News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Monday, January 31, 2022

IJOCA delays due to COVID-19 international postage restrictions

Because of the Pandemic, some countries are not accepting packages, including those of IJOCA. So far, the U.S. post office here refuses to send IJOCA to New Zealand, Australia, Switzerland, and Poland.

As soon as these countries open up, I will send the gathered back issues to subscribers.

Thank you.

John A. Lent

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

International Journal of Comic Art Index, Volumes 1-10 (1999-2008) online now

International Journal of Comic Art Index, Volumes 1-10 (1999-2008)

John A. Lent, Xu Ying, Jae-Woong Kwon
IJOCA 11:1 (Spring/Summer 2009).

Compiled by John A. Lent, Xu Ying, and Jae-Woong Kwon This index includes all articles published in International Journal of Comic Art from Vol. 1 (1999) through Vol. 10 (2008). Not included are book and exhibition reviews, "The Printed Word," and "Critical Closure" columns. We hope to publish a separate index of those items. Sections include Author, Country, and Genre.

Originally published in IJOCA 11:1 (Spring/Summer 2009).

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Good Humor, Bitter Irony: Reviewing “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece” exhibit at JANM

Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece: The Art of Citizen 13660. Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, August 28, 2021 - February 20, 2022. <> 

reviewed by Tony Wei Ling

The museum’s path is a loop, and so a visit to JANM’s Citizen 13660 exhibit either begins or ends with a view into the same shambly wooden structure: an original barracks removed and rebuilt from the Heart Mountain concentration camp. Part of JANM’s ongoing exhibit on Japanese American history, Common Ground, this building-inside-a-building bookends the celebration of “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece.” Visitors first travel through Common Ground’s rooms, which span the earliest waves of immigration through to WWII incarceration and its aftermaths; the final room, situated just before the entrance to the Okubo exhibit, covers the 1970s/80s political struggle for redress that followed internment. Along with the architectural bookend of the barracks, this history of the Redress Movement physically frames the museum’s 75th anniversary exhibit of Citizen 13660.

    The JANM exhibit is structured into a narrative of the book’s production, displaying the variety of materials (varied camp sketches, original Citizen 13660 drawings, and page mockups combining drawing, typed caption, and marginal edits) in a compositional/editorial process of negotiated meaning. Miné Okubo’s iconic 1946 book pairs observational cartoons with terse first-person captions and follows Okubo through multiple relocations and incarcerations between 1939 and 1944: Berne to Berkeley, Tanforan to Topaz. By laying out the Citizen 13660 exhibit, room by room, into stages of drafting, design, and correction, the exhibit opens up for interrogation the multiple actors and influences that brought it into publication.              

Mine sleeping on a cot in her barrack

            Such an interrogation is important because Citizen 13660’s rendering of camp life’s “humor and pathos” has often been preemptively read as a political act in itself, one that critiques the events it charts and anticipates the organized call for reparations. No doubt much of this reputation comes from the book’s use as testimony in the 1980s, during which Okubo submitted her book to the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians as evidence of government wrongdoing. However, scholars like Christine Hong warn against subsuming the book within this “retroactive interpretive lens,” since doing so “arguably obscures more than it illuminates Okubo’s legacy as a wartime artist.” Indeed, as Hong reminds us, Citizen 13660 could only have been published immediately following the war (and during the cross-country dispersal of former incarcerees) with the support of the WRA officials who ran the camps, some of whom endorsed the book. The book became, perversely, “an affirmation of the democratic potential of the American concentration camp,” Hong writes. This affirmation required fitting Okubo into the exemplar of an “entirely American” Nisei character (to quote Pearl Buck), such that reviews of her book sounded almost identical to the artist’s truly wild character references, such as the one from her teacher Glenn Wessels describing her as “un-Japanese in sympathies and in manner of thought.”

            Citizen 13660’s legacy has continued to work through this exemplar form, making Okubo into an ethnic representative whose witnessing and recording of the camps always already testifies to one political end or another: either a distinctly American story that mines the everyday adjustments and discomforts of camp life for common ground with white readers, or a sharply critical, irony-laden statement of racial protest. Debates about how best to interpret “Miné Okubo’s Masterpiece” as a politically potent (though not obvious) artistic work are not about pinning down the precise political character of a single cultural figure: they are about dislodging both the book and the artist from the position of exemplar. Hong’s caution not to read Citizen 13660 through a single lens clarifies the pressures of exemplarity as a representational mode, which can attempt to redeem ambiguous or close-mouthed texts by forcing them to speak.

            Although the museum’s physical layout leads the visitor straight from redress to Okubo, JANM seems to follow Hong’s caution not to enclose the artist within the political lens of redress. The curatorial writings about the exhibit are relatively circumspect on Okubo’s politics; they describe the book as “groundbreaking” for being “the first book-length account on America’s concentration camp from the perspective of a former incarceree” and “an early example of a graphic memoir,” not for being a self-evident critique of the state.

Memorial service for James Wakasa
            Perhaps more importantly, the exhibit’s design draws the visitor’s attention to edits made to both Okubo’s text and drawings, asking the visitor to compare versions of the same page. One key moment in the exhibit places a page from the final book next to its draft page mockup: it’s the page in which Okubo addresses a guard’s fatal shooting of an “elderly resident.” The final version’s caption consists of a single paragraph, from which much of the draft page’s typewritten details have been cut. Ironically, one of the remaining lines in the published version reads: “Particulars and facts of the matter were never satisfactorily disclosed to the residents.”  

Detention room filled with departing residents

           What did it mean to excise those slight elaborations on “the Wakasa case” from the final publication? And what can readers today make of such an elision, in this already famously elliptical work? Against the backdrop of its various political mobilizations (re-domesticating alienized incarcerees, testifying towards redress), Citizen 13660 might be best characterized by its oscillations and reticence––qualities that JANM’s exhibit faithfully reflects and interrogates through its attention to revision and editorial process. JANM’s Education Unit has designed a wonderful activity guide that asks visitors to participate in slow examination of Okubo’s drawings through activities in “close looking,” comparison between early sketches and final versions, and even invitations to draw one’s own illustrations from Okubo’s captions.

