Half Page BD: An RT Investigation

A while ago I read the following in an article on Hooded Utilitarian:

[…] the revolution that really drove Heavy Metal was very distinctly French and had a lot more to do with the format of how French comics were serialized than with any kind of musical aesthetic, something that is largely transparent to Anglophones. Instead of serializing stories 22 pages at a time on a monthly basis, French BD magazines serialize their stories half a page at a time in weekly anthologies and have done since the 50s. It was a technique made popular with Tintin magazine, and perfected by Spirou. By the end of the 60s, Pilote (under the editorial guidance of Rene Goscinny, not coincidentally, the writer of Asterix) was the big boy on the block, largely due to this production methodology.

The collected editions of popular stories and characters would stack half-pages together to create magazine-sized albums. Take a look at any French (or European) BD collection produced before 1970 – Asterix, Valerian, Corto Maltese, Blueberry, Philemon, Spirou – and you will notice a white gutter running horizontally through the middle of almost every page in the book. This is a direct artifact of the serialization methodology, regardless of whether the story was actually serialized or not. There were occasional splash pages in these books, but that’s more of an exception than a rule.

While I recognised the “half page” phenomena in virtually all older Frenchey (that’s a word) comics, I was rather puzzled. The standard post-war European comics length is 46 pages. Two times 46 is (where’s my slide ruler), er, uhm, 92. Stay with me here, even though the math is getting complicated.

So, 92 half pages on a weekly schedule. That would be… like… a year and a half to read an Asterix or Blueberry story. I know the French are very cultured and stuff, but that French children were this patient, even in the 50s and 60s, didn’t seem intuitively correct.

And some stories are even longer: A 58 page length isn’t uncommon, either, especially in the 70s. Were 70s children that patient? Two years for a Spirou story?

Now, if you’re American (and so many people are these days), you have no idea what I’m talking about at all, so allow me to illustrate with some pictures taken from a couple of random bande dessinées (that’s Frenchey for “comics”).

First we have a page from a 70s Spirou page by Fournier (in a recent Danish edition).

As you can see, the page is as described in the quote. The page has a gutter in the middle.

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Above the middle gutter, the artist has written “9A” in a box.

And below the second part, the artist has written “9B”.

I’ve never seen any of the original magazines Frenchey comics were serialised in, and the A/B thing has intrigued me ever since I was a child and read stacks and stacks of Frenchey albums (translated into other languages, since I don’t understand French. Much).

So that’s the explanation, eh? Incredibly patient French children? My!

But!

In case you don’t read Danish (and if you’re American (it happens) you probably don’t), it says that these pages were originally published in Spirou from issues 1682 to 1710 (that’s 29 issues (math again)) in the period from July 9th 1970 to January 21st 1971 (that’s about half a year (guesswork again)).

And this story is 58 pages long.

If we, again, apply our fantastic maths knowledge here, we see that instead of publishing half a page every week, this story was published at a rate of two pages per week. That is, French children were only a quarter as patient as originally suggested.

Still pretty good, but not extraordinary.

But that may be a fluke. Let’s look at another example. Above is a page from Valérian et Laureline, the album version of Le pays sans étoile, collected in 1972. It, too, has the half-page division and the A/B numbering on most pages.

This page says that it was “44 planches dans Pilote no 569 à 592 et couverture du no 570”. Like I said, I don’t know French, but I’m going to take a stab here and say that it says something like “44 pages from Pilote issue 569 to 592 with frog legs and potato au gratin”.

That’s (MORE MATH!) 24 issues. As this is a 46 page story, that’s about (NOO!) 1.9166666 pages per issue. WHICH DOESN”T MAKE SENSE.

Perhaps they overslept one week.

In any case, it’s more than half a page per week.  Again.

(As an aside, Mezieres uses quite a few non-regular non-half-page layouts, too, like this one, which has a rare A/B/C marking.)

