“Writing as writing. Writing as rioting. Writing as righting. On the best days, all three.”
- Teju Cole
The end of a tumultuous year is fast approaching and that means that end of year lists are coming too. The mixed feelings I have about those kind of lists have been amplified lately by the discombobulating nature of 2016 and the ever-present background noise of sexism.
As far as the former goes, whenever I try to collect a mental image of what I read for comics, half of what I come up with is stuff that started in 2015 or 2014 and ended in 2016 like Fight Club 2, Black Canary, and the Batgirl of Burnside. I also feel like there’s this psychic fog that has just settled over the past year that has me fixating on the global tide of fascism that swept through most of my work here instead of all the great comics I read, which I should probably let myself off the hook for.
With the latter, people are paying the necessary amount of attention to the gender and racial breakdown of who gets included in the lists mushrooming right now, and they’re coming to the conclusions that you’d expect them to. I mean, like, let’s all take a second to be completely honest with ourselves and recognize that in about three or four weeks it’ll be a whole year since the Angouleme Grand Prix fiasco kicked off. Comics is a sexist industry with a sexist critical establishment that comes to sexist conclusions about what constitutes greatness.
It’s also, you know, racist, and racializes those things in a similar, albeit distinct tone and timbre. Some website that I don’t think I’d heard of before called Blastr was the first of what I’m sure will be many websites that published a list of the top artists in the industry with a stunning lack of women, labeling it a “power ranking.” I also heard about an incident where another site published a list of the top ten trans women characters in comics, only included one character actually created by a trans woman, and ranked that one third. So that’s where we are at the end of 2016.
Thankfully in response to the former, Stephanie Cooke at Rogues Portal, a website that I have heard of and intentionally gone to before, issued a sarcastic rebuttal than did its level best to do justice to the kaleidoscope of women artists currently working in comics, and in my opinion, succeeded with flying colors. It also made me question the need for doing something similar, because no matter who I chose, they would all be names that appeared on Cooke’s list and names that my readership are at least passingly familiar with. The only thing that would distinguish mine from hers and the countless other lists that will soon emerge is my idiosyncratic rationale behind them, which isn’t justification enough for me to indulge myself.
So instead, what I’m going to do is raise a glass to Cooke and take her work as a license to go a different route. Instead of focusing on artists of any specific gender who are currently working in highly visible areas of the comic book industry, I’m going to write about artists inside, outside, and adjacent to comics who are informing my current perspective on visual art and what I’d like to see reflected in comics as a medium.
Even though this isn’t an out and out ranking, which is a concept I despise when it comes to evaluating artists who employ radically different approaches to cartooning, there’s always psychological hurdles to overcome in the ordering of a list. Things like agonizing over what people are going to read into who you pick first and who you pick last. In this case, I decided that I should lead with the artist that I have the most passionate and energetic take on. Idiosyncratic, self directed expressions of femininity have been the focal point of my interest in illustration this year and Bartel’s work, more than anyone else’s, has acted like the eye of the storm of the last year while still managing to be challenging and assertive in its own right.
As Wonder Woman’s belated arrival into the Prismatic Age cemented by the publication of Wonder Woman: Earth One, The Legend of Wonder Woman, and Wonder Woman: The True Amazon has been the catalyst for a deeply personal reckoning with the character, the piece that I want to highlight in Bartel’s body of work is an illustration of Diana she did to raise $1500 for Planned Parenthood.
One of my deepest reservations with Wonder Woman has always been how the semiotics of her costume and presentation have tied into the ideas of American exceptionalism and the worst white savior complex tendencies of western feminist thought. You can wrap it all kinds of rhetorical bows about the in continuity reasons behind her costume, but it will always be a presumptively white woman in an american flag bathing suit coming to enlighten the rest of the world. Bartel doesn’t shy away from that reality with this piece, she tackles it head on with subtle yet powerful choices that add up to an arresting whole.
Diana’s eyes are downcast and somewhat melancholy, she’s not projecting power aggressively, she’s not calling attention to herself, she’s focused on the task at hand, captured at the cusp of the most physically demanding part of waving a flag, which is where Bartel and the rest of women in the country found themselves at the time she drew it as Donald Trump was named the President Elect of the United States of America. The gritty texture she applies to the illustration, the desaturation and decentering of the flag relative to Diana’s figure and the bright glow that she applies to the lasso aren’t accidental, or trivial. Bartel is painting a picture of America in decline with the flag at the literal nadir of its downward arc lit, again, literally, by the idea that truth, represented by the lasso, can win out.
Either as a means of clarifying intent or demonstrating the basis for her representation in the canon, Bartel accompanied the illustration with a quote from Phil Jiminez and Joe Kelly’s seminal Wonder Woman #170: “If it means interfering in an ensconced, outdated system, to help just one woman, man or child…I’m willing to accept the consequences.” The precise context for the quote is an interview that Diana gives to a DCU version of The View announcing the founding of the Wonder Woman Foundation and outlining its aims which include, among other things, access to the kind of care that Planned Parenthood provides.
