It’s not writing; it’s not drawing; it’s cartooning

30 Sep
By Darryl Ayo

The only way for me to comprehend what exactly it is that I get out of Frank Miller’s work is to describe it as “fearlessly physical.” After a long period of being far too sophisticated and mature to read those quaintly violent comics of my teenage years, I read Miller’s Holy Terror. What immediately springs forth is that this is comics.

This is comics.

This is cartooning.

Miller shows with several jagged brushstrokes what is missing from most contemporary (and let’s face it–classical as well) cartooning. He shows a complete fearlessness of the human form, directional propulsion, weight and gravity. He draws like jumping off of a building ain’t no thang. Which shocks the reader into recognizing that it ain’t no thang and nobody can get hurt, but suddenly every other physical/body-cartoonist save maybe Frank Quitely seems like a coward because they’re too scared to jump upside-down and backwards off of a building, even when it’s just ink on a white page.

What makes Frank Miller special isn’t that he’s a great writer (he’s not) or that he’s an expert draftsman (he is, though)…what makes Miller special is that he can make things look heavy and light at the same time. That he can have “Batman” vault through the great expanse of the hazy, scratchy page and land roughly, awkwardly and gracefully at the same time.

I set my copy of Holy Terror down but I couldn’t get it out of my head. Something was echoing in the back of my mind. David Brothers mentioned offhand that “Frank Miller doesn’t have a subtle bone in his body.” And I think that’s the key.

While it varies from day to day and from cartoonist to cartoonist, a large point that seems to bother me about modern cartooning is the way in which contemporary cartoonists tend to emulate contemporary adult prose and cinema. “Subtlety.” There’s nothing wrong with understated tones and values, absolutely nothing wrong. What bothers me is that in many cases, the tones of The New Yorker, The New York Times, Criterion and other cultural influences deemed respectable have had such a powerful influence on the art of cartooning that comics practitioners have seemed to surrender the most uniquely “comics” tools in their arsenals.

Consider caricature. In Holy Terror, Frank Miller lays down some of the most exciting and on-the-mark caricatures of contemporary political figures from Dick Cheney to Barack Obama with the same apparent ease that he catapults his heroes across rooftops.

And take another look at the previously-cited physicality of the human bodies in Miller’s book, particularly as they collide with each other. Human objects read on the page as being graceful, and…beautifully ugly. Densely textured and warped in shape, the human forms nonetheless shift their weight across the pages, pulled by their heavy black shadows through the overlapping white rain textures, fuzzy lines and solid white of their world.

I’d like to see Daniel Clowes do that.

Miller shifts the weight balance of his pages and his figures and his characters (and plot) move like pinballs, more at the mercy of gravity than of “literary” writing’s notion of inhibition. Stripping his characters of story-contrived inhibitions, Miller invites the reader to also abandon caution and to bound recklessly forward until the final page turn stops all momentum cold.

There are different schools of comics and Miller belongs to a school that asks us to do away with timidity, inhibition, self-doubt, and yes, self-reflection as well. To make assumptions and then assume those are right. To reflexively react, rather than dilute the purity of intention with rationalization or cerebral analysis. Or compassion.

Holy Terror is a mean book, make no mistake about it. It’s an angry and unfair accusation and cry for revenge against a vague shadow of a notion. However, the same qualities that make Miller an intellectually incurious xenophobe are the qualities that make him a graphic artist capable of such emotionally-driven forward-momentum markmaking.

20 Responses to “It’s not writing; it’s not drawing; it’s cartooning”

  1. Sean T. Collins September 30, 2011 at 12:05 am #

    This anti-Clowes stuff is unbecoming, man.

    • darrylayo, eternal antagonist September 30, 2011 at 6:51 am #

      How so? Unfortunately, I’ve absorbed about twelve years of uncritical assumption about how Daniel Clowes is, quote: “the greatest living cartoonist” from one sect of comics criticism while Frank Miller is “whores, whores, whores,” a washed up, crazy, overrated hack.

      I disagree, and if my dang computer didn’t break, I could have edited this post with more discussion of how breathtakingly fantastic a cartoonist Miller is.

      In all, I have taken my true swing at Clowes and shared it with others who are frustrated with the direction of his work and the regression of his talent. This was nothing but a cheap shot for comparison.

