Monday, January 29, 2007

Let's Talk About Sex, Baby

First, did you all check out Milo George's Civil War commentary? I don't expect you did, which is why I'm including the link.

Anyway, I feel compelled to mention the whole Captain Marvel business... because really, this is something you couldn't make up. Literally, it is impossible for me to imagine a more left-field "revelation" for Marvel to tote out at the bottom of the 9th of their big crossover spectacular - such an important revelation that it isn't even mentioned in the core title! (Or, at least, not with six out of seven issues in the can - and I don't think they're going to have a lot of room left over for ol' Cap in issue 7 either.) It's fun to watch Marvel these days, because it seems as if they are making the majority of their editorial decisions with a dartboard - DC's decisions, while perhaps just as bad in some instances, at least have some grounding in previously established stories, however tentatively or selectively. Marvel, it seems, is just making it up as they go along: hey, let's make Speedball into an S&M hero. Hey, let's make Iron Man into a super-villain. Hey, let's bring back Captain fucking Marvel!

I could beat on Marvel all day, and while that would be fun it would also not be that original or satisfying. What is fascinating to me is why they chose to do this - what profit they saw to be made from bringing back a character who has been dead for twenty five years. At the end of the day, I am still just flabbergasted - literally floored - by the decision-making process here, or lack thereof. Captain Marvel is famous for one thing: dying. His books never sold particularly well. He was never, with the exception of a handful of cosmic storylines, that big of a player, and after his death his position in the cosmic corner of the Marvel U was successfully occupied by both Adam Warlock and, later, his own son. No one was clamoring for Mar-Vell to return. No one. It's one thing to be shocking and unpredictable, it's another to just sort of pull stuff out of your ass. And this definitely qualifies as pulling something out of one's ass.

I know I'm not the only person to be harping on this, but still, it really is sticking in my head. As a creative decision, it makes no sense. As a business decision, it makes less sense, because you can conceivably get more mileage out of Captain Marvel as a legitimately dead hero than as a live one. Dead, he was a spur for any number of characters, concepts and potential spin-offs. Alive, he's just another schmuck who gets canceled in a year, 18 months tops. (As much as some may have bitched, you can't really make this argument for Bucky - his death was so distant in fanboy memory it didn't have any currency, so bringing him back was the most legitimately interesting thing you could do with the character.) Dead, Captain Marvel was unique - the only super-hero to die, and stay dead, from cancer. Alive, he's a carbon-copy of at least half-a-dozen characters I can think of, off the top of my head.

It's not as if Mar-Vell was some sort of sacred cow. It's just that very few people currently reading comics care about the character in any way. Hell, there are probably as many people reading comics who care more about Mar-Vell's son being canceled and killed as his father. I am old enough to remember Mar-Vell, and I just don't care - perhaps I'm not the target audience, but still.

The weirdest part here is just how far Marvel seems to have gone in order to stymie reader expectations. When the book was originally solicited, it didn't obviously say who was coming back, but it teased that it would be the return of a long-standing character who'd been gone for a while. Everyone automatically assumed they were talking about Thor - a character whose return would actually, you know, make sense given the context. So I guess from that perspective, the Captain Mar-Vell revelation was pretty good, in terms of surprising the readers. But in terms of it actually being something that people wanted to see? Um, no. I don't even read any Marvel books regularly, and this is incredibly weird. Imagine if you're actually reading and following Marvel and the Civil War books - this must seem like nothing short of a third-degree Indian burn.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Coprophagia Ahoy!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Thin Line

Despite it's near universal acclaim, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home has struck a funny note with certain comics readers. A backlash was, perhaps, inevitable, considering the extreme praise meted out by the likes of Time magazine -- and sure enough, a quick peek at the Journal's message board (please don't look for too long or you'll go blind) reveals that the book's success has exacerbated a few long-standing trends in the comics community. A recent post by Tom Spurgeon on the unrelated topic of Wally Wood's abbreviated life and career offers an interesting summation of this division from a point situated firmly in the middle of the spectrum:
One of the most exciting things about comics is that the medium can support what seems to me like two entirely different ways of reading the form: a kind of comics by suggestion, where the comic seems to exist in some idealized state that is the sum of triggers and approximations within the work, and a kind of comics by tactile experience, where comics are more literally marks on a page that cohere on that level before being allowed to serve as abstractions or approximations of anything.

I think that while Spurgeon is for the most part one hundred percent correct, I would go one step further in that I think the division is even simpler than even that. Essentially, you've got two ways of reading comics: comics as literature and comics as visual art. For the longest time fans of serious (or, "serious") comics were essentially forced into a bunker mentality, wherein any divisions in reading preferences were essentially swept under the rug by the blanket shared assumption that comics were a valid vehicle for potentially meaningful art. But now the bunker's been blown, and the good guys won. Now it's time to examine the fact that even though mainstream audiences are increasingly interested in the form, they are bringing their own prejudices and preferences to the table -- to a comics insider (and I think most folks reading these words can safely qualify), it may seem inexplicable, but it's only to be expected.

