Daniel Clowes, Krazy Kat, and Rory Hayes: New Books on Comics Masters

Posted inDesign Books
Thumbnail for Daniel Clowes, Krazy Kat, and Rory Hayes: New Books on Comics Masters

Not very long ago, a dedicated comics library might have looked less like a rare books room and more like a semi-coherent junk store, containing a three-dimensional scrapbook of out-of-print books, half-completed reprint series, miscellaneous small press magazines, bound photocopies, and endless clippings. But the rise of the graphic novel category over the past decade has yielded a rich vein of previously rare or inaccessible archival material in well-designed, library-ready formats: complete comic strip collections, surveys of mid-century comic book genres, art books dedicated to historical and contemporary artists, and other rare pleasures.

The cover of United Dead Artists/PictureBox's new Rory Hayes collection

Today, a dedicated reader could fill several bookshelves with volumes compiled from this thoroughgoing history of comics, and a more casual reader or researcher can easily find the same at a well-stocked library. The excavation of comics’ historical past has created a public archive that contains a variety of previously unknown, or barely glimpsed, ephemeral treasures.

The Dolls Weekly and the Crawlee ThingsBy Rory HayesCo-published by United Dead Artists and PictureBox Inc.$30

Rory Hayes was among the most visionary artists to emerge from the underground comix milieu of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many underground artists of that era had assiduously spent their childhoods poring over mid-century comic books and comic strips, learning from their chosen masters and honing their artistic chops. Coming of age during this country’s countercultural revolution, they turned their skills toward self-revelatory and surreal taboo-breaking work that resonated with the hippie zeitgeist and broke new ground for comics as a medium for expressive adult work.

Hayes’s raw stories of vertiginous psychological terror were among the most strikingly expressive comics of that era, but his brutally primitivist drawing style failed to gain a substantial readership even among a countercultural audience that happily snapped up the latest issues of Zap Comix and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers. Hayes was an artist’s artist, championed and supported by other undergrounders including Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Kim Deitch, and Bill Griffith. Hayes’s comics were often structured like vintage EC horror comics (such as Tales from the Crypt), but articulated a visceral, personal horror which frequently depicted childlike teddy bear characters in the maw of psychic disintegration.

Hayes’s art and stories were sometimes about, and were certainly informed by, his use of amphetamines and other drugs, and the artist sadly passed away at the untimely age of 34 in 1983. The bulk of his published comics work has been collected in the anthology Where Demented Wented (Fantagraphics, 2008), co-edited by Glenn Bray and Dan Nadel. The Dolls Weekly and the Crawlee Things presents a compelling pre-history of Hayes’s career, reprinting in full the surviving artwork Hayes produced between 1962 and 1967, before he became a published artist.

This new volume reveals Hayes’s roots in a childhood of collaborative play and creative production centered around a private narrative world he developed with his brother Geoffrey Hayes, now a cartoonist and children’s book author. The two created a cast of characters based upon their doll collection, including a bear named Patrick Pooh. In a fascinating turn, both Geoffrey and Rory would continue to utilize these characters in their mature work. In Geoffrey’s work, Patrick became the star of sweetly illustrated children’s books. For Rory, these characters would also remain in play even as his work took a darker and more directly personal turn.

Horror was already the genre of choice in Hayes’s adolescent work, but The Dolls Weekly and the Crawlee Things reveals a more innocent, playful, and knowing affection for horror as a commercial genre. Hayes expressed his enthusiasm by drawing a series of magazines including Monsters and Ghouls and The Dolls Weekly. These were clearly modeled after mondo fandom mags like Castle of Frankenstein and Famous Monsters of Filmland, and imagined his doll characters as the stars and producers of fictional B- to Z-grade horror films (some of which Hayes actually shot in 8mm; most of which were strictly hypothetical). Consisting of profiles, drawings, illustrated film summaries, comics, previews, letters to the editor, and hilarious fake advertisements, the hand-drawn magazines winningly mimic the knowing, sarcastic editorial tone of the publications Hayes emulated, even humorously critiquing his own invented film productions (one letter to the editor: “I recently saw The Dead Things. It was the worst movie I’ve ever seen!” The editor replies: “We agree”).

Like many genre fans, Hayes was clearly delighted by horror comics and movies, but also took pleasure in their obvious formulae and conventions, as well as the back-stories behind their production (several features in his hand-drawn magazines reveal the secrets behind the special-effects magic in his hypothetical films: “It took ten bears to construct the giant bear”). There is a sense of simultaneous delight and mastery as his teddy bear characters romp through hoary horror movie plots and deconstruct their procedures. Drawn in pencil, The Dolls Weekly and the Crawlee Things offers a touching looking-glass companion to Hayes’s later, inky comics, in which these same characters maneuver less confidently through a world of real and personal terror. Occasional compositions that appear throughout this book (a bear falling into a Vertigo-esque spiraling void) anticipate nearly identical images in his mature work, identifying each collected volume of Hayes’s art and comics as a necessary companion to the other.

The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern CartoonistEdited by Alvin BuenaventuraPublished by Abrams ComicArts$40

The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist accompanies a retrospective of Daniel Clowes’s work at the Oakland Museum of California. Editor Buenaventura has comprehensively raided the artist’s personal and professional archive to present a well-curated and smartly designed survey of this singular artist’s life and career. Art books dedicated to comics artists can be difficult propositions. The monograph treatment tends to privilege single images and comics pages removed from their contexts, and therefore risks underrepresenting the crucial narrative component of a cartoonist’s art. Additionally, there is the irresolvable question of audience: determining to what degree a book like this should presume familiarity (or even obsession) with an artist’s work, and to what degree it must serve as a primer. The latter problem is further complicated in the case of a monograph that accompanies an exhibition, and must serve both as a souvenir for visitors to a massive retrospective display while also cold-courting casual readers at a bookstore thousands of miles away.

