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ISSUE NO.
151 SEPTEMBER 25, 2003
 
 
  coverStory
 
A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words
UNDERGROUND COMICS THRIVE
WITHOUT SUPER POWERS
  By Haley Heaton
   
 

mathematician is trapped in a phone booth for 48 hours and has only two pens, 40 feet of dental floss and two coins of unknown currency to aid his escape. This is the subject of Jason Shiga’s comic book, FLEEP. For many, including me, the characters and stories of the average comic book are as predictable as clockwork. The superhero somehow doesn’t fit into his or her defined social role, but exceeds expectations in some way and defends society against his or her evil counterparts. And there must be a brightly colored or easily recognizable costume. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye with a ray gun.

Shiga, a mathematician by training, started creating comic books in his early 20s. To date, 13 of his idiosyncratic books have been published. He currently works in a library in Oakland, Calif., and self-publishes his comic books in his spare time.

Although most of the famous comic-book characters have distinct differences—some can breath fire, some have wings, others have X-ray vision—the stories all seem to be the same. But a comic book doesn’t necessarily have to tell the typical “good guy versus the green or the hairy or oozing bad guy” tale.

In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud gives a very broad definition of the comic book: “Juxtaposed static and other images in deliberate sequence.” He claims that there is “…something lurking in comics, something that has never been done.” The importance of this definition is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. In opening up the definition to include more than just the good versus the bad, it opens up a form of art that has the potential to be a combination of fine art, literature and truth all in one. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, then a comic book has the potential to be worth infinitely more than the stereotypical plots. According to my favorite mathematician/comic book artist, Shiga, it is worth 860,000 more words than a novel and 532,000 words more than a piece of fine art.

 

 

 

  Night Flight Comics, located inside the Salt Lake City Main Branch Library, hosts a selection of mainstream and underground comis.  
 
 
From the Bayeux Tapestry to Garfield to Felix the Cat

Some say that the medium of comics didn’t begin until the invention of printing. Printing certainly got the ball rolling faster, but the idea of using a sequence of pictures to tell a story happened centuries before the advent of the printing press.

There are countless examples of sequential art before printing: pictorial pre-Columbian manuscripts found by Cortez, the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion of England in 1066 and Egyptian hieroglyphics, to name a few. However, with the advent of printing, the medium became more widely recognized with artists like William Hogarth, who used what’s known as a “picture-story” to express his social concerns and Rodolphe Toffer, who in the mid-1800s used the art form more satirically. American comics began in 1895 with the weekly publication of the comic strip “The Yellow Kid.”

Starting with the popularity of the Sunday comics section, Americans began their relationship with comic books, moving from the introduction of our favorite heroes and villains to the modern, postmodern and post-postmodern underground comic books we have today.

In the 1960s, superheroes evolved into the ordinary everyday man with ordinary everyday conflicts. Underground comic books started expressing these conflicts and discontent with American society. This brought about a revived sense of sophistication in the work and portrayed beliefs and attitudes that mainstream comic-book artists previously ignored.

Both mainstream and underground American comic-book artists started using the formal methods as the Japanese and the Europeans had used.

The recently released film “American Splendor” portrays the underground movement. The brilliant piece follows the life of file clerk/comic book writer Harvey Pekar, who claims that “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.”

 
Shiga's work includes strips like this and several full-length works, like Double Happiness.

The Underground Movement Continues

Today, underground comic-book artwork has become more expressive and the story lines have evolved with intricacies that could rival any Oprah reading list book, hands down. The modern underground comic-book/graphic-novel medium may in fact be the most underrated literary movement in recent U.S. history. It is within this form that the most experimental and exciting work is being done in comic books today.

The unifying theme for most underground comic books is that of pushing the envelope. The content, although varied, usually explores territories that are generally overlooked by the mainstream comic book community, be it sex, drugs, homosexuality, violence, politics or any combination of controversial subjects. They go after the subject matter that conventional comic books wouldn’t dare to touch with a 10-foot laser beam.

The RED Interview
If not superheroes, what makes a good underground comic book? I sat down with comic-book artist Jason Shiga, recipient of the Xeric Grant, the Eisner Award and most recently the Ignatz Award, to discuss the movement, his work and current trends.

RED: What makes a good comic book?

Shiga: What would make any story or film a good piece of storytelling? Interesting characters, a compelling story. More fundamentally, how it speaks to you as a person, how it makes you feel. Comics are different from both novels and films—the cartoonist is the sole creator, whereas in film many people collaborate and even in a novel, the author has to collaborate with the reader to create images. But in a comic, there is an auteur theory. That’s what makes comics unique.

RED: What is it about conventional comic books that are less relatable than the underground? What makes them better than an episodic comic book?

Shiga: First of all, I’d say maybe a typical underground comic might not be better than a typical superhero comic, but if the field is overrun by one genre, then it cuts down on the number of people that can enjoy that genre. For example, if 90 percent of the movies that were ever made were dinosaur movies, that would be horrible because maybe you’re the type of person that doesn’t like dinosaur movies. If you do, that’s great for you, but maybe the majority of people don’t like dinosaur movies.

