A Ben Cohen Ink Comic


By Ben Cohen a “legendary master of the left field.” -BRP!

“Unintentionally misunderstood since 1975.” –Anonymous

“A big f@#k you, to the audience.” -B. Pendarvis

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Saturday, April 10, 2010

Mean while over at TCJ's The Hooded Ultilitarian

I commented on a post, Dyspeptic Ouroboros... the conversation continued (as did I) at Duspectic Ouroboros cont...

You can read the original articles, other comments and resonances to my comments at the links above.

My Take...take one:

"While I do not question Ware’s authorship of both the letter and the cover, I do question how we should way the value of the message. I feel most of what Caro argues here, is answered and for the most part supported in the Cover. I see Ware as a cartoonist first and foremost, so I value his message in text on its own less. If there is a conflict in the two communications it is clear which one I believe.
As a person, a cartoonist and someone who uses words (poorly) to shorthand a point. I am well aware of how my own intent can be presented in apparent conflict through multiple mediums of communication.
In addition I am basically in agreement with Seth’s quote. But I find it unreasonable for us to not realize that progress continues to be made. And find it knee jerk to keep pushing cartoonist to fit a critiques ideal. Particularly when it comes off as snarky. Caro’s attempts to be accurate and balanced, but still at times I find it unnecessarily mean. Why is not alright for Ware to possibly be more like Jimmy then his success would suggest? Are we all not more like Jimmy? Or are cartoonist more prone to felling like him? (Sometimes, the wight of male depression in our best comics and the level of Utopian male fantasy in our most accessible comics are to much…we need more perspective). I hope we all are paradoxically experienced in what it is like to be paralyzed by second-guessing as much as I hope we are all experienced in forging our own path through positive actions. What is still of value, but not anymore so is the process of assessing and editing our work. But lets not sit here and be judgmental, for the sake of evolution to an top place in our cultures art and sacrifice good will towards our artist and others to get there. That seems unproductive no matter how clever."

My take take two...

Caro, Noah and Matthias (plus everyone),

I made the mistake of reading both threads…now I am not sure where to leave this…so I am at both. (Which is probably a mistake).

This may come off as schizophrenic. While I see this train of thought I am on moving away from Ware and to me (how ego centric) it does relate back to my point about multiple communications and communication forms from an individual, as well as address broader points.

The “can’t we all get along,” comes to me both naturally (this is my role and perspective in life, not sure why) and it is heightened, by discussions pertaining to our current political clement…it is in the air.
I ware so many hats myself that, as I inferred, it becomes more difficult to coalesce an argument, or even defend one that was just made. I pride myself on my ability to banter…but feeling like I have been dropped in the deep end, despite my own credentials (BFA, MFA in Sequential Art) and experience (cartoonist and occasional Comics professor). This “deep end” feeling comes mostly from my own intellect, but also from the history of comics and comics education. This is despite the noble efforts of TCJ as comic critics.
As someone who has studied comics in an academic setting, I must admit, that the training as far as criticism is only half of the puzzle. An MFA in Sequential Art get you a solid foundation in Visual Arts criticism, but not in literature. A BFA or an MFA in Sequential Art gets you a solid understanding of comic’s history from a variety of perspectives, but this is a young educational field, that is training cartoonist, not critics and historians. My understanding of CCS and SVA is that they are in the same boat as us SCAD grads. We are better trained then previous generations, which had to go it alone (or in small communities, or large sweat shops), but we are not even close the expectations that are presented by TCJ. Only through genius at this point do we get close. We are deficient, as Caro said “academic readers” training as cartoonists.

We are still developing a perception, a lexicon, a clarity, which fully considers that you can’t separate comics unique complexity of elements in order to conveniently change the context of your perceptions of its value. I strongly believe, we cannot and should not separate the words, narrative, design, illustrations…art and literature. Why should we try and separate form and function for comics? Just because we are behind, does not mean we can’t catch up. Yes, the separate elements are edited and considered separately in the artistic process and should be considered in the critique stage. Nevertheless, it is a mistake to not note that each time we do this it changes the context and the intent of the artist message. Ware may have a unique defense to those who attempt to analyze separate elements. He has said he works in a way that is savant like; starting in one corner and ending in the other. This would imply he considers virtually everything continuously. If he is not separating elements, how can we? I don’t know if I am defending this, just posing the question. However, it is true that if you “tease” the elements they can come apart. But this is true of any house of cards… is it not still a house of cards before you pull one away?

