Monday, October 30, 2006

The Fate of the Critic

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Every so often I find myself wondering just why I do it -- this blog, that is. Whereas many other blogs seem to have specific purposes and recognizably distinct perspectives, I always feel slightly purposeless next to more rigorously defined sites. Ultimately, however, it has little to do with a useless question like "what do readers get out of this site"? Obviously they (you) get something from me doing this, or you wouldn't be reading this right now. To doubt that there is an audience at this point would be essentially fishing for pity. I make no bones about fishing for money, but I draw the line somewhere . . .

At some point blogging crosses over from a neat idea that sounds like it might be fun, and becomes a responsibility. It may not sound glamorous or fun, but there it is: at some point The Hurting became less an avocation than a compulsion. It's not that I do or don't enjoy it, it simply is, it's become a fixture in my life. Some people come to blogging for a short amount of time, and when the novelty wears off they wander away. Others find themselves sucked in. I feel guilty when I go more than a day without posting something, because I know at least a few people care. I notice when I take long sabbaticals (as has happened when I have taken breaks for trips and the like) that the readership goes down. I don't scan my stats or anything like that, but you notice these things in terms of the comments and kind of responses you get. Of all the writing I have to do in my life, writing a blog post is perhaps the least effective use of my writing time conceivable, considering that I don't get paid for this, I'm not building connections that can help further my "real" writing career, and oftentimes writing involved blogposts is just a way of getting sidetracked from other things I need to be doing at any given moment. I can trick myself into feeling I've gotten something accomplished when, really, I've just wrote a blogpost, maybe even a spectacularly stupid piece of fanfic using Iron Man as a metaphor for creative achievement (what can I say -- it was a good metaphor that I don't think anyone had ever used before).

Does that sound bad? Really, it's merely true. I've gotten a handful of e-mails since this series began, asking me if the "Fate of the Critic" series was going to mean the end of The Hurting. While it is indeed flattering to see that at least a couple people care, it's not the end.

Reading Eddie Campbell's The Fate of the Artist, I identified with Campbell's character perhaps more than I should have. I'm a single white male, newly divorced, with some degree of independence but still essentially frustrated in my chosen field (writing). It's easy to wake up one day and realize the grinding sensation you feel is the sound of the ignition grinding as the car stalls in the middle of traffic. Forward momentum ceases and you start sliding sideways -- not backwards, but not one inch closer to your ultimate goal.

And you get comfortable. You live by yourself. You get to build and design your life just exactly how you want it. You look up one day and realize that you've become "eccentric", and that you're talking to yourself in the grocery store. When you go out to visit family for a week it is amazing just how harsh and acerbic your voice sounds, because you haven't been using it an awful lot. You get a cat, so you can pretend you're talking to someone without sounding totally crazy. And you write in the second person, just like Don McGregor, to somehow try and depersonalize what is, essentially, your story.

Because that's what this is all about. I recognize the fact that The Hurting has something of a schizoid reputation -- on the one hand, the reviews and think-pieces are often stridently impersonal for the blog format. Not without reason do I strive for a formality of tone in my longer pieces. But then, the first person "I" invariably comes crashing in through the skylight. I don't think I wear it well, honestly. I'm more comfortable talking about myself in the second or third person. I believe that at its most basic form, blogging is a limited format. When I write reviews, I try to ground them in the same standards I would use writing for the Journal or Popmatters. I don't know why I do this, other than it seems more "natural" to me than not. All the same, I've become increasingly aware of the fact that my voice -- or a voice which somehow approximates mine -- shines through.

It's not a diary, it's not a journal, it's not a magazine, it's not an academic review, it's not a brand name, it's not profitable. It's simply The Hurting. It is what it is. Trying to define it further, at this point, is just counter-productive.

It's the fate of the artist to create art. I honestly don't know why critics do what they do -- even after I've been one for years, even after I've been paid for it, I still don't know. I suspect most of us just spend so much time thinking that critiquing is essentially second-nature. I know that when I'm really feeling spot-on, a review is a kind of automatic writing, spewing forth what has already percolated in my head onto the keyboard. Sometimes I fear that my work seems dashed-off, or worse, lacking in rigor -- how many times have I made contentious points, only to see them demolished on further examination? That comes from thinking out loud. It's good to have a blog on which to do so, but I still worry sometimes that I come across as insufficiently substantial. That, more than anything else, is probably the fate of the critic: perpetual insecurity.

Because you can't criticize other people's work without coming in for criticism yourself. Perhaps there are certain critics who reside in an ivory tower of insoluble perfection, but I always worry that every decision I make regarding how I perceive art is somehow contradictory, insupportable, arbitrary or just plain uninformed. There's always someone smarter.

And at the end of the day, no matter how good my melting gun is, I'm not going to be able to succeed in melting Iron Man. He'll always find a way to clobber me and win the day. As important as it is to discuss art, to understand our relationship with art and the way we perceive art, the people who actually create art will always retain the moral high ground. Some criticism becomes art by virtue of its heft, but most is, at best, of supplementary value. No matter how good a piece of criticism is, it only exists because someone, somewhere, took the first step to create something new in the first place, something which the critic could then respond to and hold a dialogue with. Ultimately, criticism is futile -- truly great art will always resist explication. And an artist will continue on his or her merry way, regardless of how many idiots with melting guns are lined up outside the gate.

So we sit and we talk and we explicate and we explain and we develop these little alternative cosmologies to try and explain how things work, when in reality it's all so much more complicated and yet so much more simpler than any critic could ever explain. The act of creation is ineffable and mysterious. And at the same time, the act of reading or viewing or listening is so simple, one gets the idea that sometimes critics can lose sight of just how basic the act is. We learn how to judge art, and how to apply criteria and utilize informed comparisons, but really, it's all just a development of the same aesthetic sense we develop from a very young age. And the best art, the truly great art, can succeed in transporting us back to the very genesis of our critical faculties. We can talk all day about why it is good, but ultimately, attempts to explicate the inexplicable will fall mercilessly short.

I can't really pretend to understand why anyone else does anything, but I know for me that trying to understand art through criticism is done with an extremely specific purpose. I can't learn to be inspired but I can learn how to apply craft to inspiration. For me, at least, the fate of the critic is to take what I have learned and apply it. Of course, when you become adept at disassembling other people's art, you are liable to become a merciless critic of your own work. But then, no one ever said being an artist was easy or fun -- good old Tolstoy spent decades in the second half of his life wandering around the woods of his estate with a rifle, trying to think of a good reason not to kill himself. That's your "fate of the artist", right there. We'll see how it goes.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Five

These were the moments he lived for.