      Sorry that my distaste for Clowes’ modern work wears thin for you, but my light snaps at him mask a boiling rage.

      We have to be critical of Clowes. We have been critical of Miller. And of so many others. No one may be immune, no one above.

      Personally, I go to Clowes because he’s emblematic of a wider problem. He’s a totem of a lot of what annoys and disgusts me about these “literary” or “art” or “alternative” comics. I go to Clowes as a reference point, to quickly indicate not a man, but a movement, a culture within comics.

      I’m not against Clowes like I think he should stop. I see him as symbolic of the crud of a lot of comics; the crud that weak comics who hide behind the curtain of “literary” to avoid being revealed as shallow, classist, sexist and conservative.

      Clowes represents the hiders. I am a seeker.

      • Sean T. Collins September 30, 2011 at 7:12 am #

        This comment’s exactly what I’m talking about. You’re not really talking about Clowes at all. He’s “emblematic of a wider problem.” But he isn’t! He’s a cartoonist making work you’re not nuts about. Save boiling rage for the health care system or something — not because comics or any other kind of art aren’t important (they are!), but because “boiling rage” makes you a lousy critic. I read a comment like this and learn nothing about the comics it’s ostensibly commenting on. I instead learn that you’ve decided an entire segment of comics is BULLSHIT, an opinion propped up by unsubstantiated generalizations about “hiders vs. seekers” (that almost sounds Randian, the funnybook version of takers vs. makers) and “uncritical assumptions” that Clowes is the GOAT (did you read any reviews of Wilson? Sometimes it felt like me and Tom Spurgeon were the only people who liked that book at all) and points about literary comics that were hoary and inaccurate when I first read them on the Comics Journal message board ten years ago.


  2. darrylayo, eternal antagonist September 30, 2011 at 7:43 am #

    Sean that’s not fair at all. First: I talk to many people who are done with the Clowes movement in comics. Yet I read from a bunch of critics TODAY about how he’s great, the best…that type of stuff. I didn’t read all of the Wilson reviews because that was the time i was giving up on artcomics/litcomics.

    There’s not much to grab onto with Clowes’ new work. Just upper middle class white male alienation. His tone is smug but he offers very precious few treats for the cartoon enthusiast who wanders into his worlds yet doesn’t share his worldview.

    On the other hand, I disagree with everything Miller’s work is about. But there is so much on the page to work with! There is so much to taste and savor and bathe in, graphically.

    Yes, Clowes trades in subtlety, the understated. That can be done very well. But merely aspiring to the near-stoicism of The New Yorker doesn’t a serious author make.

    When it comes to Clowes and those fellows, i feel gross when they say “I want my drawings to look like they died on the page.” that’s really weird. I understand the aesthetic of understated value but I cannot simply accept it at face value as a virtue.

    The biggest reason that Clowes work annoys is that he *is* massively talented in many regards. But that he takes easy outs, avoids challenging himself, doesn’t take a whole lot of chances. He is so safe, you’d have thought he died on the page.

    That’s not intellectually stimulating, intellectually challenging or graphically engaging. Mister Wonderful was remarkable only in that such a bland little book could manage to be such an offensive little book. Not offensive in any cerebral way, but offensive in that someone would think that this story in which the protagonist is never challenged for more than two pages, where nothing truly goes wrong…that someone would think this was worthy of The New York Times. Or MY time.

    As for Wilson, I never made it through. Its smugness and the obvious irony from page one closed the book for me. The day Wilson came out was the day Clowes stopped mattering at all.

  3. Sean T. Collins September 30, 2011 at 7:56 am #

    Unfair? I’m not the one who just wrote “Clowes represents the hiders”! 🙂

    “Just upper middle class white male alienation.”

    Yikes. I dunno, man — that’s the phrase of a person who’s not seriously engaging with that work. That’s uncriticism.

    • darrylayo, eternal antagonist September 30, 2011 at 8:09 am #


      I read Mister Wonderful. I was digging the first part with the first date jitters. I’ve been on blind dates. But the rest is like…a bunch of stuff i don’t relate to, hostility out of nowhere, a somewhat well-to-do middle-classish fellow screeching with rage against wealthier people, a bunch of brimming rage…even though the character is winning all day long. I don’t get it. It has nothing to do with my life. I earn nothing from it, I learn nothing from it. I felt put off and intellectually insulted by it. It just seems to be grasping at this tone of middle class stability and stoicism. The character is rageful even in his position of relative societal comfort, but his rage seems…maybe not unfounded, but not really justified in the text.

