I’ll get this out of the way quickly… I’m Jordan, and this is my blog about books and book collecting.
Also, if you’d like to sell me your books or trade with me, check out my want list page above.
Thanks for reading!
Reaching a new level of alt.nerd.obsessive, 1000 words at a time
I’ll get this out of the way quickly… I’m Jordan, and this is my blog about books and book collecting.
Also, if you’d like to sell me your books or trade with me, check out my want list page above.
Thanks for reading!
The Bay Area is a great city for comics, but one of the bummer parts of the West Coast is its distance from Europe – when European cartoonists come to the US, they’re much more likely to head to New York or Toronto than all the way here, 12+ hours away from home. That’s why my heart sank out of jealousy when I saw that BCGF had lined up a stellar roster of European cartoonists this year, since I figured there was no chance that any of them would make their way further west. I know I should just stop complaining, put my money where my mouth is, and head out to New York, but it’s an expensive trip, and I hate traveling unless I’m going on vacation with my wife (and she’s not much of a comics fan).
Included in the line-up of European guests at BCGF is Nine Antico, a French cartoonist of whom I’ve been a fan for a couple years, ever since I bought a copy of Coney Island Baby that Alvin Buenaventura brought back from Angouleme in 2010. Antico is crazily talented – her drawing style is very intimate, and it draws the reader into an immediate connection with her characters. There’s no gimmick here, no ultra-violence, no gloopy sleaze, and no sci-fi erotica, even though her subject matter is frequently erotic and sleazy (especially in the case of Coney Island Baby, which is a dramatized biography of Bettie Page and Linda Lovelace). Her figures remind me a little bit of Frank Santoro in that they are suggestive rather than demonstrative, although not in the same way. Whereas Santoro uses a sketchy line and meticulously organized page elements to lead the reader’s eye from panel to panel to the point that the overall experience of the page becomes more than the sum of its parts, Antico leaves her characters half-finished, often without mouths, or without lines delineating the edge of a face or the side of a body. After reading a bunch of clear line comics, Antico’s art presented this revelation to me that maybe all these lines aren’t always necessary, that leaving them out can open up the drawing in ways that a more “finished” look would close off.
Of all the artists at BCGF, I was saddest about missing out on seeing Antico, so I did what I always do when I start fixating on something, and I set about trying to see if I could somehow be there by proxy. On Tumblr, I offered limited edition Chance Press stuff in trade for signed books or sketches, but no one bit. In a last-ditch effort, I emailed someone at the French Cultural Services arm of the French Embassy who was involved in bringing some of these artists to the US to see if they had any ideas for me… and to my good fortune, they responded that Nine Antico would be on the West Coast for (horribly publicized) events at the Seattle Art Museum and at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I was super excited, but I couldn’t find any info on the CCA appearance, and no one I talked to at CCA had heard about it. I finally found out a couple days before the event that it wasn’t being promoted because it wasn’t an event inasmuch as Antico would be a guest speaker during an illustration class for CCA students. Thankfully, it was open to the public, so I got to go anyway, though Chris Diaz and I were the only “public” that showed up.
It was a great event, because I got to hear about her process and her feelings about her own work in more detail and in a more intimate setting than the typical presentation or convention panel. The class instructors were clearly looking for her to do more of a formal demo/live drawing, but she went in a different direction, giving an overview of her work and then showing a slideshow of her inspiration, which mostly consisted of photography, rather than other cartoon art. (I always find it funny when cartoonists say that they aren’t really comics fans, but I guess you can’t choose what you’re good at just like you can’t choose what interests you.)
The two things that jumped out at me from her presentation were, first, that her work is driven by a passionate interest in the subject matter. Reading her work, this is readily apparent, and it gives her stories an energy that I often find missing from comics in which the cartoonist is clearly a better artist than a storyteller. In the case of Coney Island Baby, it is obvious that she had done an incredible amount of research because the subject fascinated her, and the comics form is how she best felt able to reconcile her feelings about these women she had been studying. An interesting sidebar here is that she described how she always keeps two projects going at once to avoid getting burned out, and that she worked on the books Girls Don’t Cry and Tonight, which consist of single-page slice-of-life strips about a group of teenage girls, when she needed a break from the bigger project of Coney Island Baby. The thing that surprised me about this is that Girls Don’t Cry and Tonight are great books in their own right – the writing is really witty in a Lena Dunham kind of way (though Girls Don’t Cry preceded Girls), and again, the story treats the girls, who are often self-absorbed and petty, compassionately, suggesting deeper personalities beyond the strips presented.
This idea of the characters being deeper than what is on the page segues into the second take-away – that she leaves her drawings incomplete in an effort to pull the reader deeper into the book. Leaving the drawings half-finished encourages the reader to fill in the blanks, to imagine expressions, and even to envision the surrounding environment, all of which give the reader a sense that he/she really knows these characters, since the reader is partially responsible for creating them. I’ve written at length in other essays on this blog about reader response theory and how cartooning shapes reader response in really interesting ways, but Antico is one of the best at pulling the reader in without being either overly programmatic or abstract. It’s a really satisfying balance – for instance, on a Frank Santoro page, your eye is predestined to move the way it does, because Santoro has broken down the page in intricate detail and set everything in motion for you; the paradigm of reader response here is that you’re responding to the page in a way that the author intends, which can be an exhilarating way to read – like being a passenger in a car driving through the Grand Canyon. (Reading Chris Ware pages often has the same effect, although I could write thousands of words about reader response theory and Chris Ware’s comics.) In an abstract comic, on the other hand, your freedom to derive meaning and emotion from the comic is almost entirely divorced from the author’s intent – the forms on the page are suggestive, but certainly not declarative. In Antico’s work, it’s somewhere in between; the story is happening around your interventions into it, and so the effect is of being familiar with the characters and understanding them on a deeper level than if you were just reading about them and looking at them, but not so much that you lose the page-to-page flow of the narrative.
