Just Because: A Response to a Review of Loser Comix #2

“As learned commentators view
In Homer more than Homer knew.”
Jonathan Swift
from “On Poetry,” 1733

Before responding to the review in question (hence, the title of this little waste of time), I’d like to say an honest thanks to Rob Clough for actually taking some time to look at the book.  No one else bothered to do so, not in any critical sense, and what he said, inasmuch as it is accurate — and, to be sure, there is plenty of truth in what he wrote — is useful for me.

Alien eyes on your work and an honest report back what was experienced and judged is worth more than gold to an artist.  There is no anger or recrimination in what I’m about to say (however slightly sarcastic it may sound).  In fact, I highly recommend his blog, HIGH-LOW and many others do as well.  It received an award for being a top 75 comics blog and I have absolutely no argument with that: he earned it.

The link to the review of LOSER COMIX #2 and other books, 20 March 2017, is here: http://highlowcomics.blogspot.com/2017/03/short-mini-reviews-dzender-tyamamoto.html

By all means, read it and his other reviews.  I do so.

As you can see, gentle reader, I quoted Swift at the start, so one could get some notion that I don’t completely agree with the review.  In fact, it is mysterious to me how it came to be reviewed by Mr. Clough at all.  he reviews mini-comics; this is NOT a mini-comic.  And I didn’t send it to him.

LC #2 was published in 2014 — it is now 2017 and I’ve moved far beyond the  approaches in that set of works… most of which were made prior to 2014.  So, who knows why anyone would send him old, (in some senses) obsolete work that doesn’t fit the category of books he reviews?

Perhaps as a favor; perhaps as a sort of insult.  Who knows?

And who cares?  I don’t.  It’s simply odd.

But it does call for some sort of response as that is now hanging around on the internet and people read it and may have walked away with an impression that, while partially true, is partially problematic.  As I am interested more than bothered, I thought I’d say a few words… with pictures to illustrate my points.

I will quote liberally from the review as this, too, is a review and I make absolutely nothing from these essays… in spite of the donate button.  Internet = “free,” it seems, so, there you go.

Mr. Clough writes:
Loser Comix #2, by Richard Van Ingram. These are underground comics in the tradition of Robert Crumb and Skip Williamson, full of heavily-rendered drawings that parody pop culture and politics. This issue was the end result of a Kickstarter campaign and it shows, with high production values and full color throughout. ”

Yes, these ARE underground comix in that tradition, especially that of Skip Williamson.  Less Crumb whom I find extremely talented yet overrated.  He believes his own press and feigns a sort of self-deprecating humility in his works.  As for sexual weirdness, S. Clay Wilson was so bizarre as to be hilarious – Crumb is a pale imitation and, often, not hilarious but disturbing.  Either way, none of my books thus far contains much sexual weirdness, not that I am opposed to such — it’s just not my shtick.

Feh.  Actually, I am for more influenced by Spain Rodriguez, Gilbert Shelton, Jaxxon, Dave Sheridan, and any number of others.  The list is very long.

Yes, I often crosshatch.  No, I didn’t learn it from Crumb – he didn’t invent the technique.  I’m influenced by Hogarth and Goya’s print work; I have a degree in printmaking as an intaglio and relief printer (and an advanced degree in philosophy, but who cares?).  At this point, I’m pushing 52 years of age.  I learned to draw with pens as a very, very small child, not pencils.  50 odd years with pens in hand.  So, there we go.

The book was printed after a Kickstarter campaign that was more successful than I could dream — so I did have good printing.  As an object, the thing looks good.

LOSER COMIX #2, Richard Van Ingram 2015
LOSER COMIX #2, Richard Van Ingram 2014

[First tip – this drawing was made in 2012.  One can clearly read the date – as one can on all the work in the book.  Many of the things in this book were years old by the time they saw print in ’14.  Welcome to poverty and indie-publishing.  But keep that fact in mind as we go: It’s somewhat important.]

Mr. Clough writes:
“There’s a plague story that’s a thinly-veiled political allegory that has some genuinely funny lines and a densely inked, horrific quality to the art. Van Ingram’s visual sense is perhaps a couple of steps ahead of his ideas,….”

