RYAN STANDFEST Chopped-Up Figures in Boxes with Shapes Coming Out of Their Mouths: Comic Strip Poetics by ryan standfest
Chopped-Up Figures in Boxes with Shapes Coming Out of Their Mouths: Comic Strip Poetics
by ryan standfest

(Published in The Mid-America Print Council Journal | Vol. 25 | 2016-2017)

Decomposing Paper and Ink-Smudged Flesh

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, during summer days I would climb the fence to a neighborhood church in suburban Detroit, and steal away to a small metal shed I discovered behind the parsonage. Within this shed were bundles of discarded Detroit Free Press newspapers stacked five to six feet high, leaving a small crawlspace at the top. I would climb up into this space, closing the shed door behind me, and spend hours in the near dark seeking out those sections of the newspapers containing comic strips. The shed was several bundles deep and the space had become a densely packed archive, page upon page, layer upon layer of stratified history in text and image. The deeper I investigated, the further back in time I went, as much as 15 years to 1968. On my archeological digs, I came into contact with silverfish, both dead and alive, and pages stuck together from the occasional water incursion. During my search I was continually halted by front page headlines, department store sale pages, and cinema advertisements. I also witnessed a change in typesetting, a decrease in the clarity of photographs, and a reversion from color to black and white in a de-evolution of printing quality as I descended from the present into the past. All of this was being noted, subconsciously. Although ventilated, the shed was warmed by the heat of the sun on its roof. This warmth was baking the bundles and caused the smell of newsprint to fill the space, heightened also by the age of the paper. As I loosened the twine that bound each bundle, I pried forth the papers and sought out both the black and white comics of the daily edition and the full color supplement of the Sunday edition, my fingertips and palms becoming covered in a powdery second skin of black ink. I was in search of the "Dick Tracy" comic strip (1), and would carefully tear out the strips, trim them down with scissors and collect them into a binder. I have come to believe that the experience of comic strip hunting in that metal shed was my first foray into learning about print, seduced by the tactility and intimacy of paper, ink and miniature sequences. Since then, I have gravitated toward those images that were left out of my art school education. This has led to the use and formal consideration of printed ephemera that I assemble under the category of “Vulgar Modernism”(2)—comic strips, novelty catalogs, tabloid newspapers, postcards, matchbooks, manuals, and advertisements among other examples, as the basis of my practice. In matters of print, my impulse toward making has circled back to those industrially-produced objects of a smaller scale, made of the cheapest materials and produced as quickly as possible. There is an interest in creating images intended for reproduction not only because of the greater distribution afforded by reproducibility, but because there is aesthetic value in some of the formal strategies necessitated by the goal of reproduction. The solid, bounding graphic line for example, ever-present in the comic strip, carries with it an economical insistence and an instantaneity of readability.

Fat White Balloons and Rubber Frames

At the time I was collecting "Dick Tracy" strips, I was an avid reader of "MAD" magazine and began purchasing comic books off the wire spinner rack at my local pharmacy, eventually graduating to used bookstores where the smell of newsprint mingled with cigarette smoke. Drawing has long been a daily activity for me and by way of comics I had taught myself to render through the act of mimicry. From "MAD", I copied the work of Antonio Prohías (3) as I obsessed over his "Spy vs. Spy" comic strip. I spent many hours daily drawing sample images from reprints of two comic book titles originally published in the early 1960’s— "The Amazing Spider-Man" and "Strange Tales", showcasing the character Doctor Strange, by the cartoonist Steve Ditko (4). My interest had not been in the text of these comics. Character development and story arcs did not hold my attention. To this day, I find superhero narratives prosaic. It was the images that fascinated and the formal construction of each page resonated on a deep level. Prohías’ "Spy vs. Spy" was without text and functioned as a beautifully stripped-down high contrast schematic of cause and effect relationships, complete with dotted lines and directional arrows to guide events. Ditko, with both Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, created a very stylized and fluid world with unusual organic flourishes bordering on the outright expressionistic. He seemed to heighten each scene with an elasticizing of the physical world.
For me, Prohías and Ditko displayed the essence of comic strip language. What I was observing beyond the narrative was a choreography of signs, wrought from a graphical-alchemical process of compression. These were marvelous and miniature worlds contained within the boundary of the page, built upon a method of writing with images. Speech was made physical by way of white shapes extruded from the mouths of characters (5). Some smooth and rounded, some spikey and misshapen, depending upon the nature of what was being spoken. Throughout, the immaterial was made material. There was a metaphysical quality to comic strip visual language, most notably in Ditko’s mystical visions for Doctor Strange. Emotions such as anxiety and anger were given form as comic strip characters could alter their physical appearance in accordance, but also emanate lines and shapes that allowed a viewer to witness sentiment. Sound was assigned onomatopoeic language awash in color variations. Text became another in a series of visual textures as it mingled and merged with the atmosphere of the image.
The text is an image. But the image becomes text, as it must be read in a sequence, left to right, top to bottom, box to box, bubble to bubble. One action leading to and connecting with another. There is a circuitry established. The comic strip is akin to a diagram. An event has been broken down into a fragmented sequence and then reassembled and framed in a more condensed form. This new form resulting from compression, heightens the reader’s awareness of the image’s mechanical construction. Even the distribution of color in the earlier comic books and comic strips I had learned from, was composed of overlapping particles due to the CMYK color separation process. Across a sequence of panels on a single page there was both a folding and an unfolding of space as the page somehow became larger. The comic strip compresses time, but enlarges it simultaneously. The empty spaces in-between panels establish a rhythm, an elastic tension within the grid, that determines how much the page can expand or collapse.