            Over the decades, Citizen 13660 has been made a representative of multiple political/racial narratives––narratives not obviously cosigned or directly produced by the work itself. These interpretive frames are partly external impositions on the book, but they are also generated in large part by the work’s odd combination of documentation and reticence. A strategy of “documentation through reticence,” in fact, might be fitting to stress the scientist’s objectivity in Okubo’s textual voice. Or maybe “reticence through documentation”: the book rattles off a steady rhythm of particulars to fill incarceration’s empty time. “You had to work hard to keep yourself going, and to keep from thinking,” Okubo said in a post-publication interview. And as Greg Robinson observes, “Okubo may not have been referring simply to her camp experience,” but to the stifling representational burden of Americanizing/humanizing incarcerees.

Landscaping with trees

            Another way of looking at Okubo's reticence is as a strategy of abstraction––as a stylistic register that responds to the pressures of racial exemplarity. Talking about Citizen 13660 in terms of abstraction may seem odd, given the work’s obvious claims to figurative representation (as documentary) and its obsessive interest in particulars: barrack and room numbers, curfew times, toilet arrangements, wages. Its text and image move at different paces, though, and rather than elaborating or contextualizing the moments depicted in each drawing, Okubo’s captions often direct the reader and characters onward, onward, onward, at a brusque pace something like a punchline.

“Everyone was building furniture and fixing up barracks and stalls. Many of the discomforts of the camp were forgotten in this activity.”

“Letters from my European friends told me how lucky I was to be free and safe at home.”

“The incomplete partitions in the stalls and the barracks made a single symphony of yours and your neighbors’ loves, hates, and joys. One had to get used to snores, baby-crying, family troubles, and even to the jitterbugs.”

Her drawings, by contrast, loop the eye into compositions that Hong describes as “[w]himsically Matryoshka-like in visual architecture,” with figures whose gaze and movement rarely advance in a single direction––and which almost never resolve into any legible kind of effect. Okubo threads her readers between progressive and melancholic time: we neither move briskly into the future (as the book’s final caption seems to promise), nor do we stay endlessly in some fractured, traumatic moment.

            In his essay on abstract comics, Jan Baetens introduces the idea of abstraction at the level of sequence rather than just the individual image. Abstraction as a sequential strategy can serve narrative ends by “foreground[ing] an enigma” and by withholding connections between image-moments, although in Baeten’s model, abstraction and narrative are always in “active conflict.” Abstraction in Okubo’s proto-”graphic memoir” doesn’t mean a total absence of either figuration or narrative; I mean something like a looseness between forms and what those forms legibly, identifiably signify. Not a lack (of particulars, of lines, of images), but a loose connection: resemblance under reconstruction; narrative in double vision.

Sewage system repairs

            At the level of image, Okubo works out a visual shorthand for Japanese faces that refuses the specificity of portraiture, favoring instead a semi-opaque, semi-abstracted cartoon style that consciously both resembles and revises the racial caricature Okubo saw in comics. At the level of narrative, Okubo’s temporal “mixed messages” loosen the hold of progressive time, which preferred to frame internment as a momentary lapse, and which hoped to smoothly re-domesticate its internal aliens through their post-camp dispersal. Her layered and contradictory sense of time rehearses internment’s own absurd and distorted relationship to linear temporality; the minor but multiple incongruities between captions and drawings eat away at the narrative sense a reader attempts to make out of panels, pages, incidents, particulars. For both the singular and sequential registers of representation, abstraction emerges as a way of managing expectations: meeting the narrative demands of reinstated citizenship and yet clearing room for alternate narrative connections.

            As some early book reviews, displayed in the exhibit’s final room, were keen to observe, Okubo skirts obvious caricature or anguish in favor of “tolerance and restraint.” Her few moments of straightforward outrage are all that keeps the book from being “inhumanly quiet,” one reader said. These reviews seem to sense irony where they expected feeling (ironized state critique would later become the conventional reading), but they largely emphasized––and admired––the book’s apparent lack of bitterness. Of the reviews on display at JANM, one even offers Citizen 13660’s “touches of humor” as proof that Okubo “rises above resentment and rancor.” The relief is palpable amid the slight confusion.

Bathing in tubs

            Not on display (but relevant here) is a 1947 review by Setsuko Matsunaga Nishi, a sociologist who was incarcerated at Santa Anita during the war. Nishi also notes the book’s “commendable objectivity,” but she complains that among these precisely observed discomforts of the camps, what “is not evident to most readers is the disillusioning torment that evacuation meant to them.” Nishi, of course, was right: Citizen 13660 refrains from foregrounding tragedy. And perhaps most readers were happy to read the book as a funny and humanizing, if oddly reserved, account of a nation’s embarrassing lapse. Citizen 13660 did on one hand facilitate the human empathy and “common ground” upon which a progressive American time could be plotted. Yet it also dealt closely and actively with the very logic of racial identification and exemplarity that has followed the book through its initial period of publication and its Redress-era resurgence. In its very title, Citizen 13660’s abstracted identification with/of Okubo brings some irony to the close association reviewers made between the artist and her representational strategies of restraint, humor, and (apparently) forgiveness. Citizenship, already an abstract form of legal personhood, becomes one half of an oxymoronic identification.

One of Nishi’s more disparaging remarks describes “the very facile nature of the book” as being in conflict with the “deep subjective meaning” of the art. “If the reader were to verbalize the significance of some of the illustrations,” she writes, “he might be surprised at the bitter irony.” What these drawings signify––what they are pictures of, exactly––is not immediately clear or stable. There’s no way to resolve its rhetorical shape into either a 1980s voice of oppositional critique or the 1940s one of redemptive propaganda. What looks from one angle like redacted/repressed tragedy looks from another like “good humor” (a particularly oblique and unfixed mode of historical relation) and from yet another like “bitter irony,” to use Nishi’s phrase. Okubo’s reworking of figuration and narrative sequence, which I’ve identified as a semi-abstracted style, disorient and disperse anything more than a bare sense of narrative facts and feeling. Katherine Stanutz describes this effect as an inscrutability open to future reinscription––“what is ungrievable in 1946 gradually becomes grievable in the 1970s and 1980s”––but to me, the lightness of Okubo’s text reads not as a deferral of grief, but as grief’s less hallowed (and less legible) form.