Well, yes, there is such a story — chapter one of “RETURN OF THE PLAGUE.”  I’ve never published the rest of it, so it remains to be seen whether and what I have here is an allegory, thinly-veiled or not, and whether or not, taken all together, what one has is a deeper set of symbols with much more than a simple or simplistic political meaning.  I think that’s a reductionist reading that comes from skimming, not really paying attention to the references in the piece, and not mentioning that it is one chapter, not the whole story.  In fact, I’m afraid one of the drawbacks, if not the main drawback in Clough’s review is that he skimmed the comic and didn’t really read it.

Yes, this may be my fault — perhaps my writing is horrible or trite.  But as comix are primarily a visual medium and the meaning comes from synthesizing any words with the images, I’d hope my visual sense is primary.  Whether it’s ahead of my ideas – as the visuals are the concretization of the ideas — I find difficult to accept.  We’ll see.

[First, a splash page. Yes, there’s a nude. We’ll get back to that.]

OK. There’s “RETURN OF THE PLAGUE” Part One.

Some notes:
On the down side –
a) I experimented with fonts. Some are too small; others not easy to read once printed. There are a couple of mistakes when I typed, and I didn’t catch them, either.
b) The whole thing – this story and the entire book – was an experiment.  A variety show; different styles, different approaches; different techniques.  I keep the styles and techniques consistent, as you will see, within each story or vignette, but there is no overall unification in approach.
c) This was on purpose, but I’m not sure it was good judgment.  I wanted to see, by feedback, what viewers wished to see more of and what they wished to less of in future work. I have no idea, myself, without asking and showing. But it does make the book a sort of 1960s-’70s variety show of comix.. by one person.  This is an inherent weakness.

On the up side –
a) This story is far more subtle than the obvious surface reading.  A closer reading would reveal:
b) There are three major themes at work. 1) The nature of reality as mediated through beliefs (and technology, which is a sort of reified belief system) – e.g. why is this woman viewed as an enemy because she had a cough? 2) The power of false and true stories we tell ourselves, the nature of lie and truth, the difficulty of interpretation, the necessity of doubt, dogmatic certainty as the origin of atrocity and dehumanization. 3) Death is our universal fate.  How best to live in the face of it?
c) The title is a tip off.  What is this “Plague” that is returning?  It’s a reference to Albert Camus’ novel, THE PLAGUE.  Also, the old man is the captured Heavy Metal Kid — a reference to William S. Burroughs… and his theme of “The Word Virus.”  This is referenced in the newscaster’s narration at the beginning of the story.

These would be played out as the story unfolds in future chapters, but the basis is all there as hooks… if you think about what I’m doing.  Which would require reading and thinking, not skimming the story.  Whether I pulled that off is one thing; whether the reviewer gave it a fair shake is another.  Decide for yourself.

I’m not a “conceptual artist” which, itself, is a disease in contemporary art — the substitution of a mysterious backstory to justify an impoverished presentation.  In fact, such artists just need to write down the backstory as an essay and leave off the visuals as that’s really all there is.

I’m not doing that, so one sees what is there symbolically and metaphorically or one doesn’t.  In this case, the failure is either in the viewer or in the artist, or both.  I remain unsure after the review.

Mr. Clough writes:
“Van Ingram’s visual sense is perhaps a couple of steps ahead of his ideas, like the Loser Tarot. It’s a funny concept that’s beautifully-illustrated, but the actual ideas “The Ex-Wife”, “The Republican” are on the bland side.”

If those were the only two images in the satirical tarot, I might completely agree.  Yet, they aren’t and, taken together, they are a sort of story in flashes of encounters; nor are they the entire set: it’s an ongoing project I began in 2004 (though I didn’t mention all of that nor need to do so):

A Tarot deck is many things at once; a satire of a tarot deck could be many things.  In this case, it is, as is traditional, a journey; the journey of The Loser into the world and all the things The Loser passes through and is changed by, must face, in the journey of experience.  That’s just basic tarot interpretation.  “The Loser” is, in part, me as a symbol for my generation, Gen X, (I am on the prow of that generation).  It uses some autobiography as a jumping-off point for universal and topical situations and experience… and private, absurd jokes.  I was raised in the US American South so images like “The Republican,” while stereotypical, are also ubiquitous and true.  Bland? Show that thing to a white trash Republican and tell me how bland the reaction is.  Good luck.

