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55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

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Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

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Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

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A Poem By Landor, Revised


While reading through The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, I came across a reference to this short poetic work.

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I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

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I loved it immediately and, after thinking on it a few minutes, decided that I would have only changed it slightly to find it perfect.

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I strove with none, my strife found aim at none.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

A Revision Of Landor, by M. Landers
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Further Reading

David Foster Wallace On Empathy


“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”

– David Foster Wallace, excerpt from The Is Water

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Occasionally, I’ll read a claim here or there that we learn empathy from reading fiction. While I love reading fiction and I think that most people will agree that there is something of understanding gained through reading about and relating to diverse personalities, I also think we can easily deceive ourselves about how well this serves us. More often than not, it can delude us about our practical capacity for compassion.

If I don’t know how to relate to my downstairs neighbors, is this thing I call empathy valuable? Is assuming I can fully understand someone else’s life experiences respectful of them? Is understanding and comprehension really the goal?

David Foster Wallace goes on to claim that learning to consider others and serve them mentally is the point of higher education, what he describes as being well-adjusted. I have a difficult time knowing what to think here, because I find myself wanting to agree with him and also feeling that empathy, or perceived comprehension of another’s circumstance, is perhaps not the best resource for learning to care for them. Perhaps intellectual assent is useful, but is it the most genuine and natural route to caring?

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Further Reading

Mary Berry Reflects On Her Heritage

Want to change the world? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Wendell Berry On His Children

Special Novella Review: “The Life and Remembrances of Martha Toole” by Jason Derr


I recently finished reading the short novella “The Life And Remembrances Of Martha Toole,” a story that explores our relation to our place and what we leave of ourselves behind us there. It follows the semi-dysfunctional (or at least thoroughly modern) Hammer family as they put up with, first, an extended visit from the elderly, hyper-critical Martha Toole, and eventually, a sort of ghost of the Martha Toole of the past, a youthful version that appears from the family land itself. Throughout their interactions, we see the elderly reflections on the past and the youthful thoughts a past generation might have concerning iPads and chain grocery stores. Nostalgia and the changes in a person over a lifetime are tinkered and toyed with throughout.

I love the idea of this story. It was a little eerie to me to read because, while I never had the idea for a story like this (I wish I had though!), it reads more like my own youthful writing style than anything else I’ve ever read. Perhaps that also makes me a bit more critical of the writing than I would normally be as well.

Martha Toole is too heavy on the vague philosophical components and too light on inspiring narrative. It would have been better as a much shorter short story or fleshed out in a different form as a much fuller novel. The characters and history are spelled out by the narrator rather than develop. There is littl dialogue and what there is feels flat.

Again, I’m especially hard on this story because it feels like something I would have written just a few years ago, when the only thing motivating my writing was the philosophical or emotional point I was trying to make with the story. There is little that feels creative in the style, though the subject matter it mostly enjoyable. There is a sequence when the younger Martha Toole goes out with her great-grandniece (or something like that) to visit a boy who torments her because he has a crush on her. When they arrive, Martha realizes she once knew the land where he lives, and personally knew his ancestors. She goes from a childish girl to talking family history with his astonished father. This sequence really shines through and touched me deeply, in a way I had hoped the entire story would. Sadly, most of the rest felt like a first draft.

Either way, I encourage you to give the story a read and let me know your thoughts!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering


“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because the smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

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I recently began reading Merton after years of knowing him by name only, and his work has not yet disappointed me. His life is an incredible account from the start, traveling with artist parents all over Western Europe and the U.S. by the age of 16. Although he was not raised religiously, his background was more Protestant and his views toward Catholicism were suspicious at best in his formative years. Over a decade later, he reflects on his pain through the slow tragedy of his father’s death from his position as a Trappist monk, and comes to the conclusion above.

I find not only that these statements ring true, but that they ring especially true in an age where so many have been taught to fear suffering. It is strange to see that as science and technologies advance, cultures seem to increasingly cling to them as a source of removal of suffering. We approaching medicine with a sort of mystical attitude, collectively treating the medical industry with the awe and respect that a tribal people would give to a witch doctor. This atmoaphere of fear and being constantly aware of the unknown leaves us a people crying “foul!” of any tragedy that befalls us personally.

I find Merton’s last spiritual statement here, as in many other places throughout his writing, to feel slightly non sequitur to someone outside his perspective. As someone raised surrounded by Catholicism without knowing much of a Catholic perspective, his deep philosophical thoughts are refreshing and require more contemplation on my part.

