“The New Year reviving old desires,

The thoughtful soul to solitude aspires;


Puts out: and Jesus from the ground suspires.”

–Omar Khayam

New Year’s Eve being famously tolerant of self-indulgence, I’m taking this opportunity to talk about this column.

It started with an online discussion on this blog, fairly civilised as such things go, on Tintin, Herge and racism; I chimed in a few times.

Noah Berlatsky, editor and Master of the Revels for this blog, contacted me with an offer to write a guest post about racism and xenophobia in Tintin; nothing loath, I accepted.


Had I but known…it ended up being five long, separate posts…

…in the middle of which Noah offered me a monthly column.

Like a schmuck, I turned him down.

My reasoning was that I’d feel pressured by a monthly deadline to come up with subjects that didn’t really interest me, and that I would prefer to write the odd guest post.

Of course, I subsequently thought of twenty subjects of interest…and frantically reversed my decision.

Noah, bless him, accepted me into the fold…so here I am.

This is the fourteenth column I’ve written, and what have I learned?

Chiefly, that writing for a blog is its own discipline, with its own strengths and weaknesses.

Just the nature of scrolling text in a relatively narrow band calls for a special rhythm; interaction with images is quite different from that shown in a print magazine’s layout.

There was one aspect to blogging that took me a while to understand: it has to be personal.

I’m sure most of you have had drilled into you at school that a theme or an essay should be impersonal.

This is carried out to extremes in academia and the serious press. And looking over a lot of my prose here, I spot weaselly expressions such as “one can observe…” or “it can be noted that…”

(I’m trying to weed them out…honest!)

For me, the “click” came after the third installment of my Tintin columns.

Here I was, “dispassionately” recounting the cartoonist’s struggles with racism– when it struck me that I was complicit in that racism, and it was dishonest of me to deny that complicity. So I added a fourth column where I examined my own my own involvement and subconscious racism in the Tintin cartoons.

I’m still a bit reticent about being too personal: my visit to the Comics and Architecture exhibition reads rather blandly, as though I were a tour guide.

But I’m encouraged by the “voices” of the other HU contributors, each one idiosyncratic.

(In fact, add to the list of motives to contribute “emulation”: the desire to try to equal the other writers.)

I’m also  aware that I resort too often to cliches.

Again, I’m working on it, I’m working on it!

It also finally percolated to my awareness that a sense of humour wasn’t taboo…though Noah rightly queried an “in” joke that I subsequently removed.

Noah’s a good editor.  He gives me all the room in the world, but on rare occasions makes a suggestion that turns out to be right.

Why do I write this column?

It’s a fair load of work for no money. And the old saw applies to me — “I hate writing, but I love having written.”

But there are rewards.

First, and perhaps least attractive, it satisfies some part of my vanity to be published online.

Next, it allows me to wallow in my hobby in a positive, creative way.

I do a fair amount of research for each column, in the cosy rooms of my beloved American Library in Paris: this has awakened a pleasure in scholarship that had lain fallow for decades.

The sense of accomplishment from each finished post is nice…though I’m constantly unsatisfied, and continue tinkering long after the post’s day in the sun is over.

Finally, there is the interaction with the readers. My post on war comics stimulated the most comments, eighty per cent of which concerned war literature in general: that’s great.

I’ve derived special satisfaction from two posts in particular.

My column on Harvey Kurtzman’s war comics scratched an itch that had been bugging me for thirty years;  I was finally able to rectify what I saw as a serious historic — and aesthetic — mistake.

My column on my adolescent fanzine effort proved the fabled “six degrees of separation” theory is true.

Two of my readers knew my two collaborators, and I contacted them for the first time in 35 years!

I’m finally getting to master WordPress, this blog’s software; poor Noah no longer has to edit the size of the large images I so recklessly import, or heed my e-mailed screams of panic when I goof up (or at least, not as often.)

WordPress can be weirdly capricious: the other day it decided an entire column should be in green italics.

(Yes, poor Noah.  I send him too many e-mails…subconsciously, like every needy writer since the dawn of literacy, I am probably whining for reassurance.

I’ve cut back, Noah, I promise!)

Other lessons? This is a visual medium we are discussing, so don’t skimp on the visuals; on the other hand, don’t drown your text in them… as I am doing in the present column.

And this being the Internet, I know that I should embed more hyperlinks.

At the end of every column, I try to include a few extra links , a bit of icing on the cake, a little lagniappe.

Mr Punch to 1860: ” Now, my lad, here’s your work cut out for you!”

And in fact, during my latest series– on comics and language — I came across so many wonderfully useful databases that I believe I shall do a column exclusively made up of such links, as a permanent resource.

Finally– give yourself plenty of leeway regarding deadlines! I like to be at least a week ahead.

This gives me the leisure to add, edit, and correct up to the last minute.

I see my old friends from Tintin are banqueting in the New Year below:

And this is a sign that I should cease bloviating about the past.

What of the future?

I still have three more installments of the cartoon and language series to come.

A wonderful guest will round off the architecture series with a tour of Japanese comics and architecture.

In various stages are columns on Max Beerbohm, Filipino cartoonists, Blazing Combat war comics, and others too inchoate at present to mention; the next big series should be on the “ligne claire” and its predecessors; there will be a greater focus on European cartooning.

I’ll also showcase, with photos and interviews, my library and my comics bookshop.

I also plan a few lightweight columns, including a competition.

More generally, I plan on outreach. In some ways, HU seems a bit of a closed club.

We can post on forums like those of Comic Book Resources or Comicon to link back to HU.

But beyond comics fandom– well, I’ve written on comics’ interaction with history, architecture, and language… surely non-comicfan aficionados of these subjects would also be interested?
I shall look them up online.

I continue to update old posts: for those who appreciated them the first time around, there’s new material, particularly in the Tintin series.

I apologise for my occasional obnoxiousness in comments (a good subject for a New year’s resolution…)

As to why this column is called “Strange Windows”: it’s a visual metaphor invoked by cartoonists from Moebius to Joe Staton, with a comic’s panels being compared to windows.

Windows onto “something rich and strange.”

Let me end this windbaggery with a few personal shout-outs.

Other Hooded Utilitarian writers have been generous with their help. I am grateful to you all, and will reciprocate when you need me. Translations, anyone?

I’d particularly like to thank Ng Suat Tong.

He generously provided me with numerous scans for the Kurtzman post, when I was desperate. He has also given me excellent advice for improving my articles.

Sean — the future will show what I owe you.

Most of all, I thank Noah Berlatsky for the chance he gave me; my efforts on the Internet till now had been overwhelmingly passive and negative; this column helps to rectify that.

I end the year as I began the column, with Tintin:

To every one of you…


Tags: , , , , ,