Wednesday, January 27, 2010

It's Hammer Time!

I finally found a free afternoon to visit (with my family) the Robert Crumb exhibit at the UCLA Hammer Museum in West Los Angeles this past weekend, which closes February 7. The official name of the exhibition, "The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis," focuses on cartoonist Robert Crumb's well-received The Book of Genesis Illustrated, his unabridged adaptation of the first book of the Old Testament, a project which took five years.

My primary interest in the exhibition, of course, is professional: as a working cartoonist, I always enjoy seeing original individual pieces of comics art on display which, like most pieces of art, often take on a different life when seen in person. This is especially true for comics art, which is intended of course for print—only relatively recently has original comics art been deemed to possess any value in of itself. Seeing the original art often provides insight into a cartoonist's working methods and thinking. (Note: Photography of the art was not allowed and is not included in this blog.)

Though I didn't count all the pages, and my wife assured me there were some pages missing, it otherwise appeared to me that nearly every page from the book was included in the show. Each page was individually framed and displayed in page order in the exhibit—one could easily have read the entire book at the museum! (A reading room also was provided that provided multiple copies of the book for reading.)

Two things struck me about the original art: the first at how relatively small they were. Traditional original comic art pages are usually drawn within a 10"x15" space,which is then reduced in printed format to 6"x9". In contrast, Crumb's book is a hardcover artbook, which means its dimension is larger than comic-book size; but the original art seemed only slightly larger than the final published size!

Second, I also was impressed by the pristine quality of each page. I am assuming Crumb uses a lightbox to trace his roughs onto the final pages because there was no evidence of any underlying pencilwork (or erasures) on the pages, and barely even any use of correction on the art. One can see the meticulousness of Crumb's fine linework and crosshatching. (A nearby exhibition at the Hammer of Rembrandt prints invited interesting and illuminating comparisons for me to Crumb's work—the artists' linework in both exhibitions were equally exquisitely rendered. The magnifying glass at the Rembrandt exhibit for studying the master's linework would have been equally as helpful at the Crumb exhibit! And many of the Rembrandt prints featured work that one would consider "cartoony" in their impressionistic representation.)

Also included in the exhibit was some of the reference and research material Crumb used in his project. In addition to reading scholarly works on the subject, he used for reference screen captures from Hollywood biblical epics loaned to him by a colleague. This initially surprised me until I realized, of course, that no extensive historical records exist that truly document the clothing, shelters, tools, etc., of the earliest existence of man portrayed in Genesis. Crumb also depended much on direct source material, particularly by scholars and people who lived in the region where the early days of the Bible took place. Also featured in the exhibit were samples of other biblical adaptations in comic-book form.

Ultimately, of course, Crumb's adaptation of Genesis is also a literary endeavor and any review of the exhibition would be incomplete without a comment about the book itself and the artist's intentions.

The text to Genesis is included in Crumb's adaptation in its entirety and unabridged. Crumb states in his introduction (reproduced wall-size at the entrance of the exhibition, as seen in the photo above) that he tried to approach the book unironically; indeed, Crumb certainly appears to have treated Genesis with respect, if not reverence in the traditional sense. One can also see the appeal for Crumb of tackling Genesis—the artist, after all, has made a career of exploring the most primal aspects of human existence (particularly sex!) and its flaws. Much of Genesis, beginning with Adam and Eve partaking in the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden which precipitates the fall of man, puts humankind's worst instincts on display, and includes a variety of tales both notorious and salacious, worthy of any modern-day gossip rag. On the flip side, of course, as the first book of the Torah and the modern Bible, Genesis also tells the story of creation and the earliest history of the Jewish people and formed the foundation for modern Christianity.

In his introduction, Crumb states that while some people consider the Bible to be "the word of God," it's his view that the Bible is, in fact, only the words of men. Such a disclosure naturally raises the question of whether this view has in some way colored and affected his presentation and approach. Personally, I saw no evidence in the work that Crumb did anything other than try to honestly present and illustrate the text as literally as possible, as he intended—though the mere act of representation in itself, which required Crumb to make decisions about how to present, illustrate and break up the text, could be deemed an act of personal interpretation that diverges from the truth of the text. This leads to the age-old question of whether a work of art can be fairly and objectively assessed on its merits, independent of any inherent bias about either the work or the artist and his intentions.

