Form & Function With Ryan Claytor (Part 1)

Regular readers of 13 Minutes will remember reviews of the autobiographical work of Ryan Claytor from Elephant Eater Comics. Since Ryan and I met at FCBD 2008, and my subsequent reviews of his library of comics work, we’ve kept in touch through con season and his move away from sunny Southern California, often corresponding about whatever topics organically come about. Recently, we began an innocent discussion around what the medium was (and was not) capable of. We decided to capture that as a collaborative project that proved to indeed be post-worthy. Allow me to introduce you once again to Ryan…

Ryan Claytor is a comics artist and teacher living in Lansing, Michigan. In 2007, he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from San Diego State University with an emphasis in multimedia, researching autobiography in comics. Claytor's achievements have included a Cartoonist in Residence position at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco, California, visiting lecturerships at the Dallas Museum of Art and Michigan State University, an internship with Marvel Comics in New York City, and judging the Will Eisner Spirit of Comics Retailing Award in 2007. Starting December 2008 the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco will feature an exhibition of his work. Claytor is most widely known for his self-published, autobiographical, comic book series And Then One Day. Most recently, in the summer of 2008, he released a republication of his Master's Thesis on autobiography in comics entitled Concatenations. For more information about Ryan Claytor or any of his work, visit his website. http://www.elephanteater.com/

Justin: Ryan, you've spent a good part of your career addressing how the medium "works" functionally. What started you on this path of considering the craft? What are the medium's strengths; what can it do well?

Ryan: My interest in dissecting the medium probably stems from my art background. I have my B.A. and M.F.A. in Art from UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State University respectively, so an academic emphasis on over thinking art is probably to blame. Ha-ha! Honestly, though, I've enjoyed my time in graduate school which allowed me to research my medium of choice: comics.

I thought your suggestion to discuss comics' strengths and weaknesses was a good one. As an advocate of the medium, I'm sure you can relate to combating the popular opinion that still seems to downplay, or at least not understand, what comics are capable of accomplishing. Since I'm guessing most readers of our respective websites have heard the comics cheerleading before, perhaps, for a change of pace, we can discuss some things that comics are NOT capable of doing.

The first inability of comics that comes to mind is their ability to produce sound. We cannot hear what people's voices sound like. We will never know the sound an object makes when it hits the ground. We, as comics artists, can, however, make an attempt to artistically portray these things. We can suggest intonation of voice by strategically emphasizing certain words of dialogue over others. With sound effects we can hint at the type of action taking place by varying letterforms and even experimenting with typography. For example, I'm thinking of a more liquid type of font for the sound of water splashing or a cracked and splintered font for the sound of a door crashing open. Occasionally comic book letterers will even design a custom speech balloon and/or dialogue font for a character to evoke a specific type of voice (robotic, dark and sinister, or countless others). However, the fact remains; we cannot produce sound in this medium of paneled images on paper.

Before I monologue too much longer, I'd like to turn this question over to you. What other limitations of comics can you think of, Justin?

Justin: I can definitely relate to addressing popular perception about the medium. Before moving on to limitations, let's touch on that for a second. Without getting into the "comics are just for kids" rehash or invoking the Adam West Batman, where do you yourself think that comes from? I mean, I work at a Contemporary Art Museum, but am still constantly... defending is a strong word, but... explaining the medium, particularly that it's capable of more genres than just the superhero; that misunderstanding of diversity still seems to be the biggest stumbling block in my corner of the world.

As for limitations, sound is a great one to start with. I just mentally ran down the list of five senses and that seems to be the one that jumps out. Heck, comics can smell, they can even taste like something, and unless you concede sound on a technicality (ie: the pages "fwipping" together when you thumb through a book), then sound is definitely something they can not do from a content, or storytelling standpoint.

