April 2005

Bill Baker

gutterslut

A Belated "Best of 2004": Three Overlooked Books

I'll let you in on a secret: Columns can be unpredictable for some of us journalists. They often misbehave, or seem to from our selfish, merely human perspective. They abuse us like spoiled divas, generally not respecting our pitiable contributions to the enterprise and definitely not doing exactly what we expect of them. And, perhaps more to the point, refusing to cover the subjects we think they should. All of which can lead to a frustrating, but also quite rewarding in its own way, experience.

And, yeah, it's happening with Gutterslut already.

I had been working diligently on a review of Jeff Smith's simply wonderful magnum opus, Bone, for this edition, but something originally intended to be an addendum -- basically a short "DVD extra" concerning three simply essential art books that were released over the course of the past year, but which seem to have been largely overlooked by both critics and customers -- simply took over and demanded that it become this column's main subject. So be it. Who am I to go against the will of the Column Gawds, much less my own muse? [Any disappointed Bonephiles who might be reading this, take heart; I will certainly return to this subject quite soon, most likely with still more fresh insights to report, sparked by further rereadings of the recently re-released, now fully colored volumes of Smith's epic masterpiece.]

The three books which demanded, and mightily deserve, today's spotlight could all roughly be lumped under the heading of "art books," which perhaps explains a little of the general inattention they've received, despite their obvious and real inherent value to a wide range of readers, including aspiring and established creators of comics, as well as both the regular and casual visitor to that shared imaginary space that some have referred to as Pictopia. And I believe that even those readers who regularly find themselves reticent to crack the covers of anything with even a cursory resemblance to "coffee table books" and their like really should consider doing themselves the small favor of taking a few moments to at least glance at the pages of each of these fine volumes. Otherwise, they run the risk doing themselves a great disservice.

Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen
by John Fleskes
Flesk Publications
www.fleskpublications.com

Of the three books being examined, this is perhaps the closest to what most readers might think of as an "art book" -- a book which heavily favors art over any text. While the other two are actually more career retrospectives, editor-publisher John Fleskes's decision to highlight Booth's art -- less than a dozen pages of text fill this 98 page, clearly printed and sturdily bound volume -- was a savvy one. And further investigation reveals the true depth of this editor-publisher's wisdom, which is reflected by the worth of the text pieces which fill those few prose-bearing pages. The foreword by Walt Reed -- who studied as a student at NYC's Phoenix Art Institute under Booth (a man who was reportedly as revered as a teacher by both his charges and his fellow pros as he was admired as an artist), Fleskes's own overview of the great illustrator's life and career, and the several excerpts from a classic survey of the subject's field, "Pen Drawing" and "Pen Draughtsmanship" by Joseph Pennell, are all truly informative and telling, despite their brevity. It is, however, the inclusion of a previously-unpublished introduction by yet another great popular illustrator -- no less than the late Roy Krenkel of EC Comics fame -- which provides the real, yet not-entirely unexpected surprise. Krenkel's introduction is one of the most insightful pieces that I've ever had the pleasure to read. For many readers, and particularly for those who are interested in creating or learning about making fine art, the inclusion of this long lost piece of criticism alone might well offset the cost of the entire volume.

And that's all before you get to the real heart of this book... and what a revelation of a magnificent body of work it is! As noted above, Booth wasn't just good at presenting his vision of reality on the page, he was technically brilliant. Ultimately, the artist wasn't simply laying down successive spaces and lines of black to fool the viewer's eye. Rather, he was in fact preternaturally adept at lushly rendering both scenery and subject as if he were painting in ink, effectively building up layers of not just details and effects, but also a palpable atmosphere and honest emotion. Each page also serves as a testament to Booth's subtle and skillful design sensibilities. And this book has examples of just about every type of illustration that issued from the bountiful quill of this 19th Century master, including seemingly-innumerable ornamental drawings created expressly to decorate a chapter heading or perhaps to frame some long-forgotten page of text, illustrations done for various popular magazines and books, as well as some of his more serious-minded compositions. Each and every one of these illos is gorgeous in its own right, and there are dozens upon dozens of them in this volume. Throughout, Fleskes's spare and careful design work on Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen serves his subject's richly detailed and stunningly textured pen and ink work with some real distinction and class.

Much better and more accomplished critics than I have proven beyond any doubt that Franklin Booth was, and in fact remains, one of the most accomplished, important and widely influential American artists to ever have put brush, pen or pencil to paper. This is a book that not only furthers, but is also truly worthy of, Booth's legacy.

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A small aside on content: Just in case anyone was wondering about it, readers who might be genuinely concerned about what is typically referred to as "adult content" in Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen can rest easy. The book is basically, for want of better words, "family safe."

Those very same folks, though, need to be aware that the second volume under discussion, Al Williamson: Hidden Lands does contain a few illustrations of nudes. These pieces are, however, not just a rarity, but also are presented both tastefully and in the context of Williamson's pursuit of his craft, and aren't included for more..."Mature Minded" purposes. That same crowd should also know that the Bernet book doesn't just contain nudes, it's populated by those and other images which are intended solely for an adult, and ideally mature minded, readership. But now I'm in danger of getting a little ahead of myself.

