Thursday, August 12, 2004

Hark The Herald Angels Singing

I’ve got a Very Important Announcement to relay to everybody, so sit tight and pay attention!

Are you smart?
Funny? Creative?Do you write?

Hi there,

I want your help.

I'm currently starting a web site that focuses on pop culture in the form of an online magazine.
Each bi-weekly issue will feature articles, reviews and interviews. In addition, there will be 20-25 columns, each in the hands of a different writer. I'm looking for smart and creative people with a love of pop culture in one of it's many incarnations to develop a column that they would like to write on a regular basis.

Areas that one can contribute are as follows:

  • If you want to write a regular column, spots are still available but are filling up. What this means is a commitment to one column every other week of 1,500-2,000+ words reflecting, analyzing, loving, hating an aspect of popular culture. Please email me if you are interested and we can determine if your ideas click with the editorial direction of the magazine. If you have a vision for the kind of column you'd like to write, send it to me.

  • If you want to write reviews, please submit 1-2 paragraph long reviews in any of the following subjects: books, comics, dvd, movies, television, cds, or video games. Also include a rating of Don't miss, recommended, worth your time, eh or avoid. Send them to me about anything. I want to build up a database and would love anything you want to contribute.

  • If you have an interest in conducting interviews, please get in touch with me concerning the interviewee and we can discuss the viability of the subject and/or interview. I have almost 20 of them lined up, but if anyone knows anyone who knows anybody, let me know. (For instance, if your grandmother's best friend is Scott Baio's mother, call me)

  • Feature articles will average 3,500+ words. If you have an old paper you once wrote about Duran Duran kicking dust around, this would be a good time to dust it off and revise it. Instead of one feature article and one interview weekly, we'll be publishing at least 2 of each. If you know anyone who has written anything about pop culture for a college class, or for fun, or who just has really, really wanted to write about "Small Wonder", send them my email.

  • Send me feedback, ideas, et cetera. I'm still looking for contributors, so let people know. If you have anyone that you've always wanted to talk to, let's interview them!
    If this is of interest to you, please let me know as soon as possible. Please drop me a line and tell me some ideas about subjects that you'd want to write about. If you feel fairly confident about that answer, go ahead and send me some writing samples and/or a future column.

If you know someone who is smart and funny who writes, please pass along the info.
Please consider what level of involvement you'd like to have, if any with the site and let me know as soon as possible.

Stefan Blitz editor-in-chief

Consider yourself warned!


I’m not going to speak on the subject of Phoebe Gloeckner anymore. I always hate these situations where I get stuck in the middle of conversations. Happens all the time on the phone, I’ll be talking to someone and someone will tell me something to relay through the middle. It’s annoying, and it always seems to happen to me.

Anyway, in the interest of not exacerbating the issue any further, the Wife has chosen to answer this controversy herself:

Wow. I knew I’d touch a nerve with what I wrote, but who knew it would be a guy who had such a visceral reaction to it.

Odd – when I first had my reaction and talked to Tim about it the other day, we had a long discussion that involved a lot of introspection on my part. As someone who has always chosen male-dominated fields (not purposely, it always seemed to just work out that way), I’ve always been in the minority at work. Maybe the only time I wasn’t in the minority was when I went back to school and studied Psychology. Psychology, sociology, there are a lot of females in those areas of study. I remember taking the first class where I extensively encountered feminist writings – a class on the Sociology of Gender – and thinking "damn, there are some pissed off women (womyn?) out there." I mean, not everything was Bell Hooks (you want a pissed-off chick? Try one who’s a black lesbian feminist and you’ve got one very unhappy individual) but there was a lot of stuff that made me do a double take.

Then there were the years working in computers, having to prove myself competent (and more) over and over and over again before people would assign me something without thinking twice. It got me a lot more sensitive to the issues of being a female in a male-dominated field, how you’re perceived, and how appearance can be used as a tool or a bludgeon. If you looked "too" good, people might start thinking you were trying to get ahead "based on your looks" – and if you didn’t live up to a certain standard, you were a geek and probably a dyke, because you were in a male-dominated field.

So maybe I’m internalizing the same stereotypes that were used against me. That’s why I had the talk with Tim, asking him how often people had photo covers on the Journal and what kind of work the artist had done. After all, it’s the COMICS journal, not the photo journal, without getting into the whole semiotics or whatever thing.

Not being a comics geek like my husband (I often joke that he married outside his religion), I don’t have the in-depth knowledge (hell, I’ve seen maybe ten pages of her work) of the artist that Sean seems to have. I guess I would have to ask him, "dude, if a guy did a picture on the cover and I called him vain, would you feel the need to defend him to everyone on the web?"