None of this is easy…so my hats off to the critics for even attempting. The medium is the better for it and perhaps someday we will have cartoonist, academics, historians, critiques and an audience that can all rap their minds around this, without picking at the bones. I would suggest that it has less to do with laziness, but more education…because we simply are still inventing as we go along, and how do you set rules to something that is still evolving beyond the speed of the critique.

So yes, Caro: “…we have not forged a critical analysis structure that balances the narrative and visual elements at a sophisticated level.” Nevertheless, how can we, when we don’t even agree on the conversations, point. I cry fowl to Caro’s statement, “Art, to me, demands the possibility of that conversation (between audience and artist). And conversation is about ideas, not emotions.” I would suggest that if you ask the average person about arts purpose, emotion would come up more then ideas. While I am sympathetic to the idea side, it is false to caricatureise it as the necessity to expand the mind through a deictic or communal conversation about a piece of art with the artist. This would be an illogical distinction (yeah that’s right…I pulled a Spock). I would suggest that separating these two is like separating elements of a comic…you cannot and you should not.

Yes, any cartoonist, comic’s teacher, and the comic’s audience who wish for progress in quality of comics and the perception of comics must concede the necessity for quality criticism. In fact what else is the point of comics then to broaden our minds. It can’t just be for nostalgic emotions. And perhaps this is how criticism is done in literature, and yes this is how it is often done in visual arts. However, when you consider the limited education most cartoonist have had throughout our history, it is remarkable (or perhaps a great illustration of the potential for a world without formal education) that so many cartoonist express at the level they do. Yes, I include Ware in this.

That said, he IS totally passive aggressive. And it would annoy me to no end, if it didn’t seem to be so natural for him and if it wasn’t so darn pretty. Which is kind of why I come to his defense. This is who he is. What critique would be able to change that? He has virtually mastered presenting himself. Why would we ask more from him? I would hope he would not compromise. There are other forms of engagement then pressure to change. Much of what I have read here has engaged in an exploratory manner with wonderful insight. That seems more productive.

We agree strongly that this passive aggression (often mistakenly substituted for intellectualism) permeates to many comics pages, and is mean and is like anything when it is to much…bad for us. Just as there are to many objectified unrealistic female depictions and to many male ego fantasy heroics. But I don’t blame Ware for this. I blame it on a lack of diverse participation, which can be blamed on a number of factors. But not, Chris Ware, if this is simply who he is.

I do see that by putting it out there, and particularly because he reaps benefits monetarily and egotistically, that he is fare game. And you shouldn’t have to worry about how closely he identifies with his art. In his case I would gage it is very personal. This is the reason he lashed out, but this is short of his cheat (because he tells you strait up through his art…careful, kid gloves here…I’m sensitive). You have a right to defend yourself, let alone do your job (or simply just be an audience member and have an honest reaction equal to the artist honest message…we still have post-modernism to thank for that).

Doing art, particularly in the public sphere and being paid for it is brings up many responsibilities and positions. It is one of the stranger occupations. He is engaging the audience, who must not be passive. It is about his ego as much as his victimization. And he does get paid (unlike a lot of us…yes, he sacrificed I am sure, yes, he deserves the recognition, and yes, he works harder then many other professions that get paid more). Moreover, we pay him. However, there is a paradox to working in an isolating medium, that has been kicked around and lived in recesses (this all fits him and many cartoonist…it is again a natural relationship), but he also seeks the light and takes it on (per his ego). Therefore, no tears should be shed, but a modest caution should be acceptable. Make no mistake, making art is personal. People’s reaction to it is personal. Yours, Seth’s and many others point is, taking a punch is how you make it to that top shelf (the art shelf). As I said, it’s a strange way to work.

Part 3:

Sorry about the formatting on my last post…anyway.

Caro-I think I am supportive of the need for “the insights of literary fiction and criticism deserve some thoughtful attention.” It is this perspective that is both lacking in the academic side of cartoonist schooling and in the mediums vocabulary as a whole. That is where the deep end is for most of us. Despite its clearly consistent place from the beginning and its nature as an integrated element of comics.

