Monday, August 07, 2006

Magic Whistle #10
by Sam Henderson

There's a list of maybe two dozen cartoonists and other various comic book types whose work I will purchase sight unseen, based solely on the strength of their names. That may seem like a lot, but it's not really when you consider just how infrequently many top-shelf cartoonists publish. I'd give my eyeteeth for more Mat Brinkmann comics but it doesn't seem to be happening any time soon, you know?

Sam Henderson is definitely someone who could stand to publish more often for the sole reason that I wish to purchase more of his comic books. This is given the fact, mind you, that I perfectly understand the reasoning behind his frequent absences from the stands. It's cold comfort, perhaps, for an internet critic of my inestimable stature (cough cough) to say that Henderson deserves the opportunity to publish more frequently without having to choose between comic books and eating food, but that doesn't make it any less true.

From the evidence of their output there are quite a few cartoonists working today who have managed to find a more convenient détente between the demands of artistic expression and commercial exigency. There is a very good chance that those elements of Henderson's work which make it so vital and endlessly novel are also elements that work against him in the broader marketplace. He doesn't create graphic novels or long-form serials with ongoing characters. He doesn't use any ongoing characters, really, or at least none that last longer than a few pages. Those cartoonists who have found commercial success in the broader marketplace produce work which is naturally conducive to conventional marketing -- "graphic novel" is a particularly loaded phrase, but part of what it connotes is a comic book of considerable length and narrative depth. How, then, to acclimate a general readership to the virtues of cartoonists who work outside the confines of larger novelistic narrative forms? Henderson is probably one of the best "pure" cartoonists working today, but "pure" cartooning carries limited appeal outside a select group of wonks, aficionados and, um, children. If you were to give the average grown-up reader -- say, someone who was already familiar with graphic novels and amenable to the form -- a copy of a gag-book like Magic Whistle, there's no guarantee that they'd be able to see the sophisticated knowledge of form and craft underlying Henderson's work, or appreciate the subtle mixture of surreal humor and whimsical scatology that fuels the punchlines. Chances are they'd dismiss it out of hand, simply because the way in which puerile / oafish subject matter influences sophisticated exploitation of form is more technical than the average comics layperson can reasonably be expected to understand. This is the reason why Peanuts continues to burn up the sales chart while Krazy Kat remains a kult koncern to the world at large: it's not so much that one is appreciably better than the other, merely that the appeal of the former is far more universal than that of the latter.

So the moral? If Henderson wants to make some dough, he needs to come up with a proposal for some sort of long-form narrative that he can pitch to a New York book editor who doesn't know any better.

This latest issue of Magic Whistle is special to me, as it is the first time (to my knowledge) in my long years of comics commentary and criticism that a quote of mine has landed on the back cover or inside flap of an actual honest-to-goodness book. Right on the back cover, under a long and respectful quote from Publisher's Weekly, there are two words extracted from my review of the last Magic Whistle in the pages of The Comics Journal: "...Wildly inconsistent". Sure enough, when I wrote up the last Magic Whistle, I was fairly critical -- but it is to Henderson's credit that the latest issue is a much more consistent production than the previous. There were a handful of bravura pieces in Magic Whistle #9 but there was also a great deal of padding and sub-par filler material. The signal-to-noise ratio is much better in the new issue. Even the epistolary features designed to explain the provenance of old / dead / unfunny jokes seem a bit crisper this time around: there is something to be said for being able to recycle a joke in such a way that the sheer unfunny-ness of the joke becomes funny in and of itself. Such is the glory of Henderson's obituary for Nixon Fonzarelli, the kind of idea only a twelve-year-old could find funny.

I have to wonder about the origins of the "Under the Sea" strip -- obviously a blatant crib of the Cartoon Network's deconstructionist feature Sealab 2021. I mean, it's not even slightly a question: in the space of fourteen pages, in addition to establishing a setting and cast nearly identical to that of the TV show, Henderson throws in a number of references to specific episodes and plotlines. It's interesting how easily Henderson adapts the series' freewheeling, almost stream-of-consciousness narrative flow. Of all the features in the book, I would most have liked to see a bit of explanatory text for this tale, because on its face it's a really bizarre artifact. it's too similar to previous episodes to be a rejected storyboard, so what gives?

But that weirdness aside, the book is immensely satisfying. The previous issue was the first Magic Whistle to take advantage of the series' new squarebound, more-or-less annual format, but the evidence on display with this new volume seems to suggest that the growing pains which produced such a "wildly inconsistent" affair are a thing of the past. If a yearly dosage of Sam Henderson is all we can hope to receive for the foreseeable future, this is not so bad after all.

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