Tuesday, August 31, 2004
(With thanks to Tom Spurgeon and Milo George for unwittingly inspiring this essay)
What critical standards do we hold ourselves to?
What are our obligations to maintain a consistent critical standard?
These are incredibly difficult questions to ask, and even harder questions to answer.
To my way of reckoning, a work of art must be judged by how well it successfully communicates an idea. A work of art - even a deeply flawed work of art - which successfully engages the cultural dialectic must be engaged on its own terms and by its own merits, or the critic has failed.
I did not like Eightball #23, but I do not believe that the book was a total failure. No – I simply believe that the ideas it communicated were redundant and thematically repetitive. But there obviously were ideas there. There was an attempt to engage in a dialogue. Therefore, even though I think Eightball #23 was deeply flawed, it was still superior to most comics, in that it at least tried. There was a great deal on the plate – even if I thought it was woefully undercooked.
Most comics, in all honesty, just don’t make the attempt. Most corporately owned comics are neutered by design. The few that do manage to buck the odds and define an ideation are precious indeed. Many independent comics are simply retreads of previous ideas that contribute nothing new. Even an old idea can be interesting, if it is examined in the proper light, but to successfully revisit a previous idea is perhaps the most difficult discipline of them all.
I review many comics of varying degrees of quality on this site, and I like to think that I have maintained a consistent critical focus throughout. I do not believe that a book like Blue Monday, which I enjoyed, should be penalized for having different aims and ideas than Louis Riel. Obviously, I regard Louis Riel as the vastly superior work, but that does not mean that I have no time for Blue Monday.
Is this a consistent critical standard or not?
It is a cop-out to say that a book is good merely in the context of its own genre. Ultimately, the context of a genre is meaningless, because all work must be judged on its own accord. Your teacher always used to tell you not to cheat on tests because she wanted your answers, and not your neighbor’s answers. By that same token, I want to know if a book is honestly good, not whether it is better or worse than its nearest neighbor on the bookshelf.
But at the same time, critical standards are overly harsh if there is not some acceptance of the relativistic nature of aesthetic endeavor. There’s a paradox here.
I believe that there are orders of aesthetic magnitude. This is how, for instance, From Hell can be regarded as a superior work to The Filth, even though The Filth is still a successful and enjoyable work. From Hell is the superior work based on its own merits, and not because of any failure on the part of The Filth.
Art must be judged according to its own standards. A work can succeed brilliantly at its own modest goals, and still be inferior to an unsuccessful work of greater ambition. I believe that Planet of the Capes is a superb and witty polemic, and succeeds magnificently as allegorical satire. But as good as it is, the scope of its artistic intentions are modest, so its overall success must be judged relative to its ambition. Even though I regard Eightball #23 as a relative failure, I think it is still superior to most of everything published today. Although it fails to engage its own ideas in a sufficiently vigorous fashion, it does possess ideas, and even if they are not sufficiently developed they are still sufficient to spark intensive debate.
The most important aspect of modern comics criticism which remains woefully underdeveloped is the acknowledgement and understanding of art-as-story. Comics are neither literature or art, and although the critical language of both disciplines can and has been appropriated by comics critics, ultimately these languages are woefully insufficient to engage the texts on the intimate critical level they deserve. I will not say that we need to develop a “new” critical language, because that would a silly and self-defeating act, and I’ve no desire to hamstring this conversation by going down the traditional critical cul-de-sac of unspecified semantics. No, it is enough merely to state that a new critical language will naturally follow if enough critics begin to engage the medium with sufficient rigor and enthusiasm.
I have attempted to do just this with my recurring examination of Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. I will not presume that I have been successful to date in my desire to fully elucidate the many virtues of this singular work. I will say, however, that trying to pinpoint the exquisite and singular merits of this extraordinary book has served, more than anything else, to expose the striking limitations of our shared critical vocabulary. The work itself is superlative, but in trying to find an explanation for this phenomena I have merely exposed my own shortcomings as a critic.
Monday, August 30, 2004
First: whomever it was that e-mailed me from Atomeka, your e-mail did not contain a return address, and when I tried to reply there was no one to reply to!
Big doings up in here. If you’ve been paying attention to this blog for any amount of time, you should know that I’m a shameless whore in terms of trying to get some money out of this infernal blogging hobby. These are the reasons we now have Google ads and Amazon links and even a Paypal button (which, I will point out, no-one has ever used). Some of you have even bought things at Amazon through my links – for which I thank you profusely.
But I have really outdone myself now. Yes, that’s right, I have my very own Café Press store, where you can purchase Official “The Hurting” Merchandise. Be the envy of your friends with one of the Hurting’s Official T-Shirts. Drink your coffee in the Official Hurting Coffee Mug. Or just keep your pizza coupons firmly attached with the Official Hurting Refrigerator Magnet.
Personally, I am most proud of the Official Hurting Mousepad – it really must be seen to be believed. Anyone who buys one of these is truly a visionary spirit, a giant among men.
Anyway, there are other cool things afoot. Have I mentioned my wife’s adventures with hair-dye?
That’s her, all right, about 72 hours ago. It’s blue, which is not really what she wanted. She wanted purple. But she bought a new dye this month and it didn’t really turn out like she wanted. But it’s still hella cool, no?
Oni Love Can Break Your Heart - Part IV
Blue Monday: The Kids Are Alright
I did not want to like this book. This is one of those books that all the unwashed masses seem to love in an uncritical and possessive fashion. I love to be a curmudgeon. If everybody likes something, well, there’s always a part of me that is ready and willing to hate it.
Is this a rational critical platform for anyone besides a Comics Journal writer? Oh, hell no. I freely admit that. But the fact is that there have been any number of moderate to overwhelming small press successes that just haven’t been very good, or have been downright horrid, or at the very least overrated - Strangers in Paradise, Bone, Johnny The Homicidal Maniac, The Crow. Of course, each one of these titles was able to find an economic niche, and have proved to be consistent sellers, definite economic bulwarks of the “New Mainstream” I’ve been championing - but that doesn’t mean they’re any good.
So I approached Blue Monday with the skeptical eye of an experienced forensic scientist, ready to enter into a clear and unbiased critical autopsy. The only problem with this plan is that I found myself utterly bewitched.
Chynna Clugston-Major is a very talented cartoonist. She’s influenced by Mad in the same way that Evan Dorkin is, with panels full up with detail and hundreds of tiny super-detailed jokes on every page. Her figures and faces are very much influenced by manga, but more importantly than that, her ink line is directly descended from the smooth, variable brushwork of the early Image artists, specifically the Jim Lee/Scott Williams team. Most manga art (not all, but most of the stuff produced by the major studio artists) has a very consistent fine line approach, as if everything was being filled in painstakingly with a Rapidograph. Somehow the unusual combination works, because her art is extremely accomplished.