Nice choice of the cover that James Sturm did – that was exactly what I had in mind when I said to Tim "she has the whole comics world (or what passes for it) giving her attention with this cover, what kind of statement is she trying to make?" I would’ve thought she’d take the opportunity to make something (or choose something from her body of work if she’s really busy) that makes a statement about her feelings (and extensive exploration of those feelings) of gender issues, discrimination, sexual identity – etc. But instead she puts on a cover that makes her look slightly crazed and cements the impression with a back cover that seems to imply she’s a little (or a lot) nutty with a chip on her shoulder. Does she think that she’s perceived that way by the community as a whole and she’s basically flipping you off? Or is she playing into a stereotypical view hoping you’ll stop and examine why you felt that way?

Hell, I’m always reading too much into things. I just wanted to write this and say "dude, lighten the fuck up." I hate it when my husband gets all caveman on me when he perceives (probably rightly so in this case) an insult to his wife. In some ways, he’s remarkably old fashioned – which I’ve always found hilarious given that he was raised by such a feminist (and awesome) mother. My question was really just that – a question, and it raised a lot of interesting issues for me, especially considering all I’d heard on the issue of gender identity and feminism in what my husband had been reading came from Dave Sim. Hurray for the Journal giving long-overdue credit to one of the few females doing significant work in a male-dominated field. Whatever she decided to do with the cover, that was her artistic choice, and bully for her. I simply had a question, okay?

Now, can you all go back to some argument about heroes in tights or something so Tim can relax? I’d really appreciate it.

The Wife, aka Mrs. Hurting (ps, I do have a name, and Mrs. O’Neil doesn’t piss me off as a salutation although I prefer just "Anne" since that’s my name, too)

Eightball #23

Daniel Clowes is one of my very favorite cartoonists. Like A Velvet Glove Cast In Iron is the first Clowes book I ever read, and there’s a part of me that still regards that surreal opus as his strongest work. The other part of me says that David Boring is probably his best. These two warring factions of my psyche don’t get along very well, as you can imagine.

I’m sure that if they were pressed, most people with a modicum of taste would also say that Clowes was a favorite of theirs. Well, there’s a reason for that. He’s very good. He possesses the type of talent that surpasses mere personal opinion. He’s one of those rare cartoonists who is respected not because he is popular but because there is a critical consensus that he is Important. How many comics creators have reached the point where the simple act of releasing a new comic book is cause for rapturous enthusiasm? Precious few. I expect that the release of Acme Novelty Library #16 will probably result in a chain reaction of similarly enthusiastic hosannas, but until then we’ve got Eightball #23.

I feel bad for anyone who encounters Clowes for the first time within these pages. Eightball #23 represents the culmination of a number of extremely negative trends in Clowes’ storytelling. I know Clowes has been busy on other things these past two years, such as an expanded version of the "Ice Harbor" story from Eightball #22 and a movie version, with Terry Zwigoff, of his "Art School Confidential" story. Hopefully these distractions offer a suitable explanation for this issue’s drastic shortcomings.

In his review of Dame Darcy’s Meat Cake Companion (printed in the most recent issue of The Comics Journal, #261), Darcy Sullivan makes a cogent observation:

One of advantages introverted comics artists
find in craft is that it interposes a protective
layer between the artist and the reader – craft
tends to focus the reader on surface qualities
and symbolic codes. Many of our more successful
alternative cartoonists prefer to perfect their
work at a safe distance and then place it in a
neutral commercial zone to be retrieved by the
reader. They construct their work so that it
"scans" perfectly, enabling the reader to glide
quickly across the surface of the page, digesting
the content at arm’s length, as it were. Craft
makes the author more absent . . .

While reading this review I was struck by the canny and concise way Sullivan was able to pinpoint what were, to my understanding, both the signature strengths and weaknesses of our greatest cartoonists, primarily Clowes and Chris Ware. (It is worth noting that his description is not – at least not overtly – derogatory, and is merely intended to help contrast the striking differences between Dame Darcy’s work and the work of some of our more formalistically restrained cartoonists.)

Dan Clowes regards the messiness of human imperfection as an unnecessary evil, and has dedicated his career to slowly eradicating every shred of human warmth from his work. Sure enough, when it comes to craft, Clowes is almost in a class by himself. He understands the way a page reads and he understands how panels work with each other to create the illusion of narrative. But with Eightball #23, all this craft is dedicated solely to the purpose of expressing a rather limited emotion: misanthropic alienation.

There has always been something uncomfortably disaffected in Clowes’ work. Lloyd Llewelyn was gleefully parodic. Velvet Glove dropped the overt mocking in favor of painful disassociation, a harsh remove from reality that set the narrative about thirty degrees to the right of any notion of normality. Clowes’ next major work, Ghost World, also dealt with these issues, but more importantly, it also recognized the limitations of alienation as a rigid lifestyle creed.