Mr. Clough writes:
“The Peanuts parody Chunky Brown is tedious at best, turning Charlie Brown and Linus into loser hipster types, Lucy in [sic] a capitalist femme fatale (in one panel, her nipples poke through her shirt for no discernible reason) who sends them to work at a used bookstore. ”

First, the title of the Peanuts parody is Chunky Brownuts.  Again, a sign someone skimmed and did not really read the “tedious” thing.  The title has been Chunky Brownuts has been since about 1980 and is written plainly everywhere in the book.  Secondly, there are four Chunky Brownuts stories in here in four styles, the latter two stories featuring the talking dog and his overgrown, anxiety-ridden rooster side-kick.

The Lucy-ish character does have nipples in one scene — she’s an adult, a femme-fatale,  and this is a damn underground comic!  “No discernible reason…” for nipples?! I’d love to see Clough talk about Crumb, Williamson, or nearly any other undergrounder.  Plus, Lucrezia (Lucy) is an archetype of laissez-faire capitalism (and a reference to Lucrezia Borgia, the poisoner) — it’s all a swindle that draws one in by looking appealing and then spits one’s corpse out after extracting all value.  As obvious as can be.  Nipples, indeed.  Plus, by this point in the book I’ve featured two nude women.  Suddenly, this bothers the reviewer?

We’ll look first, talk later.

That was Story One.

That’s Story Two. If that title isn’t large enough for a blind person to see, I don’t know what to do.

[Actual major flaws here: I should have lettered it with a nib.  The art could be much better – I was looking for a style and dropped back to how I drew in the 1980s… in high school.  Out of self-serving nostalgia. Bad move.]

Story Three. Notice, I switched focus to Skip Dog and Weirdstock.  Are these the “hipster losers”?  Most hipsters I observe have money to waste on all manner of stylish things: Hence, “hipsters.”  At best, these guys are slackers.  Losers to be certain, but read the title of the comic book.  I advertised nothing but.

[These are the offending nipples.  I apologize on behalf of Deity for creating us as mammals with interesting body parts and shapes I see little reason in pretending don’t exist.]

[Oops. More cartoon nipples. Beware.]

Here we go: Is this just an autobiographical bit (and autobiographical comix are too, too often tedious as hell.  If you aren’t a Justin Green maybe you should avoid them)?

As Clough writes, “…[They go] to work at a used bookstore. That latter development was clear [sic] Van Ingram’s way of getting back at his awful used bookstore job, which was probably cathartic for him but not especially relevant for the reader.”

It’s partially autobiographical, but it’s much more about intelligent adults working retail – or any other job – while being treated as serfs by authoritarian little Napoleons who’ve Peter Principled their way into managerial positions.

Is that relevant to any reader in the USA?  Beats me.  Clough doesn’t think so and is rather dismissive about it; perhaps it’s been awhile since he had to go take a shit job.  Or has just forgotten the experience, or had a better one.  They do exist.  But pleasant experiences don’t make for drama or humor.

“Tedious”?  Maybe… maybe not.  Again, the reviewer didn’t get the title correct and conflated four stories.  This suggests it just wasn’t his cup of tea, he skimmed along, and gave a superficial response more than a critique here.

I’m unsure.  But I am sure there’s more here than he strongly suggests.  It may not be any good — “good” in this medium has much to do with effectiveness.  You judge.

Mr. Clough writes of this story:
“There’s an accurate but tedious bit of social commentary about a yokel voting against his own interests by supporting Republicans.”

That’s it?

First, I’m from the South, born and raised in Southern Appalachia.  That “yokel” is a cartoon representative of the people I grew up with – and my sympathies in this comic are with him, oddly enough.  He believes in his country, sacrifices his kid to war, works like a dog – because he’s taught hard work eventually “pays off”; his sick wife is exploited by a super-wealthy church, they can’t afford to live like humans… yet he has been propagandized by a party of fucking liars who’ve sold him an empty bag of promises and cliched slogans all his life.  And he believes because he is a good person.  He’s trusting.  He doesn’t believe the flag and bible waving bastards would screw him over and use him for slave labor and could care less if he lives or dies.

Secondly, if The Stinkin’ Rich Dough Boy isn’t a prediction of the coming of Donald J. Trump & Company, I’ll give you a quarter.  He’s also a commentary on the materialist direction of The USA since Reagan and the rape of average working people.  His story is also a humorous primer on the 2008 economic collapse and the aftermath.