You bring up a good point when explaining the limitation of sound, in that there are many things an artist can do to attempt to portray sound. This never actually achieves sound; it just attempts to influence the reader into understanding the notion or intent of sound. That concept of influencing a reader leads me to a couple other suggestions. First, as an artist yourself, do you feel that you can control time, or control the reader's eye movement? One of the things I noticed about your work is that you use "beats" very well. Character speaks in panel one, silent look in panel two (beat for emphasis, which pauses the reader), then character speaks again in panel three. Dash Shaw does this exceptionally well in the recent Bottomless Belly Button. I would argue that you can attempt to influence, but never control pace (time, the readers eye) completely. How do you feel about that? To what degree do you actively consider this dynamic when you're penciling a page?

Ryan: I think your first question was, "Where do I think the perceived lack of diversity in comics genres originated?" This misconception probably stems from the fact that comics are such an under-promoted medium. Think about other pop culture mediums like movies, music, or prose books; it seems like everyone in America knows the latest blockbuster event, the hottest singer of the month, or the fact that "Twilight" is making everyone bonkers about vampires. However, the national promotion for comics-related properties is usually reserved for the company with the deep pockets, which, until recently, has been Marvel and DC.

What do those two deep-pocket companies produce?

A bunch of men in tights.

If capes are all the public hears about from the comics industry, it's no wonder people think that's all we do. I'm hopefully optimistic that with the "graphic novel" boom, these newer and larger companies to enter the comics field will start shedding some big-dollar promotional light on more thoughtful works being published in comics form. I'm thinking of companies like Scholastic, who reprinted a full-color version of Jeff Smith's "Bone," and First Second, a subsidiary of Holtzbrinck Publishers, who is producing a line of stellar, genre-defying, book-length comics. Maybe with this kind of budget backing these new-to-the-industry publishers, we'll start to see a slow shift in public perception of comics. What's your take on that, do you think a massive shift in public perception is possible, or am I the ever-hopeful, yet hopelessly naïve, optimist?

I believe the next question was, "As an artist, do I feel that I can control time, or control the reader's eye movement?" I'm not sure about control, but guide, yes. Artists learn about the way in which the viewer's eye tends to travel around the canvas due to things like subliminal "S" curves suggested in the layout or a particular use of color to emphasize or deemphasize a subject in the arrangement. It's somewhat akin to a reader learning to look from left to right and top to bottom (in some cultures). As a comics artist, you have both of these systems of viewership to use, experiment, and exploit to influence the reader's eye as the narrative requires.

You also commented about my use of "beat" panels or attempted pauses in the flow of time. First of all, thanks for the compliment, and yes, it is certainly something I think about when scripting a comic. I still haven't read Dash Shaw's "Bottomless Belly Button" but it is now on my Amazon wish list. Another artist that comments on the use of panel pauses is Scott Kurtz of PVP fame. In his new-ish book, "How to Make Webcomics," Kurtz discusses his possible over-use of the pause panel for dramatic effect. Just like any technique or practice, it is most effective when used in moderation. If overused, the reader will become aware of the mechanics behind creating the comic and no longer be magically swept along by the narrative. Ultimately, I think one of the goals of the comics artist is to tell a story so engrossing, that the tricks and techniques of the art form pass by unnoticed.

Justin: Two, I'm really fascinated by the ability of art to produce texture. I recently saw a Jackson Pollock panting at the Seattle Art Museum and when I was able to get up really close on it, inches away, I was so impressed with the depth it had, the layers; there are thousands of little ridges and big chunks of paint creating a very tactile sensory experience. I think comic art can attempt to emulate that depth with perspective, but can't actually create the texture or visual depth that an oil painting can. Is this another limitation? Perhaps this is partially because what we see in a comic book typically isn't the original art, but a reproduction?

Ryan: I'm going to respectfully disagree with this assumption for a couple reasons. First, I think that comics can produce a great sense of depth, even in pen and ink drawings. Look at the backgrounds of Yoshihiro Tatsumi (“Abandon the Old in Tokyo”) or the detail in a double-page spread by Sergio Aragones (“Groo the Wanderer”). Using techniques such as overlapping subjects, perspective, varying the width of line to evoke a sense of layering (thicker lines for closer objects and thinner lines for objects further away), as well as emphasizing a fore, middle, and background within the panel, I've been amazed at the sense of depth that can be achieved in comics. Second, who's to say that comics cannot be produced in a painterly fashion, or even AS paintings? The successive images of comics can take form in any style or be produced in any medium, whether it's painting, pen and ink, or even photography. Imagine a triptych of oil paintings that portray sequential images of a single subject performing an action. In my book, that's comics. What do you think?

