December 18th, 2011 at 2:13 am

Comics, Joe and the New York School

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(The following article appeared in slightly different form in the November 2011 issue of This Land Magazine. The subject, the late artist Joe Brainard, was one of a close-knit group of ambitious young Oklahomans who traveled to New York at the beginning of the 1960s to join the burgeoning East Coast experimental arts scene called the New York School. Surrounded by the still fresh and potent twin influences of the Beats and the pop art movement, each of them found inspiration to forge careers of lasting value – none more so than Brainard, whose work remains inimitable and influential to this day…and whose explorations included pioneering efforts in art comics decades before such a concept existed.

This brief survey of Brainard’s comics work is reprinted by permission of This Land Press, who can be found online here. All the artwork reproduced here is copyright Joebrainard.org.)

1964 was a fertile year for Joe Brainard. After a brief retreat from the pressures of establishing himself in New York and the fear that his work had begun to go stale, the young Tulsan was back in the Big Apple – re-energized and forging lifelong relationships with new friends, lovers and fellow artists. That year, he saw his work chosen for a group exhibition, with his first New York solo gallery show and a book collaboration only a few months away. And when he wasn’t pushing the envelope in the fine arts, he was devoting hours to blazing a trail in the world of cartooning and comics.

People looked at comics differently then. Beyond the work of a handful of big-gun political cartoonists and superstar magazine artists like Charles Addams, the medium was almost universally seen as a featherweight enterprise. Newspaper strips were ephemeral amusements, delivery systems for jokes and serialized snippets of soap opera that appeared alongside daily horoscopes and simple word jumbles. And as negligible as the likes of Mr. Abernathy and Mary Worth were, they were the epitome of gravitas when compared to comic books. To most people who’d moved beyond grade school, those 12-cent pamphlets were popularly considered to be nothing but childish trash.

None of that mattered to Brainard, who saw untapped potency in the medium’s combination of words and pictures. Working with poets of a kindred spirit like John Ashbery, Kenward Elmslie, Frank O’Hara and fellow Tulsan Ron Padgett, he created the first volume of C Comics, a mimeographed anthology of short works that stood the conventional notion of cartooning on its ear by asking a question that had rarely, perhaps never, been asked: If comics are suitable for narrative, then why not poetry?

The pop art movement, with its appropriation of imagery from advertising and comics, was well established by this time and Brainard was captivated by the achievement of practitioners like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. But even before he’d encountered their work, the impulse to transmute comics into gold was already there. He’d devoured comic books in his childhood and teen years, and as a matter of course had already made occasional use of cartoon icons like Nancy and Dick Tracy in his work. When he was recruited by another Tulsa refugee, Ted Berrigan, to contribute to the mimeoed magazine C: A Journal of the Arts, comics-derived images eventually became part of the package. The seventh issue, for instance, featured a cover cobbled together from repurposed drawings and logos in conventional pop art style – but that approach quickly evolved toward a more personal statement with the very next issue. That one featured a full-blown (if unconventional) comics page for a cover, the 24-panel “Love Pictures” with words by Berrigan and art by Brainard that was not repurposed, but original, and infinitely more human.

That humanity was what separated Brainard’s work from much of the pop art product, with its celebration of the hard-edged geometry of commercial comics images. Works like Lichtenstein’s celebrated comic book pastiches were cold and condescending comments on a less fortunate art form, a schoolyard bully intent on taking away the runt’s lunch money and pantsing it on the playground. Brainard’s comics, by contrast, embraced the form; within the tossed-off freehand shapes of his unsymmetrical panels he achieved something considerably more magical than mere irony.

By the time his C: Journal covers saw print, Brainard had been working on comics-style projects for at least a year, enlisting as his collaborators some of the brightest lights among the New York School poets. Some of those writers may have been attracted initially by the lure of pop art (in those days, too, it was hip to be square), and not all of them were enchanted with the idea of working in a “childish” medium…but in most cases, the potential of the form, combined with Brainard’s talent and personal charm, won them over, and the results – though sometimes crude and clunky – were frequently impressive.