            Near the entrance to the exhibit, three expressive charcoal drawings from Okubo’s camp era-corpus hang on display––all of them done at a much higher and more recognizably “fine arts” register of abstraction. In one, a gaunt, childlike figure presses its face and hands against the picture plane; in another, an adult and a child peer crookedly out through barbed wire that divides the picture into multiple, pronged horizons. The crosses used to denote the barbs are integrated into the figures’ furrowed brows. These emotive drawings are especially instructive context for the cartoon style she chose for Citizen 13660, which is stiffer, cooler, and more line-driven in its mark-making. Like the charcoal drawings, Citizen 13660’s illustrations still flatten the depth of field, emphasizing the compressed dimensions of the page over that of three-dimensional space, but its characters rarely bear the same expressions of outright anguish, nor do they look directly out at the reader. Instead, the figures of Citizen 13660 are almost always engaged in a gesture of work, of adjustment. Even rest becomes just another task that passes time.

            You can’t, as of this writing, visit the Okubo exhibit in person––JANM is temporarily closed due to the rise in COVID-19 cases here in the US.* But JANM’s digital collections host a rich archive to explore, including Okubo’s drawings as well as many other collections, and the museum is hosting a series of online events/workshops related to the Citizen 13660 exhibit. I’m grateful to their work in putting together all of these routes into Miné Okubo’s work, which still has so much to teach us.

A version of this review will appear in the print edition of IJOCA. 

*The museum will reopen on February 1, according to a staff member.


Thursday, January 13, 2022

Book Review - The Stan Lee Universe by Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas (eds.).

Danny Fingeroth and Roy Thomas (eds.). The Stan Lee Universe. Raleigh: TwoMorrows Publishing, 2011. 175 pp. ISBN: 978-1605490298. US $8.99. (only digital version still available)


Reviewed by Michael Kobre


            A common image of Stan Lee for hundreds of millions of fans all over the world who've seen an Avengers or Spider-Man movie or who've read a few Marvel comics, is that of an avuncular genius who created a whole new pantheon of myth—"this generation's Homer," according to a Princeton student in 1966. Another image, distilled from the remembrances of some of his collaborators and from the comic book industry's long history of exploiting its creators, has shadowed Lee as well. In this version of the story, he's a carnival huckster shilling lies and stolen goods, claiming credit for work that isn't his, while reaping the wealth and fame that should have gone to the artists who really created Marvel Comics. This version of Stan Lee, in fact, looks a lot like Funky Flashman, a devious and numbingly loquacious promoter decked out with a toupee and a fake beard—a caricature of Lee, that is—who tormented Jack Kirby's Mister Miracle, one of the heroes Kirby created for DC. Kirby, whose art defined Marvel at least as much as Lee's words, had quit working for Marvel in 1970, fed up at last with all the broken promises of more generous financial rewards and creative credits for his work. And it's this version of Stan Lee as well who's the protagonist of Abraham Riesman's 2021 biography of Lee, True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. Carefully researched and gracefully written, Riesman's biography nevertheless insistently views Lee through the darkest possible prism. For Riesman, Lee is, above all, a con man and liar. As Riesman writes in his book's prologue, "[Lee] lied about little things, he lied about big things, he lied about strange things, and there's one massive, very consequential thing he may very well have lied about. If he did lie about that last thing—and there's substantial reason to believe he did—it completely changes his legacy" (12).

            At the core of this divide over Lee's character and work is, of course, that other long-running argument about the respective contributions of Lee, Kirby, Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko, and others to the creation of Marvel's characters and worlds. Lee's "Marvel Method" of creating comic books, in which artists like Kirby and Ditko would work from loose plot descriptions generated in increasingly-rushed conversations (which may or may not have ever been written down) meant that Marvel's artists had unprecedented freedom to shape and pace the stories they told, in a form of creation that Charles Hatfield has called "narrative drawing" (Hatfield 15). But the free-wheeling, improvisational nature of the Marvel Method also meant that Lee's own contributions were unclear, in spite of the line in so many credit boxes in so many Marvel comics that claimed that they were "Written by Stan Lee" (or "Smiling Stan" or "Stan the Man" or any of the other affectionate sobriquets that Lee employed in credit boxes). Yes, Lee added the dialogue and captions after the artists submitted their pages, but what role had he really played in conceiving the characters and plots? By 1989, Kirby said flatly that Lee's role hadn't been much at all. "I've never seen Stan Lee write anything," Kirby told Gary Groth for a Comics Journal interview. "I used to write the stories just like I always did" (Groth 37). In True Believer, Reisman even questions Lee's role in creating Fantastic Four #1 in 1961, the book that launched the Marvel era. "…[O]utside Stan's own oft-repeated words," Reisman writes, "there is currently no known evidence that he created the premise, plot, or characters that appeared in Fantastic Four #1. No presentation boards, no contemporary legal documents, no correspondence, no diary entries. Nothing" (105).

            In light of all the questions raised again by Riesman's biography and as part of the inevitable ongoing revaluation after Lee's death in 2018, it's helpful to look back at a 2011 collection of Stan Lee interviews, tributes, critical examinations, and miscellanea from Lee's archives, The Stan Lee Universe. Edited by Danny Fingeroth, whose own 2019 biography of Lee,  A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee, offers a more conventional portrayal than Riesman's, and by long-time Marvel writer and editor Roy Thomas, who describes himself here as Lee's "left-hand man" in Marvel's glory days, The Stan Lee Universe is, not surprisingly, an unequivocally admiring portrait of Lee. Arranged more or less chronologically, the collection follows Lee's career from a 1957 profile which focuses on the short-lived comic strip about a group of cub scouts, Mrs. Lyons' Cubs, that Lee created with artist Joe Maneely (Lee, always hungry for recognition, notes with "very great satisfaction" in the profile that the strip "has been approved by the chief Scout executive") to at least brief references to some of his final projects, including his mostly forgettable reality shows Who Wants to be a Superhero? and Stan Lee's Superhumans. Along the way, we also see family photos; notes Lee exchanged with film directors, including Alain Resnais, James Cameron, and Oliver Stone; pages from an unpublished screenplay for Resnais; an advertisement featuring Lee for Hathaway shirts; stills from a 1976 razor blade commercial, also featuring Lee; pitches for unrealized Marvel projects from Will Eisner and Richard Corben; and even a note from Lee to the president of United Airlines praising a stewardess who helped Lee and his wife Joan when she became ill during a flight. Among other odd discoveries in this material is Lee's suggestion to Resnais that he direct a Spider-Man movie starring Henry Winkler.

