Archive for June 29, 2004

Dan, just admit it… (or: a spoiler-filled analysis of Eightball #23)

June 29, 2004

Foreword: Petty patronizing hyperbole aside, my pal Milo’s recent posts on the preponderance of superhero-centric writing in the comics blogosphere has had at least one positive effect: convincing me to get off my duff and blog more often about alternative/art comics. But the altcomic that I’d like to talk about today also happens to be a superhero comic. Dramatic irony, or poetic justice–you make the call! Also, SPOILER ALERT.

Eightball #23
Daniel Clowes
44 pages, full color, $7.00

Okay. When I said Daniel Clowes’s new comic, Eightball #23: The Death-Ray was a superhero comic, I was exaggerating a bit. Oh, sure, it’s an explicit response to the genre–a critique, even–but it properly belongs to another maligned type of genre fiction: the serial killer narrative. The superhero trappings throughout this pitch-black work provide an easy in for discussion, not to mention one of Clowes’s trademark meta-references to the history and ephemera of the medium in which he is so alarmingly proficient, but in the end The Death-Ray is about superheroes in the same way that The Silence of the Lambs is about psychiatrists. The professional inspiration of the killer is interesting, but it’s the fact, the existence, of unflinching, unreflective evil that’s the point.

The Death-Ray‘s protagonist is Andy, to whom we are introduced when he’s a twice-divorced middle-aged dog owner, but whom we mostly follow during his years in high school. (In fact, we’re not even sure we’re following the same guy, at least initially; I had to go back and reread the opening high-school sequence (“The Origin of Andy”) before I realized that the brown-haired, skinny kid in it was, in fact, not a girl.) Andy is a quiet, nondescript kid of no discernible social strata in his school, whose only friend is bespectacled, somewhat arrogant crypto-Nietzschean student named Louie. Raised by his aging and ailing grandfather following the deaths of his father, mother, and grandmother, Andy discovers upon smoking a cigarette (one he initially thought must have been laced with PCP) that he gains superhuman strength with the introduction of nicotine into his bloodstream. A letter addressed to him from his late scientist father explains that this incredible power is a result of an experimental hormone he treated Andy with during his childhood. It also reveals the existence of another experimental weapon: A yellow gun resembling a science-fiction blowdryer, that fires something referred to by Andy’s dad as a death-ray. We soon learn that when Andy (and only Andy) pulls the death-ray’s trigger, whatever he aims it at is erased from the face of the Earth. With the advice and encouragement of Louie (who, following a trip to New York City, has become enraptured with the exhibitionistically angry punk movement), Andy sets about finding a way to use his newfound powers for good, in pursuit of the “something big” for which he feels his tragedy-laden life has destined him.

And oh, geez, where to go from there. Eightball #23, like its predecessor #22 (Ice Haven), is a staggeringly rich and dense work. Like #22, #23 is divided into numerous subsections of varying artistic styles, each with its own old-fashioned sub-title. Unlike #22, though, #23’s subsections would be difficult to understand if read on their own; the individual titles are less a mechanism of the paradigmatic writing method involved in the previous issue (in which individual vignettes about various characters cohered to tell an overall story, a la Altman) and more a convenient method of simultaneously transitioning from one scene to another, setting up and/or commenting on the scene at hand, and tying the entire work back to the superhero and melodrama genres with which Clowes is constructing his new work.

Primarily drawn in a slightly looser, sketchier style than is customary for Clowes, the art of The Death-Ray conveys a sense of terrible urgency, as though this was a story Clowes felt he had to tell as soon as possible. (This despite the two-year gap between issues—it sure doesn’t feel like it’s been that long.) Switches between one style and another are not done with the rigorous regularity of #22; there’s less of a sense of “I’m aiming for something different with this section” and more of “this is just the most efficient way for me to keep the story going at this clip.”

The primacy of the need to get this story out is reinforced within the narrative itself by the way Clowes has Andy, the book’s narrator and in almost every scene its focal character, tell us the story. Rather than using traditional thought balloons or thought caption boxes, Andy’s thoughts and narration are contained in actual word balloons. There is a slight difference between the balloons that contain narration/interior monologue and the balloons that contain actual—the former are slightly rectangular, the latter have the usual rounded shape—but the overall effect is that wherever Andy goes, whatever Andy does, his personal view of the world is not just inescapable but dominant. It’s a brilliantly evocative technique, familiar to any reader who’s ever gone through the motions of interaction with others yet spent the whole time in his or her own head. (As Andy puts it, not of his way of thinking but of his use of his superpowers, “somebody has to impose some kind of structure on the world, I guess. Otherwise everything would just fall apart, wouldn’t it?”)

