Wednesday, September 21, 2005

CCS Musings: Week Two

The sense of community is palpable; I felt it as soon as I walked into the CCS/Colodny building (an hour before my class begins -- always a little early these days). James Sturm was sitting across from the entryway, visible through the main floor classroom, talking to the attentive gathering -- "Hey, Steve!", he called over, and I waved to him and all with a clear view of the doorway. James looked and sounded relaxed, clear, open; quite a contrast to our first week, when everything seemed claustrophobically overwhelming.

(Man, does this bring back memories of my first month at the Kubert School... but I won't bore you with that old-man-dribble today.)

As my amigos know, I have a tendency to over-prepare and become compulsively fascinated with the nuances and details. Of course, that's where the stories are -- "the devil's in the details," some say, but devil that I am, that's also where the meat and potatoes reside. I've been working hard at narrowing the focus of the comics studies class since winter, first intent on the goalpost of turning in a comprehensive syllabus back in March, thereafter targeting what, exactly, I could convey to the students in a mere fourteen sessions of 2 1/2 hours each.

Inevitably, material worthy of attention has to succumb to the editing process. I have marvelous resources for presentations on and discussion of the Bayoux Tapestry, illuminated Medieval manuscripts, the 15th and 16th Century Dances of Death (primarily Hans Holbein the Younger's 1538 edition and 1491/1500 The Danse Macabre of Women), etc., but something had to give.

Week One instead focused on the Japanese ghost scrolls (with a quick follow-through to manga and anime, showing a few examples of that culture's 17th and 18th Century intermediary works -- this improvised after Michelle Ollie mentioned to me that Christine hoped to show anime to her fellow students in later weeks), Mixtec codices (primarily the Cordex Nuttall, with a peek at the incomprehensible but exquisite Codex Borgia), Bosch triptyches, the European broadsheets (primarily the 'crime and punishment' broadsheets), Hogarth, Goya, and capping with a 'preview' of the comic strips to come via a presentation on Winsor McCay's work in comics and animation.

Of course, one of the first questions I was hit with: Why had I passed over the Bayeux Tapestry?


You do what you can, and what there's time for.

I've also tried to turn liabilities into strengths: for instance, I'm not yet versed in either scanning or powerpoint presentations (a learning curve I'm working on in hopes of debuting power-point next week), and my available stash of slides are genre-specific (selected and shot for my Journeys Into Fear horror comics history presentation). So this week's session -- covering relevent 19th Century landmarks, the origins of the American comic strip, transitional stages in bound comics (from Toppfer's 1830s 'picture-stories' to the first bound comic strip collections), and the birth of the comic book format -- became a hands-on, 'show and tell' session, with me placing as many hard copies of books and comics pages in their hands as the timeframe would accomodate. In a way, it's too bad I will be versed in powerpoint for next year, but realistically these old books couldn't handle annual handling... still, it was very cool to be able to place the books themselves in the students' hands.

As any comic reader knows, reading is as much a tactile sensory experience as it is visual: the feel, weight, smell of the books and pages are essential to the experience, a reality increasing reliance on digital presentations eschews. Touch is as essential to the drawing/creative process as thought and visual engagement with the work at hand, and that can be fueled and enhanced by hands-on contact with the published work of their precursors and those-who-walked-these-paths-before. Though they would only be able to spend a few minutes at best scanning the books, it was still hands-on, and I think that's vital.

Soooooo, I kept the slide show to a minimum (about ten slides) and instead platformed the class session around hands-on scrutiny of relevent books throughout the lecture. The new layout of the classroom -- a U-shaped looping of desks, with the open area naturally facing the instructor's lair (and slide/projection screen) -- meant my determination to find two samples of each key publishing landmark was worthwhile: I could hand each row a copy of the relevent publication to look at and pass down, looping back up to my end of the room.

This required a quick trip south into Massachusetts to powwow for lunch with one of my best friends in the world, G. Michael Dobbs aka Mike Dobbs. Mike and I had hoped to get together in any case -- Mike had his own agenda, wanting to bounce around ideas relevent to his current book project -- and the timing was solid for either this week's or next week's class. Mike has been teaching at the college level for years (he has far, far more experience than I!), and he came to our lunch meeting armed for bear, much to the benefit of my CCS class.

