Monday, April 26, 2010

I'm Done With You

(Note: I didn't wake up today with a burning desire to write a post on Garth Ennis. This is the result of a brief exchange on Twitter, spurred by this post at, which in turn spurred a desire to elaborate my thoughts on the matter for general edification.)

I used to love Garth Ennis, and there are many books of his that I still treasure. His run on The Demon? The best that character has ever been written. Hellblazer? Ditto, maybe, but I'm sure there are some Jamie Delano fans who would argue the point. Hitman? very good in places, even if it drags a little in the second half.


There was a time when I thought Preacher was a stone-cold masterpiece, where I would have defended the series to all comers. But now, I don't know anymore. I was convinced for a long time that the real drama in Preacher came from the ways in which Ennis methodically tore down a slew of traditional masculine stereotypes and replaced them with something more ambiguous. I was convinced that Jesse Custer's character arc was all about refuting the image of John Wayne as the superhero of American manifest destiny. At the end, after all, he dies pretty conclusively, and is only saved through no fault of his own. He almost loses the girl because he was such an egocentric, chauvanistic asshole. And Cassidey is allowed a moment of grace as the guy who Saves the Day, partially redeeming someone who had turned out to be the scuzziest villain in a series filled to the brim with scuzzy characters.

But now, I don't know if I was reading too closely or not closely enough. Everything Ennis has done since has reinforced the most facile view of his work: maybe, just maybe, he really is deadly serious about reinforcing all the old bits from all those old stolid war movies and westerns, only slightly modifying them with the occasional half-hearted nod to feminism and multiculturalism. The black humor in his stories curdled somewhere along the way. Arseface was a generally comic figure who was redeemed by his eventual star turn as - by the book's end - the most sympathetic character in the book. Now? Well, I am reminded of that awful Fury series from the first year of Marvel's MAX line, and the bit with Fury's worthless poindexter of a nephew. An absolute clown, clownish because of his incompetence and his weakness and his blithe enthusiasm. We're supposed to relate to Fury's humiliation at having to put up with such a monstrously embarrassing relation - but I didn't have that reaction. Fury comes off as an asshole, and Ennis looks like a bully for putting us in the position of laughing at the weak simply because they're weak.

There was something cruel in his parody that overstepped the line between between honest parody and simple, petty bullying. Whereas it was once possible to defend his parody work because it supported some generally interesting stories - particularly in Preacher, the grand guignol tone is integral, and it's hard to imagine those stories working quite so well without the black, bleak nastiness. But lately, it's hard to defend his work on any basis. It seems mean spirited, in such a way as to cause me to retroactively reevaluate a few series which I had previously given a "pass."

If there is one moment that really stands out, there's a single sequence in his Herogasm mini that stands as one of the most repulsive things I've ever read. I am hardly one to beat the drum against misogyny - I'm always willing to give the artist the benefit of the doubt, and I'm hardly going to judge any writer based on my perception of his intention. The work speaks for itself. Keep in mind I'm the biggest Brett Easton Ellis fan you're likely to encounter (well, my girlfriend possibly loves American Psycho more than I do, but still).

But this sequence - well, I'll show it to you, and you can judge for yourself:

I don't know if I can put my finger on exactly why this one scene was the tipping point for me, all I can say is that as soon as I finished this comic I felt a strong urge to never read another Ennis comic again. It seemed gratuitous - more than merely, say, a villain being villainous to prove his villainy, it seemed like just one more example of really horrible people saying really horrible things to each other, humiliating other people for no reason other than to allow us, the paying audience, to watch the fireworks. The whole Herogasm mini is dedicated to showcasing irredeemable assholes treating women like shit, treating men like shit, treating the public like shit, and ultimately erecting a picture window into a world of which I no longer have any desire to be a part.

I'm not going to sit here and say Garth Ennis hates women, or that he's a misogynist, or that his work should be picketed - I just knew, as soon as i read that comic, I didn't want to read any more. Suddenly, a few things clicked for me: all the little excuses people have made about his work might just add up to a monumental case of enabling, based on years of stored-up good will stemming from a number of very good early works which, unfortunately, succeeded well enough to give Ennis just enough autonomy to hang himself with the rope of his own worst impulses. (Strained metaphor, I know.) His comics just seem mean to me now, and its the kind of petty, unjustified meanness that makes me want to rethink my engagement with all his work, not just the rapidly diminishing returns of his last few years.