Al Williamson: Hidden Lands
by Thomas Yeates, Mark Schulz and S. C. Ringgenberg
Dark Horse Books
www.darkhorse.com

If Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen serves chiefly as a fine but general overview of the highly varied output of that artist, with a concomitant focus on presenting the artists work rather than the artist's life and career, Al Williamson: Hidden Lands instead somehow balances the "art versus artist" equation with a truly astonishing feat of editorial skill, giving the reader an in-depth and meaningful exploration of the extraordinary life, career and art of a man who is not just a living legend, but who would also easily qualify as a certifiable national treasure.

This volume concentrates on the early to middling years of Williamson's life, from when as a child he lived in South America, absorbing a veritable Creole of cultural influences, through his early experiences as a student, from as a fledgling and then an established pro -- including details on his time assisting Burne Hogarth on his Tarzan comic strip -- to his long-time association with other young lions of New York's illustration set like Frank Frazetta, up to and including his work for a wide variety of publishers in the fifties, including an outfit run by Stan Lee which was known as Atlas back then, but would soon morph into Marvel Comics. And the fact of the matter is that, if the book was just composed of this text material supplied by the three worthies noted above, aided by Tom Roberts and one Ken Feduniewicz, it would be a worthy and readable addition to the still understocked History of Comics section. When presented as they are in this book -- with a bounty of photographs, sketches and art work, along with entire tales, all of it so generously supported by a lively yet clean design ethos -- they accumulate an intelligence and emotional power that is really amazing.

The reader will further discover plenty of personal commentary and anecdotes from Williamson and many others accompany all that fine historical and critical commentary, and that there are copious spot illustrations featuring both Williamson's art as well as examples of the work produced by people who influenced or otherwise had an impact on his art or life. Also, almost half of the book is dedicated solely to presenting a generous number of previously unavailable, extremely rare and impossible to find stories in their full black and white glory. While it may be true that they're not in color, they are presented clearly and well. Further, even if there might be a few tales here and there that haven't aged well, or perhaps don't particularly appeal to you, the vast majority of these stories are at worst entertaining -- and most bear up under repeated visits, while some prove to be bearers of some hidden or easily overlooked treasures. And then, of course, there's the art. Just about every dash and dot of it seems to be perfect for that moment. Taken as a whole, there's some breathtaking, heartbreakingly good art gracing those story pages, panel after panel of Williamson's strong and supple, even sensuous, line work, page after page of storytelling so accomplished that it's bordering on the magical. There's a real sense, even in the stories that don't quite work, that there was a serious attempt by the entire team involved to get everything working together to create the sense of a whole, living beast unfolding before you. Even hobbled as it is by the undeniable fact that but a small fraction of Williamson's total output is [or even could be] visibly represented within its pages, those comic stories that are found inside of Al Williamson: Hidden Lands constitute a truly impressive and entirely satisfying body of fiction which runs the gamut of genres, from western to sci-fi, and beyond.

Published by Dark Horse comics, Al Williamson: Hidden Lands is one of the single best examinations of a comic book artist's life, career and oeuvre that I've had the pleasure to encounter. If there's been another book on this subject published in recent years that has anything even remotely resembling the real and human feel of this volume -- one filled as much heartfelt devotion coupled with clear-eyed critical assessment, as much sincerity and outright pure, unadulterated love for its subject as not just a fine artist, but a truly good person -- I haven't encountered it. I look forward to the happy day that I do. Until then, I hope that you will have an opportunity to experience for yourself this excellent and moving tribute to one of the greatest living practitioners of that most democratic and American of the arts, the comic book.

Bernet
Auad Publishing
www.auadpublishing.com

Our final entry under consideration is Bernet. Essentially a career-spanning retrospective of European cartoonist Jordi Bernet's comics work, this elegantly designed and presented hardcover reads easily and naturally. Bernet is an attractive, affordable, and often truly astonishing volume. I say astonishing because, as a "typical" American, I have previously had little contact with Bernet's muscular and innately attractive line work outside of a few stories published, in English, in venues like DC Comics' fine Batman: Black and White anthologies. (Hey, I admitted I was a typical American, right?) I now pity myself, and each and every one of you, my readers, who have not had the extreme pleasure of previously exploring in any real manner the canon of this master storyteller.

Which is strange, considering that his fans seem to be numerous... and some are rather famous. This is born out by the creators who are quite gifted and great cartoonists themselves -- ranging from Joe Kubert and Will Eisner to Sergio Aragonés, from Josep Toutain and Juan Gimenez to Eduardo Risso, each of them happily weighing in on the luster and real worth of Bernet's work. While these are again on the short side, they are all extremely sweet in every sense of the word, displaying not just a generosity towards Jordi's work, but also revealing those truly important and lasting aspects of the man and his art. Still, the emphasis is upon Bernet's body of work, and the rich experiences offered by becoming immersed in it.

