Fiction

55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary

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Book Review: Sobriety by Daniel Maurer


Note: I recieved Sobriety for free through Speakeasy in exchange for an honest review. No opinions given have been suggested or coerced. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255

Sobriety is a graphic novel following five diverse addicts who share their stories with one another from different stages of substance abuse recovery. It begins with and is occasionally broken up by sequences where the author and illustrator step into the plot as characters in a manipulable comic universe. They take opportinity to provide historic and exotic detours to explain the development and concepts of the 12 steps in AA and NA.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the illustration style used in Sobriety. I like a pretty wide variety of styles, everything from Jeff Lemire to Art Spiegelman, but this one left me feeling mostly uninspired. It seemed like a very difficult text to illustrate in many parts. The illustrations didn’t often further the plot in any way, and any time the writing content stalled on a point, the images didn’t really seem be able to keep up any momentum. I occasionally found myself skipping the illustrations just because the text didn’t seem to benefit from them.

The writing of Sobriety is good. Even for a non-fiction graphic novel, its really information heavy. It reminded me immensely of an episode of The Magic School Bus. A story (in this case a series of personal stories) is broken up by the quirky delivery of facts and details on related subject matter by a fun-loving and endearing narrator who can manipulate the universe for any metaphor or detailed explanation they desire. If they had ever made and episode of The Magic School Bus concerning the creation and details of the 12 Steps, this book would make the perfect script. I found the passages that followed character’s lives and the history flash-backs really engaging.

As someone who has not personally dealt with addiction, the format felt a bit too long to keep my attention. I think this may be the delineation point for the engagement quality among readers. Perhaps those interested in pursuing the 12 Steps and those already in recovery can appreciate and connect with the entire book more readily, while those who haven’t had such experiences might lose interest in certain passages.

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Further Reading

Review Of The Life And Remembrances Of Martha Toole by Jason Derr

Adaptations And Creative License

Bill Watterson, Michaelangelo, and The Importance Of Play

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.

Wittgenstein And Philosophy As Fiction


“I say that it will form an important part of the training, because it is so with human beings; not because it could not be imagined otherwise.”

– Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Philosophical Investigations. Written in the context of exploring the nature of how humans learn basic language and communication.

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After so many references to Wittgenstein’s monumental contributions to religion, language study, and philosophy from the venerable J.R. Benjamin at The Bully Pulpit, I began to feel at a loss without knowing more of the man first hand. More recent explorations of poets like Charles Bernstein led me back to Wittgenstein’s monumental philosophical contributions on linguistics, and I decided to buckle down and prioritize at least a cursory look at his work. After only a few pages each from Wittgenstein’s Lectures and Philosophical Investigations, I am realizing that the emphasis on logic in language and communication which I have long annoyed other with is something I have in common and more to learn about at Wittgenstein’s feet.

This little quote above impressed me so because I made an immediate link to the value of speculative fiction. Much of Wittgenstein’s genius and discernment comes from his distinct ability to hone in on what can be logically validated and what is not verifiable by a human in the given universe. He often illustrates his lofty and meticulous conclusions with practical analogies and, although he rarely indulges in distinguishing the possibilities, a major and intrinsic component in his process is understanding and exemplifying what does not fall within our sphere of possible knowledge and what would change with alternative reality.

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All of this brings to mind the transcript of a conversation between Kingsley Amis, Brian Aldiss, and C.S. Lewis on the value of science fiction as a format for exploring the state of the world as we can perceive it. They speak of their personal favorite concepts among alternate reality and space exploration stories and the ideas they’ve found in science fiction which have most drastically affected the way they perceive the world around them. Their discussion frequently returns to science fiction’s place in literature.

 

“Lewis: Oh, yes, do, I beg your pardon. . .But probably the great work in science-fiction is still to come. Futile books about the next world came before Dante, Fanny Burney came before Jane Austen, Marlowe came before Shakespeare.

Amis: We’re getting the prolegomena.

Lewis: If only the modern highbrow critics could be induced to take it seriously. . .

Amis: Do you think they ever can?

Lewis: No, the whole present dynasty has got to die and rot before anything can be done at all.