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Further Reading

Lewis, Tolkien, and The Land

Masanobu Fukuoka On A Philosophy Of Science

J.R.R. Tolkien Explains Creativity And Death

http://www.dorkly.com/post/60562/harry-potter-characters-book-vs-movie#!btVjEW

To Adapt Or Not To Adapt: Intellectual Licensing and Creativity


Today, The Classics Club issued forth its monthly question (or barrage of questions) for members to ponder and engage. This one was especially poignant for me, so I thought I would bring together my thoughts on the idea of creative adaptations of another person’s work.

The question(s).

“What are your thoughts on adaptions of classics? Say mini-series or movies? Or maybe modern approaches? Are there any good ones? Is it better to read the book first? Or maybe just compare the book and an adaptation?”

 

I’m sure I won’t address all of these questions, but with so many prominent adaptations being made these days, it’s easy to find yourself making judgments without actually thinking through why you love or hate certain renditions.
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Freedom To Create

“Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.”
– C. S. Lewis

First, you should definitely watch the series Everything Is A Remix. This exciting mini-documentary series covers just about the entire universe creatively speaking, proving pretty explicitly that there really are no original creative ideas. Be it music, film, literature, or visual arts, the greatest and most revered work tends to be the most heavily and directly inspired by previous work. You begin to realize that not only is everything you ever loved an adaptation of something else, but that often the best work is borderline plagiarism. Ethically, many of these realizations make it easy to question the ideas surrounding intellectual copyrights and creative license.
banksy

I personally tend to err toward the belief that our creative endeavors should be left more open to re-interpretation, that we should give others free reign to play with the ideas we put out there. Creativity breeds creativity, and stifling a new take on previous creativity for the sake of monetary reimbursement is closer to stamping out creativity than encouraging it. This is obviously a big generalization and creatives should ultimately maintain the rights to their creations, but I think we should encourage a community that expands upon previous material, since we are always doing so, though often indirectly. Creative communities that thrive spring up around art forms that foster artists building together, such as in graphic novels, comics, and animation.

A perspective that exalts the creative process also disqualifies bitterness toward adaptations or artists who change or “sell out.” While critique is necessary and useful in both enjoying art and being creative ourselves, it makes no sense to be bitter about a creative work that adds new perspectives from additional artists, be it a remake or new creative direction in further work. Being able to view a film adaptation or listen to a new album without bitter nostalgia for the first material makes it easier to identify what inspires and qualifies both the original and the new. It’s also great to go back and find what inspired those who we find inspiring. Often the best work of a generation directly influences the next and then grows obscure as the next rises to fame. Find out what books inspired your favorite author and you might find your new favorite author!

Once you’ve adjusted to assume that all creativity (including what goes into an adaptation) is a combined effort of both previous influences and a unique creator, it’s easier to understand what you value creatively and the good and bad in an adaptation. I personally find The Lord Of The Rings trilogy to be a far superior adaptation to the new Hobbit trilogy. Why? I could probably give a dissertation on the topic, but the short version is that Jackson made LOTR shorter, choosing essential core materials, and kept it an epic story like the books. On the contrary, for the Hobbit has been changed from a fairy tale to an epic, losing many elements of the original story in the changes of plot, characters, and pacing. Are the Hobbit movies still enjoyable? I find them to be so, but only if I look at them as a unique creative effort rather than an effort to recreate the original. That’s a big step to ask fans to take.

Iconic Droids With Striking Similarities

Iconic Droids With Striking Similarities

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Original or Adaptation First?

These days, I’ve done a complete 180 on the question of whether to read a book before the film adaptation comes out. As a reader, I’m always eager to read the book first. It makes sense to enjoy the adaptation as someone who has become a fan of the original, because I want my loyalties to lie with the original version. After a few films that finally motivated me to read the books (the Harry Potter series, to my shame), I realized that reading a book because you enjoyed a film makes the book so much better because you know a shadow of what to expect based on the adaptation, but you always end up getting more. If you always find that the book is better, getting a taste of it in a lesser adaptation before enjoying it to the fullest is a great way to become a fan of both. While it’s pretty counterintuitive, I find everything more enjoyable this way. I’m sure this opinion is wide open to debate, and I suspect myself to be in the minority.

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What Is An Adaptation?