At this point, I feel like it’s time to go out on a limb here and call it: Classic Frenchey comics were not serialised at the pace of half a page per week.

But there is a phenomenon here: There’s the A/B thing on a vast majority of these pages. What does that mean?

Perhaps… even if the normal pace was two pages per week, perhaps they were published in half-page layouts? Every page half-full of ads? Sounds awfully uncultured and un-French, but at this point we have to use not math, but Google Image Search.

Here a very helpful person has written about an issue of Pilote from the 60s.

Scrolling down that page, I don’t see a single half page comic. Virtually all of them do use the “gutter in the middle” layout, though.

(To digress a bit more from this in-depth investigation, I didn’t know that these magazines used to run a logo (and stuff) at the top of each page. That explains why albums are kinda “squat” format wise, since these logos are excluded in the collection.)

Googling for pages of the Spirou magazine is slightly more difficult, but here’s one, at least:

It’s from the mid-60s, and … it’s a full page. The only half-page results I got in the search were Gaston Lagaffe, but they are half-page gags and were apparently run on the covers for a while.

So: European comics were not published on a half-page-a-week basis, and they were published as full pages.

So what’s up with the A/B thing? WHAT? Was there a paper shortage and everybody just drew on smaller paper? Is it more ergonomic with smaller page?  Less stretching over the drawing table? Were the comics reformatted into smaller books? Were the editors just peculiar? WHAT?!

tabaryGoogling for people at their drawing tables (“table à dessin”?) from olden times is difficult. I found the drawing above by Tabary where he does show himself with half page pages, but that’s not exactly a smoking gun, evidence wise…

Finding modern artists is easy, and they draw full pages, but that’s no surprise since they don’t use the half-page layout.  Usually.

This investigation has gone as far as it can (i.e., I’m hungry now and I have to go make dinner), so unless something extraordinary happens (like somebody who knows what’s up with those A/B half-page layouts leaves a comment here), I guess we’ll just never know.

WFC Czech Republic: Transport z ráje

We spend so much time with the Nazi madmen that they turn into more interesting characters than the suffering and/or bemused Jews, which is perhaps not the effect the director was after.

The actors are, in general, not very compelling, but the director is probably not going for naturalism, anyway? The mixture of interesting stylisation (with far-off cameras with long lenses, faces often hidden) and sudden close-ups and action makes me rather unsure of whether the people who made this quite knew what they were doing.

Or were really clever.

Transport from Paradise. Zbynek Brynych. 1963. Czech Republic.

Wharf Rat

  • 1 part white rum
  • 1 part grenadine
  • 1 part absinthe
  • 1 part apricot brandy
  • 3 parts orange juice

Mix with crushed ice and top it up with absinthe.

This post is part of the World of Films and Cocktails series. Explore the map.

WFC Serbia: Otac na službenom putu

OK, the cocktail isn’t Serbian (but I googled for half an hour and didn’t find any recipes), and the film is Yugoslavian and is set in Sarajevo, but…

Kinda quirky film. It won a Cannes award and is apparently well-regarded, but I was just bored silly. I didn’t find the performances very convincing, and the cinematography is meh, the transitions are clichéd (a death and then a wedding, etc), and the coming-of-age framework for telling this kind of story is just so… done.

But there are fun bits. Like the suicide scene.

I can totally see people adoring this film. If I squint a bit.

When Father Was Away on Business. Emir Kusturica. 1985. Serbia.

Soft Serbian

  • 2 parts vodka
  • 1 part white rum
  • 1 part Pernod
  • 12 parts orange juice
  • 12 parts tonic water

Shake everything except the tonic water with ice. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass and top off with tonic water. Stir slightly.

Garnish with a slice of orange.

This post is part of the World of Films and Cocktails series. Explore the map.

Fantagraphics Floppies Redux

Done!