The story itself – concerning a quest for sold-out Adam Ant concert tickets - is straight out of any number of teen movies and television sitcoms. But this is not necessarily a sin, considering the fact that so much teenage life is extremely repetitive in nature. The question is not necessarily whether or not the story is unique but whether or not the characters speak with distinctive and believable voices, and act in compellingly believavble and consistently interesting ways. This is perhaps a reason why many of John Hughes’ films continue to be popular twenty years on, and why so many of today’s condescending teen flicks will probably have a very short shelf-life.
The preoccupations and obsessions of her characters ring true, and their behavior – while exaggerated – is recognizably true. There are people like this at every high-school in the world. The line that separates poor and forgettable soap-opera from enjoyable and rewarding entertainment is the extent to which the characters breathe and resonate with our own expectations of life, and in this regard Blue Monday definitely exceeds my modest expectations.
There is one very real problem with this book, however. I just can’t believe that Adam Ant could have sold out a club date this late in his career. Maybe at the height of the whole “New Romance” thing, but seriously . . . after he went off into his Hollywood exile in the late 80s, not very many people cared at all. I just don’t get it, there are so many better artists that Bleu could have been obsessed with, and there’s something undeniably pitiful about being obsessed with a b-list celebrity who can’t even stay out of jail or the mental hospital. Of course, I personally have a Larry Storch shrine in my bedroom, right under my stuffed Kato Kaelin doll.
In any event, I liked Blue Monday a lot more than I expected I would. Its just a fun book, made all the better by Clugston-Major’s commendable ear for authentic character. Its not going to change the world, but I can definitely understand how it has attracted its rabid fanbase. I might just seek out the next books myself.
Friday, August 27, 2004
Does the term “New Mainstream” mean anything?
Just about every genre tag we use here in comics is a relative. Superhero adventure books are only “mainstream” in reference to the direct market. The pejorative “alternative” appellation only makes sense from the standpoint of this definition of “mainstream”.
Both Oni Press and AiT/Planet Lar possess an infinitesimal share of the direct market. According to Diamond’s market share calculations for June of this year, Oni is at the very bottom of the “large” publishers, with .30% of the overall market. AiT/Planet/Lar isn’t even counted individually, but is instead compiled among the "other", the 7.50% at the very bottom of the direct market food chain. I have it on good authority from AiT/Planet Lar that a large percentage of their sales are made through outlets other than the direct market, but even given this, their market penetration among conventional comics readers is abysmal, and especially so considering the relative quality of many of their products.
It all comes back to one thing: hope. The direct market is sick, and it doesn’t looks like it is ever going to become the New Marketplace of the future. There are good retailers, oodles of good retailers – but they can still be counted on one or two sheets of typed paper. There just aren’t enough vigorous and enthusiastic independent retailers who are able to present the world with the vibrant public face that the comics industry desperately needs.
So, our “New Mainstream” is at present something of a chimera. Everyone who has some stake in comics, with the exception of the most hardened cynics and battle-scarred pessimists, wants the industry to survive. By “industry”, what do we mean? We mean the companies that we like, who produce the types of books we want to read.
Team Comics is an erroneous mindset, but there’s a germ of economic activism there that isn’t entirely misplaced. I champion AiT/Planet Lar and Oni because, ultimately, I see the success of these companies, who pay more than just lip service to the concepts of generic diversity, as intrinsic to the possible success of the American comics industry.
Domestic comics can’t survive as a boutique industry. Thankfully, the literate wing of the industry seems to be doing just fine for itself. The undeniable success of The Complete Peanuts, combined with the recent upswing in attention from cultural gatekeepers such at the New York Times seems to be sowing seeds that will be bearing fruit for many years to come. Art Spiegelman’s In The Shadow of No-Towers is going to be the biggest book of the year, I anticipate. It had two full pages in this week’s Newsweek. I didn’t really understand how big it was going to be until my wife informed me that it was being offered as a main selection by the Quality Paperback Book Club next month.
So, what does this all mean? Nothing, intrinsically. But ultimately, I don’t think that it is in the comics industry’s interest to have success in the realms of literate and high-minded work, while a popular foundation of accessible genre fiction is overlooked. So the term “New Mainstream” is basically wishful thinking at this point, but it’s not crazy. If people like Larry Young can manage to keep themselves afloat and stay in the public eye, there is every chance that the kind of populist work that he champions could very well become the backbone of a new paradigm in mainstream graphic novels. Of course, Oni and Ait/Planet Lar and Top Shelf could all be washed out to see in the next tsunami and I could be left blowing smoke, but I doubt it.
I am not, by trade, an optimist. But, ask my wife, I am nothing if not patient and – in general – hopeful. I want artists like Chester Brown and Los Bros Hernandez and Chris Ware and Gary Panter to be able to keep doing what they’re doing for many years to come. But most importantly, I want there to be a next generation of cartoonists, and in order to attract the type of folks who have the level of talent and dedication to make truly inspiring art, the medium has to survive and thrive throughout the comings decades. This requires that the medium become a truly popular medium, and perhaps one day this too shall occur.
Oni Love Can Break Your Heart - Part III
Fortune and Glory
I’ve long been a fan of Bendis’ work, although I have nowhere near an exhaustive collection of his early material. The most impressive aspect of his superhero work is the formalistic rigor with which hhe approaches every script. Perhaps he may not have the frenetic ideation of a Grant Morrison or the exhaustive virtuosity of an Alan Moore, but he does possess something almost nearly as impressive: a seemingly intuitive understanding of the comic page’s rhythmic essentiality.
Fortune and Glory is the story of Bendis’ first and subsequent encounters with the Hollywood system, as his book Goldfish is optioned and put through its paces on the way towards development limbo (where, I assume, it languishes to this day). Besides the books usefulness as a cautionary tale (I would think that this has to be regarded as a primal text for any creative type contemplating a Hollywood deal), it is also serves as an interesting examination of Bendis’ unique narrative technique.
As a cartoonist of the funny “bigfoot” variety, Bendis is strictly minor-league. His figurework and faces are unspectacular, and his panel compositions are often confusing. But his strengths shine through despite the weakness of his line, and those strengths are essentially the same strengths that make any Bendis comic unmistakably distinctive.
Bendis’ numerous detractors often point to the fact that his books are singularly wordy. There are lots of people talking, and long conversations, and even surplus expository dialogue. This approach is a long way from the cut-to-the-bone narrative exigency of your average mainstream superhero comic circa fifteen years ago. The most important element in most superhero comics up to about the year 1990 was narrative expediency. Every iota of energy on the comics page was devoted to imparting information, be it expository dialogue or captioning relating directly to pertinent plot points, or artificially kinetic action sequences designed to communicate basic physical relationships at the expense of any nuance or texture.
There is a lot less story in your average 2004 superhero book than there was in your average 1984 superhero book, but I do not think that any rational judge of content could say that, on the average, the latter is inherently stylistically superior to the former. The creation of the “arc” as the dominant storytelling mode has allowed the majority of mainstream comics to place a premium on once-forgotten virtues such as mood and pacing, two disciplines at which Bendis excels.
