April 3, 2019
One in a weekly series of enthusiastic posts, contributed by HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite comic books, comic strips, and graphic novels.
As these things often go, my first real exposure to comics as a medium came because I was in the right place at the right time.
The right place was the Spaced Out Library in downtown Toronto. The world-class genre holdings of the city’s public library are now known much more formally as the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation and Fantasy, and they’ve been relocated to a friendly, modern, light-filled building down the road, but back then they were crammed into a small brick building, across the street from the engineering buildings and next door to the main physics building of the University of Toronto—in other words, ideally located for engineering physics majors like me.
I was in the library mostly for science fiction paperbacks to stash in my backpack for my commute, and to curl up in an armchair between classes as I worked my way through all the Tolkien in the stacks. But one day I happened to notice that they had a small and growing collection of graphic novels.
Unbeknownst to me, a quiet revolution was happening in comics. The first was in distribution — more and more comics were being sold in dedicated stores, rather than from racks at newsstands. These new distribution models changed the economics of the industry, which meant that publishers could take greater risks: with the content, but also with manufacturing. Print quality improved drastically: smooth bond paper instead of fibrous newsprint, high-quality printing replacing the limited four-color palette, and the earliest digital art.
I had never read comics as a child; Marvel and DC universes had little hold on my imagination, and I didn’t know anything about Batman beyond the big-budget movies. But looking through 1989’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (writer Grant Morrison drew its subtitle from a Philip Larkin poem, a detail that would have been absolutely lost on me then) was like being in the pull of a naked gravitational singularity. Not just Dave McKean’s gorgeous paintings, but especially his photocollages, like Cornell boxes on the page, bones and clock movements and lace and red thread. The illustrations were overlaid by lettering of Gaspar Saladino, who used different styles for the different characters, a technique that’s commonplace now but was ground-breaking then. Page after page made it absolutely, utterly clear to me that this was something I’d never seen before: not just an entirely different aesthetic vocabulary, but a completely new language. It was the first graphic novel I ever bought. I remember fretting about the cost of the hardcover, and I’m sure I had an extra week of ramen dinners that month, but it was a portal to another world.
Special thanks to Douglas Wolk, who capably and swiftly answered my questions about the technological changes behind comics in the 1980s and 1990s.
SERIOCOMIC: Mimi Lipson on LITTLE LULU | Sara Ryan on AMPHIGOREY | Gary Panter on THE NUT BROS./THE SQUIRREL CAGE | Gordon Dahlquist on POGO | Robert Wringham on VIZ | Matthew De Abaitua on CAPTAIN BRITAIN | Jessamyn West on FUN HOME | Bradley Peterson on HELLBOY | Stephanie Burt on KITTY PRYDE RETURNS | Jenny Davidson on OOR WULLIE | Luc Sante on MARSUPILAMI | Susan Roe on BLOOM COUNTY | Marilyn Berlin Snell on CHARLES ADDAMS | Deb Chachra on ARKHAM ASYLUM | Judith Zissman on ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | Alexandra Lange on BETTY (ARCHIE) | Catherine Newman on VERONICA (ARCHIE) | Josh Glenn on SPIRE CHRISTIAN COMICS | Adam McGovern on THE CREW | William Nericcio on ERRATA STIGMATA | Chelsey Johnson on DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR | Sherri Wasserman on TANK GIRL | Tom Nealon on MEGATON MAN | Erin M. Routson on THE WEDDING OF SCOTT SUMMERS & JEAN GREY | Douglas Wolk on FRANK IN THE RIVER | Annie Nocenti on DICK TRACY | James Parker on 2000 AD | Adrienne Crew on NUTS | Vanessa Berry on MEAT CAKE | John Holbo on WITZEND | Michael Campochiaro on SPIDER-WOMAN | Miranda Mellis on RED SONJA & BÊLIT | Michael Grasso on THE NEW MUTANTS | Ty Burr on BINKY BROWN | Bishakh Som on AMAR CHITRA KATHA | Mark Kingwell on CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED | Brian Berger on JIMBO | Kenya (Robinson) on AGENT 355 | Seth on THE ETERNALS ANNUAL | Susannah Breslin on SLASHER | Lisa Kahlden on JACK CHICK TRACTS | Mandy Keifetz on KRAZY KAT | Tom Devlin on DUM-DUM POSSE READER | Eric Reynolds on ACTION COMICS #460 | Rick Pinchera on EIGHTBALL #16 | Juan Recondo on DAYTRIPPER | Elizabeth Foy Larsen on ROZ CHAST | J.E. Anckorn on HALO JONES | Deborah Wassertzug on GREAT POP THINGS | Peggy Nelson on MAD MOVIE SATIRES | Holly Interlandi on ANGEL SANCTUARY | Karen Green on THE SMITHSONIAN COLLECTION OF NEWSPAPER COMICS.
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