Friday, August 01, 2014

THE LESSON OF COMIC CON

Ah, San Diego Comic-Con, that buzzing hive of creativity and commerce, where the sublime promenades arm-in-arm with the vulgar, where technology cross-pollinates with whimsy, and where adolescent purity of heart foils even the most well-funded corporate publicity campaigns.

Was there a happier place in America last week?


The vast exhibition hall was chaotic again this year, and I didn't even attempt to navigate it with a purpose.  Like Huck Finn, I learned more by letting myself be carried along by the currents.

Some people sensed a certain repetitiveness to the banners and displays above the dealer tables, although personally I couldn't spot it:
 



Many exhibitors seemed reluctant to tamper with the standard formula for pose and breast size, perhaps out of fear that any originality might jeopardize their profitability.  They seemed most comfortable distinguishing themselves on the basis of scale and soundtrack volume.



Just as with the most prestigious fine art fairs, originality at Comic-Con had to tread water in a sea of scented bilge, and was sometimes hard to locate.  All of the imitative work could get tiresome, but it was a mistake to blink, or to divert your attention elsewhere. When you paid attention, bright jewels came to you, sometimes in tiny packages:

Microscopic preliminary sketch by the great Harry Beckhoff

When it seemed that the great piles of pandering corporate artwork might topple and crush you, you might turn a corner and stumble across the fiercely independent animator Bill Plympton sitting at a table quietly drawing his own highly opinionated animated movies, one drawing at a time.

Like Winsor McCay, Plympton draws every animation drawing in his films personally

According to IMdb, the award winning Plympton "turned down a 7-figure offer from the Walt Disney Company to animate Aladdin because any ideas he developed while under contract with them would become their intellectual property."

And so it goes with Comic-Con.  Just when you are on the verge of becoming tired or jaded, there is some new revelation waiting around the corner.   Attendees were able to try out the new virtual reality Oculus Rift technology which, according to Wired magazine, will "change gaming, movies, TV, music design, medicine, sex, sports, art, travel, social networking, education -- and reality."  (The technology was developed by 18 year old Palmer Luckey and recently purchased by Facebook for $2 billion.)  If the line was too long, there was always something else awaiting you.  The same was true of the panels and seminars; if you couldn't make it into the "Temple of Art" session with Dave McKean, Kent Williams and Barron Storey, push open another door to see Berkeley Breathed or Drew Friedman



Which brings me to the lesson of Comic-Con (and of life), as I see it:  you shouldn't respond to the glut of imitative and mediocre work by dropping out or letting your eyes glaze over.  The antidote to mundane art is always art that is right and forceful.  You know it when you see it, and its restorative powers continue to be miraculous.  

15 comments:

Cory Hinman said...

I dunno man, Frank Cho has been posting gloomy reports like this about SDCC for a couple years:

"Very strange and “off” year at San Diego. There was something in the air. A taint of something different and bad to come. You can actually feel another giant shift away from comics, and oddly enough to some degrees away from movies, too. It felt like Comic-Con was organically reshuffling the deck and trying to find the new norm"

And:"San Diego Comic-Con Preview night opened to an enthusiastic crowd… who all rushed to get exclusive and free stuff from the movie studio booths and toy vendors. Every year, comics are marginalized and brushed aside at San Diego Comic-Con. I heard that they are shrinking artist alley yet again next year to sell more floor space to movie studios. AND they’ve increased the price of the booth all across the board."

That said, those are two lovely miniscule masterpieces you shared. Thanks for that.

kev ferrara said...

I wonder if in a few hundred years virtuality will have so invaded and colonized the lives of the nerd/dweeb/twerp set that they will have fallen out of the gene pool entirely and disappeared as a species. Or whether the addictive nature of such technology will make nerds and dweebs of us all. Either way, as I see it, at the heart of the virtual experience is a search for oblivion. No different than heroin use. No less sad.

My other thought is a retread, regarding that murderer's row of garbage cheesecake you posted: In my view, art is always unified around one particular idea, which mans the core of it. Art can never be two things equally at once. It can't be, for instance, contemplative and pornographic at once without being a crap piece of art. So you can sell art as art or you can sell sex disguised as art, but you can't create a work that is both at the same time. And this is proven time and again by artists who only sell their work with sex. If they took out the sex, in general, their work wouldn't sell because most of it ain't much as art.