Many of Bendis’ sequences follow a similar pattern. In the course of a hypothetical two-page spread, the characters and setting will be established with a long-to-medium range opening panel. This context panel serves as the launching pad for the rest of the sequence, which consists of multiple smaller patterns juxtaposed at intervals sufficient to create the illusion of temporal dynamics in a spacial medium. Compare this staccato approach to pacing with the previous tradition, a large expository panel with multiple dialogue bubbles for every character. There’s no sense that the conversation in this latter panel has any temporal element at all. By using multiple panels in repetition to create the appearance of passing time, Bendis injects his work with the singular appearance of temporal plausibility.
Seeing these techniques manipulated in the context of his own simplistic cartoons allows the reader to examine them almost forensically. This is modern “decompressed” storytelling stripped down to the bone. You’ve got repetition of a static image to create conversational rhythm, you’ve got the enlargement of single panels to create a sense of contemplative reverie. Every one of these devices is used as a vehicle for communicating otherwise irksome exposition to the audience. If he didn’t have a knack for believable dialogue or an ear for palatable narration, these vehicles would fall flat. But they work.
An interesting side effect of this kind of formalistic autopsy is the realization that Bendis really is playing a different game than just about everyone else in modern mainstream comics, for better or for worse. Compared to traditional notions of utilitarian storytelling that have prospered in the mainstream for the last few decades, Bendis’ laser-sharp focus on pacing and mood to the detriment of almost everything else have created a stylistic schism between the kind of comics he writes, and the kind of comics everyone else writes. Bendis’ comics are distinctively branded by his preternatural disposition towards temporal exploration. He wants his comics to read with the rhythm of a movie, and to this extent his comics have absorbed the language of cinema to an almost unprecedented extent. Some would say that this singular preoccupation is a sharp demerit for a medium (mainstream superhero comics) so often associated with ideas and action – perhaps it is. But you underestimate his formalistic prowess at your own peril. If there is one thing of which Fortune and Glory convinces me, it is that Brian Michael Bendis is a dedicated and innovative craftsman, and his explorations of the medium’s formalistic idiom have done a great deal to broaden the language of mainstream comics.
Part Five – The Power of Caricature – Part II
This is a photograph of Louis Riel, courtesy of Wikipedia:
This is a drawing of Riel, courtesy of Chester Brown:
Photographs are a powerful medium, but they are limited by the bounds of reality. The cartoonist has a battery of many subtle and complex tools at their ready disposal, and one of the most nuanced tools of all is the art of caricature.
Conventional caricature is understood as an art of exaggeration: singular physical or contextual features are emphasized in order to make a broad point about a target.
This recent cartoon by Pat Oliphant offers a keen illustration of this phenomenon. George Bush is drawn as a small and pointed pipsqueak, in order to emphasize a lack of personal gravity and a questionable institutional dignity. Dick Cheney has a small, owlish face at thecenter of a rounded head with a high forehead. These features imply cunning, craft, and a high intelligence. Cheney’s imposingly stolid physical characteristics imply many things about his presence in the cartoon as well.
In this case, and as seen on hundreds of thousands of newspaper editorial pages across the world every day, the pen of the caricaturist is used to reveal perceived intrinsic truths about subjects that could never be as effectively communicated with a photograph. Even the most broad and simplistic caricature is a powerful tool, for the simple reason that its very hard to misunderstand the meaning of an obvious caricature:
It’s hard to even recognize Bush in this picture, so thick is the cartoonist’s loathing for his subject. But if you know who it is, it is impossible to mistake Rall’s intentions.
Chester Brown’s use of caricature in Louis Riel represents a sharp inversion of caricature’s accepted utility. Instead of emphasizing certain traits, as your average cartoonist would do in order to emphasize a point – say, the deep-set eyes or the look of fierce determination – Brown deemphasizes Riel’s personality, in order to ask broader questions through his narrative.
Instead of dictating the reader’s response, Brown invites the reader to fill the narrative void left by his self-consciously ascetic approach to character.
Take, for example, this sequence from Riel:
This portion of the story detail’s Riel’s studied inaction following his figurative exile from Canadian soil. We are not given any overt clues on Riel’s thoughts, no easy visual tics to make our understanding of his character any easier. We are essentially invited into the story, given by Brown a catalyst to insert ourselves into Riel’s thought processes.
This stands at odds with most conventional historical narrative. Most history, be it prose or film or comics, comes at its subject with a point. The point of Louis Riel is a lot bigger than whether or not the Metis cause was just (it was) or whether or not Riel was insane (he was sick). The narrative thrust at the heart of Riel is to explore the contradictory and controversial nature of history itself. There are no easy decisions or snap judgements which a perceptive reader can carry away from the book. There is merely an endless, overarching indecision, an indecision that serves as the keystone of Brown’s treatment of Riel and which demands the reader immerse himself in an endless, pulsating ambiguity.
Wednesday, August 25, 2004
I've got a review of David Lasky and Jesse Reklaw's minicomic Lo-Horse #2 up over at the Poopsheet - check it out. You do check the other new reviews posted daily on the sidebar, right? Right?
Oni Love Can Break Your Heart - Part II
I have always had a soft spot for Sam Keith. His work has always been appealingly quirky enough to get my attention, even when the stories he was working on were less than amazing. When he was absent from comics there for a few years following the conclusion of The Maxx, I definitely missed him.
But in the last couple of years he’s returned with a vengeance. He’s produced two Zero Girl miniseries for DC/Wilstorm, as well as another unrelated miniseires entitled Four Women. Those with good memories might recall that I wrote a fairly negative review of Four Women for the Journal following the series’ conclusion. I felt that story was weak because Keith was attempting a formalistically strenuous suspense narrative that just didn’t work with his characteristically schizophrenic art. You need to be a strong and cogent storyteller in order to muster the suspension of disbelief necessary for suspense, and I felt that this type of story was ill-suited to Keith’s talents.
He’s currently doing some sort of Batman/werewolf series for DC, in addition to Ojo, a new series launching from Oni today. I haven’t read the werewolf thing, because as much as I like Keith’s art I think that werewolves are the most boring monsters imaginable. I think zombies have more depth than a fucking werewolf. Zombies don’t even speak . . . or run, or even do anything besides shamble around the countryside and eat people. Sometimes they take orders from a voodoo priest, sometimes they are victims of biological warfare experiments. Whatever. I just hate werewolves. I sat through that God-awful American Werewolf in Paris thing because my friends dragged me to see it and I swear that was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life.
Where was I? Oh yeah.
Ojo is much better than Four Women and shows the potential to even surpass Zero Girl. Keith is back on familiar territory, with very small and intimate character portraits jutting up against the bare outlines of the unknown. The concept of death is very important here, and those of us with memories long enough to remember why Keith left The Sandman will be interested to see the dichotomy between Keith’s conception of death and the rest of the comics world is still intact. There’s nothing romantic about death in Ojo death is scary and icky and mysterious. The protagonist, a little girl named Annie, is surrounded by guilt and frozen by a fear of death following the accidental deaths of her pet lizard and her pet mouse. During the course of this first issue, she finds a new pet, who is not quite normal . . .
