28 August, 2005

Comic Art in the Green Mountains

"This is the mini-Woodstock of 24-Hour Comic Days."

With those remarks, artist Steve Bissette welcomed dozens of young cartoonists yesterday who had laid benevolent siege to southern Vermont's Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in the name of comics.

I was there with my family to see the Comic Art in the Green Mountains exhibit featuring the work of James Kochalka and other Vermont cartoonists, but as we were standing in line outside the museum waiting for it to open, I noticed and mentioned to my wife that our two children and ourselves seemed to be the only ones not carrying sketchpads, art tools and backpacks that I quickly surmised were packed with still more sketchpads and art tools. The museum staff was actually surprised to realize the four of us were there to see the museum's exhibits, and not participate in their 24-Hour Comic Day event, but like visitors to West Germany as the wall was coming down, it was pretty impossible not to be swept up in the joy and committment to comics that was evident in the crowd.

As the artists -- mostly young people but definitely ranging in age from at least 16 to at least 45 -- set up in every available corner of the museum, my entourage made our way to a surprisingly small exhibit room literally at the far end of the facility, where the Comic Art in the Green Mountains displays were waiting.

As Kochalkaholic reader Cole Odell noted in the
comments section
here on KOCHALKAHOLIC!, "The exhibit is pretty small, in the smallest of four galleries. Bissette has four pages on display -- two from Swamp Thing and two from Tyrant. Sturm has a couple of pages from The Golem's Mighty Swing, Vietch has two-to-four pages from Rare Bit Fiends, Miller has maybe two pages of Sin City up, and Kochalka has the most work on display wtih two Sketchbook covers, two intro pages from those books, and maybe six-to-eight pages from Monkey vs. Robot and the Crystal of Power."

And really, that is about the physical extent of the exhibit. But it's extraordinary to think that Vermont has produced so many gifted cartoonists, and even more so to have some of their very best and most noteworthy art all gathered together in one place, where visitors to the museum can not only see the work as close-up as they might like, but through the canny placement of reading copies containing the pages on display, can gain a greater understanding of the context of the material and the mechanics of comic art.

For example, my wife was fairly mesmerized by the original art of the two Sketchbook Diaries James Kochalka had lent to the exhibit.

Cllick for larger image.

I'm not the only Kochalka reader who has long admired the particular artistry the cartoonist brought to bear in the four covers of the individual, yearly Sketchbook Diaries volumes released to date. What was surprising to me was to see just how vivid the linework was on the original art, particularly noteworthy in the lines outlining the artist's body in the image you see on the right above (click for a larger look at those two covers). It was instructional to hold up the actual cover of the book to the art, and see that despite how impressed I'd been with Kochalka's art on these covers, its impact and immediacy was increased tenfold by being able to examine the fine detail that is inevitably lost in the reproduction of most art, even when the artist and publisher are among the most conscientious in the industry.

Other Kochalka art in the exhibit includes multiple pages from Monkey vs. Robot and the Crystal of Power, and seeing the energy and power of the pages on display, I found myself wanting to revisit that volume and once again experience the unique appeal of one of the cartoonist's best-known concepts. A pair of pages that I had thought were from Reinventing Everything but that Cole Odell reminds me were, indeed, introductory pages from the Sketchbook Diaries outlined James and Amy Kochalka's decision to have a baby. My wife found those pages, dense with panels and packed with information, among the most compelling of the exhibit, and she asked me to dig out the volume they were from so she could read the whole book.

It should be noted that autobiographical works by Kochalka, Jason Marcy, Tom Beland, Robert Ullman and John Porcellino are about the only comics that have ever held my wife's attention, and as I am sure she would say she is generally not a reader of comics, this goes a long way toward my conviction that as comics find a wider and more diverse audience, it's to be achieved with human stories told in a comprehensible manner by cartoonists skilled in storytelling that resonate with the reader's life experience and contain humour, insight and energy; something one rarely sees anymore in assembly-line-produced corporate superhero melodramas.

That said, the few pages of comics art produced under the work-for-hire corporate comics system that were on display in Brattleboro contained a startling artistry all but absent in the modern era's equivalent titles. Two pages of Steve Bissette and John Totleben's Alan Moore-written Swamp Thing were on display, including perhaps the most iconic image of the character from that landmark 1980s run, a full-page image of the title character ecstatic in his place in the world, arms raised, and the hyper-detail of the swamp indicated in the frantic, gorgeous, impressionistic linework of Bissette and Totlenben working at the height of their artistic partnership.

Bissette also had gorgeous, mind-bogglingly detailed pages on display from his solo Tyrant series, and I was thankful to find full sets of the series available for around $12.00 in the museum's giftshop. I was further delighted to discover at least one of the issues was personally signed by the artist once I broke open the set at home, and even a further bonus of a dinosaur-starring issue of the Moore-written and Bisette-pencilled 1963 was included in the pack, in addition to the complete set of Tyrant issues.

For the most part the museum shop's selection of works by the exhibiting artists is fairly common stuff available in most quality bookstores and decent comic shops, but the inclusion of Tyrant and some copies of Bissette's Taboo anthology (Vol. 4) indicate that the artist likely had some input and assistance in what is available for purchase.

