Following attending the Grand Comics Fest in Brooklyn on Saturday, June 7th, I was fortunate enough to attend a truly unusual performance event, the live screening and voice-acted presentation of the history of 3D comics titled 3D Comics Alive with several key comics dramatized at the Brick Theater as part of the Comic Book Theater Festival running there throughout the month of June.
But this project had so much more to it than met the eye, even with the aid of provided 3D glasses. Written, produced, and directed by cartoonist Jason Little, the comics used in the performance were also painstakingly restored by Little himself and in the case of the final comic projected for viewers, a complex digital file created which would enable zooming in between the full page and individual panels in a remarkably fluid way, creating quite a cinematic experience. This was clearly a labor of love to restore the place of 3D comics in comics history, an effort that faces challenges as the materials originally used by artists degrade over time and 3D methods fall in and out of fashion, leaving the comics swept aside as a focus for readers and historians of the medium.
Fortunately, there was a great deal of interest in this performance in Brooklyn, and the show opened to a full house, attesting the need for a reassessment of the history and significance of 3D comics right now, and those who attended were most definitely schooled in the historical context that shaped the medium as a full series of informational mini-lectures, illustrated, peppered the performance.
The performance event included 10 parts, moving at a brisk and entertaining pace, including mini-lectures on the “Origins of 3D Comics”, “3D Technique in ’53”, “The Death of 3D Comics” and “Ray Zone”. These were interspersed with dramatic readings from comics including: “The 3dts” by Normal Maurer and Joe Kubert, “Picture of Evil”, by Joe Kubert and Les Zakarin, “Strange Dudes”, “The Package”, and “Nooter the Computer Saves the Planet” by Don Glassford, and “Merlin Realm” by Mark-Wayne Harris, Nicholas Koenig, Akin & Garvey, and Ray Zone.
The voice actors who brought the comics to life were Alex Kipp, Jason Little, Patrick Penta, and Jennifer Stokes, with lighting and sound by Amanda Woodward. A purist might wonder what “performing” these comics brings to the table while allowing that lectures on the history of 3D comics are a good thing. Keep in mind that the 3D comics, artfully restored, were also projected in large sized and sharp definition on a movie-sized screen that enabled the audience to see details they might otherwise have overlooked, and rendering the comics arguably sharper in focus than they even appeared in original form. The skill behind the artwork, and the choices made in 3D affect were made that much more apparent, particularly in panel layouts that “popped” and speech balloons that were layered, or even overlapping. But the voice elements brought out very strongly the humor and attitudes behind the genres presented also, especially capturing the historical period in which they were composed.
I spent a large part of the first segment of the performance in awe of just how much Joe Kubert had worked in 3D comics. I knew vaguely of his involvement from reading about more recent experiments in 3D graphic novels, but hearing his name pop up again and again regarding the 3D comics of the 50’s reminded me of his pioneering attitude and commitment to intricate process when it came to comics. He and his work mates were even the subject of the autobio humor comic “The 3dts”. “Picture of Evil” took us further into Kubert’s 3D world in terms of horror, and demonstrated how 3D had the potential to heighten facial expressions and postures.
With the work of Don Glassford, we could see the way in which 3D comics were taken up as a tool of Underground Comix to express difference and diversity in medium and message. Like Little, Glassford’s simple personal belief in the medium led to exploring the methods of 3D as fully as he could to make his messages resonate as he took on the status quo of his generation. Ray Zone, someone many comics readers may have heard of in connection with 3D comics because his work extended throughout the 80’s, was also a vision unto himself as his strange and hauntingly idiosyncratic “Merlin Realm” illustrated. This story of sorcerers is so bizarre and the nomenclature so eccentric that it easily could have played to humorous affect, but instead the audience sat in stunned silence immersed in the strange spell of the artwork fully conjuring a world unto itself and using 3D to the most sophisticated effect yet seen in the evening’s offerings.
It may seem like hyperbole to say that a one hour performance at a community-based theater space in Brooklyn could make a major statement about our reassessment of comics history, but inviting the audience into the experience of 3D comics had a much more direct and immediate impact than even the most well-illustrated and researched book that might be published on the subject (though we are in need of those too). Jason Little’s whole handling of the event, and his decisions about what to include to create this experience are more than impressive. It’s impossible to have attended 3D Comics Alive and not leave with a fairly unshakeable respect for the tradition of 3D comics and a hope that the craft of 3D comics will continue to be celebrated in new incarnations.
The Comic Book Theater Festival continues at the Brick theater in Brooklyn throughout the month of June. By popular demand, two more repeat performances have been added for 3D Comics Alive, one June 18th at 9PM and June 19th at 10PM.
If you’re interested in comics history, you might want to check out the play King Kirby, written by Crystal Skillman and Fred Van Lente playing on Fri 6/20 at 7pm, Sat 6/21 at 3pm, Wed 6/25 at 7pm, Sat 6/28 at 5pm, and Sun 6/29 at 5pm.