The building was silent. A few security guards paced up and down the hallways, the soles of their shoes clicking against the hard tile, echoing through the empty corridors. The real security, of course, had nothing to do with a few dozing rent-a-cops. The headquarters of Stark Enterprises was one of the most well-defended buildings in the western hemisphere -- or so, at least, were the many basements and sub-basements that represented the core of the company's technological achievements. The complex had been constructed in such a way that even if the building itself were to be totally demolished, the laboratories and warehouses beneath would remain unharmed and impenetrable. It wasn't merely paranoia, it was a dire necessity. There were many men and organizations that would gladly have sacrificed the lives of thousands to possess the contents of those basements.

Deep in the bowels of Stark Headquarters, Tony Stark was hard at work. Ensconced deep within the cavernous depths of his foundry, he retreated from the world, turning off all communications, without so much as a radio playing in the background. This was what fulfilled him.

Playing a super hero was fun -- more than fun. It was a thrill, a rush like nothing else. He played the part of playboy to the hilt, and it wasn't hard -- he really did enjoy the fast cars and loose women. But there wasn't a car built that could compare with the thrill of soaring through the clouds as Iron Man, or the sheer joy of victory in the face of certain defeat. Being Iron Man was serious business, sure, but he didn't consider it a vocation. He knew that there would come a time when he would be able to retire with relatively little regret. It was a demanding lifestyle.

Being Iron Man didn't define who he was -- it was the act of creation itself. That was something that no one else could understand. None of his friends in the Avengers, not even Reed Richards, could feel the same kind of thrill. He was an engineer. He didn't have the mind for theoretical abstracts that Richards did (nor, he imagined, did anyone else), but when it came to the practical business of designing and implementing technology, he felt with some justification that he was in a class by himself. And the Iron Man armor was more than just another invention, it had become over the years the focal point for his energies, the medium through which he could channel his immense creativity.

He had lost count of just how many lucrative patents had been plucked from technologies developed for the Iron Man armor. Stark Enterprises remained solvent partly through a constant stream of innovations that originated in this laboratory. But the bulk of the armor remained a proprietary secret. No one, not S.H.I.E.L.D., not the Avengers, not the federal government, knew the precise schematics for creating the simplest prototype Iron Man armor. Even the Guardsman armor had been licensed to the government through what was essentially an open-ended lease, with all ownership ultimately reverting back to Stark. Of course, sometimes it didn't work out that way. Then he had to take matters into his own hands.

Which was another thing that no one understood. He personally didn't really understand the notions of duty and responsibility that motivated his peers to be heroes. His responsibilities, while no less critical, lay in a different field: he protected his armor, and the secrets thereof. There had been times when he had been forced to take personal responsibility for his technology, taking a proactive stance against thieves and pirates who had put his proprietary technology to misuse. No one else understood that. He had to remain in control of his inventions, because the potential for disaster was too great.

He was already wealthy, rich beyond even his parents' wildest dreams. But with the technology of the Iron Man armor he could have been the wealthiest man on earth. Iron Man could have remade the planet a thousand times over. But Stark knew that the Iron Man armor, and all the advanced technologies that composed it, were not merely tools for piece. In the wrong hands they could become the most disastrous weapons of mass destruction ever created.

It was hard, sometimes, to keep that in context. He had been asked, more than once, why Iron Man couldn't potentially provide ways of managing intensely debilitating conditions like paraplegia or Parkinson's disease. Not too long ago he'd been confined to a wheelchair himself. It was a tempting thought -- use the Iron Man technology to enable those who could not walk to walk again, those with debilitating tremors to move with precision, those who worked in dangerous fields such as mining and refining to work without danger. But the moment he allowed that technology free, he was opening up Pandora's Box for anyone to construct their own Iron Man. In his nightmares he imagined an army of Iron Men marching under the flag of Red China, or Osama Bin Laden attacking New York City wrapped in armor...

And that is why the Iron Man armor could never be released. It was his technology, his responsibility. He did as much good as he could as Iron Man, but the potential hazards of releasing the technology into wider use was simply too great.

This was one of the things he liked about Peter -- Peter understood responsibility. He always said "with great power comes great responsibility" -- but Stark knew that both men interpreted such an axiom in diametrically different ways. Peter was racked by the responsibility to do everything in his power to prevent injustice -- noble, but futile. A juvenile idealism forged by trauma. Stark, on the other hand, knew full well that it was a tough world. People got hurt, people got killed. Stark had power -- proactive power to stop a limited degree of suffering, yes, but more importantly he had to keep his power under check for fear of unleashing powerful forces the world could not hope to control. That was his responsibility, his burden. He was the only person he could trust, it was as simple as that.

Sometimes, he reflected, circumstances had made him brittle and harsh. The hardest part of AA had been the second step -- he could never bring himself to believe in a greater power. He always tried to sidestep it in meetings. He didn't believe in God. He believed in himself, in the power of the free market, in individual responsibility, but not God. He didn't understand why anyone would possibly object to such a simple idea as government registration -- didn't they believe in being responsible, in standing behind their own abilities, in working together to ensure that power was always exercised wisely and with judicious restraint? The alternative was chaos. He had to prevent that. Sometimes it felt like he was the only person who could actually see the big picture.

But even if he sometimes didn't understand other people, he was comforted by his work. That was why these long, quiet nights of research and discovery sustained him. It's funny -- whenever he was left to his own devices for any length of time he always wanted a drink, but never when he was working. Stepping into his lab, he forgot about all the problems and the stresses, and simply allowed himself to enjoy the moment.

And then there were the damn villains. He sat for nights on end, hammering and soldering long past the break of dawn, developing the perfect armor for an imperfect world. And always -- without fail! -- some asshole with a melting gun would come along and try to melt him. Every single time. He was sick of tossing multi-million dollar servo mechanisms in the slagheap because they got melted by some high-school dropout who bought a molten ray from an AIM yard sale. Why did he always get the melting guys? Why couldn't the Melter ever go after someone who wasn't wearing fifty million dollars worth of the most technologically advanced weaponry on earth?

Everyone's a critic.

But the moment of creation makes it all worth while. It's sitting her, in the quiet of the night, that he is allowed to feel some sense of fulfillment, some kind of artistic satisfaction, however transient. It felt good to be able to create something where previously there had been nothing. What were all the villains in the world -- all the damn critics who didn't understand who he was or why he did what he did -- what were they compared to the singular joys of creation? Not a whole hell of a lot.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Won't Somebody Please Think Of The Children?