Johnathan-I think you are illustrating, or what I am taking from your last segment is…Ware’s and his critics false choice. Since post modernism, our perspectives which influence our reaction and expectations of the work are diverse. How we value and how we asses this value of the work is up for grabs. This does not mean that we should ignore the discussion, but it does mean the result is not a clear correct perspective. It is a messy tapestry of reactions, intellectual and emotional. And yes by simply writing about comics we perverse our communication of it. It is impossible to capture all it communicates and in turn translate every intent and every perception.

Noah-This is where I get a little Utopian. Ware’s influence has become comics version of “to big to fail.” James Sturm, who I know well, once suggested it is our job as new cartoonists (somehow still new at 35…a result of some dillydallying…the economic realities in comics, but also the competitive realities in comics as they pertain to stifling new talent) to knock off the old guard. In the way you describe it, Ware’s influence is a helping hand. My positions is…both options suck. Why is there simply not enough room for us all? We sit here and complain about to much of one perspective, but we let the “old guard” chose who gets in the club and or we force them out…but some are “to big to fail.” This does nothing to encourage diversity…not that I am…I am another Jewish white male making comics…a symptom of the overall issue. And in this effort, I see less support from critics. But all of this may just be sour grapes. I suppose we are coming to the same conclusion, but on different paths (seems to be going on a lot around here).
In your response to Caro…this is a great example of the conversation being vaguely familiar, but I lack context…because of what Caro is suggesting is missing and what I am confirming is missing from a comics education and a cartoonist perspective…and an understanding of the literary perspective you mentioned…and I took Psychological Realism in Literature (of course I got a C…as predicted by the professor). I did of course get the part about Contemporary Art…but prior to that I am already a bit lost.
So Noah and Caro- I guess I am admitting that comics lack of understanding of this perspective has resulted in the “knee jerk” reaction. This reaction stems from lack of clarity…and yes unwillingness to find time to read something other then comics. But I would suggest a more painstaking understanding of this from a critics perspective is still necessary if what you are critiquing is comics.

I suppose this a bit of a concession on my part, for comics (not sure why I am in this position, or even qualified…I can’t be the only person here who has lived and breathed comics since age 4). But the “anxiety” is not necessarily toward criticism itself. I think it comes from the form (text) that criticism takes (which by its very nature pulls it out of context) and/or that is comes outside an academic (in terms of studding how to MAKE comics) or as part of the editorial process (of course its not like Ware is changing to soot his critics…and again why should he, if he is being true to himself).

But what else are critics supposed to do…words are how they communicate their critique…and words in an academic setting are also at least in part the from they take. But all artist are (or should be) use to critique, as it pertains to improving the piece (before it is presented in its final form) or as a means to improve future work…or future additions (which happens) of the same work.

But Ware has crafted so carefully that the use of criticism is undermined…and Ware’s response (in illustrative comics form…in the letter less so) leaves criticize at a loss because of it. His intent maybe without merit, but his “to big to fail” status and the quality of his work as it pertains to presenting himself leaves the criticism in a precarious position of being a waste of breath. Which I do empathize with from a critical perspective, when you clearly see this position playing to both Ware’s ego and anxiety. But in the end this is bigger then Ware, a scary thought.

Part 4:

To all who posted in between my last comment and this one…Some thoughts while reading your takes here…also I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for my grammar and spelling…despite writing comics…I have lifelong struggle with the written word…which may also be a common source of the problem in comics (I am not alone)…thanks for ignoring my issues…I hope these are clear enough in context.

Matthias-Ware’s mockery of criticism and comics potential to become art is an external consistency with the internal mockery he inflects on his characters (perhaps himself). He is at least consistent.

To underline your point on cartoonists as intellectuals. The highest praise we hold is for the old guard in comics. In part due to the influence it has on contemporary cartoonist (who can appear to be intellectuals…I would put Ware there…its all relative). Perhaps Schultz and Herrimon were intellectuals…but I don’t see their cartoonist genius as necessarily evidence of that. Are Kirby and Lee’s work evidence that they are intellectuals. Well no. But they are clever and worked hard. And at times they were good if not great cartoonists. We must keep in mind that we admire their work as readers, cartoonists and critics. As much as we look back and see them to be silly. Comics are born from propaganda that made old men laugh, and are perpetuated by marketing to kids. So this new expectation must be balanced, as it pushes the medium forward. Even the greatest cartoonist (even the greatest artists) are not as a rule, intellectual. But they are subject to an intellectual critique…as long as this reality is taken into consideration.

