Monday, October 09, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part One

The Hurting began in January of 2004, during what had been the coldest New England winter in many years. The site's owner and sole proprietor had launched the site as something of a lark, in response to the success of other previously established comics weblogs such as Dirk Deppey's Journalista!, and an earnest desire to join the nascent intellectual community established by the likes of Deppey, Sean Collins, Alan David Doane and other like-minded individuals.

The winter of 2004 was unbearably harsh. The proprietor was at the time living what could have perhaps been called a "shotgun shack" -- a small, decrepit house in the Massachusetts wilderness, old enough to have been built before the invention of fiberglass insulation and uninhabited for a sufficient period of time for the gas furnace to have fallen into a state of irrecoverable disrepair. The temperature at noon on the coldest days was still well below freezing. It was the type of cold that worms its way into a person's bones, rendering the joints hard and knotty and necessitating an absolute economy of movement. There was hot water but no shower. The pipes, painstakingly repaired from a previous freeze in the months leading up to the winter, refroze. The proprietor's wife was hospitalized.

But it didn't stay cold forever. The snow melted and the weather improved. The Hurting rose to swift prominence in the world of comics blogging, a feat roughly comparable to becoming one of the world's tallest midgets. There were doctrinal disputes and ideological rifts throughout the early "Golden Age" of the blogosphere -- strong personalities attracted to the free and unrestricted speech guaranteed by blogging proved to be as mutually antipathetic as they were loud. After Journalista!'s first demise, following Deppey's promotion to the position of Managing Editor at The Comics Journal, The Hurting briefly stepped into the gap created by the site's absence. Providing a (reasonably) accurate and (fairly) comprehensive listing of the day's comics-related news proved a humbling, if educational experience for the site's proprietor. The experiment lasted less than four months. Trolling search engines for comics news, following related blogs for developments, and participating in blogosphere-wide discussions took a steady toll. Daily blogging became a four-to-six hour proposition. Respect for Deppey's achievements, if not his politics, grew proportionately.

The experiment ended as abruptly as it began. The lesson had been duly learned: even just playing at the role of a centralized compiler, a proverbial "hub" in the "wheel" of the comics internet, had been an exhausting experience. Settling into a comfortable niche, The Hurting soon retracted from any kind of involvement in daily news. The absence of Journalista! or any other type of centralized hub to the blog system meant that the freewheeling, multi-disciplined discussions of the blogosphere's early days faded from memory. There were numerous blog postings which asked the oxymoronic rhetorical question of whether the "blogosphere was dead" -- blogosphere meaning specifically the hyper-contentious debate community of early 2004, dead meaning never to return. The consensus was that, yes, the "Golden Age" of comics blogging had passed.

Meanwhile, those who cared to think about it remembered that the "Golden Age" had consisted of little more than the unpleasantly didactic proprietors of half a dozen outspoken blogs arguing with each other while everyone else went about their business. The real "Golden Age" of comics blogging, meanwhile, was probably the period between whenever Neilalien started and someone else appeared for Neilalien to link with.

The Hurting's focus shifted from current events and conversation to reviews and commentary, both on the state of the industry and on the state of the art. Success with a review of Identity Crisis #3 written in "remix" form resulted in a long-running "remix" column for the site, later renamed Buzzscope. The comics "remix" idea ran out of steam before the year was over, but by the that time the idea had spawned a host of imitators. The proprietor took pains to note that he was hardly the first person to come up with the idea of putting bad jokes in comic-book word bubbles, but the proliferation of Photoshop and other, similar graphics programs fueled a surge of bad remix panels. The initial Identity Crisis review succeeded in spawning a very brief catch-phrase in the form of "I Make Stabby", or the popular variant "I Go Stabby". T-shirts were promptly designed, none were purchased. The catchphrase soon fell into obscurity, save for one questionable appearance on a late-night cable animated television program.