An Act of Mechanical Deformation

Scattered across the comic strip panels comprising the ever-expanding and contracting space of the page grid, were figures. Bodies. I never had the impression that these bodies were confined to the boxes they occupied, but were passing through, moment to moment, paradoxically animated by the inactivity between actions—those empty spaces between panels. And in most of the comic strips I studied as a boy, these bodies were deformed. Amidst the sequential assembly of a narrative, were characters in a state of disassembly.
Comic strips can establish psychological spaces wherein states of mind are signified by way of a visual shorthand. This lends itself to stretching the physical boundaries of the body. I prized the "Dick Tracy" strips out of a love for the extensive rogues’ gallery of deformed villainy on display, in which the impurity of characters such as Flattop Jones, Influence, “Little Face” Finny, and Pruneface, was measured physiognomically. But such deformity is also the stuff of visual humor. Physical exaggeration forms a large part of the “comic” in comic strips. This is best illustrated in the pages of "MAD", where the body was regularly taken apart and pieced back together as a new and not-so improved mockery of its former self. Caricature becomes a tool for most cartoonists as a means to instantly communicate character or a character’s state of mind, bypassing slower, text-based methods of contextualization. There are however, inherent dangers that accompany the application of physiognomic visualization, as seen in the pages of the French satirical publication "Charlie Hebdo", and a critical conversation concerning the boundaries and the responsible application of physical exaggeration have subsequently emerged. Deformation can lead to dehumanization, the imposed abstraction of the body in which the physic and the psychic become interchangeable. The work of Pablo Picasso and Willem de Kooning trafficked in comic deformation and illustrates the relationship between caricature and abstraction through a breaking apart of the subject (6). There is a long list of contemporary artists that have continued to mine this territory, among them Laylah Ali, George Condo, Carroll Dunham, Jim Nutt, Peter Saul, and Sue Williams.