How that ultimately comes into play in Crumb's adaptation of Genesis I'll leave for the scholars to debate!

More information about the show, including videos and interviews with the artist, may be found at the Hammer Museum's web page about the exhibition.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Shows to Watch...

It's become a running gag in my family that my favorite television shows are always quick to be marked for cancellation. With this in mind, I thought I'd voice my support for two terrific shows before they disappear from the airwaves....

"Better Off Ted" is a laugh-out-loud comedy that has been occasionally compared to "Arrested Development" for being a show that can be quite silly and farcical but whip-smart and witty too. The show's title character, Ted Crisp, is a corporate R&D exec (and single father/widower) who struggles daily to maintain his moral compass and a clear head at a huge faceless technology company named Veridian Dynamics. Veridian is your stereotypical business conglomerate run amuck, manufacturing a wide range of goods ranging from household products to weapon systems that are often more harmful and dangerous than they are useful, caring little for the public good or common sense, and even less for its employees.

Below: "Tonight, we dine in HELL!"

The sitcom is perfectly cast with actor Jay Harrington as the lead, who also serves as the show's narrator, often speaking directly to the viewer. The strong and hilarious supporting cast includes two scientist geeks, Phil and Jem, geniuses lacking in all social skills and blissfully unaware of their evil scientist talents; a public relations person, Linda, who has a mutual crush on Ted, and in her own way tries to tweak management while she can while still keeping her job; and a terrific Portia de Rossi (from the above-mentioned "Arrested Development") as Ted's boss Veronica, a humorless "company man" who has no problem rationalizing and defending the company's often inane and arbitrary projects and policies.

Like "The Office," "Better Off Ted" mines office politics and corporate culture for its humor, and features characters that are well defined and quirky. However, while "Better Off Ted" definitely features a more damning view of faceless corporate life and technology and science run amuck—in fact, not too unlike the world portrayed in Terry Gilliam's dark comedy film, Brazil—"Better Off Ted" still manages to be sunny and breezy because most of the characters in their own way manage to maintain their individuality and find their bliss, partly due to the company's inherent inability to manage itself.

Of course, the bottom line is that this is a smartly written and funny show. Past episodes featured Phil being convinced to be cryogenically frozen for a year since it was determined he would be missed least at the company; the development of energy-saving motion sensors for opening doors and operating conveniences like water fountains that did not respond to dark skin; a memo the company refused to acknowledge containing a typo that advised employees to "NOW use insulting and offensive language"; and a project to develop meatless artificial beef. Central to each episode are the individual stories of the characters, whose ethics are often tested by their company, and the romantic tension that exists between Phil and Linda, occasionally extending into an occasional triangle with Veronica who otherwise has no time or use for genuine human relationships.

Although ABC ordered a second season of this mid-season replacement (now currently running), the network otherwise has not appeared to be strongly behind the show, dumping episodes—often two at a time—on arbitary nights, usually a harbinger for cancellation. Let's hope ABC recognizes it has a gem on its hand and renews it and gives it the promotion and support it deserves.

Below: "I like being called yummy."

Another show that has been on the precipice of cancellation its first two seasons but was granted a reprieve and rebooted this month with a bit more fanfare for its third season is "Chuck." The series is a light drama/comedy about a computer geek who inadvertantly becomes the avatar for a valuable computer program/database called "The Intersect" that makes him a valuable asset to the CIA and National Security Agency—as well as to various shadowy evil organizations on the show, such as the Fulcrum. Assigned to protect him is hardnosed old school spy John Casey and his beautiful partner, Sarah Walker. As the series progresses, a romantic tension emerges between Chuck and Sarah, which forms the spine—and heart—of the series.