Comics are a complicated art form. The variety of approaches available to any prospective cartoonist on how to tell a story is probably close to infinite. There's an old argument in fanboy circles - usually given in terms of corporate comics' division of labor - about which is more important: art or writing. It makes a certain kind of sense, in a corner of the medium where these tasks are compartmentalized and even, in many instances, in direct competition, to place them at odds. But when discussing the actual product itself, an artistic entity known in the abstract as "Comics", it should be impossible to differentiate between the two. But this isn't how most people probably read comics. Lacking the funds to sponsor an independent academic study on the matter, I'm going to guess that many people who read comics - especially those who came to the form late in life, like anyone who may have initially been exposed to the likes of Ware, Satrapi or Bechdel from magazine articles or newspaper lists - see comics less as a holistic whole and more as simply a hybrid. It may seem like a meaningless distinction but it's actually vital to how people perceive the format. For them, and probably for most, the words in the boxes and balloons are the primary vehicle, and the pictures merely illustrate the action. This is how many people grow up reading super comics, or at least it was in an era (which I very vividly recall) when printing was abysmal and most artists were, at best, journeymen: you read the captions and skimmed the art, and you never missed much by doing this. The interesting action always announced itself.

But that's an unfulfilling approach to comics. Fun Home is a good comic, some might even say a very good comic, but it falls short of truly essential for the very simple reason that throughout the book Bechdel purposefully hampers her own visual vocabulary. Reading the book, it's impossible not to come away with an awareness and appreciation of her pacing and structure. This is a book that has been expertly designed in terms of allowing every step of the plot to unfold with utter precision. Every revelation, every character moment, every allusion reveals itself to the reader in good time, unfolding like a blooming flower. But it seemed to me that, while Bechdel is obviously a keenly talented storyteller, her instincts as a cartoonist were perhaps hobbled by the sobriety of her story. The book reads less like a graphic novel than a prose novel with accompanying pictures - not a problem I've ever noticed with her Dykes to Watch Out For strip, which is far looser in both tone and execution.

The comparison to Chris Ware is revealing. Ware is another cartoonist who works in a mode that could be confidently termed "novelistic", in terms of his pacing, his approach to character, his overall structural development. But the key difference is that all of these elements of Ware's work are communicated as much through the art and design elements as through pure narration. A prose adaptation of Jimmy Corrigan could perhaps communicate the gist of the story, but Ware's work is filled with so many dense and intertwined visual metaphors that it is nearly impossible to imagine even the most talented prose writer achieving anything near the same effect - perhaps a similarly interesting and perceptive effect, but not the same. Not so with Fun Home. The most interesting visual effect Bechdel consistently employs throughout the book is a two-tiered narrative structure involving parallel events in the narrative captions and the action in the panels. It's not hard to imagine any prose author or creative filmmaker concocting some sort of analogue. The best comics have consistently been those in which the medium's most unique capabilities are manipulated to sublime effect; on these grounds, Fun Home qualifies as an extremely conservative work.

Which is not, I hasten to say, in any way meant to downgrade Bechdel's work. She's an able cartoonist and Fun Home is a significant achievement. But this is by no means the visionary, transformative piece of literature that the plaudits may imply, and I believe this is the source of the significant dissension from some in the comics community. But it is an extremely accessible work, the kind of book that someone with little or no experience in the medium can easily pick up, understand and judge to be of lasting value. I don't believe that Fun Home is a great comic because its approach to visual metaphor is extremely sedated. Comics, as an expression of "pure" cartooning (of the type associated with, say, Wally Wood or Mat Brinkmann, to pick two seemingly diametric opposites), are only as powerful as their visual metaphors. But understanding what makes someone like Brinkmann or Gary Panter or George Herriman so great takes a bit more visual acumen than a novice comics reader usually possesses; and asking that same novice to understand the greatness of a Wally Wood or a Jack Kirby or an Alex Toth is almost impossible, because without the proper training all the elaborate visual metaphors and powerful storytelling in the world is just so much bafflegab. To an audience trained to judge the merits of narrative art on a purely literary basis, learning to comprehend the communicative potential of pure craft and expressionistic technique may take some acclimation. It's not that this hypothetical audience does not have a high visual literacy, but it takes a bit of practice to be able to read comics with as much an eye for visual metaphors as for purely narratological concerns. It's easy for most people to take for granted, but reading comics requires doing a number of very complicated things on a swift and purely subconscious basis - reading words, interpreting symbols, understanding incomplete metaphors constructed with both visual and verbal cues, all while hopefully maintaining a brisk pace. It doesn't seem like a lot when you're reading Marmaduke . . .