Between Mike's collection and my own, the students were able to check out a lot of goodies as we skipped like stones over water, touching on as many of the key 19th and early 20th Century comics landmarks as possible. My handouts put a quick overview of Rudolphe Toppfer's works into their hands (with a more expansive handout accessible for them to copy if they wished, and James came in to offer access to Comic Art #3's excellent illustrated article on Toppfer), along with two samples of Outcault's seminal Yellow Kid (October 1897 single panel and multi-panel offerings) and a photo of the first comics-derived movie star: Opper's Happy Hooligan as played by Vitagraph co-founder J. Stuart Blackton, circa 1897.

Better yet, I had two copies of contemporary reprints of Wilhelm Busch's works (Max & Moritz, 1862-5, and a later lesser-known work The Adventures of a Bachelor from the 1870s); three dramatic examples of the Life-spawned books from 1905-1911 (two of Uncle Sam creator James Montgomery Flagg's pint-sized satiric hardcovers and one of Charles-Dana Gibson's gloriously oversized pen-and-ink collections); examples of the two dominant comic strip collection book formats from the early 1900s (Fisher's Mutt and Jeff, McManus's Bringing Up Father); the Penguin reprint of Frans Masereel's Passionate Journey; three of Milt Gross's jazz-era gems (first editions and reprints); and much more.

Mike had thoughtfully offered, and suggested I include, examples of the late 1960s underground newspaper comix and comix inserts, including an original Air Pirates, which was indeed invaluable and instantly caught everyone's interest. These kinds of connect-the-dots-across-decades not only lend greater urgency to the earlier works that are the primary focus of a lecture like yesterday's -- it gives me an opportunity to touch upon how the pioneering work of prior generations may fuel the students' own work, an assertion that carries a bit more weight when one can spotlight (however briefly) a phenomenal cartoonist like Bobby London adapting the styles, kinetics and aesthetics of Segar and Herriman for his own work, and his own generation (thanks again, Mike!). I also steered them all to the strongest comic strips collections in the CCS library, and urged them to make time to sit down with the books and read some of the strips. Losing yourself in these marvelous early works is essential, and that's the best opportunity presently available here.

All in all, I think it was a good session. Now to get to work on next week's session... covering the whole of post-1919 comic strip history in 2 1/2 hours.

Hey, James, want to crash the party long enough to sing the praises of Roy Crane?

If you don't check the comments posted on earlier blog posts, allow me to bring to your attention a significant followup to my Monday post on regional comics.

This from one of the participants in the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center 24-Hour Comics Marathon of August, a gent who also teaches comics in Keene: Marek Bennett, who is an active member in the (hyper-)active Keene Comics Group (who had already sponsored their own 24-Hour Comics session a couple months before the Brattleboro event -- and most of 'em came to that one, too!).

Steve --
Amazing synchronicity! On this very day (September 19th 2005), my new weekly comics series launched in the Keene (NH) Sentinel. It's called Monadnock History Comics, and will be archived at my website,
  • here.

  • I'm aiming it towards teachers, and developing some curriculum to guide students in creating their own local history comics; I'll just post this announcement and let the project's website explain itself.
    -- Marek

    Thanks, Marek, and I for one will be visiting your site often!

    Marek's Monadnock History Comics are the relevent portion of the website, and I urge you to check 'em out
  • here.
  • History in the making, and a timely contemporary of the celebrated Texas History Movies I referred to on Monday.

    Yesterday afternoon, Robyn Chapman broke out fragile copies of an Alaskan newspaper her grandmother had edited throughout the 1960s and '70s. The paper serviced a tiny community a-way up North, and Robyn's grandmother had graced every issue with a regular page-two comic strip of her own creation. It was crude but effectively delineated, and judging from the look of it (the labored look of some panels, thickness of the line, and pasted-in typed word balloon text) guessed that Robyn's grandmama had been working at times with those stubborn mimeo stencils of yore -- a sort of carbon-like non-paper that had to be cut into with metal tools, which stymied any but the most simplified and labored illustration efforts. I used to work with those damned things in my elementary and junior-high school years (1960s), which jived with the dates on a couple of the newspapers Robyn was showing us... my heart goes out to her grandmother!

    Anyhoot, another cool example of regionalized comic strips, and a subject ripe for further research. Certain film archive and academic circles have embraced the preservation and study of home movies (16mm, 8mm, and Super 8) of prior generations, and this equitable turf in the comics medium is equally worthy of scrutiny and preservation.

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