      And frankly, as a black man I cannot relate to behaving so poorly on a date and still being accepted with open arms. I can’t relate to freaking out, screaming at people, getting into fights and still being welcomed. That is so far outside of my reality, I have an easier time relating to space aliens.

      Classism, it must be; because that type of stuff doesn’t happen for people like me

      • Sean T. Collins September 30, 2011 at 9:38 am #

        That’s better!

        I still think you’re assuming bad faith on Clowes’s part, and the part of people who like him/make comics “like” his, and that’s almost always a terrible idea for a critic. Are there cartoonists and critics I think are (to use terms you’ve used here and on twitter this AM) “posing,” “grasping,” “hiding behind a curtain,” doing things for reasons other than an engagement with the work they’re currently making or currently reading? Yes, absolutely. I could rattle off half a dozen names right now. But I’m not going to, because nearly every time I’ve written something that proceeded from that assumption, I’ve regretted it. That’s because assuming you know *why* someone made the art they did or wrote the thing they did, and then analyzing the work based on that as though that were something you could observe on the page…well, it isn’t, and you really can’t. It’s critical conjecture and hearsay. It makes for criticism that’s at once underbaked and overreaching.

        If the sad sacks Clowes writes about are so alien to your experience that you can’t enjoy or appreciate those comics, I’m not about to gainsay that. All I can say is that if I limited myself to art I could relate to on a personal level like that, I’d have a pretty limited field of vision. I couldn’t possibly count the number of works of fiction I’ve read or watched involving people behaving in ways I could never get away with, doing things I can’t relate to at all. Granted, though my current station in life represents some backsliding from the level at which I was brought up, I still live in unimaginable privilege and splendor compared to the vast majority of human beings, and on the basis of the color of my skin that comparison goes up to and including black American human beings. So in a way we’re talking about two different things. I do think there’s a principle at work underneath, though.

        The frequency with which Clowes and his high-alt peers’ real or imagined background and lifestyle are brought up as cudgels to use against them is disheartening to me. Abhay Khosla did it in the Wilson roundtable we did at the Savage Critics, implying (or maybe stating outright, I can’t recall) that since Clowes apparently has a happy family life, it’s somehow illegitimate for him to write about miserable assholes. Grant Morrison did it by concocting some silver-spoon background for Chris Ware and then lambasting him for it, versus the Scottish salt-of-the-earth types like him. I don’t even know where to begin with something like that.

        In your case, with the classism, it feels like something you’re bringing to the table rather than something Clowes is bringing to the table, and it’s clouding your view of the work. For example, you say the lead in Mr. Wonderful is “winning all day long,” but an under/unemployed lonely divorced man in his 40s whose sole relationship in recent years has been with a drug addict who robbed him can’t be said to be winning on any level other than the basics of not being homeless or in prison. A head up on many, to be sure! But that’s a hell of a misery bar you’re gonna require characters to clear if being upset about a life any less awful than that is unacceptable to you.

        I get as tired of romantic comedies about gorgeous talented wealthy young urban professionals who are inexplicably unlucky in love or superhero movies about handsome old-money billionaires fighting crime on a preposterously limited basis as anyone. But I’m not about to ban people in “relative societal comfort” from being unhappy, even deeply unhappy, nor am I about to write off art about such people. But more to the point, I don’t think Mr. Wonderful actually IS about such people.

        I’m not questioning the validity of your experience AT ALL — just the wisdom of extrapolating from the specifics of your personal interface with specific Clowes comics into sweeping generalizations about “a movement, a culture within comics.”

        To give you a counterexample: Right now I’m skittish about reading and writing about Moebius, because I know that if I were to do so I wouldn’t be writing about Moebius, really — I’d be writing about the role his work and work like his currently plays in the comics blogosphere, a role I’m not nuts about. But that’s not on him or his work. I feel like I’d have a hard time engaging honestly with what’s on the page in front of me. Until such time as that’s not the case, I’m not putting fingers to keyboard about it.