Andy, then, is very much the star of his own movie. That is also one of the themes of the book: The degree to which pop culture molds individuals’ expectations of themselves. Andy’s adoption (largely at Louie’s behest) of a superhero’s costume and vigilante techniques make next to no sense given Andy’s actual life experience, even given the incredible introduction of superpowers into it; after all, Andy surmises that his father simply intended for his son to become as strong as the athletic kids in his grade and “turn myself into the most popular kid in school.” It’s the boys’ exposure to funnybooks and, one assumes, the Batman TV show, that convinces them to use Andy’s super-strength and death-ray to fight crime, such as it is. The multiple sub-titles that Clowes assigns various sections of the book—”ON PATROL,” “THE FURTHER ADVENTURES OF THE DEATH-RAY,” “THE LAST STRAW”—further drive home the artificially constructed nature of Andy’s self-perception. Moreover, the occasional sequence depicts Andy and Louie swinging along city rooftops and battling crooks in the traditional superhero manner, even as they themselves continue discussing the far more quotidian battles in which they’re engaged. (The occasional “Right again, old chum!” is thrown in, but only to demonstrate the depths of the budding psychosis; we know that this was not spoken aloud, but it’s no less an accurate depiction of Andy’s mindset for that.) And it’s not just mass, mainstream culture that’s to blame, by the way. Louie’s cookie-cutter punk outlook is as much a catalyst in the terrible events that follow as is the boys’ familiarity with superhero tropes, since it gives Louie’s preexisting contempt for nearly everybody a cultural framework in which to thrive. Punk does little more for Louie than providing him an avenue to get laid, making him a bigger asshole than he already was, and giving him an excuse to pick fights—which he then cites as proof that other people are assholes who deserve what they get.

Indeed, the real problem besetting Andy and his supposed sidekick is the arbitrariness of their actions in combating crime and bad people. Simply put, the disconnect between the crimes committed and the punishment Andy and Louie dish out is so great that the act of punishment itself becomes meaningless. Andy and Louie use a discarded wallet as bait, then bully the impoverished man who picks it up, committing a “crime” that couldn’t even have occurred without the boys’ intervention. Andy roughs up a couple of burglars who he spies running off with an old man’s TV set, but even before he catches up with and knocks the snot out of them, they’ve dropped the TV, destroying it; it’s clear from the old man’s expression that he can’t afford to buy another. A girl Louie has the hots for gets smacked around by her father; Louie and Andy beat the man, but do so as he’s walking the girl’s beloved dog, who runs away, thus making her even more upset. Louie constantly tries to persuade Andy to have at a high-school meathead named Stoob with whom Louie has a long-standing and incredibly stupid grudge; it gets to the point where Louie lies on the sidewalk motionless in front of Stoob in hopes that the kid will kick him, in order to “prove” that Stoob deserves to die. In a sequence that quietly hits home for the grown-up Andy, a bartender is rude to a man who’s drinking because his grandmother died that day; Andy subsequently beats the oblivious barkeep to a bloody pulp. The beginning of the end for Andy and Louie occurs when Louie’s resentment toward his sister Teresa’s drug-dealing boyfriend leads the boys to indulge Teresa’s ex’s semi-veiled request to take the man out permanently. As Louie, abuzz with newfound moral qualms, puts it to Andy after the event, “You know, C.J. was an asshole, but he didn’t deserve to die. You didn’t even know the guy.” This from the kid who came up with the whole idea in the first place, as Andy immediately points out to himself. Louie may have had enough, but by now Andy is too far gone, too attached to the notion that he finally has the ability to “impose structure on the world,” to stop.

So at last we come to the heart of Eightball #23’s darkness: We’re witnessing the birth of a serial killer. Murder has never been far from the surface of Clowes’s work—with the exception of Ghost World, all his major works have contained violence or the threat of violence—but this is his most thorough (and not coincidentally his bleakest) examination of the subject to date.

The day before I bought this comic, I used my employee discount to pick up Michael Newton’s The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. In it, Newton quotes a jailhouse monologue from prolific serial murderer Henry Lee Lucas:

It’s a damn shame about people, it really is. We are surely the ugliest creatures in all of nature. Look at you: What have you ever done? What gives you the confidence to sit there with a smirk on your face like you’re better than me? You think anybody cares about you? Guess what—they don’t. You can lie to yourself all you want, but the rest of us are wise to your scam. You should have been an abortion or sold into slavery. Who gave you the right to take up space in my world? I’ve never done anything to anyone they didn’t deserve. My justice is nothing if not merciful. Does that mean I’m soft? Hell no. You think I’m afraid to erase you from the landscape? Look, I know what you’re thinking. Hell, maybe you’re right. It’s a lot of responsibility, but I’m not one to complain. I’ve got a job to do like everyone else. Who am I? Your worst nightmare.

Chilling, horrifying…and fictional. That wasn’t Lucas at all, but our hero Andy, toward the end of the book, in one of the strongest sequences Clowes has yet created. Throughout this grotesque monologue the present-day, middle-aged Andy’s “mask of sanity” remains intact: He returns from the grocery store, puts away his food, strolls over to his closet, reaches inside, walks up to his apartment building’s roof, surveys the green below him, eats his TV dinner. It’s only just now, after several readings of the book, that I’m realizing that the thing he reaches into his closet to grab is the death-ray, that his talk about “eras[ing] you from the landscape” is no idle chatter, that the bell-shaped silhouette in the eighth panel of this sequence is not the doorknob to Andy’s apartment but the muzzle of the death-ray as outlined against the evening sky, and that the man sitting on a park bench below Andy (the appearance of whom made me nervous, in a Charles Whitman-referencing sort of way, but little more) has just become his next victim. The insipid banality of the Rambo quote that ends the passage merely heightens the horror: Andy has no real insight into why he does what he does beyond the cheesy vigilante morality of Hollywood.