Keith is a master at forming believably layered character types. Every supernatural element in his stories is balanced by a character element that serves to ground the proceedings in a very convincing melange of metaphor and symbolism. Annie is obsessed with death, but her experiences with her pets are just a way for her to inwardly process the fact that her real life is very unhappy.
Keith has always been fascinated by the boundaries between inner life and outer reality. Just as The Maxx was ultimately a psychodrama about externalized trauma (or, at least, I think that’s what it was about), it looks like Ojo is going to be less about a giant sewer monster than the emotional unpleasantness in Annie’s home life.
I am guardedly optimistic about this series based on the evidence of the first issue. Keith is a solid talent who is capable of spectacular formalistic leaps when he wants to stretch his chops. His stories, while usually more modest in scope than his art, are usually no less satisfying. This series looks like it could be another solid piece of work from one of our most underrated craftsmen.
Tuesday, August 24, 2004
Oni Love Can Break Your Heart - Part I
My long-running (and seemingly never-ending) rundown of Ait/Planet Lar’s publishing output has motivated me to examine at length the concept of the “New Mainstream” as it applies to comics. Market attrition and the manga invasion have forced a vocal minority of discerning fans, retailers, creators and publishers to the realization that the American comics market has for all intents and purposes abdicated the middle ground of the cultural mainstream, where most every popular genre makes the majority of its money and sells the majority of its product.
I have repeatedly praised Larry Young for his dogged determination in having built a career out of exploiting of this very obvious market shortcoming. In a recent essay on Ait/Planet Lar, I made the following statement:
"At the end of the day it comes down to this: if you want to find the New Mainstream in comic book publishing, look to wherever Larry Young is. He publishes a lot of crap but he also publishes some real gems, with an entire spectrum of quality in between. He publishes something for everyone, and that’s is something I cannot say for anyone else in our entire industry."
I stand by this quote. I believe that regardless of the fact that Young publishes any number of books that aren’t very good, or which may appeal to a very small cross-section of the populace, his company’s output - when considered in its entirety - reflects a variety of genre and a multiplicity of purpose not often found in comic book publishing.
The thing I did not count on was the fact that I was very wrong in at least part of my thesis. Young publishes a large variety of books, but he’s not the only one. It was brought to my attention recently that there’s another company that seems to have slid under my radar entirely: Oni Press.
This is one instance where I am very happy to be proven wrong, and I sincerely doubt in this instance that Larry Young would mind the company. I can’t really account for my studied ignorance of Oni’s output over the last few years, except to say that I probably mistook a few high-profile books for the sum total of their output. I bought the first few Clerks tie-ins they produced, because regardless of what I think of Kevin Smith’s subsequent material, Clerks was and is a very funny movie. I found the comic book exploits of the Clerks characters to be similarly amusing (the less said, however, on the subject of their short-lived animated series, the better).
Much as was the case with AiT/Planet Lar, I had overlooked the growth of the company for the simple fact that I, like most comics fans, don’t have unlimited funds. The majority of my comic money usually goes to companies like Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly and Top Shelf, along with the few mainstream titles I follow on a monthly basis. (You don’t have to point out the fact that these kind of dichotomous buying habits are startlingly schizoid, I’m already aware of that fact, thanks.) In comics, I seem to be drawn either towards the cutting edge of serious artistic expression, or Captain America. For the longest time it didn’t really occur to me to seek out a middle-ground here, because for the longest time there wasn’t a middle ground. The comics world was locked in a manichean death-struggle, but there didn’t seem to be anyone doing anything about it.
Well, maybe five years ago there weren’t, but the comics industry has undergone some very striking changes in the ensuing years. I think perhaps the only thing keeping a company like Oni from becoming one of the top 5 comics publishers in the country is the fact that they are still, essentially, a small company. They have an impressive backlist with some very attractive titles, but the majority of shelf-space in the mainstream bookstores is filled with manga, and the remainder is usually mainstream junk with a smattering of Fantagraphics titles thrown in. There are exceptions, but the bottom line is that the kind of initiative required to broaden their customer base costs money, the kind of money that neither Larry Young or Oni press or even Image or Dark Horse seem to have lying around. Crossgen had the money, at least for a little while, but there’s an old saying that the fastest way to fail in business is to provide great marketing for a horrible product. Perhaps if all those attractive endcap displays in Barnes & Noble had been filled with Blue Monday or Astronauts in Trouble trades, instead of Sigil, the world of comics would look somewhat different . . .
But, the economics of scale notwithstanding, it seems as if companies like Oni have nowhere to go but up. As a critic, I will say that I don’t put expectations on companies like these to consistently press the envelope of creative innovation. I think its only appropriate to judge a company’s output based on their intentions, and I think Oni produce books with the intention of providing dedicated creators an opportunity to create honest entertainment that will appeal to audiences beyond the normal spectrum of disaffected comics fans. They’ve got some interesting looking books and I look forward to exploring the depth of their catalog in the coming weeks and months.
Tomorrow we’ll have a look at a sneak preview of their newest title, Sam Keith’s Ojo. Keith’s always been one of the more endearingly odd mainstream creators out there, and I am interested in seeing what his latest project looks like.
Monday, August 23, 2004
Last Friday’s posting on the subject of future comic remixes bore some interesting fruit. I wouldn’t look for another one of those for the near future, but expect an interesting announcement on this subject before too long.
Money is tight lately so I don’t often get the chance to try out new comics. But I was buying a pile of books the other day and found myself irresistibly drawn towards this cover:
I do not usually – actually, I usually never buy comics based solely on the cover. But you would have to be a much stronger man than I to resist that.
Sure enough, it’s a pretty decent book. I don’t know what – if any – connection this new character will eventually be revealed to have to DC's other various Manhunter concepts - hopefully nothing besides than the name, because that brings up painful memories of Millenium. My hopes, after reading the first issue, are that this book will remain exactly what it appears to be: an action-packed trip into the world of violent moral vagaries with a strong independent female in the lead role. This is one chick I really don’t want to see end up mangled in a refrigerator – but this is DC, so I will try not to get too attached.
Travels With Larry Part XX
I think I missed an issue – ah yes, looks like I did. Oh well, lets see where things pick up here . . .
Plunging back into Demo after a couple months has had the unfortunate side effect of exposing some of the series’ weaker points to the light of day. The experiment that lies at the heart of Demo has produced some powerful work from both Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan, but it has also illuminated some of the places where the two are most vulnerable to criticism.
Don’t get me wrong: I still enjoyed both of these issues. But the series was conceived as, basically, a laboratory for the two creators to stretch their wings over the course of a twelve-month period. Every month a different story. New characters. New world. New style. It is a testament to their enthusiasm that they had the presence of mind to accept such a challenge in the first place. Producing what amounts to a new, 26-or-so page graphic novel every month for a year would be a daunting project for any creator this side of John Byrne. Demo puts off enough ambition and potential to gag a horse, and considering the sorry state of most mainstream or semi-mainstream comics, that alone is reason to celebrate the project.
