Wednesday, March 14, 2007

1st Folio #1

1st Folio #1, March 1984, Pacific Comics
various contributors

Since today is "Pi Day" -- 3.14 -- I thought I'd dedicate today's post to education by reviewing 1st Folio #1, a compilation of short comic stories by students and alumni of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art. When the school opened in 1976, Kubert boasted the academic effort as the only of its kind, the only bastion of higher learning for artists seeking expertise in the graphic arts. He'd be able to say the same thing today. Sure, universities are offering courses in the history of comic book literature, or even art instruction classes on the structure of comic book art, but I know of no other college exclusively for aspiring comics professionals. With the influence the comic book industry has developed in every other aspect media, I wouldn't be surprised to see this change within the next decade. Still, Kubert did it first. His first lesson was that it could be done.

When I think about the first generation of comic book artists, I imagine an uneducated (in their artistic field, I mean), hard-working brood of guys that were vaguely cognizant of their impact on early American pop culture. Indeed, although I could expound upon this point in great depth, I briefly submit that the comic book is the earliest form of youth-oriented pop culture, the veritable ancestor to the Internet, informing an entire generation of American youth about the war effort, about girls, about all the stupid stuff they could spend their money on if they're gullible enough to believe those ads, those full page muddled pop-ups of old. What I'm saying is, those old artists created their own education, testing the bounds of their medium, unwittingly bringing their young readership along for the ride. Yes, by the time those kids grew up, they wanted to be artists, too, but with the market more dense than it had been, the scrambling effort became a corporate strategy. (Really, am I the only one in awe of the fact that the modern Marvel Universe began as a marketing stratagem against the rival's seemingly popular Justice League of America series?) Enter Kubert and the idea that someone should streamline that crude, early education. Write it down, share it with others. The making of comic books became as sequential as the stories that established.

This comic book is the result. Honestly, I enjoyed the read as a sheer effort in enthusiasm, in telling short comic stories that in themselves represent everything the medium has to offer. I mean, think about it. Joe Kubert tells you, "Your final grade is a two-page tale that I'll probably publish with Pacific Comics, and I'm putting my name on it, so it better be good." No pressure, right? At the same time, you're clawing your way into a field in which the fantastic is commonplace: men fly, cowboys gunsling, spacemen traverse the stars . . . but you still feel like you have some different to contribute. The feeling is a tremendous challenge and responsibility -- the burden of the whole-hearted artist. So what do these potential pioneers deliver?

Interestingly, all but one of these stories -- the one by Joe Kubert himself, a war-time tale, of course -- feature some sort of supernatural monster or alien, and of those, two of them star knights, and two of them are set in outer space, by definition. One of the knights encounters a deceptive witch that curses him to protect the crown of thorns he originally sought for an eternity, while the other knight promises to sly a terrorizing dragon for a helpless village, only to vanquish some other, Bigfoot-looking beast. In space, a pilot is perused by an alien monster only to burst from the comic book page itself, while the other tale stars a moon-based female James Bond that thwarts a human body parts trafficking plan. Other stories star a hick that gets high on swamp water, another hick hunted by a surprise alien, and a comic book artist that mistakes his cats for a closet-dwelling monster, until a real monster shows up. Truly, these are tales intended for a Strange Tales oriented audience. Enjoyable, and dominated by a Kubert wanna-be class, if not Andy and Adam Kubert themselves. I wonder if a similar phenomenon would happen with today's generation of up-and-comers . . . or would the monsters and aliens succumb to trends about ex-girlfriends and coffee shop banter?

Although these yarns are cleverly constructed for mere two-page allowances (give or take in some cases), I didn't observe any really liberal use of page layout or character blocking. Truly, these young artists simply sought to tell their story succinctly, a feat I respect all by itself, but again I believe today's rising stars would attempt something medium-bending, more from the school of Scott McLeod's texts. As much as one can learn from a professional, the comic book making business has become as much a peer mentoring process, as well, as independent artists unite to create a submarket all their own.

So, on Pi Day, we get a slice of comic book education -- not simply in its construction, but in its history. Surely, although 1st Folio is the first comic to boast itself the result of graphic art students, many comic books, the very issues we treasure from the Golden Age that established the medium as we know it today, are makeshift jam sessions of students to visual sequential storytelling. They were learning as they went along. We readers are merely sitting in the back of the classroom, looking over the really talented students' shoulders, marveling at what seems to come naturally to them. Our very role in this process is cheating, looking at what is essentially somebody else's paper. Hey . . . I won't tell if you don't.

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