Monday, October 31, 2011


DC Universe Presents: Deadman #2

I am very much sensitive to possible accusations of needless cynicism and negativity. That the large majority of the Nu52 books are either deeply mediocre or reprehensible, and that they almost all represent precisely calculated attempts to pander to set demographic niches should, at this late date, go without saying. But that is not to say that there are not a handful of good books in the lot. It's even probable, if we're simply speaking in terms of raw percentage, the proportion of good titles produced under the auspices of the new regime may well surpass that of the decent titles produced under the old remit. This should not pass without some acknowledgement from those of us who respect and admire well-crafted serial escapism, and all the moreso considering its relative rarity.

Case in point: Paul Jenkins and Bernard Chang's Deadman serial currently running in DC Universe Presents. (I have no idea whether or not he is intended to be the full-time feature or, pending the book's survival past half a year, whether other characters might potentially appear in the lead slot.) This isn't a book that I've seen anyone talking about in any sustained fashion. The second issue successfully builds upon the positive impression of the first to such a degree that I am tempted to say it may just be the best book of the bunch that no one has yet noticed. That means that it will probably be canceled before it has the chance to make good on its potential.

But for now it is enough to mention that Deadman has, from almost the moment of his conception, been a character defined by nothing so much as perpetually untapped potential. In theory, Deadman's premise is almost completely open - but in practice, the character hasn't been able to sustain an ongoing series since the 1960s, and has depended on the kindness of sympathetic creators who have kept him from ever fading into obscurity. More than any other superhero character, he has counter-intuitively thrived as a result of appearing almost exclusively in cameo and guest-starring roles throughout the last four decades. People like it when he shows up in Batman, but no one ever bothers to show up when the periodic attempt it made to transfer his recognizability into headline status.

Given his prominence through the Blackest Night / Brightest Day crossover cycle, it's not surprising that DC would see this as a perfect opportunity to give Deadman another attempt at solo success. Surprisingly, this new serial does not seem to be picking up any loose threads from those stories. (Although, it should be noted that Deadman is also appearing as a supporting cast member of the new Hawk & Dove series, picking up the subplot of Deadman and Dove's love affair from Brightest Day.) But this is good: the series picks up almost from the begin, offering another version of Deadman's origin that is premised on the idea of exploring discrepancies between Boston Brand's post-life experiences and Rama Kushna's stated goals in having consigned him to an eternal half-life as an ostensibly benevolent revenant spirit. This is not virgin territory: problematic questions concerning Deadman's origin have been fair-game almost since the character's creation. But as with most things involving superhero comics, what matters most is execution. What sets this apart from most of its peers in the Nu52 is that this is simply a well-built, sturdy and very attractive comic book on every level.

Jenkins' writing has become increasingly spotty over the last few years, with a few terrible, jumbled projects appearing for every interesting idea. This series would seem to be playing to his strengths: a strongly defined central character put through the paces of an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances while remaining grounded in a keen understanding of actual lived emotions. (Cf. his Hellblazer and Hulk.) He understands Boston Brand very well: Deadman is a formerly callow and selfish person who has learned over the course of a long afterlife to be good, and to devote himself completely to selfless acts of benevolent intervention. His mission is to help people. The question presented by Jenkins of whether or not his beneficence has been guided by not-so-pure motivations is well framed, and the gradual unfolding of these ethical conflicts holds the potential to be very interesting.

I've always been a fan of Bernard Chang and am delighted to see (after a career largely defined by a few somewhat questionable choices) that he finally appears to be working on material more appropriate for his talents. He's got an incredibly smooth line and smart sense of page design, and the (sadly rare) ability to excel at drawing more than one face and body type. I could, in a word, read this book from this creative team for many years: meanwhile, we're left hoping (against hope?) that it makes it past six months.

Batman #2

Giving a strong recommendation to a Batman comic book seems almost like raving about a new McDonalds burger: how good can it really be, especially since everyone reading this has most likely read more Batman comic books than they can count? How many issues of Batman does anyone really need to read in order to have lived a sufficiently happy life?

I am still not entirely convinced that Scott Snyder's scripts would be anything special without Greg Capullo's pencils, but the fact is that the result is strong enough to make me not care.

Could there be a more bog-standard sequence in the history of comics than Commissioner Gordon talking to a medical examiner over a cold corpse? And yet just take a second to look at exactly how much loving detail has been paid to every component of the scene. The first panel, a particularly gruesome outward shot from the perspective of the corpse's gaping chest wound, looks out on Gordon and the examiner. The second panel reverses the perspective 180 degrees by showing the reader the opposite image: looking backwards towards the corpse and over Gordon's head. Look at how precisely the gimmick is executed. Gordon, the examiner and the ceiling lamp remain in precisely the same relation with one another from both perspectives. Capullo put a lot of thought into exactly what the dimensions of this crowded room actually were and how the shape of the room (claustrophobic, dark) would dictate the way the scene was told.

Then look at this page from later on in the issue, featuring a strange encounter between Bruce Wayne and Lincoln March, a candidate for Mayor of Gotham (who probably has something dastardly up his sleeve, which is how these things work):

This sequence lasts three entire pages but it doesn't get boring. Capullo knows how to make a conversation between two powerful men look exciting. He frames the conversation almost as a seduction, with March appealing to Wayne on the basis of similarly traumatic childhood experiences that both shaped their commitment to philanthropy. There are a number of subtle threads throughout the sequence: for one, March is clearly one or two inches taller than Wayne, someone who we (the readers) know is already an imposing figure. Look at how March is slumping in that first panel, before very slightly straightening his posture to loom over Wayne in an attitude of - what? A threat? a come-on? Both? Why do we linger on the way March touches Wayne's shoulder like that? The use of medium-distance top-down shots almost renders the reader into a kind of voyeur, peeking in on a scene to which he or she should not be privy.

You could certainly accuse Snyder's plot of a lack of imagination, if you so desired. There's a new ancient conspiracy in Gotham targeting the sons of wealth and privilege - etc etc. I don't particularly care for this iteration of Batman, either: it's very much the movie-indebted (and Frank Miller influenced) paramilitary Batman, a violent, hulking figure in cumbersome body armor. This isn't a graceful creature of the night nor a spry, athletic swashbuckler - but then, both of those interpretations have been on the wane for a long time now. This is very much Batman in his "where does he got those wonderful toys?" mode, flitting around with the most fanciful gadgetry - again, not particularly my favorite mode of Batman comics. So, yeah, not perfect by any stretch, and hardly something destined to become a classic of contemporary graphic fiction, but without a doubt the best Batman comic I've read in years. Take of that what you will.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Random Notes

This isn't an essay as much as a series of accumulated observations on the subject of music criticism. Many of these statements are offered as unsubstantiated assertions, and can be easily disputed / disregarded as you desire.

The bulk of rock music criticism is defined by the unproductive conflict of two diametrically opposed schools of thought. On the one hand, we inherit the prejudices of an imposing generation of critics who came of age at the dawn of the rock era (>cough< Greil Marcus >cough<) and who exercise a strict definition of rock music that excludes anything recorded after approximately 1972 from the canon. Under this model, every subsequent development is dismissed as errata or apocrypha, the musical equivalent of fan fiction. Additionally, most rock music can be judged on its relationship to a very parochial idea of American roots music, or the very early British interpolation thereof.

On the other, we have the current bleeding-edge model of music as fashion, a mode that persists in the process of constantly colonizing new sounds and leaving behind each successive development before they can be allowed to reach maturation. Bands are allowed perhaps ten minutes in which to appear, crystallize, and whither into dust.

Both of these generalizations are essentially unfalsifiable stereotypes, but few people would dispute the existence of these types in some iteration.

No art form is more defined by its relation to affect and emotional response than pop music. Even professional music criticism as often as not falls back on symptomatic descriptions of emotional response.

The alternative to this brand of affective reaction is to regard music almost exclusively through the dimension of performance, a model that necessarily underemphasizes the formal aspects of music. This does not necessarily have to exist in opposition to affective readings, and indeed, in practice this type of performative rhetoric often depends on an active engagement with the affective vocabulary as well.

Most - but not all - pop music criticism operates from a position of almost no familiarity with conventional music theory. Pop music criticism that does incorporate theory seems oppressively wonky in a way that technical critiques of classical or jazz usually do not.

It is very likely that we will live to see the death of rock music as a popular genre. This does not mean that rock & roll will die, but that it will undergo the same transformation that jazz experienced during the early years of rock. It will become the province of older, mostly white, mostly well-off aesthetes who have the time and inclination to keep a boutique genre alive through active curatorial interest.

I am not convinced that this is a bad idea. It has already begun, for the most part: widely popular rock bands are increasingly rare, and most of the movement in interesting and critically-acclaimed rock music already occurs at a significant remove from the pop market. Aficionados of "good" rock music are already likely as not to be economically well-off and educated: when music becomes fashion, only the fashionable will be inclined to follow.

The embrace of rock music as an affection of hipster culture has done as much as anything to drive the music away from popular audiences. The success of the Strokes in the early years of the preceding decade was the first concrete indication that music culture was changing: the widespread popularity of a group seemingly custom-designed to be appreciated exclusively either by educated rock critics or fashion-forward twenty-somethings was a harbinger of the decadence that defined the decade's music culture.

The decadent movement of the aughts reiterated the sincerity of previous forms of pop expression through a lens of ironic distance. Irony as an adjective is often misused and even more often misunderstood. It is not necessary that irony be smirking or satirical, merely reflexively self-referential. The prophylactic distance implied by irony does not necessarily imply a pejorative value judgment, and is often unintentional. It is simply a function of a musical culture built almost entirely on appropriation. Rock is built on theft, and the earliest rock & rollers all understood the irony of their positions. It was only after the sixties that irony was lost, however temporarily, eventually to be reconquered by the punks.

Hip-hop is built atop successive layers of irony in the same way a brick building is built on layers of masonry.

The color-line tension that engulfed blues and jazz as these forms made the transition from popular art forms to curatorial art forms seems to be replicating itself in contemporary rock as well, albeit in a strangely mutated form. The further removed from the mass audience rock recedes, the more anxiety surfaces over the genre's ambiguous relationship to contemporary black culture. (See: any piece of writing by Sasha Frere-Jones.)

Eventually, when rock enters its terminal decline as a popular form and begins its afterlife as a curatorial genre, the form will have to recreate its own theoretical discourse. Again, as with blues and jazz, the decline of popularity will bring with it inversely proportional attention from predominantly white academics and historians.

There is always the possibility that rock will rejuvenate itself and become once again a popular art form. I do not necessarily believe that this is unlikely, but for the moment it does not appear as if it will happen anytime soon.

Will rock have to die before an intelligent critical culture arises around the genre? An examination of the field shows that it is only in the last fifteen or so years that academics have begun to write about rock in any significant numbers. The field is growing, but as with comic studies the field has yet to cohere in any meaningfully centralized fashion beyond a number of very enthusiastic, decentralized writers working in a scattershot fashion.

The way I listen to music has become increasingly curatorial. I notice in my listening habits an increased tendency - or at least a strong desire - to undermine or deemphasize emotional experience in music in favor of formal novelty and historical significance. I am frustrated, perhaps unjustifiably, with the shape of popular music criticism, which is largely defined by fashion and fannish enthusiasm. But even just vocalizing this complaint seems bizarre and the articulation thereof reflects an attitude towards music that is probably diametrically opposed to the way most people experience the medium.

There is a tendency within me to pull in the direction of Clement Greenberg in my tastes. There's something about minimalism that seems to be - for me - the consequence of the natural progression of aesthetics. A truly minimal sound is the apotheosis of sound. The problem is that, of course, once you achieve minimalism there's nowhere to go but up.

Minimalism as a genre in visual art eventually destabilized itself, sprouting tendrils before tentatively returning to representation in the fifties and then transforming into full-blown pop by the sixties. Minimalism in music led to some very nice work being done on the Kompakt label and a few other affiliated movements but really, where do you go from there? At some point in the last few years I realized that Richie Hawtin had already pushed the envelope of minimalism as far as it can go with DE9 / Transitions - which was released six years ago. It is possible to still be minimal, and good work is still done with less, but over the last few years much of the movement in techno has been a push backwards from sparseness and into a new engagement with illustrative sound. I think the Field is probably the paradigmatic artist of the last five years as far as that movement is concerned, and I look forward to his new album with great interest.

But as I say this I also realize that my own personal listening habits are nowhere near as Apollonian as I would like to believe, or that I would like others to believe. We're all guilty of nostalgia and we're all guilty of lapsing into purely habituated affective response. Otherwise, how else would I explain something like driving around in my car all summer listening to Adele's "Rolling in the Deep" on repeat? There's a hypocrisy implicit in any kind of proscriptive aesthetic program, especially in reference to music. The emotional immediacy of music is a phenomena that often exists beyond the realm of consciousness. Sometimes we are moved despite ourselves by frankly inferior examples of form.

The strength of great pop music lies in its ability to traverse the space between formal ingenuity and emotional novelty. Pop music is an extremely regimented genre, built almost wholly on the interplay of a relatively small number of melodic, harmonic, and lyrical effects welded to the grid-like precision of the 4/4 backbeat. The ability of musicians to consistently transcend this essential limitation of form is endlessly fascinating.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Superman Nobody Knows

The post-Flashpoint DC Universe has already made many of the same mistakes that dogged the post-Crisis DC Universe. Just as in 1986, the company based their reboot around a completely new start for the flagship Superman, starting over a "new" timeline built around amorphously undefined yet far reaching continuity changes that somehow managed to keep the ongoing continuities of Batman and Green Lantern intact while restarting other characters at arbitrarily different points. If you remember your history, you'll know that Steve Englehart and Joe Staton's popular run on Green Lantern ran right through the Crisis and that the title maintained a steady status quo throughout the crossover. Batman continued through the crisis as well, and it was only afterwards that the post-Crisis changes were dribbled out in fits and starts, in the pages of Frank Miller's Year One and then under the short-lived Batman: The New Adventures banner. Meanwhile, characters who retained full memory of their pre-Crisis adventures freely interacted with characters whose pre-Crisis adventures had been wiped completely clean. Hal Jordan and Oliver Queen still remembered and referenced their "Hard Traveling Heroes" era while Superman never met the Legion of Superheroes until 1987. These problems only mattered as long as the long-term benefits of the housecleaning outweighed the intermittent continuity bumps. The problem is that in a few cases these "bumps" metastasized into full blown meltdowns, and concepts such as the Legion and Hawkman were eventually permanently crippled.

The difference between 1986 and 2011 is that the rationale between the reboot is entirely different. The original Crisis was an obvious labor of love, an incredibly complicated and forbiddingly dense work produced by a small group of creators and researchers with an encyclopedic knowledge of DC history, and intended (at least in theory) to open up a wide array of new storytelling avenues. To a degree they succeeded. Flashpoint, however, was put together on the cheap and seemingly at the last minute, a ex post facto attempt to provide an in-story explanation for sweeping business decisions made far above the level of editorial. The post-Flashpoint DC Universe was created as a means of streamlining the company's staggeringly diverse array of IP into forms more easily amenable to bookstore channels and especially digital distribution services. The goal - successfully achieved so far - has been to make DC resemble something less than an eclectically diverse publishing line and something more along the lines of a streamlined television network.

Given that, its not hard to see that many of the more controversial creative decisions have been made with an eye towards developing a ruthlessly efficient commercial applicability. Hence the explicit T&A books, hence the multiple attempts to ape existing popular Young Adult book franchises (you should be able to spot them yourself with no trouble), hence the multiple attempts to reframe existing properties as potential basic cable drama programming. The goal is to create stories that can be easily packaged and sold by genre to casual readers using digital devices whose size and visual capabilities have now synched up almost completely with the technical demands of displaying comic books.

With this in mind, it makes perfect sense that the company appears uninterested in elaborating the status of certain characters' continuity. My personal guess is that the Flash may well become the Hawkman of the post-Flashpoint universe: the character's history is so completely defined by the existence of multiple iterations that it is almost impossible to imagine what might "count" in the new universe. The Flash wasn't just a legacy character, he was the first legacy character, the first multi-generational franchise, and (I believe?) the first married character. If you wipe all this away, what remains? If the new Green Lantern is the old Green Lantern, and selectively remembers portions of the preFlashpoint and (assumedly) pre-Crisis universes, but the new Flash has no Jay Garrick and no Wally West or Bart Allen, then what?

But no character is more crucial to the new universe than Superman. DC knows that Superman is the lynchpin around which everything else revolves. So we get, once again, a new Superman for a new universe, with a new coat of paint (and now an awful new costume) thrown over the existing franchise in order to "update" the character for an anticipated new wave of fans. The responsibility of defining the new Superman has fallen, once again, to a fan-favorite yet slightly controversial creator who has made a number of significant changes to a seemingly inviolate origin sequence. And, as in 1986, these changes will be the source of a few years' worth of stories before eventually fading into the background as the franchise inevitably, inexorably reasserts its default and realigns itself according to the model of the accepted Silver-Bronze age template.

It is somewhat interesting that such a doggedly non-political creator as Grant Morrison has seen fit to restore Superman's almost forgotten status as a populist rabble rouser. It can't be denied that a return to Siegel and Shuster's original formula seems an especially apt maneuver for our current cultural moment, but by that same token it seems all the more likely that when Superman's Silver Age temperament reasserts itself the change will be notably jarring. Make no mistake: whatever shape they bend Superman might serve as a nice change of pace, but the character will eventually revert to type. No one understands this better than Morrison, whose All-Star Superman was perhaps the best illustration of exactly why the character's reflexively mythic nature prevents any such short-term changes from producing more than superficial alterations to the status quo.

In the meantime, however, we're left with a rather unpleasant reality: a nasty, brutish Superman with an attitude and an ugly costume. Our "introduction" to Superman in the first two issues of the new Justice League series has been an embarrassing extended misunderstanding / battle / meet cute / team-up of the kind that Marvel had already made cliche during the Johnson administration. Superman comes on like a bully, tearing into Green Lantern, Batman, and the Flash without any attempt to communicate or negotiate beyond the basic de rigeur tough guy platitudes.

Along the same lines, Morrison's new Action Comics gives us yet another variation on the same long-standing and frankly exhausting "Superman vs. the Government" storyline that appears to have been the defining aspect of the Superman mythos for at least fifteen years. The idea of placing Superman in a position of antagonism with the government has never been interesting because it has always been predicated on a severe misunderstanding of the character's strengths. Superman works because Superman is good: he is the ultimate incorruptible and uncorrupted samaritan. Frank Miller's horrendous misreading of the character places him in the position of a government stooge unable to perceive the differences between law and justice, and placing Superman into overt conflict with the government is a similar kind of error. Superman isn't apolitical, he isn't an apologist for the government, and he's no-one's patsy: what he is is someone who never bows to any authority he doesn't respect, and who stands for moral justice even against the greatest possible opposition. Placing him in opposition to the government doesn't work because there's nowhere that storyline can go except around and around a circle: we know Superman is right because he's Superman, but we also know that for that very reason Superman can't very well decapitate the US government and exile the Secretary of Defense to the Phantom Zone. Playing up this antagonism as a source of perpetual conflict turns Superman into just another iteration of the Hulk, smashing up billions of dollars of military hardware every other issue because he's "misunderstood." Superman should be someone who the President can call at a moment's notice when the safety of the world is at risk, but he should also be someone whose moral authority surpasses any single President.

That's the point: Superman's virtue, his exceptional nature as a character, comes simply from the fact that he's good. He is allowed an absolute purity of intention that simply could not work for any other superhero, and could only work for the world's greatest superhero. He's one of those few strange creatures in the history of literature who can be successfully defined by a single central characteristic without distortion or simplification. Trying to change the character in order to make him more marketable to different demographics misses the point entirely. He's good: everything else that gets heaped around that - and this includes every periodic attempt to make him a thuggish "badass" - is just bullshit.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How We Will Read Cerebus - Part II

It is highly probable that in terms of its current fanbase and critical esteem Cerebus the book will end - like Cerebus the aardvark - alone and unloved. Whereas twenty years ago awareness of Cerebus among the comics-literate was almost ubiquitous - with Sim himself as one of the most vocal figures in the English-language comics community - the series has almost entirely faded from discussion. The recent occurrence of two relatively exhaustive critical exhumations has only underscored an unavoidable fact: no one reads Cerebus anymore, and the reappraisal was necessary in order to begin the process of deciding whether or not further generations would ever need to return to Cerebus in any capacity. Oh, some people still read it, but relative to comics' expanding audience, it will remain a decidedly cult proposition for the foreseeable future. A whole generation of comics readers has come up in the world since Cerebus was relevant, and it's conceivable that many people who seriously engage with comics now can't even remember first-hand a time when Cerebus was a monthly presence on North American comic stands. The final issue of Cerebus hit stands a long time ago, and in the space of just the last seven years the industry and art form have changed significantly.

If you were to ask me point-blank whether or not you should read Cerebus, my honest answer at this late date would be a slightly reluctant, albeit very firm no. Many, if not most comics readers who haven't already encountered the series at this late date will probably never encounter it in any significant fashion. The books will stay in print for so long as Sim lives, and will probably always retain some small position of honor in many well-stocked comic book stores, in the same manner that a contemporary psychologist might keep a bust of Freud on the shelf, out of a sense of duty already tinged with anachronistic irony. People who come to the book in the future will come upon it as if it were already a relic, a text of primarily archaeological interest that maddeningly alternates between a brilliant explication of the comics form and an impenetrable hate-screed. The parodies, many already dated, will only become increasingly opaque as the years progress.

For all the good in Cerebus - and we wouldn't be talking about it at all if there wasn't still a considerable degree of good in the book to balance the incontrovertible horror - the price for being able to sift through the rubble of the bad in search of the good is simply more than most people should ever want to pay. As much as I wish I could simply recommend that people read "the good half" or "the good third," the fact is that there is no way in which a selective reading program of Cerebus could convey the work's depth, breadth or significance. For better or for worse, the questions asked in the first 150 issues of Cerebus are only answered in the final 150 issues. That the answers turned out to be so painfully, ruthlessly strange remains a singular disappointment.

But the end of Cerebus does not necessarily mean the end of Cerebus.

One of the most heartening trends of the last ten-to-fifteen years of comics criticism has been the very gradual assimilation of comics content into academia. We're still in the very early days of this trend, and part of the reason for this is that despite the enthusiastic early adoption of the medium by academics across the English-speaking world, there is not as of yet sufficient institutional consensus as to where exactly comics belong, and how best to incorporate them into existing disciplinary divisions. The profusion of extremely popular first-person narrative memoirs such as Persepolis, Fun Home and American Born Chinese has borne concrete results in terms of providing introductory-level comics texts that can be placed into a wide variety of contexts and find application to a number of different disciplines. But most of these books can be explained and discussed without significant recourse to medium-specific historical context. They work supremely well as pedagogical tools precisely because of their unchallenging approach to their chosen medium. They have, in other words, been adopted so enthusiastically by academia not because of their daring use of form but on account of the alacrity with which they communicate embedded ideas independent of form. While it is not unusual to see more formally daring texts such as Watchmen and Jimmy Corrigan on college syllabi, the utilization of these texts in a primarily literary context lessons the degree of medium-specific critique immanent in their pedagogical use.

We don't yet have the kind of institutional support in academia to be able to create a common critical language for texts as far ranging as Maggots, Terry and the Pirates and The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck - let alone simply to acknowledge the commonality of these three texts on any existing generic continuum. The discipline of comics studies, whatever it will eventually be called, is still so far in its infancy as to remain barely perceptible. My gut feeling is that this kind of conversation would be best served in the field of Comparative Literature - a portmanteau discipline whose polyglot nature would ostensibly allow for the kind of cross-disciplinary pollination necessary for a field that rightly encompasses parts of Literature, Art History and Cultural Studies while belonging precisely to none. While I have certainly seen a few comics courses taught in the context of Comparative Literature, I am wary as to whether or not the ongoing (and potentially existential) disciplinary roil in that field will allow for the kind of sustained focus necessary to stake sufficient claim to such a seemingly protean field as comics.

Regardless, the current academic climate indicates that sometime within the next 15 to 20 years we will see the formulation of something resembling a more coherent field of "comics studies" within some corner of the humanities. Already you can discern the faint outlines of such trend, with many young hires in English and Comp Lit departments listing "Graphic Novels" somewhere on their CVs. We haven't yet achieved the kind of critical mass that would lead to the splintering of a distinctive discipline, in the same way that Film Studies formed in the mid-century. At this point, however, and despite these obstacles, I would argue that the preponderance of evidence points to this formation as less a possibility than an inevitability. Arguably, the one factor standing in the way of any generic coalescence is the relative paucity of theoretical models within the field - and no, Understanding Comics doesn't really count, although that will probably remain popular for a long time to come. (I would argue that the greatest current obstacle to this type of theorization is the reliance among comics critics on models of close reading that depend on narrative-and-text based models of reading - i.e., the way that literature PhDs are taught to read texts, as opposed to the way Art Historians are taught to interpret visual culture. Comics will remain partially opaque to theoreticians unless and until they can discover a cross-disciplinary model that successfully hybridizes these approaches.) When we begin to see strong theoretical readings of the medium in significant numbers in the academic press, half the work of disciplinary formation will have been done: from that point, it's only a matter of waiting until the scattering of proto-"Comics Studies" academics organize themselves around these models.

Once this occurs, the first business of the academics will be to historicize comics history into coherent genealogies. This will require the formulation of more holistic historical narratives to describe the medium's aesthetic and economic origins. The dominant narrative among fans of "serious" comics in the English-speaking world for the past two or three decades has been the gradual evolution of form away from the stultifying constraints of (extremely familiar) traditional generic restriction - in other words, the emancipation of medium from the shackles of genre. This has been a great narrative by which to understand the formation of a contemporary class of "graphic novelists" who exist separately and independently from the realms of "mainstream" adventure comics and newspaper strips, and who have escaped the inexorable illogic of the direct market as a primary means of comics distribution. This is at least partially the catalyst for the pervasive "Team Comics" rhetoric that engulfed the field in the late nineties and early aughts: a bunker mentality born out of a shared experience of communal solidarity in the face of economic retrenchment and stultifying generic hegemony. It was common to define comics as the province of a small but tightly-knit community that had weathered decades of the worst conceivable circumstances and survived to see cartooning gain culture-wide traction as an increasingly legitimate medium.

Anyone who comes to comics from this point forward will have to do the hard work of reconstructing the medium's historical trajectory. What this means in practice is that all of the particulars of economic production and distribution in the medium will have to be exhumed and reexamined. Any history of Crumb will require an explanation of what, exactly, the transgressive artists of the late sixties were rebelling against - not merely the cultural politics of the sixties but the shape of comics as a mass media. Any close reading of Love & Rockets will have to in some fashion acknowledge that the series was originally serialized in magazine form primarily through a distribution channel known as the direct market, and the same goes for other already-canonized artists such as Clowes, Ware, Burns, Seth, and Brown. (And, of course, there will be alternate narratives written for every alternate distribution channel.) It will be necessary when discussing comics history at the end of the twentieth century to acknowledge the dominance of super-hero books, and the ways in which the emergence of alternative genres and economic models were always conceptualized through the formation of rhetorical distance from the supposed "mainstream" of corporate-owned superhero properties. Just the term "mainstream," with all its strange and historically-specific connotations, will have to be unpacked for future readers who will come to comics without any prior knowledge of just how this generic opposition shaped comics discourse for multiple generations of readers.

Imagine, then, a series that ran from the late seventies through to the early twenty-first century, shipping monthly and taking as its explicit subject-matter the evolution and transformation of the medium in this unique transitional period.

Imagine a series whose defining relationship to its historical moment is that of parody, and which provides through this parody an incessant commentary on the hoariest and most inane indulgences of surrounding comics culture. It is just this generic contextualization that future critics will regard as an invaluable record of the most changeable and disposable aspects of an unimaginably strange commercial culture, an often embarrassing commercial culture that will need to be reconstructed at least in part as a predicate for any comprehensive historiography of comics.*

Imagine a series constructed along the lines of an eclectic personal journal, providing not merely an extended comics narrative but - in the form of copious backmatter - an ongoing critical engagement with itself as well as the larger realities of economic and ethical considerations within the quickly changing medium.

Imagine one step further, that this series also represents one of the most sustained autobiographical statements thus far produced in the medium's history, the record not merely of one man's Zelig-like ability to appear and reappear throughout some of the medium's most contentious and crucial intersections, but of his gradual estrangement and painful separation from the very same independent comics culture that he, in part, helped to create. With a few decades' perspective, the sheer horror of the series' final years will come to be seen less as the gradual derangement of a single individual than as symptomatic of the final stage of the medium's painful and protracted adolescence.

For better and for worse, Cerebus is the grand narrative of comics throughout our lifetime. Dave Sim began as just another amateur zine publisher, became a firebrand and a rallying point for the absolute moral rights of creators, before descending into painful self-parody and obsolescence. The series will fade from memory perhaps within our own lifetime - we already see this process in effect today, the inevitable and justifiable reaction to Sim's willful abjuration of modernity. But it will be rediscovered, and it will in time come to be seen as one of the most crucial primary documents of these, our strangest and most interesting of times.

* There is one specific point about parody in reference to Cerebus that I have been trying to fit in for a while but which just never seemed to fit into the main body of any article. There is an assumption that the parodies featured in Cerebus will only hurt the work's long-term reputation because most of the books being parodied are simply not worth remembering in any form and will only serve as embarrassing obstacles for any potential future readers. R. Fiore, in the online comments for an excerpt of Tim Kreider's Journal article, arguses this position in as succinct a fashion as possible when he states that: "If parody is going to endure then it has to parody subjects that are going to endure." With all due respect to someone who was written about comics in a far more intelligent fashion and for much longer than myself, I have to say that this statement could not be more wrong. Not only is it factually wrong, but it would be far easier to argue the opposite point: parody often endures because, not despite, of the transience of its subject.

For proof of this I would point to some of the founding books of modern European literature: The Canterbury Tales, Don Quixote, Gulliver's Travels, Candide. All of them are in some fashion parodies of other books, general literary trends, philosophical schools, or political ideologies. Don Quixote survives despite the fact that the vast corpus of popular chivalric literature against which Cervantes inveighed has almost entirely disappeared into the dire realms of graduate school and post-doc research. Most of the genres that Chaucer utilized in the Tales were vastly popular for hundreds of years across Europe, and yet I can say with absolutely no fear of contradiction that (for instance) the only penitence manual still in general circulation in 2011 remains "The Parson's Tale." (Of course, I would argue that "The Parson's Tale" isn't quite a parody in the same fashion as "The Knight's Tale." It's complicated position within the Tales hinges in part on its status as a rebuttal to the preceding satire. But it remains a kind of parody because it utilizes the form of the penitence manual to achieve a literary effect beyond merely the salvation of individual souls.)

Far, far more people have read and will continue to read Candide than have ever read Leibniz, and although Leibniz retains a fairly high reputation among historians of philosophy far more people know the man's ideas through Voltaire's satirical mirror than will ever go further beyond the footnotes in the Penguin Classic paperback. In all cases there are a number of reasons why the original genres and ideas pilloried in these texts have faded from view, but there remains one overriding, inescapable fact that frames our understanding of these books: people over the course of many centuries have decided in no uncertain fashion that the parody is far more interesting than the object of parody. Hell, it's even possible that more people read Shamela than Pamela, and many people still read Pamela. (OK, many college students, but I would argue that they're people too.)

Cerebus is, obviously, a lesser work than Don Quixote or The Canterbury Tales (I shouldn't need to say that), but for future scholars looking to reconstruct the shape of comics culture and the interplay between popular and independent publishing modes, Cerebus will serve a similar function in helping to contextualize our strange era. Spawn will almost certainly not survive to become an object of serious critical investigation, but Spawn will retain its significance as a historical artifact for anyone wishing to understand comics in these last few decades. If my assessment is correct and Cerebus finds a fertile afterlife as a subject of great scholarly interest, one of the most important aspects of the work for future scholars will be precisely that aspect that seems least interesting to current readers, with their first-hand knowledge of the historical conditions of the comics marketplace: the constant riffing on and vivisection of disposable bits of comics ephemera.

Monday, October 10, 2011


I've been trying for some time to formulate an adequate response to the massive existential changes currently tearing up the comics landscape, but it's been a busy month, what with starting a new job and new classes in a new town. Also, whereas normally I would have been tempted to post any old thing just to have something on the site, I've been wary of posting anything substantial on the site until I am done with my Cerebus series. I have a bad history of unfinished series, and I am loath to do anything that might otherwise impede the completion of my Cerebus thoughts. I'm trying to be better about these things . . . but the end result is that, since the Cerebus posts have been incredibly time- and thought-intensive, I jhaven't been posting anything at all. But I can promise you that as of this writing the final - or at least what I am foreseeing as being the final - Cerebus essay is half-done in draft form. It will be finished hopefully within the next couple days. And then hopefully I won't have to write anything about Cerebus ever again. (Unless of course I actually write that book about Cerebus I like to threaten myself with when I'm being particularly bad. But even if I did that it would be many, many years from now before I could even begin to think about devoting the resources necessary to a more in-depth explication of the book.)

But that doesn't mean I haven't been paying attention to the slow roll-out of the Nu52 relaunch, or even the death spasms of Marvel's extremely boring Fear Itself crossover. (Just a quick aside because I don't think the series deserves any more attention than I've already given it: how weird is it that FA would almost certainly read better if the main series had not been published - if all we had to read was the crossovers in the Avengers family of titles and a few of the satellite minis? Think about that for a minute.) I just haven't had anything to say. I briefly - as in, for about two minutes - toyed with the idea of doing the requisite rundown of all 52 new titles, but soon thought better of it. Because, you know, the vast majority of them have sucked. But the most depressing thing about so many of these books is not that they're bad - which they are, but which isn't exactly a crime and is hardly novel - but that DC finally seems to have figured out something about which they were blissfully ignorant for the longest time.

The secret lesson of the Nu52 is that they no longer feel as if they have to pretend that crappy comics are anything more than crappy comics. Without having to worry about whether or not this or that book will be "good" on any kind of arbitrary scale, it frees them up to be a lot more efficient and ruthless in the kinds of stories they tell. So that is exactly why we have so many titty books, whereas titty books had been somewhat underscored in recent years: it's not that T&A books never sold, but for whatever reason the particular publishing culture at the company had moderated against early WItchblade / Jim Balent Catwoman-style T&A. Which is not to say that there was no T&A - God forbid - but that the T&A usually existed in a slightly mediated form, and in other contexts. But now there is no real desire to provide any kind of ameliorating context. We can just have T&A books like it's 1995 all over again, and they're going to sell well because, as I said, they haven't really been doing them like this for quite some time. As crazy as the Star Sapphire costumes are, there's a big difference between a book that has T&A elements and a book that exists exclusively as a T&A delivery vehicle. Suddenly, they realized that for all the good reviews and critical goodwill the early-00s revamp of Catwoman received when reimagined as a slightly more sophisticated, less specifically T&A property, the best way to sell Catwoman comics is still just to go - pardon the expression - balls-deep into the realm of vaguely R-rated content. (Still no nipples, but just about everything else.) If you give up on the idea that you should at least on some level be publishing "good" comic books, that frees you to be a lot more ruthless in your determination about what exactly the core strengths of any potential franchise might be. The T&A in Catwoman and the Red Hood book was no mistake, and complaining about the sexual content is a bit like complaining that Spam is salty. It's supposed to do that.

The few truly good books produced by the revamp are, tellingly, books that most people were expecting to be good going in. Animal Man is a delightful series, perhaps the best of the Nu52, but most people could have predicted that it would have been at least more interesting than the bulk of books that surrounded it because Animal Man as a property has always depended on a high level of execution for its relative success. Ergo, the best way to "sell" Animal Man is to frame it as one of the line's few "prestige" books, the proverbial Merchant-Ivory production sitting next to the sea of Michael Bay joints. You can say similar things about Batwoman, but that's a special case inasmuch as the book would likely have existed in much the same shape whether or not the line had been rebooted.

Most of the other "good" books in the relaunch are not so much spectacular creative achievements as solidly conceived genre material that will probably hold up reasonably well in collection: Batman, Stormwatch (the second issue of which was massively better than the first), Swamp Thing. But at this point in the genre's history the ability to pull together solid creative teams on any given book seems to be as much alchemy and luck as any kind of outgrowth of legitimate aesthetic sensibility. Batman is a bog-standard book enlivened by some fairly spectacular artwork by Greg Capullo - but Capullo's art would have enlivened any other book to which he had been assigned. Swamp Thing has promise but so far seems far less impressive than the similarly themed Animal Man, and this is especially noticeable inasmuch as both books appear to be participating in a larger shared storyline, the size and scope of which is still mostly inchoate. Aquaman is pretty much exactly what you'd expect a relaunch of Aquaman by the company's number one creative team to look like, and as such it succeeds precisely to the degree you would expect. (OMAC is a freak that doesn't really fit any model because it is so obviously only good because Keith Giffen is doing some of the best work of his career on a story that is otherwise fairly tepid, and it will be a miracle if the series lasts a full calender year.)

So DC has finally learned a lesson that Hollywood has taken as dogma for decades: any creative endeavor is essentially a set of variables. The success or failure of any endeavor will depend (or so this model goes) on the ability of the producers to control every possible variable. Execution - as in, whether or not something is actually, legitimately good - is the hardest possible variable to predict with any certainty. This explains why, even though serious dramas usually cost significantly less than action movies or even star-vehicle comedies, its harder to get dramas made at major studios than ever because the success of a serious, potential award-bait movie is dependent on things that no producer or studio can ever completely control - the temperament and talent of artists. (This also explains why most larger studios have almost entirely subcontracted the production of serious movies to cheaper boutique labels such as Fox Searchlight or Miramax - lower overhead, less risk.) So there are only a handful of truly good books in the Nu52 by design: those are the maximum number of dice rolls that the company felt they could legitimately get away with. Most of the other books, inasmuch as they are or are not dicey commercial prospects, nevertheless represent familiar types produced by dependable craftspeople who can be counted on to produce the exact product for which they are contracted to produce. T&A books usually don't need A-list creators, and neither do ultraviolent paramilitary stories or low-key superhero action books, and it is as avatars of these discrete categories that the books will be packaged and sold both to veteran readers and to the supposed newcomers attracted by hype and investment potential. They are less aesthetic genres as product descriptors. And if the logic of capitalism has been evident throughout the industry for a long time, this is still the first time in a long time that the strings have been quite so clearly visible. The best DC can hope for these books is that by producing so many of them in such a rigorous and industrial fashion, they will be producing stories that can most easily be packaged for sale in the same way that thrillers, supernatural romance and science fiction have traditionally been packaged: as impulse buys for travelers and casual readers. That's progress, of a kind.