But ambition’s a bitch. Sometimes you reach exceeds your grasp. I’m not going to write off Demo, but I am going to offer some constructive criticism.
- Every character, and I mean every last one of them, looks kinda the same. Cloonan is spending a lot of time on her formal technique, but most of her faces have a sameness to them. Everyone looks vaguely Chinese, with flat, broad noses, huge flaring nostrils and wide catfish mouths. Not that there’s anything wrong with being Chinese, but not every character in Demo is supposed to be Asian, and aside from facial features, many of them are obviously Caucasian.
- Wood seems to have a strong grasp of a very specific character type. Perhaps the goal of Demo was to examine multiple characters in a similar demographic, I don’t know. But the overall effect of reading a dozen stories featuring gen-Y hipsters in emotional crisis is for me to want to run my Taurus into a Starbucks in the hopes of taking out every last one of them . . . OK, that was a bit harsh, but the point remains: his characters all seem to experience similar epiphanies. Perhaps Wood is doing this one purpose, perhaps he isn’t. Loathe as I am to recommend anything from the overrated McSweeny’s canon, I would like to recommend Michael Chabon’s introduction to McSweeny’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, in which Chabon gently reminds the reader that there are more types of stories to be told than the prosaic epiphany. Although Demo isn’t nearly as guilty in this respect as, say, your average New Yorker fiction writer, its still obviously a factor in the story’s conceptions.
- Cloonan’s formal experimentation is one of the most gratifying facets of the Demo experiment. Just looking at issues #8 and #9 is enough to convince me of this. Issue #8 features multiple pages established as collages, with smaller inset panels put against larger thematic illustrations. There are numerous jagged and slanted panel configurations. Additionally, the story unfolds in a world of gray-tones, what an older generation would have called zip-a-tone but what is probably Photoshop. In contrast, issue #9 consists entirely of square panels, usually in a modified but very sedate grid. The story is told in stark black and white, with thick brush strokes and great swaths of black ink. Two issues, two very different approaches to telling a story.
- But at the same time, as much as Cloonan changes her approach to storytelling from issue to issue, some things remain stubbornly similar. Her figures retain a similar weight and use similar gestures and facial expressions (although I mentioned that earlier). Her figures are usually too big for their panels: they are often seen jutting up against the borders of the panel at obtuse angles. This type of crowded composition lends the stories a particular intimacy, and that is something else that I think both Cloonan and Wood are going for here: a level of emotional intimacy that is unusual for American mainstream comics.
- I would characterize Cloonan’s work as manga-inspired not because of any overt technique (there are no speed lines here [at least in these issues]) and we have yet to see a giant robot or futuristic ninja) but because of her approach to storytelling. Generalizations on the nature of American comics in contrast to manga are usually foolish and fruitless, because there are as many types of manga as there are American comics (or don’t you see any difference between George Perez and Seth?). But Cloonan seems to share a certain Asian perspective in the manner in which she constructs her pages. The page as a whole is constructed for readability and ease of communication, whereas American comics place a high premium on the panel as an distinctive unit of storytelling. This is why a lot of manga utilizes unusual (to Western eyes) panel configurations and page designs: they are more interested in the process of moving the eye from one panel to the next than in lingering on any specific panel. The page is the unit, and not the panel. This is why it’s so often quicker to read manga than most Western comics. Maybe Cloonan should spend some time deconstructing just how she approaches the architecture of the page. Confine her figures to their panels. Tell a whole story with a single panel, instead of allowing the composite effect of the whole page carry the emotional weight. Its obvious she’s mastered the one technique, lets see her try the other.
- In the “liner notes” to issue #8, Cloonan states: ”There is no doubt some of it [manga] is a major influence in my work; I love the cinematic storytelling and pacing.” It seems to me that she has absorbed enough manga that her storytelling seems influenced on an almost cellular level. She’s obviously a very intelligent and precocious storyteller, so may I suggest that she spend some time as far away from manga as possible? Pick up some Tintin or even Louis Riel. I would be very interested to see what roads that would lead her down.
- I think I liked issue #9 better than #8. Despite my qualms with Wood’s characters, I think #9 might be one of my very favorites of the series so far. Despite the sameness of some of his characters, there is no doubt that many of them are very vividly drawn (both figuratively and literally). Neither character in #9 is a saint, and they both come off rather badly over the course of the issue. Just like a real relationship, it all comes out in the wash at the end. Some very nice storytelling here, and it’s a testament to Wood and Cloonan’s synthesis that I can’t quite figure out who is doing what.
As Demo approaches its conclusion I think every issue reveals more and more about the caliber of the creative team. They are both going places, even if their ambition might occasionally betray them. But that’s OK – they’re still young. If their making these kinds of mistakes now, I can’t wait to see what kind of mistakes their making in ten years time.
Friday, August 20, 2004
Looking back on things, I’d say Monday’s rather oblique review of Identity Crisis #3 was quite a success. Or rather – looking over my hits for the week. It seems that this was quite a popular feature. I mean, it just about tripled my usual hits for a single day (that would be Monday), and it had a similar boosting effect throughout the rest of the week as more people linked and tuned in.
I’m not stupid. People rather liked it, I guess. So – how about we make it a semi-regular feature? I won’t promise to do a "remix" like that every week, but I’ll try to have one up every now and again. It’s just too fun not to. I had a blast doing it, and everyone seems to have at least got a chuckle out of the "I go stabby" line. I tell you, sometimes the best jokes are the stupidest ones. I have a similar feeling about the Aqua Teen Hunger Force - sure, it’s monumentally stupid, but its stupid in a way that only very, very intelligent people could have managed. As such, it somehow manages to cross the line into Sheer Fucking Brilliance.
There is one bad side to doing the remix features on a semi-regular basis. The hosting for the rather large .jpeg images in the articles is given to me at the pleasure of my dear Wife, who actually has the space to give. But she has informed me that she can’t be filling up the space intended for her music with my comic stuff. So, in order to host a new feature, I have to take the old one down. So, if you like my bootleg of IC #3, please take advantage of it now, before its gone. Because I don’t want to test the wife’s patience!
But, if some kind soul were to offer some nice empty space on their server, perhaps I wouldn’t need to tempt the wrath of The Wife . . .
Part Four – The Power of Caricature: Part One
It was extremely gratifying to receive an e-mail on this series the other day. (Quite honestly, I didn’t know if anyone was paying attention, or if you all just called in sick for this one.) This letter had been sent by a fan who had recently completed Louis Riel and was, quite frankly, a little bit disappointed. So, the question was asked – just why do I think Louis Riel is so damn good in the first place?
