Notes on Kramers Ergot 8, Part 1
Give yourself a little credit as a comics reader (or a comics critic), and don’t assume that Ian Svenonius’s essay is the mission statement of Kramers Ergot 8 simply because it is written in prose and appears near the beginning. It isn’t even the first thing in the anthology – it follows a series of Robert Beatty’s abstract, suggestive imagery entitled “Overture,” a title that suggests that those looking for clues as to what Sammy Harkham had in mind in assembling the anthology should begin there. Of course, the nebulous, spacey images in “Overture” don’t give much away, but my point is that Svenonius’s deliberately intellectually faulty essay doesn’t either. It doesn’t pretend to be academic criticism – none of the conspiracy theory claims are cited, and the author goes out on several trees’ worth of limbs – and it wouldn’t make sense in this anthology if it were.
It’s standard fare in contemporary art catalogues to commission a laudatory essay from a noted scholar in order to elevate the artist being showcased to someone worthy of such a publication… as if the artist’s artistic worth were not self-evident enough to be plopped down on a coffee table on its own. Similarly, a genre anthology (say, of spy fiction) might include an essay situating the contents in historical context. But KE 8 isn’t an art catalogue or a genre anthology, and it doesn’t need an essay to provide context or clarity for its contents. Harkham’s skill as an editor is evidenced by his assembling contents that, in the aggregate, suggest that something is going on that needs to be decoded. This wasn’t the case in earlier volumes of the anthology. Those earlier issues (I’m thinking of #4 through #7) exploded with comics of all different lengths and styles and contained so much content that even the most jaded fan could find quite a bit to appreciate. Here, though, the smaller size, scaled down list of contributors, and almost relentlessly dark thematic orientation converge to goad the reader into figuring out what the point of it all is.
If the graphical content is difficult, therefore, the prose content must be there to shed light on it all, right? But it doesn’t. And, it’s kind of a weird reversal to think that this should be the case in the first place: after all, comics are known for telling stories, which is why a successful series of books uses them to break down the impenetrable prose of famous philosophers.
Graphically, KE8 spans mediums: from Beatty’s abstract creations to Takeshi Murata’s vaguely threatening still lives, and from Kevin Huizenga’s and Gabrielle Bell’s tidy characters to CF’s angular, pattern-driven aesthetic. Taking it on its own terms then, why can’t the prose piece just be another part of this swirling mix of themes and ideas?
To add in my personal feelings about the essay: I’m ambivalent about it. Svenonius paints the history of camp with so broad a brush that his conclusions lack any resonance. On the other hand, though, he gets so over-the-top in places that the piece reads like a hypothetical… In other words, if we change setting from the academic (the vaunted INTRODUCTORY ESSAY) and switch instead to a bunch of college friends sitting on pillows and passing around a bong, then sure, I could see contemporary comics as the gussied-up end point on a continuum that started with pagan animal-sex. Why not?
Anthologies should have stand-out pieces, but a truly great anthology shouldn’t have stand-alone pieces. This essay doesn’t work as a stand-alone piece, but it does work as the counterpoint to Beatty’s overture. The imagery in the overture is ethereal, and it invokes ideas of the divine, the cosmos, metaphysics… really heady shit. Then, Svenonius comes in and basically says, “All this art came from pagan animal sex.”
It’s about balance – word and image together to hint at something deeper. This is comics’ promise, and so it’s wrong to short-circuit that by looking for something simple and familiar (words/prose) to diffuse the tension that is ratcheted up by the graphical content in the book.
Up Next: Why is Kramers Ergot 8 Terrifying?