And this momentous act is not the only one that happens in a caesura. At the end of the book we see a partial line-up of Andy’s victims, answering the section’s sub-title’s question, “Why did Andy destroy you?” We learn that the two divorces Andy has spoken of having were caused by men with whom Andy’s wives cheated, men who Andy then murdered. We learn that a brief conversation between the teenaged Andy and his housekeeper, in which the housekeeper implied that her daughter had been taking drugs, led to the execution of a man whose crime was nothing more than selling the daughter some weed. In the same way that the disturbing crime at the heart of Eightball #22, as well as its resolution, took place between the panels, so too do many of the killings in #23. It’s as though, to our central character, they’re hardly worth mentioning—the events he does choose to depict are assumed to be explanation enough. Given the circumstances, Andy seems to suggest, any one of you would have done the same.

As with nearly all serial killers, sex is a key component of the killings, although not as obviously as with some. Most serial murderers hunt within the gender to which they are sexually attracted (as an aside, this gives lie to the notion that The Silence of the Lambs is homophobic: Buffalo Bill is not gay at all, but a woman-hater whose transsexualism is intended as a mockery of both homosexuals and women; we even see Polaroids of the guy with strippers at one point). This is not the case with Andy, as near as we can tell’he maintains an idealized long-distance relationship with his “girlfriend,” Dusty (“I hadn’t stopped loving her—and still haven’t to this day, come to think of it,” he says 24 years later, though once again this is likely just an attempt to assign meaning to a life where none has truly existed). But he displays true, romantic feelings (which it nonetheless appears he is trying to hide from the reader; he never describes them to us, and the one time he does address them directly in the context of a dream about having sex with her, he talks to her (“you”) directly) toward his African-American housekeeper. Clowes clearly wants us to see this attachment as an integral part of what makes Andy into what he becomes. The key sequence in which Andy discovers the truth about his superhuman inheritance from his father, “THE ORIGIN OF THE DEATH-RAY,” begins with two panels of disembodied sexual dialogue (“Fuck me, Andy!” “Yeah, baby—that’s it!”), and eventually includes yet another (“Oh Andy, you fuck me so good!”). It’s not until two-panel daydream sequence pages later that we learn the idenity of speaker: Dinah, the housekeeper who keeps the place from falling apart as Andy’s Pappy becomes more infirm. Andy eventually makes his feelings for Dinah clear to her by attempting a kiss; by the very next panel, she’s gone, and the placement of this sequence just before the most traumatic one in the book implies a causal relationship between Andy’s actions in the former and his actions in the latter.

Similar goals influence Louie’s behavior. Right after a scene in which he and Andy discuss their lack of superheroic motivation (“Look at the Hulk—his wife died, or something”), Louie spots the girl on the basis of his crush on whom he and Andy would later assault her father. It’s Louie’s later discovery of a pretty punkette that leads to the moral conversion that catastrophically unravels his relationship with Andy. (Yes, the “one friend in the world” the grown-up Andy refers to is not Louie, to our surprise.) Moreover, nearly all of the victims of Andy we know of have some sexual connection to him, whether they’re the men who ‘fucked his wives” or the dealer who sold grass to his beloved housekeeper’s daughter. And finally, of course, there’s the unspoken sexual dimension of Andy and Louie’s relationship itself. Paired killers are not at all uncommon, from the Hillside Stranglers to Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole, and often the killings serve to consummate the sexual tension that the killers themselves aren’t (or, sometimes, are) willing to consummate themselves. It’s no coincidence that, just before Andy and Louie’s traumatic “break-up,” Louie seems to have found an actual girlfriend and Andy has finally acted on his love for Dinah. The two don’t need each other anymore. (It’s also no coincidence that the one scene we see without the interceding viewpoint of Andy is of a weepy Sonny, Louie’s sister’s lovelorn ex-boyfriend and the man whose desire to win her back sets the ultimate breakdown between Andy and Louie in motion. In the world of serial murder, love and death are inseparable.)

Of course, Clowes’s usual pitch-black insights into the human condition are omnipresent. Whether it’s Pappy’s cri de coeur (“Oh God, why can’t I remember things?”) and his inability to recall that his wife Sarah has died (“Dear S” reads his unfinished letter to her); Andy’s “girlfriend” Dusty’s tragicomic pose with a garden hose, using it as a microphone, lipsyncing to the radio with braces on her teeth; carrot-topped Stoob’s sensitive acoustic-guitar wooing of a pretty girl; Louie’s pre-NYC assessment of punk music (“You like this?” “I dunno…I think so. It makes me want to kill somebody.”); the fact that the mechanism Andy’s dad chose to activate his latent superpowers will likely give him lung cancer….You’ve got to laugh to keep from crying. It all culminates Andy’s closing address to the reader, delivered on what we assume is the Fourth of July after a run-in with a grown-up Stoob (you can insert the de rigeur “It’s about Iraq!!!” reading here, if you absolutely must):

He couldn’t fool me. Underneath it all, he was still the same guy. Nobody ever changes.

That’s not to say that everybody’s an asshole. I know better than that. Hell, you’re probably a decent person yourself. There are plenty of you out there.

For you, Mr. and Mrs. Decent Citizen, I’ll do anything. Just say the word.

You’ve got a friend in old Andy.

Of course, we don’t. But in the same way that Andy’s thoughts superimpose themselves against the events of his life, it’s Andy’s view of The Way Things Are, not ours that has the final say. Andy’s among us, and we’re his one friend in the world. Maybe he is our worst nightmare, after all.

COPA Defeated

June 29, 2004

Alternative Comics’ Jeff Mason writes that the Child Online Protection Act, which essentially would have mandated a PG-rated Internet, has been permanently defeated thanks to today’s 5-4 Supreme Court ruling. It disturbs me that it was that much of a squeaker, but this is good news for those of us who think that the First Amendment guarantees the right of adults to talk to each other like adults. The text of the ruling is here; I’m sure details will wind up on the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund’s homepage. (By the way, aren’t you a member of that yet?)