So I caught the new Ultimate Avengers movie on cable the other day. Pretty good, a definite improvement on the first. Considering the fact that the first was pretty bad, that may not seem like much of a complement, but there's actually some good bits in the new film ... and wisely, they stuck pretty close to the rock 'em sock 'em action. So even if I wasn't blown away I was sufficiently entertained for an hour and change.

But, yeah, I don't know if I'd want my kids, at least young kids, watching this thing. First, there's a great scene where the Black Widow (in an extremely small dress, no less) takes a cocktail olive out of Tony Stark's martini and, um, swallows it. It only lasts about three seconds but it was a lot more suggestive than I'd have expected, even for a PG film. The most questionable bit, however, was the scene near the, um, climax of the film, when Iron Man and Giant Man have to fly into the heart of the Skrull spaceship to blow it up. Doesn't sound bad, but on film it basically plays as the two of them flying into a large vagina and stimulating a glowing clitoris the size of the Flatiron building. Now, I can't be the only one who saw that, right? Right? I've seen a copy of that one sitting around at work, so I know some of the kids are watching it.

Yesterday I was sitting at work watching television with a group of kids - an episode of Dragonball GT, I believe. Now, I am no Dragonball expert - I can vaguely recognize Goku but I had to have someone explain to me why he was a kid again. But it seemed odd to me that the storyline in this particular episode was that Goku goes to hell, gets tortured by the Devil and tormented by the souls of the people he's killed, and is then devoured by this weird dude with a giant penis growing out of his back. It's not even some kind of vague resemblance to a penis - no, it's a giant, elongated pink penis, complete with enlarged tip and undulating ribs. It grabs Goku and swallows him whole. As I sat in this room with a dozen kids and two or three other staff, I wondered if I was the only person in the entire world who didn't think that was really, really messed up, at least in the context of a kids' cartoon? No one else seemed to notice, which is really disturbing on a whole 'nother level.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Four

The Fate of the Artist
by Eddie Campbell

I think anyone who desires to be an artist of any kind really needs to sit down and watch Fellini's 8 1/2. Perhaps it's not the type of movie you could expect the young and ambitious to understand -- more likely, it's the type of story you could appreciate on the surface, revelling in the textures and techniques of the storytelling itself, while the actual meaning at the heart of the narrative passes through your system undigested. It's not so much that the movie is about anything as hoary and uninspired as getting older or gaining perspective based on age. No, really, it's about something very specific, something extremely private and essentially internal in the act of art itself. That Fellini was able to put it up on the screen without making it seem incredibly self-indulgent and borderline incoherent is a testament to his skill as a filmmaker. But anyone who has ever struggled to create will immediately recognize themselves in the film.

People speak about art as a way of externalizing internal feelings, of attempting to understand previously inexplicable facets of human existence through expression. All well and good, of course, but that's all bullshit. Anyone who sets out with such lofty goals in mind is either doomed to failure or doomed to create intensely mediocre art -- interpreting art is best left to the audience. Creating art is hard work, any kind of art. It requires a formidable investment of craft and inspiration. The meaning that becomes attached to art is only attached after the fact, because good art is invariably, first and foremost, a personal reaction. You can't make any kind of hard-and-fast rules about art, but I'd be willing to bet that anyone throughout history who has ever set out to make good art has begun with something personal and intimate as their starting point -- how else to create the kind of connection that can pull an artist through the hard slog of creation?

Perhaps I'm projecting here. But art is still hard work. And the odd temperament which allows the artist to continue forward in the face of circumstances (because, really, creation is an act of measured futility) is almost impossible to understand, least of all for those actually inside the beast. I remember reading an anecdote of Stephen King's (I can't remember where I came across it, unfortunately) in which he stated that it wasn't until long after the fact that he realized The Shining was about his own writer's block, even though everyone who has read The Shining or seen the movie figures out pretty quick that the story is about writer's block (as well as substance abuse and professional anxiety, two other factors which were much on King's mind at the time). Well, that may seem unusual but it makes perfect sense to me: the artist in the process of creation is slogging through a deep, dark and dank tunnel, and it is only after the fact that he looks around and sees what he has actually accomplished. I can attest to the truth of this description myself.

I imagine it must be even worse for a filmmaker, working in tiny bits and pieces of time, usually filmed out of sequence, piled up in a closet until the time comes to assemble the final product. And then perhaps it's possible to get a clear idea of what is going on, but then, well, it's like a little miracle -- immensely satisfying, like nothing else. At least for a few hours. And then once it's gone and discharged, the hard reality settles in and the artist has an entirely new set of problems to worry about, not to mention the stress involved in having to start something entirely new in the near future.

8 1/2 isn't about writers' block so much as writers' frustration, writers' futility and writers' laziness -- all of those emotions and sensations that might seem inherently strange and slightly removed from the struggles of everyday existence, but are probably the most real and critical sensations in an artist's professional life. Whatever else it may be about (and it is about many things, don't get me wrong), 8 1/2 is about creative ennui. I don't think the phrase "writers' block" really applies, because I really hate that term. Myself, personally, I have rarely felt that I was blocked. What I am more likely to feel is lazy, unmotivated, racked by anxiety or simply exhausted. Not without reason does the movie begin with Marcello Mastroianni at a cushy resort for neurotics -- he's falling apart without inspiration. It's a neat variation of La Dolce Vida. In that film, Mastroianni is a frustrated writer forced into the secondary field of journalism -- undemanding, puerile celebrity gossip journalism, no less -- unable to summon the nerve to actually make a go at his real ambition and driven to dissipation and resentment as a result. In 8 1/2 Mastroianni begins already at the height of his career, already a famous director who has found considerable acclaim, with incredible scrutiny focused on his next project. Where do you go from there? Trying to find inspiration is hard enough, trying to summon up the motivation to work in a gilded cage could be even worse.

Which is essentially where The Fate of the Artist begins, in media res. 8 1/2 begins with Mastroianni fleeing the site of his next great film, an incredibly expensive and comically elaborate science-fiction set covered in actors, crew, producers and press. The Fate of the Artist begins with Eddie Campbell already gone, having exited stage left before the book even begins. Even the picture of Campbell on the book's cover is deceptive, a wooden scaffolding with a picture of Campbell's face, erected to fool the prospective reader into believing that Campbell is in fact present when he is actually gone.

