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Skip Navigation LinksKCC Home > Art Gallery > Maidens

Maidens, Moons and Monsters:
The Imagined worlds of Alex Niño

November 4- November 30, 2009

The Infinite Panel:
Tradition and Transgression in the work of Alex Niño

Alex Niño is that rarest of artists, like William Blake or El Greco, whose imagination and technique are so strong and so in variance with contemporary practice that they must stand alone, unable to foster a school of slavish imitators, and therefore must be admired simply for their mastery of form and for their stalwart transgression of accepted artistic norms. Such a claim could be made on the basis of his drawings alone, which revel in baroque flourishes and inventive - if occasionally grotesque - renderings of monsters living in the depths of space and deep within ourselves; it is in his use and manipulation of space and continuous narrative, and in the disintegration of the traditional multi-panel comic book page, however, that separate, and in many ways elevate, Niño's work from that of his predecessors in Filipino komiks and have made him a formidable - if underappreciated - presence in American comics.

As the case with most visionaries his career has always been a struggle between making a statement and making a living. Beginning in the late 1940s, Filipino komiks had made national heroes of Nestor Redondo, Francisco V. Coching and Alfred Alcala, whose work reflected the influence of American comic strip artists (Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, in particular) and American commercial illustrators such as Franklin Booth and J.C. Leyendecker. Challenging the hegemony of this powerhouse trio with his idiosyncratic style, Niño found it difficult to see his work in print without adapting and combining their styles with his own. As he once remarked in an interview, "I copied Nestor, I copied [artist] Jesse Santos, I copied everybody! So I used a mixture of everybody's styles." (1) Even then, Niño's work stood out, and eventually, after a lull in work seemingly instigated by his stylistic interpretation of a script by Komiks publisher Mars Revelo, he was offered jobs in which he could take more artistic license. As part of the influx of komiks artists hired by DC Comics in the early 1970s, Niño attracted the attention of other American publishers, including Marvel and Warren Publishing.

His most experimental work, that created for the Warren publication 1984 (published from 1978-1983, renamed 1994 in February 1980, hereafter referred to as 1984/1994), expanded the boundaries of sequential art. One of his two contributions to the first issue, "Once Upon Clarissa," established his position as the magazine's most innovative artist; the story was printed lengthwise, requiring the reader to turn the comic, like a Playboy centerfold, in order to read it. In this it recaptured the sense one had of reading the full-page Sunday comics by American cartoonists that Niño had loved as a child in Tarlac, the Philippines. Its storyline - a lovelorn woman struck by two subway trains is kept alive by preserving each of her mangled body parts in a separate jar wired to a monstrous apparatus - similarly set the tone for the types of lurid scripts that Niño would be called upon to illustrate by 1984/1994 editor Bill DuBay. The seemingly paradoxical fact that his dazzling artistry is paired with these macabre, crude, and in most cases poorly-written stories does not distract from their visual impact; Niño gave his all to his pages, no matter how inane or unsettling the storyline. As he explained in 2004: "Whatever I did, I worked hard on it - it's blood with no sleep - right or wrong, take it or leave it, whether you like it or not, it will stay that way! You may love it or hate it - Deal with it. Either way, at the end of that page is a panel that bleeds, asking for a bit of respect." (2)

Nevertheless Niño seemed to work organically - to make the artistic style mesh perfectly with the demands of the script. "Painter's Mountain," for example, a tale by Bill DuBay and Budd Lewis of a prehistoric man more mentally or morally advanced than his hedonistic brethren, is a more lavish, ornate interpretation of the panels of Hal Foster's Tarzan or Filipino variations of the Edgar Rice Burroughs character, such as Francisco V. Coching's Dumagit. His classically-illustrated figures, however, are contrasted by flowing, almost Art Nouveau foliage and otherworldly elements - futuristic cityscapes and a crashed spacecraft revealed on the story's final page to be that of Painter's marooned ancestors. By historicizing the visual style of the story - echoing Foster, Redondo and Coching (and even himself, having done several stories of "Korak, Son of Tarzan" for Marvel's Tarzan series) - Niño allows the reader to erroneously believe until the end that the story takes place in our Paleolithic past, or in a post-apocalyptic future rather than on a distant planet; the suggestion is clear, however, that our own civilization, existing amidst technologies most of us can scarcely begin to fathom, is subject to social and cultural degeneration.

