Thursday, November 10, 2022

Episode IV

The Strange Death of Alex Raymond is more like an extended essay than a graphic novel. The text, sometimes in captions and sometimes in balloons, reads a lot like one of Sim's editorials or back-of-the-book text-pieces from the days of Cerebus. Some people will find that more off-putting than I did: I have always found Sim's prose style readable and engaging and indeed powerful. The Viktor Davies material directly prior to the explosive Tangents essay was an astonishing piece of prose by anyone's standards. (Disclaimers. Troll.)

There is some attempt to frame the essay in a narrative: a female comic-shop owner keeps finding copies of the comic in her shop. There is a very Dave moment when she herself realises that she doesn't have anything to do with the story, and also becomes physically aware of Dave's brush drawing her. This is the only part of the work that feels like a conventional graphic novel or a sequential narrative and serves to remind us just how fucking good Dave is at this sort of thing.

What do you do when you have finished the telling the six thousand page life story of a barbarian aardvark who becomes Prime Minister and Pope, founds a religion, dies alone, unmourned and unloved and then goes to hell? Obviously, you start to study fashion, and draw pictures of models in high-class outfits while learning the techniques of photorealistic artwork and researching the history of photorealistic comic strips. 
And gosh, the resultant artwork is stunning, even by Dave Sim's own high standards. He says that the picture of the lady in the diaphanous blouse on page twenty five is the best thing he's ever drawn, and he may be right. Given Dave's views on male/female relationships, the text around these pictures in the original Glamourpuss comic was pretty -- broad -- although by no means uniformly unfunny. (Disclaimers. Troll.) That hyper masculine Dave Sim was studying Vogue was superficially amusing: but he seemed to genuinely think the fashion designs were beautiful. 

QUERY: Has Dave Sim seen Mrs Harris Goes To Paris?

The comic was not a commercial success (leading to Sim, if I recall correctly, telling the world that he was going to quit illustration and become a copper miner) but the historical sections form the basis for this new work. All this is rather taken for granted in the opening sections of the Strange Death of Alex Raymond. If I had known nothing about Dave Sim, Cerebus, or Glamourpuss, I might have been a little bamboozled by it. 

This is a wider flaw in the book. Sim takes a lot for granted. I know my comic book history better than I imagine you do, and have actually read Flash Gordon, but "Terry and the Pirates" is really just a name to me. This stuff was incredibly mainstream in its day, but is now merely archival material; like old radio shows and old B movies.

Sim says that Alex Raymond, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) are the great trinity of photo-realistic newspaper strip artists. They drew in incredible detail; their art was seen by huge numbers of readers (we're talking, like, thirty million); they were very well paid, but they had to work incredibly hard. Almost uniquely in the history of American comics, their material was read by, and directed towards, adults as well as kids.

Sim has studied Raymond's artwork very closely indeed. Raymond was famous among other artists for his very fine brushwork. Sim, by experimenting, works out that he must have been loading his brush with ink, and then painting a tiny rectangle in order to bring the the bristles to a very fine point. (The normal approach was to moisten the brush with water, bring it to a point, and then put a tiny drop on the end -- which gave you much less line for your time.) And, sure enough, he finds lots of tiny rectangles in the shading on some of the fine-lined strips.

This is fascinating stuff, assuming it is the sort of stuff you are fascinated by. Not all of us can keep the distinctions between Non Stylised Realism, Stylised Realism and Cartoon Realism clear in our heads; or quite keep track of why Jack Kirby was part of the Raymond school where Neal Adams was more a follower of Caniff but Sim is the master of his craft, and it is always exciting to hear one master craftsman talk about the work of another.

But it is clear that Sim has studied the material in such minute detail that he has started to see things which are not actually there. Do not gaze for too long into the ultra fine brush-lines or the ultra fine brush-lines will gaze into you. 

Everything turns on a photograph of Alex Raymond shaking hands with Milton Caniff, on the occassion of his appointment as president of the National Cartoonists Society. Sim becomes convinced that the body language in the picture indicates a complex tension between the two men. His minute study of the artwork makes him believe that Raymond was swiping certain techniques from Caniff, even though, as the far superior artist, he didn't need to. Caniff would have resented this, which is why the handshake in the picture looks so awkward. 

When the Death of Alex Raymond was part of Glamourpuss, I thought Sim was going for a straightforward conspiracy theory: that Caniff had somehow had Raymond murdered in revenge for artistic theft, or that Raymond had committed suicide out of remorse. 

But that would be far too simple. It seems that the universe killed Raymond to pay a kind of karmic debt.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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1 comment:

Gavin Burrows said...

”This essay is intended for people who do not intend to read The Strange Death of Alex Raymond, but are interested in what it contains and how it strikes me”

That’s me.

”Sim says that Alex Raymond, Hal Foster (Prince Valiant) and Milton Caniff (Terry and the Pirates) are the great trinity of photo-realistic newspaper strip artists.”

For fairly obvious reasons, I’m not going to get into the strangest thing Sim says here. But this must be the strangest thing for Dave Sim to say! I don’t think Caniff belongs with those other two at all. If not as cartoony as, say, Eisner he’s much further over that side of the dial. I wonder if Sim wanted to equate ‘successful newspaper strip artist’ with ‘photo-realist style’ for some reason.