_1320185Perhaps I should just leave it at that, but I feel like bloviating a bit. (“NO!  REALLY?”) But at the end of this post, there’ll be an index. Feel free to skip to it if you’re the index reading kind of person.

(The following should probably be read in the voice of Comic Book Guy.)

Last winter, I decided I had to re-read all of Love and Rockets, because… it’s Love and Rockets. And I had finally (sort of) gotten the comics sorted after being stashed in various places for decades, so it seemed like the time.

But then while doing all this arduous sorting, I was happening onto other comics that were singing a sirens’ song. Like… DalgodaJourneyPrime Cuts! I MUST RE-READ ALL THESE COMICS!

And, besides, it sounded like a fun project to chase down the comics I hadn’t bought at the time. (This part turned out to take more time than I had imagined: Of the comics I read for this project, I would guess that about one tenth were newly acquired. Thank you, Mile High Comics, Ebay and (*phooey*) Amazon.)

My original idea was to re-read everything Fantagraphics had published. Then I took a look at the comics.org listing for Fantagraphics, and then I thought… “well, OK, just the comic books. The floppies. The pamphlets”. And then I though “OK, dump Eros Comix, too. And Monster. And Hard-Boiled. And Ignatz?”

I used comics.org to source the list of Fantagraphics comics, and scribbled something to filter out the imprints. I think the final list should be pretty complete, but it’s probably not. And I’m not going back to fill in anything I missed.

So for this most nerdy of nerdy projects, I ended up with a list of *gulp* 231 comic series.

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I almost stopped then and there, but now I had invested all this time (several minutes at least) into the project, so it was obviously too late to abandon it.

And it’s been fun, mostly. I did re-read Love and Rockets, and it was amazing, and I did discover new old comics that were really good, like Art d’Ecco. But there was a lot of stuff that I had forgotten about, or never had known about, that didn’t exactly set my couch on fire. Where my time would probably have been spent more productively doing something else than reading these comics.

OK, let’s establish a baseline here. Eddie Campbell makes the point (I think) that it’s unfair to compare comics to literature because most comics suck. (Is that a fair summary?) Instead we should be content to enjoy sucky comics because it’s fun to read comics.

So instead of determining whether it’s worth spending time on these comics by, say, imagining that I’m re-reading Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf instead, let’s benchmark to a slightly humbler work. Something that’s unassuming, not generally thought of as a masterwork, but is still something that apparently sane people spend time with and get some enjoyment out of.

Let’s use Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North and Erica Henderson.

The question then becomes: Would I (and therefore everybody else since my taste level is impeccable) rather be reading this Fantagraphics comic than Unbeatable Squirrel Girl?

I think Fantagraphics starts off pretty well, roundly winning on the USG scale with comics like Love & Rockets, Neat Stuff, Usagi Yojimbo, Captain Jack, Sinner, and on and on and on. But when you get to the 90s, things get rather dicey.

While Fantagraphics had published comics with money in mind in the 80s (Doomsday Squad, Thun’da Tales, Anything Goes!), they seemed to stop doing that in their main imprint in the 90s. Instead they started publishing porn under their Eros Comix imprint, which should perhaps have enabled them to be more discerning for their main line. But things seemed to go in the opposite direction, and this is during a time when publishers like Drawn & Quarterly and Tragedy Strikes kept their lineups impeccable.

Looking over the Fantagraphics 90s lineup, I’d say that more than a quarter of the comics fail the USG test. On an issue-by-issue basis, the ratio looks much better, because most of the worst series were cancelled pretty quickly, and the best series (Eightball, Hate, Naughty Bits, The ACME Novelty Library) went on for quite a while.

But if you stumble on to a 90s Fantagraphics series you haven’t heard of before, it’s likely to not be USG worthy. There isn’t a lost treasure trove of Fantagraphics gems. There are publishers that have almost perfect track records (Vortex, Tragedy Strikes, Black Eye, Uncivilized and the ever-lovable Drawn & Quarterly (at least I think so, perhaps I should re-read all their comics? (NOOO!)))), but Fantagraphics isn’t one of these publishers. And I had forgotten.