And so what we have is an autobiographical story in which the subject -- ostensibly the first-person narrator -- does not actually appear. This inversion is actually the first of many throughout the book -- a comic book that purports to not be a comic book, a graphic novel told through text and photography, an extended narrative composed of little jumpy bits and pieces, scraps and scribbles in a dozen different modes. In form it is slightly incongruous, if not totally at odds with Campbell's overall output. But for years Campbell has been fighting Sisyphian battles against the forces of orthodoxy, arguing against "conventional wisdom" insomuch as it applies to the strange world of comics. As his daughter Hayley says during the course of the investigation: "[Once] you start operating with your own dictionary you find yourself moving, an inch at a time, beyond communication with your fellow peeps."

Campbell has always been such a confident and prolific artist that the gaps in his output have been more revealing than the long periods of tireless consistency. Bringing his own Eddie Campbell Comics imprint to an end after the conclusion of Bacchus and the ambitious overreach of Egomania magazine seems, in retrospect, a singularly jarring and unexpected climax. Now it makes sense, as does his spending a year to illustrate a Batman graphic novel and doing fill-in issues of Captain America somewhere in between.

It shouldn't have been such a surprise. After the Snooter was about nothing so much as the sensation of mid-life crisis. But The Fate of the Artist is not really about the same kind of crisis, at least not in the same way. An artist doesn't have to be in mid-life to reach a crisis (although it helps); many artists exist in a perpetual state of crisis. Campbell relates the artistic crisis to his age by way of ossification: he has reached a point where his life and way he lives it has grown increasingly static and controlled. An artist needs to be able to define their own surroundings to some degree in order to live a productive existence, but Campbell is seen taking things to an almost pathological degree. Those familiar with his (blasphemous) thoughts on cutting up books to create the most organized reference file possible will not be surprised by the odd manner in which he micromanages his CD collection. As someone who runs my own kingdom of clutter in as -- shall we say? -- eclectic a manner as possible, I can definitely relate.

As in 8 1/2, Campbell's relationship to the women in his life assumes a position of central importance. An artist never ceases to be an artist, and by necessity the bulk of their existence revolves around creating as easy a context for their art as possible. All of which is incredibly difficult for the people around him, who are not objects to be arranged and rearranged at the whims of the great auteur. My favorite scene in 8 1/2, and by extension one of my favorite scenes in all of cinema, takes place towards the end of the movie, a dream sequence in which Mastroianni is surrounded by all the women in his life -- his mother, his wife, his family and lovers and even slim acquaintances. All are arrayed around him, willing to cede to his every whim, his concubines assembled for his pleasure and his family devoted to his care, all intensely happy and almost religiously ecstatic to be granted the privilege of serving him. It's a grotesquely chauvinistic image, but that doesn't mean it isn't also essentially correct. The image of Campbell in The Fate of the Artist, although much less majestic in design, matches Fellini's conception of the artist as petit bourgeois dictator -- he is a distracted by the degree to which the world around him does not agree with his desires, and in many ways actively stymies his ambitions of peace and order. The smallest irritation is continually seen to blossom into an incredible frustration, a sign of an inner ability to comprehend an essentially chaotic life. The women around him, meanwhile, are continually frustrated by his growing inability to tolerate deviations from his "standard" reality.

So what is left, then? The Fate of the Artist leaves Campbell's story unfinished. There is no conclusion. Ultimately, Campbell does not succeed in escaping to a desert island, he's still left on the (slightly less desert) island of New Zealand. The image of God scrawled on a napkin which begins the story appears periodically throughout, but the question as to whether Campbell ever achieves anything remotely close to the desired state of grace is still open. Perhaps the only grace open to Campbell at this late stage is to be relieved of the necessity to define his existence. The way out is through. Mastroianni in 8 1/2 is, of course, left on the precipice of this anxiety, and even with his skill Campbell is unable to make the transformation clear; the book leaves us with a strong implication, but the future is still opaque. The creative ennui is still palpable, but there is at least the understanding that further inaction would be fatal. Although seen from that angle The Fate of the Artist presents us with a protagonist in a holding pattern, still merely on the cusp of epiphany, there is a great sense of potential energy in the book's final pages. It seems as if even Campbell himself has grown frustrated by his indolence: shit or get off the pot. Thus, we are ultimately left with the knowledge that the actual fate of the artist is simple: the artist either creates or he doesn't. It's a remarkably effective binary system. Anything else is sophistry. Perhaps he will, perhaps he won't, but continuing to muddle his way through the middle is just lazy.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Placeholder Post #3211

(Driving around on Saturday, 10/21, retrieving cats from the clutches of evil catnappers.)

1. Run DMC - Jay's Game
2. Bob Dylan - Nettie Moore
3. Kate Bush - King of the Mountain
4. Kylie Minogue - Love Affair
5. Pavement - Colorado
6. Sebadoh - Violet Execution (Remix '04)
7. Simon & Garfunkel - Overs
8. Neil Young - Vampire Blues
9. The New Pornographers - The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism
10. Sleater-Kinney - Far Away
11. Derrick May - Nude Photo
12. Be Your Own Pet - October, First Account
13. Orbital - Beelzebeat
14. Pixies - Lovely Day
15. Pixies - Brick Is Red
16. The Upsetters - Dub Dat
17. R.E.M. - We Walk (Live)
18. Neko Case - Outro With Bees
19. David Bowie - Eight Line Poem
20. The Upsetters - Freedom Dub
21. Moby - Honey
22. Neutral Milk Hotel - Gardenhead / Leave Me Alone
23. Wilco - We're Just Friends
24. Tommy McCook & The Aggrovators - The Big Boss of Dubs
25. Nirvana - Blandest (Demo)
26. Pavement - Baptist Blacktick
27. R.E.M. - Good Advice
28. The Chemical Brothers - Chico's Groove
29. Sly & The Revolutionaries - Collie
30. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Way Out
31. R.E.M. - Begin the Begin (Live)
32. Bob Dylan - Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat
33. Joy Division - Komakino
34. Oasis - Bring It On Down
35. Neutral Milk Hotel - Song Against Sex
36. David Bowie - Be My Wife (Live)
37. Autechre - Second Bad Vilbel

Thursday, October 19, 2006


I was going to have another installment of the ongoing Fate of the Critic ready this morning, but fate seems to have decided otherwise. Just not enough hours in the night, apparently.


Man, I really am enjoying that Agents of Atlas series. The book is doing a good job of actually making me want to read the next issue, which is a rare feat in this day and age. But if they do more with the characters, like an ongoing after this miniseries is over, they need to have a guest issue written and drawn by James Kochalka.

Thank about it for a minute.