Ultimately, we have to ask ourselves what an adaptation is. An adaptation is something a fan looks at as a creative opportunity to build upon original material. A fan is looking for the essence of the original, the unspoken aspects that made the print version great. Of course she wants to see stunning visuals that go beyond her imagination, but all of that is secondary. In contrast, the reason studios are making adaptations is that they are marketed to and by a preexisting fan base and are therefore a more secure financial investment in the film industry. So some highly creative screenwriters and directors who may or may not be inspired by the original source material become involved in creating what is often more of a spin-off or alternate version from the original. An adaptation always runs the risk of being less than creatively motivated.

So Many Sherlocks

So Many Sherlocks

The truth is that an adaptation can be a great thing. Even something that takes as many creative liberties as the BBC’s new Sherlock adaptation is met with great applause by most fans, because the core idea is to transplant all of the original elements into a totally different era. It was started by fans who were great writers, and done from a place of aporeciatation and exploration. Adaptations are always an exciting idea, because we love to see a good idea expanded on. Even when we’ve been continually disappointed in the past, we often hold out hope for a good adaptation coming soon. We want new ideas, expanded stories and worlds, and elements that shed a different light on our old favorite characters. For a successful adaptation, a thousand liberties can be excused if the original essence is well preserved.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on good and bad adaptations and what you think the difference is!

 

Harry Potter Comic drawn from the Dorkly.com

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Further Reading

 

Bill Watterson, Michelangelo, and The Importance Of Play

Samuel Beckett and The Creative Value Of Depression

On The Unique Routines Of Creatives Throughout History

Be Known


To know
And be known
A heart’s anxious desire
From you all beauty grows
From you all folly spreads

For family to know
Beyond the burden
For highlights and low
Are etched eternally
Beyond consciousness

For friends to know
What delights them is but shadow
Of the shocking unknown
Bringing relief for a lifetime
Without inspection

To be known does not come between men any longer
Why go on?
An insult
In jest
Is folly
An opinion
Interjected
Is a rift
Why seek to grasp the wind?

– by M. Landers, June 2014

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Further Reading

Wendell Berry’s Greatest Poem

Gal. V & VII by M. Landers

Wendell Berry On War And Children

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art


These three strips [Peanuts, Pogo, and Krazy Kat] showed me the incredible possibilities of the cartoon medium, and I continue to find them inspiring. All these strips work on many levels, entertaining while they deal with other issues. These strips reflect uniquely personal views of the world, and we are richer for the artists’ visions. Reading these strips, we see life through new eyes, and maybe understand a little more – or at least appreciate a little more – some of the absurdities of our world. These strips are just three of my personal favorites, but they give us some idea of how good comics can be. They argue powerfully that comics can be vehicles for beautiful artwork and serious, intelligent expression.

In a way, it’s surprising that comic strips have ever been that good. The comics were invented for commercial purposes. They were, and are, a graphic feature designed to help sell newspapers. Cartoonists work within severe space constraints on an inflexible deadline for a mass audience. That’s not the most conducive atmosphere for the production of great art, and of course many comic strips have been eminently dispensable. But more than occasionally, wonderful work has been produced.

Amazingly, much of the best cartoon work was done early on in the medium’s history. The early cartoonists, with no path before them, produced work of such sophistication, wit, and beauty that it increasingly seems to me that cartoon evolution is working backward. Comic strips are moving toward a primordial goo rather than away from it. As a cartoonist, it’s a bit humiliating to read work that was done over 50 years ago and find it more imaginative than what any of us are doing now. We’ve lost many of the most precious qualities of comics. Most readers today have never seen the best comics of the past, so they don’t even know what they’re missing. Not only can comics be more than we’re getting today. but the comics already have been more than we’re getting today. The reader is being gypped and he doesn’t even know it.

Some very good strips have been cheapened by licensing. Licensed products, of course, are incapable of capturing the subtleties of the original strip, and the merchandise can alter the public perception of the strip, especially when the merchandise is aimed at a younger audience than the strip is. The deeper concerns of some strips are ignored or condensed to fit the simple gag requirements of mugs and T-shirts. In addition, no one cartoonist has the time to write and draw a daily strip and do all the work of a licensing program. Inevitably, extra assistants and business people are required, and having so many cooks in the kitchen usually encourages a blandness to suit all tastes. Strips that once had integrity and heart become simply cute as the business moguls cash in. Once a lot of money and jobs are riding on the status quo, it gets harder to push the experiments and new directions that keep a strip vital. Characters lose their believability as they start endorsing major companies and lend their faces to bedsheets and boxer shorts. The appealing innocence and sincerity of cartoon characters is corrupted when they use those qualities to peddle products. One starts to question whether characters say things because they mean it or because their sentiments sell T-shirts and greeting cards. Licensing has made some cartoonists extremely wealthy, but at a considerable loss to the precious little world they created. I don’t buy the argument that licensing can go at full throttle without affecting the strip. Licensing has become a monster. Cartoonists have not been very good at recognizing it, and the syndicates don’t care.