Perhaps it sounds slightly elitist, to say so plainly that advanced cartooning requires an advanced knowledge of the medium of the type that a layman might not possess? It's no different from any other art form: the most purely expressionist prose requires a similarly educated readership; likewise, accomplished cinema depends on an educated and open-minded audience. Considering just how recently comics have come into their own as a legitimate artistic branch (at least in the perception of the "outside world"), there's still a long way to go before we can reasonably expect a general audience to be comics-literate enough to properly appreciate the work of, say, Brian Chippendale or Kim Dietch (two artists who released books which could also be considered legitimate contenders for the best comic of 2006). Bechdel is a talented artist, but her artistic goals regarding Fun Home are much more modest than those of either Ninja or Shadowlands. It is perhaps a disservice to her work to conflate the unquestioned success with which she achieves these goals, with greater notions of aesthetic value which must invariably be tied to works of greater ambition both in terms of form and content.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Fair & Balanced

Just in case anyone thought I may have been dogging on classic DC the other day, I present, by way of counterpoint, one of the greatest single pages from the supposed "Golden Age" of comics, from All-Star #3. (And I'm sorry the scan isn't that great, but have you ever tried to take a good scan out of an Archives volume without cracking the spine entirely?)

Free Image Hosting at

(Make With the Clicky)

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Playing With Fire

More fun with the Original Human Torch, this time courtesy of Roy Thomas and Rich Buckler's 1990 Saga of the Original Human Torch. This series was part of Thomas' long-standing project to revitalize interest in Marvel's Golden Age by hammering out the creases in convoluted 40s and 50s continuity -- something that DC / National had been doing all along but which Marvel was slow to emulate (still slow to emulate, to judge by how rarely -- and unsuccessfully -- the 40s and 50s characters are brought out of mothballs*). It doesn't help that, as I said, Marvel's wartime and postwar output really was nowhere near as beloved or important as DC's and that, additionally, most of it just wasn't worth remembering. But Thomas made the attempt anyway, spurred by newfound interest in the character after he was resurrected during John Byrne's tenure on West Coast Avengers. Sure, the resurrection made a mess of accepted Avengers continuity and had to be cleaned up about a decade later during Avengers Forever, but I always thought the original Torch was a fun character and it was well-wroth a few continuity headaches to have him running around again.

A whole year? Slowpoke. I built my android in six weeks, during my lunch breaks.

That Professor Horton, always looking on the bright side.

There about fifty things that spring to mind upon seeing this panel. I'll bet you can guess.

There's comic-book science, and then there's this, which is so bad it almost qualifies as Dr. Who science.

Yeah, too bad you never had a special limited series specifically dedicated to unravelling the mysteries of your golden age adventures. Oh, wait . . .

*I did read and enjoy the recent Agents of Atlas mini but the sales figures I saw indicate I was one of about twelve people who did.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bad Luck Streak In Dancing School

Oh man, they're really not trying too hard to keep the end of Civil War a secret, are they? I mean, seriously, any monkey with an awareness of Marvel history can guess by reading the submissions info for this month that Mary Jane is going to bite it. I am pretty sure the "surprise" cliffhanger in this most recent issue of Amazing Spider-Man is a fake-out, and the real death will occur (most likely) in the series itself. (I didn't buy the comic, mind you, I didn't even read it for free on the internet: I've been making a habit of picking up the Civil War books in the store and flipping to the last page to see what the "shock" ending is, because the "shock" ending is the most important part of these stories. As someone else was telling me just last night, it's all about building a book around money shots, with little or no attention paid to the nuts and bolts of actually building the story on a firm foundation.) (And man, how weird is it that hardcore porn terminology has penetrated so deeply into the colloquial lexicon? Heh, I said penetrated . . .)

But, yeah: Spider-Man is going back to wearing the black costume, which he hasn't worn for almost twenty years (to my recollection) because MJ didn't like it after being traumatized by Venom back in the day. Civil War needs a big honkin' capstone to end it, something that will abruptly end the fighting while also effectively taking the steam out of both sides of the argument. I mean, God knows poor Bill Foster's death isn't that important, he was only a token who had appeared maybe twice in the last decade before Marvel pulled him out of mothballs to get clobbered by Clor. (The only thing they missed with Bill Foster was the scene where he says "I'm only a week away from retirement! I've bought a boat and I'm going to sail around the world with my wife . . . once we get this Civil War business behind us!" Cue delicately plucked Spanish guitar in the background.)

