr. Magoo & Daredevil
Here we have “The Club and Cane Club”, an obvious commentary upon the sightless and sight-impaired in our society. Featuring the visually myopic Mr. Magoo, the bumbling geriatric bachelor of many a popular animated short, created by the UPA Animation Studio, and Daredevil, Marvel Comics’ blind superhero, created by Stan Lee and Bill Everett , this radar-like twirl of head, hand, leg, walking stick, and chapeau is all-too-evidently concerned with the stigma of visual handicap, not just focusing on the perspective of the seeing population, but more succinctly it appears to address the internal strife within the blind community itself, the degree of one’s condition being contested and determined. Note the disembodied hand of each character, reaching out to encounter the other’s face, evoking the trope of the stereotypical blind man reading the face of a stranger as if it were Braille. At the same time we see Daredevil’s other hand, seemingly ready to support Magoo’s wandering foot, while Magoo’s floating hat looks ready to settle upon the heroes’ overtly-Satanic cowl. Is the fully blind offering the partially blind a hand, or is the near-blind attempting to conceal the sightless man’s “otherness”? Are these, perhaps, both gestures of kindness, or are they the visual depiction of an endless argument? The contradictions abound, the least of which is the unclear relationship between Magoo’s cane and Daredevil’s billy club, one there to support, the other to defend and attack. – A.L.

The Black Panther & The Pink Panther
There can be little doubt that this work, boldly entitled “The Secret Dance of America”, is primarily, and solely, concerning itself with our nation’s state of racial disharmony. The Black Panther, the super heroic prince of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, was created by Jack Kirby in 1966, the same year that saw the formation of the identically-named civil rights organization. The Pink Panther, the DePatie-Freleng Studio creation, first appeared in the title credits of the 1963 film, The Pink Panther. Both are here juxtaposed to suggest competition and submission. The eminently European Pink Panther, all sly of movement and intent, is caught in the forward march of the Black Panther, who is focused on a clawing struggle to liberate himself from the bodily barriers the Pink Panther offers up, even as the Pink Panther himself is clearly being deconstructed. There is an almost thankful, relieved look on the Pink Panther’s face, as the Black Panther’s arm separates him from the rest of his body. Can the artist be suggesting that there is a freedom to be found for both, in the ultimate liberation of The Black Panther? Or is he portraying the divisive and cutting nature of the relationship, the co-mingling of two races bound by a history of commercial abduction, displacement, murder, and slavery? – A.L

Casper & Deadman
The title of this piece, “Father Knows Best”, is evidence of a deep paternal longing, one mired in the confusing trails of generation, and its biological inheritance. Here we find the apprehensive countenance of Casper the Friendly Ghost, Harvey Comics’ curious approximation of infant mortality, as he finds himself wrapped within the shroud of Deadman, the DC Comics supernatural hero, a literal dead man who inhabits the bodies of the living to carry out his will. The nighttime scene, the lonely-looking cemetery, and the fresh dirt clinging to the hands and feet of the characters, all point to a recent resurrection, the eerily-composed specter of father and son (be they inherited or related through their proximity to death) having exhumed itself from the grave. From the nervous look on Casper’s face, we can only presume that the will of the father, the Deadman, is the force piloting this nocturnal zombie sojourn. Even in death, the son must obey, his very limbs now crudely wrapped into a bundle with those of his father, secured by Deadman’s blood-red cummerbund, the stoic letter “D” teetering above his head, its pointed serifs threatening reminders of who is in charge, the curse of biological inevitability. – A.L.

Ant-Man & Atom Ant
The title of this piece, “A Colony for the Taking”, would seem to imply some form of colonialism is taking place, though by whom, and to whom, is open to conjecture. We first notice the scattered essentials of the two protagonists of the illustrated tableau, Marvel Comics’ Ant-Man, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and Atom Ant, the entomologically-inclined super hero created by Hanna-Barbera Studios. These body parts appear like crumbs upon a picnic blanket, readily attended to by numerous black ants. That one character is able to communicate with ants, while the other is an ant himself, offers a bounty of psychological entreaties as to the nature of their relationship. Atom Ant is clearly grinning up at Ant-Man’s inverted head, his antennae are prostrate, though curled at the ends, perhaps indicating a willingness to converse, but coming with certain requirements and safeguards. Ant-Man, on the other hand, has resolutely pronged antennae, but his expression betrays a very real anticipation of need for concern. True to their respective duties and folkloric traditions, each appears ready to counter any affront, strapped into their white helmets like race car drivers, Atom Ant’s torso pointing the way towards impending action, its handless arm interestingly accompanied by Ant-Man’s much larger, complete one. – A.L.

