“One cannot overstate how significant [Gil Kane’s] 1969 interview in Alter Ego(conducted by Benson) was to those of us floundering around trying to make some critical sense of comics. I’ve spoken to literally dozens of people over the years who read that interview when it was originally published and they all had pretty much the same reaction: Kane’s was a jaw-droppingly invigorating way of looking at comics. He took the only intelligent path a critical mind could given the comics he had to work with; he dismissed the scripting out of hand and focused on the distinctive but theretofore recondite visual virtues of specific artists. He articulated what many of us impressionistically loved about Jack Kirby and John Severin and Alex Toth but couldn’t put into words — or even into cohesive thought. He provided a ray of hope that comics could indeed be admired without abandoning one’s brains.” Gary Groth
“To be more concrete, some of the best comics criticism has come in the form of interviews done by artists like Gil Kane, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman.” Jeet Heer
“FWIW, I also tend to agree with Jeet that, in practice, much of the best comics criticism has been through the interview form…just because of the history of comics criticism (which has been pretty spotty).” Eric B.
“I agree, Noah, but notice how much communication interference there continues to be: the assumptions that led to the interference in the original post go very deep. And they’re the same, deep assumptions that lead to the point you originally noticed: the valorization of interviews over analytic essays… The comments thread here has largely been about decoding the resistance to the ideas in both your original post and here, rather than decoding the ideas. Although I think your explication is indeed productive, I think the resistance is still pretty strong…this is a resistance deeply tied to nostalgia and to nostalgic identification — the “retrospective idealization” of the author or creator as the anchor and truth of meaning. That’s one thing you lose if you topple the interview from its pride of place. I think this is probably the mechanism by which the art comics subclique has managed to reproduce the dynamics of the larger superhero subculture: they’ve simply replaced the superhero with the Author, without actually disrupting the nostalgic relationship to the comic art form. That’s how you get the “fetishization of interviews” you reference in the original post.” Caro
I am offering the following interview extracts with a minimum of comment. I have attempted to choose those statements which best represent Gil Kane’s critical mind as far as these two significant interviews with him are concerned.
There is the suggestion from a few of the quotations above (by Groth, Heer and Eric) that, on balance, comics-related interviews have made up for the dearth of good written comics criticism. It’s not exactly clear whether this is still the case or if these interviews were epitomes of fine criticism to begin with (such is the implication when the word “best” is used).
As with comics and art in general, criticism needs to be viewed in the cold light of day away from the obfuscating influence of nostalgia and historical importance. These factors can give context to our appreciation of certain seminal ideas or approaches but have only a small place in revealing the actual quality of the thoughts in question.
While there is little doubt that criticism can exist in any form including that of an interview, this is not quite the same as saying that every statement in an interview amounts to criticism. As far as I am concerned, subjects pertaining to history and biography do not fall under the rubric of criticism. This would exclude from this survey cursory discussions of the behavior of cartoonists and their publishers, anecdotes from the workplace or revelations concerning personal relationships. History and biography have an important place in cultural conversations and in and of themselves. Both of these can also be seen as important tools for the would be critic. Thus we find in the history of criticism examples of biographical criticism where biographical detail is used to reveal the hidden substance of a work of art, and historical criticism where texts are compared and analyzed so as to determine their origins. Using the same techniques, paintings of a certain antiquity can be placed in the correct historical setting that their achievements might be better understood by the uninitiated .
I prefer a more commonsensical approach to defining criticism; one which can be found in dictionaries, simple reference books and undergraduate texts on aesthetics. What we find in such sources are definitions which see criticism as consisting of mainly description, evaluation, analysis and “interpretation”. We find just such a definition in Monroe Beardsley’s Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism for instance (a more detailed explanation found on page xlviii and page 3-12 of the book, a summary here or David Bordwell’s easily digestible version of the same).
The Alter Ego #10 interview (conducted in 1967 and published in 1969; see complete scans from magazine) is wide ranging and informal as is typical of most comics interviews. This is the classic exchange which Groth lauds highly in the quotes supplied above. The discussion should be read in its entirety but I’ve provided the excerpts below for those who do not feel so inclined.
Kane begins with a simple analysis of the relationship of craft to art, and explains how a refinement of craft enhances natural ability and thus freedom of expression. He submits for debate one of the key tenets of the American alternative comics movement: that “comics is a medium in which…it was intended for the artist to be the story-teller, not only through pictures but through the prose as well, because writers who aren’t artists have never done anything except fill space.”