So you ask why I don't like Ennis? Ultimately, I'm not really looking for an engagement or critical discussion: I no longer believe his work merits serious thought. If you add up everything he's done since around 2000 it doesn't add up to one tiny fraction of the worth of his 90s work. It's grotesque and hysterical and frankly repulsive.

Really, what happened to the Garth Ennis who wrote Dangerous Habits and the Heartland one-shot, or even "Zombie Night at the Gotham Aquarium"? I don't know, and frankly, I just don't care any more.

Thursday, April 15, 2010


ITEM! This new Achewood storyline with Philippe is just about the most depressing thing ever. I guess I was wrong earlier when I wondered aloud if the strip had fallen off - it hasn't, not really, it's just entered a very weird and deep section of hardcore melancholy, like if Sparky had decided to spend the last ten years of the strip focusing solely on Spike talking to his saguaro cactus pal. (People always deride Spike, but the Spike-focused strips from the strip's last years are some of the bleakest - and focused - bits in the whole Peanuts corpus.)

ITEM! Now that the first storyline is over, it's maybe easier to get a better grasp on what's going on with Bad Machinery, and what makes it stand out from its predecessor Scary Go Round. As someone who's read every strip John Allison has ever drawn (and posted, that is, I'm hardly rooting around his studio foir unpublished drafts), I can say the first thing that jumps out at me is how dry is is, positively arid compared to the very warm and chummy SGR. It also seems slightly premeditated in a way that SGR never did: Allison made a point of saying how his new storylines were planned out in advance and paced accordingly, and unfortunately they feel very methodical. Perhaps this is simply a consequence of artistic "maturity" - there's no doubt that Allison is one hell of a cartoonist, his skill is unimpeachable. I'd read anything he put his hand to at this point. But I won't beat around the bush here: I think his newest work lacks most of the energy of his best SGR or Bobbins sequences.

Now, of course, this is only the first storyline in a new strip, so it's impossible to pass final judgment yet. It's obviously a work in progress - Allison quit SGR and started Bad Machinery specifically because he felt stifled by the format of the latter and needed the change. So I'm not giving up on the strip - I think it's safe to say that I'd stick around whatever Allison did next. I'm along for the duration at this point. I'm just not feeling it right now. Whatever it is that a really great strip needs to propel it forward - however you quantify that oomph - it's not quite gelling for me. There's a rhythm missing, and unfortunately the series of scribble strips he produced over a recent week-long break put the current mode into sharper relief: this week of tossed-off scribbles filled with webcomics in-jokes seemed more lively than the whole first storyline of Bad Machinery. Let's hope we can look back in six months and chalk the whole thing up to growing pains.

ITEM! I don't do much linkblogging but I would like to point out this post by Johanna Draper Carlson reviewing a new "behind the scenes" book focused on the Kick-Ass movie. I think she does a great job of pointing out precisely why Millar's work leaves a vocal minority of fans feeling alienated and mystified at his enduring popularity. He's basically Stan Lee without much of the imagination, all huckster and no charm. He's smart enough to ingratiate himself with some really good artists by writing to their strengths, and his commercial track record is such that I am certain he's got prospective artists lined up around the block. I'd bet John Romita Jr. makes more money off Kick-Ass than any other project in his entire career.

But I can't fault Millar for being dumb, just damned cynical: he's essentially figured out exactly what fans want, which is high, unironic "momentism" served up without so much as a hint of the condescension that some fans perceive in the work of folks like Morrison or Ellis (to say nothing of Moore). The reason why Nemesis reads exactly like a movie pitch is because Millar knows - not merely that the format will make movie rights that much easier to sell - but that the format will itself sell the idea to even the most unsophisticated reader.

The problem is that I find myself unable to ever fully dismiss Millar. For every five crappy and cynical cash-cows he produces, something slips out that seems just slightly more genuine, if only by a tiny bit - enough, however to reinforce the nagging suspicion that he might just be smarter than he lets on, and is fully aware of what he's doing. 1985 was predictable and formulaic but at its core there was a pretty good story about fathers and sons and nostalgia. Similarly, he seemed to "get" the most basic, unironic ideas at the heart of the Fantastic Four, ideas about family and loyalty that surpass individual problems or imperfections.