It’s a shame that more comics fans from the Bay Area couldn’t make it to this event, either due to lack of promotion or because they hadn’t heard of Antico, whose work hasn’t been published in English yet (though the release of Coney Island Baby from Blank Slate Books in the UK is scheduled for Winter 2012). I can understand why CCA wouldn’t have wanted the event overrun with the likes of me, though, and so I really appreciate that they kept the event open to the public in the first place. Really, I can’t recommend her work highly enough, and it’s worth checking out a book or two even if you don’t read French. As a bonus, she signed some of my books with some great drawings, and she was super nice about it, too.
Changing the name of this blog to “The Windbag Litwag” is helping me show up in some interesting searches. Yesterday, someone found this blog by searching for “heidegger windbag,” while another (presumably disappointed) person clicked on it in the course of searching for “big windbag porn.” Keep on searchin’!
This is my haul from APE. Here’s what you’re looking at:
APE haul, left to right from bottom:
- Love & Rockets New Stories Vol. 5
- Jim Woodring giclee print – These are one-offs that Woodring had produced for a gallery show – he had a stack of them, but this one was by far my favorite, and it is as much an iconic image of Woodring’s world as any I have seen.)
- Love & Rockets 30th anniversary poster
- EXXXS porn zine by Tom Neely – Beautifully produced handmade porn, I might add… although “handmade porn” could be misinterpreted.
- Negron by Negron – This guy’s going places. I still haven’t decided not to buy the deluxe edition from Picturebox, but I wanted to get my copy signed by Jonny while he was in town.
- The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell – Lots of love for Uncivilized Books… more on this below.
- Ticket Stub by Tim Hensley – Even more love for Yam Books (Bay Area represent, right?), and bonus points for the half-circle die cut.
- Cartoon Dialectics Vol. 2 by Tom Kaczynski
- Lollygag, edited by Lark Pien
- Jellyfish Boner by Jonas Madden Connor – Great local cartoonist getting recognition with an exhibition at the Cartoon Art Museum.
- The Hero with a Thousand Excuses by Jim Woodring
- Frank Vol. 2 by Jim Woodring – Picked this up from Stuart Ng Books for $20. Score!
- Burgermancer #1 by Jason Fischer – I declared myself the #1 vegan fan of Burgermancer, and J-Fish told me that was a-okay with him. Someone give this guy a publishing contract.
- The Return of Cyrstal Girl by Natalia Hernandez
- New York Drawings by Adrian Tomine
- Original illustration by Jason Fischer – See above RE: how much I like this dude’s work.
- Tim Hensley bookmark from Yam Books
- Venus by Gilbert Hernandez
- Frank (Spanish edition of Weathercraft) by Jim Woodring – By far the best edition of the book. Bigger format, and a great color-printed dustjacket. I’ll post more pictures of this on my Tumblr. I love it.
- Leporello by Joost Swarte – I’ve been looking for this for a long time. Another Stuart Ng Books score.
- You’ll Never Know by Carol Tyler – This and the Rege book both had SPX signed plates left over. No one does special plates for APE.
- The Cartoon Utopia by Ron Rege Jr
- “How I Make My Comics” poster by Gabrielle Bell
- Ticket Stub original title page artwork by Tim Hensley – I got this for way cheaper than I should have. Probably my best comics fest purchase of all time.
- True Swamp #2 by Jon Lewis
Okay, so what about the show? I still love APE, although more and more I feel like that’s due to APE being in my backyard and not anything intrinsic to APE. Let’s be positive and discuss the pros first:
1) Look at all the shit I bought! Not a single comics fan in the universe could lay eyes on that pile – which represents a fraction of what I wish I could have bought – and claim that APE is a lower-tier show. This is a better haul than the one and only time I went to Comic-con (and I think I spent less money at APE too). This photo also doesn’t include the sketches that I got in my sketchbook, which I’ll post on my Tumblr at some point. It has to be recognized that APE is assembling a top-notch collection of artists pretty much without fail every year.
2) APE is usually pretty good about bringing in big names from far away, which is the bane of most of the other shows on the West Coast. Comic-con is the exception, obviously, but CCI exists in another world for me. It is such a logistical nightmare to attend that even someone like me who lives a mere 8.5 hour drive away has only been there once. If you’re a publisher and your excuse why you never bring top out-of-area artists to the West Coast is that you bring them to Comic-con, you’re full of shit. Comic-con isn’t part of the West Coast, it’s on a weird fantasy planet that doesn’t actually exist. So good on CCI (the company, not the show) for saving some talent for APE and bringing in Jim Woodring and Ben Katchor, among others (who shouldn’t be discounted just because I’m not a fan of them like I am for the former two). It was also fantastic of Woodring to set up shop at his complimentary table for over half the festival, signing things, making drawings, and talking to fans hour after hour. (Sergio Aragones did this as well, as did Eric Drooker on day 1.)