Aldiss: Splendid!

Amis: What’s holding them up, do you think?

Lewis: Matthew Arnold made the horrible prophecy that literature would increasingly replace religion. It has, and it’s taken on all the features of bitter persecution, great intolerance, and traffic in relics.”

Of course, Lewis is right and we see that, by and large, culture and even academia have begun to embrace or at least tolerate speculative fiction, although the attitudes toward all forms of fiction have drastically changed as well.

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Finn The Human, as genius in repose

Obviously, most philosophers would scoff with a genius Finn The Human “What Quaint Notions!” at the idea of finding value in a science fiction paperback. Many Star Wars geeks would roll their eyes and begin to feign snoring if you attempted to start a linguistics conversation that wasn’t on Elvish or Klingon. The point is not that one equals the other, or that most will find them mutually fascinating. The wonder is simply that such externally different interests can and usually do actually come to the point of overlapping. Most great writers of speculative fiction address very real psychology in human struggles and moral and social concepts. Philosophers like Wittgenstein are constantly creating small fictions to both illustrate the real and the impossible. And then there are those of us who are equally fascinated by each in turn, constantly seeking to learn and to create. This makes sense, according to Wittgenstein, for living life is simply “an intellectual problem and a moral duty.”

 

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Further Reading

 

 Rod Serling On Speculative Fiction And Censorship

Non-Fiction Should Change You For The Better

C.S. Lewis On Writing For Children

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.
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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

55 Classics Review # 13 – The Peril At End House by Agatha Christie


At the risk of sounding like an old woman, I will tell you shamelessly that I love Agatha Christie’s work. I know many people who keep the Sherlock Holmes passion alive, but I don’t know many Christie fans and I honestly have no real idea of whether I fall into a normal demographic for current readers. I’m not generally a voracious reader of mysteries, but I am always eager to understand what is great in any fiction that has become classic in some way, so I long ago found myself dabbling in and delighted by the second best selling author of all time.

I chose Peril At End House for this list because it is one of the highest rates titles I hadn’t yet read. I have to admit that after I got a few chapters in I realized that I had seen the David Suchet adaptation, but it had been long enough that I was still completely without a clue throughout the story. I actually remembered just enough to further throw myself off the scent as the plot thickened.

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This story follows the famous Hercules Poirot, Belgian detective turned British private investigator. At the onset of a seaside vacation with his good friend Captain Hastings, Poirot announces that his is retiring entirely from the detecting business, sighting his age as sufficient reason for stepping out of the game. Within minutes he smells foul play, taking personal interest in preventing what he suspects is a murder in the making, and recanting his retirement. From here, the book quickly spins out a cast of versatile and interesting characters and events designed to completely baffle the reader. Christie is great for crisscrossing the tracks of an ensemble of possible perpetrators, motives, and incomplete events. It is up to the reader to beat the detective in piecing together what was sinister and what was circumstance.

Christie has a great style. She writes in a very simple, matter-of-fact way that seems almost effortless but actually brings out the genius of her work. Anyone who has tried their hand at writing fiction knows that writing something in a way that makes it impulsively readable is often the most difficult task to accomplish. Her simplistic style makes it easier for the reader to latch on to the ideas and emotions of the characters and overlook the important details dropped here and there. She writes to lull you away from critical thinking. That being said, her stories are written more to keep you on the edge of your seat than to make perfect sense. She will usually give you a twist ending that works, but one that leaves a few weak plot points. If you’re frustrated when you don’t have sufficient information to beat the sleuth to the conclusion, you might find this book, among her others, just a bit aggravating.

Overall, Christie makes for a great read. I once read an espionage thriller she wrote near the end of her career and found it horrible. The Mysterious Affair At Styles is still one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read, and it was her first. Overall, Christie does a remarkable job of writing extremely well, creating enjoyable characters, and finding a balance in plots that come back together well while maintaining a truly complex, twist endings. Anyone who likes a bit of mystery should enjoy The Peril At End House.

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Further Reading

“On Stories” by C.S. Lewis

“Heavy Weather” by P.G. Wodehouse

“The Man Who Was Thursday” by G.K. Chesterton

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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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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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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