If it could be argued that The Hurting possessed any singular identity in its early years, it was that as a soapbox for a clinically depressed, deeply dissatisfied and chronically discontent individual of questionable tastes. Frequent lapses in judgment resulted in occasional ill-advised postings which were badly edited and rambling to the point of illegibility, some of which were even subsequently taken down and replaced by covers of ALF comic books, leaving the now-nonsensical comments sections of said postings to twist in the wind like vestigial limbs. The comics blogosphere, for the most part unmolested by the mad ramblings of The Hurting's proprietor, settled into a comfortable adolescence. The blog as vehicle for pseudo-comedic musings on the inferior quality of old comics became almost de rigeur. If, in the year 2006 it can be said that the comic book blog has a platonic form, it undoubtedly has something to do with mocking an old issue of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

While the number of comics blogs has continued to proliferate, with new blogs appearing frequently to replace lost or discontinued pages, the number of bloggers with direct ties to the supposed "Golden Age" of late 2003-early 2004 has precipitously diminished. A few of the form's "early adopters" graduated to professional gigs writing for comics and pop-culture related magazines, some established their blogs as brand-name entities in their own right, often joining previously established comics portals. Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter site premiered and soon found itself at the forefront of industry blogrolls, but it was a different blogosphere. There simply wasn't as much contention, and Spurgeon's relatively noncombative and self-effacing personality meant that he was loathe to spark controversy where none existed. Heidi McDonald's The Beat adopted a slightly less academic tone but nonetheless also steered-clear of overt conflict. By the time Journalista! returned in 2006, the blogosphere had become sufficiently diffuse that Deppey's return to blogging after a significant and fairly successful term as the Journal's editor was regarded less as a significant event than merely an interesting occurance. It is also worth noting that the increasingly politicized nature of Deppey's term at the Journal burnt a handful of real-world bridges, the result of which was a small but noticeable cooling effect in the upper echelons of the online comics cogniscenti. The sense of comraderie that spawned the initial surge of interest in comics blogging was gone, and in its place was a multitude of voices with established audiences. As The Hurting's proprietor recently noted, not without a slight twinge of regret, the quality of comics-related writing on the internet, both in terms of serious commentary and humor content, is currently the best it had ever been.

But The Hurting remains now essentially as it was, still bitter after all these years. What began with a stupid joke* has metastisized into pseudo-academic grumblings and yet more stupid jokes. Perhaps the proprietor's well-earned reputation as a curmudgeon of the first order has established a sturdy barrier against the everpresent threat of "selling out". Whereas many of his peers have managed to turn their blogging experience into cold hard cash through writing gigs at famous comic book companies, the proprietor has remained pure. Even the "Comics Remix" column -- which many feared would open the door to mainstream success in a similar fashion to that of another currently-famous comics writer who got their start in the realm of online satire columns -- was a resounding success in terms of totally repelling people who would want to give the proprietor money. And all the hordes of literary agents and editors who have been known to scour the blogosphere -- looking for the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or Brett Easton Ellis -- well, they have known well enough to steer clear of The Hurting, secure in the knowledge that no amount of money could possibly persuade The Hurting to part with its hard-earned authenticity. It's the kind of authenticity that can only really come from being lonely, bitter and poor, newly divorced and devoted to misanthropy as a lifestyle. Money, like casual sex with devoted comics blogger groupies, would only exert a corrupting influence on the elemental purity that is The Hurting.

* This was after Marvel's Astonishing X-Men title, to be written by Joss Whedon, had been announced. The joke was essentially that Marvel should have gotten the screenwriter for The Chase to write an X-Men book. The joke only makes sense if you remember that The Chase was a Kristy Swanson vehicle, just like the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film -- and that the proprietor of The Hurting never loses an opportunity to stick it to Buffy fans, Buffy being a phenomenon whose charms (besides the obvious appeal of Sarah Michelle Geller in tight sweaters) have retained their opacity throughout the years.

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