Am I the only one disappointed that the long-awaited team-up of Eddie Campbell and Harvey Pekar, in the pages of the new Vertigo American Splendor series, was only two pages long? I mean, seriously, the titanic meeting of the two great deans of autobiographical comics, and it's a two page strip about frozen pierogies? They have to be joking, they really do. Where's the full size "When Titans Tussle!" edition where Eddie's evil half-brother Loki tricks Harvey into fighting Eddie and they battle for a few pages before realizing they've been tricked, and then team up to fight Loki? And then the Sub Mariner tricks Hayley and Danielle into coming to Hollywood in order to make them movie stars, but instead secretly plans to lure the Domestic Duo to their doom? And of course they just happen to meet Peter Parker on the flight to Los Angeles?

Come on, people.


Just when I thought I couldn't love Beyond! any more than I already do, they give me Xenmu the Titan. It's like they are writing the book solely for my benefit, I swear to God.

Monday, October 16, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Three

I feel bad for Iron Man fans, I really do. It seems like every characters' fans go through periodic lean times. Just ask Neilalien - there's a lot more lean times for the relatively unpopular periphery characters than for the likes of Spider-Man or Wolverine, although certainly every flagship character has their own ups and downs as well. (But, it must be said, at least Dr. Strange has a genuine pedigree as one of Marvel's foundation characters, drawing a lineage all the way back to Lee & Ditko, so he gets some residual respect even when his esteem is at the lowest. Just imagine what it's like to be a Darkhawk fan or a Patsy Walker fan . . . shudder.)

But few mainstays have had lows quite as low as ol' Shellhead. Sure, he's a classic Marvel creation from the early days, but he's never been as popular as his peers. Shorn of a strong relationship with either Ditko or Kirby, he was always something of an odd man out. Less dynamic than most other Marvel characters, he was the Marvel hero who most resembled the Establishment. Despite his humanizing heart condition, he was still a Grown-Up, without the mellowing influence of a Reed Richards' close nuclear family, Doctor Strange's anti-establishment psychedelic overtones or Captain America's man-out-of-time idealism to modify his unambiguous status as The Man. Not to belabor the point, but at the time he could easily have been a DC hero, complete with his handsome, self-assured alter-ego, fantastical pseudo-scientific powers, and even a slightly Hal Jordan-esque parochial attitude towards women. No, the fact is that of all his early Marvel cohorts, Iron Man has consistently been the most difficult to write well. It always seemed as if Iron Man necessarily dealt with a significantly less fantastic world than that inhabited by his Avengers cohorts - a world filled with industrial saboteurs, government conspiracies and international politics. Let's be frank - anyone can write a half-decent Spider-Man or Thor story that hits all the right notes. It's a lot harder to write a character who has little in the way of "right notes" to hit, especially when the repertoire is decidedly downbeat. You can't have Tony Stark have a heart attack, fall off the wagon and be confronted by bad decisions made as a callow young CEO every issue - or, well, you can, but it'd be really boring.

So the easiest way to make Iron Man interesting, or so the thinking goes, is not actually to write him at all but to set up the character as an asshole for other characters to bounce off. The first "Armor Wars" did this pretty well, featuring Iron Man essentially going buck wild in order to regain control over his own technology - he ended up alienating the entire world, cold-cocking Captain America, and if I recall correctly he basically had to fake his own death in a nuclear explosion in order to get around it. It was a good trick . . . once.

But then "asshole" got hardwired into Iron Man's DNA. Sure thing, another few years passed and Iron Man was outed as an agent of Kang and had to be replaced by a teenage doppleganger from an alternate dimension - pretty much the definition of tarnishing a character beyond recognition. As these things go, it was worse by a few orders of magnitude than Spider-Man's Clone Saga - as much as the Clone Saga creators effectively wrote themselves into a corner, when all is said and done all they had to do was say "well, Peter Parker isn't the clone, wasn't that weird?" and go on with it. Tony Stark murdered fellow Avengers - on-panel, no less - and was later revealed to have been under the direct control of the Avengers' arch-nemesis for almost the entirety of his career. There's really not a lot you can do to get around that, short of using a convenient reality-altering crossover as an excuse to reboot the franchise and never, ever, ever mention the subject again (which is exactly what happened).

So now we've got another massive line-wide crossover (Civil War), and so far the only real casualty is Iron Man's tarnished reputation. The Powers That Be at Marvel gone out of their way to say that he's not being mind controlled, but from what I've seen from flipping through the story the only way out from revealing that he's under Loki or Kang's control is to basically conclude the story with a giant two-page spread where everyone screams "IRON MAN IS A DICK" and resolves to never invite him to the Christmas party again. It would be better if they remembered that the conflict at the heart of the series - Iron Man's pragmatism vs. Captain America's idealism - was something that had a long history and wasn't just invented by modern writers to create imaginary tension. Are they going to reference Armor Wars or Operation: Galactic Storm, the climax of which also featured a legitimately ambiguous ethical disagreement between the two? No, because that story was, for all its status as a huge line-wide crossover, a well-constructed story built on well-established foundations of the characters' behavior and motivations. It didn't insult the readers' intelligence by insisting that the current editors and writers - who really are nowhere near as familiar with the books' history as they would like to pretend - suddenly have a great insight that enables them to see these characters in totally new and plausible ways that also just happen to contradict years of established continuity. New, yes, plausible, no.

Why, you may ask, am I babbling on about Iron Man? Because I really do feel a lot of sympathy for Iron Man fans. I think it sucks that quite often the folks in charge of writing the books can't please the fans who stick by the characters through thick and thin. Why is it that so many people hate Nightwing the comic book but love Dick Grayson the character? Why is it that people still pine for Barry Allen after all these years, that a loyal core of fans lobbied DC for the return of Hal Jordan for over a decade and never once lost hope that their hero would be reinstated? There's a lot of passion, and even after all these years, even with all my critical remove and (hopefully) significantly improved tastes, its easy to get a charge from proximity to this kind of enthusiasm.

In many ways I'm a remnant of an ideology that saw a long zenith in the comics industry, but is finally beginning to wane. At the height of the direct market, when the only outlet for most comics was the specialty store, it was necessary to regard the market for all comics as a zero sum game. Folks who published "good" comics - Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse - were in direct competition for retailers' dollars with superhero firms like Marvel and DC. Supporting Marvel by buying a Spider-Man comic book could be seen in this climate as a political act. In the absence of alternative distribution channels (and aside from a few scattered alternatives for high-end art comics), the state of the art was tied inextricably to the state of the market, and the state of the market was dismal.