3) Great year for smaller presses – in particular, Yam Books, a new publishing outfit run by Rina Ayuyang, and Tom Kaczynski’s Uncivilized Books. It’s great when an out-of-area press or two shows up at APE – Picturebox has done it the past two years, and AdHouse was out here a few years ago. After hearing everyone talk about how nice of a guy Chris Pitzer is, I was happy to finally have the opportunity to meet him and buy Duncan the Wonder Dog (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading, which is totally lame of me). Gabrielle Bell also did attendees a huge solid by sitting at the Uncivilized table for the entire show, rather than just scheduling a couple signing times. That’s dedication from a pretty big name. Yam is off to an incredible start as well – the first book, Lollygag is a really intimate sketchbook collection, bound by hand with a letterpress-printed cover that is a perfect first statement as a publisher. Following that up, though, is Ticket Stub, which is really exciting. New (old) Tim Hensley work is always a cause for celebration, and the book is just so perfect, from the design to the cover and the paper that it is quite frankly shocking that such a new publisher released it. Shit, Chance Press has been around for 4 years, and I’m nowhere close to putting out anything like that.
4) Fantagraphics crushed this show. It helps that they had Los Bros celebrating 30 years of Love and Rockets and Jim Woodring was already there as a special guest, but there was a consistent buzz around their table, and there were lines for pretty much every signing they had. Fanta also does a good job of finding local guys who happen to be at APE and bringing them over for a signing, which is cool for fans like me, since I often feel sheepish about going up to a guy who’s trying to sell minis behind a table and asking him to sign my copy of Mome. This year they had Justin Hall signing No Straight Lines, and last year they had Jesse Moynihan and Malachi Ward signing Mome. Good strategy.
5) Zak Sally showed up as an attendee on Sunday to hang out with Tom K from Uncivilized and walk the show, and I couldn’t resist stopping and asking him if he wouldn’t mind signing a couple issues of Sammy the Mouse. I felt a little bad, since he was just there trying to enjoy himself, but he was genuinely nice about it and seemed happy to meet a fan of his work. That was an unexpected bonus just as the fest was winding down and I was getting ready to go home. (In case you’re wondering why I had those issues of Sammy, I had heard a rumor that he was in town, so I brought them just in case.)
6) APE is really well-run, both from an exhibitor and an attendee standpoint. It’s fast to get in and get registered, and the layout is open enough to browse without blocking aisles, but not so airy that you miss out on that buzzy convention feeling during the peak hours. The staff is super nice. They clearly know how to put on a good show. As you’ll see from my long list of cons, my problems with APE don’t have anything to do with the festival itself and more how it is treated from a marketing perspective. So, if you work for APE, feel free to send me death threats, just understand that my frustration comes from my desire to see APE become a destination show like you see on the East Coast, and not from any pleasure derived from ragging on someone else’s hard work.
Okay, here we go with the cons:
1) Almost everyone I talked to said their sales were horrible at APE. As a prior exhibitor, I don’t doubt this for a minute. The one and only time I exhibited with Chance Press, we did make our table money back, which, to us, made the show a success. (That’s after dropping $100 on a table at San Francisco Zine Fest and only selling $11 of books the entire weekend.) However, at least half of those sales were to people who would have bought books from our website, so it wasn’t such a great outing for us. Tom Neely said he’s not coming back, nor is Sparkplug. Let that sink in – fucking SPARKPLUG BOOKS, the publisher that even exhibited at an event in the fucking basement of Berkeley City College a couple years ago, isn’t coming back to APE. That they even exist anymore is such a testament to the will of the people behind it, pushing on after such a horrible tragedy, and it just sucks that even an outfit like that isn’t able to make it at APE. Picturebox came two years in a row and didn’t make the trip back, even though the artist behind one of their major fall debuts (Negron) was at the show, and the other (Harkham) lives a 6 hour drive away. I’ve met Dan Nadel enough times to know he doesn’t harbor some weird prejudice against Californians; he probably just thought that he wouldn’t sell enough to cover his plane ticket, and I’m not going to argue to the contrary. Hi Fructose Magazine/Attaboy has been exhibiting at APE for a decade, and this year Atta just showed up for a couple signings and to walk the show. This is a major problem for APE, but I can’t imagine a solution. How much better would you have to make APE before people will open their wallets? The art is there, the artists are there, and the people aren’t spending money. Is it too big? Is it the venue? The city? This blog doesn’t get many comments, but I’m genuinely curious – do others think that San Franciscans are just plain cheap? I heard from someone who has as much experience traveling to and exhibiting at festivals as anyone I can think of, and he told me exactly that. According to him, on a recent book tour with a prominent Bay Area artist, he sold out of books at almost every stop on the tour except in San Francisco. Is LA any different? Or Portland?