Mo(re)CCa Re(MOC)CAp

June 29, 2004

The Missus was there, too. Here’s her take.


June 28, 2004

The third annual MoCCA Art Fest was this weekend, and it seemed to be a more…professional affair than the previous two years’ shows. Overall, I think that’s a good thing.

For starters, the show was spread over both Saturday and Sunday this time around, a necessary expansion indeed. The first MoCCA (like “Frankenstein,” the creation has stolen the creator’s name) received such positive word of mouth that the second MoCCA (as I mentioned in my report on the event) was about as crowded as that Who concert where people got trampled to death. The addition of a second day meant that festival goers could, y’know, move around freely; it also made all of the tables accessible, whereas last year the crowds around the more popular retailers and creators were sometimes thick enough to actually prevent browsing of their wares.

The second day meant added room, board, and meal expenses for the exhibitors, though. Those I spoke to all seemed moderately pleased with their takes–for the bigger small-press entities going to a con is usually a break-even proposition at best, so even landing just slightly in the black is a pleasant surprise. In terms of busyness, I heard multiple accounts from multiple people as to whether Saturday or Sunday was The Big Day, so I’ll take that as a sign that sales were spread out pretty evenly over the course of the weekend. (I’d imagine that post-Harvey Award hangovers knocked quite a few shoppers (and sellers) out of commission on Sunday morning, however.)

Aside from the second day, the other big difference between this year’s show and last year’s was the absence of a giant breakout success story, a gauntlet thrown down in the collective face of alt/artcomix. Last year saw the debut of two enormous, powder-blue books–Craig Thompson’s Blankets and editor Sammy Harkham’s Kramer’s Ergot 4–that not only set the con-goer conversational agenda but continue to have a massive impact on the alternative comics scene. Indeed, several factors seemed to compound the sense that these books were Something Big: the relative youth of their creators; their out-of-nowhere, unprecedented place in the artists’ respective ouevres; their publication by relative upstarts (Blankets publisher Top Shelf boasted From Hell in its stable but had yet to home-grow a true breakout book; Kramers was, for all intents and purposes, self-published); and, of course, the massive, Mjolnir-esque size of the books themselves. The buzz books of MoCCA 2004, by comparison, were long-awaited installments in long-respected ouevres from long-admired creators published by a long-running institution: Daniel Clowes’s Eightball #23 and Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory, both from Fantagraphics. Jimbo was big, by the way–it’s a tall hardcover not unlike the Quimby the Mouse volume Fanta published last year–but even so it failed to have the heft of last year’s smashes (literally if not literarily, of course). The fact that Fanta sold out of both books by Saturday afternoon could either have heightened or diluted their buzz, depending on your outlook.

From an personal perspective, another change in the make-up of MoCCA was the relative preponderance of more professional-style self-publishers and indie houses, as opposed to the DIY minicomics creators who dominated years one and two. This may have been all a matter of perception: This year I was actually on a budget, so I was hesitant to walk up to a doe-eyed mini maker and flip through his or her wares, knowing as I did that it’d have to knock me out to persuade me to buy something, and knowing as I did that this was unlikely. In other words, I sort of had my starving-artist blinders on. But observers of the scene may recall an early (and largely hyperbolic) outcry from the mini types about what was perceived to be a shift toward glossy, semi-pro, genre-centric, pamphlet-sized publishers of the type reminiscent of the 1980s black and white boom or the third-tier Image titles of the Valentino era. To these eyes, it seems like this did happen, at least a little bit.

The big story of the con is likely to be Craig Thompson’s sweep of the Harveys. Capping off a success story that began in earnest at this same place last year, Thompson came to MoCCA still riding the success of Blankets (he was by far the most popular creator on the floor, if autograph lines are any indication) and left with Harveys for Best Artist, Best Original Graphic Album or whatever the heck they call it, and Best Cartoonist, the three categories in which he and his work were nominated. Thompson’s trumping of brilliant veterans like Chester Brown, Joe Sacco, and Jaime Hernandez is unlikely to temper the anti-Blankets backlash, nor ease tensions between what for want of better terms have come to be known as the Team Comix camp (centered around Top Shelf) and the Fuck Team Comix camp (centered around Fantagraphics), but I’d be a lot more upset if he didn’t actually deserve the accolades. Thompson’s fellow creators, it seems, think the book is indeed all it’s cracked up to be. (Despite my initial misgivings, they’re right.)

My personal big story of the con was all the time I got to spend with a couple of my favorite cartoonists. While they were in town, Jeffrey Brown stayed with the Missus’s best friend Karolyn, while Craig Thompson stayed with the Missus and myself. Both of these gentlemen are talented, dedicated artists, and both also happen to be really nice guys. It was a pleasure to host them. (By the way, Brown’s new minicomics and Thompson’s new collection of portrait prints, along with the new Eightball, the most recent folk tale adaptation by Matt Wiegle, and Phoebe Gloeckner-heavy issues of the Comics Journal and the Comics Journal Special Edition, were the finds of the con for me.)

