Monday, January 5, 2009

Introducing Graphic NYC

American author Thomas Wolfe said “One belongs to New York instantly; one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years,” and I’d have to agree with him.

In working on this project with Seth Kushner, I’ve spoken with New York cartoonists young and old, native and transplant; I’ve talked with them in their home, studio, or favorite restaurants or clubs; I’ve pounded the pavement, ridden the subways at odd hours, and experienced a new corner of the city each time.

Each subject in here warranted their own experience: getting lost in Greenwich trying to find Dash Shaw, accidentally tracking dog crap on my shoes in one understanding artist’s apartment, bar-hopping with Dean Haspiel, getting dating advice from 90 year-old Irwin Hasen (himself a confirmed bachelor, and an inspiration to this single writer), learning the relevance of walking the “New York Mile” with Paul Pope one late June night…Every one of these cartoonists not only merit their own approach, but their own behind-the-scenes stories that could already fill another entire volume.

You don’t just visit New York – you become a blood cell running through the subway veins. It’s easy to belong amongst the throng of people on the sidewalks of Manhattan, with the sardine-can like nature and forced intimacy of a subway car, or with the ghosts of the comic book pioneers who still haunt the city’s sidewalks.

And, because of that, part of you will permanently belong to her.

Comic books are the same way.

The Golden Age of Comics, from the late 1930s through the 1940s, all happened in New York City, with countless publishers (big and small) operating out of the city, often times in closet-sized “offices of publication” between often-shady and ambiguous “publishers” and exploited teenage hopeful cartoonists. Publishers like the infamous Victor Fox (who allegedly went bankrupt four times in his career, was involved in a “boiler room” stock market scheme, never paid his employees…he even had a printer he owed money to pay him money to keep him in business long enough to pay back the debt he owed them) chomped their cigars in dirty and cheap bullpens. Often times, these publishers dabbled in pornography and girlie mags…there was no real love of the comics medium, it was just a bunch of sometimes savvy, often lower-level, businessmen trying to turn a buck.

But for every two-bit wanna-be publisher, there was a small army of teenage wanna-be comic strip artists and illustrators that grew up to wrest control of the ship and steer it into far more exciting waters. Many of them were the sons of immigrants (and, in the case of artists like Gil Kane, an immigrant himself), several were Jewish, and almost all of them were native New Yorkers.

Joe Simon, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Irwin Hasen, Alex Toth, Jerry Robinson, Joe Kubert, Bob Kane…They struggled on the streets and in tiny apartments and helped each other out; one comic book, the first issue of a Golden Age hero named Daredevil in 1941, was drawn in a crowded apartment building during a fierce blizzard of Biblical proportions, the young artists living off of coffee and sandwiches. It wasn’t the apex of the storytelling medium, but it was the apex of a camaraderie rarely seen in other storytelling industries.

By the late 1940s and into the early 1950s, comics started to gain their footing, the high watermark being Will Eisner’s The Spirit strip and, of course, the EC Comics line of comics, including Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, Two-Fisted Tales, and Weird Science. The EC Comics, rife with gore, blood, and innuendo, were far more sophisticated than their early ‘40s predecessors. The art by artists like Wally Wood, Graham Engels, Harvey Kurtzman, Johnny Craig, and Al Feldstein were high illustrations and exercises in cinematic mood, and the writing veered from absurd horror tales to adaptations of Ray Bradbury.

The publisher of EC’s masterful line was William C. Gaines, who was a far cry from the Victor Fox’s of a decade before, and actually cared about the content of comics. As the Comics Code and Kefauver Senate hearings on linking comics with juvenile delinquency forced the medium into a vanilla-like blandness, Gaines had the foresight to take his comic book Mad and turn it into a magazine…where the comics code had no power.

When the 1960s came, Marvel Comics father Stan Lee had a brilliant idea: why not set his new line of superhero books in the world he knew -- New York City! It not only gave superhero titles like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Fantastic Four an unprecedented grounding, but also established New York City as a hub of superhero activity. The struggling medium was pulled out of the doldrums, by a New York publisher, by selling characters meta-textually living in a fantasized New York.

Towards the latter half of the 1960s, the underground comics movement began, an entire generation of cartoonists heavily inspired by the EC comic books. Due to their non-mainstream nature, the cartoonists weren’t held prisoner by the censorship of the Comics Code, and were able to explore more sophisticated and adult subject matter narrated in an experimental vein. By the 1970s, a visionary named Phil Seuling started a distribution system to the new comic book specialty stores (which allowed stores to receive underground books, which didn’t have the newsstand distribution of Marvel or DC), and also began a series of “comic conventions” in Manhattan. What better place to celebrate comics than in their city of birth?

Comic books have since landed roots on the West Coast as well: Dark Horse Comics is in Milwaukee, Oregon; Fantagraphics in Seattle, Washington; IDW in San Diego, California... Writers and artists live everywhere from opposite coasts to Podunk towns and send their wares into editors electronically.

But comics still belong to New York just as much, if not more, than they did seventy years ago.
New York is still the creative hub for the new generation of cartoonists. This current crop, however, have influences ranging from Jack Kirby to Robert Crumb to Harvey Kurtzman to Japanese animation. They’re marrying a life-long immersion in pop culture with more personal modes of storytelling. The end products are a straight-up autobiography of a New Yorker, stories using “avatars” (idealized and super versions of the cartoonist), speculative memoirs (with the artist living in a hypothetical world), or superhero action that takes place in New York-like settings.

And then you throw in the accelerated technological evolution going on right now.

Young cartoonists prep their webcomics in cramped Brooklyn apartments, just like Captain America creators and innovators Joe Simon and Jack Kirby sat in a cramped space and dreamed and created new characters and approaches to the medium back in the 1940s. For the first time since the 1960s, the rules for comic book storytelling are being rewritten on different canvases. Not only are the ways comics are produced/printed changing, but so are the ways comic book stories are told.

And New York City’s streets and buildings house countless online innovators, many of them no older than their mid-20s, applying old-school comics techniques to emerging technology like the iPhone and the ever-changing Internet.

Because New York is a "melting pot" of different cultures and people from all over, it's impossible to stifle a creative vibe stirred up by so much diversity. New York is the one place, and comics the one storytelling medium, where anything can happen.

Look at a typical New York day: it cuts to the quick. New Yorkers don't mosey through life -- they expediently get from point A to point B. If a New Yorker could live in shorthand, they would. The benefit a comic book possesses is that it can live in shorthand, it can cut from points A to C without the need of B.

Could the same energy (conducted by the romance and history of the city, from Bleeker Street to Houston Avenue) come from San Diego? Or Seattle? Both incredible cities in their own right, but lacking that same infectious vibe broadcast on a select frequency, that same electricity...a synergy between the creative spirit of the current breed of cartoonists and the ghosts of the old.

But, I can't fully explain it in a mere introduction, or in this collection of essays. When you take a good look at Seth's photographs you will notice that there's a spark of energy in everyone's eyes: if I can serve as a conductor between you and them, then I‘ve done my job. The best way to completely find out why New York is vital to the comic book medium, is to come and visit this city of dreams, skyscrapers, energy, and ghosts.

Expect her to take a piece of you, and keep it for herself, forever storing it in her subways and sidewalks, and old buildings haunted by the ghosts of comics geniuses…

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