The past couple of days, I’ve also read We Told You So, the Fantagraphics hagiography, I mean oral history. I learned a lot about crazy interns, but very little about the comics they published or why they published them. I didn’t really expect to find any explanation for WTF-ey items like Butt Biscuit, but there was very little discussion about their publishing, er, strategy in the 90s at all.

The closest I got was a sentence by Kim Thompson saying that he would agree to publish things in the hope that the next thing they made would be better, and that that usually didn’t work out. So it’s more of a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” kinda strategy. (That they had no money probably didn’t help much.)

That approach worked great for Fantagraphics in the 80s. Artists like Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Jim Woodring and Joe Sacco weren’t critically and/or commercially successful when Fantagraphics started publishing them, but they stuck by them and they turned into critically and/or commercially successful artists after some years. (All those artists, and more, then left Fantagraphics for greener pastures, and published their most significant works (critically and/or commercially) with other publishers. Except the Hernandezes. And a couple have returned this year.)

Perhaps the strategy didn’t work very well in the 90s because the most talented artists went with other publishers? Reading interviews (and That Book), there seemed to be a general feeling that Fantagraphics didn’t do publicity for any of their creators other than their top five artists. And their publici_1320186st seems to confirm that rather bluntly in The Book.

(And to digress a bit: We Told You So is a frustrating reading experience. The cut-up “oral history” style sometimes devolves into an American TV documentary style with a sentence from one person, then a paragraph from another, then back to a sentence from the first person. If you want to be really mean about it, reading it is like watching a forty-six hour segment from 60 Minutes, with the narrator’s voice edited out. What is the audience for this book?)

 

And perhaps the explanation for the less stellar comics is simpler than all of this: Many of the books were created by coworkers and pals from Seattle, and they thought “hey, why not”.

But the 90s aren’t all dire. There are things that pass the USG test with flying colours, like Carol Swain, Renée French, Al Columbia and Dave Cooper. And as the 90s waned, so did the shit deluge. (OK, now I’m overstating the case: There’s little that’s actually crap. Deluge of mediocrity? That doesn’t have the same zing to it.) In the next decade Fantagraphics got their, er, shit together, and these days most of what they publish is, again, pretty spiffy.

I don’t mean to sound so down. Fantagraphics is a very important comics company, and comics history would have looked very different without it.

But in conclusion: If you ever feel like replicating this reading project… don’t. Just read the good comics they’ve published instead, and you know which ones they are.

And then you can decide whether to read Unbeatable Squirrel Girl afterwards or not.

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HERE”S THE INDEX!!1!ONE?

I’ve grouped the comics lightly. It’s not by “genre”, but by… er… grouping… Yes! I’ve grouped them by grouping.

The ones marked with ★ pass the USG test, I think.

Art

The Adventures of Mr. Pyridine ★ (1989), Flash Marks ★ (1989), The Librarian ★ (1992), Way Out Strips ★ (1994), Empty Skull Comics ★ (1996), Ape ★ (2003), Worn Tuff Elbow ★ (2004), Holy Moly ★ (2004)