David Boring represents the most perfectly realized synthesis of Clowes’ stylistic and thematic preoccupations to date. As with Velvet Glove, the protagonist is an oddly disaffected young man on a fruitless quest, set against the backdrop of a cold and arbitrary universe. But David Boring was not as hopeless and misanthropic a work as Clowes’ increasingly ascetic style suggested: there was hope, and there was the implication of a more nuanced worldview just around the corner.

Clowes’ asceticism came fully to the fore with Eightball #22, the now classic "Ice Harbor" issue. I don’t think it would be possible to cast aspersions on this story’s virtues, or to underestimate just how strikingly powerful Clowes’ mastery of the formal elements of his craft had become. His striking use of multiple styles and narrative voices to craft a compellingly diverse and complete fictive universe highlighted the fact that Clowes had become one of the very few talents in the upper echelon of modern cartooning.

Eightball #23, however, finds Clowes stuck in a particularly unattractive rut. The mastery of form and function is still there, but his obvious artistry seems increasingly at odds with an increasingly tortured and myopic view of human nature.

I don’t think that this book really says anything about superheroes or superhero comic books. At its heart it shares a lot of the same impetus as something like the Lee & Ditko Spider-Man, but the conclusions that the book derives couldn’t be further separated from those two creators’ eclectic humanism. The "Death Ray" only actually appears in costume on panel one or two times, and both times the character looks and acts absurdly. And when the characters’ fantasy lives inspire superheroic fantasies, the artistic template is not the majestic Jack Kirby or the mysterious Steve Ditko, but the ungainly and awkward Tony Tallarico:

Compare that cover to the two-page spread on pages 14-15. Not even these characters’ fantasies are appealing! I don’t think this represents any real statement on Clowes’ part on superhero books, except maybe to point out that he finds the root altruism at the heart of superhero fiction a specious proposition. I agree with him there, but he doesn’t’ even cut the genre as much slack as I do. I doubt there’s a secret (or not-so-secret, as the case may be) Quasar fetish in Clowes’ past.

Clowes’ treatment of superhero iconography seems very much of a kind with his treatment of human behavior, psychology and formalism – that is, he seems to regard the characters and themes of his stories as disgusting insects squirming under heavy plate glass.

Misanthropy has a long and storied tradition in underground and alternative comics. Hell, the "Godhead" hisself, Mr. Robert Crumb, could probably be described as one of the most miserably misanthropic people alive. But there’s an energy and a passion in Crumb’s bleakest work, a joy at the act of drawing and enthusiasm for cartooning that comes across in his beautiful linework. I don’t believe, in the final analysis, that Crumb is a hopeless cynic, because his work pulses with a vitality that belies his retrograde attitude.

Clowes’ work pulsed with life too, once upon a time. Looking back on Lloyd Llewlyn or Velvet Glove, you are struck with just how vivid his art used to be. Sure, from the very beginning there were preoccupations with awkward and oafish imagery. But there were also genuinely fun tips of the hat to artists as diverse as Basil Wolverton, Gene Deitch and Harvey Kurtzman. But as time elapsed and Clowes boiled these influences away in order to focus on his distinctive "style", he also lost a great many of the attributes that had made his work so interesting to begin with.

Looking at Eightball #23, I am overcome with the perception that Clowes himself is repulsed by his own work. Almost every line is drawn with a weighty premeditation. He has suffocated his own style, burning every extraneous element away until we are left with the awkward utility of an educational pamphlet. Sure, every line is placed with the utmost virtuosity, and every angle is exquisitely deduced, but there’s not an ounce of life in the whole thing.

I had great hopes for Eightball #23. I thought that David Boring represented the outer limits of how far Clowes could go with his restrained and repressed style. Sure enough, "Ice Haven" was a quantum leap in development, comparable to the leap that Chester Brown took between the end of Underwater and the beginning of Louis Riel. Although the quiet and restrained linework was still dominant, there was so much variety and energy to his storytelling that I was certain Clowes’ work was swinging the other way, back from the premeditated awkwardness and onwards to a new paradigm.

There are few artists in the field who have so ably mastered the confluence of theme and execution as Daniel Clowes. The characters in Eightball #23 are spiteful cynics, and this is reflected in the unremittingly ugly fashion with which they are drawn. There are flashes of humanity, such as Andy’s deteriorating grandpa and Sonny’s genuine decency, but these characters are adrift in a sea of discontent. Andy and Louie could be the male counterparts to Ghost World’s Enid and Rebecca. The only difference is that the Ghost World girls had no outlet for their frustration but unfocused ennui, whereas Andy and Louie have Andy’s superpowers. But again, these powers do nothing for the boys: Andy’s power is ironically just another expression of adolescent impotence.

Eightball #23 represents Clowes’ retreat into formal obscurantism. It’s a beautifully crafted artifact, representing one of our best artists at the peak of his craft. But the artifact itself is cold and hollow, reflecting a shallow, cynical and repetitively dull worldview. I am profoundly disappointed, but only because I expected so much better from one of our very best cartoonists.

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