Special thanks this year go out to the illustrious Jim Dougan, with whom I wish I could have spent more time; Brett Warnock, Chris Staros, and the entire Top Shelf crew, whose behind-the-bar booth served as an unofficial home base for us over the course of the con; Karolyn, who advised us that security at the Harveys gets pretty lax when everyone’s had five or six Grey Gooses (indeed it does!); the good folks at La Rondure; and everyone who recommended The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the Missus and I, who watched it in our belated-anniversary-getaway hotel room before crashing the aforementioned lightly guarded award ceremony. See you in San Diego!

Strange things are afoot

June 28, 2004

A cautionary tail…

Re(MoC)CAp epilogue

June 28, 2004

Craig Thompson (in shirt that does not read “This is not a BEER BELLY–It’s a gas tank for a SEX MACHINE”) and Sean T. Collins, 12:43am, June 28, 2004, North Bellmore, NY.

See you there!

June 25, 2004



June 22, 2004

John Jakala writes in:

Is Milo being serious in his latest entries? I have a hard time telling how much of his writing is sincere vs. sarcastic [I’ve found many people have this problem with deciphering Milo–ed.], but I generally enjoy his writing most when I assume he’s being ironic. But “clueless Merkin douchebags”? I guess part of the problem is not knowing who he’s referring to (other than Parrish Baker, whose comments I grant were pretty lame, but I hardly think everyone’s arguments should be tarred with the same brush just because one blogger makes some crass, tasteless statement).

If he’s serious, I have several problems with his arguments/rhetoric. One, all the clueless douchebags were responding to Tim O’Neil’s terribly reductive arguments, not to your out-of-context TCJ excerpt. Two, the fact that Neilalien quoted something doesn’t mean that he approves of it. Three, yeah I can understand why those who have had more direct experiences with fascism would be troubled by things that remind them of those regimes, but that still doesn’t make superheroes essentially fascistic. Four, supercomics gave us Ray Tate and Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Milo-age

For the record (now UPDATED)

June 21, 2004

I thought that the way I placed emphasis on that Comics-Journal-fascism exchange made it clear enough, but since what I was getting at still managed to elude at least one former editor of the Comics Journal, let me state for the record that the “problem” I was pointing to was Gary Groth’s opinion of the concept of heroism, not Jean-Claude Mezieres’s. Meziere was the interview subject–why on Earth would I, and how on Earth could I, hold one of his opinions against the magazine the interview appeared in?

Obviously, it was Journal editor & publisher Gary Groth’s “yes” that I was pointing to. To him, the idea that “the concept of a hero is fascism” (not “smacks of,” but is; A=A, if you will) is so clear-cut that it doesn’t merit any more exploration or explanation than a one-word confirmation, or at least that’s how it comes across.

I mean, duh, of course I wasn’t talking about Mezieres. How would his opinion signal a problem with the Journal? Everyone did notice that the “emphasis mine” was placed on Gary’s “yes,” right? Okay, everyone except Milo, then?

I’ll say again that this exchange took place 18 years ago, and I’ve had it pointed out to me by people who should know that heroic fiction was viewed with even more suspicion than usual back then, seeing as how it was Morning In America and all that. But the point was that, despite what Milo says, it wasn’t me who “project[ed] the whole tired ‘heroes=fascists’ stance onto … a word”–it was Gary. (And Gil Kane, oddly enough.)

(UPDATE: I think Milo might be saying that I’m making too much out of what might have just been a monosyllabic silence-filler, but in my experience as an interviewer I’ve never said “yes” in that context. Yeah, mm-hmm, uh-huh, okay, sure–those I’ve said, but I can’t imagine saying “yes” unless I was agreeing with someone or confirming something. Certainly Gil Kane chiming in with an identical statement lends credence to the notion that Gary wasn’t just making noise, but was in fact saying something intentional.)

(BTW, Milo then proceeds to launch into a couple of tangentially related diatribes about the infamous blogospheric ideological echo-chamber, Ugly American Nerds, and a defense of the French, all of which he seems to think are spot-on responses to my “straw man” argument. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t’cha think?)

Anyway, NeilAlien has a linkfilled round-up of this whole hero/fascist debate, with some thoughts of his own (I was interested to see that, like me, he too pointed out the fact that since the early ’60s superheroes themselves have, in the main, been anti-authoritarian individualists); meanwhile, David Oakes writes in to Tim O’Neil with an exploration of the relationship between simple (mere?) power and full-blown fascism.

PS: For a solid, comprehensive, difficult-to-abuse definition of fascism, I recommend the following:

Fascism is a set of ideologies and practices that seeks to place the nation, defined in exclusive biological, cultural, and/or historical terms, above all other sources of loyalty, and to create a mobilized national community. Fascist nationalism is reactionary in that it entails implacable hostility to socialism and feminism, for they are seen as prioritizing class or gender rather than nation. This is why fascism is a movement of the extreme right. It is also a movement of the radical right because the defeat of socialism and feminism and the creation of the mobilized nation are held to depend upon the advent to power of a new elite acting in the name of the people, headed by a charismatic leader, and embodied in a mass, militarized party. Fascists are pushed towards conservatism by common hatred of socialism and feminism, but are prepared to override conservative interests–family, property, religion, the universities, the civil service–where the interests of the nation are considered to require it. Fascist radicalism also derives from a desire to assuage discontent by accepting specific demands of the labour and women’s movements, so long as these demands accord with the national priority. Fascists seek to ensure the harmonization of workers’ and women’s interests with those of the nation by mobilizing them within special sections of the party and/or within a corporate system. Access to these organizations and to the benefits they confer upon members depends on the individual’s national, political, and/or racial characteristics. All aspects of fascist policy are suffused with ultranationalism.

