On "Pure Cartooning"

From "Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art" (exhibition catalogue)

"Herriman's Krazy Kat is pure cartooning. It's an art form that can't exist anywhere else, that can't be applied, understood or responded to in any other way or in any other context that that of the daily comic strip. With all its vivacity, slapstick and sublimely quiet moments intact and interwoven, Krazy Kat is a pure expression of what cartooning is about. "

-p. 29.

"And the drawing itself, just the way the figures are constructed – this is vital, exciting, pure cartooning."

-p. 32, last line of article about Harvey Kurtzman.

"Both Chris Ware and George Herriman draw on their personal lives without making them the fodder for their work, and both use the cartoon language to produce highly personal art. They both have created remarkably real cartoon worlds that only exist at the end of a brush. This is cartooning in its purest form, the creation of a cartoon language that is infused with the actual sensibility of the artist's life and experience in the world right now."

-p. 48.

I admit it's not really fair for me to demand too much from these quotations, since the book says they were "excerpted from conversation with..." Art Spiegelman and Seth. They were probably somewhat off-the-cuff. But after the third "pure" I wondered just what do Spiegelman and Seth (though I think we can assume it's Spiegelman talking here) mean by "pure cartooning?"

Seems like: something that is not "corrupted" by outside influences, as not "cartooning + ___." I have strong doubts about whether such a thing actually exists, sui generis, ex nihilo, but I hope I can skate by without taking the time to prove that by analyzing something specific. Hard to prove a negative, anyhow. Surely this "purity" exists only in his mind. It doesn't actually measurably exist on the page.

In general I'm suspicious whenever "purity" comes up in some context like this, where we're not dealing with numbers or lab measurements. The language of "purity" can only be a metaphor in this messy cultural context--especially in the context of comics. What about "commix" ?

After "pure cartooning" gets mentioned for the third time, I wondered, "what are they afraid of?" Which barbarians are they trying to keep outside the gates? One can only (irresponsibly) guess. Manga? Or maybe "pure" is merely used here as a superlative. "These are the comics I REALLY like, that are my ideal." I don't think so--there's some trying to justify it with the talk about "only existing" here or there. Or maybe it arises from an artworld taste for work that has a strong identity, a "purity" of form and individuality and style that sets it apart from the messiness of lesser work that is "all over the place"--kind of like having a strong brand identity. Maybe "purity" is important especially since this exhibition is alongside "the delirious world of anime...video games + art."

Whatever may be the thinking behind this (maybe somebody could email someone and ask them), I'm against this sort of talk. As far as I'm concerned, "pure cartooning" and "pure comics" are both oxymorons, or at the very least not very useful ways to think about comics. Comics are inherently "impure," a mixture, (a system?) and the cartooning is just one part of the mix. There's no reason it needs to be "pure," even if that were actually possible. There are other ways to describe these guys' work, to compare and contrast their work to inferior work, besides the metaphor of purity.

(There is a mindset in some circles that, basically, Ernie Bushmiller's "Nancy" is THE "pure" comics, and those who approach the throne can be made holy. I understand and even share that taste for those sorts of comics, but I think it's good to take a step back and realize that Nancy is not some Platonic form of comics. This is merely a taste for a certain balance of formal qualities, which arose not for logical mathematical reasons, but because of one man's brilliant version of a style that grew in the messy hothouse of contingencies of daily newspaper comic strips at a particular time in history. There are other ways to draw comics. There is no inevitable historical march to Absolute Spirit of Nancy. Nancy is dead.)

On p. 91 of "Krazy!," there's this interesting bit:

"Shaun Tan' book offers a new synthesis that doesn't result in anything like what we've been calling the "graphic novel" up to this point. I think we've finally reached a stage in the evolution of the medium where all styles and approaches that mix graphic arts and narrative are open to consideration. In doing so, we create a productive confusion..."

That's more like how I see things. This way of telling the story of comics doesn't really allow for also telling the story in terms of "purity." The mix is more productive anyways, more fertile. Also, I would be more neutral and say "...a productive instability..." Comics have always been a mix of styles and approaches, with some periods maybe more stabile than others.