The working method on C Comics #1 fluctuated from collaboration to collaboration – sometimes the poets would add their words after Brainard had completed his art, sometimes vice versa. In either case, the tension between the two elements produced remarkably varied works. Brainard’s interpretation of his own poem “People of the World: Relax!” communicated its simple life-embracing message through a series of captioned panels that evoked the art in old high school yearbooks. The approach to “Red Rydler and Dog” (created with Frank O’Hara), on the other hand, appropriated the narrative machinery of conventional pulp comics to present a character study of a gay cowpoke and his missing pooch.

Many of the “Red Rydler” visuals were redrawn images from Fred Harman’s Red Ryder newspaper strip – many of Brainard’s comics were, in fact, repurposed from other sources – but the similarity between his comics and the commentary of pop art was purely superficial. Fascinated by collage and assemblage, Brainard was born to reinterpret found objects and felt that he did his best work if he had an example before him to jump-start his process. Much of his comics work involved transforming the basic ideas found in old postcards or photos into new images shot through with his own warmth and aesthetics. (As noted by Ron Padgett in his biography Joe: A Memoir of Joe Brainard, “Rydler” was also a demonstration of the freedom he’d learned through earlier collaborations with Berrigan. When he made a hash of drawing the face of Rydler’s dog, Brainard simply scribbled over the mistake and proceeded to draw the dog with the same mass of black squiggles for the rest of the strip – a touch that was then incorporated into the text.)

Of course, Brainard and his partners in funnies weren’t alone in pushing at the boundaries of what could be achieved on the comics page. As writer and artist Gary Sullivan noted in a 2007 essay, 1964 was the year that cartoonists Jack Jackson and Frank Stack separately published magazines that have come to be recognized as pioneering efforts of the late ‘60s underground comix scene. In addition to those early adult parodies of religion and social attitudes, Texan Gilbert Shelton was finding new ways to bitch-slap the establishment with the adventures of his grotesque counter-culture superhero Wonder Wart-Hog, a surprisingly long-lived concept that moved from college humor papers to hot rod magazines and underground comix. Even in the world of kids’ superhero comics, Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel Comics were taking baby steps in the direction of creating more sophisticated stories for older audiences. If those efforts amounted to less than the zeitgeist of the mid-’60s, there was nonetheless something in the air for artists with radar sensitive enough to pick it up.

C Comics was successful enough in its creators’ minds to merit a second issue the following year, this time in an offset format. A third issue was contemplated in 1969 but never completed; however, it wasn’t the end of Brainard’s commitment to the comics form. During the mid-‘60s he published a number of cartoons in the East Village Other, and contributed a striking set of pages to Cherry, a collaboration with Ron Padgett that reinterpreted a European fumetti into a series of images that allied the stark line work of woodcuts with the heavily inked chiaroscuro of noir.

He turned out two more long-form collaborations the following decade. The Class of ’47 (1973), with Robert Creeley, illuminated the blowhard text of an Ivy League booster by playing it against confidently rendered views of cartoon characters and advertising images. Perhaps his most accomplished cartooning is on display in the 1971 “Sufferin’ Succotash” (again with Padgett), which was published in a back-to-back Ace Doubles format with “Kiss My Ass,” a collaboration with Michael Brownstein.

As his interests continued to evolve, Brainard would move on to other projects and leave sequential comics experiments behind…but one lasting souvenir of his fondness for the form remained an important facet of his work. From the early ‘60s to the late ‘70s he turned out over 100 works featuring Ernie Bushmiller’s Brillo-haired heroine Nancy, featuring her iconic face and figure in a wild and inspired series of images ranging from the poetic to the pornographic. Unlike the amused condescension of pop art, Brainard’s Nancy pieces reflect the sweet nature and gentle wry humor of his blue-collar roots and continue to elicit warm smiles whenever they’re displayed.

Given the breadth of Brainard’s accomplishment during his career, it’s understandable that his experiments with comics have received comparatively little notice – but much of that work is far from minor, and deserves to see the light of day again rather than remain half-hidden in the pages of rare and now expensive old arts journals. In the years since his death, a small but vital “arts comic” market has arisen, some of its creators undoubtedly ignorant of the fine artist who blazed the trail for them over 40 years ago. But Joe Brainard did it first, and he remains the guy who did it as well as anyone could. With any justice, the day may come when we can not only see his work in museums, but also, once again, in the funny papers.

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