            But the heart of the book—as the center of Lee's story always will be—concerns his years as Marvel's most prominent scripter and its editor-in-chief. And it's on this subject that the interviews, analyses, and testimonials in the book do, in fact, help us understand a little more clearly the significance of Lee's contributions to the creation and rise of Marvel Comics. The Stan Lee Universe accomplishes this though, whether intentionally or not, by shifting the terms in which we might consider those contributions. Although there's a fine analysis by Peter Sanderson late in the book of Lee's style in dialogue and captions—Sanderson is particularly good at discussing Lee's use of the words "naught" and "smoldering" in a Thor caption—Lee in the interviews and the other artists and writers in their various testimonials don't actually have much to say about his work as a writer. There are general comments about the importance of characterization and vivid dialogue, but there's no sustained conversation about any individual story. Instead, what the book illuminates is Lee's work as an editor, shaping some of Marvel's signature characteristics (including ones essential to its wildly successful screen adaptations) and, of course, defining its brand.

            In remembrances of Lee, for instance, by writers like Thomas, Denny O'Neill, and Gary Friedrich and by such artists as Gene Colan, John Romita, and Herb Trimpe, Lee is consistently portrayed as an exacting editor with a clear vision of what he wanted on Marvel's covers, in its plots, in its art—Trimpe remembers Lee tossing pages of layouts into a trash can because Trimpe had used too many small panels—and even in the placement of dialogue and captions. For the writers, in particular, Lee was a teacher also. "He'd call us in and have us stand by him in front of the drawing table and go over the completed artwork of a story we'd written or one he'd written," Friedrich recalls, "and he'd edit it with us standing there, explaining any changes he'd made, why he put a balloon in a certain place, why he had a character say this rather than that, etc. One thing in particular I remember that he continually drove home was to always move the story forward. 'Every word that's spoken should be for the purpose of moving the story along,' he'd tell us again and again" (54). Even in later years, when Lee would receive almost finished pages, Thomas remembers, "the fact that Stan hadn't seen the dialogue and captions before they were rendered in ink in no way inhibited him from making changes … substantial changes" (50).

            Lee was, of course, also a master at developing Marvel's brand. "Thinking back," he says in a 1974 interview, "the whole thing was treated like an advertising campaign. The catch phrases, like 'Make Mine Marvel' and 'Face Front' and 'Excelsior' …I did it unconsciously, but it was all in the direction as though … I was building a product. I wanted to make Marvel Comics a product that people … would love" (124). In a detailed analysis of how Lee shaped Marvel's letter pages and then conceived and wrote the Bullpen Bulletins Page, which in 1967 began including "Stan's Soapbox," David Kasakove writes that "Stan Lee's editorial voice—at once frantic, comic, self-deprecating, tongue-in-cheek, good-natured, wildly self-congratulatory and (sometimes) moralistic—was a years-long tour de force, the glue that held the Marvel Age of Comics together" (130).

            Reading The Stan Lee Universe also reminds us of how Lee's editorial vision helped shape Marvel's signature characteristics in the 1960s, innovations that would effectively redefine the conventions of virtually all superhero narratives in comics and later in other media. Looking back in a 1974 interview, in the context of retelling his familiar story about creating the Fantastic Four (and, as usual, taking credit for the characters' conceptions), Lee singles out his insistence on a kind of realism. "I tried to do everything I could to take these super-powered characters and in some way to make them realistic and human," he says. "To have them react the way normal men might react if these normal men happened to have superhero powers" (124). But while the respective contributions of Lee, Kirby, and Ditko to the creations of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man will always be—at least to some extent—uncertain, the kind of realism Lee describes, particularly in Marvel's early years when he was practically the company's only writer, seems to have more of his imprint. We hear Lee's voice, I'd argue, in scenes like Spider-Man's failed attempt to cash a check in his name in Amazing Spider-Man #1 or a scene in Fantastic Four #9 that Lee recalls in that 1974 interview when "They're evicted from their headquarters because they can't pay the rent because Reed Richards invests all their reward money in stocks and the markets take a nosedive" (124). For all of the qualities of Marvel Comics that flow into the solo work of Kirby and Ditko after they left Marvel, there are no moments like these: poignant, comic scenes, anchored in mundane realities and steeped in a kind of wry melancholy that turns superheroes into Yiddish shlemiels.

            Moments like these, however, would become less prominent as Lee became more involved in promoting Marvel Comics than in writing them and as Marvel's universe expanded too. But that concept of a shared universe, which was as much about branding and marketing as it was about storytelling, was clearly Lee's innovation. As he says in a 1968 interview, "… what we try to do, and I think we were probably the first at this, we try, even though they're different characters in different magazines, and possibly even living in different places, we try to make it all like one little world in which these characters exist, the Marvel world …" (44). Even Reisman concedes that Lee deserves credit for Marvel's shared universe: "Kirby never took credit for that idea—indeed, his assistant and biographer, Mark Evanier, says Kirby found it cumbersome and irritating, because it forced him to incorporate other people's ideas into his own comics. But Stan was enormously proud of the notion of the Marvel Universe and maintained it in all the superhero books" (129). Over time too, in light of Marvel's success, all superheroes existed in shared universes like this, and it's no exaggeration to say that the translation of this concept to the Marvel cinematic universe is a vital component of Marvel Studios' success on-screen, a narrative convention that's since been adapted, for good or ill, in so much other franchise storytelling in movies and other media forms.