What stands out about this issue beyond the verisimilitude between the foundation and Bartel’s fundraising efforts is that it also represents the boldest and most concerted effort to divest Diana from the trappings of American exceptionalism and neo liberal feminist arrogance that have dogged the character more or less since her inception. Jiminez and Kelly set about doing so chiefly by presenting her values as being fundamentally alien yet not out of reach of contemporary America, having Diana center her privilege, and talk through the contradictions she embodies in a way that, in 2001, was far ahead of the curve of what the general comics readership could metabolize. Bartel chose to signify on this particular moment in crafting the illustration, and the text of the issue is readily apparent in her creative choices, as outlined above.
What makes Bartel’s body of work stand out to me beyond that one exceptional piece is that way that she aggressively pursues and asserts her right to project a scopophilic female gaze onto her work while also projecting a violent rejection of an exploitative male gaze. It constitutes a fascinating evolution of how cartoonists like Julie Doucet and Amanda Conner have built responses to the exploitative male gaze directly into their figurative work.
Doucet, as a pioneer of the underground comics scene, revels in the gross and takes her female figures as far away from a normative eroticized gaze as possible by de-emphasizing usually eroticized features and coating them in a layer of highly emphasized grime. Even when she approaches sex explicitly, Doucet presents a punk inspired antithesis of the normatively eroticized female figure. She slopes posture, gapes mouths, musses hair, and misapplies makeup. The consequence of this aesthetic is that Doucet relinquishes a scopophilic gaze of her own and instead projects a grimy vision of sex that she still clearly revels in.
Where Amanda Conner dovetails from Doucet is that she applies a similar layer of grime or the grotesque to conventionally eroticized female figures to complicate rather than evade a heteronormative erotic gaze. From The Pro up until Harley Quinn, Conner’s figurative work carried with it the subtext that any contemplation of her women as objects in a fantasy required a reconciliation with the aspects of sexual bodies that the exploitative male gaze tries to evade in its dehumanization of the female erotic figure.
What’s so utterly fascinating about how Jen Bartel enters into the tradition of female cartoonists who build a response to the exploitative male gaze into their figurative work is that she substitutes the grotesquery of underground influenced artists like Doucet and Conner with an implicit threat of violence.
Bartel’s artwork unmistakably lionizes and celebrates the feminine, using thin lines and hyper saturated colors to communicate a sense of delicacy and frivolity common to depictions of carefree girlishness, but she imbues her figures with aggressive postures, scowls, and clothes them in sharp and spiky accessories. The result is a tension between sensibilities that projects the statement that delicacy does not equal fragility and pleasing does not mean pliant.
If we characterize female cartoonists -like Doucet and Conner- who grew out of the underground movement and its merging with the mainstream through outlets like MAD as joyously playing in the mud, then the generation of artists that Jen Bartel is on the vanguard of could easily be seen as the neon hued, razor thorned rose bush that grew out of their fecund mess.
Graham is, in a lot of ways, the antithesis of what I wanted to set out to do here but his current work also exerts an inescapable gravitational pull for me so here we are. After a long grind in porn and smaller venue indie comics, Graham is having a surge in visibility and critical estimation thanks to the support he’s earned at Image to revive Rob Liefeld’s Prophet and acting both as editor and contributor (with Emma Rios) on Island and the 8House line, so he certainly isn’t starving for attention. At the same time, I’ve drawn on his work both past and present in my critical writing this year too often not to touch on him directly. There’s a lot to examine about his work as a writer and artist, but what I want to focus in on is how he’s intentionally made his work more plasticine and his creative process more transparent over the last couple years in an effort to encourage and educate prospective cartoonists.
Starting with the closing pages of the first issue of Island and transitioning into his Comic Lovers supplement to Image+, Graham has effectively started up the process of offering up the source code to his work. He’s talking and drawing through his creative quirks, taking us inside why he does things the way he does and what specific things he’s taken from his major influences, which invites us, in turn, to return to the comics page as both reader and creator with a renewed sense of the limitless intentionality that the medium provides for. Put another way, he offers up an opportunity to reconsider how every single thing in a comic can be an intentional choice for a specific purpose in a way no other medium can if the creator is willing to do it and the audience will grant them the agency to have done it. It’s an objective most clearly communicated by the Federico Fellini quote he employed in Island #1:
In a field like comics criticism where careers, attention spans, and website lifecycles are all incredibly short, there’s always a pressing need for cartoonists can be easily pulled apart and examined to build a theoretical framework around, so that aspect of Graham’s body of work deserves highlighting. As absurd as it is, one of my most fruitful and compact pieces of critical writing this past year was an examination of how Graham disrupted a whole panoply of sexual norms in a pornographic Dirty Pair fan comic. By breaking down what he did in that comic and how it challenged conventional portrayals of queer female desire by male cartoonists, I came away with clear strategies for improving both the consumption and production of queer female focused porn comics, which has obvious and tremendous value.