And, for me at least, there's always his run on Swamp Thing on which to look backk and marvel. It's so very different from everything else he's ever written, so subtle and well-constructed and downright profound in moments, that it almost makes you think it was written by a different person. Sure, he's writing a fairly transparent Moore pastiche, but he actually pulls it off (not an easy trick!), with a strong batch of good ideas and a solid grasp on his characters. The finale to his run - also, incidentally, the series finally for Swamp Thing and the end of Vertigo's first "flagship" title (long before there even was a Vertigo) - is simply phenomenal. It makes me wonder - what the hell happened? Will he ever write anything that good again? Does he even have it in him to do so?

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Tao of Miller

(This post is presented in conjunction with 4thletter's "Booze, Broads & Bullets" week. Although this is intended to present a more critical eye on Miller's work and his contributions to the medium, it is nevertheless an honest attempt to come to a better understanding of the man's significance and appeal. Although I certainly comprehend the former I've never entirely satisfied myself as to the latter, and therefore I offer this essay in the spirit - to borrow a phrase from another prominent blogger - of polite dissent. Later in the week, time permitting, I will move from these general remarks to a closer examination of those works which I believe best reward closer scrutiny: late 80s milestones Born Again, Year One and Elektra: Assassin.)

Frank Miller is inevitable: you can't talk about contemporary superhero comics without grappling with Miller's central importance to the field. The only other figure in this corner of the medium who comes close to matching the same degree of influence these last thirty years is Alan Moore, but Moore's most significant works produced after the 80s have by and large been too recondite and cerebral for easy digestion. By which I mean, if it was easy for the industry to absorb a few facile surface tricks from the narrative structure and moral casuistry of Watchmen, it's another thing entirely to imagine From Hell or the aborted Big Numbers or even Promethea having much of an influence on the day-to-day functioning of superhero comics as a popular medium or phenomena (JH Williams III's enduring popularity notwithstanding - he would have easily found success without Moore's imprimatur). This is, of course, exactly as Moore wishes. Not so with Miller: for better or for worse, he's never abandoned the mainstream. Even in the 90s when it seemed as if he had given up on "mainstream" comics in favor of independents, it was only ever a feint. Sin City and 300 were, as it turned out, even more mainstream than Superman - it just took a few years for the rest of the industry to catch up to this realization. A better comparison might be Mike Mignola, but I think it's easier to make the case for the limited nature of Mignola's contributions: he's influential but by no means dominant. As base a denominator as it may seem, it is informative to examine just how easily Miller's properties have found success in the world of mainstream films. Sin City and especially 300 were massively popular, whereas Hellboy, despite its fervent cult and two semi-successful films, has never been able to break out of the basement of b-level, left-of-mainstream pop culture artifacts.

Miller's box-office clout is telling. (We'll sidestep any discussion of The Spirit on the grounds that the disparity between Miller's eccentric conception of the Spirit and the character's actual genesis were probably disparate enough to account for the bewilderment with which the film was received.) His stories and the ways in which he tells his stories are instantly adaptable to film. The argument could certainly be made that this is because Miller's stories are themselves already instantly identifiable. His stories, in any event, are hardly original - in fact, most of his stories are so familiar as to barely count as stories, more like archetypal templates. His technique, such as it is, is simply shameless: he knows how to tell these stories in the most directly effective way possible. That is to say, he lays out his ingredients and proceeds to give his audience exactly what they want, over and over again, in such a blatant fashion that it overleaps base pandering to become the central theme around which his entire oeuvre revolves.

After decades of reading Miller, I do not believe that the man possesses so much as a single grain of insight into human character, more than a thumbnail understanding of politics or society, or even a base theoretical comprehension of women and their interior lives. His worldview is customarily infantile, occasionally rising to the level of juvenile. His preoccupations are, therefore, those of infants and juveniles: I am tempted to say violence, sex and masculinity, but those neutral words imply far too much in the way of gravitas in reference to what are mostly merely stories about guns, babes and tough guys. But his limitations - which are many - in themselves say little as to why exactly his work has struck such a long and sustained tone in popular culture. It's easy to dismiss a polarizing figure like Miller, harder to grapple with why exactly his work remains perennially popular and enduringly influential.