From Kevin Passmore’s excellent Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. I myself probably wouldn’t have privileged fascism’s relationship to feminism quite so much, nor perhaps even its relationship to socialism–it seems to me that the nationalistic exclusionary/exterminationist facet of fascism is thereby undersold; not to mention the fascists’ use of violence to further their goals, even within a nominally democratic framework such as those possessed by both Germany and Italy during the inter-War years–but I think that’s the best working definition I’ve yet come across. You can see how it encompassess not just Hitler’s Nazis and Mussolini’s Fascists, but to one extent or another Imperial Japan (which used a fall-guy Emperor in lieu of the charismatic leader), Falangist Spain (which used fascist tactics, but eventually was more accurately an extreme-right conservative dictatorship, in a more traditional sense, than a fascist one), the various Islamist movements (which define the nation in religious terms–the Ummah), and the American extreme right (which has not truly adopted fascist tactics, but has to one degree or another a fascist conception of the ideal America), and the European extreme right (ditto). You can also see that it does not encompass Spider-Man.


June 21, 2004

Feline literacy will become the hot-button issue of the comics blogosphere. Why, the Missus and Scott at Polite Dissent are already on the beat!

Another thought

June 21, 2004

In one of his big anti-superhero posts, Tim O’Neil asked why we (the blogosphere, I’m assuming) spend so much time and energy discussing superhero books. I’m sure this question is meant to be rhetorical, seeing as how Tim thinks they’re not worth discussing (and yet–and yet!–his last two Comics Journal review pieces were both of superhero books), but it made me think: Why do we spend so much time discussing superhero books? Obviously most of us have fairly heterodox taste in comics. If I myself were to list my top twenty/twenty-five favorite comics of all time, maybe only three or four would be superhero books. So what gives?

Well, obviously,

99 percent of the discussions are half-baked attempts at justifying a love of junk, [and] it’s all pretty harmless in the larger scheme of things [comics blogs are essentially the Internet equivalent of the first generation of comics zines, mixed with the monomania that the Net inspires].

I mean, duh.

But let’s pretend, for a second, that that’s just a dopey ad-hominem dismissal of an opinion that the speaker disagrees with. (I know, that’s tough to believe, but bear with me.) The answer that comes to mind for the question “Why does the blogosphere spend so much time talking about superhero comics?” is “Well, where else are we gonna go to do it?”

Time and time again bloggers have pointed out that there’s not really a forum for intelligent, textual & aesthetic criticism and analysis of supercomics. The Comics Journal is far and away the best magazine about comics around, but their serious engagement with supercomics is limited at best; most of it is characterized by the type of statement reprinted above. Superhero-centric publications like Wizard aren’t interested in criticism and analysis at all, and superhero-centric publications like Comic Book Artist are predominantly venues for those-were-the-days reminisces more than anything else. Meanwhile, other online discussion fora (message boards, Usenet, listservs, etc.) too easily degenerate into flame wars and in jokes. Blogging, as a publication tool, seems to lend itself well to lengthy discussion between self-policing participants. Meanwhile, in a sort of chicken-and-egg situation, at this point comics bloggers tend to be people who want to talk intelligently about superhero comics and turned to blogging to do so.

As comicsblogging continues to evolve, I wouldn’t be surprised to see blogs develop along other lines; we’ve already seen some blogs that appear to follow the Wizard or CBA pattern, and with Tim and Milo both in business we’re starting to see some that resemble the Journal. The more the merrier, I think.

Attention Cartoonists

June 19, 2004

Hot on the heels of her still-ongoing “correctly identify my tattoo and win a prize” contest, the Missus and our daughter Lucy the cat have come up with what may well be the offer of the century for comics writers and artists. Go take a look!

Heute Gotham City–Morgens die Welte!

June 18, 2004

Alright. Yes, the potential for reinforcing fascist ideas is inherent in superhero comics. Ubermenschen in impressive costumes using their might to make right, yes yes, we understand.

But here’s the thing: When was the last time you read a superhero comic that (as Tim “Here’s a twenty-graf essay on how upset I am that we spend so much time writing about superhero comics” O’Neil puts it, God love him) “uncritical acceptance of powerful authority figures”? (Excepting Marvels, of course. And The Authority, no matter what Warren “Comics’ Closet Conservative” Ellis says.)

To use a much bandied-about statistic, 99.999% of superheroes themselves are unable to accept their own status as powerful authority figures. And this isn’t new, either. This has been this way since the Marvel Age dawned in the early 1960s. And this is to say nothing of the fact that for the past two years nearly every supercomic writer who’s felt the need to Say Something has made his or her spandex-clad steroid cases stand-ins for Resident Bush’s Ill-Advised Mesopotamian Intervention, explicitly rejecting the notion that one should offer up uncritical acceptance of powerful authority figures. And to be honest, I wouldn’t have my superhero comics any other way. They’re interesting because of their powers, but they’re compelling because of their weaknesses, and the extent to which they do or do not overcome them.

So who would uncritically accept superheroes? Genuine idiots, I suppose, but then the real question becomes: Why the hell are we wasting so much time and energy getting upset that a genuine idiot might read Action Comics and think to himself, “If there really were a Superman, I would uncritically accept his powerful authority”?

I’d really love to opt out of these F-word debates from here on out, because quite frankly the idea that superheroes promote fascism is just as much a product of years-long immersion in comics culture as is the near-worship of superheroes. But if you’d like to learn more about fascism, I recommend Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore. (Hint: Fascism is not German for “art that I don’t like that has some muscular people in it.”)

(Thanks to J.W. Hastings–he’s got a great post on the topic, and links to all the pertinent, thoughtful posts on other blogs, especially Tim’s. And a big “welcome back” to Tim, by the way–I really did miss his bloggin’ presence!)

Hey kids! Contest!

June 18, 2004

First of all, our computer is back again, and no, we didn’t lose all our data. So hooray!

Second of all, the Missus and I got new tattoos yesterday. Mine is the emblem of the kings of Gondor–the White Tree, the Seven Stars, and the Crown of Elendil. It’s nice.

But what is the Missus’s new tattoo? That is the question. Go on over to her site, check it out, and let her know what you think it is. The first person to get it right wins an actual prize! How about that!

Computer World

June 16, 2004

The bright lights at Apple Central must have had their iPod earbuds blasting that annoying Jet song a little too loud when they fixed my computer less than a month ago, because it turns out they didn’t fix the goddamn thing at all. Today it melted down in the exact same way it did in mid-May, with the added fun factoid that the tech at the Apple Store thinks it’s somewhat likely that the whole hard drive was wiped out. Such fun!

So, I’d say “expect blogging to be light for a while,” but it’s been light for such a long time that this probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise to any of you anymore. Still, hope springs eternal, even when every week seems to bring the Collins household a fresh kick in the teeth.

The problem with the Comics Journal, in a word

June 16, 2004

[GARY] GROTH: What do you find politically offensive about the concept of a hero?


Managed care

June 15, 2004

You may remember a long time ago, back when Journalista roamed the Earth, a report that the major American bookstore chain Borders was switching to category management for its graphic novel sections. In a nutshell, category management is an industry term for a procedure by which advice is solicited from the publishers themselves as to how their books should be shelved and marketed within the store.

Now that I work at a certain major American bookstore chain that shall remain nameless, I’ve seen what’s in store for the cat-manned graphic novel section, and frankly, I’m pleased. The unofficial split between “manga” and “everything else” will now be made official, with a third category of “superheroes” emerging, leaving “everything else” to include artcomix, altcomix, indies, non-superhero genre books, and so forth. Each category will be alphabetized according to what makes the most sense–superheroes will be in order by character, “other graphic novels” by author, and (I’m assuming) manga by title. (Right now everything’s by author, and despite the wishes of the “we deserve legitimacy!” crowd, that makes it much harder to navigate. You might have to look in four separate places to track down a significant run of, say, Daredevil books; and how many kids can keep track of those foreign-to-Western-eyes Japanese surnames? (Hell, oftentimes the chain will accidentally file a manga book by the author’s first name.))

One final aspect of category management? The graphic novel section will be expanding by 40%-60%. So far, so good.

A thought

June 12, 2004

Of course the work is not just the work. If it were, the whole critical enterprise would be a titanic waste of time, and I don’t believe that it is. There are many cases when critics attempt to armchair-create rather than critique–I think we see this when people go after, say, the Comics Journal not because they’re not reviewing superhero comics, but because they’re not coming to the right conclusions about those superhero comics; or when people go after The Sopranos for a lack of whackings during a particular episode or season; or when people went after Eyes Wide Shut for not giving them enough boners; etc. Sometimes what you want a given work of art to be is not what that work is supposed to be. I’ve fallen victim to this trap myself, or so Tom Spurgeon has told me at least once.

But sometimes what you want a given work of art to be is what it probably should have been. Sometimes authors make the wrong choices in terms of what to show or how to show it. The window they place over the events of the fictional life of a given character is too narrow, too broad, too opaque, too transparent, too open, too shut, or facing the wrong direction entirely. The author can say “No, no, it’s exactly the way I wanted it–it’s your problem if you don’t like the view,” but that doesn’t make it so.

Here in the trenches of blogville, we each of us get raked across the coals on a semiregular basis, being told by a couple-three dozen other smartypantses why our line of thinking does or doesn’t make sense. It would never occur to me to respond “Yeah it does–you just don’t get it.” Well, okay, it would from time to time, but that would very much depend on the person in question and the strength of his or her argument. The folks involved in picking at Demo are some of the brightest in the bunch, and the arguments are all pretty sound, whether or not you agree with them. Which, of course, you are free to do or not do. The work is the work, if you must; but if you must, you must also know that it can be good or less so, and critics can help analyze why.

At any rate, if I were the Demo team, I’d think it’s pretty neat that my work generated as much heartfelt and informed discussion as it in fact has. We don’t get this kind of mileage out of The Art of Greg Horn, you know.

As it turns out Demo #7 is my favorite of the series so far–we seem to be trending upward, which excites me.

(More fascinating Demo talk at Jason Kimble, Dave Fiore, Peiratikos, and their respective comment threads.)

Comix and match

June 8, 2004

Ah, fuck it.

The blogosphere is getting all Filthy in response to Jim Henley’s theory that Morrison’s latest graphic novel is “a guy thing.” I think it’s an interesting theory, and I probably think it’s more interesting than usual because a) I just got back from a weekend visit to the residential treatment facility my wife checked into for anorexia over the summer, immersing me for a few hours in the world of women with profoundly catastrophic relationships with the needs of their own bodies; b) It occurs to me that at least 50% of the horror images in the book stem from men either being penetrated or being immersed in something vaguely vaginal. Something to think about, certainly.