Narrative is predominant in assessing comics, and it is visual narrative that is the primary source of information for this narrative (a picture is worth 1000 words). The skill we live or die with in cartooning school is the ability to manipulate the story through the juxtaposition of pictures in a narrative. These are the unique skills we train in (something you learn no where else…unless you are old school…and just do it). We are taught to keep our text pithy. This underscores the intent of erring on the visual. I prefer to read comics pictures over words…to many words can be distracting from the narrative and to many words become to big a challenge from a graphic design sense that works with the panel layout and narrative intent of pacing. That said, these pithy text should and are improving in their expectations of the readers literary education. Still I do prefer the poetry of a compelling visual silent story.

So if the visual is more important, I take major issue with the poor drawing or at least drawing that is without purpose we so often see in comics. Craft is important and should be considered, no matter who wonderful the juxtapositions of imagery, the narrative and the words. If the drawing, inking and perhaps color is not well executed in a way that contributes to the story it becomes an unnecessary exercise for the reader. Ware almost never puts you in this position. I would say Jeffrey Brown is an exception, because of narrative intent.

Caro-It is clear from our discussion that critics need to spend more time making comics, and cartoonist need more exposure to literature.

If Ware is not an intellectual…well he is just about as close to that as we get in cartoonists. I think his intellectualism maybe stymied by the lens he seems to place on everything…see above.

As for the McSweeney’s 13 quote: I agree that basically Ware is wrong. There is nothing inherently more or less accessible about comics and blame for clarity is not inherently pointed in either direction based on the medium. From my point of view, when we are confronted with art we come with what we know, we believe, what we feel, what we think. We then react based on this. Sometimes that results in, “I don’t get it.” But that usually is because they have not been authorized by the cultural intellectual hierarchy in their educational experiences. The fact is their perception is of value. Their interpretation is of value. I guess I am very anti-elitist, because of a history I see of oppression that stems from it in many artistic and cultural context. Perhaps paradoxically I see the significant need for improved intellectual criticism in comics, which should coincide with improved understanding and intent on the part of cartoonists. That said, as an art teacher, my most fundamental goal is to improve the quality of my students visual lexicon, so they can decipher visual meaning that is being communicating to them and which perhaps is manipulating their thoughts and actions. So I am doing my part in bridging the gap to the intellectualism…and the bridge can only improve with enlightenment from people like yourself.

Anyway, I agree that if Ware is perhaps mistaken in seeing comics consumption in a vacuum (without communication with other people on the content).

The relations between film/animation and comics are sometimes strained. So again Ware is reactionary…I get like that too. The dominant place film plays in our culture makes cartoonist jealous. However, there is a unique narrative artistic experience comics provide and there will always be a place for it. And it does have to do with comics unique use of time and space, as well as the ability to look back, reinterpret and create your own imagery in the gutter.

Caro, Kevin: I am not much help here…like Ware I need to take Kevin’s advice (I know a number of names have been stated…)…which is the point that Caro and I have arrived at I think?…It is like I am listening to the teacher in Peanuts…

I would say that the contrast between “professional” literary criticism and visual art criticism may have as much to do with the work the literary community has put in, and the fact that you are using words to discus words. While on the other side, there is this post-modernist accessibility in visual arts which has resulted in art going from an elitist decree, to an artist decree, to anyone can decree. This maybe antithesis to the literary realities. And you throw in comics, which entangle both worlds, but come from a propaganda newspaper and lowbrow merchandising world…well it is a strained odd fit…that falls apart when pulled apart.

Caro- Sure there are people who spend more time focused on comics criticism…but there is no reason why you and I can’t play along. This is still a young field, no one has laid claim to the definitive criteria. I respect and read the TCJ, I don’t feel the web version is any less or more valuable. I also read Comic Book Resource (which yes, is designed to be more accessible and more about “mainstream.”…but they have some insightful and valid opinions over there too…take for example the important role my pal Kelley Thompson has had. Over this past year in improving criticism of comics from a female perspective). We need more, not less voices.