Alternative Comics

Love and Rockets ★ (1982), Mechanics ★ (1985), Street Music ★ (1988), Yahoo ★ (1988), Love and Rockets Bonanza! ★ (1989), Unsupervised Existence ★ (1989), Eightball ★ (1989), Hate ★ (1990), Laundryland ★ (1990), Naughty Bits ★ (1991), Kid Anarchy (1991), Cud ★ (1992), Ten Years of Love and Rockets ★ (1992), Brain Capers ★ (1993), Crap (1993), Acme Novelty Library ★ (1993), Meat Cake ★ (1993), Nurture the Devil ★ (1994), Doofus (1994), Minimum Wage (1995), New Love ★ (1996), Whoa, Nellie! ★ (1996), Rollercoaster ★ (1996), Trailer Trash (1996), Maggie and Hopey Color Special ★ (1997), Penny Century ★ (1997), Artbabe ★ (1997), Sight Unseen (1997), Luba ★ (1998), Black Hole ★ (1998), Hate Jamboree ★ (1998), Death & Candy ★ (1998), Top Notch Comics (1998), Pop Life ★ (1998), The Bradleys ★ (1999), Love and Rockets ★ (2000), Luba’s Comics and Stories ★ (2000), Junior ★ (2000), Hate Annual ★ (2001), La Perdida ★ (2001), Tales from Shock City ★ (2001), Raisin Pie ★ (2002), The Pogostick (2003), Monster Parade ★ (2006), Swamp Preacher ★ (2006), Uptight ★ (2006), Cosplayers ★ (2014), Blubber ★ (2015), Love and Rockets ★ (2016)

Squishy Comics

Jim ★ (1987), Jim ★ (1993), Grit Bath ★ (1993), The Biologic Show ★ (1994), Pressed Tongue ★ (1994), Jim Special #1: Frank’s Real Pa ★ (1995), Frank ★ (1996), Weasel ★ (1999)

Underground

Shadowland ★ (1989), The Natural Inquirer (1989), Amazons ★ (1990), The Fauna Rebellion (1990), Avenue D ★ (1991), Adventures on the Fringe (1992), The Boulevard of Broken Dreams ★ (1993), The Mishkin File ★ (1993), Waldo World ★ (1994), Guttersnipe Comics ★ (1994), Self-Loathing Comics ★ (1995), Art & Beauty Magazine (1996), Villa of the Mysteries ★ (1996), Mystic Funnies ★ (2001), Stuff of Dreams ★ (2002), Belly Button Comix ★ (2002), The Mystery of Woolverine Woo-Bait ★ (2004)

Autobio

Real Life ★ (1990), Real Stuff ★ (1990), The Dead Muse ★ (1990), It’s Only a Matter of Life and Death ★ (1990), Walking Wounded ★ (1990), Colin Upton’s Other Big Thing ★ (1991), Little Italy ★ (1991), Bleeding Heart ★ (1991), Jizz ★ (1991), True Confusions ★ (1991), The Cheque, Mate ★ (1992), Collier’s ★ (1992), Suburban Voodoo Comics (1992), In the Days of the Ace Rock’N’Roll Club ★ (1993), (You and Your) Big Mouth (1993), Wild Life ★ (1994), Life Under Sanctions ★ (1994), Psychonaut ★ (1996)

Humour

Neat Stuff ★ (1985), Lloyd Llewellyn ★ (1986), Good Girls ★ (1987), Lloyd Llewellyn Special ★ (1988), Blite (1989), The Eye of Mongombo ★ (1989), Pedestrian Vulgarity (1990), Har Har Comics ★ (1990), Lust of the Nazi Weasel Women ★ (1990), Art D’Ecco ★ (1990), Leather Underwear ★ (1990), Tales from the Outer Boroughs (1991), Test Dirt ★ (1991), Cultural Jet Lag (1991), I Before E (1991), Knuckles the Malevolent Nun (1991), Loose Teeth (1991), Check-Up (1991), Completely Bad Boys (1992), Zoot! ★ (1992), Griffith Observatory ★ (1993), Idiotland (1993), Bad Comics ★ (1994), Martini Baton! ★ (1994), Damnation! (1994), Whotnot ★ (1994), Spotlight on the Genius That Is Joe Sacco ★ (1994), Prick Comix ★ (1995), Bummer (1995), Sleepy: The Early Daze (1996), Primitive Cretin (1996), The Nimrod ★ (1998), Spicecapades (1999), Steven Comix #2: Steven at Sea (1999), Steven Presents Dumpy (1999), Goody Good Comics ★ (2000), Monkey Jank (2000), Angry Youth Comix ★ (2001), Trucker Fags in Denial ★ (2004), Tales Designed to Thrizzle ★ (2005), Runaway Comics ★ (2006)