Please visit us next Friday 12/5/08 for the exciting conclusion of this discussion!


11.26.08 Reviews

Wasteland #22 (Oni Press): Antony Johnston and Christopher Mitten’s masterpiece is best digested when read as socially relevant commentary on our own world. It might seem odd to think that a futuristic, post-apocalyptic tale of scavengers and mutants on the edge of civilized existence could serve as a platform that would ring so true to us in the here and now. But once again, close examination reveals the same struggles with class distinctions, religion, wealth, political maneuvering, and prejudices that inform our own culture. This issue (and perhaps this arc) shines the light on a particular form of female sublimation and ends with a nice last page reveal, though it was a bit telegraphed. Amid the never-ending events and market cock-ups courtesy of the big two, Wasteland offers the simplest and most elegant solution to good publishing, one that is so often overlooked. Tell a compelling story with engaging visuals and you’ll organically create a devoted fan following. The duo of Johnston and Mitten have evolved such a strong brand identity that I’d buy anything from them. Grade A.

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 (Dark Horse): Rumor’s suggestion of the animated John Wilkes Booth statue perfectly captures the offbeat sensibility that this title offers with such sheer joie de vivre, the type of lightning in a bottle concept that Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba have dialed in. This first issue of the second arc pairs strong emotional development of the characters with the interpersonal fall out of the first arc and a very rousing fight scene as the ambush of Number Five unfolds. Ba offers a nice little Easter egg in the form of the panel of dog racing from his Eisner Award winning collaboration, 5. Should the rest of this arc continue this wonderful pace, Dallas is poised to surpass its predecessor in enjoyment and appeal. Grade A.

Transhuman #4 (Image): I finally remembered who artist JM Ringuet reminds me of – Scott Kolins. There’s some fun kineticism to the strong line work, but at times the sketchy unfinished style of dashed lines can distract. With lines like “Let go of the old ways of keeping score, stroking egos and defining ourselves as ‘special’ individuals better than the herd,” much of scribe Jonathan Hickman’s story can be reduced to a death of Western thought, the death of capitalism, the quest for something beyond simply amassing wealth. In essence, advantage = greed = stagnation = death = replacement. On the neg, there are still a few technical glitches to be found, like word balloons attributed to the wrong character. On the pos, like much of his work, the ultimate denouement is anti-climactic and one-note if you’re holding your breath to see how it all ends, but when you sit back and enjoy the actual journey, not the destination, this work is quite thought-provoking. Grade B+.


11.19.08 Reviews

Scalped #23 (DC/Vertigo): In the hands of a lesser writer, Dino Poor Bear would really be a throw-away contextual character, but Jason Aaron gets a lot of mileage out of him. His tragic story arc is used to comment on personal choices; man’s capacity to do good stands on a precipice of forks in the road that we navigate every single day. Thematically, Aaron continues his examination of systematic socialization into the bitter, repetitive cycle of life on the rez. We see hope dashed and the only viable alternative to getting off the rez is the cheap and easy way for youth to otherwise try to recapture the power and control they lack, by turning to violence and crime. In that regard, this is not unlike Gipi’s superb Notes For A War Story. With an assist from artist R.M. Guera, Aaron hits nice story beats around tough love from Granny Poor Bear and the ruthlessness of the Hmongs. Scalped is still miraculously delivering visceral visuals bonded perfectly to thematic depth, creating a beautiful modern epic. Grade A.