            So what about that other question then? Who really created Marvel's characters and the universe-spanning epics they inhabit? Lee in the interviews here mostly tells the familiar story that he created the Fantastic Four and so many other characters. As the years pass in the book, we see him growing into the persona that would consume him for the rest of his life, as, for instance, in a 1974 interview, when he considers at length how he's absorbed Shakespeare's influence. But Lee is also careful to acknowledge how Marvel's artists, especially Kirby, co-created its stories. "… [T]he artist is part writer—" he says in a 1969 interview, "—he's breaking the story down as he sees it …" (78). In the earliest interview in the book, from 1965, Lee is remarkably open about Kirby's role in creating stories:


Some artists, of course, need a more detailed plot than others. Some artists, such as Jack Kirby, need no plot at all. I mean, I'll just say to Jack, "Let's let the next villain be Doctor Doom" … or I may not even say that. He may tell me. And then he goes home and does it. He's so good at plots, I'm sure he's a thousand times better than I. He just about makes up the plots for these stories. All I do is a little editing… I may tell him he's gone too far in one direction or another. Of course, I'll occasionally give him a plot, but we're practically both the writers on the things. (11)


         The documentary evidence in The Stan Lee Universe, however, doesn't settle anything. The book reprints a plot synopsis for Fantastic Four #1, which Reisman describes as "a curious document with a questionable history" that may have been written years after the comic's publication (106). Indeed, Roy Thomas' notes about the document here do little to clarify its provenance, as Thomas tells us how he was summoned into Lee's office one day late in the '60s so that Lee could show him the synopsis which Lee claimed to have found in a filing cabinet the night before—although Thomas does note that the synopsis looks like other typed plot summaries from the early '60s that Lee had previously shown him, including one for Fantastic Four #8 that's also included in The Stan Lee Universe. If anything though, other documents in the book don't make much of a case for Lee as a writer. Reproductions of pages from occasional prose stories he wrote for Marvel publisher Martin Goodman's other magazines and from Lee's unproduced screenplay for Resnais are all pretty routine stuff, mired in genre conventions or heavy-handed stereotypical characterizations. For that matter, the reproduction of materials from Lee and Kirby's last collaboration, a 1974 Silver Surfer graphic novel published by Simon and Schuster, strongly suggest that the book's story was mostly Kirby's, as he carefully details the plot in lengthy typed letters accompanying his artwork which are addressed to "Stanley" (and signed "Your pal, Jack") (153-155).

            Ultimately, the exact details of Lee's collaborations will never really be known. As Thomas notes in his comments on the Fantastic Four #1 synopsis, by 1965 Lee "was increasingly dispensing with written synopses, with Marvel artists often working merely from brief conversations, in person or over the phone" (15). Instead of written documents, we have Gene Colan's memory of recording phone calls with Lee or John Romita, Jr.'s memories of his father's anxiety after driving away from a plot session with Lee. "Oh, God, I didn't write any of this down," Romita, Jr. recalls his father saying, "how am I gonna remember all of this stuff?" (108). But if we must continue to dwell in uncertainty about what exactly transpired in Lee's work with Kirby, Ditko, and so many others, The Stan Lee Universe is an informative and entertaining field guide to that territory. Copiously illustrated, it brings to life again Lee's crowning moment as he helped to usher in the Marvel Age of Comics. If, as Reisman asserts, Lee's impulse to exaggerate his claims as a creator while failing to properly recognize his own achievements as Marvel's editor "was a core tragedy of Stan's existence and legacy," The Stan Lee Universe helps us at least to see those achievements more clearly (67).



Fingeroth, Danny, and Roy Thomas, editors. The Stan Lee Universe. TwoMorrows Publishing, 2011.


Fingeroth, Danny. A Marvelous Life: The Amazing Story of Stan Lee. St. Martin's Press, 2019.


Groth, Gary. "I've Never Done Anything Halfheartedly." The Comics Journal Library: Jack       Kirby, Fantagraphic Books, 2002, pp. 18-49.


Hatfield, Charles. Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby. University Press of Mississippi, 2012.


Riesman, Abraham. True Believer: The Rise and Fall of Stan Lee. Crown, 2021.


A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23:2.


Book Review - The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse: Taking Risks in the Service of Truth by Andrew Kunka

Andrew J. Kunka. The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse: Taking Risks in the Service of Truth. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2022. 196 pp. $29.95, $69.95. <>


Reviewed by Christopher Roman

Kent State University



Critics agree that Howard Cruse is an important figure in the wider field of comics, and especially so in the history of underground and queer comics. Yet there are only a few articles devoted to Cruse's works (my quick MLA search put that number at eight, though I am sure there are more to be found in the wider world of the internet). Andrew J. Kunka's book, The Life and Comics of Howard Cruse, comes at a critical time, published two years after the 25th Anniversary Edition of Stuck Rubber Baby and three years after Cruse's death in November 2019. As Kunka writes in his preface, his plan was to have an extensive interview with Cruse published in this collection. However, Cruse had died before interviews could happen. Kunka, though, had generous support from Cruse's husband, Ed Sedarbaum, who was able to supply page scans for this collection. Kunka's ability to connect with so many people who were fans and supporters of Cruse make this collection essential to the study of his short-form comics.

            The eight critical works that I mentioned above focus on Cruse's masterpiece Stuck Rubber Baby, and rightfully so. Stuck Rubber Baby is a premier graphic novel grappling with tough issues of racism and queer life in the Civil Rights-era South. It serves as not only an important historical graphic novel, but provides insight into the intersections of black and gay Southern life pre-Stonewall. Yet, what Kunka has managed to do in his critical anthology is open up Cruse's work beyond Stuck Rubber Baby to account for Cruse's short-form work which is not as often discussed or anthologized except for his short comic "Billy Goes Out" (see, for example, Justin Hall's collection No Straight Lines [2012]). Cruse created many more comics with an impressive range of themes and styles, apparently all of which Kunka accounts for in this book.