2) That being said, there is an almost-insulting lack of promotion from APE. They give you a table for your $200, plus a line in the program and a spot (no link, just your name) in the “Exhibitors” section of the website – that’s it. Because it’s so close to SPX, the comparisons are inevitable. I don’t know who is behind SPX’s promotion engine, but that person needs to be paid more (God I hope that person isn’t volunteering; I think I’d break down in tears). I posted this image on Tumblr a few weeks ago, and I think this pretty much sums up the difference between SPX’s and APE’s marketing.
It’s funny: my Tumblr feed is still showing up with posts from the official SPX account hyping people who were there. In the run-up to SPX, their Twitter feed was relentlessly building anticipation for the show, including making special mention of any book debuting at the show and driving traffic to artist websites that went way beyond just the official guests. I learned of at least two new people whose work I had never heard of solely from SPX’s pre-show media blitz. APE’s promotional campaign was decidedly more wan, with a few cursory tweets reminding people about the special guests, and other operational issues: register in advance! Courtesy bus runs to 8! Because nothing will make people want to attend more than a COURTESY BUS. I think this is part of the problem – people in the Bay Area may be cheap, but APE isn’t doing anything (beyond just holding APE) to encourage people to spend money. This works for Comic-con, but APE is different. I think APE suffers from voter apathy, because no one is running a get-out-the-vote campaign to get people into the fest. Are people traveling from out of state to attend APE? It still draws a good contingent of cartoonists from LA and Portland, but are people from LA and Portland showing up to APE? I know SPX was the festival to end all festivals, but I can’t believe that wasn’t at least in part because SPX bent over backwards to convince everyone that it was going to be the festival to end all festivals, and people were so amped up to help it deliver on that promise that it just exploded once the doors opened. Again, I’ll concede that the slate of guests in the aggregate was better than at APE, but I defer to my original point that, on paper, APE was one hell of a festival to fall so flat in terms of making people excited enough to actually spend money. As a coda to this discussion of promotion, more than once, someone said to me, “Wait, Gabrielle Bell/Tim Hensley/Mark Kalisneko/Insert Name is HERE?!” Part of this lack of knowledge about who is actually exhibiting is on the publishers themselves, but Uncivilized, Yam, and Fantagraphics (the corollary publishers in this example) did quite a bit of promotion pre-show – the problem is that social media becomes this cacophonous morass before a convention, and the fest’s official voice can cut above that. SPX definitely does, and BCGF is on its way as well. APE can’t afford to continue not doing this, or publishers will keep deciding to stay home until there’s not much left.
3) APE needs to figure out how to get more ambitious with the programming. This sort of contradicts my point above that they do a good job bringing in out-of-area guests, but not really. They do a good job. Other cons do a great job. The low sales make it impossible for the publishers to take this on themselves – I’d love to see D&Q bring out someone like Brecht Evans or Guy Delisle, but they’d never be able to afford that. One thing I’m seeing with these more aggressively curated shows is a real effort to bring people who almost never attend cons in the US – BCGF has a ton of Euro artists who I’d love to meet (I should have just saved my money from APE and gone to Brooklyn, but I’d have ended up spending my whole lot on the trip; still, talent like Blexbolex or Nine Antico is truly a rare find at a US con), and the Projects made it a priority to bring over Le Dernier Cri from Marseille. TCAF makes it a point to court Euro guys too, in addition to the usual stable of Canadian artists. Again, APE is doing fine here, with names like Ben Katchor, Matt Thurber, Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, and Dash Shaw making long trips over the years. It’s more that I wish they could produce a coordinated contingent of guests that would be really unique and unexpected and generate some real interest (and then promote the shit out of them as suggested above).
4) What the fuck did they do to that Gilbert Hernandez poster? Here’s the original art:
Cool, right? Here’s the poster:
To me, this encapsulates my problem with the way APE is run. You take artwork from a true icon of the medium and then shit it up with your hideous font and not one but two logos… then, you extend the artwork so it fits the poster, but you neglect to take it back to the artist to fill in any of the extended area, making the shading over the green part look haphazard and shitty. Ugh. Who would buy a signed, limited edition copy of this? The poster can do more than just convey dates, times, and names, you know. It can inspire people to ATTEND THE FUCKING FESTIVAL. Or not.
Okay, enough with the list. I feel bad ragging on APE, since I have such fond memories of attending it the past 5 or so years. The year KE7 came out was still transformative for me – I don’t care what everyone’s saying about this year’s SPX, that show was better and will never be topped. The rain, the energy, the guests, the programming… I remember it as being just downright intense. I met some awesome people at that show, many of whom no longer exhibit or even attend. Plus, I’m sure the people who work on APE don’t appreciate my bullshit, since I have worked in a corporate environment and I can just about guess that the people who work on APE wish they could devote all their time to it, but they end up spending most of their time on CCI instead. That’s the problem – APE is the Comic-con leftover, and the fest that will keep on existing as long as CCI cares to put it on, but it will never develop, and other festivals are just getting better and better alongside it.
Unfortunately, if the scuttlebutt is to be believed, this was the last APE as we know it. I’ve heard from a few people (though no one directly affiliated with the show) that CCI is going to keep Wondercon in Anaheim and wants to make APE their centerpiece Northern California show by widening its appeal and moving it to Moscone. Good-bye alternative press, hello video games and Kevin Sorbo. I sincerely hope this doesn’t happen, but from a business perspective, I can’t understand why CCI even bothers with APE. And at the end of the day, APE is a poorly performing product in a portfolio of successful products, and so it just doesn’t make sense as a business to pour money into that product without substantially changing it to make it more profitable. SPX and BCGF strike me as labors of love, and there’s your answer to why they’re better.