Pax Romana #4 (Image): Jonathan Hickman offers up a nice examination of the repercussions of personal loyalties and individual wishes vs. mission objectives in this final issue. That dynamic of the “fallacy of sentimentality” is explored by the check and balance of the Gene Pope and the Rossi line. As many more self-aware time travel stories do, Hickman is careful to point out the ultimate frailty of attempting to affect the timeline with a desired outcome when there are so many unpredictables, too many variables, and endless cause and effect permutations. The ending felt a bit rushed; there are many interesting elements compressed into just a couple of pages that I wish had been explored over the course of another issue or two. With the wars alone that are mentioned, the Britons, the Visigoths, the Templars, the African campaign, and the Silk Road Wars, there are no less than five very appealing sounding story threads that had potential. With the establishment of New Rome on the moon and the Red Project pushing this reality toward Mars, I wondered if Hickman actually wanted to somehow connect this as precursor to his other work, Red Mass for Mars. Overall, the end plays a bit anti-climactic; the “ah!” moment of discovering all of this took place by the year 1421 is really pretty one-note and ultimately lacks some punch. Grade B+.

Uncanny X-Men #504 (Marvel): Terry Dodson’s art is certainly more affable and flowing than Greg Land’s tendency toward cheesecake photo-referencing; it reminded me here of some of the 80’s Claremont run that frequently featured Colossus, Dazzler, Havok, etc. I also thought Fraction’s notion of “psychogeography” was a nifty storytelling framework to explore. Those positives aside, this issue felt disconnected from the previous issue with many plot threads left dangling (Red Queen? Madelyne Pryor?). Most of the threads introduced in this issue feel like scattered vignettes. I’m starting to get nervous that Fraction is trying to juggle waaay too many balls here. It’s hard to get any momentum going when you’re trying to get no less than six plotlines off the ground at once: Mojoverse, Peter’s depression, Scott & Emma’s “psychogeography,” Peter’s discovery of a villain, the recruitment of Dr. Nemesis, and Trask’s newsfeed. Fingers crossed he can pull it off... Grade B.


11.12.08 Reviews

The Lone Ranger #15 (Dynamite Entertainment): This issue marks the conclusion of the Scorched Earth arc, with some satisfying forensic analysis employed by our hero. There’s a nice standoff with the killer that ultimately gives way to a surprisingly atypical resolution for a book about a masked vigilante. Brett Matthews and Sergio Cariello hit the note about true justice sometimes not being found in the legal system, but more importantly we see that The Lone Ranger is actually not the “hardest” persona in this cast of characters. Some of the local inhabitants, including the Sheriff and his crew, actually prove to be the colder, more decisive participants in the drama, while John seems to struggle a bit more with what’s happening all around him, confounded by the moral flexibility inherent to his relatively newfound role. The Lone Ranger continues to be a sleeper hit, relying on simple and effective dialogue without any fancy bells or whistles (aside from those killer Cassaday covers). This title is sort of like MTV Unplugged used to be, stripped down to its core essentials, letting the basic components shine, and the result is pure entertainment. The only complaints I have with this title really have nothing to do with this issue, this series, or even the creative team, but are more likely directed at the Dynamite management team. Where in the heck are the new hardcovers?! The second hardcover collecting issues 7-11 has been advertised for at least 5 months and is nowhere to be found. The web-site offers only the same stale information about the publishing date being “April 08” and that it will be “Available Soon!” The site never gets updated. The first Definitive Edition, collecting issues 1-11, also appears to be MIA with no explanation. As early as issue 12 there’s an advert announcing this book, the site now offering only “October 08” and the same taunting “Available Soon!” I say this as a fan of the series, but it’s very annoying to want to purchase something, be teased with it endlessly, and have no known end in sight. I have the first hardcover (collecting issues 1-6), but gave away the second arc of single issues (7-11, issue 11 having the damn Paul Pope story no less!), wanting to get other people hooked on the series, and ridiculously assumed the second hardcover would ship when announced, as the first had. More importantly, I’d really like to forego purchasing the second hardcover and just wait for the Definitive Edition (which is no bargain at $75) collecting the contents of both, including the long out of print FCBD special, which I also gave away. Ugh. This is not the way to treat a loyal fan base. However, for this issue… Grade A.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Quirk Books): Adapted by Nunzio DeFillippis and Christina Weir from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 story, this amazed me in the casual flip test with brilliant watercolors and a very attractive package.


