Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

08 MARCH, 2012

Comic Books as the Grimms’ Fairy Tales of Pop Culture

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On making out the shape of our society through its gods of good and evil.

Comic books can be a medium for serious nonfiction and a canvas for creativity in album art, but they are their own medium with a singular visual vocabulary honed by generations of pioneering artists. In this excerpt from Masters of Comic Book Art (quaintly, only available on VHS), speculative fiction writer Harlan Ellison introduces ten of the world’s greatest comic book artists, beginning with the great Jack Kirby.

(He also mentions in passing a curious factoid: there are only five forms of art considered natively American — the banjo, jazz, musical comedy, the mystery story, and comic books.)

Comic books were the training ground for me in terms of ethics, in terms of the things I learned about courage, good and evil, what heroism was, right and wrong. Comic books are the Grimms’ fairy tales of the popular culture — they’re done by serious people who care about the work they do, even as Van Gogh and Magritte and everyone else did.” ~ Harlan Ellison

It’s also fascinating to hear Kirby peel the curtain on the train of curiosity behind his iconic DC Comics series New Gods:

…I began to ask myself… Everybody else has their own gods — what are ours? What is the shape of our society and the form of myth and legend? Who are our gods? Who are our evil gods, and who are our goods ones?”

For a great primer on the making and milestones of the beloved visual storytelling medium, see the 2005 book Masters of American Comics.

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07 MARCH, 2012

How Iconic Album Cover Illustrator R. Crumb Brought Comics to Music

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What Janis Joplin has to do with rediscovering yesteryear’s forgotten masters.

Alex Steinweiss may be the father of the modern album cover, but Robert Crumb is its favorite weird uncle. Though best-known as a pioneer of the underground comix movement, the subversive artist had long been fascinated with the music of the 1920s and 1930s — jazz, big band, swing, blues, cajun — so when, in 1968, Janis Joplin asked him to design the cover for her album Cheap Thrills, it was the beginning of R. Crumb’s prolific second career illustrating hundreds of covers for artists emerging and legendary. In fact, Crumb’s covers for yesteryear’s forgotten masters were so influential in and of themselves that they spurred the rediscovery of many of these old records in the 1960s and 1970s.

R. Crumb: The Complete Record Cover Collection captures Crumb’s quirky, beautiful work and his enduring legacy in 450 vibrant four-color, black-and-white, and monocolor illustrations that exude his love of music and his love of art in equal measure. Accompanying his unmistakeable record covers are also posters, calling cards, advertisements, and stand-alone portraits of icons like James Brown, Frank Zappa, Gus Cannon, George Jones, Woody Guthrie, and more.

In this narrated short, Crumb, who eventually learned to play the uke, banjo, and mandolin himself, talks about the convergence of his two passions:

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07 MARCH, 2012

Ralph Ellison on Fiction as a Voice for Injustice, a Chariot of Hope, and a Lens on the Human Condition

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“…there must be possible a fiction which… can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

“Good fiction is made of what is real, and reality is difficult to come by,” beloved writer Ralph Ellison famously said. In 1953, upon winning the National Book Award for Invisible Man, the only novel he published in his lifetime, Ellison — a lover of language, symbolism connoisseur, and astute observer of humanity — captured the heart of fiction in his remarkable acceptance speech:

If I were asked in all seriousness just what I considered to be the chief significance of Invisible Man as a fiction, I would reply: Its experimental attitude and its attempt to return to the mood of personal moral responsibility for democracy which typified the best of our nineteenth-century fiction.

When I examined the rather rigid concepts of reality which informed a number of the works which impressed me and to which I owed a great deal, I was forced to conclude that for me and for so many hundreds of thousands of Americans, reality was simply far more mysterious and uncertain, and at the same time more exciting, and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness, more promising.

To see America with an awareness of its rich diversity and its almost magical fluidity and freedom I was forced to conceive of a novel unburdened by the narrow naturalism which has led after so many triumphs to the final and unrelieved despair which marks so much of our current fiction. I was to dream of a prose which was flexible, and swift as American change is swift, confronting the inequalities and brutalities of our society forthrightly, but yet thrusting forth its images of hope, human fraternity, and individual self-realization. A prose which would make use of the richness of our speech, the idiomatic expression, and the rhetorical flourishes from past periods which are still alive among us. Despite my personal failures there must be possible a fiction which, leaving sociology and case histories to the scientists, can arrive at the truth about the human condition, here and now, with all the bright magic of the fairy tale.”

For more on the distinction between truth and fiction, see this omnibus of insights by some of modernity’s greatest writers.

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