Thursday, March 26, 2009

excessive heat

Maybe it's a generational thing, but I'm afraid I just don't get all the fuss about Cold Heat, Frank Santoro and Ben Jones' trippy political thriller .I don't have the newest 48-page double issue which everyone is raving about, but I have read the the first four issues online-and well... ok. The story, which centers around a teenage girl named Castle and the near simultaneous deaths of a 90's rock icon and a politician's son, is entertaining enough, to be sure- in a Quentin Tarentino "I love trashy B-movies" kind of way. But Tarentino's manic-obsessive involvement with the mechanics of genre movie-making is what makes his best films so compelling, and from what I've read so far-Cold Heat doesn't rise to that level.

Yes -Cold Heat offers an array of neo-geo Paper Rad-style psychedelia all mixed up with a Nancy Drew-on-acid thriller--and that's amusing and entertaining as far as it goes. But too often the art (at least in the issues offered on-line) just doesn't live up to its ambition--or hype. After some scrutiny it seems clear that the artists have apparently developed some kind of algebraic equation, i.e.-the lack of detail and/or precision in execution in any given scenario is in inverse proportion to the amount of passion felt by the artist and thereby communicated to the reader, wherein passion = truth and truth = self-expression, or pi, or whatever. Thus detail is an obstacle to passion, proportion and volume are impediments to veracity, control is a barrier to expression.
I might be swayed by the argument if the art practiced what it preached with any kind of consistency--but Santoro's art is wildly erratic, and not in a way that always serves the story. Though there are occassional images of imagination and expressive power, the linework offers little variation, a sameness that lies flat on the surface. And then there are moments when one feels Santoro has a situation he simply does not have the patience or skills to address adequately. (He speaks to matters of temperament and sensibility in a revealing interview at Inkstuds)

In his best moments Santoro applies a delicate, lyrical, almost impressionistic approach to landscape-and after looking at his grand-opus "Storeyville" and "Cold Heat" one imagines that he may actually be quite a fine landscape painter. But these are qualities that are utterly lacking from his figurative work. And what passes for figurative work is just so inconsistent from one page to the next that it is impossible not to be "thrown out" of the story and into critical mode. (early on in the series, the characters are so difficult to recognize from panel to panel that the letterer has resorted to giving them identifying labels.)

The overlay of psychedelia may provide the narrative with a visual key to Castle's drug induced perceptions, but there's no escaping the nagging suspicion that the obsessive patterning is covering up for shortfalls in the illustrations.And I'm not advocating any sort of DC/Marvel mainstream photo-referenced approach to drawing in comics. I'm not into that. But I am questioning the apparent equivalence drawn between a particular manner of execution and its expressive capability, prevalent in a growing body of "art-comics" these days.

One of those professor's statements from art-school that has remained with me over the years : "don't think that just because you're feeling something that it translates into good painting."

He went on to say that over-the-top passion, the kind that young art-students tend to equate with some kind of truth, rarely results in great art( more often than not it makes for a big mess). Good painting, drawing, comics, is the result of a deliberative process, and some kind of balance between vision, temperament and skill. Pollock, De Kooning, Kline; Van Gogh, Matisse, Munch; Redon, Picasso, Schiele; Kirby, Herriman, Segar, Wilson, -all of these artists are expressionists of one kind or another-and all were disciplined and skilled in their approach to painting and drawing. Spontaneity and improvisation were hard-won attributes, skills developed over years of study-and it's evident in the quality of their work. Take a look at the most casual of Matisse's drawings or collages and you will see linework that is rich and full, that sounds a whole host of notes, not simply one key of the piano repeated over and over.

One of the best texts on drawing I know, The Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting reveals that the most fleeting and spontaneous of Chinese Bamboo drawings, is the result of deliberation, patience and skill. The spirit of "chih" is arrived at through the artist's immersion in these qualities, revealed in the moment they place brush to paper. And brush is not placed to paper until the artist has achieved a moment of quiet, allowing for mind and body to act in unison. It's a text that offers good lessons-lessons that quickly dispell any romantic notions one might have about the relationship of passion to execution.

How much is the quality of a comic determined by its visualization?
There's no denying that Santoro's work offers an argument for a particular approach to visualizing comics. (listen to him discuss Chris Ware's work in the Inkstuds interview and you'll see what I mean ). He obviously believes in what he's doing, and to a number of folks he's made a compelling case.
His work displays a connection to 19th-century romantic-expressionist belief systems, and shows a strong connection the prints of Edvard Munch.

But the power of Munch's vision is his alone, and Munch's formal attributes are altogether more finely honed than those Santoro displays in Cold Heat. And I have yet to be swayed that a gestural approach to graphics in the tradition of the late 19th-early 20th century makes for better comics, unless, of course, one is in fact a late 19th- early 20thc. master. (or Sue Coe. or David Sandlin. or Eddie Campbell. or...)

Santoro speaks to this in the aforementioned Inkstuds interview when he mentions Chris Ware's conception of the symbol in comics--and it's a discussion well worth engaging. At this point I think Ware's approach is aesthetically more tenable.

I find the story of Cold Heat entertaining although not mind-blowing. But its visualizations more or less ruin it for me. Others disagree--but for me, I think it starts with the art --and if I don't dig it, then I don't buy it. And at $20. a pop, I'm not engaged enough to find out if Cold Heat 5-6 is more to my liking.


Alan David Doane said...

Obviously I like Cold Heat better than you, Geoff, although I appreciate the lengths you go to explain your opinion. I do think that if you read them online, you're missing out on a key part of the appeal, which is the tactile sensation of holding the book in your hands and turning and pages and experiencing it as an object. That's not the entire appeal of Cold Heat to me, but it certainly is a big part of why I like the series so much.

Geoff Grogan said...

Hi Alan-
Jeez-I published this thing months ago, I can't believe people are going to be picking up on the damned thing now--I barely remember the whys and wherefores. Anyway-I share your preference for print, and there are certainly silkscreen-like qualities apparent in some of the images that if printed on the proper stock may resonate more successfully. And Picturebox does an excellent job of presentation-so I definitely agree that my experience of the work is absent something.(listen-I'm a geezer-I'll never find the web preferable to print) But I still find -some plusses- but more minuses in the graphic approach.