It’s a complicated question. Getting to the heart of why anything is considered good or great or mediocre is an extremely difficult proposition. There’s a reason why academia has evolved an opaque and hideously self-referential dialect to discuss these matters – because quantifying aesthetic decisions is hard work, and anyone who says otherwise doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
At its best, criticism provides a peek into the mechanism of art, and lets us better understand the ideas and concepts at the heart of our understanding of the world. There’s a popular – and not entirely unearned – prejudice that critics as a lot are a group of professional sourpusses, frustrated artists who get their kicks out of pillorying the work of other, far more talented creators. There are certainly enough critics who fit that description, especially in the notoriously superheated world of comics (where seemingly everyone either wants to be, used to be, or is actually a creator). And outside of that pigeonhole there are certainly a few critics in the classic Pauline Kael intellectual-tyrant mode, or the more recent but no less persistent Roger Ebert critic-as-celebrity mode. (I should point out that this is a not entirely fair characterization of Ebert, as he has produced some very interesting critical writing over the years. His celebrity has not necessarily been deleterious to his critical acumen – but then, an argument can be made either way.)
In any event, all this serves as a very roundabout way of bringing us home to my actual point. The best criticism reacts to art in such a way as to enlighten the scaffolding behind the great works of art, to allow the reader (or viewer or listener) to understand how the art they love and respect works, and how it makes them feel and respond the way that they do. I feel that Louis Riel is such an amazing achievement for the simple reason that it exposes with an almost painful simplicity the singular strengths of our comics medium.
Chester Brown made a very deliberate choice at the onset of the project to rein in his characteristically expressionistic tone, and exchange many of his stylistic tools for a very sharply defined set of limitations:
- Every page, excepting maps, would have a six panel grid. There is only one exception to this in the entire book, and it occurs on the epilogue page.
- Every panel, as printed, would be exactly the same size: roughly 2"x2".
- The entire story would be scripted ahead of time, a technique not previously used by Brown but adopted as a response to Underwater’s unwieldy demise.
- The entire story would be drawn in a style evocative of Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie.
Brown’s previous works had been stylistically unrestrained almost to the point of incoherence. Previous works like I Never Liked You Anyway had toyed with panel placement almost to the point of dissolution, with pages sometimes containing single panels floating in seas of inky black. Coupled with an extremely organic line, his work represented one of the most emotionally expressive oeuvres in modern comics.
What, then, was to be gained by straightjacketing his traditional narrative approach to such a rigid and arbitrary set of rules? Just about everything.
The artistic function of Louis Riel, for Brown, was to almost entirely change the focus of his art. Instead of using a very expressive line to communicate emotional stimulus, Brown eradicated this technique from his vocabulary. The endlessly and exquisitely delineated crosshatching and perfectly proportioned figurework was designed specifically to suppress any overt emotional evocation. Brown had a much more complicated goal in mind.
The history in Riel is intentionally transparent. Everything that occurs, occurs in an extremely forthright and linear manner. A precedes B precedes C, and the causes and effects of actions and reactions are minutely documented. Where the history fails or offers only supposition, Brown in most cases hews closely to orthodoxy – there are no strange YHWH-like interventions at any point in the process. When Brown makes a leap in his reasoning, he painstakingly documents these leaps in the back of the book.
The actual purpose of the story is not, as some would suspect, to create a polemic on the nature of history. The purpose of Louis Riel is instead to plum the nature of character, to examine and plumb and explore the unknowable texture of conscience.
Thursday, August 19, 2004
The White Elephant
This comic tries something different, and I have a great respect for anyone willing to try something different. It only partially works, but when it works, it works well.
The book’s central conceit is that the flipped-format long pages are meant to approximate a stage, and that the events in the book are meant to evoke a stage play, both in terms of dialogue and staging. It’s an interesting format, and it offers any number of fruitful metaphors hanging from very low branches. Some of these fruit are plucked, some aren’t, but the creators get credit for trying.
The theater, at is has come to be defined in the preceding century, is a medium of limitations. Whereas movies and television offer a more visceral approximation of reality, theater offers an intimacy and spontaneity unattainable in recorded medium. The limits of any given production are the most basic physical limits possible: the size and dimensions of a stage, the definitions of reality. We’re not likely to see any CGI on Broadway, at least not anytime soon. Although the mega-productions of the last thirty or so years have brought a previously undreamed level of spectacle to the theater, even morbidly obese productions such as The Lion King are restrained by the physical limitations of stagecraft.
In translating the particular limitations of the stage to the page, Damon hurd and Christopher Steinenger have made some interesting choices. First, the dialogue is presented side by side with the panels, in the form of a typed script. Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to follow the narrative, as certain storytelling decisions seem a bit counter-intuitive. The story flows best when the artist uses wide-shot long panels to define the entire page as physical space. Whenever the story depends on close-up views of faces and people, physical relationships can become blurred and muddy.
Steininger’s art is effective, but there were many times I found myself wishing for a less sketchy style. I can understand what he’s going for here, but there are too many indicators here that Steininger doesn’t have the firm grasp of fundamentals that would enable to him to stretch out on such an impressionistic limb. Artists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Ashley Wood had to learn how to crawl before they could sprint, and often times Steininger gives the impression of wanting to seem more accomplished than he is.
Hurd gained quite a surprising following after the publication of his mini-comic My Uncle Jeff, which was subsequently reprinted for a wider audience by Alternative (also the publisher of this volume). His comics specialize in a rigorous emotional honesty based on a traumatically unpleasant upbringing. The autobiography in The White Elephant is thinly-veiled (it even says so on the back of the book.) As an aside, I don’t really understand the purpose of adopting a roman a clef if the author admits up-front that everything is true – it seems kind-of besides the point, but if Hurd is more comfortable working on these terms, so be it. Eddie Campbell was Alec McGarry for a while, after all, and it seemed to work for him after a fashion.
There’s a level of emotional intensity in this book that belies the occasional lapse into melodrama. If there’s one narrative weakness here, I would say that there are quite a few characters to keep track of, and their inconsistent portrayals makes it difficult to differentiate certain characters.
I don’t think that Hurd has really come into his own yet. This is a very raw book, buoyed along by rage where technical proficiency proves inadequate. The creators’ willingness to take some very interesting risks with the material bodes well for their future endeavors – its always a good sign when young cartoonists are eager to explore the formalistic constraints of the medium. That tells me that despite the somewhat mixed results on display here, these two creators are already thinking about the medium in terms of a long-term creative engagement.
I have to say that this is a surprisingly good read. This comes about as close as you can get to a "bolt from the blue" for me. I don’t think I’d ever read more than two lines about Mad Yak Press before, and I certainly knew nothing about any of their books. Based on the example of Subatomic, I don’t think their company is going to remain secret for much longer.