            As Kunka mentions in his brief Introduction, short form comics do not often get critical attention, and even when collected, do not stay in print very long compared to 'graphic novels.' Cruse's collections, Wendel All Together (1985), Dancin' Nekkid with the Angels (1987) and The Other Side of Howard Cruse (2012) are all out of print. Cruse even self-published From Headrack to Claude (2009), another of his short form comics collections, in order to keep those comics circulating. Kunka's book serves as a foundation to further work on Cruse's extensive short form comics. This book fills in the missing critical background on Cruse's life and his work that display his range of creativity, innovation, and humor, as well as his connections to the nascent worlds of underground and queer comics creators.

            Chapter one is a critical biography of his life. Kunka recounts Cruse's early life in Birmingham, Alabama, and his importance to underground comics as a young cartoonist. After creating gay-themed Christmas cards, Cruse ventured out into queer comic books, a path that had been paved by lesbian comics creators in the '70s such as Mary Wings, Lee Marrs, and Roberta Gregory. He worked with Kitchen Sink Press to establish Gay Comix in September 1980. Gay Comix was profoundly influential as it not only provided a forum for queer comics creators, but also influenced future queer cartoonists, some of whom became much better known than him, such as Alison Bechdel. Cruse's push to have a forum for queer creators to focus on queer culture and relationships could be considered a breath of fresh air in an underground comix world rife with misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

            The remaining chapters are a thematic look at Cruse's work, with full page art samples (some in color). Kunka's critical commentary leads each chapter, and then he discusses the stories with historical context and more specific critical prose. Chapter two focuses on "Autobiographical Fiction/Fictional Autobiography." Cruse's approach to autobiographical comics undermined what are now traditional genre conventions as accepted in memoirs. While there may be a character named Howard in these short form comics, there is sometimes a twist into a fantastical, or humorous reveal, which questions the stories' claims to objective truth. Kunka includes such autobiographical comics in this section as "Jerry Mack," "The Guide," and "Then There Was Claude." Each of these comics plays with autobiographical genre while showcasing Cruse's array of drawing and storytelling styles.

            Chapter three focuses on work that can be classified as "Commentary and Satire." Cruse's comics regularly commented on the politics of his time. Kunka links Cruse's more overtly social and cultural commentary works to political and educational comics. In the selections provided in this chapter, Cruse addresses issues surrounding the AIDS crisis, gay activism and queer culture, the news media, and death. This section includes "Billy Goes Out," Cruse's masterclass of a short form comic, where he uses time shifts and a drawing style to seamlessly tell a story of 1980s cruising culture. Another humorous story is "Dirty Old Lovers" in which Cruse comments on the treatment of older gay men in a gay community obsessed with youth, and a media that wants to present gay men as respectable.

            Chapter four addresses Cruse's "Parody" work. Cruse's style can be thought of as cute, a derivation of the long-lasting bigfoot style. In these works he uses his "cute" style to borrow characters from early comic strips such as Lulu, Casper, and Nancy to poke humorous fun at consumer culture, the dark side of children's comics, and the sexuality hidden therein. This chapter also includes an essay Cruse wrote on the importance of parody where he likens his parody to political cartooning, but aimed at the art world.

In all of these chapters, Kunka balances narrative analysis with comics analysis, pointing out where Cruse uses panel borders unconventionally, or how his work with stippling and cross-hatching was groundbreaking. Kunka's commentary balances Cruse's storytelling with his drawing work, showing how Cruse was the complete package, a true cartoonist. Kunka's work and critical commentary is an essential read for those interested not only in Howard Cruse, but in how his work impacted a generation of artists, especially in how important Cruse was to helping create the genre of queer comics. 


A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23:2.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Film Review: Bob Spit – We Do Not Like People by Cesar Cabral

Bob Spit – We Do Not Like People, Cesar Cabral. Coala Filmes, 2021.

Reviewed by Pedro Moura

Bob Spit is an hour-and-half stop-motion animation/feature documentary film directed by Cesar Cabral about Brazilian cartoonist extraordinaire Angeli. The film was awarded Best Feature at the Contrechamp section in the international animation festival of Annecy in 2021, a section which is “dedicated to,” in the words of Variety's Jamie Lang, “emerging talent from around the world and films that lie outside the mainstream.”

As the title reveals, the focus of attention is Bob Spit (originally “Bob Cuspe”), one of Angeli's most known characters from the 1980s. But it also threads the needle through the artist's oeuvre, his creative block, his aging, and a fair degree of nostalgia. This is a non-fiction project mixed with fiction, in which we'll slide through various degrees of remove from a purportedly “real” - stop-motion animation, documentary angles, the diegetic world of the character, historical contextualizations, fantasy, and so on.

Without wanting to rehash the discussion about the feasibility and pertinence of talking about “animated documentaries,” something that has been discussed by people far more informed than me, I believe that Bob Spit will nevertheless become a very good example of such an expanding field. Foremost, for being an exploration of interpretative frameworks larger and more profound that a supposedly “objective” or “journalistic” approach. We literally delve into Angeli's psyche, but in an oblique manner, so instead of having clear-cut decisive conclusions, we are rather invited to keep on thinking about the issues for ourselves.

The film follows two major storylines. On the one hand, we have an interview set in Angeli's apartment, where he clearly answers an interlocutor sitting off camera, discussing his work, career and life, showing archival material, and sometimes accessing third parties that talk about him. Angeli finds himself in a bind, and refuses to be stuck to older glories. So he resorts to recycling a strategy and decides to kill off Bob Spit, as he did before with other characters.

On the other hand, we follow what seems to be a fictive roadtrip adventure. The titular character, Bob Spit, embarks on a journey, crossing a desert-like, post-apocalyptic landscape, in his quest to meet his creator, Angeli. After learning of the cartoonist's plan to kill him – through the “prophecies” of tattered pages of the comics he stars in – Bob vows to take vengeance on his own creator.

We must always bear in mind that when we’re speaking of this whole interview setting, we are referring to a construction. After all, everything is depicted through three-dimensional puppets and backgrounds. The artificiality of the interview is made “natural” by making visible the presence of the filming crew, not only through dialogue but also through metatextual techniques such as video framing, timestamps, and other materiality traces. But if animated documentaries allow us to go well beyond indexicality, some of the less conventional techniques followed by Cabral bring about other issues, that keep us off balance and therefore alert at all times.