But that world doesn't exist anymore, and fighting those wars doesn't make a lot of sense. Sure, the direct market still exists, it's still the primary outlet for a large percentage of North American comic book publishers, and its still dominated by superheroes. But the comics industry has expanded so aggressively since the turn of the century that it's almost quaint to paint the direct market as the boogieman it once was. It was and is dominated by superhero partisans, it was and is a docile outlet for a single distributor, it was and is the first and only chance for a large number of alternative creators to be heard in a crowded marketplace. But these days, it seems as if any creator who depends on traditional direct market outlets to sell an alternative project is just not trying very hard, or is so wedded to previous modes as to be supremely self-defeating. To any disinterested spectator it is apparent that there are more cartoonists now than at any other time in the medium's history - or at least, more cartoonists with the skill and ambition to make serious careers. It is almost literally impossible to keep up with new developments in the field of minicomics, art comics, graphic design, manga, "american" manga, "new mainstream", and graphic novels from major publishing houses - hell, even decades-old newspaper soap-opera strips are showing signs of an improbable resurgence in popularity. If for some reason the bottom were to fall out of the graphic novel and manga markets and the subsequent bust brought everyone crashing down to earth, there would still be an immensely large mass of creators mobilized to create comics, and it is to be expected that even minus the appeal of immediate commercial success (does anyone really believe that they'll get rich from publishing the Great American Graphic Novel?) they would continue to ply their trade, either on a professional, semi-pro or amateur basis. Just like now. I detest "Team Comics", but even a curmudgeon such as myself has a hard time ignoring the value of the comics community that has come into being in the last decade. The cartooning culture that exists now - which didn't really exist as recently as just a decade ago - will stand, more than anything else, as a bulwark against the medium's decline in the face of immediate economic fortunes.

So yeah, I can sympathize with Iron Man fans. Hell, I can go down to the comic book store and buy a few superhero comics without feeling guilty for it. Superhero comics dropped out of competition with the mainstream comics market years ago - it was a gradual shift, but its hard not to see it now. They've become their own thing, and its hard to begrudge them their success when such a success is small, withered and resolutely puny in comparison to something like Naruto or Bone. A generation of alternative creators and critics (including myself) came up through the ranks with an essentially negative attitude towards superheroes, because they believed (rightly) that they were in direct competition with the spandex types and their ruthless marketing departments for the hearts and minds of readers. For the most part, they lost that battle, because the direct market was only ever going to be a success as long as it pandered to the tastes of its clientele - like any business model. Beating up on superhero fans and superhero specific stores seems almost comical at this point - like trying to beat the stripes off a zebra.

But that attitude is dying, and in its place are new creators and critics more attuned to judging superhero comics less on strictly political grounds than aesthetic ones. And obviously, on aesthetic grounds most superhero comics are horrible, but the genre still provides a few unique thrills that cannot be approximated. It has its merits. There are very few superhero books I'd put up on the exalted (and facetious) pedestal of Fine Art, but then, there aren't very many books of any genre I'd place in such rarified company. A great deal of some of the best art ever made has been the product of compromise, and while it does not follow that compromise necessarily creates great art, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Iron Man, meanwhile, is not great art. But as an occasional diversion, Iron Man is fun. I can pick up an Iron Man comic book and (when it's done well) get a nice dose of nostalgia, the kind of satisfaction that can only come from dropping in on old friends who never seem to get older while the world around us goes to hell in a handbasket. So while a bad Iron Man story may not be the end of the world, it is still a shame, because the people who read Iron Man deserve to not have their intelligence insulted. Pure escapism can be pretty cloying in high doses, but when done well it can be immensely pleasurable - selling bad Iron Man stories and expecting to get away with it is essentially trading in on the audiences' fond memories of good Iron Man stories in order to pass off shoddy product. It's a craven and crass act that deserves as much contempt as can be reasonably conjured, given the circumstances. It is one of the remaining perversities of the direct market that creators and publishers are often lavishly rewarded for exactly the reasons they are vilified, a characteristic reversal of the way in which almost any other industry would function. But, what can you do? C'est la vie.

Friday, October 13, 2006

And Now For Something Completely Different




Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Fate of the Critic
Part Two

There is something ineffably futile in the act of criticism. There's an imagine in popular culture - or at least in the part of popular culture devoted to writers' mythology - of critics as vultures, joyless hacks who live to pick apart the carcasses of dead books, after they have been ripped cruelly from the loving arms of their creators. I think it's something of a corollary to that old saw about "those who can't do, teach" - in writing, those who fail often become the critics of those who do not.

And, of course, the critics imagine themselves in a slightly more heroic light. You don't have to read The New Yorker (but it helps) to find flowing panegyrics to critics present and past - critics like to write nice thing about other critics because it makes them look better in reflection. I suppose we like to think of ourselves in a slightly exalted light. It makes it easier to think that these random thoughts we place on paper have some sort of meaning, and that talking about art could ever be anywhere near as important as making art in the first place.

Well, as someone who straddles both sides of the fence, I have to say that being a creator is far more difficult than being a critic. This is not to say that criticism is not a difficult matter, or that some critics don't succeed in crossing over into the realm of genuine artistic effect... but it's rare. I write criticism, and I read a lot of criticism, but there reaches a point where reading and producing criticism seems to get in the way of actually digesting and enjoying the art itself.

Because, when all is said and done, the best art will always resist explication. So much of modern "critical theory" is devoted to dissecting and deconstructing art that it seems resolutely futile - as if someone who didn't really understand the appeal of art in the first place decided to simply take it apart in their frustration, so that no one could ever enjoy it again. That's where the stereotype of critics and academicians as bitter wannabe artists comes into play. Writing about bad art can't help but make a person feel bitter. Writing about good art seems at times to be similarly senseless, because how many different fatuous ways can you possibly think of to say something is "really, really good"?

I ran into this problem during my abortive feature on Chester Brown's Louis Riel. It seemed to me, after I had written a few entries, that getting to the bottom of just how and why the book had such an effect on me was futile. I mean, we can talk about certain cartooning effects or developed technique or historical antecedents, but when you get down to brass tacks it's difficult to really pinpoint the way in which truly great art makes us feel the way we do. Oftentimes, attempts at pinpointing this phenomena become nothing more than hoary examinations of craft, as if truly great art consisted of nothing more than the old "well-wrough urn" ideal. Which it doesn't, but I do believe - based simply on my own experience as a writer - that knowing how to do something well is not necessarily an obstacle to producing interesting art. That those who have the greatest mastery of craft are often unable to turn their minds to any but the most mundane subject matters is an unfortunate fact of life.