What follows is an examination of the place of writing in comics, how it should be used to enhance imagery and not overwhelm it. He says this while advocating the use of a “tremendous amount of prose to augment the pictures.” Examples cited here include Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie whose “symbolic lumps” are made whole by the expressive dialogue. Al Feldstein is admonished for his verbosity but praised for the way his text makes up for the technical deficiencies of his collaborators. In keeping with traditional thinking on the subject, he finds a number Kurtzman’s war stories affecting, realistic, and profound, though he qualifies these statements by comparing them only to other comics and mainstream paperbacks..
As readers will find, Kane is reasonably consistent and circumspect in his evaluation of comics and cartoonists in these interviews conducted decades apart. He felt that comics were a juvenile art form and its writers (Will Eisner and, perhaps, Alan Moore) only noteworthy in that context. It might be said that, on the evidence of these interviews, any praise he dispensed was always qualified by the limitations he perceived in the form. He displays little love for the comics industry and laments how it almost invariably affects for ill even the poets and visionaries who enter it.
This is a layman’s approach to criticism, gently argued with a moderate amount of detail – an early step in enunciating the basic forms that comics criticism could take. Some of Kane’s views have proved prescient while others have been swept away by the progress of time. A number of other opinions, have remained, for better or worse, cast in stone; tightly woven into the very fabric of comics thinking. Like the comics he criticized, Kane’s thoughts here are very much of their time and need to be appreciated as such. Delivered in a fanzine and in an era where the possibilities of comics were as yet indistinct, these off the cuff comments are well articulated but for the most part no longer revelatory.
The individuals who read and write about comics in a “serious” fashion nowadays often bring the values associated with other more established art forms to such endeavors as a matter of course. At the risk of stating the obvious, this was not quite the case in the late 60s. Just as Kane sensed that the cartoonists of his time were developing a “grammar”, so too was he developing a foundation; in this case, for comics criticism. Perhaps Kane’s greatest achievement lies in the simple act of giving comics due consideration in terms of depth and contemplation, and not fannish gushing. He was not the first to do so by any stretch of the imagination (the well know examples of Gilbert Seldes and E. E. Cummings are often cited in relation to strip art and there were others) but this interview was significant and influential for a generation of young comic readers addicted to inconsequential fantasy. Thus would emerge a kind of criticism which is still the predominant trend in popular comics criticism today; one which has its roots in idolatrous appreciation, now made more thoughtful and discriminating.
For those unacquainted with the criticism of Gil Kane, this is a chance to decide to what extent his thoughts on comics have worth beyond their historical value.
AE: You have said several times that cartoonists do not pay enough attention to craft. What is your definition of craft?
KANE: Most cartoonists are emotionally drawn into the field. They are attracted to it because it fills their needs and because it’s a proper means of expression for them. But nearly always, they possess an insight, a single sensitivity; that’s where the empathy coma in, It comes in when they attempt to augment this natural facility with formal techniques. Unfortunately, most artists tend to be betrayed by their facility, They get easy acceptance from editors and as a result they never feel the need to press harder or to examine what they do; rejection would be an excellent thing For them. The only people who manage to escape this are people who have a facility that borders on genius, like Jack Kirby….
AE: Isn’t there a problem in talking about craft, in that craft is not art? There’s a difference between the two.
KANE: Craft is merely the springboard. It’s the ability to give wings to your expression; otherwise your expression bangs around in an inarticulate way and comes out thick and untutored; you’re just throwing away range and scope.
For instance, an intellectual artist would be somebody like Hal Foster, who is not as supreme a draftsman as, say, Alex Raymond was, and who is not as supreme a designer as Noel Sickles is, yet was a good designer, was a good draftsman; he built up all these qualities through formal techniques. As a result, the things that he did do naturally (story-telling and movement) were immeasurably supported. He could try anything he wanted to. That’s the beauty, for instance, of learning the figure. If you really know it, you’re not stopped by anything, and you can make it do anything you want. Once you stop worrying about whether you can do it, and merely give thought to what you want to do, it’s something else entirely.
AE: So craft is what is necessary to have art?
KANE: Not always; some primitive communicate perfectly; but on a more complex plane, I couldn’t agree with you more.
AE: This is perhaps a digression, but do you think of yourself as a producer of children s literature? Is the comic field primarily children’s literature?
KANE: Yes. I believe that the drawing, while its appeal is primitive, is extremely sophisticated; and the stories, on the other hand, while they are written by reasonably sophisticated people, are extremely banal and primitive. The comics have endured despite the innocuous pap which the writers have contributed over the years. Comics is a medium in which I think it was intended for the artist to be the story-teller, not only through pictures but through the prose as well, because writers who aren’t artists have never done anything except fill space. The only worthwhile things have been done by artists who either controlled the writing or did the writing themselves.