For instance, there are momentary “glitches” that allow us to see the actual photographic footage of the interviews Cabral and his crew did with Angeli, which can be seen as the supposed scaffolding of the final animated plane. So the film never leaves us in a continuously comfortable state of watching what unfolds. We are permanently jarred back and forth in these dimensions. According to Annabelle Honess Roe, “the use of animation as a representational strategy broadens the potential of documentary by expanding the range of what can be shown and told” (Animated Documentary). And what is shown and told in Bob Spit goes well beyond the Brazilian cartoonist's take on his own work.

Somewhat like the Quay Brother's Street of Crocodiles, it's as if we have access here to multiple levels of reality and existence – Angeli's “normal life” and Bob Spit's imaginary adventure storyworld –, but we do not have a precise map of how one level relates ontologically to the other. It would be easy to say that the latter is an extension of Angeli's “imagination” or “stories,” but it gets more complicated than that, in a crooked Lynchian logic sort of way. Nevertheless, there is a certain coherence and fluidity to this patchwork, as the director dovetails the artist's life, thoughts and art into a continuous unfolding thread. Mostly, this stems from the overall framing of Angeli's voice taking precedence over the whole narrative. At one point, someone asks Angeli if they can ask him a question. Angeli simply answers, “No.” Not because there are no questions to be asked or no answers to be given, but because we are always already within the discourse that makes up the whole text.

Notwithstanding, the projects allows for a number of shifting points of view. Apart from Angeli's speech, we go into the fictive underworld of Bob Spit, even if his adventure is mostly framed by the Kowalski twins. But, as mentioned above, we also have access to Angeli's wife Carol, fellow cartoonist Laerte (yet another giant from the 1980s, still extremely active today and admired by Angeli) and the ex-editor/taxi driver, which has a few words of choice about the author. Later on, other characters appear, bringing other types of “glitches” into the mix.  

Arnaldo Angeli Filho was born in São Paulo in 1956, and belongs to a generation of self-taught artists who were heavily influenced by the preceding golden age of Brazilian illustrators, comics artists and cartoonists, upholding thus a genuine national tradition, even if mixing it with the most diverse sources of foreign material. In Angeli's case, the influence of Robert Crumb is unmistakable, specifically his ability to come up incessantly fully formed characters, many of which would become recurrent. From the hippie duo Wood & Stock to the sexual deviant Rê Bordosa and, of course, the anti-social yet shrewd commentator Bob Cuspe. 

Most, if not all of these characters were born in the daily strips he created in the early 1980s in the pages of the Folha de S. Paulo, in which he had been working as a very politicized and combative editorial cartoonist since 1973. Around that same era, his interest for comics proper lead him to several editorial projects, thanks to a collection put out by the publishing house Circo, called Chiclete com Banana (“Gum with Banana;” really, I'm not kidding, it's not “of”). Its success was so great that the publishers decided to give Angeli a regular magazine. This also heralded an outstanding number of influential titles presenting a powerhouse new generation of cartoonists, including Laerte and Glauco, with whom Angeli would form an informal trio for years to come.

Chiclete com Banana would feature then a plethora of characters, including the “pervert” variant of the two-kid team trope Skrotinhos to con man/spiritual leader Rhalah Rikhota, both of whom appear in this very same film. But many, many others would be penned by Angeli, all of them hilarious stock characters very much related to the cultural specificities of the city of São Paulo (arguably the cultural capital of Brazil, or at least so “Paulistanos” like to believe).

This is not the first time Angeli is involved with filmmaking. In 2006 Otto Guerra adapted another character-driven strip into Wood & Stock: Sex, Oregano and Rock'n Roll. Cesar Cabral directed first a short based on Rê Bordosa in 2008, and in 2017 launched a television series called Angeli the Killer, in which he adapted many of the cartoonist's stories, brought his characters to life and conducted (and animated in stop-motion) interviews. To a certain extent, Bob Spit, the movie, is an extension of that project. But it is also a simplification, as it attempts to create a more or less linear and organized structuring of its themes, instead of the more loose, hectic and even frantic pace of the tv series. 

Bob Spit brings a visual dynamic that was not extant in the original material: color, three-dimensionality and a certain lightness to it all. We should bear in mind that Angeli's original work was made out of heavy, “scratchy”, “dirty” hatchwork, very typical of a certain underground aesthetics. Coloring, and subdued, murky one at that, would come later. But Cabral's own capability for character design and construction, their dynamic movements, the framing and camera work makes up for a technically solid piece of work. Cabral’s use of an incredible variety of sounds sources, including “classic” Brazilian punk rock anthems of the 80s, creates nonetheless a seamless surface that eases the many transitions between planes and subjects. To watch a stop-motion character drawing on paper is an amazing experience, even if for the briefest of moments.

To be precise, while the main two storylines are depicted through stop animation techniques, there are other interpolated techniques, used as brief transition bumpers (but which sometimes are also used to convey further contextual information). In some of these, the animations made out of the strip's art – basically quickly superimposing several of the strips' panels, but judiciously choosing similar positions of the character— is superb. And these scenes are particularly good precisely because they do not aim to disguise their origins or bring up the idea that “animated cartoons” are better than the original drawn cartoons, but because they leave visually present the variegated materiality of the original newsprint, including within their transition effects.

While Angeli's more recent work is slightly more introspective, sometimes with the cartoonist drawing himself, and engaging, quite often with zen-like adages, his 1980s and 1990s work, from which this movie stems, was quite virulent, frank and adversarial. In a word, punk. But what is at stake in Bob Spit is not simply an adaptation of those stories. Angeli appears in his present age, preferring to stay home, listening to records, working alone and uninterrupted. And Bob Spit himself is not his old self, living in the busy streets of São Paulo. He looks slightly tired, living off the flesh of maimed mutant Elton Johns, unable to spit (his trademark move, and hence his name). The possibility of killing his creator is the only little spark of joy that seems achievable, and even that does not change his demeanor. To put it simply, neither creator nor created character are the personalities that they once were, and that most people remember. There may be a hint of nostalgia in making this documentary, but both Angeli and Bob Spit himself suffer no fools gladly and are willing to disabuse people of their expectations.