I mean, seriously, who else could it be? No one else in the Marvel Universe would care if Aunt May bit it (she's already died as well, and that never stopped her . . . of course, they've tried to kill MJ before, too, and that didn't work either). Man, this is just too depressing -- you don't suppose this could be a fake-out in lieu of the "real" surprise ending, do you? Because this is an awful long ways to go just to get Spider-Man unmarried . . . I have a hard time believing they're this bad at keeping a secret. But I suppose that's life in the big city.

Speaking of things which surprise me with their lameness, let us discuss the original Human Torch. DC's "Golden Age" gets lots of attention from the blogosphere but I almost never see anyone discussing Marvel's (Timely's) wartime output. There aren't nearly as many good reprints of Marvel's older material, but also, whereas most of DC's continuity is explicitly built on connections to stories published as long as seventy years ago, little of Marvel's golden age has had much impact on its present, despite Roy Thomas' attempts to create just that type of intra-era continuity with the creation of The Invaders. Most of the characters themselves were forgotten: whereas many modern DC fanboys can cite chapter and verse for Mr. Terrific and the Red Tornado's convoluted histories, to say nothing of the Crimson Avenger and the Red Bee, who but Peter Sanderson sheds a tear for the original Angel or Vision, neither of whom have any connection to their modern-day counterparts?

Anyway, the Human Torch.

This dude name Phineas Horton built a scale-model human android, complete with blond hair and blue eyes, in every way identical in both form and function to a real human. Only, there was a problem, see? Every time the android was exposed to oxygen it caught on fire. And continued to burn, totally unharmed.

So of course everyone thinks the robot is a menace (as most people probably would) and lock the Torch in a concrete tomb. Only they made the mistake of having non-union workers lay the slab because in no time flat a crack opens up and allows oxygen to seep in. But it's OK, see, because this time Horton has been piping information into the Torch's perfectly functional artificial brain with a pair of headphones -- probably some kind of civics lessons being recorded off educational acetates. Despite the fact that he had no context with which to place this input he was able to learn language skills and basic human conventions from the random noise being pumped into his empty mind.

There was still the basic problem of the fact that he kept lighting on fire. This was solved very easily when the Torch came into contact with nitro glycerine, which just happened to douse his flames as well as giving him the power to control his flames at will. So then he decides to become a police officer, for which he conjures up the human identity of Jim Hammond.

Yes. Yes, I'll have what he's having.

Perhaps it is redundant to mock the golden age for its rather odd leaps of fancy . . . but the fact remains, this is an assortment of particularly wide leaps. Bizarre, baroque . . . pretty much a fantasy, whereas DC always made an attempt to stay rooted in some element of the quotidian. Marvel was grimy and strange, DC was the respectable older sibling. Marvel's golden age may have been weird, but I'd still much rather read about a robot that spontaneously combusts than a midget in a yellow and blue jumper who kept beating people up when they called him short.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

And Now, Eternity

Monday, January 15, 2007

51... 51... 51...

I've been keeping half an eye on DC's 52 series; there's a part of me that is interested in the logistics of the format, while there's another part of me that is anxious to rubberneck at a terrible car crash. I think, with 36 weeks down, I can safely say that the result is not exactly the terrible car crash that many predicted, but man, are these the most unerringly cynical comics I've ever seen.

I'm not really referring to anything that happens inside the actual book itself: everyone knows the content of the mainstream super-doopers have been getting increasingly cutthroat lately, and 52 is no exception to this trend. I really don't have any of the vestigial nostalgic interest in most of the DC characters that I do for Marvel, so there isn't even that much of an appeal for me; even characters I do care for, like Lobo or Animal Man, are only as strong as the stories they're in, and this is a pretty weak story by that measure. What is cynical about 52 is the absolutely calculated way in which everything about the book has been designed to appeal to the most basic fanboy impulses. Not that I should be surprised, but man, it's not usually this bald-faced.

The Big Two publishers have learned well the lessons of the past few years: after a time spent dallying with "story-centric" approaches that were created with the goal of appealing to mythical new readers, Marvel and DC have thrown their hands in the air and retrenched their business model, going back to the basics of tight continuity and line-wide storytelling. Decompressing stories for the trades and writing every feature like a B-list FX action drama didn't bring the great wide world banging down the industry's door; the only thing left to be done is to flog the long-term customers for every cent they're worth and run the trade backlist like a separate business entirely.

But if you aim the product specifically at the fanboys, then you must recognize that the fanboys have very specific desires. They don't want to just read a well-executed story or compelling drama. They're invested in these characters but also inured to artificial shocks. The stakes have to be kept incredibly high but also convincing: more than anything else, whether we're discussing 52, Infinite Crisis, Civil War or whatever else is high on the charts, the reader is being primed to believe that the stakes have never been higher and that actions have long-term consequences. Things matter and it's worth it to be in on the discussion down at the shop on Wednesday: even if the things that happen are lame or disappointing or totally out of character, as long as it's not boring it will sell.