But (I’m almost done, I swear) – what about the other labors of love on the West Coast? SF Zine Fest has grown by leaps and bounds, but you don’t see Fantagraphics or D&Q at that show, and the show is a long way off from getting an out-of-town guest like Jim Woodring or Ben Katchor. Without APE, will Zine Fest be able to step into the void, or will the bigger indie publishers just write off the Bay Area except as a sometimes stop on an author’s book tour? What about Portland’s show… or Emerald City? I refuse to believe that there isn’t a single area on the West Coast capable of holding a world class show that isn’t Comic-con. We’ll see… The Projects is only a week away, and maybe that’s the future right there.
So I last wrote about Building Stories, Chris Ware’s new box, when preview images of the whole shebang were first hitting the market. I knew the minute I saw the finished product that the previous post I wrote about it would seem dumb in retrospect… but I suppose that’s true any time you criticize something you haven’t seen yet.
Here’s the thing – I wanted to write this update post, since a few people are finding my original post by searching for BS reviews, and what I wrote was definitely not a review. Rather, it was me expressing how I approach book design, and how the greatest ideal I aspire toward as a designer is how to integrate different styles or formats into a single bound object. I was originally a little disappointed by the concept of BS, because I felt that if there’s anyone currently working who could make the ultimate BOOK – the one I have spent and will spend my career as a publisher/book binder pursuing – it is Chris Ware. It’s not a knock against BS that Ware took a different direction, just something that was personally a little disappointing to me.
Now that I have the box in my greasy mitts, the disappointment is washed away by just how overwhelming BS is to behold. This work couldn’t be executed any other way, and I guess what’s worrying me the most about my original post is that people will read it as me saying that BS could be improved if only Ware would have followed my guidelines. Absolutely not – this is breathtaking work from a bookmaking perspective. You can tell that every aspect was slaved over at one point or another – the box is made from durable bookboard, not some shitty cardboard that will buckle and fall apart in 5 years. The printing on the interior contents is impeccable. There are different styles of hardcover books, from the traditional buttoned-down quarter-bound example to the tape-bound Little Golden Book. My biggest pet peeve – comics being shrunk unnecessarily to fit a certain medium – is turned on its head by comics ranging from a few square inches to many square feet. (Seriously, those tabloid sized pages make it possible to appreciate Ware’s art on a scale previously only enjoyed by collectors who have picked up his gallery posters over the years, or those who own Kramers Ergot 7.)
After seeing BS in person, I couldn’t imagine it any other way. The one thing is… I’m not ready to jump up and declare that a new era of comics has begun. This is certainly a high point in Ware’s own career, and what I love about it is that it accomplishes much the same thing as a career retrospective while being totally new (sure, parts of this have appeared before, but this is a substantially new work). In other words, all the different formats in which Ware has worked turn up here, from baby pamphlets to giant posters, hardcover books, print portfolios, etc – it’s all in here. That doesn’t mean, though, that the “book” is over, or that comics are moving in a bold new boxy direction (both of which I have seen suggested in interviews with Ware). I get that if you’re doing an interview about BS, you pretty much HAVE to talk about the format, since the non-traditional format announces itself so loudly with this one. My issue is when one daring formal exercise has to be situated in the larger context of publishing by being at the front of a trend, rather than being what it is: an extremely innovative artist doing something extremely innovative.
The format is so inextricably tied to the content in this case that acting as if the publication of BS signals a sharp turn for comics publishing makes no sense. The same kind of thing happened when KE7 came out, and people were asking Sammy Harkham how he was going to top it with Kramers 8. I recall him saying something about KE8 being a collection of pamphlets or something, just as a reaction against the grandeur of its predecessor. What he ultimately came up with wasn’t too far off – small, intimate, focused, and with a clear sense of purpose (even if that purpose itself remained elusive). But there wasn’t an arms race to see who could keep up with KE7 – it didn’t create a new benchmark for anthologies, it just WAS a high water mark and it will stay that way into the future. Same thing with BS – how is any cartoonist going to top this? Ware himself won’t even top this with Rusty Brown. He’ll either continue what he’s already done, if he chooses the same format, or he’ll go in a different (hopefully innovative) direction. The impossibility of one-upping BS doesn’t derive from how great it is – the point is that BS is such a great integration of form and content that just making the design more elaborate for the sake of it won’t accomplish anything (even if it is pretty to look at). That is why, even if I was disappointed by the format from a conceptual perspective, I am in love with the format’s execution.
So how about no more “the graphic novel is dead” proselytizing, just because Building Stories is now a thing that exists. I’m sure Dan Clowes’s next book won’t look like this, but people will be just as excited to read it even if it is just a boring stack of pages bound between two covers. And maybe the next time I write about the book, I’ll actually have gotten around to reading the goddamned thing.