First, they have put together a really impressive package here. Most small- and self-publishers use black and white as their primary format - primarily, I imagine, for economic reasons. Everything I’ve seen from Mad Yak is in glorious color. This pays surprising dividends. The fact is that even among upscale publishers such as AiT/Planet Lar and Oni, the majority of books published in black and white don’t really seem to be distinctively black and white books, so much as books that merely weren’t colored.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that cartoonists have radically different approaches should pick up any of Marvel’s Essentials line. As much as I love getting a big fat fistful of comics for a great price, there is no denying that the stories lose something when the color is subtracted. This is especially true when you look back at Silver Age giants such as Kirby and Ditko, artists who depended on color to provide textures that their own impressionistic understanding of form and figure did not account for. By that same token, if you look at artists such as Jaime Hernandez and Jim Woodring, these are artists who take full advantage of the stylistic possibilities open to artists who chose to work with black & white. Their design is much stronger because they have to rely on black & white contrasts as their primary tool for creating depth on a flat page. Then, of course, there are artists such as Ron Rege and Gary Panter who play with the possibilities of an artificially flat surface by using mannered approaches to an anti-perspective, subtracting a full millenia of artistic advancement and manipulating their black & white figures on a sloping, depthless plane.
Um, where was I? Oh yeah.
Subatomic is presented in glorious color. I am almost tempted to say that Anne Marie Horne’s subtle palette is the best thing about the book – it would hardly be an insult to the other two members of the creative team, considering how damn fine her colors look. A lot of computer coloring can be garish and ugly, but Ms. Horne has concocted a consistent – and consistently interesting – palette. This is especially impressive considering the fact that most of the book takes place in drab gray government institutions and darkened winter cityscapes. There’s a brief section in the middle of the book set in the midst of the country, with green fields and blue skies, but the dichotomy doesn’t jar the reader because there’s a consistent tonal vocabulary that creates a continuity even between the insides of a drab military barracks and a wide-open cornfield. I don’t have a doubt that based on the evidence of Subatomic, Ms. Horne could find a job coloring any comic published by any publisher, anywhere. She’s that good – and how often do you hear anyone raving about how good a colorist is?
I don’t mean to imply that the rest of the book deserves short shrift, far from it. Patrick Neighly has crafted an interesting tale that should appeal to the paranoid conspiracy theorist in anyone. I can see how the story might first have occurred to him – by taking the tropes of comic book and movie spy stories and inserting them into the realm of workaday bureaucracy. So, you have the fabled SHIELD helicarrier reimagined as a drab floating office building, and Steranko’s famous flying chairs remade as nothing so interesting as a bulky black suitcase. It may seem ironic or unlikely, considering that comics are a relentlessly visual medium, but the invariably bland imagery succeeds quite well. It’s supposed to be boring, and it does an excellent job of evoking the world we’re placed into.
The story itself is fairly simple. Mark is an employee of ATOM, the top-secret government agency entrusted with spying on the American citizenry in order to protect it. They accomplish this by keeping tabs on pretty much everyone, and they do just about everything necessary to invade your privacy, from reading your mail to inserting spies throughout the populace. These elements of the story aren’t as fulyl fleshed as I would perhaps have liked, but the point of the story isn’t to explore the mechanics of ATOM’s fascistic enterprise, its to follow Mark as he decides to rebel against the system and leave the organization.
It’s a futile gesture. He stays out of trouble for about a year but the organization is constantly on his tracks. Finally, he’s caught and restored back into the organization. The final act is particularly effective because it is implied very strongly that the organization, in the end, has no real reason to exist other than to propagate its bureaucracy. Its hardly a new idea, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective.
Jorge Heufemann is a name I am unfamiliar with. His art is prosaically competent – and for a story that places a high value on drab utilitarianism, it is oddly appropriate. But again, the art in this book is a true collaboration. Heufemann trusts Horne’s colors implicitly, and she doesn’t let him, or us, down.
Subatomic is a great book, all the more interesting considering the challenges facing any self-published book in today’s market. This is the type of smart, well-produced and entertaining yarn that would captivate the mainstream audiences who eat up inferior product like Robert Ludlum movie adaptations - if they knew it existed, that is. I predict bright futures for everyone involved in the production of this book – but especially Horne.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Editor's note: Today's blog entry has been provided by the author's twin brother Ted O'Neil
So, like, I been readin about this Liebr's Evelven thing oging around the comics blogosphere and I hav to say I am mega hyped about this, this is so cool. I thought about it and I have elvlent books I thought of that you can't miss, they are totoally hot!
The best Spiedr-Man stroy ever by trhe best ever pider-Man artist, Mr,. Todd Macfarlane. This ios history right herwe and it is justo ne of the very best storys ever told in any medium.
The two best superhewroes ever in one big adventures. Don';t pay any attention to that other Batman/Spawn buck, it is teh suck hardcore. Spawn ROOLZ even though mopst people don't think so anymore he is still THA MUTHUFUCIN best superhero out there. Toddy even did a video for KORN who are the BEST group in tha world.
This is the best Batman story every and I'm going to tell you wh7y: Bane is a fuckin basdass and hewhoops Batman's ass up and down. And then this other Batman gets a new suit and beats the crap out of Bane and everyone's liek "Whoa there's a new Batman in town and he kicks ass" and it kicked ass. I wish they had kept this batman atround, I didn't like the Azrael book because he was always talking to himseflf ,not KIKKING A$$!!!
Lady Death: The Odyssey
For nayone who says there are not any strong female cgharacters in comics, I prsesent BVria n Pulido's Lady Deatyh. She is plenty srtrong, powerful, independent, and HELLA SEXXXY!!!
Jim Bal;ent is the best CATWOMAN artist ever, and this is one of his best Catwoman stories. He also did a LOBO swimsuit special once that was hella tight.
What library would be complete wityhout the ol Canucklehead? Yes that's right this is the best WOlverine story *ever*, and it is also dranw by the guy who wrote Batrman/Spawn. This is such a cool book, there are so many fukking ninjas its so hardcore!
The X-Tinction Agenda
This is maybe the best X_MEN story ofg all time. It's got Cable and Wolverine fighting a bunch of cyborgs with guns and all kindsa shit busts loose. You get to see Wolverine and Archangel go at it like two cats in a sackj and you get to tsee Wolverine TOTALLY DOING THA DEED with Jean GRey... face it, true believers, this one has it all!!!
OK, I know I alreayd put two BATMAN books on the list, but this is just one of best comics eve.r JIm Lee is a master of the comics medium and he steps up to the plate to prove is once again with HUSH. I have heard some people say this story is lame but they probably just don't get it, it's a bit cxomplex.
The X-Ecutioner's Somg
I do not knwo if this is cooler than the X_TINCTION AGENDA but this is still one of the coolest X_MEN stories of all time. Stryfe is so fucking cool, he is basically Cable only evil. He tries to destroy the X-Men by pitting all the teams of the the X-Men against each opther but he gets his a$$ kicked when they figure out what';s up. This set up some awesomestory points that they were dealing with for years, like the legacy Virus that kileld collosus and the origin of Cable. Anyone who says comicis can't have deep meaning, I will give them this book, because it is hardcore.