As cover, Chuck and Casey work at a "Buy More" store (think Best Buy), which is a front for the operation; Sarah works at a local yogurt shop. The employees at the Buy More are Chuck's friends and provide a comic counterpoint to the spy stories.

At first glance and relative to the gritty and slick action productions that now populate the airwaves, "Chuck" has a bit of a low-rent/cheesy look to it—no doubt partly a function of its budget—and the stories have a retro '70s detective show feel to them. The fight scenes/choreography are not particularly elaborate or explicitly violent, and the villains are old-school baddies. Nevertheless, though the show doesn't take itself too seriously, the show is deceptively well written and makes you really care for the characters—Chuck is an "everyman," torn between wanting to do the right thing for his country and wanting to be rid of the Intersect from his body; and Sarah is similarly torn between duty and her growing feelings for Chuck and his personal well-being. These ethical and emotional dilemmas are the center of the show's success and its dramatic tension.

I actually did not begin watching "Chuck" until its second season and have watched it almost exclusively on Hulu. But I quickly got hooked on the series, and have found the twists, turns and reveals to be quite effective.The third season has upped the ante—Chuck uploaded a new version of the Intersect at the thrilling climactic episode of the second season that now not only provides him with an extensive top secret database but also gives him the abilities and skills of a superspy—often to humorous effect since he's still learning to control it. Fortunately, after being on the edge of cancellation in its first two seasons, "Chuck" has apparently begun to find some footing. Let's hope it stays viable.

Below: "Chuck" season 3 promo."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Remembering Shel Dorf

I'm a bit embarrassed to have not posted this sooner (partly because I was trying to track down the graphic above to include with this blog), but I thought it was important to mark the passing of Shel Dorf, who died this past November. Shel was the quintessential comics fan: he was fully committed to boosting comics as an artform (and way before it was fashionably to do so!) and was a major contributor to what today is comics fandom. While he would be the first to say that he was foremost a fan, he also served as an industry professional, serving as the letterer of one of his idols, Milton Caniff, for the last 14 years of Caniff's adventure strip, Steve Canyon.

In the days when fandom was a much smaller concern, he helped build a sense of community among fans and, due to his work befriending of the many comics professionals he admired, he bridged a connection between cartoonists and comic-book artists and the fans. The friendships he formed with many great cartoonists enabled him to invite them to attend the earliest comic-book shows, which have become the template for nearly all subsequent conventions. His legacy is nowhere more apparent than in the San Diego Comic-Con, which he often is credited with founding (or at least co-founding), and played a major role in its development, growth and character in its early years. Although Shel became somewhat disappointed into what Comic-Con had morphed into, the strong intermingling among fans and professionals at the show are part of Shel's legacy.

There are others who can speak more knowledgeably about his legacy and impact, and I have linked to them below. Though I didn't know Shel as well as I could have, I'm glad to say that I did know him and that he was a fan of my work.

If I recall correctly, knowing his connection to Caniff, I initially reached out to him by sending him copies of Rob Hanes Adventures, mentioning that my work was inspired by Caniff. He sent me back a very kind note and after that we stayed in touch periodically.

Though reports state he had not attended the San Diego Comic-Con since 2000 partly for health reasons, I occasionally saw him at the show in some earlier years. He often introduced me to new artists and asked me to give them advice and critique their work.

One year at Comic-Con, Shel even invited me to join him and several others for a dinner in honor of several Golden Age cartoonists. I was honored to be asked to attend.

I'm glad to know that many of Shel's peers acknowledged him and his contributions to comics in his final months, and that his achievements are receiving the recognition they deserve now that he has passed on.

Included with this tribute above is a scan of a holiday card to me from Shel. (As mentioned above, this blog was partly delayed because I wanted to include this scan with this card!)

Additional Links:

Shel Dorf Tribute Page
Shel Dorf in his own words
Comic-Con Tribute
Coverage at the Beat
Coverage at the Comics Reporter
Mark Evanier tribute
San Diego Union Tribune Obituary

R.C. Harvey Tribute (from the Comics Journal website)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Entertainment Roundup for 2009

As I do at the turn of every year, posted below is the list of movies, stage shows, books, and graphic novels I've taken in over the past year.