Miller's great formal innovation can be found in his attitude to genre: he possesses an instinctual understanding of how genre operates. Genre in popular culture is defined as a series of expectations. Every genre carries its expectations on its sleeve: the wider the genre, the fewer the expectations and the looser the observations; the smaller the genre, the more copious the catalog of required elements, and the more stringent their observance. Sin City is less a crime story than a story about crime stories, predicated on the audience's intimate familiarity with crime tropes and noir customs. I bristle at calling Sin City noir - more like faux noir - because, ultimately, it is far too cynical a work in concept and execution. Noir is almost romantic in its adherence to a vision of the naive man in direct conflict with nature / fate / the cruel caprices of a deterministic universe*. Miller's noir carries a sense of unreality which is continually reemphasized by its over-the-top, fantastical elements. (For all the work's pretense of being crime stories, the characters in Sin City nevertheless have the improbable abilities and exaggerated grotesqueness of superhero characters.) There's nothing naturalistic at all in Miller's noir, rather, the deliberate cobbling together or so many familiar and familiarized elements cannot but create an intensely, deliberately synthetic atmosphere. It's meant to seem familiar, because the stories' appeal comes not from novelty but the conscious recitation of the known. Sin City would be meaningless without prior familiarity with the genre markers on display. That the tropes of noir and crime fiction have become so well-known and popularly disseminated during the previous half-century works to Miller's favor: a very broad audience was able to understand Sin City as pastiche, even if younger audience members had never read Raymond Chandler or even heard the name. But pastiche without implicit critique or comment is empty and cynical, blank parody trading on the audience's prior familiarity to impart meaning to what is essentially meaninglessness.

The Dark Knight Returns, for all its acclaim, has always seemed strangely flat and affectless for me, and it's taken me years to figure out exactly why. Because Dark Knight is presented as (a version of) the "ultimate" Batman story, it follows a very conservative structure and unfolds its elements with tactical precision. Miller understands the expectations readers bring into Batman stories - at this date a fairly large genre unto themselves - and he sets about fulfilling these expectations. This translates into a shopping list stacked with every possible cool Batman "moment" conceivable, all stapled to the old workhorse of the "Old Man's Last Ride" plotline, which you may recognize from such popular entertainments as Unforgiven (The Dark Clint Returns), Old Man Logan (The Dark Logan Returns), The Shootist, (The Dark Duke Returns), etc etc. It's one of the oldest tricks in the book (seriously, check out Tennyson's "Ulysses" if you don't believe me), and the reason it always gets recycled is that it almost always works, even in the hands of the most ham-fisted practitioner. (Well, there was that Reign thing which didn't work out to well.)

Miller, for all that, is a pretty good hand, so he hits all his marks. He gives people the best Batman bits they always wanted, and even a few they never knew they wanted: sure, you've got Batman almost finally killing the Joker, but you've also got Batman kicking Superman's ass; Batman laying waste to hordes of faceless street gangs (the ultimate personification of dread in Reagan's 80s); Batman riding a horse through the streets of a post-apocalyptic Gotham city as the ultimate personification of order. The reason Dark Knight falters in the final estimation - despite it's impressive critical pedigree - is that despite Miller's considerable formal acumen (no flies on his technique!), it's really quite a hollow book. What's it about? It's about Batman, it's a Batman story about Batman stories, dependent on an understanding of how Batman stories work in order to achieve its effect of inverting or amplifying all the customary Batman beats. Everyone who grew up on 1960s Batman and picked up Dark Knight cold probably had their "minds blown" because they never imagined Adam West going buck wild and tearing into a gang of muddy street punks with a Sherman tank. He sure knew how to make those "moments" count.

