Trouble with Comics, The Comics Journal #301 (Part 1)

The Comics Journal #301 (Part 1)

Another issue (volume?) of TCJ apparently means another opportunity to screw with Tom Crippen’s head, as three editors and eight interns couldn’t spell his name correctly in the Table of Contents. Ah, well. Those who pick up the book will see that it’s gone through another format change, this time close to the dimensions and paper used in Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button, a brick of newsprint under a gray blow-up of an image from R. Crumb’s adaptation of The Book of Genesis, the gray really underselling the idea that a bunch of folks are being bombarded by fireballs from the sky. Be careful setting the book down, as the cover is so thin a breeze may fold the cover back without you knowing, as happened to me.

Knowing me, if I wait until I’ve finished all 624 pages of this issue, I’ll never get around to reviewing it, so I figured I’d just do it in parts.

After a solid Introduction by Editor-in-Chief Gary Groth, in which he extols Crumb’s virtues as a cartoonist, and explains the reason Genesis deserved TCJ’s lengthiest critical symposium ever (the reason is that Groth thinks the book deserves it), we get a long and surprisingly warm and easygoing chat between Groth and Crumb. Neither has ever come off this…normal. In Crumb, Groth has a subject he likes so much he not only isn’t compelled to trap, bait or attack him, he actually goes a little too easy. It seems that one reason Crumb decided to do this literal comics adaptation of Genesis was money ($200,000, which seemed like a great deal until it took four years to finish). Fair enough, but I did wish Groth probed more at why Crumb kept so rigidly to a strategem of keeping his own thoughts, his own id and obsessions, his own writing, completely out of the book, even choosing what some feel is a fustier translation source than some others.

Crumb does admit he has some regrets about it, and opines that many other cartoonists could have come up with pretty much the same thing. Personally, I’m sorry if he felt he wasted his time, though it’s really refreshing to hear. I wish more artists, high and low, would cop to taking a creative dead-end, or doing something for money that they wished they hadn’t. Not that many fret overmuch about the feelings of George Lucas or Stephen Spielberg, but don’t you think they look back on Indy 4 as squandering some of their winter years? Or back to comics, do you think Paul Hornschemier is pleased with his choices of the past few years? Eric Shanower may have ended up feeling like his laborious story of the Trojan War, Age of Bronze, was something like a death sentence, a project that would take up the rest of his career.

So Crumb maybe made a bad, and very time-consuming, move. Artists do this. Really, anybody does this. Did you take a job in an industry you find you don’t like that much? It’s hard to get out, isn’t it? Anyway, at the very least, it seems that the project improved Crumb’s already amazing drawing skills, and who knows, maybe the discipline he had to exercise will lead to more fruitful, personal and even longer-form work than before.

It would make sense to go right into the various critics (well, five critics, a theologian and maniac Kenneth R. Smith) and their takes on Genesis, but instead I skipped right towards the back of the issue, a color reprinting of Dell Comics Gerald McBoing Boing, based on Ted (Dr. Suess) Geisel’s cartoon of the same name, which is adapted for the first issue, the rest of the stories playing out the diminishing comedic returns of a tyke who speaks only in sound effects. This highlights that rotten, gooey center at the heart of Groth’s TCJ, the idea that crappy comics are okay if they’re all ages and at least forty years old. Sorry, no. Unless you’ve read every John Stanley-written comic already, there’s no need to waste time on this drivel.

The last piece in the issue is actually a sort of reprise, a brief and fair, even kind piece on Crumb by Tom Crippen that presents the man as a very talented artist who doesn’t have a lot of original ideas, and whose style has settled into something much heavier than in his freer, more experimental days, but what he does, he still does well. In an odd way, it’s a lovely way to end the book, putting the focus back on an artist who’s always worth writing about, even if the book chosen to write about for half this issue is already turning into a career blip or footnote, the book that’s curious by not being curious, interesting mainly for its artist’s choice to govern himself and produce something less interesting.

In Part 2, lots of critics arguing!

—Christopher Allen

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