The Archeology of Knowledge

In the past year, I have initiated a series of prints that considers the formal mechanics of the comic strip, resulting in a further fragmentation and refashioning of its narrative devices. However, there is no interest in attempting to construct a narrative. There is only an exploitation of its formal strategies as used in comic strips. Titled after "L’archéologie du savoir" ("The Archeology of Knowledge"), a 1969 book by Michel Foucault (7), the series begins with the notion of sequentiality and the possibility that any established structure can lend itself to a moment of slippage or become a rearranged space for multiple meanings. Channeling Antonio Prohías and Steve Ditko, there is both a solidity and a fluidity to each image, aided by the use of relief printing as a means to insist on bold graphic structure. This is a conscious nod to the “wordless novel” tradition from the era of German Expressionism that utilized black, printed relief imagery sans captions at the service of storytelling. It was a period when artists such as the Belgian Frans Masereel, the German Otto Nückel, and the American Lynd Ward created book-length narratives using bold, high-contrast single panel pages. For me, the carving of each block is an excavation of the image, a sculpting of solid shapes requiring the appearance of absolute fixity. The printed result is a simple black key image, with the particulate application of color combinations in small hand-colored strokes and dots that mimic color printing systems. The process of hand-coloring each print, with the aid of stencils and rubber-stamping, is in direct conversation with those industrial color processes employed in 15th century prints, many of which were illuminated manuscript pages sharing characteristics with that of a comic book page. The scale of each print in "The Archeology of Knowledge" does suggest a page from a book, and there is even a border for the purpose of reinforcing the space of a page.
Each image has a finite structure, but that structure does not necessarily support a specific meaning. Thus, a speech balloon is emptied of its text. Rectangles meant to contain contextual information are rendered solid black. Although text is absent, the intention is to increase one’s awareness of its absence. Narration is redacted and certain meaning is retracted. And yet, one thing seems to lead to another due to the development of tense formal relationships and a diagrammatical logic that is textual in nature. The grid comes and goes as the space of each print opens and closes. The presence of deformity and physical redaction or amputation of the image, of meaning, of the body serves as a formal gesture but also establishes a strong psychological space in which the fixed and the unfixed compete for superiority and animate the space. Perhaps the concluding gesture for this project would be to further challenge the image by bundling all of the resulting pages together in twine, to place them into a miniature metal shed, and then expose them to silverfish, moisture and heat, to be opened back up one day, cut apart with scissors and reconstituted into a new set of sequences. Such a continued reshuffling of the order of things, an endless rearrangement of image panels within the grid and the replacement or editing of text within boxes and bubbles, is inherent in comic strip formalism. Because of the elastic nature of comic strip spatiality, nothing is fixed and the act of dismembering meaning can always lead to new constructions.

1. The syndicated comic strip "Dick Tracy" first appeared in 1931, scripted and drawn by Chester Gould until 1977. During Gould’s time on the strip, the narrative was often violent, idiosyncratically rendered in high contrast black and white vignettes that often reveled in gadgetry and grotesque villainy. Gould’s successor was Rick Fletcher who worked on the strip until 1983, then followed by Dick Locher. "Dick Tracy" is still in syndication, authored by Mike Curtis (writer) and Joe Staton (artist).
2. The term “Vulgar Modernism” was first introduced by the Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman in 1981. It refers to a sensibility found on the fringes of American popular culture and is identified as the “vulgar equivalent of Modernism itself,” with a self-conscious and self-reflexive sensibility developed between 1940 and 1960.
3. Cartoonist Antonio Prohías (1921-1998) was born in Cienfuegos, Cuba and emigrated to the United States in 1960 soon after being accused by Fidel Castro’s government of working for the CIA.
4. Cartoonist Steve Ditko (b. 1927) is most notable for co-creating the character of Spider-Man and creating the character of Doctor Strange for Marvel Comics. Ditko quit Marvel Comics in 1966 for unspecified reasons and went to create numerous other characters. Chief among them is Mr. A, which reflected Ditko’s increasing acceptance of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism. Since the 1960’s, Ditko has declined to be interviewed and photographed. He continues to work in a studio located in Manhattan’s Midtown West neighborhood. In 2007 I had the good fortune to receive a letter from Mr. Ditko, handwritten in pencil, in which he further discussed the application of Objectivism to societal functioning.
5. The antecedents of the speech balloon reach as far back as 600 to 900 AD, when scroll-like forms emerged from the mouths of speaking figures in Mesoamerican art. Speech “labels” appeared in Western art in the 13th century and commonly appeared in paintings well into the 16th century often appearing as bands, flags or scrolls unravelling from mouths. In 18th century printed political broadsides that made use of caricature, in both Britain and the United States, the speech balloon evolved into something similar to modern usage, albeit in a more elongated shape containing difficult to read handwritten script oriented vertically, diagonally, and horizontally.
6. Picasso was an avid caricaturist and his two greatest anti-war statements, Guernica and Dream and Lie of Franco, where informed by Anti-Fascist propaganda comic strips produced in France and Spain, that employed parody as a method of confronting the tragic. Picasso made use of fragmented cartoon stylization to depict a shattered world turned upside-down.
7. "L’archéologie du savoir" by Michel Foucault, posits the concept that systems of thought and knowledge are governed by an atmosphere of shifting subconscious rules dependent upon the conditions from which statements emerge, and the conditions of the field of discourse they enter into.

image: art by Steve Ditko; c. 1964 "Strange Tales" reprinted in "Marvel's Greatest Comics" #23