Incidentally, because immature sexy imagery is hot (as in not disinterested), and definitionally pornographic even without genitalia or penetration (Joseph Campbell's definition of pornography is that the imagery is used as a substitute for something that should be found in real life), it is really the same thing as the virtual reality stuff mentioned above. Which all goes back to the great mistake which philosophers have been decrying for thousands of years: of the dangers of becoming addicted to mere sensation/fantasy, which is hot and "interested" and only drains and drains us the more we experience it. Rather than art, which is contemplative, secretly educational, and restores us.

This has been the year 1905 reporting from SDCC 2014. Over and out.

MORAN said...

Great drawings. I really want to go.

etc, etc said...

This has been the year 1905 reporting from SDCC 2014. Over and out.

Mucha said he thought it had a good beat and he could dance to it.

Laurence John said...

Kev: "as I see it, at the heart of the virtual experience is a search for oblivion"

i think it's the desire to leave the confines of the physical self. i don't think that's the same thing as oblivion.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Apatoff,

Is there an e-mail that I can use to reach you?
I'd like to ask you some questions, but I'm not sure if a public blog is the right place.

Thank you in advance.

Donald Pittenger said...

I've never been to SDCC or any similar show (woe, woe, poor deprived me!), so maybe my take is off-target.

But for some time I've been intrigued that imaginary things (dragons, for instance) or fantastic things (those bods you featured) that populate SF-F illustration are remarkably similar in content, if not style, no matter who does the artwork.

Are we talking Platonic ideals of the unreal? Lemming-like artistic conformity? Iron laws of target-market expectations?

I'm not a huge fan of the concept that creativity in art is the most wonderful thing (got that in art school eons ago), but just maybe there's room for something beyond stereotyped dragons, barbarians and hyper-endowed young females.

Did you see any evidence of that at the show, David.

David Apatoff said...

Cory Hinman-- I saw Frank Cho on a panel at Comi-Con and he seemed to be having a pretty good time. It is possible that Comic-Con is evolving against his particular subset of a subset of comics, but if Comic-Con made one thing clear, it's that comics are multifaceted. Adam Hughes (who I view as comparable to Cho) had a great big booth where he was minting money with his originals and posters. I'm guessing that Jack KIrby and Steve Ditko would've been ecstatic to make that much money selling originals drawn to suit their personal tastes and imaginations, rather than eking out $75 per page following Stan Lee's orders. Kirby and Ditko might also have been happy to have printing technology with the capabilities that Alex Ross and other successful graphic novel artists now enjoy. But Cho is right that the collectors who brought boxes of traditional comics to sell and trade seemed to take up less space. I don't know if that's because George Lucas muscled them out, or because they have concluded, like book stores, that selling via the internet is much smarter.

Kev Ferrara-- I agree with you that "most of it ain't much as art." It is unfortunate that it remains a sure fire formula for commercial success in an era when so many superior artists are hungry.

However, I am less certain than you seem to be about the qualitative impact of new technologies on art. I suspect we agree that photography has rolled back some of the boundaries of art; I believe that computers and other technologies (including virtual reality devices) are not through with art yet. It remains to be seen whether a painter's flights of fancy can keep up with the speed and informational demands of today. Painters used to do inspirational work to put on altars, but how long has it been since a painting has inspired us like the video of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon , or NASA's image of the "pillars of creation"? Once upon a time Dali's melting clock was a mind bending image, but quantum mechanics now shows us a reality far more surreal than anything the surrealists could envision. The most avant grade artists can't keep up with the ordinary. This doesn't mean there isn't a continuing role for the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of art, but I can't say now that a virtual reality machine won't shake up the demand for art as we know it.

Lastly, before you're too hard on "oblivion," remember there's a legitimate school of thought that says sex (at least when it goes right) is a form of oblivion, an inner harmony that drains energies away from the cortex (with all of its busy words and self-consciousness) and transports us (however fleetingly) to an anti-verbal state. Art can't go there either; it has something to say about the trouble and tension of sex, but what could it possibly contribute to the sense of rightness and well being? As Bernard Wolfe said, "You reach for the oceanic to get the hell away from words for a while, to dodge the chatter."