Critical Function

I make notes all year long on books to review, links to hit, or general topics I try to work into posts for conversational purposes. Toward the end of the year, I look at the list, cross off all those that I’ve done, and inevitably there are still some leftovers. I try to “clean house,” and remove everything from the list, whether it’s abandoned, carried over into the next year, or worked into a post. On The West Wing, they used to call it "Take Out The Trash Day." Sometimes it never happens organically, so here you go. Along with a picture of food critic Anton from Disney’s Ratatouille, it’s just something I thought was interesting that was making the rounds on the interwebs a while back. Don’t quote me exactly, I’m paraphrasing from my cryptic notes and can’t properly cite the original author…

What is the Function of a Critic?

1) to highlight creators or works which the audience was unaware of previously or had not been exposed to

2) to cause further consideration of a creator or work that is undervalued because the audience had not read them carefully enough

3) to illustrate relationships between works that the audience didn’t see because of their relatively limited scope of material consumed

4) to provide explanation of a creator or work that increases the audience’s understanding of it

5) to examine the process of producing (writing, penciling, inking, coloring, lettering, publishing, selling, etc.) art

6) to demonstrate the relationship of art to any aspect of life


11.05.08 Reviews

Invincible Iron Man #7 (Marvel): Matt “Mr. Readability” Fraction keeps this title chugging right along with a street-level, real world look into the aftermath of Ezekiel Stane’s attacks and the emotional toll they’ve taken on Tony. I’m a little unclear on why Tony wouldn’t just arrest Spider-Man on sight, since he is an unregistered superhero. Professional courtesy? And what does unmasking have to do with it? Tony already knows that Spider-Man is Peter Parker, right? They worked together closely during Civil War, he already unmasked right at a Stark press conference. Did I miss something? Was that version of Tony a Skrull? Even if he was, wouldn't he now be aware of the unmasking anyway? It’s also really hard to believe that the high tech pinnacle that is the Iron Man armor wouldn’t be able to detect a spider tracer. Larroca’s photo-referencing of celebutard’s like Paris Hilton is still a bit distracting, but I do really enjoy his portrayal of Spider-Man, he looks sleek, the colors aren’t garish, and his softer kinetic lines are a nice counterpoint to the militaristic rigidity of Tony’s armor. All those quibbles aside, this was a great team up and between this and Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men, he truly is creating some of the most readable flagship properties in years. Grade A.

Wonderful Wizard of Oz: Sketchbook (Marvel): This was a free pick up from Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, which for free, really delivered. It was a nice fascinating look into Young’s designs and Shanower’s general take and familiarity with the property. I have a passive interest in all things Oz at best, but this has certainly made me aware of the pending book and I might now give it the casual flip test at the LCS when it comes out. Grade A.

I also picked up;

Alan’s War (First Second): I’m pretty excited to read this biographical account of a soldier’s war time experiences. Emmanuel Guibert simply doesn’t disappoint as a creator. The art looks sparse and beautiful, with some larger text pieces sprinkled throughout.


Yes We Can

Thank the heavens... Barack Obama wins in a landslide victory signalling the long-awaited opportunity for change we've been hungering for.

I try to sorta' keep overt politics out of an online comic book review site, but it should be no surprise that I lean pretty far to the liberal left on most issues (Freedom of Speech, the CBLDF, hello...). And as one of our best fictitious presidents explained, Matt Santos, from "The Debate" episode of The West Wing, when did "liberal" become a four letter word?

Santos: "It's true. Republicans have tried to turn liberal into a bad word. Well, liberals ended slavery in this country."

Vinick: "A Republican President ended slavery."