But you can't take Dark Knight seriously, certainly not in comparison to a genuinely thought-provoking work such as Watchmen (to which it is invariably compared), or even lesser achievements such as Squadron Supreme or Marshal Law. it doesn't "say" anything about anything other than the subject of Batman, and Batman is just too limited a palette with which to paint any kind of convincing critique of society that doesn't ultimately devolve back onto an acceptance of radical libertarianism as the final arbiter of personal responsibility in a faltering civic society. Otherwise, we are left with a story that tells us with a straight face that in the face of a societal breakdown in which law and order have dissolved, the true leader is the violent vigilante who purports to mete out justice from a position of absolute moral clarity. If a vigilante can lay tenable claim a position of moral authority, then he is naturally suited to usurp the role of government in the moment of crisis. It is, prima facia, an absurd position for any but the most strident reactionary to adopt, and yet this is the position in which Miller finds himself tied in trying to make coherent "sense" of Batman. By constructing such a consciously teleological view of Batman, he succeeds only too well: he constructs an "ultimate" Batman that pulls the character to his natural terminus and beyond, to the point where he simply doesn't work anymore without raising too many problematic questions. It's no coincidence that Dark Knight's success has birthed generations of poor-to-bad Batman comics**, as successive creators working with the character have taken Miller's formula and applied it wholesale to ongoing continuity. Which doesn't work, because you can only have one "ultimate" Batman story before the immensity of all the portent and thematic sturm und drang crushes the franchise entirely.

More to come.

* "Here we must observe that this harmony which is so eagerly contemplated by modern man, in fact, this oneness with nature, to express which Schiller introduced the technical term 'naive,' is by no means such a simple, naturally resulting and, as it were, inevitable condition, which must be found at the gate of every culture leading to the paradise of man." Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy

** This should not be taken to imply that pre-Miller Batman comics were some sort of antedeluvian paradise, but I'll take Bob Haney over Chuck Dixon any day.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


I was going to post something - honest! - and then I noticed that, according to Blogger, this is my 1000th post. I know this is six-and-a-quarter years of blogging, so that comes out as roughly one post every 2.28 days - pretty good, considering how many dead spots and long hiatuses there are scattered throughout, owing to occasional travel or general lethargy. That's quite a lot of wasted hours, folks!

I don't have anything particularly thoughtful or poignant to say, so I'll just say thanks to everyone who reads, and thanks to everyone who doesn't read; thanks to everyone, period. Extra special thanks to every other blogger in the world - I was just going to list everyone I had had any dealings with over the last 1000 posts, but I realized after five minutes that would be impossible. So I'll just put out a blanket thank-you to everyone, even the people I hate or find annoying, because hey, we're all one big happy family.

I don't know about you, but this is my hobby - I do it because it's supposed to be fun. When it's not fun, or I'm to busy to concentrate, I step away for a while. That's why it's taken all this time to log 1000 posts. On that note, I guess if I had to single out one blogger especially as an inspiration, it'd have to be Mr. Mike Sterling. I dunno how he does it. He's only been blogging for a little over a month longer than I have, but in all those years he's never once missed a day of blogging. Never! Every time I'm feeling run down or bored with this whole thing, I go to Mike's site and marvel at his endurance. I don't know how he finds the wherewithal to keep coming back to the field day in and day out - I know I get sick of comics sometimes. Hell, a lot. Maybe one day Mike will impart the secret of his eternal enthusiasm.

And then of course I must mention Milo. He's just recently come to a significant blogging milestone of his own. Milo's blog is one of the stranger destinations on the internet, but it's always a good day when he posts something that doesn't involve pictures of his food. He's usually funnier than I am, even if I'm never entirely sure how much he's joking. (Even if you know Milo fairly well that doesn't seem to make much of a difference - Sphinx-like, that one.)

Neilalien is, as must be noted, the Grandaddy for all of us comics bloggers. But he's also perhaps the nicest, always willing to help out to ensure the HTML on my rotting Blogger interface doesn't rot away entirely. I live maybe three hours' drive away from Neil and yet I've yet to actually make the trip to say "hi" in person - maybe I'll do that soon, buy him a bottle of moon-grog or whatever it is strange palindrome creatures imbibe.

Tucker is a pal, a real mensch, and although I don't get around much to contribute to any group blogs (I can barely remember to contribute to my own!), I'm happy that he and Martin have made me part of the extended Factual Opinion family, along with brother-from-another-mother David Brothers, Matthew Brady, Jog, Sean and the enchanting Ms. Nina.