And then we have established cartoonists who have grown so cavalier about their jobs that they sign strips they haven’t written or drawn. Anonymous assistants do the work while the person getting the credit is out on the golf course. Aside from the fundamental dishonesty involved, these cartoonists again encourage the mistaken view that once the strip’s characters are invented, any facile hireling can churn out the material. In these strips, jokes are written by committee with the goal of not advancing the characters, but of keeping them exactly where they’ve always been. So long as the characters never develop, they’re utterly predictable, and hence, so easy to write that a committee can do it. The staff of illustrators has the same task: to keep each drawing so slick and perfect that it loses all trace of individual quirk. That way, no one can tell who’s doing it. It’s an assembly line production. It’s efficient, but it makes for mindless, repetitive, joyless comics. We need to see more creators taking pride in their craft, and doing the work they get paid for. If writing and drawing cartoons has become a burden for them, let’s see some early retirements and some room for new talent.

– Bill Watterson, from his speech “The Cheapening Of Comics,” addressed to the Festival Of Cartoon Art, 1989.

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krazee1

Krazy Kat, by George Herriman

 

I recently watched the documentary Dear Mr. Watterson, and was immediately overwhelmed by a childhood’s worth of nostalgia and creative passion. The film is parts recollections on the personal impact of Calvin And Hobbes and part biography of the short and fascinating public life of Bill Watterson, a man shot to improbable fame before becoming a critic of his industry, retiring early, and successfully seeking reclusion. It’s a great film and it is available on Netflix among most other popular sources. Go watch it immediately if you find comic strips or artistic bios interesting in any way.

The film observes two aspects of Watterson’s perspective that I see as really being opposite sides of the same coin. Watterson was a very vocal as a critique of licensing and the stranglehold syndicates required of cartoonists before the internet age. The other point I came away with was that comics have never been considered a legitimate or “high art” form, regardless of their innovations in scripting and illustration. These two problems seem to be really one and the same, as Watterson indicates.

Comics were bred as a form of bizarro advertising. Think of them as visual editorial columns, intended to draw the eye and lure readers to commit to a certain competing newspaper through the use of staff illustrators. After a lot of natural evolution, the comics became individual artistic creations sold to multitudes of papers through syndications. This makes for a lot of odd standards as far as what relationships are considered normal. Watterson wanted integrity for comics as an art form, which was undermined completely by the continuation of their advertising roots. The art form quickly grew away from that starting point in a golden era but slowly waned back toward simple advertising through licensing when the money moved away from the papers themselves.

Watterson can feel a bit extreme in his condemnations at times, but he stands as a living example of exactly how much value a work can retain in itself when it doesn’t go to auction for the production lines. His tested his argument for himself and found greater success and finer work. The problem is how do you convince and entire industry to hold creative integrity over financial profit?

Pogo, by Walt Kelly

Pogo, by Walt Kelly

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Further Reading

 

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Hal Foster On Story V. Illustration

Bill Watterson Encourages Playing

Jules Feiffer Encouraged Failure

Harold Foster On Story V. Illustration


Fred Schreiber: Do you consider yourself primarily a cartoonist or an illustrator? And where do you draw the distinction?

Hal Foster: There’s no distinction. One runs into the other. Of course, I can’t “cartoon”; I am an illustrator. But where the cartoonist ends and the illustrator begins is pretty hard to say; it all hinges on the writing, on the story. In my estimation the story is the most important thing. The illustrations are just meant to give another dimnension to a story, which has to be cut down into little captions; the illustrations are necessary to carry the story on from captions. But, of course, it doesn’t make any difference how well you illustrate the story–you can get away with a good story poorly illustrated, but not vise versa.”

FS: What is your opinion of the current state of the comic strip? How would you compare it to that of the old days?