In other stories less tethered to the comics tradition (the norm in 1984/1994), Niño defied the conventions of the comics page. Whereas most sequential art is just that - a sequence of panels divided by spaces ("gutters") that convey time and action - the typical Niño story panels, if they are used at all, are ancillaries to larger background images (as in "Painter's Mountain). In his more experimental pages he abandons panels altogether, arranging the various parts of the story in a stream-of-consciousness fashion, altering scale, shifting perspective and alternating the "reading" of the image from horizontal to vertical in one image that stretches across two printed pages. As in the case of the psychological monologue in the story "1894" (1994 #15, October 1980), such challenging imagery is designed to match the mental dissolution of its narrator, whose descent into madness, unbeknownst to himself, is precipitated by his spacecraft passing through an asteroid belt. Niño's nebbish narrator spins and flows across the page, his hallucinations becoming increasingly bizarre in separate vignettes that cannot be "read" in any conventional sense. Styles also change from section to section; in the bottom right corner, for instance, Niño draws the character in the style of famed science-fiction illustrator Wally Wood (added perhaps as a sign of solidarity with Wood, who quit working for Warren after his story in the inaugural issue of 1984 was chopped and rearranged by editor Bill Dubay into a futuristic sex romp).

The horror vacuii of such pages, and the use of continuous narrative rather than a sequence of panels - one might paradoxically call it sequential simultaneity in the case of comics - evokes a similar strategy employed by artists of the Italian Renaissance, who combined various temporal events into one scene, such as Fra Filippo Lippi's The Feast of Herod: Salome Dancing, in which the New Testament femme fatale is shown in various moments during her presentation of John the Baptist's head to her mother and King Herod (c.1452-66). Filippo's collapsing of time into three simultaneous moments forces the viewer to mentally isolate and examine each of these moments separately and in terms of their contribution to the composition as a whole. (3) While this is an interesting approach to drawing comics, what makes Niño's panels truly innovative (and confusing to some) is that his use of perspective is not consistent with each of the moments he assembles into a single page, instead shifting the view from above to below and again to straight ahead. This deliberate negation of linear perspective is organic to the tone of the story, conveying the idea that in space, as well as in the mind of the narrator, there exist no cardinal directions or perspective to offer geographical or mental reassurance; the omission of separate comic panels similarly negates the establishment of comforts of terra firma, creating instead a world in which both the outer reaches of space and the inner space of the mind are infinite and resistant to reason.

Of course Niño was not the first to experiment with the accepted rules of panels. Although very different in style - but not in imaginative pictorial solutions - Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland, a weekly strip that ran in the New York Herald (1905-1911) and the New York American (1911-1914, as In the Land of Wonderful Dreams), similarly toyed with thin, page-length panels and separate panels that form one large image. In the dreamscape inhabited by Nemo and his companions, beds suddenly grow legs and walk about the city, monsters abound and the moon, like that in Georges Méliès' contemporary Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), is given a human face. Each Sunday comic adventure of Little Nemo ended with the title character awaking from his phantasmagorical dream, usually by tumbling out of bed and regretting whatever dessert or delicacy it was that prompted his reverie. McCay (who, incidentally, lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn for much of his career) anticipates the idea inherent in Niño's work that the page can represent its own reality, distinct from our own and from the conventions and limitations of the multiple-panel comic strip. (4)

Even when using panels, Niño explored new possibilities for representing them. In a later story from 1981 (with the unfortunate title A**hole of the Universe) an astronaut sent to find the end of the universe finds himself full-circle at the creation of the universe, inadvertently becoming an Adam to a new Eve before facing expulsion by interstellar police. Here the panels - thin white outlines around the main characters - become one with the background, an airbrushed stellar dynamo of stars and distant planets, simultaneously creating and eliminating the space between them. His use of the airbrush, uncommon but not unknown in comics (Richard Corben's airbrushed feature "Mutant World," which began in the inaugural issue, was the only color story in the pages of 1984/1994),no doubt stemmed from his frequent borrowing of his father's airbrush set as a youngster, which the elder Niño had used to retouch photographs. (5)