Rob- You are likely correct, outside of his love for Blues, I would say comics influence Ware most. Most cartoonist are nostalgic and thus focused on comics as their primary reference outside of their own experiences…it is at least the lens we use. This relates to issues Caro and I have been discussing on education.
Matthias (evening post)- I think you are more insightful in presenting my feelings on this. But I do feel that Ware can fall short under some lime light. But at the end of the day…its art and should remain open to interpretation. As I have stated, I think he is basically non-responsible to criticism, because of his persona, the level of excellence he already brings and because he is on his path…not anyone else’s.

Mathias and Caro- Suddenly we are in a nice little boxing match…I hesitate to interject.
Nevertheless, I interpreted Caro’s take on “passive aggression” to be much like mine…its not passive aggression per say that is the problem…it is the amount of passive aggression the permeates Ware’s and others comics.

On Asian comics being improved by the use of characters vs. letters in their language. I have heard this before, but it strikes me as merely a bonus, not a fundamental rule.

I have to commend Caro on presenting insightful visual analysis.

But Caro in responce to this statment…

“I’m never going to get where you are with Ware, because I simply don’t find him to successfully evoke the ‘feeling of disappointment, failure, and heartbreak with such precision and nuance.”

…how depressing does it have be for you to feel this?

I have no doubt more has been said as I write this.

Part 5:

Caro- Again, it is not necessarily Ware’s responsibility to expand his emotions in order to improve his comics. I see it as others in comics responsibility to provide more diversity. His gravitas and the gravitas of his friends, have created a misunderstanding for my generation…that the more depressing the more likely you are to be respected. But that’s not Ware’s fault.

Noah-I am with you on the inherent value of intellectualism. I am always struck by the lack of appreciation in intellectual circles, wealthy circles or progressive circles of the wisdom, resourcefulness, innovation and practicality that is commonly found in other parts of our broader community. Yes, there are dangers in lack of education and/or tradition in these more common circles…but if we spend time and listen there, our judgments fall and our progress increases.

As a cartoonist I see Ware’s erring on the side of the formal is less an illustration of his shortcomings, as much as, an illustration of the unique challenges in making comics. I come to this conclusion through the idea that I excuse him on the basis of his own nature. I think it is honest communication on his part. Which is what I want in a conversation.

I prefer his work to Brown’s as well, but as I eluded to…Brown’s presentation compliments the narrative. Ware’s visual clarity creates a contrast to his view of the world that is equally (perhaps more) compelling.
Caro-As to the Shaw and Mazzucchelli discussion: I love Mazzucchelli’s work and he has been an influence on me both through his work and through his teachings. And I fully support on principle his position on considering the audience. One quote about my own approach to cartooning is that it is a “Big FU to the audience.” I have always liked this quote. In fact I display it on my website. For two reasons, one as a person, this is totally not me, its an ironic assertion in some respects. But paradoxically I defiantly don’t work the way Mazzucchelli works when it comes to thinking about the reader. Of course that could be one of a number of reasons I am not at the level Mazzucchelli is…of course I am no Shaw either.

I live and breath Jarvis Cocker’s assertion. I wounder if it has to do with the pioneering spirit and the desire to sell yourself. That said…I don’t take it as a criticism…even though that is its intent.

The duality of perception afforded the reader is particularly difficult in comics. It simply takes more time and work in a comic narrative then it does in prose or film (perhaps animations the acceptation…but even there the team is bigger) to provide the reader with tragic duplicity. Ironic since we use words and pictures to accomplish this goal. So the criticism is valid, but the realities of constraints on the part of the cartoonist deserves a tip of the hat…Ware has had his fair share. To the audience sometimes an apology is in order, since they (along with out wallets) are the victims of the challenges a cartoonist faces.

I totally agree that the three parties should be involved as readers. I think Ware has, some of us just don’t value his impute, because it is limited by the same mechanisms that limit some of our perceptions of his work.

…and once again a list of names I need to dig up and sound of the teacher from Peanuts trumpets on…thanks for pushing me.

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