AE: You would say, then, that the best way to produce art in comics would be to have an artist who is also a writer.
KANE: Yes. However, many artists don’t have a literary background and don’t how what structure is in a story, though they are superb for dramatic effects. You let an artist write a story and the thing that he will do beautifully is create dramatic visual effects, but they’ll be totally unrelated one to the other. But worst of all, the dramatic backbone to the whole story will be so spindly and weak that it simply won’t stand up; and that’s where a good editor with an understanding of dramatic structure would come in— not to change the artist but merely to give him a better idea of what he is up against when he tries to organize a story.
KANE: Many artists for years are misused, in that they are assigned by editors who can’t even analyze the nature of their work properly. As a result somebody like, say, John Severin will be assigned to do a science fantasy story, which is ridiculous—or Conversely, someone like Al Williamson will be given a contemporary strip. Al’s entire focus is on communicating something very ethereal and Iyrical; he’s less at home with a contemporary setting or with creating contemporary characters. And I would say he is diametrically opposed to the most contemporaneous artist there is today, Alex Toth. Toth has the most contemporaneous style, with a real feeling for the angularity and pattern that is tee fleeted in ever,vthing from mechanical design through fashion and architecture. He once did Zorro . . . and while it was an interesting Zorro in some respects, it was terribly faulty because it didn’t have any of the mood or the lyricism . . . as a matter of fact I thought that Warren Tufts, while he is not nearly as skilled technically as Alec, was much more sympathetic to Zorro.
KANE: My feeling for a story hangs very heavily on telling the story per se in narration. I believe in a well-structured story, and I also believe in using a tremendous amount of prose to augment the pictures. I believe, unlike a great many people, that pictures alone are not sufficient, and there is no reason why text and pictures can’t be combined to give comics a three dimensional quality, rather than the quality of a silent movie.
KANE: Feldstein was one of the best writers in the field, and also had the best feeling for story values in comics. Unfortunately, he had a very poor visual approach; he would strangle his pictures by overwriting his captions. But you can learn a tremendous lesson from that. The artists who worked for Feldstein, despite their technical shortcomings, did probably the most impressive work of their lives, and in most of the cases still have not exceeded what they did for him.
AE: I don’t know If that followed from his use of captions.
KANE: Yes, and I’ll tell you why. Those captions in those stories were so complete and would create such a total mood that when they said… He is not allowing you any freedom in terms of what you have to put down. How you put it down is an entirely different matter. But he tells you exactly what you must put down and to a great extent he made storytellers out of artists who were not storytellers. When somebody would make a drawing of a face which would be totally expressionless, but beautifully drawn, and Feldstein had a caption that read that the character was torn with anguish, all of a sudden he would give dimension and body to a picture that was merely a meaningless display of technique.
KANE: I just want to make one more point. I think that Little Orphan Annie, for instance, does little more than use symbols. Harold Gray could almost use lumps for figures, but his dialogue was so expressive in terms of characterization that he took these symbolic lumps and through dialogue gave them personalities that the drawings themselves didn’t have.
KANE: It’s important to understand that I am for the use of text as long as it doesn’t interfere with or minimize the effect of the picture, but only augments the picture.
AE: Would you feel that Eisner was probably the most expert in knowing when and when not to use text?
KANE: Will Eisner did little morality stories, which were very moving, but they had the quality of reading a children’s picture book; he could be quite dramatic, but always on a kind of innocent level. He never had the complex, subtle characterizations that, say, some of Harvey Kurtzman’s war stories had…
AE: Many of his great war stories were ballads; they had stamps and refrains, and they returned to the story’s starting point.
KANE: Yes. He utilized text in a very effective way. I think the stories could even have been amplified more than they were, but of course then they would have been done a little differently than Harvey intended. I favored what Feldstein was doing, but I abhorred his visual approach; everything he did could have been three times as long as it eventually came out….