Well, for me at least, I find that a mastery of craft is hardly a distraction, because a lack of craft can be as much of a distraction as anything else. I don't believe truly great art has "loose ends", insomuch as it is complete in and of itself. It presents a definitive statement about itself and what it intends and how it does so... there are as many different ways of achieving this as there are works of art (and this shouldn't in any way be taken to understand that ambiguity is bad, because I also find ambiguity to be one of the most important attributes of great art), but when I am in the presence of truly great work of art I don't find myself asking questions. I find it hard to ask questions of great art, which might seem odd to some. Imperfect art, mediocre art, downright bad art - that asks questions, that leaves space for the reader or audience to insert themselves, and there's a lot of room for critical engagement on that level. But really good art? You don't want to break the spell. Leave it be, let it happen. Perhaps that strikes some as a dose of creeping medievalism - just accept hierophants' magic explanations and be happy in a state of unquestioned servitude. But great art is the one thing in this world to which I will proudly bend in service.

I think a lot of critics, and critically-minded people in general, tend to forget that. The only reason a person would be attracted to art in the first place is an affection for art - contrary to popular belief, if a person held a legitimate antipathy for art, they'd find something else to do with their time, like bricklaying or animal husbandry. No, in order to get to the point where a person is willing to dedicate themselves to art enough to write about it in the first place, he or she has to be operating out of a sense of affinity. Everyone has their own personal canon, works of art that shaped the way they were formed and influenced the way they perceive art - works of art that in many ways form the basis of how a person can engage art for the rest of their life. In any continuing engagement there is a search, a constant desire to find art that re-engages the mind and spirit in the same manner as when we were young and impressionable, and our senses were as yet inchoate and unformed. But it gets harder with every year, and the moments of supernal remove and profound enlightenment become fewer and far between. When you're ten, your mind can be blown by a particularly well-written X-Men comics book - hopefully by the time you're 25 or 35 or 55 your standards have raised a little bit.

Which is, I have to admit, one reason why good reviews are so hard to write. Oh, don't get me wrong, I've written far more bad reviews than good reviews. At this point I've written multiple hundreds of reviews for various outlets - not a lot compared to some, but still significant - and I can honestly say that the only thing that keeps you going after, say, the fourth or fifth review is an application of craft and determination. Because, honestly, not every work of art that crosses your desk will engage you. Sometimes - most of the time - if you have any sort of deadline or external pressure at all, you have to force it. Writing for this blog is difficult because, as there is really no one telling me what to do besides myself, I shouldn't have to write anything I don't feel like writing. But very little really offers me genuine inspiration in the field of comics these days.

I get books from publishers (not as often as my swag-loving self would like, but still), and I feel something of a responsibility to give those an honest appraisal. For the most part, I'd say I'm pretty lucky, in that most of the books I get sent by companies like Top Shelf or Oni or AiT / Planet Lar have at least something interesting to say. Top Shelf, in particular, has really improved the overall quality of their line in the past five years - used to be they were (in my eyes) in the habit of publishing works by a number of cartoonists who just did not seem very good. Now they don't really publish work by those people anymore, and the majority of what they do publish is, at the least, decent. Even if it can be fun to write the occasional bad review (although they're usually more trouble than they're worth*), it's much more satisfying to be able to take a book (or CD or movie) and cogently explain how it works, how it doesn't, the areas in which the author could use improvement and the areas in which he or she excels, and in general just give an accurate enough portrait of the work in question that it feels as if there is a genuine dialogue taking place between the artist and the critic. Even if the artist doesn't appreciate honest criticism, if the criticism is honest and well-meaning, other educated readers will hopefully find some profit.

But that's still essentially skating around my original point: it's frustrating to be a critic because so much of criticism still boils down to dealing with the inadequate, the unappealing, the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time. Even sifting out the good and the bad in a decent work, it is inevitable that the harsh criticism will carry far more weight than the good words. And as much as the artists' perspectives can be skewed in this field, the critics perceptions are skewed as well. It's easy to become jaded, so used to taking apart art in order to see what works and what doesn't, that it becomes difficult to actually perceive the good from the bad, to perceive art as more than merely the sum of so many predictable widgets Because, you know, works of truly great art are few and far between. Rather than being horrendous or crap, the vast majority of art falls into the gaping chasm between perfection and absolute shit. It's good to be able to enjoy something of lesser virtue without feeling the need to sharpen a knife against every available surface. If you criticize things on a regular or professional basis, you invariably carry the tools of criticism everywhere you go, and even on something as innocent as a night at the movies with your friends, you find it increasingly difficult to just accept things on an uncritical basis.

To a degree, this is necessary for any educated person. Most people don't possess any ability at all to differentiate the good from the bad, and furthermore, many people see something unwholesome in the very attempt. Rather than merely accepting all art and entertainment on an uncritical level, however, it should be possible to accept what is good and bad, and to also realize that the world doesn't often live up to arbitrary standards of perfection. This isn't quite so easy for the conscientious critic. It's easy to become disenchanted with the world, to take bad art as a personal affront.

But it's also hard to stay enthused and enamored with art when most of what surrounds is is, frankly, so uninspiring. Moments of numinous beauty and surpassing depth are few and far between.

*Check out a future issue of The Comics Journal for my high-larious takedown of Scott Pilgrim, sure to be the single most unpopular Journal feature since the Kenneth Smith centerfold.

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.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Tales of Woodsman Pete

by Lilli Carre

I had never heard of Lilli Carre before Tales of Woodsman Pete arrived in my mailbox. This is a bizarre book that defies easy categorization, but after reading it I am anxious to read more of her work. The author page tells us that she is only 23, and I am more than a little curious as ot how someone so young can have achieved such an interesting and unique awareness of mood and pacing.

If I were to pick one adjective to describe Tales of Woodsman Pete, it would be "laconic". Everything presented in this volume is done so in a sparse, uncluttered and downright quiet fashion. It's odd how certain narrative effects instill synaesthetic identifications -- even though comics are by definition a silent medium, reading this volume brought to mind literal quietude, the reflective passivity of enforced solitude. The effect is predicated on a combination of techniques: predominantly empty panels filled with lots of negative space; only a handful of characters (only three who speak); the continuity of visual angles from panel to panel, so that characters appear to exist in a concrete reality that is demarcated only by the use of contiguous panels to indicate the passing of moment to moment. Very little changes in the pages of Woodsman Pete, and the perception of a static existence lends the at-times silly events a surprising gravity, very similar to some of the pathetic events of Chris Ware's suicidally depressing "gag" strips.