Parallels exist not only with the Komiks of his childhood but with masters of Japanese printmaking such as Hokusai (1760-1849), in whose fifteen volumes of Hokusai's Manga ("sketches") one also finds fantastical creatures, exquisite linework and two images that together form one image. The connection to Hokusai is most evident in Niño's most experimental stories for 1984/1994, "Young Sigmund Pavlov! Psychoanalytic Itinerant Extraordinaire!" in which an interplanetary psychiatrist delves into the minds of space creatures (through the use of a "Schizo-Delusionary Excursion Helmet") to sort out their neuroses. In the left and top margins of several of these stories Niño rendered figures that possess the same visual playfulness of those in Hokusai's Manga. In this particular image Niño addresses his own duality as a Filipino komiks artist working for American publishers: the pencil in one of the disembodied hands (covered with a word balloon in the published comic but visible in this exhibition) drawing the noodle-faced monster reads "Made in P.I." (Philippine Islands); the other reads "Made in U.S.A."

In another of Niño 's incredibly detailed pages from the story "Young Sigmund Pavlov," the waves so prevalent in Hokusai's woodblock prints are transformed into a swirling torrent of tentacled sea monsters, suggesting a monistic approach to the unity of matter in which splashes of foamy crests double as flying birds (Hokusai) or as horrific creatures (Niño). Such creatures permeate his work and link him back to such pulp science-fiction illustrators as Earle K. Bergey (1901–1952), Frank R. Paul (1884-1963), and Virgil Finlay (1914-1971). (6)

Niño once jokingly confessed that "...my alien creatures are products of my frustrations and my impressions of the people I've had brushes with. Whenever I want to paint alien creatures, all I do is recall their faces." (7) What differentiates his illustrations of monsters from the standard pulp magazine/EC Comics fare is that these grotesque creatures are situated within the most exquisite backgrounds, eliciting a simultaneous sensation of disgust, fear and awe that in a former era would be described as the Sublime.

It was also in the "Young Sigmund Pavlov" stories that Niño would create his most unusual and conceptually rich images. In several of these stories the double pages were designed to be assembled in order to create one colossal image, such as that found in the August 1982 issue of 1994 ). An amorphous space monster, surrounded by a myriad of separate vignettes and figures, winds its way like a gnarled tree root across all five panels (10 pages as printed in the magazine). Remarkably, these five panels can be assembled not only horizontally, but vertically; readers could thereby create, conceivably, were they to purchase enough copies of the magazine, a poster spreading infinitely in all directions. The Editor of 1994, naturally, encouraged such attempts:

"No fewer than nine copies are required to lay out the whole scene…if, that is, you are willing to settle for a complete link in the infinite chain...Sorry about the added expense readers, but here is a money-saving idea! Get together with other 1994 fans in your area every time Alex goes off the deep end this way! There's no telling how many copies he's going to make you buy next time!" (8)

As an infinite artwork, this installment of "Sigmund Pavlov" elevates the potential of the medium, embodying psychedelic imagery, quasi-mystical philosophy and the conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. In the years since the bankruptcy of Warren Publishing in 1983, Alex Niño has worked on a number of projects that utilize his imaginative talents, but none as experimental as the pages created for 1984/1994. Yet his most recent work, for the series Dead Ahead (Image Comics, 2008), continues the precedents established in the late 1970s and proves that his abilities are no less keen and that his images remain as awe-inspiring as ever. As comic art currently enjoys an elevated status within the now-suspect hierarchy of the arts (due in part to Pop Art's appropriation of comics imagery, to the rise in the study of material culture, and to artists such as Raymond Pettibon, whose work blurs the distinctions between comics and "high art"), it is crucial to reexamine the contributions of the American komikeros who helped shape the medium, none so boldly as Alex Niño.