I’ve had my fair share of blog views resulting from bizarre search terms (you’d be shocked at how many people are searching for eraser crumbs), and my recent Tardi essay contains a section in which the word “orgy” is used once or twice, which I’m sure has disappointed those who wound up here after searching for that term..
However, today, I can finally say I have achieved what I set out to achieve when I started this blog: two – TWO – people found the blog today after searching for “HUMAN MEAT.” That’s all, thanks for coming, and have a safe ride home.
(Photo copied from Robot6)
Let’s start with the disclaimers:
1- Building Stories hasn’t been released yet, so I haven’t seen it in person. I have only seen the same teaser photos online that everyone else has seen. I didn’t attend the Comics Confab Extravagantacular in Chicago, so I didn’t even get to hear Ware talk about Building Stories in person.
2 – I’m sure I will love everything about Building Stories, and I will be first in line to buy a copy. I’m already putting out feelers to people I know on the East Coast who might attend SPX and be able to secure a signed copy for me. I’m using it more as a jumping-off point to opine about book design, and less as something that needs to be taken down a peg. There is a trollish affect in some corners of comics criticism that seeks to rip apart great work just for the sake of doing it, and that’s not what I’m going for here. And yes, I’m accepting it as fact that Building Stories will be great.
3 – Don’t interpret my abbreviation for Building Stories (“BS”) to be a value judgment on the work itself.
Okay, with that out of the way, and keeping with the list theme, here’s how my reaction to the unveiling of the general format of BS progressed:
1 – that is the coolest thing of all time
2 – that is disappointing.
Let me explain, starting with #1… Comparing Ware’s books to his pamphlets reveals two distinct design sensibilities. (I’m excepting Jimmy Corrigan, since Chip Kidd played a part in that one, although Ware’s influence is clear. I’m also, for the sake of this discussion, focusing on his own work, and not books he has designed for other authors, although his work on Gasoline Alley, Krazy Kat, Tank Tankuro, and so on doesn’t contradict my eventual point.) The individual issues of Acme Novelty Library, both in diminutive pamphlet form as well as humongous pamphlet form, somehow manage to harmonize a multitude of graphic and textual elements. See, for example, the covers to issues 5 and 7. #5 contrasts the wide-open and elegant main panel with Ware’s signature tiny, multidirectional typography along the side bar. The color palette of these panels is markedly different, yet they manage to work together in a way that it seems like only Ware can pull off. Issue 7 blows up the scale but accomplishes a similar feat, with the loud, taxi-cab checkerboard and modernist lettering across the top, immediately contrasting with the ornate letterforms that surround a central image, as well as with the sidebar. Unlike #5, the sidebar is cleaner and more directly purposeful, and the swooping “Acme Novelty” banners extend the white text/black background theme onto the main panel. Also, the circular central image carries over to the sidebar images, also presented in circular frames with simple decorations. Still, the main panel, with its intricate border and repeating pattern decorations, differs sharply from the no-nonsense sidebar and its bold but patternless borders. This push-and-pull is what makes Ware’s design so engaging – he eschews the modern “slap white helvetica text over a dewy image” book design sensibility for a more-is-more approach (especially concerning textual elements), but without creating clutter or noise.
Where books are concerned, Ware becomes much more conservative from a graphic design perspective, although books offer him new tools to work with. (Another sidebar, sorry: I’m counting the recent hardcover issues of Acme Novelty Library as books, rather than as pamphlets, since they are book-length and sold through mass bookstore channels.) Starting with his most recent, Lint, the graphic element of the cover is a distillation of the ornate/modernist balance of his pamphlet covers – the title is simply laid out in a perfectly square sans-serif font, with an ornately decorated border. Materials-wise, though, Lint is pretty cool: unlike standard quarter-binding (in which a hardcover book has cloth over the spine and left edge of the front and rear boards), this book also has cloth over the right edges of the boards, with a paper panel down the center. That’s something you don’t see every day (unless you are a Chance Press customer and bought the hardcover special edition of Furlqump). Ware didn’t just pick any bookcloth either – as someone with a fair amount of experience with bookcloth, my assumption is that Ware either traveled to the printer or received an enormous swatch book to find a cloth that could reproduce a floral pattern that complemented the ornate decoration around the text (and in the right color and with the right sheen). Plus, the design on the front is stamped in gold, another technology not available for pamphlets. Moving back through Ware’s catalog, Issue 18 is perhaps the most traditional book he has published. Not only is it a standard book size, it is also quarter bound in natural colored cloth, with simple (for Ware) gold-stamped decorations and a black pad-printed color block with with text. Before that, Issue 17′s cover is much busier, but its graphics are uniform in style; the innovation here is the multi-colored pad printing with a very simple gold foil stamp for the word “Acme.” (I should add that I’m guessing that this is pad printing, just due to the scale. It could be letterpress printed or silkscreened, but it looks closest to a pad print to my eye.)