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However, at the risk of repeating myself overmuch or, much worse, becoming a little overbearing, I'd like to remind you all one last time that, while the work and name of the artist Bernet should be known not just more widely, but also much better the world over, the book Bernet might not be for everyone. Despite the fact that it displays nothing but some of the best comics you or I will ever have the luck and joy to have a chance to read, the bottom line is that it is filled with raw emotions and rawer truths. As such, it bears an almost palpable aura of not just the truly earthy nature of the Human Comedy, but also its real and present dangers, be they moral, physical or spiritual in nature. Almost every one of these tales or drawings, be it a noirish immorality tale, an excerpt from a larger graphic novel, a one-off joke page or even a rough sketch, has buried somewhere beneath its luxuriantly decadent surface a real heart, and a real heat that might be overwhelming for some readers of more "refined" sensibilities. That shouldn't suggest, however, that these are stories mired in filth for its own sake; it's quite the opposite, in fact. Like most of those luminaries he's worked with over his career -- including Carlos Trillo, Claudio Nizzi and Antonio Segura -- Bernet's real purpose as an artist is to explore, to expose, the essential truths of the Human Condition in his work. Unfortunately, no man, woman or even child is ever truly pure, or free of some defect of character or nature, and so human kind's stories inevitably include aspects of human behavior that, while perhaps not as popular, palatable or proper as some would insist, still do exist and as such can serve as vehicles to both entertain and inform, to a larger or smaller extent, the reader. And to entertain, one must not just engage their audience; they should also excite them.

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Taken by itself, Bernet's lively line work is surely enough to visually excite and mentally titillate even the most jaded or reticent reader. But Bernet's real power is evident in his easy ability to strike fear, awe and any number of other emotions deep into the characters' -- and by extension, his readers' -- souls when necessitated by the script. Bernet's skill at telling his stories visually, moving the narrative and emotional core of the story from panel to panel, and page to page, is also a gift of frightening dimensions. But that gift is never used to supplant or circumvent the flow of the tale itself, only support and nourish it. There is real magic in the collaborations here, and it makes one hungry to sample more. As for the stories themselves, they again run the gamut of genre and include strong examples of the noir, gangster, sci-fi, fantasy and "good/bad girl" categories. Throughout, Bernet's pen jumps and dances upon the page with real verve and abandon, showcasing a contained yet boundless energy which, coupled as it is with a raw, innocent eagerness on his part to express the movement as well as the meaning of each moment. This is artistry which can make you smile even as it breaks your heart with an awful yet essential truth. And yet Bernet does this without assaulting his audience, nor insulting their intelligence. It's this puckish quality, perhaps, which allows one to enjoy these stories, as sordid, troubling or even "dirty," as they might be.

That enjoyment seems built to last. As I discovered via my own various rereadings of this book, many of these tales can and do seem to change their meanings over time, sometimes to a startling extent, as they're encountered under the influence of differing personal circumstances, moods and the other vagaries of a reader's life. I've always heard that truly great literature, novels like Cervantes's Don Quixote, will display that kind of mutability over a reader's lifetime, and I've even encountered my own version of this phenomena during my own rereadings of any number of both prose and graphic novels over the years. However, I've rarely experienced this kind of quicksilver shift in my received perception of a book before this, and rarely have I be able to enjoy, on so many radically different levels each time, a book upon rereading it. All of which I take as a testament to the potent artistic talent of Bernet and his many fine colleagues. As such, ultimately Bernet is a book that has the power to stimulate the mind as much as the body, or titillate the reader's senses. As long you don't mind a little bit of (well, ok, a fair amount of) sometimes explicitly depicted and detailed acts of things like "the old ultraviolence" or "the beast with two backs," among other common but often addictively interesting human behaviors, you'd be hard pressed to find a more fulfilling read at the moment.

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In sum, these three books are not just good, they are each truly exceptional, and essential in their own, unique ways. Each of them -- Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen, Al Williamson: Hidden Lands and Bernet -- comes with the highest possible recommendations from gutterslut.

Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen
by John Fleskes
Fleskes Publishing
ISBN: 0972375805
98 pages

Al Williamson: Hidden Lands by Thomas Yeates, Mark Schulz and S. C. Ringgenberg
Dark Horse Books
ISBN: 1569718164
224 pages

Bernet by Manuel Auad
Auad Publishing
ISBN: 0966938127
244 pages

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gutterslut hookups:

FleskPublications.com is the place you'll find Franklin Booth: Painter with a Pen, and some really fine books on Joseph Clement Coll, too .

DarkHorse.com will take you to the online home of Al Williamson: Hidden Lands, as well as something called Sin City, and somebody who calls himself Hellboy.

AuadPublishing.com is the place to discover more about the truly exceptional work of Jordi Bernet. Alex Toth has a couple books there, too. No, really. He does.

DCComics.com to find out more about the Batman: Black and White, as well as the rest of that company's incredible catalogue.

Boneville.com to get the jump on gutterslut's review of Jeff Smith's all ages book of wonders, Bone.