I did this in 2010 or ’11.  It was previously published in another magazine and received good reviews.

But it, too, is “tedious.”

At the mention of that word in Clough’s writing for, like, the tenth time, I was ready to send him a thesaurus.

Finally, Mr. Clough writes:
” Van Ingram works best when he works briefly, like a hilarious strip about Richard Nixon seeing the future and the Partridge Family sending a message from 3013 to 1973, thanking them for their help in ousting Nixon and establishing a utopia. A serious strip about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson wouldn’t have been out of place in World War III Illustrated, and here Van Ingram’s dense but colorful style and page design perfectly encapsulates the desperate quality of his text. Van Ingram has a great deal of talent, and it’s clear that he’s trying to find the best way to use it.”

Here, I have nothing to disagree with at all.  In fact, it’s flattering.

These were, chronologically, the last pieces I did before printing the book.  Factually, the Ferguson incident fired me up, to say the least.  It pointed the way for most of my work since 2014.

Epilogue
Why Did I Care Enough To Write This?

There is a unifying theme to this book, which is, at best, a potpourri; at worst, it is a hodgepodge.  That theme is antipathy to injustice, intolerance for intolerance.

It’s not a book to be read at one sitting — it’s dense.  It has diverse approaches.  It flips from one perspective to a radically different one.  It has intense sections and lighter sections, darker and more humorous ones… it is all horrific, in some sense.

And maybe that’s why Mr. Clough, with limited time, wound up skimming most of it (which is my guess): Perhaps he attempted to read it all at one sitting as one does a mini-comic.  It’s not a normal comic in that sense and, obviously, NOT a mini.  It demands some time and attention and consideration.  Whether it deserves such is another judgment; maybe it doesn’t and, if not, that is its failure.

Since then, I’ve changed my approach.  This was my first serious foray into comix since 1995 — the entire approach and market and audience has changed radically since ’95.   So radically, I’m bewildered.  I’m also older and isolated.  So, this was an attempt to sound out an audience as much as anything.  Comix is not a matter of “build it and they will come.”  In some sense, one has to attract an audience, but to do that, one has to understand the audience.

Attention spans and background knowledge are not what they were, once upon a time.  I thought my audience would be in its 20s; turns out, it’s largely 45 and over.  Surprise.  And folks in their late teens and into their 20s-30s are not the most politically/socially/philosophically interested bunch, as a group, it seems.  They talk, they protest: they do not read.

The line,  “Here we are now, entertain us,” was prophetic; and a pure Gen X  epitaph for a new generation yet to come of age.  But it has arrived.  It is Gen Y, The Millennials, a generation with interests that differ from my own, a different historical mission and outlook, a generation as multitudinous as mine is minute.

My work is vaguely entertaining, but only for a niche audience.  I don’t attempt to please everyone, can’t.  While my work is pop culture, it won’t be popular pop culture.  Making this book taught me that.  It’s aptly titled.  Proudly.

19-20 July 2017

Richard Van Ingram

Many of my books can be read, free, at:
https://comixunderground.tumblr.com/

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2 thoughts on “Just Because: A Response to a Review of Loser Comix #2”

  1. As you say, it’s unusual to see a book being reviewed three years after its release, so a rebuttal and explanation is not out of line. It’s not that you need to defend yourself, the work certainly does that, but sometimes it’s good not to let unfounded or ill-informed opinions go unchallenged. Reading this did inspire me to get out my copy of Loser Comix # 2 and reread it. Ahhhh. Those carefree days of 2014, when nobody (except you, apparently) could have imagined the horrors of a Trump presidency.

    1. Pessimism — which I wrestle with — sometimes grants the sad gift of foresight, as does an obsession with history — not Nixon, but the Roman loss of their republic, the res publica, the “public thing.” And other disasters when civilizations blindly slipped beneath their “historical level” of achievements from lack of care and “enthusiasm” for things that are not valuable at all.
      It also makes one a Cassandra. So by the time anyone notices what one said and showed, it looks obvious. Especially in comic form.
      There was nothing obvious in this book, strange as it is, when I made it. It sounded vaguely paranoid and probably angry. It’s more accurately an intense sorrow.
      Thank you for your camaraderie, Rick.

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