Thor & Asterix
The mythology of mythology itself is tackled in this intriguing cornucopia of metal and primary fabric, a tight, formulated grouping of two of comicdom’s most popular ancient warriors, Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor, created by Jack Kirby, and Asterix, the super-empowered ancient Gaul, one of France’s most enduring comic characters, created by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. In this piece, amusingly entitled “An Old Grudge”, many historical implications arise, along with provincial considerations, Thor’s Norse, Germanic Pagan origin perhaps complimenting that of the pint-sized, but spirited Gaul, devoted enemy of the Romans. The visual echoes are many, further uniting the boisterous couple. Each dons a winged, metal helmet, has flowing, golden hair and dark eyebrows. Asterix’s belt is decorated with ovals, as is Thor’s tunic, each wears yellow boots, each is sleeveless and gloveless. The permeation of yellow acts as a thread of unity, a shared battle hue and cry, if you will, one that points to a singular Germanic association, if not a mirrored birthright. Hammer of lightning meets blade powered by pagan elixir, myth and alchemy colliding in a bright, frantic tapestry spun of the warring spirit. – A.L.

ANDREW LAND, born in 1956, in Cambridge, England, is a preeminent commentator upon today’s varied artistic disciplines, a critic who brings a wealth of historical and cultural knowledge to his criticism and other writings. A man known to tackle the merit of neo-Teutonic bead art and manic-depressive finger painting with equal aplomb, he is also the proud parent of an award-winning Corgi named Smooches.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The Curious Bullfrog Canvases of Kauai Island

Following are eight photographs taken in 2002, during a solo backpacking trek around the island of Kauai, in the North Pacific.
Making my way along the only arterial road of this smallest and most remote of the Hawaiian Islands, I encountered these strange, morbid, nearly two-dimensional creatures, long since expired, apparent victims of the wheels of traffic. Soon realizing just how unusual was their appearance, how fascinating their accidental animations were, I began to photograph them, keen to show the results to my friend, the artist Jim Woodring, whose affinity for the amphibious is unparalleled.
Some six years later they have re-entered my imagination, helping inform my latest short story, The Big Lonely.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Many Faces of Jackass

During the early weeks of 1996, Seattle’s venerable alternative weekly, The Stranger, commissioned a handful of cartoonists to create installments of a comic feature entitled Black & White & Read All Over, the theme being the print newspaper and the reader’s participation in the perennial form of print communication. I responded to the limited space and one-time opportunity by developing a seemingly innocuous image, one I only ever imagined would appear once. It was a head, a male head with an endless smile, an almost gleefully empty visage, the look of robust optimism, a countenance I more often than not associated with the blissfully simple-minded or pharmaceutically-enhanced. I set this giddy totem, complete with his own shadow, to face down the ravaging indifference of the fourth estate, having the front page of a newspaper literally wrap itself about him, blown by the wind, departing on another breeze, leaving its indelible mark upon his eternally-smiling face.
Meant as a singular comment on the lasting effect the news media can have on our lives, the four-panel exercise in pantomime quickly became the starting point for a whole series of similarly silent episodes, cartoons that began appearing later that year, running sporadically in the weekly paper up through 1997 and into early 1998. Initially entitled Jackass (later becoming “I am a Jackass”), the strip was an experiment in conceptual cartooning, each successive sojourn through the apparently restrictive four-note form being another test of my inventive capacity, as well as a test of the reader’s patience. The strip’s tone soon became increasingly fatalistic, which was perhaps my reaction to that ever-grinning mug, a presence that begged for a brutal awakening, or at least a good slap in the face from reality’s firm hand. Not surprisingly, it proved a divisive feature; you either got it or you didn’t. Fortunately the editors of the paper “got it” more often than not and the strip only ended when I decided it had run its course (a rare case of self-cancellation, almost unprecedented in my bumpy career).
Through its relatively short run, consisting of less than thirty episodes, the sheer impertinence of the feature, and the derision it received from certain quarters, inspired me to inflate the dada nature of the never-changing head by merchandising it in a series of limited products, offering Seattle much more of the same, again, and again, and yet again. Below you will find a variety of examples of this conflagration of “Jackass-ness”, from T-shirts, to paper airplanes, to potato stamps, and many items between. I hope you enjoy the sudden disclosure, coming a good decade after the fact.

The very first appearance of Jackass, from the February 14, 1996 issue of The Stranger.

My favorite of the strip’s year-plus run, featuring crows and an apple. For a slideshow of a sampling of the series, click here.

The original pencil thumbnail for the above cartoon, along with a field a pen point squiggles.

The collected Jackass, in book form, a smart edition published by Drink Me Press in 2006. A few copies of this limited edition are still available. Contact the publisher, the smartly erudite Jason Miles, if you are interested in acquiring one, along with what may the last of the very-limited collector’s button, as seen below.