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- I find it great fun but you have to approach it with the right attitude.

etc, etc-- Lots of Mucha there too.

Laurence John-- I do think that's a better way of putting it. (See discussion of sex above).

Anonymous-- You can write me at David.Apatoff@gmail.com



Anonymous said...

I never hear about this side of comicon.

JSL

Richard said...

I've never been, but isn't pop garbage what sdcc has always been about? What does it matter if it's comics or movies, garbage is garbage

kev ferrara said...

In my view, when one "leaves the confines of the physical self," the huge question is "what do you return with?"

If we have the ability to imagine, we can leave the confines of the physical self, and return with a solution to a creative or intellectual problem. Or some resolution about our life.

If we return from our unbodied adventure with nothing but a desire to leave again, all we are looking at is escape. Which may be the beginning of addiction and the courting of oblivion, depending on the strength of the substance being consumed and the proclivity of the user to succumb to addiction. A lot of people dip a toe in the pool of escape, thinking it harmless, only to find themselves ten years older before they realize they have been addicted. This is increasingly happening with the "virtual experiences" of porn, video games, and "social media", just as it happened with drugs and television.

This goes back, again, to the point about sensual pleasure needing attachment to some kind of satisfaction in life, or else it is hollow. And it is the hollow pleasures that are the danger.

Tom said...

"an inner harmony that drains energies away from the cortex (with all of its busy words and self-consciousness) and transports us (however fleetingly) to an anti-verbal state."

Are you describing awareness David?  Most states of awareness refresh us and make us feel more alive, compared to the monotony of most of our self centered thoughts. Or the monotony of most of our entertainment.   At least that has been my experience.  The energy of creation has a great sense of aliveness that is closer to the source of things then any thought about things.  As Yogi Berry said, "You can't hit and think.". Or as Shakespeare wrote,"sickend by the pale cast of thought."

Since Kev mentioned Joseph Campbell, here he is on James Joyce who greatly influenced his atheistic thought.  That which has to do with the senses.
It is a short part of his recorded lectures on Joyce which is titled "On the Wings of Art." 

http://vimeo.com/49478806

David Apatoff said...

JSL-- This "side of Comic-Con" has been there all along.

Richard-- I'm not sure if the ratio of "pop garbage" to quality original work is much different at Comic-Con than it is in the rest of the world. It just appears in a more intense, less diluted form. I am going to offer some examples of what I consider quality work, so see what you think over the next few days.

Kev Ferrara-- If we are going to ask, "what do you return with?" shouldn't we also be required to ask the mirror question, "what do you escape to?" It's a very Walt Whitmanesque notion that every truth must ultimately be dragged back to, and measured by, the wisdom of the body and of the earth. I am a huge and unrepentant fan of Whitman. But the mind has been to a lot of slippery places since the 19th century. As Niels Bohr said, "Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real."

If the choice was one between engaged work and languishing in an opium den, I would agree with you 100%. But today I think the mind can traverse a lot of interesting and fruitful places that the body (or at least the 5 senses) cannot go.

I certainly concur that we must continue to be wary of a lot of the old temptations that sap our creative focus.

kev ferrara said...

David,

I think we need to distinguish between the kind of reality that Bohr was referring to, and the kind of non-reality that escapisms (of various sorts) traffic in. It is a different matter to speculate on the physical meaning of the mathematics surrounding quantum gravity than it is to speculate on which direction down some cgi hallway leads to the greatest bags of wealth for your imaginary swordsman character, that way he can afford to buy the magical dragon's teeth that will open up the coffin of the morlock god on day 27 of gameplay.

"Fruitful" is an interesting phrase to describe such escapist ventures. I can't see how it applies. If the idea is that it is fruitful to experience sensations unavailable in normal life, that this in some way expands our life, isn't that the exact defense of drugs that 60s gurus/drug pied pipers used?

All to say, if you are "escaping" somewhere fruitful, it shouldn't really be classified as escape. So the question is how we define "fruitful."