Ultimately, what demands Brandon Graham’s inclusion on this list and why I’ll always be a strong advocate for his work is that he inspires in the most concrete and accessible way possible, by showing you what he did and how he did it while encouraging you to take it in any direction you want.
To me, Tarr’s work is a place to feel at home. She asserts a visual language, aesthetic, and set of values that I feel immediately welcomed and understood by. From the first time I saw her pin ups and fan art on Tumblr, I had an intense desire to see her do comics because everything about her work that I cherished was also everything I felt was missing or undervalued in comics. Her energetic expressions, the boundless kinetic energy of her linework, her idiosyncratic fashion choices, and the overall coquettish attitude her work projects are all things that the dominant, self serious masculine viewpoint in comics despises. In that sense, Tarr is the Teen Vogue of comics in what she brings to the medium and how the establishment perceives her. For that reason, when the shock of her being named to Batgirl with Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher subsided, I decided to make a concerted effort at returning to comics criticism to make a case for the importance of what she has to offer to the mainstream. It reminded me of the greatest, most penetrating truth of Anton Ego’s closing monologue in Ratatouille: “… there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and the defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends.”
Babs Tarr might not actually be a cartoon rodent, but some of the responses to her work certainly do make her out to be the carrier of some kind of plague of contagious girlishness that could, at any given moment, seep some actual color and life into the staid hypermasculinity that dominates the field. Because of how directly and intimately her work speaks to me, vindicating it has always felt somewhat self serving, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all deserve to find reflections of ourselves that are recognizable and engaging in media, and it’s my fervent wish that every reader be able to find an artist they respond to the way that I do Tarr. For that to happen, we need to fight for and nurture talent that sees the world through eyes that are alien to our own, to be perpetual friends of the new and stand in solidarity with other marginalized voices to make room for the perspectives that aren’t currently being let into the conversation.
Now the pattern begins to emerge in earnest with our first non-comics artist, although I did drop a hint at the outset by saying “idiosyncratic, self directed expressions of femininity have been the focal point of my interest in illustration this year,” a statement that applies equally to Bartel, Tarr, and Callaghan. The primary joy of Callaghan’s oeuvre is that she transforms the most mundane aspects of daily life into an intricately plotted fashion spread just by manipulating the posing of her figures.
Callaghan is also an artist that Graham’s meditation on Fellini has special resonance because she very clearly and intentionally treats the worlds she creates as sets and builds them up from nothing with special care. The aspect of putting one’s self into the work has particular applicability because the focus of Callaghan’s illustration is to broaden the spectrum of women who get to participate in the surrealist constructions of high fashion. She draws women from a wide range of races and backgrounds, but her greatest achievement is her mastery of the intricacies of body diversity.
She plays with weight distribution and silhouettes in a way that is subtly yet profoundly subversive of how high fashion plays to an incredibly narrow set of measurements and thus excludes women whose thighs, busts, waists, or shoulders aren’t just so. In that sense Callaghan seems to reverse the process of dressing a model for a shoot by tailoring the clothes to the bodies she’s chosen to render instead of finding a body to fill out an item of clothing to the designer’s specifications.
One of the most fascinating principles to me in comic art is how realism and rendering affect the perception of movement. Realism and the illusion of kinetic energy seem to have an inverse relationship when you look at them at their extremes by comparing the sequentials of, say, Kyle Baker and Alex Ross. Baker’s irreverent cartooning is bursting with restless movement at every given moment while Ross’ exacting realism is utterly incapable of communicating motion, even when a figure is clearly posed mid stride, but there are spaces in the margins where motion and rendering interact in surprising, and sometimes astounding ways.
Moebius and Frank Quitely stand out in that regard for how they create volume and space in a way that makes figures in motion feel somehow suspended, neither quite moving nor completely still. It’s an aspect of Quitely’s work that Grant Morrison has exploited to spectacular effect in concretizing his thesis that comic panels are slices through time, most arrestingly in Multiversity: Pax Americana.
Elizabeth Beals isn’t palpably adjacent to Moebius or Quitely in the way that, say, Ramon Villalobos is, but she plays with volume, space, and motion in an equally mesmerizing way. The way Beals renders figures, either with pencil or digitally makes it tempting to conceive of her as more of a sculptor than an illustrator because they appear to take up space so fully and plausibly. The way that she draws hair gently flowing in concert with her rendering create the suggestion of being underwater or a zero gravity environment, which is plays very naturally into the fantastical, ethereal figures she concentrates on.
The most interesting way that her pencil work differs from her digital work and why I’d strongly suggest commissioning a sketch card from her is that her pencil strokes bring out an even fuller and more organic sense of volume that, amusingly enough, comes through the most in how she draws breasts.