Jackass apparently caused a bit of a stir within the cartooning community during those “heady” days in the late 90s. Here are two fairly pointed parodies of the strip, the first by Sam Henderson, the second by Michael Kupperman (as P. Revess).

More print controversy, this in the form of a cutting letter to The Stranger from a comics fan named David Cowper, asking the editor to remove Jackass from their pages. Even more incinedary is the response by K. Thor Jensen, the creator of one of the other strips Cowper requests to be expelled, who threatens Cowper with bodily harm. It can now be revealed that David Cowper was, in fact, the creator of Jackass himself, simply seeking to stir up some extra fuss over the confounding cartoon. And, Thor? I didn’t take your comments personally, I assure you. I do hope you’ve gotten in touch with those anger management issues though.

Here is Jackass, as he exists today, engraved in the sidewalk right outside of my front door. I performed this little bit of public sculpture with the blessing of the city crew who poured the new sidewalk, the foreman going so far as to tell me it’s the only bit of cement graffiti he’s ever liked. I’ve been told the impression could well outlive me, a scenario any artist would envy, I’m sure. Adding to this new form for the eternally-smiling character, I have photographed it at various times throughout the past year it has existed, creating a real-life version of the strip. For a slideshow of these images, click here.

During the summer of 1997, the madness surrounding Jackass reached such heights I was forced to create an entire line of official Jackass products, which I peddled at various small press exhibitions. These included T-shirts, Jackass paper airplane kits, a twenty-volume series of tiny Jackass Readers, each taking one weekly strip and incorporating the four illustrated panels into a poem written especially for the particular cartoon, Jackass bookmarks, and a variety of other Jackass sundry, doorstops and pretzel bowls included. It goes without saying that I became a very wealthy man, though short-lived the riches were. Why, oh why, did I ever reply to that invite to the dog track?

“We’re all Jackass readers” indeed.

My proud parents, modeling the Fall ’97 line of Jackass T-shirts.

The silkscreen from which the two most popular Jackass T-shirt variations were produced, by the brilliant artisans at Schlopinski Impressions.

Here is Jackass, smiling broadly from the cozy window of Milky World Gallery, in Seattle’s Belltown district.

Jackass permeated even the four basic food groups. Here is the official Jackass Potato Stamp, as it exists today, some ten years after its creation, wonderfully adorned with a chapeau of flowering eye nodules.

A sheet of Jackass impressions, made by the Jackass Potato Stamp during those halcyon days.

The one-sheet Jackass Flyer airplane kit, which may look extraordinarily complex but really isn’t. With a little concentration and patience for simple origami, anyone could have themselves a paper sky machine that excelled any other. Truly. It was the world’s greatest paper airplane. And it came in four delicious colors.

The instructions for the Jackass Flyer, which were printed on both sides of the paper ribbon that held together each packet of four. A proud moment for all at Jackass Industries.

The front of the official Jackass Holiday Card for 1997, sent to all friends and associates that year, picturing a star shooting over a snowy landscape.

The interior of the Jackass Holiday Card, revealing the shooting star and snowscape to actually be the magnified curl in his hair.

Here Jackass appears in public, behind an apparently footprint-proof shield, as he grins up from the floor of Milky World Gallery, awaiting his creator to sit down and give an art lecture of some sort.

Here Jackass is mounted on wood, for all to step on, no protection deemed necessary. This was, in fact, a conceptual performance piece held at Seattle’s Small Press Zine Festival. The inscription on the wooden block read: Patience for this one. Here is THE PIECE OF WOOD I AM A JACKASS. It is a thing to bind generations and stabilize nations. Are you afraid to touch this thing? You should be. It is not for sale and who can blame you for asking.

This was a coupon offered at the Jackass Boutique, a small, spinning rack I placed at Milky World Gallery, offering all Jackass product for sale, on a consignment basis.

This I stumbled upon near the end of the Jackass run, a photograph of the late Christopher Reeve that looked uncannily like Jackass, so much so that I couldn’t resist cutting it out and giving it the appropriate shadow.

Another page of thumbnail notes for possible future strips, some of which didn’t make the cut. My process for vetting ideas for Jackass was merciless. For every idea that made it to print, there were at least a dozen that didn’t pass muster. Jackass was a cartoon of delicate foundation. Its wordless, four-panel arc of silence, never deviating from either starting or ending with the identical smiling head, was a narrow passageway through which to pass the mind, forcing me, again and again, to beat my own head against its towering gates, until they finally budged.

And, finally, here is a wholly unwise and justly failed attempt at re-envisioning Jackass as a talking character, complete with a darling little pint-sized son, who, nevertheless, ends up lunch, in his father’s non-existent gullet.