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.


Ian Harker said...

You seem to be arguing against the idea of "pure comics", however the comments that were made are in reference to "pure cartooning". You even later go on to acknowledge that cartooning is an aspect of comics, so to me a statement that Bushmiller is "pure cartooning" is more akin to a statment that Robert Johnson is "pure blues" which isn't the same thing as saying he's "pure music".

I look at it more from that angle, as though those old cartoons are a sorta "roots comics" and that their unique language can be separated out an analysed on it's own terms. However, I would agree with you that it doesn't necessarily follow that this makes them superior in context to the medium itself.

Kevin H said...

I dig what you're saying. I admit it's vague how we're using "cartooning." Sometimes it means drawing the world in a simple, cartoony way, but often it's used as to mean that plus the whole larger sense of making comics, since there's no word for that. You can see that ambiguity in the Krazy! quotes. Making comics...drawing comics... I think context usually makes it clear whether it's the smaller or larger sense.

J. Campbell said...

I think it also has to do with the image presented for the collector. This happens to lots of art, it seems to me (such ridiculous terms as "pure punk" etc. crop up). It's all about convincing the buyers or critics that their taste is somehow superior to others because of the purity. You're dead on right about the mixture being the point, I think.

indigo Kelleigh said...

i always tend to use and interpret the phrase 'pure comics' to mean comics that simply wouldn't work if translated to another medium. Hard to take something like a graphic novel and call it 'pure comics' - if it has a lengthy narrative structure it could conceivably work as a movie, or even as a prose novel. Most comics don't have anything really 'pure' about them, and some only have that purity in small bites - the flow of a page, for example, or in any of a number of visual tricks used to convey more information than either the image or text can individually. I guess that would be a better way of saying it - Pure Comics is what happens when the words and the pictures combine to create a third, subliminal meaning.

To my way of thinking, at least.

Inkstuds said...

Hey Kevin,

There are a lot of issues with the Krazy show. Since I live in Vancouver, I can tell you that they are well beyond the use of terms. it is an odd mix that tends to ignore a large segment of the comix world while attempting to find the balance between "art" and comix. it is odd seeing a small selection of cartoonists and they decision to include Guston, who Spiegelman says is included because of his art roots(http://www.inkstuds.com/?p=315) and then they don't include someone like Gary Panter who I think is a million times more important for what has become of comix than some guy who gave up fine art and happened to go to high school with Jackson Pollock.

It is nice to your work in there though. I love seeing all the process stuff.

I think a large part of what is odd about some of the stuff that is in that book, is that it may have been written by the curator.

oh yeah, and the video game part of the show, STINKS.

Kevin H said...

I think you're right...but the idea of taking something from one medium and putting it into another, as a thought experiment, always seems to me like a tricky critical move. I get suspicious just like with bringing in the language of "purity." Seems to assume a lot. Why is formal purity so valuable? It can be...but the reverse is also true.

Or why are comics-specific forms more valuable than using photographs or paint or letters, diagrams, large blocks of text, or etc.? It just seems like a tricky bean-counting sort of criticism that doesn't interest me as much...

Also, it's hard to say whether something would "work" as a movie or a novel or a poem or anything, rather than what it is already, in the form it is already, without doing major reconstructive surgery, which is risky and needs to be justified. On the other hand, one might say that with enough imagination it would be possible to make Peanuts into a brilliant, say, opera, or something, but so what? It doesn't seem an useful path to go down.

I'm sure the point wasn't to give a comprehensive view of the comics world, just a personal curated collection of work...?

Kioskerman said...

I sometimes think of the word "pure" but in another context.
I thin comics/art can be some sort of "pure expression", in the same way i think love is a "pure expression" of ourselves. Perhaps I may say "the most pure way of expression I can think of".

I would take the word pure as "not corrupted"

So, I think that if we think more of something "pure expression" instead of worrying about the formal aspects (perfect cartooning, craft, etc) there would always be a room for experiments and surprises.

I mean everything changes and there have been lots of surprises every year.


Ben Towle said...

My guess is that what's meant by "pure cartooning" in the original quotations is: drawing that relies upon and utilizes, as much as possible, the "toolkit" of cartooning--as opposed to the "toolkit" of realistic representation. Of course, these are really just poles on a larger gradient of methods of representation, no point on which is ever really "pure" in the sense that it is wholly absent some element of the other end of the spectrum.

"Pure cartooning," also, probably just as much means "cartooning that I LIKE" in the case of the original excerpts. I'd guess, were someone other than "Seth" and Art Spiegelman speaking, Jack Kirby might be presented as "pure cartooning"... or Charles Schulz, or whatever--depending on the tastes of the speaker in question.