KANE: The simple fact is that comics have very few limitations. Their only real limitation is the difficulty in overcoming a static form and overcoming a lack of continuity in the drawing. You have to reestablish continuity every time you go on to the next panel by arranging your composition in such a way that there is a smooth, unbroken flow of movement. In fact, where the composition isn’t carefully considered and the effects are terribly scattered and you find the character on all sides of the panel, it’s the same problem that you have in movies, when they enter from stage right or left…
KANE: Except for having someone like Eisner or Kurtzman come in and develop a grammar for the field, it is still waiting for someone to do something not only interesting from a visual point of view but in terms of dramatic structure. I thought that Harvey had begun to do that; his Civil War stories were very fine mood pieces, beautifully capturing the period. They were beautifully researched, the writing was absolutely marvelous, and there was a feeling for human things, a feeling for profundity. People just didn’t die, but human beings died in human and affecting terms. There would be a stink and reek of death and sense of futility about war that just never occurred in anything else that I have read in comics, and as a matter of fact which doesn’t occur in a great many mainstream paperbacks. That was very strong writing; that is what comics should be, and I believe that is only the beginning of what comics could be.
KANE: …I had all this tremendous expression yearning for release and I didn’t have the technical skill with which to articulate it. If I did something on my own, the idea would be good but the execution would be absolutely miserable.
One of the reasons for that is that I started as a penciler and stayed a penciler instead of starting as an inker and then converting to penciling. As an idler you pick up all the external tricks that you need to succeed with an editor. That is, you learn to create a professional-looking finished picture; not that the composition is any good, not that the figure articulation is any good. but the rendering of the picture ultimately is strong and sure You learn how to draw and how to spot your blacks; those are the two most pragmatic things that you have to learn when you first start. And I never learned how to draw in those early days, and to this day I have trouble spotting blacks.
AE: You spoke of rendering as something you missed early in your career. Do you consider composition more important than the rendering?
KANE: Oh yes, there’s no getting away from it. Telling a story is the most important thing; and the most natural thing that comes out of a storytelling style is composition, because composition merely focuses the eye on the most important thing in the picture, and of course that’s what good storytelling does. The most important single element outside of storytelling is picking up a sense of design; it’s more important than drawing to me. And there are some superb draftsmen who, lacking design, lack the crowd-pleasing qualities. Raymond had design in his figures and Foster didn’t; so Raymond, while he was by far the lesser artist . . . in fact he often took chapter and verse from Tarzan; whatever Foster was doing, Raymond would ultimately be two months behind. But the point is that nevertheless he had an excellent sense of design, which Foster never had in his figure structures. This is why Foster was not the most appealing artist to the layman; his best qualities were so subtle that they eluded most laymen.
KANE: Yes. I would like to point up the disparity between the choices of the fans and of the pro artists. Fans tend to focus on the single artist, who is regarded as a good working professional, but hardly with the high regard that fans have; professionals, on the other band, single out people that I never read about in any fan magazine.
AE: One would be Toth?
KANE: Toth is one. Dan Spiegel is another. Spiegel created Hopalong Cassidy for the newspapers and then went into and still works for Gold Key, and for years he did Lawman, and I think now he does Space Family Robinson. But his organizing of a picture is probably the finest demonstration I have ever seen of a guy dealing in spatial relationships. And on top of that, he can create a three dimensional scene; most artists in comics, since they don’t understand formal techniques, tend to use the crop technique. They have something large in the foreground and a contrasting small shape in the background, and they never do a scene with a complicated perspective, because that takes a tremendous amount of concentration in itself. So they tend to deal just in the photography techniques, and if they do a large drawing they merely make a larger shape, but it’s basically the same panel. But most comic book cartoonists are not terribly experimental. In fact, they tend to stick to figures that they’ve done a million times before and hardly ever attempt interesting variations or foreshortening to any great extent….
KANE: Comics today are too childlike; I don’t believe that comic artists have sufficient sophistication. And even if one artist did, like Will Eisner, have the sophistication to make his stuff substantial enough to interest more than just eight-and-nine-year-old kids, it’s unlikely that it would happen. Not that other artists are worse than Eisner; many artists have qualities that are far superior. The remarkable thing about Eisner was his approach to telling a story; he communicated his ideas perfectly.
KANE: …The only trouble with the field, really, is that it’s done on a factory basis; and it wasn’t when comics first started out. While there was a factory, a need for production, there weren’t any restrictions imposed on the artists and writers. So while the stuff was primitive, it was very fresh and it had tremendous charm. And now the factory regimentation has become total. Now you tend to lose personality, to all meld into a single artist, a single point of view. And we are all capable, like a hand grenade separating into a million different fragments, each going our own way. You should see the stuff comic artists do privately; It’s light-years away from the stuff they do for publication.