        I dunno. It took me a looooooooooooooong time and many tens of thousands of words written to get to that kind of place. And I understand that this desire for WYSIWYG criticism is a personal preference. But when I said the Clowesbashing was unbecoming, that’s what I meant. It’s not a kind of criticism I find much value in anymore, and I’ve come to expect value from my Darryl Ayo Brand Criticism.

        PS: I apologize for what I’m sure came across like me being angry or a dick. I promise I’m just enjoying the discussion and wanted to talk to you about this stuff. No boiling rage here!

  4. Sean T. Collins September 30, 2011 at 7:57 am #

    I mean, using The New Yorker as a pejorative for him? I know you can do better.

  5. boxbrown (@boxbrown) September 30, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    DA: I think you should go on more dates.

    • darrylayo September 30, 2011 at 10:19 am #

      But Chester Brown said romantic love is a sham!


  6. Costa September 30, 2011 at 10:05 am #

    A) On the lack of Miller’s subtlety; DEAD-ON
    B) On Miller’s raw draftsmanship and cartooning; DEAD-ON
    C) On Dan Clowes comics being for hipsters; DEAD-ON

    Despite the horrific jingoism of “Holy Terror,” it is (partially) saved by the fact that Miller’s an amazing cartoonist. A lot of people give Bryan Hitch (in his “Ultimates” work) credit for bringing big-screen/widescreen cinematics to cartooning, even though Miller was doing it decades earlier.

    • darrylayo September 30, 2011 at 12:28 pm #

      Yes, the point about Bryan Hitch and Miller solidified in my head as I was reading this. 300 presaged The Authority.

      But yes, Holy Terror is a really sickening book, conceptually and thematically.

  7. darrylayo September 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm #

    Sean: doesn’t appear that I can nest a comment any further.

    I have no problem reading about characters of any demographic or background. What left me cold and alienated was the way in which Clowes presents Marshall. In my minicritique (not on this site) I complain that the character is insufficiently challenged in the course of the story’s merit. Yes, he gets punched out eventually, but I don’t see him being pushed as hard as I feel a character who begins as the stuffy, conservative nice guy needs to be pushed.

    It comes across as wish fulfillment and worse, wish fulfillment in which the author doesn’t want the hero to truly suffer.

    Even so, what few actions the hero of Mr Wonderful is allowed don’t match the tone of the challenges. And he is forgiven AND compensated despite his repeated errors in judgement and decor.

    I’d read about a wealthy white American man winning at life if the story’s text also challenged said character. My distaste for Mr Wonderful isn’t so tied to the hero’s ethnic, social, gender or economic class. It’s tied with the idea that his challenges are meager for anybody from such a background.

    It’s impossible for me to care about the character because it feels as though the author is 1) making a big deal out of nothing and 2) cutting him a ton of slack in terms of obstacles.

    I’ve seen more awkward episodes of the television program “Blind Date,” frankly.

    • Sean T. Collins September 30, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

      I wish tumblr comments limited nesting. It gets pretty dire.

      I disagree with most of what you just wrote, but now I at least feel we’re approaching things on the solid ground of the work in question. That’s what I was pushing for.

      • juncruznaligas October 2, 2011 at 9:26 pm #

        @Mr Collins – At the risk of pissing on New Criticism, ie, WYSIWYG Criticism, but also to push the discussion farther and further, I’ve always felt and believed that to take a piece of art and regard it seemingly hermetically outside of any context – that wobbly tightrope of “judging it on its own terms” – reaps limited rewards for the reader and for the book. It *may* seem like it’s responsible criticism as it seems classy and respectful, but often it is ONLY merely classy and respectful. It also assumes and insists that art has no socio-political implications.

        I’m not piling on you specifically (I love your work in THE SAVAGE CRITICS), only on what you’ve said here about Mr Ayo’s angle on Clowes and the New Yorker cartoonist aesthetic, which I believe has merits, which I believe has bigger and more important implications about its subject, ie, Clowes and the NYc, than just reading and analysing it purely on its own terms and/or even in context to Clowe’s substantial bibliography.