I got an old box of comics from this guy down the street and there was a pile of stuff from thsi company called valiant. I asked Tim why Valiant doesn't publish anymore and he gave me some long answer about Jim Shooter being screwed out of a business deal and them selling out to a video game company, but really, I don't understands beecuae these books rokked. This is just baout the best, it's got some sci-fi crap in therte but its mostly just blowing shit up and stuff - you know, hardcore bada$$ shit.
Now this is for the HARDCORE... if you have gotten into comics and wantto step up and into the real shittt, this book here is one of the very best strories ever told. This has spide-rman, wolverine and the hulk and a bunch of other heroes. It's basically one of the greatest book ever written, IMHO, and I defy anyone to tell me that this ain't so.
Thanks, ya'll!!! Keep it dry, D00D!
Friday, August 13, 2004
Various and Sundry
Oh boy! It’s been an eventful day here at La Casa Del O’Neil. If you have been paying attention you might have noticed that I’ve had some computer troubles lately. I couldn’t use explorer and was forced to use my wife’s computer for anything that involved accessing my hard drive – that is, writing, blogging and everything but checking the e-mail and a modicum of web-surfing.
So, I was resolved to the grim prospect of reformatting. I’ve done it before. It’s not fun, but it sure beats the alternative – i.e., nothing.
But while waiting Windows XP to arrive I decided to do something strange: I actually went to Microsoft and downloaded the updates for Windows 98. There were over 60 updates, since I had never before bothered to do this.
Now, my computer is working fine. So I take back everything I’ve ever said about Evil Bill. He’s fine by me – he can watch my kids anytime. OK, I don’t have kids but you get the idea.
It’s Time For Letters!
Lil’ Chris Allen writes:
I read your review [of Eightball #23] and mostly enjoyed it, but I'm wondering if your feeling that the issue marked a creative decline for Clowes is in reality just that he's doing a type of story you don't like. Yes, that's absurdly simple, but what I mean is, if one choose to tell a story of an alienated sociopath becoming a serial killer when he's given ultimate power, isn't detachment and a lack of warmth a valid creative choice? I understand your reasoning, and yes, Clowes has perhaps lost some endearing qualities as he's refined his artistic skill--no more starring in his own stories like "I Love You Deeply"--but as you point out, the detachment was starting as far back as Velvet Glove, so could it be you two have just hit a fork in the road? There was a part in Ice Haven where he takes some very easy shots at comics critics and fans that I saw as a warning sign (and if Ware does a full-length Rusty Brown GN, that could be trouble as well), and yet I think The Death Ray is nearly as good. I think it's clear that the choice to depict the superhero adventures briefly and awkwardly (nice Tallarico image) is because there really is no joy for this guy, no matter what happens to him. He can't even fantasize right. I agree Clowes probably has no love whatsoever for superheroes (I noticed in Spiegelman's intro to City of Glass he says Mazzuchelli was so good he "almost made superheroes interesting"--thanks, boss) but I don't think Clowes really intended to make any kind of statement about them specifically; they just made a good, ridiculous symbol for a story of power corrupting. To me, the detached tone was countered by what I felt were personal elements of Clowes in the character of Andy. He's a collector of old music, has old-fashioned values, and some shameful sexual energy he tries to rise above through his chosen task/field of endeavor. Anyway, I'm off, but look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Chris. I have always appreciated your columns, even when I haven’t agreed with your opinions. I am sorry to see you’re not contributing to The Shoot anymore – and so is Ryall, I think – but I am glad you still have a home at Comic Book Galaxy.
I am very aware of the possibility, as you mention that "it’s not him, it’s me". There are certainly enough people who are absolutely in love with Eightball #23 for me to think my opinion might not be exclusively valid. But I considered my opinion with great deliberation, weighing the pros and cons very carefully before I wrote a single word on the subject.
I have no problem with depressing or cynical or downright mean-spirited stories. Brett Easton Ellis is one of my all-time favorite writers, and anyone who says that American Psycho isn’t a stone-cold masterpiece is just flat wrong in my opinion. But it seems to me that Clowes’ stylistic rigidity and moralistic rigor are basically strangling the life out of his art. He’s already explored alienation and psychotic disassociation. He’s done these things before, and done them very well, so to do make the case for doing them again requires the kind of quantum leap in artistic conception that we saw between the completion of David Boring and "Ice Haven". I just don’t see that kind of growth here. It seems to be almost a retread, with just the added bonus imagery of superheroes to confuse the issue.
Because, let’s face it, there’s no profound statement on superheroes to be made here. I don’t think that Clowes is interested in superheroes even enough to mock them convincingly. Ask Evan Dorkin – to truly loathe something, you have to love it. The only time Andy becomes The Death Ray, he looks very silly in that homemade thrift-store costume. That’s kind of Clowes’ attitude in general towards superheroes, I think: just sort of a shoulder-shrugging silliness.
If you subtract the superhero imagery, you’re left with stories, characters and situations that strike me as very similar to stories, characters and situations we have previously seen in Clowes’ previous work. That’s my problem with Eightall #23. As I said, it’s a beautifully produced piece of work, but it’s nothing new from an artist who has practically made a career out of outdoing himself with every successive project. If he wants to explore these themes for the rest of his life, more power to him – God knows some truly great artists have done a lot more with much less in the way of preoccupations – but if he does, I want to see something more than Rebecca and Enid with testosterone and in superhero drag.
Despite all of this, I will admit that I could very well be biased here. We won’t know for sure until Clowes produces a new issue - and I wouldn’t hold my breath for that at this rate.
I Hate Memes!
It’s a fact of life: if everybody is doing something, I try to do what they’re not doing. But, you know, sometimes I can’t resist, and since everybody else has already done so, I don’t really fear the ridicule of being the only kid in class wearing a purple ascot:
- The Smithsonian Books of Comic Strips & Books - I don’t actually have the strips book but I imagine if it’s anywhere near as good as the damn Comic Books book it is just as essential.
- The Collected Palomar & Locas - Together they will weight in at, what, 1300 pages or something? Indispensable, but you knew that.
- Stuck Rubber Baby - Has anyone mentioned this one yet? Howard Cruse gets overlooked too damn often.
- From Hell - Well, damned if it doesn’t just blow away most everything else ever done.
- Louis Riel - If you read this blog you already know I think Chester Brown is our Greatest Living Cartoonists – this is his greatest work to date, so it’s a no-brainer.
- The Frank Book - For advanced study only. This book will swallow the weak.
- The R. Crumb Library – Volumes 4 & 15 - I can’t pick between them, can I cheat and have these count as one? Crumb’s two peak eras gloriously represented.
- That Big-Ass Krazy Kat Hardcover - I don’t know the exact name – you know which one I’m talking about.
- Read Yourself Raw - I don’t even own a copy of this one myself, but sure enough I know what’s in it.
Yeah, no Maus. Trust me, you’ll live.
Finally . . .
Courtesy of Achewood, the funniest panel in the history of comics:
Th-th-th-that’s all, folks.