Ware’s other collections, Quimby Mouse and The Acme Novelty Library Annual Report to Shareholders share the same design sensibility. QM is the more daring of the two, and the very strong lettering band across the cover’s midsection does introduce some tension with the elegantly patterned ring on the cover, although this cover is toned-down significantly from the pamphlets. ANLARS takes this one step further by separating the typical Ware-ian barrage of tiny text from the book entirely by printing it on a wraparound band. Sans band, the book is about as simple as Ware gets – even with the incredibly intricate gold-stamped ornamentation, the bold black and red cover all but swallows up everything else except under close examination. And, not insignificantly, the band is printed on such thin paper that it isn’t uncommon to see copies of the book for sale at used bookstores with the band in tatters or absent entirely. The tongue in cheek individual numbering on the band demonstrates Ware’s awareness of the difference between the ephemerality of pamphlets and the permanence of books, at least as demonstrated by the mainstream book trade that doesn’t touch individual comics issues but happily clears space for a new book by a well-known cartoonist.
Okay, so with that out of the way, let me elaborate on why I was so initially excited when the BS design was unveiled. From the teaser photos, the outer box echoes Ware’s more symphonic approach to design, perhaps even taking it a step further by suggesting the disjointed nature of the contents (speaking physically rather than narratively) by breaking up the lettering of the title into individual letterforms that float near and interact with each other but don’t form such a coherent whole as you usually find with Ware-designed lettering. So, at first glance, it looks like Ware is getting a big-time canvas to showcase a design sensibility that I associate more with one-offs like exhibition posters, or ephemera like the earlier issues of his comic that (at least culturally) are designed to be consumed and discarded. In addition, I am always thrilled when unconventional book design hits the big time – anyone who has read my posts about McSweeney’s or my utopian future in which print and digital books live side-by-side knows that I love to see books pushing the boundaries of what could be considered a book. The fact that Ware’s renown allows him (and Pantheon) to produce a book object of this complexity and then sell it for $50.00 is even better – getting to see an artist execute his vision unencumbered by economies of scale can only benefit comics as a medium.
The separate pamphlet/poster/whatever else format also offers some interesting possibilities in terms of how book design and narrative intersect. Normally, when working with a collection, the outside of the book is a fairly standard affair limited to five or six surfaces to frame the contents. (Front cover, back cover, spine, endpapers, half-title page, title page.) For a collection of work produced over close to a decade, this isn’t really sufficient, but it’s not really talked about as a problem, because a book is a book. The covers hold it together, but what’s on the pages is what matters and what emotionally resonates. Right?
The possibility in BS is that it doesn’t need to be this way – as the narrative wends through different emotional territory (and yes, I’m giving Ware credit enough to assume this happens; even in a story as grim as Jimmy Corrigan, it is awfully facile to insist that Ware only strikes a single emotional note), the structure enables the different units of the story to benefit from a physical and graphic design unique to that individual unit. Maybe a very emotionally intimate section is printed in a small pamphlet whose simplicity and size dovetails with the subject matter, while large-scale cross sections of the building are printed on large folding posters that enhance the grandeur of Ware’s art by not forcing it to be scaled down to a specified page size. Again, since I haven’t seen the book, I don’t know how the different formats are incorporated into the story, but the format introduces this potential, and this potential has import not just for BS, but for the graphic novel as a whole. I’m not saying that every graphic novel should follow this format from now on, but the format does open up some intriguing new ways for book design to help tell a story, and I’m looking forward to seeing other cartoonists explore down this path in the future.
Of course, Ware didn’t invent this format with this project. Off the top of my head, McSweeney’s has done this a bunch of times (#4 is a collection of pamphlets in a box, #7 is a collection of pamphlets in a hardcover shell (one of which features art by Ware), #17 is a bundle of mail with a book in there somewhere, and #19 is a cigar box with a book plus some ephemera), D&Q reissued Adrian Tomine’s 32 Stories as a box with facsimilies of the original mini comics, and a few years ago, Payseur and Schmidt released a book called Cosmocopia that, instead of featuring in-text illustrations by Jim Woodring, had a couple Woodring posters plus a jigsaw puzzle, all contained in a multi-section box. Still, these projects are pretty few and far between, and none of them involve the segmenting of a continuous narrative into a multitude of parts. The McSweeney’s issues scream “because I can” – they’re innovative from a design perspective, but the design is all about the series’ formal daring, and not the individual design requirements of the stories they publish. 32 Stories is a neat concept, but Tomine originally published the stories like that, and so the book stands as a deconstruction of the usual idea of a collection being the reprinting/rebinding of individual comics issues into a larger book – it doesn’t really push the stories anywhere they didn’t already go in the first place. (As for Cosmocopia, it is a limited edition book by a small press that I’m not sure is even publishing anymore, so as great as it is, I see it outside of general comics publishing trends.)
So, after all of that, how could I have possibly ended up feeling like the design of BS is a disappointment? Well… part of my anticipation of Ware’s next book (this and Rusty Brown) is tied up in my curiosity of exactly how it will be collected into a singular volume. Comics publishing has become a milestone-driven game, as less and less authors serialize their work. Although Ware has been phenomenally busy designing other books and publishing his own work in installments, BS is the next milestone in his canon, and so something about its fragmented, disjointed nature feels vaguely anti-climactic. Part of this depends on how the collection is put together, and how much of the book is new material. But, as one of the dwindling number of authors who does serialize his work, Ware has published at least some of the parts, if not a majority of the parts of this book already. Obviously the final book will be different in terms of how it gathers all these disparate parts and assembles them as parts of a whole, but to me, a lot of the drama involved in wrangling a sprawling epic into a collection is lost when the chapters are merely thrown into a box.
At play here is tension within my own tastes to see publishers and authors push the limits of book design while putting the standard cover-spine-cover book object on a pedestal. When Anders Nilsen was nearing the end of Big Questions, I couldn’t wait to see the brick of a book that would eventually result, and I wasn’t disappointed, especially by some of the innovative touches he added with D&Q (like the french flaps, which you don’t often see on the inside of a hardcover, although it makes sense to have them, since so few graphic novels are published with dustjackets). Ditto my anticipation for Habibi, whose reputation as Craig Thompson’s “next big book” preceded its publication by a wide margin. I suppose where I draw the line is with a binding – as a book collector, I like books that are bound, even if the binding is unconventional. Even though the individual contents of BS are bound, the whole thing is not, and as such, it just doesn’t feel like a “whole” to me.
I don’t, however, wish that Ware had just crammed all of this material into a standard-sized book and called it a day. The difficulty of doing that, and the limits involved, are evidenced in Is That All there Is?, the new Joost Swarte book from Fantagraphics (and every other comics publisher in the world). Fanta took some heat in the comments section of The Comics Journal for the format of this book (although I don’t believe it was their decision alone, given how many publishers put this book out simultaneously), and I got a kick out of Swarte’s advice that any reader unhappy with the format simply hold the book 30% closer to his/her face. As an advocate for larger formats in most cases, though, I appreciated the criticism – I agree that the book is too small, and someone else must have as well, given that the second edition will be larger. The problem, though, is that the material collected in this book is so incredibly diverse that no one format was going to nail it, and so some compromise was necessary. Is That All there Is? attempts to address some format issues by calling out different formats with colored page edges; black pages are meant to be viewed tabloid-size, requiring the reader to flip the book 90-degrees (so the pages are read as vertical spreads). This is innovative, and it scratches the surface on what is possible within the fairly conventional hardcover bound book structure.
So I guess what I’m saying is, embrace the binding as a constraint to work within rather than something to be cast aside or subsumed by an alternate format. This is where I start to move away from BS itself, since it seems fairly clear that Ware designed BS exactly as he wanted it, and I don’t want to come across like I’m criticizing him for not designing his latest book exactly according to my tastes. Like I said above, it’s more a jumping-off point to look at the possibilities that creatively designed BOOKS can offer.
While I am not a professional designer, I have spent more time than the average person designing and binding books, and this is a problem that I have confronted and tried to solve many times. My latest project involved two different sized 32-page sections, a pop-up, a fold-out panel, and an original painting, and I had to figure out how to stuff the entire thing into a bound book, without resorting to a cop-out like including a separate folder with the original art, or splitting it into two separate books. (For those curious, this is what I came up with.) So, it’s fair to say that not only is this near and dear to my collecting interests, but I try to walk the walk as well with my little publishing venture.
Here are some case studies from books on my shelf on how different publishers/designers have produced bound books that incorporate multiple formats between two covers.
1. Information Graphics (Taschen, 2012)
This is a book about the art of the infographic, split into two sections: an opening section (around 100 pages) of essays, and a much larger (around 400 pages) section surveying infographics in 4 different categories. Cleverly, the essay section is printed on thinner paper that isn’t as wide as the survey section, so it feels like a different book entirely. Then, to separate the categories of infographics more clearly, the pages of the survey section have colored edges, with each color corresponding to a category. There are also a number of double gate-fold pages, creating gigantic spreads (this is already a huge book at around 15 x 12).
2. Loujon Press books
Loujon was a small press that operated out of New Orleans and Arizona in the 1960′s and 1970′s. Their output was minimal, but all of their books are impossibly well-made (all handmade and hand-printed by Jon Webb), especially considering the size of their operation. One of their hallmarks is an opening section of different-colored papers of ascending widths leading into the main text section – mostly this was for visual effect, although I can think of a few ways that incorporating staggered page sizes like this could produce some neat effects within the context of a comic book.
3. Storie Naturali (BUR, 2009)
I have written about and photographed this book elsewhere on this blog, but it is relevant here. This book is bound in such a way that many pages have pockets that contain illustrated die-cut leaves – rather than simply printing the leaves on each page (or delivering them separately via a pocket inside the rear cover or separate folder), the designer found a way to integrate the individual leaves into the pages themselves. Neat.
4. Matrix (Whittington Press)
Matrix is a (mostly) annual journal about books and printing, and within its niche, it is iconic. It is common for fine press journals to include a separate folder of press ephemera (broadsides, woodcuts, prospectuses, and the like), but Matrix took the extraordinary step of integrating all of these into the books themselves. As a result, mixed in with the standard-sized pages are all sorts of fold-out posters and booklets of varying sizes. There are probably no books on my shelf that integrate so many different types of items (all with varying sizes and paper stocks) into a single book.
In the end, I’m still anticipating the heck out of Building Stories, and I have enough faith in Chris Ware as a designer that I’m sure I will love the format. Still, Rusty Brown is still a few years out, so I’m hoping against hope for a single, giant-sized RB tome that somehow manages to herd all the strands of that epic into one binding. It’s probably unlikely, but it would sure be amazing to see.
Update, 10/10/12: Now you’ve read all of that, so at least read my update, written after I actually got a copy of the finished product.