The usual caveats apply: included among the movies are films I saw in a theater as well as those I caught on DVD, on cable (usually uncut), and online, such as through Netflix or Hulu. Most are the first time I've seen them but a few are revisits (I've asterisked those).

Having a full-time job with young children somewhat limits my ability to go out to see first run movies—or at least it's made me a lot more selective. But I must also admit that as I've gotten older and have less time to spend seeing films, I'm more interested in being entertained than going outside my usual comfort zone. That means seeing comedies and dramas rather than violent action pics (being the scaredy cat I am, horror is right out). I still always enjoy a good indie or foreign film.

While there was no film that stood out as the absolute best or a personal favorite (I do think there is a distinct difference), among those films that made a strong impression are: Downfall; Inglourious Basterds; An Education; Watchmen; Star Trek; Up in the Air; Julie & Julia; (500) Days of Summer; Fantastic Mr. Fox; The Great Buck Howard.

So without any further ado....

Edmond - IFC (1/4/09)
Paths of Glory - TCM (01/10/09)
Battleground - DVD (01/11/09)
Slumdog Millionaire (01/19/09)
Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 7 (02/17/09)
Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project - Hulu (02/27/09)
The Fighting 69th* (03/01/09)
Helvetica (03/01/09)
Golden Boy - TCM (03/01/09)
Burn After Reading (03/14/09)
Eagle vs. Shark - DVD (03/21/09)
Watchmen (03/23/09)
Monsters vs. Aliens (03/28/09)
Hamlet 2 - DVD (03/28/09)
Outsourced - Netflix (03/29/09)
An Ideal Husband* - Netflix (03/29/09)
Zack & Miri Make a Porno (04/06/09)
Role Models (04/07/09)
The Stewardesses - DVD (04/18/09)
Danger: Diabolique - DVD (04/18/09)
Star Trek (05/10/09)
Glory Road - TNT (05/13/09)
Downfall - DVD (05/20/09)
Quantum of Solace - DVD (05/20/09)
Valkyrie - DVD (05/24/09)
Fanboys - DVD (05/25/09)
Transformers - DVD (05/31/09)
Up (3D) - (06/07/09)
13 Rue Madeleine (07/08/09)
Ice Age 2 (07/28/09)
Julie & Julia (8/9/09)
G-Force (8/10/09)
My Son, Edward - TCM (8/15/09)
The Notorious Bettie Page - IFC (8/24/09)
Ponyo (8/30/09)
Middle of the Night - TCM (8/31/09)
The Magnificent Ambersons - TCM (9/1/09)
Mr. Skeffington - TCM (9/2/09)
(500) Days of Summer - (9/7/09)
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (10/4/09)
An Education (10/11/09)
Astro Boy (11/11/09)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (11/27/09)
The Great Buck Howard-NetFlix (11/27/09)
Brideshead Revisited-Netflix (11/28/09)
Pirate Radio (11/29/09)
Prisoner of Zenda*-TMC (12/08/09
Made - IFC (12/10/09)
Up in the Air (12/12/09)
The Mouse that Roared - TCM (12/13/09)
Inglourious Basterds (12/14/09)
No Time for Comedy - TCM (12/12/09)
The Hangover - DVD (12/29/09)
The Princess and the Frog (12/31/09)

Singin' in the Rain (03/22/09)
Spamalot (07/10/09)
Cymboline the Puppet King (07/9/09)
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (8/15/09)
August: Osage County (10/16/09)
Mary Poppins (11/13/09)
Actors Gang-Peewees Save the Holidays (12/13/09)

Schulz and Peanuts by David Michaelis (04/28/09)

Dear Billy
Secret Invasion (9/20/09)
Laika (10/3/09)
Blazing Combat (10/26/09)
Asterio Polyps by David Mazzuchelli (12/31/09)