Dirk didn't invent comics blogging but it sure seemed at the time like the first iteration of Journalista was the rallying point from which a whole slew of comics bloggers were either born or found a greater audience - folks like me, Mike, Dorian, Kevin, Sean, Dave Fiore (whatever happened to him?), Laura "Tegan," Johnny Bacardi, Dave Campbell (who srsly needs to get back in the game immediately), Polite Scott . . . tons more I've forgotten because they faded away or I just plain lost track.

Remember Fanboy Rampage? And while we're on the subject, what the hell ever happened to Dick Hyacinth, did anyone ever figure that one out?

It's hard to imagine there was ever a time before Tom's Comics Reporter. As vital as Journalista 1.0 was to the gestation and coalescence of the comics blogosphere, Tom is our current lodestone. If he disappeared tomorrow, I can't help but think that the whole enterprise of writing about comics on the internet might just fall apart. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but only just.

I know I'm missing a load of other people, but rather than belabor the point I'll simply say that if I didn't mention you I've probably forgotten you because my mind is a rusty, sleep-deprived sieve.

But finally, I'd like to draw the curtain back a bit and thank two people who I've never thanked before, but without whom I wouldn't be here writing this. Even more than everyone listed above, there are two individuals to whose influence I can directly attribute to my decision to start blogging about comics:

The first of these gentlemen is the fellow who runs Gone & Forgotten. You may recognize him as the recipient of my award for "Best Comics Blog Ever, Emeritus." The reason for this is simple: the first comic-centric site I ever followed religiously, that made me scour its archives and reread my favorite posts time and again, post them to my friends until they were sick of them, was this site. In my mind the Platonic ideal of a comic book blog is still any site that spends an inordinate amount of time exhuming the character defects of old Jimmy Olsen comics. I'm a sucker for the classics, and it just doesn't get more classic than talking about how crappy the Green Team were. I don't know exactly how long he's been doing it (and I don't even know who "he" is since he prizes his anonymity), but he says he's been doing it since the late 90s, which if true would mark him as older than Neilalien. I don't know what the "official" tally on that is, but I know I've been following his site in all its iterations since before there was anything like a "comics blogosphere." He makes me laugh, pure and simple, and I still hold a fond place in my heart for any comics blog that attempts to make me laugh at the shortcomings of the comics of our forefathers.

The second is Abhay Khosla. Way back in the Pleistocene age, there was a website named MoviePoopShoot. It doesn't exist anymore and the man who ran it, Chris Ryall, has since gone on to a position of some larger importance in the comics industry. But far and away the best thing MPS ever did was bring on a guy named Abhay to run down the week's Diamond ship list. Abhay is funny and insightful now, that has never changed, but reading him for the first time online was simply astounding. Reading Abhay cold was a revelation: it was as if comics had our own Lenny Bruce or Andy Kaufman, someone who could be hilariously funny while at the same time unfolding a daunting amount of serious critical damage at whatever his target might be. His writing, for me, effortlessly crystallizes something very vital about the comics reading experience: how it is possible to hate the thing you love, how sometimes the best and most cogent response to insulting absurdity is unambiguous contempt, how our reaction to what we read is formulated by a thousand extra-textual factors which ultimately have little or no bearing on the quality of the work itself - and how all of this is OK, as long as we're honest about just why we're here in the first place. I've seen some otherwise intelligent people casually dismiss his work as mere off-the-cuff stand-up, or silly non sequitur ramblings, but I stand by my conviction that he's one of the smartest and most perceptive writers currently writing about comics. I wish I could write about comics with half the skill and insight that he does, but he usually manages to say twice what I could say in half the space. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't have his example to strive for. He's a lot funnier than I am, too.

So, finally, after 1000 posts, what have we learned? Not a lot, and certainly nothing more important than this:

What more can I say?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

And He Rose After Three Days

Thursday, April 01, 2010


It has come to my attention from a number of parties that the permalinks in my "April Fools" post were only working intermittently. They worked fine for me when I took the two minutes to code the page, but apparently not as well for some people. If you missed it, it was a garden variety Rick-Roll. Sorry for the inconvenience of a prank gone horribly, horribly wrong.

(And yes, the answer to your unspoken question is that due to the nonworking link someone didn't "get" the joke and this resulted in PROBLEMS.)