Santos: "Yes, a liberal Republican; what happened to them, Senator? They got run out of your party! What did liberals do that was so offensive to the Republican Party? I'll tell you what they did. Liberals got women the right to vote. Liberals got African-Americans the right to vote. Liberals created Social Security and lifted millions of elderly people out of poverty. Liberals ended segregation. Liberals passed the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. Liberals created Medicare. Liberals passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act. What did Conservatives do? They opposed them on every one of those things, every one. So when you try to hurl that label at my feet, 'Liberal,' as if it were something to be ashamed of, something dirty, something to run away from, it won't work, Senator, because I will pick up that label and I will wear it as a badge of honor. "


Graphic Novel Of The Month

Bottomless Belly Button (Fantagraphics): In many ways, the definition of what this book is really about is right there in the title. You could easily swap in “Endless Navel Gazing” as the title and have a firm grasp of the concept that Dash Shaw plays with repeatedly. Be clear that I’m not intending that as a pejorative title or activity, there is indeed a thematic point to the repetitive introspection of Shaw’s tale. I sort of feel like I’m a bit late to the party here; seems that everyone else in the Blogosphere has already reviewed Belly Button. It’s not because I wasn’t paying attention; just that my wonky LCS had only one copy of this work, and it was terribly dinged up. I finally relented and picked it up when it went on sale for 10% off, unable to find a copy locally anywhere else. I can play “Seven Degrees of Stan Lee” with Dash Shaw and make it in three moves… I know Jason, Jason knows Tim, and Tim knows Dash… so I’m pretty interested in all he does. I’ve kept my eye on Dash ever since he was one of many at Meathaus (love the cat named Farel, assumably a shout out to fellow Meathauser Farel Dalrymple), up through Love Eats Brains and Goddess Head. Wow, I’m totally digressing here… So, Bottomless Belly Button strikes me as a grand tale which is the aggregate of smaller, not so grand moments. Through his characters, Shaw is cataloguing life, deconstructing an existence comprised of the awkward realism found in typical, average, everyday moments. It’s about the uncomfortable speech patterns and strained relations found in the archetypical family, in all their painful glory. It’s sort of Seinfeld-ian, in that it’s a comic “about nothing” specific on a micro level, other than sex, divorce, attraction, loneliness, vice, generational gaps, dysfunction being normative, and the recurring macro theme of truth being hidden in the dirty details of everyday life. Shaw uses a few tools to achieve this effect. Notice how he’s able to avoid explaining the divorce of the parents. There simply isn’t a tidy, cerebral answer for the children to pin the failed situation upon. It’s based in emotional foible, something that the married couple is unable to articulate to their kids. There are brilliant strands of parallel storytelling around the themes of danger and discovery. When the child on the beach loses his asthma inhaler, Peter is finding out at that exact moment that his “girlfriend” has a boyfriend. There’s this simultaneous theme of having the wind knocked out of you, whether that feeling is evoked physically or emotionally. Shaw is careful to play with time; notice the slow, deliberate way that he intentionally controls your eye through 12 panels per page of a girl taking off her bathing suit, as if you’re supposed to be slowing down to enjoy, noticing something there in the minute detail. Every scene seems to hint at something slightly disturbing on the edge of your perception, just out of reach or comprehension. The greatest commentary that can be drawn out as a trend in the scenes of Bottomless Belly Button is that there is rarely a single solitary moment that culminates to an instance of truth or profound realization. Rather, it is in the moments in between; in the ether just before or just after where we’d expect something grand to be. One such example is the grandmother and granddaughter walking on the beach together. It’s impossible to point to a single panel or moment where “something” happens. There is no pearl of wisdom shared by an elder, no universal truth revealed, no stereotypically life altering moment of clarity. Nevertheless, at some point during this act of sharing space, an unspoken bond is forged between the two. It’s there on the edge of our understanding, not a single moment, but a process that occurs in between panels, with no identifiable point in time when it actually occurs. Shaw has taken a long form approach to explaining the old adage that life is about the journey and not the destination. He’s given us one family’s quirky, holistic example of what that actually means – in all its mundane glory. If life is defined by man’s search for answers, Shaw would suggest to us that the key to the riddle is actually about the search itself and not the elusive answers. Bottomless Belly Button is ambitious in its sheer scope, and I predict it will be on many Top 10 lists. Yes, I think it will be remembered as one of the best books of the year. Grade A+.