KANE: But artists are always in a state of transition. In fact, the whole trouble is that when you come into this business you have childish fantasies that you have to project, but as you grow older the responsibilities that life imposes on a growing person tend to make you pragmatic and realistic, and that tends to diminish the fantasy; and when you diminish the fantasy you destroy the poet, and when you destroy the poet the technician survives. In nine out of ten cases, the most superb and promising artists end up being the shiniest kind of technicians performing empty demonstrations of technical skins, and all the poetry is gone. It’s very hard to keep the boy in the cartoonist, because if you do, it means that you are talking about an individual that never outgrows his need for fantasy.
KANE: …as bad as the garbage adults read outside of comics is, comics are still beneath that in terms of structure. When comics wakes up to the fact that it needs more than just dramatic visual effects, that what it needs is literary structure, And when it allows the artist as much freedom as he needs, I think you’re going to see a whole new era.
The following extracts were taken from The Comics Journal #186-187 (conducted 1995- 1996). These interviews were labeled an “oral history” and consist of mainly historical and biographical detail which I personally do not classify as criticism. I have thus endeavored to choose those statements which do amount to criticism as the term is normally understood.
KANE: Nobody ever took comic book writing seriously. The only who did was Will Eisner, who attempted to structure his stuff in the beginning in a very creative way. It doesn’t even matter what the quality of any of the stuff was. The fact was that he was intent on something they were absolutely indifferent to. So the ideas that they were concerned with were conventional, traditional ideas that came out of the movies, and out of the pulps and comic strips, and were transposed into comic book-length stories…But everything Harvey and Eisner did, if you want to judge on quality, you have to immediately put it in the context of comics. And within the context of comics, it was great stuff.
KANE: There’s a review by Hugh Kenner of [Philip] Roth’s new book, Sabbath’s [Theater]. He gives it a review – it’s enough to blow the mind. I read it in The New York Review of Books. For a person of Kenner’s stature, to say what he said about Roth’s book…And I take his word for it. He simply raved about it. He talked about its daring, about the range of Roth’s capacities. And then it tells you what he does with the book. The review is a triumph.
GROTH: For the last 30 years or so you’ve been complaining about the level of writing in comics. That’ s been a significant criticism of yours…Do you see in the last 20 years the level of writing getting better with people like –
KANE: Well, yeah, I don’t think it’s at the level of Gardner Fox who used to do most of the writing. Simply because what they did was a style that was acceptable to the’30s which would never be acceptable any more. You can see the change in dialogue and attitude…There are even people like [Howard] Chaykin and [Steven] Grant or some others who can mange to do a couple of line of dialogue that actually sound like the spoken word. They fit the moment. But they can’t build a structure around it which they can use that sort of language for an entire piece. …But they’re at the level where if they had a structure that was different, I think they’d be writing differently – developing characters through pages of dialogue, not summarizing talk.
KANE: [Alan Moore] writes comics brilliantly on those occasions he chooses to. And he does a wonderful job, like The Watchmen, right?…..But I know that in the framework of comics, when he pulls himself together and decides…Maybe it’s a decision beyond him, I don’t know this, I think when he takes enough interest he does something or is capable of things that suggest a real writer’s skill. But I don’t see him applying it anywhere else.
KANE: I still don’t know why Spiegelman illustrated his material. I mean, I don’t know why he didn’t just do it as a prose piece. Because there’s something that is absolutely missing from that stuff, and that is the miracle and the quality of continually changing images that advance the story forward, that have a quality of their own…I don’t see it. He can take two of those panels in Maus and just use them – take a scissors and either make them bigger or make them smaller. but keep using them all through the book. Nobody would know the difference because all you’re reading there is the copy in any case. And I don’t care what kind of ignominious symbol the mouse is supposed to be. The fact is that there is absolutely no change between any of it – they’re all drawn in that same, wooden, inept style that is totally inexpressive.
KANE: I think as long as it’s possible to do political cartoons that can be powerful and sobering, it must be possible to do something like that in comics. It just seems to me that the very sensibility that produces a political cartoon wouldn’t stay with or involve itself in comics for any length of time. I mean, comics is not the kind of fishbowl that you’re going to pull something extraordinary out of. It’s a bowl full of little fish who show enormous facility, and who can take a formula and turn it upside-down and inside-out and do everything possible, and keep that formula up to date with all the other popular forms that are using that formula, like films or television or whatever.
KANE: Moebius is the virtuoso artist. He can turn himself inside-out, he can put his prick where his tongue is, it doesn’t matter! He can do anything that he wants! He can do westerns, anything, with the kind of authority that’s almost impossible to match. He can even do humorous material . But he still doesn’t do anything of consequence.
KANE: Eisner is a writer until you start talking about literature, and talking about the great writers of literature. Then Eisner is only a cartoonist.