Saturday, 16 February 2008
Men reading fashion magazines, oh what a world we live in
Thanks to the people at Friendly Neighbourhood Comic Store, I was given a copy of the 'Exclusive Comics Industry Preview Edition' of Dave Sim's Glamourpuss on Thursday (how 'exclusive' 4500 copies is of a new self-published title in today's market I don't know - I can't help but worry that such an extensive giveaway will essentially kill the chances of selling any copies of the 'normal' edition).
It's really not what I was expecting, and it's rather interesting. For those of you who haven't followed Dave Sim's post-Cerebus career, he's been working on a magazine, Following Cerebus, which is irregularly published and even more irregularly distributed but which, when it arrives (I still don't have the copy of issue 9 I paid for from the publisher in September last year, after it never turned up in the comic shop, although 10 arrived on schedule) has been one of the most fascinating comics-related magazines there is, filling the notional 'gap between Wizard and The Comics Journal'. While Sim's views on politics, religion and gender are so idiosyncratic as to bear no relation to the real world, his writing on comics, and his understanding of the tiny technical points, is absolutely enthralling - he seems to have a deeper understanding of the minutiae of the craft than anyone else writing about the medium, and the ability to convey this understanding.
The bulk of Glamourpuss 1 could very easily be a Following Cerebus essay, possibly entitled 'How To Ink Comics The Alex Raymond Way'. While it's layed out to look like fairly conventional 'sequential art' , the text in the speech bubbles, captions and so forth throughout the main portion of the book is for the most part a rather freeform essay on the inking techniques of the photorealistic comic strip school, and in particular Raymond.
Sim has decided to teach himself to draw like Alex Raymond (and given that these pages were done more or less in order, it's interesting to see the progression in his ability to do this, from the early pages where he sometimes ends up looking more like Patrick Nagel than Raymond, to the later pages where he's much more assured in his command of this style) and the art in the comic is split almost 50/50 between Sim's attempts to render photos from fashion magazines in Raymond's style (sometimes with the text veering into the same weird attempts at psychoanalysis/telepathy as the Dave Sim's Favourite Buffy Picture Of The Month section in FC) and his tracing of old Rip Kirby panels.
The tracings are actually a lot more interesting than they sound. In the backmatter of the comic, Sim compares a panel shot from Alex Raymond's original artwork with one from a typical modern reprint of Rip Kirby, showing that the shoddy copies from which modern printings are taken lose almost all the fine linework that was originally put in there. Sim attempts in his tracings to restore that linework, resulting in a curious mixture of artistic styles (Dave-Sim photorealism, Alex Raymond-as-inked-by-Dave-Sim, John-Prentice(Raymond's assistant/successor)-doing-Raymond-as-inked-by-Sim and occasionally Sim-possibly-unconsciously-doing-Gerhard). Some of this is gorgeous to look at (and I'm amazed by how good Sim is without Gerhard's help - Gerhard was the best line-art/photorealist draughtsman in comics, and Sim copes without him remarkably well) but what's really fascinating to me is the text.
I've always been interested in the combination of photorealism with non-fiction in comics (my own attempt at doing a webcomic, pretty much defunct due to lack of time, Dumb Angel, was in something of the same area) but reading someone on the top of his game explaining how to get the techniques he's using is absolutely riveting. At one point the comic actually turns into something approaching narrative - Sim tries to show the difficulty in creating narrative using photo reference by creating a six-page story using shots of the same model, with bizarre results - but for the most part it's a freewheeling semi-structured lecture on inking techniques.
Those who have been worried about Sim dealing with the fashion industry bringing out his misogynist tendencies have little need to worry, incidentally. While calling Glamourpuss' evil twin 'Skanko' is not exactly in the best possible taste, and his comment about wanting to do Alex Raymond style drawings of teenage girls is a little disturbing, there is nothing in here that would make me think "this is the work of an evil misogynist" were I not primed to look for that, and little that does even when I've got my misogynist-hunter glasses on.
(I admit, however, that it is difficult for me, a heterosexual white male, to judge what others might find offensive. This is one of the reasons I will get my wife to repeat her "Holly reads the comics so you don't have to " experiments with this issue - I will post the result of that tomorrow or Monday).
Around the edges of the sequential material, we have a few pages of fashion magazine parody. I've found Sim's humour in recent years to be much less effective than it had been earlier, which I think is partly a function of his increasing detatchment from 'normal' society (it's hard to be an effective satirist of the current culture when you never watch TV, listen to the radio or go on the internet) and partly due to his increased admiration for borscht-belt comedians, a genre I've never been a fan of. To my mind, the humour portions of Glamourpuss have the same sense of trying too hard and not quite getting it that I've found from some of Sim's other recent humour stuff, but I'll give it a pass because I'm not at all familiar with fashion magazines, and it may be that some of the text in them really is as horrible as this (I did once look at Cosmopolitan's website for half an hour, and came out with terrible psychic scars I still bear four years later, so it's entirely possible). There are also one or two bits that really are laugh-out-loud funny - usually obvious jokes, but still good ones.
But all in all, Glamourpuss is intriguing because it's nothing like anything out there. The closest comparison I can find in terms of content is if you took twenty pages of Understanding Comics or the comics-history sections of Alice In Sunderland and wrapped them in five pages of Mad magazine. The formal experimentation reminds me a little of Alice but also of The Fate Of The Artist or even The Black Dossier (about which I do have more to say and will shortly).
It's also, sadly, utterly unsuited to the serialised format - I get the feeling that , when it's released as a trade, this will be something to be studied repeatedly, and will be very rewarding. But this sort of freewheeling lecture/narrative/experiment thing works far better in large doses than in twenty-five pages at a time, and I'm going to withhold judgement on its quality until I've read at least the next three issues. But there's enough of interest (and it's cheap enough - $3 ) for me to recommend without hesitation that you at least try the first issue.
It might not be for everyone - it's unlikely to have a huge crossover fanbase with Booster Gold (although I like Booster Gold actually) - but I have a feeling this could be surprisingly successful among those who like the quirkier mainstream/more accessible indie titles (a category I usually fall into) like Action Philosophers or Rick Veitch's dream comics (something else I must write about soon) as well as the other titles I've mentioned.