Everybody hates Bendis. Everybody is wrong, of course. (Take heart, Johnny!) Personally, I feel that objections to Bendis’s dialogue stem from its relatively unique position in comics–its mimickry of the staccato rhythm of actual human speech is familiar enough in motion-picture media (and even then people like Mamet and Bendis’s idol Aaron Sorkin can morph it into an overstylized schtick) but can be quite jarring when it appears in a comic. As for the Daredevil stories themselves, he occasionally has trouble with endings (they just sort of happen, regardless of what has come before), but I’ve found them to be among the most compelling to come along in the four or so years since I began reading comics again. Certainly Matt Murdock’s trajectory has been the most unpredictable of any genre character around. Finally, I think certain critics bring aboard some baggage regarding the “appropriate” depiction of race or gender issues, or even relatively trivial stuff like Bendis’s position as Marvel’s bald golden boy, that affect their perception of his work. (As for people who hate on Alex Maleev–sorry, I got nothin’.) Meanwhile, and unsurprisingly, Dave Fiore takes the opportunity to go off on a gorgeous little tangent on the need for realism, or the lack of such a need.

“Hello. My name is Christopher Butcher, and I am a Big-Two-bash-aholic.” Hi, Christopher.

Jimmy Palmiotti has had one experience of graphic novels at major bookstores, and I’ve had another. Both are on display at this Fanboy Rampage post and comment thread.

Dirk is gone. Never forgotten, though, believe me. (And he’s named Kevin Melrose as the inheritor to the throne, by the way. And rightly so.)

John Jakala comments on my Battle Royale/fanservice post. What can I say? It didn’t look like she was wearing pants. (Man, if I had a nickel.)

Considering the illuminating conversations I’ve had with both men, I’m excited to see the Eisner/Miller interview book they mentioned to me way back in the summer of 2001 is finally on its way. (Courtesy of Ken Lowery.)

Marvel Comics: Making Zombies Happy Again Since 2004. Sigh. (Courtesy of Marc-Oliver Frisch.)

I haven’t joined the blogosphere’s Losers lovefest, and judging from Steven Berg‘s review of the spy series, which pretty much confirms my first-glance impressions, I’m unlikely to do so.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Milo George, who, in pointing to yet another embarrasing creator freakout on the Comics Journal messboard (I’m not gonna bother to link to it–you’re allowed to kill yourself, but I’m not allowed to help you) and offering pro bono, er, analysis of the Larry Young Phenomenon, proves why he’s the boil on the ass of the Comics Internet Era of Good Feelings. God bless him.

Jason Kimble is one blogyear old! And Rick Geerling is back!

I’ve probably missed the continuing iterations of the Demo #6 debate, but I put in my two Scorsese-influenced cents at the fascinating Johnny B comment thread. Steven Berg keeps on digging, too, even though author Brian Wood wants him to dig in a different direction. The best thing to come out of this whole discussion (aside from offering us bloggers the chance to directly discuss a work with that work’s author, not to mention thereby putting our feelings on authorial intent to the test) is J.W. Hastings‘s masterful post on parsing the difference between meandering, messy, and ambiguous fiction. If you follow one link in this whole monstrous post, follow that one.

(Also, Dave Fiore asked via email for me to comment on the narrative and thematic similarities between Grosse Pointe Blank, a film I hated, and Demo #6, a comic I liked. Yes, it’s true that both works center on a youthful suburbanite mass murderer who, in the eyes of the audience, is presumably supposed to have achieved some (almost completely unearned) redemption by the story’s end, at which point he is permitted to ride off into the sunset with his lady love. But Demo has any number of intervening factors in its favor: the fact that its central character actually has a reason to become a killer, however tenuous (and a one-two punch of institutional racism and animal abuse would piss me off, too; at any rate, though the specifics are different, I remember what getting bullied felt like, and if I could have dneo what he did, I just might have if I got mad enough); the supernatural angle serves as its own impetus for action (that is, Ken doesn’t deliberately choose, as Lloyd Dobbler or whatever he was called in that movie does, to hone his killin’ skills–they are some sort of gift/curse the presence of which likely compels their own use on a psychological or even physical level); it has a compelling fable-esque feel that eschews the “realism” that GPB, as a hipster post-Tarantino action film, is burdened with and subsequently fails to pull off (to me, Demo #6 feels like an “Appointment in Samarra”-type story told from Death’s point of view); in the end, there’s a certain sense of ambiguity about how “redeemed” Ken really is, since we never see anything from his parents’ or his wife’s point of view, whereas in GPB the special lady sees Cusack in full killing mode and decides “you know what? he’s so charming and his taste in music is so good that I’m gonna go out with him again, no matter how many people he’s murdered in cold blood and despite the fact that he stood me up at the prom,” to which Frasier’s dad (he’s in this movie, right?) says “Amen.”)

Finally, What is horror, you ask? That’s a very interesting question…

Everybody else is (not) doing it, so why can’t we?

June 7, 2004

Despite the outrageous abundance of riveting blogging topics currently making their way through the ‘sphere (horror! The Filth and gender issues! Demo, ambiguity, and authorial intent!) I’m going on a work-related blogging hiatus, probably for the remainder of the week. (Don’t quote me on that if I’m back before then, though.)

I would like to say that this blog is a priority of mine, and it’s a kick in the ass not to be able to write for it as often or as thoroughly as I’d like. My hope is that within the next two weeks or so, things will happen that’ll make that possible again.