        I suppose this is all an oblique way of saying I agree with Mr Ayo’s woefully reductionist assessment that Clowes’s more recent work as classist. As an avid reader of Clowes for ten years, now, and also as an Asian man, I feel Clowes has slid into a weird and weirdly repetitive – pretty much every book since ICE HAVEN (four books!) – middle class white American funk that is all sorts of alienating but not in the way I think Clowes intends, in a way that I think is problematic.

        I think this is something that needs to be addressed critically. I hope Mr Ayo finds the time to write something more substantial about it.

  8. madinkbeard September 30, 2011 at 2:29 pm #

    It’s funny, I think a lot of “literary comics” are lacking in subtlety. Not the kind of understated visual subtlety you are talking about, but the subtlety of not saying everything so directly, the subtlety of making the reader work a little harder from narrative/conceptual/thematic perspective or in the way the pictures and text interact or the way the panels interact with each other. It all tends to be so straightforward.

  9. Tom Spurgeon September 30, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    A few notes.

    I liked Mister Wonderful, but it wasn’t well-received when it came out and isn’t all that well-remembered now. (I remember this because I liked it.)

    I’m not sure who called Dan the greatest living cartoonist, but I can assure you it wasn’t me and unless I’ve totally missed something it’s not a widely-held opinion let alone an oppressive one. I think you’d have to murder Crumb, Moebius and Swarte before you’d even get to a conversation with like Dan and 20 other people. Actually, you’d probably then have to kill a second group including people like Mattotti and Panter and Barry and Lat and Tsuge before you’d get to that conversation that Dan was in.

    I imagine Dan has hipster fans but I’m from Indiana, drink beer unironically, was in a fraternity, love the NFL and own at least one Mannheim Steamroller Christmas album and I love Dan Clowes. I think his work is for me, too.

    As far as any critical insight: Darryl, I think I get what you’re saying when you say the character wasn’t challenged enough to suit you, but while I’d have to read it again isn’t that a big part of it? He’s a fucking mess; he can’t even handle the gift from God that is this date.

    Also, as far as achieving the effect you describe that Frank does — isn’t Dan pretty good with grotesques? I like a lot of Frank Miller’s work, too.)

    • Doily Feldspar October 2, 2011 at 7:35 pm #

      Each sip of beer is heavy with irony for me, laden with the awareness of the cultural cachet of the stein and tavern. I glance furtively from side to side, trying to catch the eye of musclebound fraternity veterans, so that they might know that my consumption of the beverage is fraught with meaning they will never understand.

      They are aware of me – I know it. I feel their eyes upon me, their judgment, their simmering rage.

      ‘Foot’-b(all)? Please. That is only for true, salt-of-the-earth Volk, whose opinions grow organically from the loam of America, rich with authenticity. From some place free of hipness and the flea-like, rat-like virus of Hipsterism, some true American heartland . . . someplace like . . . Indiana.

      For I am a Hipster. And Dan Clowes is mine and mine alone.

  10. Julian October 1, 2011 at 8:46 am #

    I’m a “literary” comics fan, and I don’t like Clowes that much. I think his stuff is generally more concerned with misanthropy than reflection and for the most part I find it tedious. However, it seems to me that you’re making kind of a false equivalency here. You are mainly concerned with lauding Miller for his skills as a draftsman. This is something that I think you’d find agreement on in most critical circles, even the people that tend to write him off as “whores, whores, whores”. On the other hand, your main complaint with Clowes is textual. Now of course, since they are both cartoonists you can’t really draw a line in the sand between form and content and I think you were saying as much when you said that it is exactly Miller’s hateful and vulgar narrative sensibilities that informs his energetic visual aesthetic. Still, once you got into why you don’t like Clowes’s recent work, you never once touched on his visual aesthetics. If you took that same approach to Miller, then by your own analysis you are left with “an angry and unfair accusation and cry for revenge against a vague shadow of a notion” and not much else.

  11. Doily Feldspar October 2, 2011 at 7:20 pm #

    Man, this “who is and is not a hipster” conversation never gets old. Surely, I am not one! Why *sniffs armpits* not a hint of irony!

    For what it’s worth, DA, I read Mister Wonderful as a sort of sublimated masturbation fantasy for neurotic white guys, wherein all the things that usually turn people off about them are cherished as adorable.

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