Another potentiality of the animated documentary underlined by Roe is its capacity to what she calls “pointing inwards,” i.e., the possibility of employing non-mimetic strategies that go beyond issues of verisimilitude and evocative planes that open up to more complex, less directly accessible emotional or inner mental states of the portraitee. In this case, many of the silences, hesitations and half-explored emotions by Angeli gain a body of their own in the imagetic translations.  While the film is not dealing with repressed memories or clear-cut traumas, as is the case of the world-famous case of Ari Folman's 2008 Waltz With Bashir, Bob Spit sometimes hints at the idea that the “road trip level” of Angeli's characters may correspond to a “sub-level” of Angeli's psyche. Angeli speaks (in the film, but also famously elsewhere) of his problems with alcohol, drugs and sexual behavior. After all, the Kowalskis, the Elton Johns and Bob Spit inhabit sewers, underground bunkers and tunnels beneath derelict urban landscapes (even though it’s filled with Easter Eggs, such as the curvy hill of Mara Tara’s thighs). They cross dilapidated and abandoned streets and roads, and when finally Bob emerges into Angeli's world, he seems to comes from below a sofa in which Angeli was sleeping. Were we watching that which Angeli was dreaming? They seem to touch each other briefly, but Angeli awakes. But soon enough, while on the elevator, a scene plays out a wonderfully staged crossing of worlds, as Angeli and Bob Spit finally meet each other. Characters rebelling against their creators is not necessarily new (Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell dates back to 1918), and neither is the clash of the different ontological worlds of creator and created (e.g. Grant Morrison's Animal Man, or even the 2006 Marc Forster's Stranger than Fiction), but there is something strangely satisfactory in watching an old familiar character conquering a different degree of autonomy in relation to both his author and audience, confirming his contrarian, punkish ethos.


For the people who are knowledgeable about Angeli's work and these characters, the film offers an opportunity to re-engage with, and re-interpret it all with hindsight. Is Bob's punkish verve, the smash-it-all, kicking-against-the-pricks, spit-on attitude still an answer to society's problems? To apathy? To the sure destruction of the world? To the idiocy that surrounds us? Now that we are older, that our backs hurt, and that we don't want to get around much anymore, we may think we don't have the same energy, sure. But deep inside, just as Angeli in the end leans over his window, above the anonymous streets below, and spits, we think to ourselves, as Bob Spit would have said, Fuck, yeah!

A version of this review will appear in print in IJOCA 23:2.


Since this material will be unfamiliar to many of our readers, the following is from the movie's press release and a preview is on YouTube :

BOB SPIT - WE DO NOT LIKE PEOPLE is a stop-motion animation that mixes documentary, comedy and road-movie. It tells the story of Bob Spit, an old punk trying to escape from a post-apocalyptic desert that is actually, a purgatory inside the mind of his creator, Angeli, a cartoonist going through a creative crisis.The story is freely inspired by the life and work of one of the most celebrated Brazilian cartoonists of all times, Angeli, who became famous in the 70s by releasing political cartoons in the midst of Brazil’s military dictatorship. In the 80s, he migrated to daily strips, showing an acid sense of humor to represent Brazil’s society, day-to-day life and customs. Angeli had editorial success with his monthly magazine “Chiclete com Banana,” which sold over 120 thousand copies per edition. During his time, the cartoonist has created some of his most famous characters: the bohemian diva Rê Bordosa, the hippie pair Wood & Stock, and the punk Bob Spit.


Cesar Cabral has a degree in Cinema through the Arts and Communication School - São Paulo University (ECA-USP). He began his career as a stop-motion animator in 1998 and co-founded the animation company Coala Filmes in 2000. He directed the stop-motion short films The Re Bordosa Dossier (2008), which won more than 70 awards in Brazilian and international film festivals, and Storm (2010) selected to many prestigious film festivals all around the world, such as Annecy, Hiroshima, Havana and Sundance. Cesar created and directed 2 seasons of the young adult stopmotion animated series Angeli The Killer, selected to 2018 Annecy Film Festival and broadcasted at Canal Brasil. Bob Spit - We Do Not Like People was awarded best feature at Contrechamp section in Annecy 2021.
With the voices of Milhem Cortaz, Paulo Miklos, Grace Gianoukas, André Abujamra, Laerte, Hugo Passolo, Angeli.

MILHEM CORTAZ does Bob Spit’s original voice. One of Brazil’s most exciting actors, he has played parts in films such as “Elite Squad”, “Elite Squad 2”, “Carandiru” and the DGA nominated "A Wolf at the Door."
 He has also voiced the character in the series “Angeli The Killer”
PAULO MIKLOS does the characters’ original voice for THE KOWALSKI BROTHERS, who live in the desert gathering pages of the “Chiclete com Banana” Magazine. When they meet Bob Spit, they encourage him to find Angeli.  A gifted actor and musician, he played in seminal Brazilian rock band “Titãs” and had striking parts in films and TV Series such as “O Invasor”, “Estômago” and “É Proibido Fumar”, “Sessão de Terapia” e “Os Normais.”

ANDRÉ ABUJAMRA does the characters’ original voice  of RHALAH RHIKOTA, a charlatan guru who had his fame and followers in the 80s. He is the mentor of the Kowalski brothers.  A musician, comedian and actor, Abujamra has a long story in Brazil’s pop rock scene. He was the composer of “Carandiru”, and has parts in films and tv shows such as “Estômago” and “A Grande Família”.
GRACE GIANOUKAS is Rê Bordosa’s original voice. RÊ is a junkie diva who was the most famous of Angeli’s characters. The cartoonist killed her in the 80s, and since then she is a lingering presence in his life. An actress, director, screenwriter and producer, she had several roles in theatre, TV and cinema. She is currently starring in the TV Globo soap opera “Orgulho e Paixão”.