HF: It’s not as individual. Before, in the early times, each cartoonist had his own individual ideas and carried them out alone; one man did the whole thing. But now so many facets have come into it that you need assistants to do backgrounds and other things. Sometimes the work is divided between writer and illustrator. But as you take it down to each degree, it loses some of its personality, so that no matter how beautiful the drawings, no matter how good the story, somehow there seems to be something lacking that was present in the old comics. Of course, these were crude–but somehow they had more personality than they do today.”

– Interview for SOCERLID, 1969
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image

Although his name has passed into obscurity today, Hal Foster is the definitive force behind action comics strips. He single-handedly created the crossover success of Tarzan and then went on the write and illustrate his own work in Prince Valiant, the longest running action comic in the newspaper business. As you can see, the man’s artistic skills bring an incredible level of realism to the art form. The quality of his work makes the panels seem to move with the action.

It is fascinating, then, to see such an awe inspiring illustrator who is more interested in the telling of the story than the stunning visuals. “The story is the most important thing.” He goes on in this interview to explain that his preference of working in action comics over humor strips is not that he prefers reading them so much as it is that he loves being a story writer first and foremost. It is obviously this quality which has kept his strip alive long after his own demise.

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In even a quick overview of the original great comics, it is easy to see the honesty in Foster’s qualifications of “the old days.” The old comics were, first and foremost, essentially quirky. Each had its own surrealism, it’s own fantasy that transcended dreamscapes and talking animals. A comic strip created and sustained by one man offers a unique look into the world within another man’s head.

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Keep Reading

Bill Watterson, Michaelangelo, and Play

Samuel Beckett and The Value Of Depression

Bill Watterson On A Creative’s Ethics

Bill Watterson On Ethics In Business And Art


Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught. I’ve wanted to be a cartoonist since I was old enough to read cartoons, and I never really thought about cartoons as being a business. It never occurred to me that a comic strip I created would be at the mercy of a bloodsucking corporate parasite called a syndicate, and that I’d be faced with countless ethical decisions masquerading as simple business decisions.
To make a business decision, you don’t need much philosophy; all you need is greed, and maybe a little knowledge of how the game works.

As my comic strip became popular, the pressure to capitalize on that popularity increased to the point where I was spending almost as much time screaming at executives as drawing. Cartoon merchandising is a $12 billion dollar a year industry and the syndicate understandably wanted a piece of that pie. But the more I though about what they wanted to do with my creation, the more inconsistent it seemed with the reasons I draw cartoons.
Selling out is usually more a matter of buying in. Sell out, and you’re really buying into someone else’s system of values, rules and rewards.
The so-called “opportunity” I faced would have meant giving up my individual voice for that of a money-grubbing corporation. It would have meant my purpose in writing was to sell things, not say things. My pride in craft would be sacrificed to the efficiency of mass production and the work of assistants. Authorship would become committee decision. Creativity would become work for pay. Art would turn into commerce. In short, money was supposed to supply all the meaning I’d need.

. . .

You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

Many of you will be going on to law school, business school, medical school, or other graduate work, and you can expect the kind of starting salary that, with luck, will allow you to pay off your own tuition debts within your own lifetime.

But having an enviable career is one thing, and being a happy person is another.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.
You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

 

– Bill Watterson, excerpts from his Kenyon College commencement speech, 1990. (Emphasis mine)

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In this age, comics are no longer part of an arts minority that deals closely with business. In there heyday, and still to come extent when this speech was written, comics and animation occupied a unique space closer to advertising. Today almost any artist in any medium, be it musical, visual, or otherwise, is encouraged to sell an image apart from the art itself. In such an interactive age, we have a hard time latching on to anything that isn’t heavily pitched and surrounded by positive reinforcements like ads and personalities. Artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey have advanced graffiti as George Herriman and Winsor McCay advanced cartooning, bringing something seemingly overlookable to an inspiring level of creative genius. Graffiti is all the more potent, a form that is in itself a satire and push back against the dizzying advertising seen everywhere today. The documentary “Exit Through The Gift Shop” shows just how difficult it can be to keep motivations straight when fame and fortune lies in the route of getting famous by decrying the age of adventising.

demise-of-comics

For Bill Watterson to proclaim that there is a “good life” available that is strategically lesser in material contents and governed firstly by ethics and second by personality and skill really splits the crowd. I can think of a good number of people I know who I would expect to respond to this type of thinking with a “but can’t we be ethical while climbing ladders and gaining affluence?” Sure, I suppose you can try, but you only get one go at it. Keep your eyes open, and good luck!

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