Parodies

WildB.R.A.T.S.: Bad Redundant Art Teams (1992), Verbatim (1993), Filibusting Comics ★ (1995)

“Funny” animal

Hugo ★ (1982), Hugo ★ (1984), The Adventures of Captain Jack ★ (1986), Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special ★ (1986), Myron Moose Funnies (1987), Dog Boy (1987), Usagi Yojimbo ★ (1987), Christmas with Superswine (1989), Grootlore (1989), Stinz ★ (1989), Usagi Yojimbo Color Special ★ (1989), Fission Chicken ★ (1990), A*K*Q*J ★ (1991), Aesop’s Fables (1991), Grootlore (1991), Omaha the Cat Dancer (1994), Poot ★ (1997), Fuzz & Pluck in Splitsville ★ (2001)

Anthologies

Prime Cuts ★ (1986), Critters ★ (1986), Honk! ★ (1986), Anything Goes! (1986), Centrifugal Bumble-Puppy ★ (1987), Bad News ★ (1988), Critters Special ★ (1988), Itchy Planet ★ (1988), Graphic Story Monthly ★ (1989), Fox Comics Special ★ (1989), Fox Comics ★ (1989), Real Girl ★ (1990), Different Beat Comics ★ (1994), Girltalk ★ (1995), Zero Zero ★ (1995), Storylines: An Anthology of Emerging Cartoonists ★ (2003), Blood Orange ★ (2004), Bête Noire: The International Comic Art Quarterly ★ (2005)

Documentary

Palestine ★ (1993)

Drama

Playgrounds (1991), S.O.S. (1992), The Cereal Killings (1992), Holy Cross (1993), Frederick & Eloise: A Love Story ★ (1993), Black Dogs ★ (1993), An Accidental Death (1993), Alex (1994), Insomnia (1994),

European and South American

Sinner ★ (1987), Perramus: Escape from the Past ★ (1991), Grenuord ★ (2005), DKW: Ditko Kirby Wood (2014),

Oldee Tymee Comics

Frank Frazetta’s Thun’da Tales (1987), Frank Frazetta’s Untamed Love (1987), Steve Ditko’s Strange Avenging Tales (1997), Mabel Normand and Her Funny Friends (2003), Fatty Arbuckle and His Funny Friends (2004)

Adventures

The Flames of Gyro (1979), Gil Kane’s Savage (1982), Don Rosa’s Comics and Stories (1983), Journey ★ (1985), The Doomsday Squad (1986), The Miracle Squad (1986), Journey: Wardrums ★ (1987), Evil Eye ★ (1998)

Comics Aren’t Just For Adults Any More

Kaktus Valley ★ (1990), Measles ★ (1998)

Science Fiction

Dalgoda ★ (1984), Flesh and Bones ★ (1986), Threat (1986), The Wandering Stars ★ (1987), Keif Llama — Xeno-Tech ★ (1988), Neil and Buzz in Space and Time (1989)

Fantasy

Dinosaur Rex ★ (1987), Tatto Man Special (1991), Coventry (1996)

Literary Adaptations

The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories (1988), Kafka: The Execution ★ (1989), A Couple of Winos ★ (1991)

Philosophy

Stickboy (1988), Doofer: Pathway to McEarth ★ (1992), Schizo ★ (1995)

I Just Don’t Know

Crucial Fiction (1992), Sap Tunes (1992), Duplex Planet Illustrated (1993), A Vast Knowledge of General Subjects (1994)

What The Fuck

Teaser and the Blacksmith (1989), Butt Biscuit (1992)

Yes!  I’ve read them all this autumn!  All 1063!  And now I’m going to just read books for a couple of years.

lisa-drop