Similarly, I think there is an audience for superhero comics. But if you’re not a teenage boy who’s a closet case, you might enjoy other types of stories. The medium of comics is the only medium that is super-dominated by one genre. I’d say diversity is an important goal to strive for in the medium.

I was in Japan two years ago and they had comics about everything. I could go to a comic book store and they had comics about hotel management, gay male-romance stories, archeology and mah-jongg. It was just great to have all this diversity. Even though I like comics about mathematicians trapped in phone booths, if 90 percent of the comics written were about that, I wouldn’t be satisfied.

 
An excerpt from independent comic artist Jason Shiga's FLEEP.

RED: How do you come up with an idea for one of your comics?

Shiga: Well, first, I usually have some idea. It could be an interesting image that I doodled. I might build a comic around that. It could be a character or a story element. It’s different for every comic book. But once I have the idea, I try to rough out a story around it.

I imagine my process is a lot like writing a book. I’ll have two or three good ideas and try to combine them in an interesting way. Aside from that, I pencil it out, I go over it with brush and then I photocopy it and that’s it.

I would like to stress that there is no correct method. I know some people that go straight to inks that don’t even use pencil. And I know some people that use five different stages of pencil. I know people who write one page and then draw it and then write the second page. Some people I know don’t even draw it at all—they cut and paste vectors from Adobe Illustrator. You can use your imagination.

However, if you were to learn how to draw comics the Marvel way, they would tell you that there is a correct method. They would tell you that you need to gather a team of artists. One person is going to write the story, someone else is going to pencil it, another person is going to ink it and another still is going to color it. It’s basically like the Ford assembly line process of making comics. There are some good stories that have come out of that process, but it’s certainly not for me.

RED: Who are some of your favorite comic book artists?

Shiga: Well, I don’t want to come off like a snob. I’d like to recommend some titles that people will actually have a chance at finding. I’ve always enjoyed the comics of the Malaysian comic artist Lat, whose autobiographical strips from the 1970s were a great influence on me. [Laughs] Good luck finding some of those. I loved Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and Maus by Art Spiegleman. They were the first comic books that I read. Those should be required reading. And I have to say “Peanuts” by Charles Schulz. I think that Charles Schulz is the greatest cartoonist that has ever lived. You should add a list of titles to check out at the end of your article and then your readers should go find them all and read them.

RED: Good suggestion. I’ll do that. What are some of the defining characteristics of your comic books?

Shiga: I would say most of them have some sort of mathematical element to them. I studied math at university, so I try to incorporate it into the stories or into the form of the comics when I get a chance.

RED: What are your frustrations about being an underground comic-book artist?

Shiga: I’m frustrated that there isn’t a huge market for them in the United States like there is in Japan, for example. It wouldn’t be so frustrating if I actually believed that people didn’t want to read alternative or underground comics, except I know that people do. I’m sure that they would like it if it was available to them. For example, I know in my heart that there are thousands of people in the country who would have enjoyed reading FLEEP, but those thousands of people are in places that don’t have any cool underground comics in their neighborhood comic book stores.

As it turns out, the distributor only ordered 500 of them, so that’s pretty frustrating.

I know some of the best underground comic-book artists have to work at hospitals as file clerks because there isn’t a market for their comics, so they toil their lives away and draw their comics as a hobby when they should be doing that as their career.

Even though I find this frustrating, I believe that this will change soon because with the advent of mini-comics and zines and alternative distribution methods, the next generation of comic book readers is becoming more aware of alternative types of comics.

Comics can be a valid medium of expression, just like any other medium of expression. I’m very optimistic about the future because people will want that. Supply follows demand.

RED: Do you have any advice for people who might want to start making their own comic books?

Shiga: If any of the readers want to start making comics I would encourage them to start with making mini-comics because they are easy to make. You can go to any copy store. All you need is a pen, some paper and about a dollar. You can create a comic in a day and then donate it to the Salt Lake City Public Library. Other people can read it. It’s great and everyone should do it.

hayley@red-mag.com

 
     
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Things and Artists to Check Out:

The Salt Lake City Main Branch Library (2nd Floor)

Night Flight Comics (at Main Branch Library and Cottonwood Mall)

Comics Journal TCJ.com

Required Reading

Double Happiness by Jason Shiga

FLEEP by Jason Shiga

32 Stories by Adrian Tomine

Optic Nerve by Adrian Tomine

Blankets by Craig Thompson

Maus by Art Spiegelman

Small Stories by Derek Kirk Kim

Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware

Safe Area by Joe Sacco

Evil Eye by Richard Sala

Ghost World by Daniel Clowes

Eightball by Daniel Clowes

Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud

 

 

       
 
   
 

RED Magazine is a publication of The Daily Utah Chronicle. RED is published every Thursday. For information on advertising, call 801-581-7041. To have your event considered for publication, write to jeremy@red-mag.com. Copyrighted material remains the property of the original owner.

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