Probably the least interesting artwork in the exhibit is, ironically, also the most well-known and perhaps one of the biggest potential draws: Frank Miller has loaned the museum a number of pages from Sin City. While the set of pages does include one striking close-up full-page image, for the most part the pages are quickly absorbed and lend an extremely limited understanding of Miller's overall contribution to comic art. Sin City might be his biggest claim to fame thanks to the movie of the same name, but I would have much rather seen some of his earlier, more detailed work, or at least some sketches or preliminary material that might more completely evoke the artistic process. To say that hanging up photocopies of the pages in question for this exhibit would have been as powerful and effective a statement about Miller's art might be an overstatement, but only by a small degree. I found myself learning nothing by looking at Miller's work in this exhibit, a sensation sadly resonant with my reading of most of the artist's work over the past decade or more. So perhaps these pages do evince an accurate understanding of the artist's current era, although not in perhaps the expected or desired manner.

One artist who did provide preliminary material that demonstrates the creative process in vivid relief is James Sturm. The head of the soon-to-open Center for Cartoon Studies provided for this exhibit two pages from The Golem's Mighty Swing, and hanging next to each of these pages is the full-sized pencil breakdowns for that respective page. Visitors to the exhibit will be able to note the places where Sturm remained committed to his initial layout, and be intrigued by the places where he revised angles and concepts to better effect. His original art is well worth taking in, as it allows a greater appreciation for his artistry and technique, much like Kochalka's sketchbook Diaries covers.

The final artist in the exhibit is Rick Veitch, whose work is represented by pages from his dream comic Rare Bit Fiends. The pages are well-chosen for an effective sequence of dream logic, but out of context are perhaps the least comprehensible of the exhibit. Curious visitors will, though, be able to investigate the reader's copies near the display and Veitch is also well-represented in the gift shop, with at least a couple of Rare Bit Fiends collections available for purchase, as well as The Maximortal and Brat Pack.

After we were done browsing the comic art exhibit, we returned to the main area of the museum, where the crowd of young people with art tools had increased. There were dozens of people, men and women, setting up their own chosen work areas, and a surprising number of them were plugging in laptops and even entire desktop computer systems to create or enhance their work. They seemed quite delighted to be told by museum director Konstantin von Krusenstiern and guest curator Gabriel Greenberg of the many amenities they were to have at their disposal, from wireless internet connections and photocopy machines to free soda, pizza, bagels and more donated by local shops. Listening to the artists hear what was available to help them get through the next 24 hours, from bathroom locations and kitchen privileges to likely spots to grab a quick nap, I was really struck by what a committment it is to do nothing but work on comics for 24 hours straight. Listening to Greenberg gently implore the artists on hand to be mindful of the proximity their ink and other tools had to the museum's precious stock of original artworks (both comics and not) was a heady evocation of the surreality of this situation -- a new, temporary and vital community of young artists creating art among art. I said to my wife, "I wonder how many of these people will have their work on display here 20 years from now?"

Steve Bissette was on hand to officially kick things off, and was introduced by Gabe Greenberg to enthusiastic applause from an audience clearly familiar with his work, as was I. Bissette's Swamp Thing work was some of my formative comics reading in the 1980s, and remains among the most effective and timeless of its era, as good with every repeated reading as it was on its initial release. Bissette is widely acknowledged as a master of horror comics art, and not without good reason -- the visceral, iconic imagery he and his Swamp Thing colleagues created decades ago inspired an entire generation of artists that followed, just as Bissette's rousing, energetic words to the artists assembled in this museum (an assemblage that he noted was the largest of its type that he had seen and that he called "The Mini-Woodstock of 24 Hour Comic Days") in Brattleboro inspired these folks to create as yet unseen new worlds in comic art. Bissette provided advice both practical and profound -- save the coffee for the last few hours, when you'll really need it, and use the tools you are comfortable with to create the art you want to create.

In a brief question and answer period, some of the assembled artists asked about issues such as whether a planned photocopied collection of the stories to be created over the next 24 hours could handle uninked pencil art or full-bleed technique, but Bissette urged the artists to create what they were compelled to create, and to let the reproduction of the work be a worry for a later time. One might almost say that Bissette was letting these young artists know that, for the next 24 hours, craft is indeed the enemy, and art is the highest -- the only -- goal.

I look very much forward to seeing what these young people create, and I continue to wonder now, back home in Glens Falls here at 3:39 in the morning, as they are a little over halfway done with their work back there in Brattleboro, what they are creating, and indeed, who among them will still be creating comics in 20 years. Perhaps some of them will be known to my children, and my children's children. I have no doubt at least some of them will make it. Because between the energy, enthusiasm and committment they demonstrated as they got underway yesterday at noon and the awe-inspiring works of Vermont cartoonists very nearby to provide them with inspiration and hope, I have no doubt that comics are alive and well in the Green Mountains of Vermont.

And everywhere else.

Comic Art in the Green Mountains features the work of Vermont cartoonists Steve Bissette, James Kochalka, Frank Miller, James Sturm, and Rick Vietch. It is on exhibit through November 5th at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

Updates: Read The Brattleboro Reformer's coverage of the 24-Hour Comic Challenge. Also, read Steve Bissette's coverage at his new blog.


Blogger Cole Moore Odell said...

For anyone thinking of making the trek to the museum, I should clarify that there are actually a few more pages on the wall than I had originally estimated. A friend and I stopped by last night to see how the cartoonists were doing, and I saw that there are really about 6 Sin City pages up, 4 from Tyrant, maybe four from Sturm, and five or so from Veitch, plus one of his original dream sketchbooks behind glass.

8:55 PM  
Blogger ADD said...

I thought you might have been underestimating the amount of art on display; also, do you know if the title mural is an original? I presume it was created by Sturm, but I have no idea how it was created, I should have asked. Pictures hopefully coming by the end of this week. I must get a digital camera...

9:08 PM  

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