Brian E. Hack, Ph.D.
guest curator


Notes
(1) Jon B. Cooke, "Alex Niño is Fearless," Comic Book Artist 2:4 (Sept 2004), 98.
(2) Cooke, "Alex Niño is Fearless," 105.
(3) For more on continuous narrative in Renaissance painting, see: Lew Andrews, Story and Space in Renaissance Art: The Rebirth of Continuous Narrative (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998) [1995], passim. One might also consider this idea in terms of photographers such as Étienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904) and Eadweard J. Muybridge (1830-1904), and of painters such as Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), who similarly explored the notion of time and motion presented in a single image. In comics a precedent exists of sorts with Mort Meskin's (1916-1995) strip "Johnny Quick" in the pages of More Fun Comics in the 1940s; to suggest the speed of this Flash-inspired superhero, Meskin drew the figure numerous times in a single panel (special thanks to Robert Hack for pointing out this observation .)
(4) John Canemaker, Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005), passim. For more on early visionary comic strips, see the recent book by Dan Nadel, Art Out of Time: Unknown Comics Visionaries, 1900-1969 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2006), passim. For additional information on the history of comics strips and comic books, see Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (London: Phaidon, 2001), passim; and Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book (New York: Basic Books, 2004), passim. McCay's influence can also be seen today in the work of Chris Ware (b. 1967), a contemporary comic book artist best-known for his graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth (2000), who shares with Nino an imaginative use of panels in the tradition of McCay's Little Nemo.
(5) Celestino Amigo, "Niño's Art," The Philippines Comics Review 1:1
(1979), 41-42.
(6) The sea - and in particular the cresting wave - is a recurring image in Niño's oeuvre. One can trace this theme , perhaps a geographical reference to his native Philippines, from his early work in komiks, such as the full-cover illustration of the story "Goomba" (Tagalog Klasiks #427, May 1967), to the similarly expansive covers of his recent series Dead Ahead (2008, Image Comics).
(7) Amigo, 44.
(8)

"Paper Your Walls With Psychedelic Schizophrenia!" 1994 26
(August 1982), 14.


 


Exhibition Checklist

Timothy Sternbach and the
Multi-Colored Sunrise!
1984 #5 (February 1979)
Ink, wash on illustration board
17" x 11 ¾"
Private Collection

Zincor and the Fempire
1984 #7 (August 1979)
Three panels, ink on illustration board
Each page 15 ½ x 12 ¼"
Private Collection

Painter's Mountain
1984 #8 (September 1979)
Two panels, ink, wash on illustration board
Each panel 16 5/8" x 24 3/16"
Private Collection

The Schmoo Connection
1984 #9 (October 1979)
Two panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel 16 ¾ x 24 ¼"
Private Collection

Womb with a View
1994 #14 (August 1980)
Three panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel 20 x 23 ¾"
Private Collection

1894
1994 #15 (October 1980)
Three panels, ink, wash on illustration board
Each panel 16 ¾ x 24 ¼"
Private Collection

A**hole of the Universe
1994 #17 (February 1981)
Two panels, airbrush, ink, gouache on paper
Each panel 16 ½ x 25"
Private Collection

Intergalactic Eye
1994 #20 (August 1981)
Ink, wash on paper
16 ¾ x 24 ¼"
Private Collection

The God of the Month Club
1994 #25 (June 1982)
Five Panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel 16 5/8 x 24 ½"
Private Collection

Young Sigmund Pavlov!...
1994 #19 (June 1981)
Two panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel 16 ¾ x 24"
Private Collection

Young Sigmund Pavlov!
1994 #20 (August 1981)
Three panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel approximately 16 ¾ x 24"
Private Collection

Young Sigmund, Sr.
1994 #26 (August 1982)
Five Panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel 15 x 24"
Private Collection

Young Sigmund Pavlov!
1994 #28 (December 1982)
Three Panels, ink on illustration board
Each panel 16 ¼ x 23"
Private Collection



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