A self-portrait of Clowes

Modern Cartoonist mostly gets the balance right. There is certainly much here for Clowes fanatics. A great deal of ephemera that might otherwise have been tucked away as fading tearsheets and clippings is preserved in superior reproduction in this book’s luxurious pages: early work for Cracked magazine; hand-painted girlie ties once sold through the back pages of Clowes’s comic book series Eightball; the artist’s designs for Coca-Cola’s short-lived attempt to court the Gen X slacker demographic with “OK Cola”; album covers; posters; and more. The book does skew slightly toward single images that function more easily as display art: Every cover of Eightball is reproduced here, as are many of Clowes’s high-profile illustration assignments and book and magazine cover drawings.

Clowes's illustration of Bill Murray

A New Yorker cover

Several miscellaneous short comics from throughout Clowes’s career are preserved here, including “The Darlington Sundays” from McSweeney’s #13, “Sawdust” from the out-of-print Kramers Ergot #7, and a one-page addendum to his graphic novel Wilson that only appeared in The New Yorker. Their collection into one publication is welcome. Among the book’s truly unseen treasures is a series of drafts for Clowes’s seminal short story “Caricature,” one of several complex short stories from the 1990s that marked a crucial turning point away from satire and towards more sophisticated narrative modes. Two sketch versions are printed at small size and are followed by a reproduction of the finished artwork for the story’s first page. A reproduction of the full story at readable size might have served as a more fulfilling culmination to the sequence and would have offered a stronger dose of Clowesian narrative for readers new to the artist’s work.

Fortunately, the book contains several critiques that analyze and extol Clowes’s narrative gifts, particularly an acute essay by scholar Ken Parille, who discusses visual-narrative innovations in Clowes’s recent work. Parille notes the sophisticated compositional and stylistic techniques the artist utilizes to juggle subjectivity and objectivity in the play of perception that characterizes his narratives. Along with that, a rich and witty appreciation by Chris Ware, a lengthy interview with Clowes, and other essays provide solid context for the images at hand and hopefully nudge the casual reader outside of the art book and toward the shelf of graphic novels and book collections that represent Clowes’s core achievement.

A cover of Clowes's classic Ghost World comic

Krazy & Ignatz 1922–1924: At Last My Drim of Love Has Come TrueBy George Herriman; edited by Bill BlackbeardPublished by Fantagraphics Books$24.99

One of the first comprehensive comic strip reprint projects of the current era, and arguably the most important, has achieved completion with the publication of the thirteenth and final volume in Fantagraphics’ series collecting George Herriman’s Krazy Kat Sunday pages in their entirety. Herriman’s comic strip is a frequently cited masterpiece of the form, often ranked as the greatest achievement of the comic strip era (and, to some, of comics from any period). Krazy Kat was unpopular among the general public of its day, but was a personal favorite of intellectuals (e. e. cummings contributed an introduction to an early book collection). Cartoonists including Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware have proclaimed it as an inspiration.

For decades, Krazy Kat has been a comic strip whose reputation preceded it, but which lacked a full evidentiary record to support the claim. Generous but fragmentary excerpts of the strip have customarily appeared in comics anthologies and histories for years, but a late 1980s attempt to reprint the Sunday pages in their entirety foundered when the publisher ceased operations. In 2002, Fantagraphics seized the baton, picked up where the previous series left off, and has now circled back to reprint the previous effort’s volumes in a format consistent with the current se
ries, all beautifully designed by Ware.

It is now possible for readers to fully explore Herriman’s most significant body of work, to consider different periods in his career, to observe the development of his themes and formal techniques. And even absent such considerations, this project has restored to public view approximately 1,400 pages of brilliant comics published between 1916 and 1944 on ephemeral newsprint. Herriman developed his strip from the then-dominant slapstick mode, alchemically transmuting the violent, literal trope of the day into an absurdly sweet sign of affection amidst a bizarre love triangle of dog, cat, and mouse. Within this construct, Herriman reconfigured the comic strip as a surreal love poem, featuring a protagonist of fluid gender, constantly shifting backgrounds in a portentous desert landscape, and an endlessly inventive approach to form—drawn in a calligraphic style that resolves iconographic comedy with moody landscape, written in a poetic, polyglot language drawing from sources including Shakespearean English, hip slang, and pidgin dialects.

These are not books to read cover to cover in the manner of a graphic novel. Herriman’s one-page comics are less stories than visual-narrative poems that are best savored a few at a time. I now have every volume in this series on my bookshelf and have likely read few of them in their entirety. I expect I will be reading from this library for years to come. I am as grateful for this body of work as, I expect, readers of Emily Dickinson were when her complete works were first published in full.

This trove owes its existence to the efforts of the late comics historian and archivist Bill Blackbeard. In the 1960s, Blackbeard learned that libraries across the country were disposing of their newspaper collections as part of a large-scale transition to microfilm. While high contrast black-and-white microfilm was sufficient to preserve typeset text, Blackbeard realized that the visual culture of American comic strips would be severely compromised in the transition. He founded the San Francisco Academy of Cartoon Art as a non-profit organization and coordinated a massive nationwide salvage effort. He amassed an extraordinary collection of published comic strips in his home, methodically clipping and cataloging scraps of old newsprint to create the archive that has since served as the primary source for many reprint projects like this one. Blackbeard died in 2011, and his collection now rests at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, where it is still being cataloged.

Bill Blackbeard saved everything. So long as dedicated publishers continue to restore and compile this material in durable formats, dedicated readers can continue to put aside their own scrapbooks and shoeboxes in favor of a growing public archive of important comics art.