Notice that in almost every recent instance, sales for crossovers and peripheral events have been incredibly strong, but once a post-crossover status quo has been established sales have again resumed their previous (almost inevitable industry-wide) freefall? The readers are so accustomed to shocks and thrills that anything less than the end of the world is just window-dressing. Anyone reading comics now grew up reading comics in a time when comics were still fairly static. Most superhero comics throughout history have been static creatures, dedicated to the maintenance of the status quo across hundreds of issues and multiple decades. Modern readers really desperately want to be tricked into thinking that it's no longer like when they were kids and that things today will have an impact on things tomorrow, so modern creators have to bend over backwards to provide the illusion of permanence.

Which is why 52 is such a well-crafted set-up. All of DC's "Big Guns" are conveniently offstage -- from what I've seen, no Superman, no Wonder Woman, and very little Batman. Secondary folks like Green Lantern and Flash are also gone. In place of these necessarily static trademarks we've got the Question, Steel, Animal Man, Rip Hunter, the Elongated Man, Will Magnus -- C-listers by any stretch of the imagination. But their minor-league status allows the creators the luxury of doing things they'd never be allowed to do with Superman and Batman. They can take these characters apart and put them back together any which way they please. Of course, in the long run they'll all probably return to their baseline status quo, but at least the secondary and tertiary characters can maintain the illusion of change with much more conviction than, say, Batman. (Which is not to say that this can't change on a moments' notice: if, for instance, the CW wanted to do a prime-time adventure show starring, say, the Question, there is no doubt that Vic Sage would in no time flat be back behind the ol' blankface for the comics tie-in. You could say it was a case of the tail wagging the dog, if you still believed for one second that comics were the dog.)

So yeah, it can't help but seem insulting to me, but I guess I'm not the audience. I mean, the product is unavoidably mediocre: writing by committee, art by seemingly whomever the hell happens to be walking by the office on any given day, character motivation by fiat. But readers get the visceral thrill of believing that the book "matters", and that the contents of each week's adventure will be important, and that they will suffer for missing it. Just as with Civil War, notions of relative quality take a back seat to fan service. I have to admire the Marvel brain trust for their Quixotic decision to delay the book out of allegiance to the creative team: they could easily have replaced the creative team with Chuck Austen and Rich Buckler and people still would have bought it, as long as Massive! Earthshaking! Upheaval! was promised within.

In the future I predict the mainlines for both Marvel and DC will resemble 52 more than anything else: fast, relatively cheap, dedicated to constant fan service by way of increasingly gratuitous and sensational storytelling. Essentially, boiling down the absolute worst impulses of corporate comics into a flat product that delivers a high adrenaline rush but without even the lingering aftertaste of craft or irony of which well-executed superhero comics are still capable. So, Japanese adventure comics, then, only dedicated to trademark perpetuation.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Because If Something Is Funny Once, Internet
Logic Dictates It Will Be Funny A Thousand Times

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A Modest Proposal

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a long time might be thinking that I've gone soft in my old age. I mean, this blog used to provide at least a modicum of comic culture commentary, now it's just leftfield indie reviews buffeted by weird photoshop projects. I can definitely see why I may have slipped down a notch from the ring of "A-List" bloggers -- not that I'm bitter, no. You kids today, with your Dave's Long Box and your When Fangirls Attack. Why I remember when all we had was Neilalien, and a rock, and sometimes when we were really lucky Neilalien would link to the rock and it would make a hollow "ponk" sound like someone tapping a coconut with their finger.

So yeah. I'm not even going to try to tell you that I have any intention of getting back into the serious commentary business full-time, because you and I both know that would be a God-damned lie. But I guess I do miss being a bit more topical with these posts. You can only sit in a pentacle on the north pole and fast for so long while your friends are killing themselves. And wow, a Doctor Strange reference and a Neilalien shout-out in the same post? Why don't I just mention Ditko and get it over with? Ditko Ditko Ditko Ditko.

So yeah, anyway. Late comics. Late comics are a problem for a number of reasons: 1) assuming anybody wants to read the comic that is late, said people get pissed off that the comic they wish to buy is not available for purchase. 2) assuming the retailers can sell the comic in the first place, said retailers get pissed off when they are unable to sell said comic. 3) in the time it takes for a late comic to ship, readers may decide they have no more interest in reading something, and retailers may decide they have no confidence in trying to sell such a flighty product. Of course, 3) is mostly conjectural to date, considering that massive lateness rarely does anything to slow the enthusiasm of comics fans. A heroin addict doesn't care if their dealer is an hour or six hours late, it just makes them want that sweet, sweet smack all the more. The fact that lateness continues to be a problem puts the comic producers in much the same category as the smack dealer: as long as their audience remains captive, they will suffer relatively no damage, aside from maybe a few swipes from message boards and bloggers. No one is going to be selling Spider-Man comics anytime soon except for Marvel, and as long as that continues to be the case Marvel can probably get away with selling Spider-Man comics on whatever the fuck kind of pre-Gregorian sun cycle schedule they wish. Retailers get their pockets picked every single time a popular comic is released, but they are, if anything, in a worse position than even the readers. A reader can, if they so choose, decide that reading Spider-Man comics isn't worth the trouble. A retailer who decided that stocking Marvels wasn't worth the trouble would go out of business in a month -- yeah, this most likely even goes for the most progressive, future-minded indie retailer you can think of, with maybe a handful of exceptions around the entire country.

The problem then, is not necessarily an economic one for Marvel. I mean, I've been doing this for years, and every single time a comic ships late, it's inevitable that someone, somewhere pipes up and says something to the effect of "there's no way they can keep up these kinds of shoddy business practices without paying the price at some point". Well, here's the thing: they can, and they have. And of course it's not just Marvel: DC has their own problems, but at least in some cases they have the good sense not to solicit issues that haven't been completed (Kevin Smith's Green Arrow springs to mind).

If I were Editor-In-Chief -- heh, how old of a fanboy parlor game is that -- I think the most important thing I could do would be to institute a rule saying that no comic could be solicited until it was done (as in, at least in finished pencils), and no mini-series could be solicited in any way unless it was completely done (as in, at least in finished pencils). Of course, life doesn't work like that. Editorial mandates have a way of slipping even when they are strictly enforced (remember "dead is dead"? remember "Batman as urban legend"?) There is one angle that I don't think I've ever heard anyone propose anymore.

It is in everyone's best interest for comics to ship on time for one very simple reason: it makes people look bad. Sure, when you get down to it, it's all dollars and sense, and bad faith is hard to quantify . . . but look at it this way: a late comic means that, somewhere along the line, someone lied. Someone either knowingly or unknowingly told a fib about how much work they would be able to accomplish, how easy it would be to fit a certain task into an already full workload, how hard it would be to catch up. I am sure many of these instances are total accidents, but I am also sure, from what I know of human nature, that some people -- be they freelancers, editors, publishers -- are just undependable by nature. Not everyone has the wherewithal of Adam Hughes, who knew damn well it takes him forever to draw a comic, and therefore All-Star Wonder-Woman has not, and hopefully will not, be scheduled until it's done. The reality is more like Joe Quesada, who probably believed in good faith that it would be a lot easier to produce a six-issue mini-series in his spare time than it turned out to be. It's a shame because, say what you will about the man shooting off his mouth, I've always liked Quesada's art. He's got a strong sense of design and has always experimented with interesting panel layouts. But I don't think I've ever seen a single reference to Daredevil: Father that wasn't primarily about the book's lateness. I am halfway tempted to by the thing now that it's collected but I'll be damned if I've ever seen an actual review of it anywhere.

You can go on and on -- Daredevil: Target, Ultimate Wolverine & Hulk, All-Star Batman. These are just isolated instances, hardly bank-breakers for most retailers -- but then you've got Civil War, and does anyone remember that the final issues of Infinite Crisis were also very, very late? These are serious problems for retailers, but even if they don't impact the publisher's bottom lines, they do affect the reputations of the people involved.

So, seeing that the best efforts of well-intentioned men and women have failed, there is one recourse: contracts. I have no idea what a standard mainstream contract looks like anymore. I think I saw one years ago. I don't remember it. But I am fairly certain that if it's like any contract that has ever been signed in the history of the world, it is composed of clauses. Considering that this is mainstream comics, those clauses are probably pretty ironclad and weighted towards the publishers in all instances. But there is one very simple clause that would help both publishers and freelancers save a lot of face: the work will not be solicited until it's done. It hurts the creators arguably more than it does the companies, but both parties should theoretically want to fix the mess. How easy would it be? The work will not be solicited until it's done.

Imagine if Kevin Smith had had that written into his contract for Daredevil: Target. Instead of being a running joke and persistent annoyance, the project would simply be one of those, "hey, didn't they say they were going to do this at some point?" myths that gets asked at convention panels. If Quesada had left Daredevil: Father to sit until he was done, the book would probably have been a small success and not, unfortunately, merely another symptom of a larger problem. It frankly amazes me that big tentpole projects like Civil War and Infinite Crisis are being produced by the seat of the companies' proverbial pants. Would it have killed them to have the series done ahead of time? That way not only does the series ship like clockwork, but the crossovers and ancillary products are fully consistent. I mean, come on, Rich Johnston devoted, like, half his freakin' column this week to the discrepancies between Civil War and its spin-offs. When the main thrust of your product is its appeal to long-term continuity buffs, it is probably in your best interests to make sure you get the continuity right. Imagine, just for a second, that all the people involved in Civil War had had access to something as small as photocopied packets of all of Mark Millar's scripts ahead of time. Oh, what's that you say? He didn't have the story finished on time? They probably didn't know how it was going to end until it was over? Hah, that's an entirely different problem.

But how different would the matter be if Steve McNiven had had a clause in his contract forbidding anyone to solicit so much as the first issue of Civil War until he had lifted his pencil from the last page? The series would have shipped on time, the crossovers would all have fit together like a hand in a glove, and people would be free to spend all their time yelling about how everyone is totally out of character instead of splitting their time between complaining about everyone being out of character and the books being so ruinously late. DC One Million was an incredibly complex story and yet somehow they managed to make everything ship on time in the space of a month. It's not impossible.

Just, I know, highly improbable. But I would think it would be in every freelancers' interest to ensure their work be put forward in the most positive light possible. Late books, no matter the reason, may not heavily impact the bottom line for major corporations, but it is indeed possible for them to affect the careers of struggling (and not-so-struggling) freelancers.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007


(Special thanks to Tom Spurgeon for
unwittingly supplying the image.)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The Mother's Mouth
by Dash Shaw

This has to be one of the more interesting comics I've seen in quite some time. Less a traditional "graphic novel"* and more of a multimedia entity, it's a book filled with multiple approaches to narrative, different techniques and styles assembled to try and tell a cohesive story. Actually, "story" is an inadequate term -- the different chapters and digressions mostly seem to skim around the perimeter of story, illuminating the subject matter through inference and suggestion without ever really casting a direct spotlight.

It's an interesting effect, certainly, a particularly literal translation of postmodern literary technique into the visual / verbal format. The effect here is similar to that of a puzzle: the reader is given enough information, but the job of compiling it is unfinished. It's actually a pretty canny use of the comics form. Anyone who reads comics is already accustomed to receiving and interpreting visual / verbal information at a brisk clip and pretty much simultaneously. Shaw goes a step further by dissembling his narrative almost completely, with disjointed anecdotes interspersed by children's drawings, diagrams and photographs, all constructed in an elaborate metaphorical interplay. The effect is undeniably effective, if melancholy: there's a lot of room in between the thoughts and feelings on display here, a lot of room in which unfortunate inferences can grow into towering disquiet.

The Mother's Mouth is an interesting book in many ways, but perhaps the most interesting factor to me is the way in which Shaw leverages mediocre-to-poor draftsmanship with a canny and engrossing sense of design to create something better than the sum of its parts. It is certainly possible to be a deft cartoonist without knowing how to draw particularly well: Marjane Satrapi has rose to eminence in the cartooning world not in spite of the simplicity of her style, but because she knows how to use that simplicity to benefit the types of stories she wants to tell. Whereas a more refined artist could struggle to achieve a similar affect, sometimes an unschooled and raw style is able to more accurately communicate certain concepts. Shaw is about as raw as it gets: sometimes his drawing is downright ugly. But you get the feeling that this is how it's supposed to be, and that the crudeness of the drawing is every bit as crucial to the effect as the exquisitely paced photographic interludes and restrained computerized graytones.

The first thing the reader sees upon opening the book is a quote from Gary Panter. The endnotes reveal that Panter was instrumental in shepherding the book from its rough draft to final form. It's also worth noting that the project was conceived as one half of a diptych, an accompaniment to a musical project by Shaw on the same subject. Both the relationship to Panter and the musical component place The Mother's Mouth on a solid continuum with the post-Fort Thunder generation of cartoonists, artists with perhaps less of an adherence to the rigors of craft than their immediate predecessors, but a theoretically limitless understanding of the thematic possibilities of form**. If I were Shaw, I'd maybe work more on my basic drawing ability, but as it stands now he's in good company. There's a strong foundation here on which to build a genuinely interesting career.

*Whatever that means.

**Craft and form being in this conception not necessarily diametrically opposed but by no means purely complementary either. You can go a long ways without being able to draw perfectly feathered brushstrokes like Hal Foster, but on the other hand it doesn't necessarily hurt. Everything a visual artist learns is just another tool to be placed in the metaphorical toolbox. One of the most basic and important things I think any student of art learns about modern art in the 20th century is that, contrary to generations of armchair art critics, folks like Picasso and Matisse and Pollock knew how to draw perfectly well. There's no way they could have made the conceptual breakthroughs that they did unless they already knew the rules they were breaking inside and out. Sometimes in comics you get the sense that, because of the "Wild West" sensibility still prevalent in so much of the field, there are a great many "avant garde" artists who get by without anywhere near the formal rigor necessary to pull it off (not that these kind of wildcat artists don't exist in every field, but they are more prevalent because comics is still a relatively small-scale world). I think the most important "rule" in art, at least from my admittedly biased perspective, is that you have to understand a rule before you can break it -- and sure enough, I find that to be generally true in almost every field. Even with the most violent and untutored punk music you can imagine, the good stuff is leavened by a musical sensibility that knows exactly what it's doing when it does what it's not supposed to be doing. Iggy Pop is an extremely well-read man. Oh man, this is a long footnote.

Friday, January 05, 2007

I'm Wicked and I'm Lazy

[01:29] DeathGar3000: hey, you know what's better than Speedball? Dark 'n' Gritty Speedball!
[01:53] m4775c11: yeah I saw that. it was uh, somethin.
[02:12] m4775c11: ok... that Vampire comic... that was... that was painful.
[02:13] DeathGar3000: yep
[02:13] DeathGar3000: see, don't I know 'em?
[02:15] m4775c11: like, for much of it the words not only didn't go with the panels, but didn't go with anything, even each other.
[02:15] DeathGar3000: I am surprised you never encountered the Anita Blake books... I had a grilfriend about a year ago who was obsessed with them
[02:19] DeathGar3000: apparently the later books - and there are, like, dozens... just devolve into hardcore sex between vampires and werewolves
[02:24] m4775c11: I think I've heard the name, fleetlingly.
[02:25] m4775c11: I seem to remember thinking something like: what's that, some kinda Buffy ripoff?
[02:26] DeathGar3000: hah
[02:26] DeathGar3000: it's for lonely women for whom Anne Rice was too "softcore"
[02:35] m4775c11: heh. so I gathered.
[03:04] DeathGar3000: so I did something the other day which I had not done in many years
[03:11] m4775c11: heh. that's too easy a setup...
[03:12] DeathGar3000: watched the OG triology in one sitting
[03:13] m4775c11: ah, you know, I don't think I've watched any of them since Episode I came out.
[03:14] DeathGar3000: I had to go out and get the new editions with the unmolested films as "bonus" material
[03:14] m4775c11: I've been meaning to get a pizza and some alcohol and watch the widescreen thx laserdisc rips for awhile now, but meh.
[03:15] DeathGar3000: but I watched the special editions... you know, the special edition of Empire is really good, and I guess some of the added FX shots in A New Hope are good (I do think they went back and made Jabba fatter) but . . . well, they just sort of took a big fat shit all over Return of the Jedi
[03:16] m4775c11: heh. I don't even remember what they added...
[03:17] DeathGar3000: harmonica playing CGI muppets in Jabba's palace
[03:17] DeathGar3000: a big old giant vagina for the pit of Karkoom
[03:18] DeathGar3000: they totally changed the final sequence, taking out the old skool fun ewok music with some enya type shit that was just... horrific
[03:20] m4775c11: oh yeah. I remembered the non-yubyub ending sequence but I forgot the other stuff.
[03:21] m4775c11: I mean, damn, we were nerds. like, being able to see through the Twilek girl's net shirt thing... that was all we had back in the day, you know?
[03:21] DeathGar3000: but you know, watching it this time around I gained a new appreciation for the ewoks. everyone always talks about how they were silly teddy bears who weren't very threatening... but they actually fought really intelligently, just like guerillas in a modern resistance. trip or otherwise incapacitate your foe, then swarm them with superior numbers and essentially stab them a hundred times.
[03:21] DeathGar3000: that is pretty scary, actually.
[03:22] m4775c11: well, the Ewoks were the Russians after all.
[03:24] DeathGar3000: I mean, one dude with a blaster against one, two, three ewoks... not much of a fight. but a few dozen dudes fighting in uneven territory against hundreds of indigenous critters who, while definitely having a disadvantage in terms of technology, outnumbered and outfought the opposition at every term on terrain they'd mastered over the course of hundreds of generations....
[03:24] DeathGar3000: wow, no wonder we'
[03:25] DeathGar3000: re losing in Iraq LOL
[03:25] DeathGar3000: do Iraqis go "yub yub?"
[03:26] m4775c11: could be, could be...
[03:27] DeathGar3000: so why no outpouring of love for Horse-Man?
[03:28] m4775c11: eh? Horse-Man is great, I love me some Horse-Man I tell you.
[03:29] DeathGar3000: it's like, wow, I thought I had a real winner here, the next Speedball, at least
[03:31] DeathGar3000: speedball was really just too loveley for this world
[03:32] m4775c11: he was named after a mix of cocaine and heroin, but alas no more.
[03:32] DeathGar3000: you mind if I post this conversation ot my blog? I'm feeling lazy