Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Three

-- Do you think that we'd be as interested in these paintings if they weren't by Bob Dylan?

-- No, but they are by Bob Dylan, so let's move on.

News night Review, BBC2 13th June.


Glamourpuss is a 28 page comic book -- 19 pages of comics, 7 pages of text + covers.


It is packaged as a parody of a woman's fashion/lifestyle magazine. It is, it goes without saying, spectacularly well-drawn. In places, it is very funny. Almost everyone who has seen my copy has at least smiled at the strap-line: "The high fashion comic book that's SO six months ago"


Six pages of the comic depict the internal monologue of an airheaded fashion model named "Glamourpuss." Reading about Chinese culture, she exclaims: "These people make foot binding seem like a...a...bad thing. Don't they realise that an L.B.D by Vera Wang just looks wrong with size four booties?" Exegetes may take the view that, since it depicts a woman who is a self-obsessed idiot, "the comic" "says" that "women" are self-obsessed idiots. I found it quite amusing.


Many people have spotted that as Cerebus progressed, it became less and less about Cerebus and more and more about Dave Sim. It has also been noted that as the comic got more and more Simcentric, the art got better and better. Glamourpuss. is not about Glamourpuss. Nor is it, except incidentally, about fashion. It is about Dave Sim, and about drawing. It is about Dave Sim drawing. It is about Dave Sim drawing Glamourpuss.


Dave says that the title of the issue -- "The Top Secret Origin of Glamourpuss."("WHO she is! HOW she came to be! WHERE she gets all those great clothes") is a slightly cynical in-joke: "In comic book stores, if you have a No.1 and a "origin of..." story, no matter how pointless, it's going to boost your sales." But it is actually a pretty good description of the comic. The comic is about how Dave came up with the idea for the comic; and about the techniques he used to produce it.


Pages 1 - 5 are a series of pictures of a pretty girl in various outfits, overlaid with captions in which Dave speaks in his own voice. (The voice is that of Lucid-Dave, not Mad-Dave: the voice of the funny editorials, not that of the ranting essays.) Lucid-Dave says that when people asked him what he was going to work on after Cerebus, he always replied "photo-realistic pictures of cute teenage girls". This was, in fact, what he was drawing, but he had no way of coming up with a story to go with the pictures. (Exegetes may wish to spend some time wondering whether the comic "says" that it's ok for middle aged men to look at pictures of teenagers, and whether "cute" is a sexist word to apply to members of the opposite gender. The models in Glamourpuss. are all well over the age of consent.)


On pages 6-9 there are more fashion pictures, and copies of comic-strips by Alex Raymond, who he believes to be the past-master of the photo-realistic style. He comments in great detail about the techniques that Raymond used. I must admit that I had rather assumed that "photo realistic" drawing wasn't real art: it's simply a matter of tracing a photograph, isn't it? Sim explains that it's actually all about translation -- finding the exact kind of brush stroke that will represent a texture in pen-and-ink. And indeed, every one of the "traced" images in the book are instantly identifiable as "Dave Sim" pictures.


Sim uses Raymond's Rip Kirby as an example: a comic which I confess I've never seen. I enjoyed Raymond's Flash Gordon for the strange architecture and the inventive story-telling: although I can see that the realistic human figures are very pretty indeed, particularly in the Ice Kingdom segment. Sim uses pages from fashion magazines to experiment with photo-realistic work simply because they provide a ready source of reference material – and also, presumably, because the clothes themselves present an interesting artistic challenge.


On pages 10 - 15, he "demonstrates" that it isn't possible to turn this material into a comic because -- obviously -- a series of pictures of different models in different poses don't make up a narrative sequence. So he presents a series of montages of Glamourpuss. and her meandering thoughts about life and clothes – the last of which is interrupted by Lucid-Dave saying "This is actually pretty good! This could work!"


The remainder of the comic consists of more close readings of Rip Kirby, concentrating in particular on Alex Raymond's use of heavy black shading, breaking off on page 19 with a "Sorry, I seem to have run out of pages this time around."


The package is rounded out with text pages which are parodies (parodies) of women's magazine features, such as Glamourpuss's "five signs that you've found Mr. Right" which are, of course, five signs that the man you are dating is completely unsuitable for you. ("He stands you up and doesn't call to apologize....Horrified? Relax. He's just playing head games with you because he's finally realized how deeply and passionately and inextricably in love with you he is...") Exegetes may have a problem with this section, since it seems to "say" that men are selfish louses, but that women aren't clever enough to spot this -- which suggests a sexual politics which is slightly (slightly) more complicated than the single word "misogyny" might suggest.


I dunno. If you asked me "what does Dave Sim do well" I'd come up with a list along the lines of:


a: caricature

b: body language

c: voice -- using balloons and lettering to tell you what his characters sound like

d: Panel composition

e: Dialogue -- even the barking mad Torah commentaries were intermittently very funny

f: Farce

g: Big, overarching plots

h: Complicated political machinations


Glamourpuss. seems explicitly created to leave all of this out.


Not that one can't still see Dave's skill. Page 14 is a single image of Glamourpuss. against a white background. The captions are printed directly on the background, but the whole page is enclosed by a heavy black box. It is almost ostentatiously "not a comic." This is in contrast to page 15, which is a montage of three images against a realistic background. A small picture of Glamourpuss. is juxtaposed with a large picture of Gandhi (because she is thinking about him).This time, the page itself has no border, but Glamoupuss's thoughts are printed in boxes like conventional comic-book captions. I think that this draws us into a more sequential, less novel-like way of reading. At the bottom of the page, there is a small, inset frame containing a caricature of Dave Sim himself. The inset frame is black, were the rest of the page is on a white background; which makes the point that two different kinds of narrative, the fictional and the autobiographical, are being placed alongside each other. (We have Dave, who is creating Glamourpuss, Glamourpuss herself, and Gandhi, who Glamourpuss. is thinking about, all represented on one page, but in slightly different ways.) Sim's thoughts are in slanted text boxes to represent their "madness" and intrusiveness. The small "GP" insignia at the bottom right of the page indicates that this section of the story is "over", and we are returning to something which will at least look like a conventional comic. This represents an effortless, fluency in the sheer language of comic-books; a creator who is entirely at ease with the form; unselfconscious innovation.


Some critics objected to Cerebus on the grounds that a long work which includes both passages of comic strip and passages of prose is not kosher. I don't know whether Glamourpuss will similarly be accused of mixing milk with meat. The sections where Glamourpuss is thinking out loud are quite wordy and say "She thought" and "She said" instead of using speech bubbles and think bubbles. But the text looks like standard comic-book lettering. Perhaps we only feel that "prose" has intruded into our funny book if it is printed in Times Roman?


Glamourpuss reminds me of nothing so much as one of Harvey Pekar's less inspired days: when he spends three pages telling you that he got up, went to the toilet, bought some eggs, and couldn't think of anything to write a comic about. Of course, the whole point of American Splendour is that it's trying to transmute ordinary domestic life into art. I don't know whether the latest meanderings from Planet Dave are going to seem as interesting in the long term.

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