Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Three Comics Biographies

Yet more Eisner reading; I hope to squeeze my thoughts on these books down to a tighter word-count than I did for The Ten-Cent Plague, but time has been tight lately, and we all know it takes more time to write concisely. (Cue the Pascal quote here.) So I make no promises:

Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert by Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics Books, October 2008, $19.99)

Schelly's book-length study of Kubert encapsulates, in a nearly-Platonic manner, the strengths and weaknesses of the fan biography. On the one hand, Schelly is tirelessly enthusiastic for Kubert's work and has tracked down what must be every mention of Kubert in the fan press and on the Internet from the past fifty years -- plus engaging in what seem to be extensive interviews with Kubert, his family, collaborators and other comics creators.

But, on the other side, Schelly hasn't got the slightest bit of critical distance on Kubert: Man of Rock is something close to a one-man festschrift, and, according to the story Schelly tells here, nothing Kubert ever did in his life was even the slightest bit less than wonderful. Kubert was a tireless worker who always made his deadlines, a fearlessly inventive artist who left his stamp irrevocably on every genre and property he touched, and the sage of Dover, passing on the cartooning wisdom of the ages to a generation or two of younger creators. (And, on top of that, he's still doing incredibly vital work even now, in his eighth decade!)

Man of Rock is structured as a critical biography -- minus the actual criticism, unfortunately -- and it is tremendously useful, and quite entertaining to read. I personally don't think a true critical appraisal of any artist can be done while he's still alive and working, so I'd consider it premature, but it does collect a lot of primary and secondary sources, in case twenty years from now someone with more critical distance wants to look at Kubert's life.

Kubert's career starts out fairly typical for his generation of creators -- bouncing around from publisher to publisher as his work rose to its level in the late '30s and war years, trying and failing to launch a newspaper strip, trying out different genres in the '50s -- but then it took a turn to the particular, as Kubert settled down with one publisher (DC) and, more or less, one property (Sgt. Rock) for a couple of decades. Kubert is a popular, highly respected artist who worked during the years when superheroes were driving out every other kind of comic -- and yet did only minor and scattered superhero work. Schelly doesn't really delve into that tension; he doesn't show any sign of wanting to criticize the comics industry, either. But he does sketch out the space where such an analysis could go; again, we may have to wait for next generation's Kubert biography.

As a fan work, Man of Rock is of primary interest to those already converted; if the reader doesn't agree that Kubert is one of our finest cartoonists, working on some of the greatest stories in the history of the artform, all of Schelly's Panglossian fervor falls quite flat. Kubert's art, as reprinted here in crisp black-and-white, does mark him as a very inventive and distinctive craftsman in the field, though the writing in those same panels -- sometimes by Kubert but more often not -- only very rarely holds up its end of the equation.

Strange and Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko by Blake Bell (Fantagraphics Books, July 2008, $39.99)

Schelly's main asset and liability may have been his own enthusiasm for Kubert's work, but at least he had an approachable, relatively public figure to explicate; Blake Bell, by contrast, attempts here to create a critical study of a man who has violently shunned all publicity for forty years and created work of radically different levels of creative success, to put it mildly.

To be more specific: Steve Ditko last appeared at a comics event in 1964, has kept his family from speaking to Bell or any other writers, and spent the last three decades sinking his personal work deeper and deeper into libertarian crank-dom, sacrificing nearly all of what once made his art memorable and dynamic along the way. There's a hell of a story to be told here, but it's not the story Ditko believes, and he has done all he could to keep that story from being fully told.

So Strange and Stranger, despite a few stabs at being a biography of Ditko -- such as an unfocused opening chapter that begins with the 1889 Johnstown flood purely because Ditko's family moved into that town thirty-some years later, and then leaps giddily through a few scattered facts about his boyhood days -- is really a booklength critical study of Ditko's comics work. Bell shows every sign of wanting to both be fair and to have Ditko believe that Bell is on his side -- the evidence is that Ditko long ago fell into a "with me or against me" mindset -- and those two desires don't work well together. Bell does praise and damn Ditko's work according to its merits as he sees them, though, and that's all any of us (except Ditko) could reasonably ask.

Unfortunately, Bell is not a smooth writer, and his attempts to force Ditko's life and career -- or what he could trace of it from the outside -- into a coherent narrative often leaves gaps and unanswered questions -- unasked questions, most of the time. Bell doesn't mention Ditko's personal life as an adult at all -- we learn nothing of Ditko besides his work -- and even his insights on Ditko's work must be based on his own judgment or on popular wisdom; Ditko wouldn't be interviewed and apparently there was no one else who could speak to Bell, either.

Bell reprints a lot of Ditko's art, and that's where Strange and Stranger is at its strongest: in the explication of specific artistic styles, and, later, Ayn Randian themes in Ditko's comics stories. The panels aren't always placed to best effect -- the book could have used a stronger hand on design, to make all of the art work better on the pages -- but there is a lot of art here, including at least a score of full story pages, and it makes Bell's case even when his words aren't quite adequate.

Ditko's story is a sad, frustrating one: the reader wants to shake Ditko in 1968 or so and force him not to squander his talents on such inferior, haranguing work. Bell knows well that frustration, and he's good at exploring all sides of both early Ditko (to find the seeds of the later decadence) and late Ditko (to dig out the moments when his old facility for story-telling is allowed to shine through). Strange and Stranger is frustrating itself on top of Ditko's story, but even getting this much organized and published was a great feat; expecting Bell to have done more than this may be a ridiculous thing. And yet I do wish Bell had worried less about offending Ditko and more about what would have made this book truly incisive and definitive.

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front by Todd DePastino (W.W. Norton, February 2008, $27.95)

Bill Mauldin had at least three major careers -- as the quintessential chronicler of WW II's footsoldiers, the "dogfaces;" as the meteorically popular young man of the end of that war and the years immediately following, when everything he did turned to big piles of money almost immediately; and as one of the country's best and most fearless editorial cartoonists for a quarter of a century. The most famous, and most iconic career, of course, is that first one, and it's the one DePastino concentrates on in this compelling and definitive biography.

A Life Up Front is an excellent illustration of the maxim I noted above: that the real biography of any artist can only be written after he's dead. Only when the entire arc of a career -- or of however many careers as that artist eventually had -- is complete and can be seen clearly can the biographer work out how to correctly structure his book. DePastino knew this, and his book is a bell curve -- the middle of the book (nearly half of the total length) covers the war years, with a single chapter devoted to Mauldin's hardscrabble New Mexico childhood and the rest of the book covering the following sixty years of his life in chapters that each cover a longer and longer period. It's not that Mauldin's editorial cartooning career wasn't important, or a vital part of its time -- it was -- but that Up Front, Willie & Joe, and the rest of Mauldin's wartime cartooning career was so much more important and vital, to Mauldin and to America, that it needed to be the center and pivot of the book.

Bill Mauldin tells a great American story, one of the ones that became a cliche long ago -- the boy who goes off to war and becomes a man. But, even more than that, Mauldin became an artist, and a shrewd observer of the world, while at war in Italy. DePastino tells Mauldin's story with great verve and energy, making this first biography of Mauldin the definitive one for generations to come. He also makes copious use of Mauldin's own cartoons in telling the story, to great effect. This is what the biography of a cartoonist should be like: carefully researched, written with an abiding concern for and sympathy with its subject, casually profane when it needs to be, willing to examine even the least savory parts of a man's life, and compelling readable.

No comments:

Post a Comment