But back to the word "laconic". Laconic derives from the Greek lakonikos, a term used to describe the Spartan habit of speaking tersely. The term "Spartan" is important here, because this perfectly describes the lives of these characters. Both the titular Woodsman Pete and Paul Bunyan (who shows up in a series of interrelated vignettes) live alone (although Bunyan is, of course, accompanied by Babe the Blue Ox). Both characters have come into their solitude through a combination of choice and circumstances. Woodsman Pete chose to be a woodsman in a cabin far from the city, but he also lost his wife in unpleasant circumstances. Paul Bunyan wistfully pines for company, but is unable to so much kiss a woman for fear of accidentally smothering her. Although both figures appear on first examination to be whimsical creations, there is a darkness and melancholy on the edges of their lives that cannot be ignored.

It is telling that although the book follows an ostensible gag format, the "gags" themselves are less funny than contemplative, the punchline usually taking the form of a pause in action in which the reader is invited to reflect on the melancholy circumstances. It doesn't take long to figure out that Woodsman Pete is quite desperately unhappy, isolated from the world with only the trophies of his hunting trips to keep him company. He speaks primarily with Phillipe, a bearskin rug to which he confides his favoritism (although one moose head on the wall betrays a smattering of jealousy over this arrangement). Bunyan is trapped in a world in which he simply can't fit, and whose outsized appetites (of both the literal and sexual kinds) cannot be easily fulfilled.

As a stylist, Carre fits in fairly well with the likes of Paul Hornschemier and David Heatley, with their faux-punctilious adaptations of conventionally banal graphics into surreal themes. In terms of mood, however, she reminds me of no one so much as Renee French, another cartoonist who never fails to instill seemingly childish narratives with a sense of pervasive grief and almost existential despair. (Perhaps I overstate the latter case, but French's work in particular has always freaked me out, and I can't really look at it without being disturbed in some way.) In any event, she's got an assured style that serves her subject matter well, conveying a great deal of otherwise inexpressible elements of tone and mood through narrative method. Fairly sophisticated and surprisingly focused work for such an untested cartoonist.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

110 Per¢

by Tony Consiglio

I think it almost goes without saying that Tony Consiglio is heavily indebted to Alex Robinson. Everything from the way he draws to the kind of plot he crafts draws some form of inspiration from Robinson's work, both Box Office Poison and the superior Tricked. But there's nothing necessarily wrong with an artist learning from the influence of his predecessors and peers. Sometimes, yes, influence can be a straitjacket (as when Al Columbia had a nervous breakdown from trying to be Bill Sienkiewicz), but more often than not if the artist in question is any good, the influence is eventually subsumed by earned skill and experience. At least Consiglio acknowledges the debt, with a special thanks to Robinson on the book's dedication page.

110 Per¢ is by no means a great work but it is very good. I must admit to being biased towards the subject matter. In my other capacity as a music critic and general gadfly I've seen people just like those portrayed in this book, encountered extreme forms of fandom of the type that can derail lives or, at the very least, warp peoples' personal priorities in odd and unintended ways (and I'm not even talking about Swamp Thing fandom). Brushes with intense fannishness are always unsettling, especially for someone like myself who prides himself on keeping an even temper and accepting everything, even that which we love most dearly, in moderation. But I've definitely seen the people who let these obsessions consume them. That part of 110 Per¢ rings frighteningly true to my experience.

As a cartoonist, Consiglio is still learning. He's got a number of interesting tricks under his sleeve -- in particular, there's a recurring effect that uses a series of small inset panels to indicate a split-second reaction shot, or inset panel borders to indicate accentuated action within a larger establishing shot. Hardly new ideas, but interesting ways nonetheless to break up otherwise static panel progressions. What could have been a fairly static narrative is therefore livened up with occasional flashes of formal ambition, creating the Per¢eption of depth in what is otherwise an extremely straightforward story.

There's another technique used throughout the book, however, that drives me up the wall. Consiglio frequently uses two distinct line widths in his art: a thicker black line, like you would get from a magic marker or wide brush, as well as a thinner line for detail and crosshatching, probably laid down with a technical or ballpoint pen. For some reason this technique never works in my eyes. It reminds me of kids drawing superheroes and Dragonball characters on pieces of typing paper, drawing the outlines of the figures with black Sharpie markers and filling in the details of musculature and shading with a fine-point pen. Regardless of the fact that I've seen many cartoonists utilize the effect, it just never looks right to me.

This pet peeve aside, I still enjoyed the book quite a bit. One of the ways Consiglio keeps the book afloat is by keeping the focus tightly on his protagonists. There are three main chracters in the book, all middle-aged women obsessed with the fictional boy band 110 Per¢, and all led by their obsession to lie, cheat and steal. The way Consiglio juggles multiple parallel narratives, introducing minor characters with flashes of color and weaving them deftly through the various storylines, cannot help but remind the reader of Robinson's work. But Consiglio has at least one clear advantage on Robinson in this regard -- 110 Per¢ is, ultimately, a very modest work with a well-defined scope. Robinson initially came out of the gate with Box Office Poison, an enjoyable book that nonetheless definitely suffered in many ways from Robinson's inexperience. Tricked was superior to its predecessor in almost every way, so at least he's picked up a few things. If Consiglio advances as far with his sophomore effort as Robinson did with Tricked, he may have the makings of an interesting career.

But let's not put the cart before the horse. 110 Per¢ is, above all, an enjoyable book, a fun read that manages to skirt the edges of misanthropy without necessarily sacrificing the readers' empathetic identification along the way. It's a fine line, and there are many readers who will probably find the book's happy ending somewhat unsatisfying, simply because it doesn't go as far into the realm of total bleakness as it might have. The good characters who have the capacity to learn from their mistakes do so, the bad characters who become consumed by obsession are left to their own devices as they slowly sink into squalor. The underlying theme of the work, that people create their obsessions to fill holes in their lives, is underscored without necessarily sacrificing a degree of subtlety. That rings true as well. It's not a terribly ambitious piece of work, but it's executed with enough skill and flavor to stick with you after the book is finished.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Um, Yeah

I guess I was in California for a week and a half. I thought I had said something about that, but I guess not.

It's weird to return to New England after spending time in California. You don't realize until you've been gone awhile that Massachusetts has a distinctive smell, but it does - dead leaves, fetid soil, mysterious antiquity. Traveling from California to Massachusetts in the space of a day is like going from Less Than Zero to "The Dunwich Horror" -- one minute it's all, like, "No one ever merges on LA freeways", the next you're crawling across cyclopean ruins and among the abandoned hulks of dead civilizations. Fun!

Anyway, expect real blogging to resume tomorrow. For now, here's some pictures of Helen Mirren: