Archive for July 31, 2004

I don’t even mind having to buy them a third time

July 31, 2004

This excites me anyway. I simply could not have been happier with how these films turned out, and it’s only recently occurred to me how wonderful that is.

But hey

July 31, 2004

This I liked. I’d certainly be up for seeing what he might do with Galactus.

Saving Seaguy

July 30, 2004

If you enjoyed Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart’s astoundingly imaginative and deeply emotional miniseries Seaguy and would like to see Morrison’s planned second and third Seaguy miniseries actually get published, please go and sign this online petition. Sure, such efforts are usually about as vain as resisting the fun-filled fascism of Mickey Eye, but it’s worth a shot, right! Adventure, ho!

(Link courtesy of Graeme McMillan.)


July 29, 2004

I’m feelin’ too lazy to write up a full recap of my own. What can I say? Even when you don’t have a giant clothing corporation buying $500 worth of comics for you, San Diego Comic-Con is nerd heaven, particularly if your nerd tastes are as catholic as mine are. It’s an indy con, a superhero con, a movie con, a party, a freak show, and a flea market all rolled into one.

If you’re looking for a more in-depth assessment, I recommend the takes of Heidi MacDonald (who still doesn’t have an RSS feed–I think she’s just being difficult at this point) and Steven Grant. Rich Johnston was a little disappointing this go-round, but ymmv.

Wonderful things to read if you enjoy reading about superheroes

July 28, 2004

Grant Morrison yet again delivers an interview so good and quoteable that it’s sort of a literary masterpiece unto itself. This time he’s talking up his upcoming DC projects, a JLA run and a very ambitious project called Seven Soldiers. In the process he takes potshots at both Identity Crisis and Hush & its “let’s do a greatest-hits album for a story” imitators. (The latter of which, come to think of it, seems as squarely aimed at his protege Mark Millar’s plans for Spider-Man and Wolverine as earlier interviews’ comments on gratuitious badass-isms, paramilitary chic, and the aping of action cinema seemed targeted at Millar’s Authority, Ultimates, and Wanted. (All of which I like, by the way, but I take his point.))

Meanwhile, a blog called simply John and Belle Have a Blog has put together several strong superhero-centric posts. First is an essay on superheroes and time, looking at both the nostalgia factor and superhero stories’ open-endedness before culminating in a rather dismissive assessment of Alan Moore. Second, and much stronger, is an examinaton of the way in which superhero stories can or cannot handle “realism”. There’s also a digression on the way superhero stories accrue moments in the manner of a picaresque but, unlike as in a picaresque, insist on accruing really really big moments. It’s great writing, and includes a link to more great writing in the form of one Timothy Burke’s essay on the perils of continuity. To go the whole hog and force the fictional world to incorporate superpower-created advances and setbacks (a la Watchmen or Squadron Supreme), to ignore such advances and setbacks completely (a la any superhero comic that involves teleporting, or the massacre of an entire city or country), or to strike a compromise and try to inhabit an unrealistic world realistically (a la Astro City)? That is the question. Finally (though it only touches on superheroes tangentially, in a spoilery discussion of Unbreakable) there’s a post on infodumps and infolocks in genre fiction.

Given where I’ve been spending my days lately, these are all a lot of fun to read.

Links courtesy of NeilAlien and Kevin Melrose.


July 26, 2004

I’ve reviewed Craig Thompson’s new book, Carnet de Voyage, for Comic Book Galaxy. Go check it out!

SDCC Day One: A Haiku

July 23, 2004

Bad panels today

Tracking down cheap comic books

Smelly hot and moist

San Diego

July 21, 2004

See you there!

An idea

July 21, 2004

Between Identity Crisis and Avengers Disassembled, and this whole idea of using rape and murder to clear out dead-weight characters and give the survivors something to talk about, I

Keeping the Eightball rolling, (New York) Times six; plus another unrelated comment

July 19, 2004

Yep, I’ve updated the big Clowes/NYT piece again. Here ’tis. Or just scroll down.

Today I was walking past the local comics shop and I saw a poster for the new Firestorm series. “The fallout begins in May!” read the tagline. Turns out they were off by about two months, but were otherwise all too accurate, huh?

Updated and unrelated

July 19, 2004

The massive New York Times Magazine/Eightball recap continues to grow. Scroll down or click here for Update Round Five.

Meanwhile, the invaluable Egon points out that Last Gasp will be publishing a collection of Justin Green’s wonderful musician biographies, Justin Green’s Musical Legends. These remarkable strips ran for years in Pulse, Tower Records’ free in-house magazine. If you’re like me, you spent quite a bit of time during your youth both browsing the aisles at Tower and attempting to impress its employees with your musical taste and acumen; reading Green’s strips in that magazine was a critical part of this ritual. I can’t wait to pick this one up.

And now for something completely different

July 19, 2004

When I was in the local comic shop the other day, I flipped through the latest issue of Mark Millar’s Marvel Knights version of Spider-Man, and you know what? It looked like a damn good time. Spidey getting the crap knocked out of him constantly? Reminds me of how I looked at the series back when I was a little kid. Ooh, that’s scary! Ooh, that’s dangerous! I hope he’s okay! I’ve got no idea whether the series maintains such feelings beyond an initial impression, but I’m intrigued.

(O’course, I was “intrigued” by Red Son, and remembered enjoying it well enough, but in retrospect it doesn’t have much to recommend it beyond the sharpness of its Elseworlds premise, the cleverness of its denouement, and the idea that there really isn’t much of a difference between Stalin’s Soviet Union and George W. Bush’s United States. If you don’t subscribe to that political position, the other ideas can’t really carry the series. Anyway, for a contrary take on Millar’s Spider-Man, head over to the Grotesque Rampage forum.)

Another superhero series controversial for its violence is Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis. The series was billed as something that will shake the DC Universe to its roots; so far it’s done so through rape, murder, and Clockwork Orange-style reprogramming of criminals by the DCU’s ostensible heroes. Now, I’m pretty open about being a fan of violence in fiction, even violence toward women, which I don’t believe is necessarily misogynistic. (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Kill Bill are two of my favorite films, after all.) However, I think a good indicator of misogyny is if you can picture the author of a given work treating male characters in a similar fashion. (This is why I am not a fan of Lars Von Trier, who’s established himself as a one-trick pony in terms of doling out the rough stuff.) Given the company- and commerce-driven constraints of the DCU, not to mention the reactionary tendencies of many of its fans, my guess is that Identity Crisis falls in the latter camp. (There’s also something genuinely awful about the notion of the Justice League brainwashing criminals, but as always I’m hesitant to let allegiance to fictional characters get in the way of a creator’s ability to tell a good story (which I’m not sure Identity Crisis is, mind you). I really couldn’t care less about the storied history of Kingpin and Bullseye, for example, if you can get a good story out of Daredevil crushingly humiliating them. Which you did, if you ask me.) Anyway, you can go back to the Grotesque Rampage Forum to hear me explain my views more fully. Tim O’Neil, meanwhile, is outraged, not least at the fact that DC has apparently stopped even pretending that children read superhero comics. I’m not all that upset–The Killing Joke was arguably even more fucked-up, and that was done years ago, and I don’t recall being scarred for life after reading it, though I was, what, a freshman in high school by then and was fucked-up enough as it was–but it really is worth considering what went into this decision on DC’s part.

That big NYT/Eightball thread got updated several times today. Just scroll on down.

Finally, I just want to say that with my new home theater sound system set up, Kill Bill is fucking awesome.

The Times and The Clowes

July 18, 2004

We’re up to round 4 of the updates, on both issues this time.

NYT and EB23

July 18, 2004

It occurs to me that eventually my big roundup of discussion on Charles McGrath’s article and Dan Clowes’s comic book will get rotated off the front page. So I’ll be doing this sort of thing from time to time: Go here to read about two things that will be shaping the landscape of comics for a long time to come.

Toward a philosophy of the funnybook–now UPDATED, ROUND 6

July 16, 2004

(UPDATE: Just scroll down looking for UPDATE tags for the new stuff. UPDATE ROUND 6 is the latest batch.)

The stars must be aligned in the shape of a nine-panel grid or something, because between that New York Times magazine article about graphic novels and the interplay between genre/superhero and alternative storytelling in Daniel Clowes’s Eightball #23 (not to mention the release of the “real”-writers-on-comics anthology Give My Regards to the Atom-Smashers! and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and comics aficionado Michael Chabon’s involvement with the blockbuster Spider-Man sequel), it’s as though every major argument anyone’s ever had about the soul of this medium has been revivified. The purpose of this post is to try and link to as much of the debate(s) as I can, throw in some comments, and try to represent for sanity amidst the cacaphony if I can.

Charles McGrath’s New York Times Magazine article on graphic novels: “The Not Funnies”

My initial response

Jamie Rich’s anti-McGrath/Crumb/artcomix tirade

Marc Singer’s similarly themed post

My counterargument to Rich and Singer

Singer takes comics to task for attempting to ape the values of New Yorker-approved fiction

Heidi MacDonald’s optimistic appraisal of Where Comics Are Now in light of the NYTMag article

Comics Journal message board (aka the absolute worst place on the comics internet) thread on McGrath’s piece

Heidi MacDonald reposts Eddie Campbell’s “Graphic Novel Manifesto” from the thread

NOTE: It is in fact worth your while to wade through that thread. While it comes to be dominated by the same two insufferable narcissistic boors who post on every thread loudly insisting that Kirby and Herge and Clowes and Ware are actually quite beneath talking about, there are plenty of interesting things being said by Fantagraphics co-founders Gary Groth and Kim Thompson (the former takes a glass-half-empty view of the piece; the latter a glass-half-full one), Heidi MacDonald, and Eddie Campbell. The point about the way in which mainstream publications are perfectly comfortable with assigning stories on comics to people with next to no knowledge of the field, whereas doing this with other areas of inquiry (from movies to warfare) would be completely unthinkable, is particularly insightful; this is why even the best such articles till take on that condescending (and often factually inaccurate) social-anthropology tone. (McGrath alleges, for example, that this (comics) is probably not a form well-suited for intense emotion. I suppose I must have misread Poison River, then!)

Campbell’s manifesto is also a must-read, insofar as it attempts to cut through the semantic silliness about “graphic novels” and rescue the term as one that describes the concept, the movement, behind the books rather than the books themselves. To put it another way, it’s technically inaccurate to refer to The Blair Witch Project, Dancer in the Dark, and Attack of the Clones as “films,” since they were shot digitally, yet no one questions whether or not these fall under the artistic rubric of Film. A Contract with God may be a collection of short stories, and Cerebus may have consisted of 300 individual issues, but both are indisputably “graphic novels,” according to Campbell’s (in my view) eminently sensible and liberating definition.

Campbell loses me (of course) here:

[The graphic novelist] disdains ‘genre fiction’ and all its hideous cliches, though they try to keep an open mind.

I guess that in the end that sentence is watered-down enough to not be as head-slappingly pedantic as it sounds–it’s the “hideous cliches” that they disdain, they keep an open mind, etc. But as I always say, this disdain for genre storytelling is just as far removed from the mainstream popular and critical experience of art and literature, however you want to define any of that, as is your average Newsarama poster. It’s just as much a product of being immersed in comics culture for years, too. At any rate, if graphic novelists really are to disdain genre fiction, don’t let’s forget to kick Alan Moore and Dan Clowes out of the club next time we convene.

Campbell replies by saying that inserting some old X-Men storyline into the graphic-novel pantheon would “muddy the waters of our idealism”; Watchmen, however, would get a pass because of how difficult it would be to discuss the history of the graphic novel without including it. Well, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t see why genre and idealism are supposed to be mutually exclusive to the point where we have to be specifically reminded to keep an open mind about the former. Watchmen’s place in the history of comics aside, it’s also an excellent book in and of itself; the fact that Dr. Manhattan can fly and shoot lasers out of his hands changes this not one whit. Why would that ever count against Watchmen’s graphic-novel status, when someone doing the umpteenth book about a lonely white guy trying and failing to make sincere human contact amidst an unsympathetic societal landscape doesn’t?

I can’t imagine anyone (well, certain posters, I guess, but I can’t imagine anyone else) suggesting that “we should keep an open mind, but it’s generally wise to ignore genre storytelling as we size up The Historically Great Works of (say) Film, or Prose Literature.” It seems to me that having an open mind dictates that we wouldn’t need to say something like that in the first place. I think I’m now just restating myself, but my point is that the reactionary tendency against genre doesn’t make any more sense as an aesthetic strategy than does the fixation on genre to exclusion of anything else.

(A brief aside: cartoonist Jesse Hamm, who serves as something of a human bulwark against the anti-genre autocrats stalking that board, quite accurately pointed out that (say) autobiography is also a genre, with its own set of hideous cliches that good graphic novelists should disdain (though they should try to keep an open mind, of course).)


UPDATE ROUND 4: Eddie Campbell tweaks and reposts his Graphic Novel manifesto

Allen Rubenstein rewrites Eddie’s manifesto into more of a statement of purpose than a settling of definitions

Eddie Campbell’s cleaned-up manifesto has changed for the better, if you ask me. The most notable area of improvement is here:

He or she disdains the cliches of ‘genre fiction’, though they try to keep an open mind. They are particulary resentful of the notion, still prevalent in many places, and not without reason, that the comic book is a sub-genre of science fiction or heroic fantasy.

You’ll notice (approvingly, I’d hope) that he’s bypassed impugning the entire mode of expression described by the term “genre fiction” and instead skipped directly to attacking its “cliches,” which are indeed deserving of attack. He’s also dropped the adjective “hideous,” which is good, since the cliches of genre fiction are no more or less hideous than the cliches of any other type of fiction, or art in general; cliches are hideous qua cliches and not due to the type of work in which they rear their lame heads. I included the second sentence to point out that Eddie (and everyone) can get upset at the bizarre and ultimately detrimental dominance of comics by the superhero sub-sub-subgenre without impugning the validity of said sub-sub-subgenre itself.

(As an aside, is it worth wondering why, in the three major comics markets, some subset of sci-fi action has come to dominate? Obviously there is greater diversity in Europe, and greater diversity still in Japan, but am I wrong in thinking that in both those places SF thrillers (of the Humanoids/Metal Hurlant variety in the former, of the robot/cyborg variety in the latter) are the most popular type of comics, just as superhero books are here in the States? Seems to me that the comics form lends itself to action just as well as it lends itself to anomie (the latter a point I’d been making long before McGrath did).)

Allan Rubenstein’s revision of Campbell’s points is deliberately more generalized; Rubenstein’s interested in a call to arms, a self-applied definition of What We Do that all cartoonists working in the graphic-novel form can rally behind. That’s when I reach for my revolver, to coin a phrase: I’ve never had any use for manifestos of that sort, or for the work of the type of people who issue them. Not Allan, of course–he seems to have the best of intentions, and he hasn’t churned out propagandistic drivel to support his manifesto a la Godard or Eisenstein or similar doofuses. But sentences like “He/she is committed to raising comics writing and drawing to a more ambitious and meaningful level” invite more problems than they settle. Take a look at any given messboard thread and see how difficult it is to get anyone to agree on what would constitute “ambitious” and/or “meaningful,” or indeed whether those qualities are to be aimed for at all. (I think they can be, but they don’t have to be; regardless, rarely are they arrived at by people who are “committed to” arriving at them.)


Related items:

National Review article by John Podhoretz lamenting the acceptance by critics of comics as a valid form of artistic and literary expression

My response to Podhoretz’s piece

Sure, Podhoretz is a nitwit who’s likely unaware that there even are non-superhero comics, but his elitist “comics are inherently awful” stance is indicative of the opinions held by a wide swath of the mainstream’s cultural gatekeepers on both Left and Right. Speaking of which, remember how in my response to the NatRev article I pointed out the ironic similarities between conservative Podhoretz’s elitist, pathological aversion to mass culture and that of the Leftist “superheroes are fascist junk for children” crowd? Well, guess who touts the excellence of the Podhoretz piece over in the thread I’ve been discussing? It ain’t a National Review reader, I’ll tell you that much. Weak minds truly do think alike.


UPDATE: New York Times writer John Hodgman’s review of Megatokyo, 100 Bullets, Clyde Fans, The Complete Peanuts, and more

If articles like these are the results of the newfound respectability granted to the medium by the Gray Lady in the form of Charles McGrath, I think we can all be pretty happy. (Except, of course, for those of us who feel that not rejecting genre work like 100 Bullets out of hand is an unforgivable critical sin. But those five people will probably be too busy yelling at each other on the Comics Journal messboard to notice, anyway.) No bang-pow, no ignorant generalizations about what comics can and can’t do. Hodgman even comes to praise seriality, not to bury it. Impressive, even for folks like Jamie and Marc who bristled at the supposed elitism of the McGrath piece.


UPDATE ROUND 5: Ninth Art’s Chris Ekman reviews the McGrath article

This is probably the best response to the piece that’s been written so far. Ekman points out all its major flaws (and the more I think about them, the more “major” they get), but does so without either waxing outraged or ignoring the fact that this is still an order of magnitude greater than most mainstream writing on comics. I heartily recommend Ekman’s review.


UPDATE ROUND 6: Marc Singer discusses a Harper’s article by Wyatt Mason on comics-related publications

And the boozhwah respectability quotient goes up another notch. Marc appears to prefer this article to the NYTMag one, both for its choice of topic material (superheroes, closer to Marc’s heart than the altcomix titans) and its execution. He also takes the occasion to upbraid the industry for its obsession with nostalgia.


Moving on:

Time Magazine includes Eightball #23 in an article entitled “If You Only Read Ten Trashy Novels This Summer…”.

That’s right: It’s only one of the greatest single-issue comics of all time, created by one of the greatest cartoonists alive, but because it’s got superheroes in it–scracth that, because it’s a comic book of any kind–it’s trashy. Do you see how that works? Here we have early evidence of the main danger of McGrath’s article, which I’m not alone in thinking will be hugely influential on the perception of comics: McGrath argues that comics (even the best comics, which are what he spends his whole article talking about, after all) are good for people who lack the attention span for prose literature, thus setting up a false dichotomy (it’s hard to read the stuff on the NYT Fiction Bestseller list?) and implying that, simply because they work in comics, Dan Clowes or Grant Morrison or Jim Woodring or whoever is short-attention-span-theater material.

This leads us to the Eightball-centric portion of the week’s festivities:

My review of Eightball #23, focusing mainly on its depiction of serial murder

Alan David Doane’s review of/reaction to EB23, focusing on what he sees as the book’s brutal feelings toward superheroes and their partisans

Christopher Butcher’s musings on how/whether superhero comics fans will react to what he considers to be an obvious slap in their faces

Johnny Bacardi’s review of EB23, examining Clowes’s “dryness” and its impact on reader empathy for the characters

Comics Journal message board thread on the book, alternating effusive praise with emperor-has-no-clothes posturing

Pop Culture Bored messboard eschange between Alan David Doane and AK, in which the former allays the latter’s fears that EB23 is just a big lame “superheroes are fascists” pisstake

Barbelith message board thread serving roughly the same purpose

Alan David Doane’s “Eightball Challenge,” arguing that everyone should review this book

NeilAlien responds to both the book and the responses to the book

The gist of NeilAlien’s piece is that there’s a certain unmistakeable and gleeful undercurrent of “Let’s see you try this one on for size, fanboy!” in responses like Alan’s and Chris’s, a sort of stick-that-in-your-pipe-and-smoke-it let’s-you-and-him-fight mentality that reduces EB23, a genuine Heart of Darkness style masterpiece, into a smackdown against people who bought JLA/Avengers. I think Neil’s probably right, though I also think that both Chris and Alan are too skilled a pair of comics reviewers to ignore the profound depth of the book in favor of an exclusively anti-superhero reading. In fact, it’s Alan himself who uses that Pop Culture Bored thread to assure people that it isn’t some screedy “Superman’s basically a Nazi” kind of thing; as one of the Barbelith board posters puts it, this isn’t Clowes’s “Sports” with superheroes instead of football players.

(I should also note that Alan, for all his admirable prickliness when it comes to widespread acceptance of lousy superhero storytelling, has historically shown an equally admirable reticence to join the “superheroes are inherently fascist/stupid” fray. Chris, obviously, is another story, and in his post anticipating reaction to EB23 he uses the dreaded phrase “adolescent male power fantasies.” This is the Scylla of superhero comics criticism. (The Charybdis is congratulating yourself within the piece for writing a serious critical piece on superhero comics to begin with.)

I myself think that the condemnation-of-the-genre-and-its-fans reading of the book is the least interesting one, and also (not coincidentally) the least borne out by the text itself. Moreover, in our disparate responses to the piece, neither NeilAlien, Johnny Bacardi, or myself (three of the staunchest superhero supporters you’re likely to find) showed signs of having our faces slapped. That may be something to go by, considering that all three of us have been known to say so if we felt it was going on. Ultimately, I just think Clowes has bigger fish to fry. Actually, I think all of us do.

In his response to the book and its reviewers, NeilAlien posts a wonderful quote from this BookSlut interview with Seth, in which the acclaimed alt-cartoonist argues that he and his peers no longer feel the need to behave in a reactionary fashion toward superheroes and genre storytelling. What book does he hold up as an example of this? Dan Clowes’s Eightball #23! Unfortunately, this isn’t the slam-dunk case-closer that Neil hopes it is: Eddie Campbell’s anti-genre item in his graphic novel manifesto shows that not all cartoonists have put their adolescent aversion to genre to bed. But we can dream! (UPDATE ROUND 4: And given the changes Eddie has made to his manifesto, it seems like the dream’s coming true, at least a little bit!)


UPDATE: Peiratikos’s knockout review of EB23

This is a helluva piece. Steven’s point of emphasis is mainly the sublimated homosexual tension between the book’s main characters, and using my analysis as a springboard he points out how everything breaks down between them when they finally manage to articulate overtly (hetero)sexual longings to other people. Other worthwhile points include his placing of Andy in the tradition of Watchmen’s Rorschach, The Dark Knight Returns’ Batman, and other heroes who allowed the dividing line between their normal-human and vigilante-hero identities to be erased; the difference here is that Andy is a loser in both guises. Steven also makes the (controversial, I’m sure) assertion that bona-fide superhero comics have critiqued the genre with more subtletly, and hence with more efficacy, than does Clowes here. I think it’s comparing apples and oranges, in a way–the lack of subtlety in EB23 stems from the ineptitude of the characters, not of the creator, methinks–but it’s a challenging point given the perception even among people who actually have read the great superhero comics that the genre is uniquely unreflective. Finally, Steven compares the unusual placement of interior monlogue and narration in word balloons to documentary filmmaking–a worthwhile comparison, since I’m only now realizing how much this story reminded me of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, from the repressed homosexual subtext to the linkage between sex and violence to the male criminal couple at the center to the occasional insertion of fanciful, fictionalized versions of events. It’s a very rich piece–go and read.


UPDATE: New blogger Jog reviews EB23

Jog does an admirable job of really digging in there and chewing on all sorts of meat, everything from Louie’s self-casting of himself in the role of sidekick to the use of the color white. Close readings on books like these are always rewarding.


UPDATE ROUND 2: We’re beginning to see a “Dan Clowes has no clothes” backlash, this time not from messboard snobs for whom no comic is ever good enough, but from more mainstream types who seem irritated at the hype the book is generating.

Ken Lowery mocks the adoring tone of ADD’s Eightball Challenge

Ken Lower mocks the adoring tone of ADD’s Eightball Challenge again

Steve Pheley doesn’t see what the fuss is about

I suppose it is a little amusing just how much Alan David Doane likes the book, but Alan is a guy who takes lousy comics almost personally, so when a really good one comes along, he sees it as a gift. Frankly, I think that’s a perfectly healthy way to look at any good art. Moreover, I certainly think Alan would run a well-written negative piece on the book, provided there was more to it than “art comics are pretentious” or “I don’t get it.”

The main thing I can’t understand about Ken’s good-natured ribbing of ADD is why it’s apparently unseemly to get so worked up about Eightball but perfectly acceptable to go completely apeshit over, say, Scurvy Dogs. Don’t get me wrong–I’m sure Scurvy Dogs is a fun book, but I’m also sure that even its creators would tell you there’s a big difference in terms of both execution and intent between a fun pirate romp and what Clowes is doing. This is not unlike the TV critics who sit around bitching about how overrated The Sopranos is, then spend a column on how much they enjoyed America’s Next Top Model. I happen to love both shows, but I never lose sight of which one justifies that love more thoroughly.

Steve Pheley’s piece is another kind of animal, not least because he’s acutally read the book. His main point is that the devastating indictment of superhero culture Alan touts in his review simply didn’t come across for him. I think he’s probably right, because as I’ve said, I don’t think it’s there, not really. A book that touches on homosexuality, race, class, adolescence, punk, aging, America, and murder has bigger fish to fry than making fun of people for fondly remembering old Spider-Man comics. In Steve’s review you see that reading this last interpretation into the book can cut both ways: In Alan’s and Chris Butcher’s cases, since such an interpretation lies close to their heart, it increased their enjoyment of the book, if not indeed becoming the very focus of that enjoyment; in Steve’s case, since he does not view the goals of such an interpretation as valid, he saw the book as a failure. “[N]or did I find anything particularly shocking or impactful,” says Steve, meaning specifically in terms of its superhero pastiches but generally in terms of the entire story, sadly failing to see that there’s anything else going on in the book. The reductive pro/anti-superhero lens throws everyone’s vision off, in the end.

It’s also worth noting that Steve interprets Clowes’s use of superhero imagery as “a pat on the back for all the readers who are hip enough to buy Eightball.” Personally, I think it’s extremely inaccurate to characterize Clowes’s motivation that way. There may be a hipper-than-thou crowd who buys the book, but don’t let’s think the book’s creator is a part of it.



Christopher Butcher responds to criticism of his stance re: EB23

Gee, I sure hope I didn’t “read [Chris] the riot act”! That certainly wasn’t my intention. I just thought his approach to the book, as articulated in his (let’s say) paternalistic comments regarding superhero fans, was a limited one. Chris seems to acknowledge that in this post, saying that this obvious angle on EB23 was what he resorted to because the depth of the book initially overwhelmed him. I’m looking forward to hearing what more he has to say on the comic, and I certainly hope his warning that we’re entering a phase when reviewers simply comment on other reviewers’ reviews of the book turns out to be a false alarm.

Larry Young responds to my earlier comments regarding Scurvy Dogs and EB23

Larry seems to have the healthiest view of the divide between genre and alternative comics: Ignore it, as long as people are talking about comics! (Especially AiT/PlanetLar ones, in Larry’s case.) I do promise I didn’t want SD and EB to fight, though: I was simply perplexed that praise of the latter was coming to be viewed with disdain as being didactic, in some cases by folks whose praise of the former was ecstatic to the point where if you slapped a headdress on them and sat them on the back of a flatbed truck they’d be a Carneval float. Larry puts it this way:

one guy loving something so much he wants to tell his pals about it is a different thing altogether than another guy demanding that everyone review the same thing he does.

But isn’t Alan Doane’s doing the latter simply an alternate way to do the former? Seems that way to me. Then again…

Alan David Doane is ill; he is also angry at the backlash against his reviews

In some ways I don’t blame him at all–people seem more eager to respond to his pieces than to the book itself, which it should be noted they may or may not have read in the first place. On the other hand, Alan had to know (and Chris has admitted as much on his own behalf) that his comments were going to stir up some trouble. When you repeatedly use a phrase like “the arctic shit-knife,” you’ve got to understand that that shit can stab both ways.

UPDATE ROUND 4: Ken Lowery replies to my comments above

If Chris Butcher is right and these comments-on-comments-on-comments posts are a sign of what Johanna Draper Carlson calls “approaching heat death,” we’re gettin’ closer by the minute. Ken argues that I missed his point by likening his opinion to that hypothetical Sopranos/America’s Next Top Model TV critic, and he’s probably right–nowhere did he actually say anything about Eightball #23 itself. That said, Ken in turn missed my point, which is that he views Alan’s reverent enthusiasm for EB23 as unbecoming but himself displays just as reverent an enthusiasm for other books. The explanation, I suppose, is that Alan’s tone rubbed him the wrong way, but an “explanation” (as opposed to an “excuse”) is exactly what that is. (BTW, sorry, Ken, but ADDTF is a comment-free zone!)

Steve Pheley avers that his superhero-centric reading stemmed from an interest in responding to other critics, not from a misguided belief that that’s all there is to the book

Indeed it isn’t. So if there’s any reason at all to wish Alan’s Eightball Challenge success, it’s that we’ll have more direct readings of the book itself to respond to!


UPDATE ROUND 4a: Steven Berg of Peiratikos questions the use of the word “backlash,” further challenges Clowes’s use of homosexual subtext

Okay, I probably do misuse the word “backlash”–what I’m saying when I use that word is that people are responding negatively to a work whose initial reviewers viewed it extremely positively, but in so doing these second-wave responders are reacting as much to the first wave responses as they are to the work itself. That seems like a fair description of what’s going on, even if it doesn’t fit Mr. Webster’s criteria for “backlash.” (Steven’s not the first person to call me on misusing a word today–, here I come! Also, if you take my explanation for how I use the word into consideration, it becomes apparent why I didn’t classify Steven’s more-or-less negative review of the book (or Johnny Bacardi’s, for that matter) as part of the “backlash.” They were clearly responding to the text, not out of pique at other responses to the text.)

The main thrust of Steven’s post, though, (and thrust is definitely the right word for it, nyuk nyuk) is to call into question Clowes’s use of what Steven deems a cliche in American fiction: The unspoken homosexual tension between adolescent male protagonists, which, being unspoken, eventually transmogrifies into violence. Steven’s certainly right to say that we’ve seen this a million times before, but we’ve seen dudes in costumes running around doing stuff they probably shouldn’t a million times before, too. Ultimately, is it being done well the million-and-first time around? I’d say yes. Certainly, in pushing so much of import off-stage right along with the homosexual subtext–we’re talkin’ dialogue, crucial plot points, the whole nine–Clowes seems both aware of what is going unsaid and intelligent enough to play with its mechanics.


UPDATE ROUND 5: Ninth Art’s Frank Smith reviews EB23

And does so while touching on the McGrath piece to boot! See, I knew I wasn’t the only one! Smith doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the book, but praises its innovative narrative structure and holds it up as an example of an art from whose relative novelty can make it initially inaccessible but ultimately exciting (the Wild West medium of which I’m so fond of speaking).

Bill Sherman asks “Is anything we see in Eightball #23 even really happening?”

This is the first time I’ve seen such an interpretation of the book, and I must say it’s a potentially valid one. Certainly killers like Andy construct their memories of their own lives in such a way that the actual events become subordinated to how they want things to have happened. If you’ve been following closely along with this discussion, you may remember how I referenced real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas in my original review of the book. Lucas is a controversial figure in the annals of serial murder, because given his jailhouse confessions (oft retracted, but still), he is either America’s most prolific serial killer, or its biggest liar. Either way, it’s clear that Henry would have been perfectly happy to actually have killed everyone he and his partner Ottis Toole claimed to have murdered, that he would have liked to have been part of the Satanic child-sacrificing cult he described, and so on. This may well be what’s going on in Andy’s story. He may have killed his victims with far more quotidian means than a Death-Ray and super-strength–or, as Bill points out, he may not have killed anyone at all.


UPDATE ROUND 6: Rose Curtin of Peiratikos does not care for anything by Clowes at all

In what is assuredly the most negative review of the book to date–seeing as how she couldn’t even muster the energy to bother reviewing it–Rose takes blogmate Steven Berg’s critique one step further. Whereas Steve complained that Clowes wasn’t showing us anything we haven’t seen before, Rose feels that what we are being shown is inherently boring, even borderline insulting, both in Clowes’s work and every other time we see it. She cites Identity Crisis, the other controversial superhero book floating around these days, as another example of the literature of the “oppressed” white male and the violence done toward/on behalf of women in their name, and wants none of it either there or here.

Motime Like the Present guest-blogger Jamie Popowich offers a wide-ranging review that ultimately focuses on the way in which the story is “about” Iraq

Well, you knew it had to happen eventually. (I certainly predicted as much in my review way back when.) Yes, I’m sure a critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, and what that policy says about Us As Americans, is in there. I choose to ignore such elements, which are now present in nearly every work of popular art you’d care to name, because I find it personally offensive that deposing dictators garners all this opprobrium from the collective arts community while the actual dictators labor unmolested (except by far braver artists living directly under their yoke) for decade upon blood-soaked decade. (Prediction: By the time of the election you will have read on the order of three dozen graphic novels since 2002 the subtext of which is “Bush is evil” and precisely no graphic novels the subtext of which is “Khatami/Milosevic/Mugabe/Bin Laden/Saddam/Jong-Il is evil,” unless of course America is believed to have aided him in some way at some point, in which case he’ll be depicted as a symptom of the American disease.) The only exceptions I can think of in comics are Joe Sacco (who himself is not exactly an even-handed appraiser of the actions American government) and Grant Morrison (whose Planet X was an explicit rejoinder against the apologists of terror, though of course the word “politics” is probably a few planes of existence short of where Morrison’s mind is operating). Still, the rest of Jamie’s critique is valuable; he once again raises the point that Andy has no line of demarcation between his civilian and “superhero” identities. So go read it for that stuff at least, and if you happen to be into the idea that what we did in Iraq is akin to putting a stocking on your head and murdering people with a raygun for no reason, knock yourself the fuck out.


(UPDATE: Many links in this post courtesy of Christopher Butcher, Kevin Melrose, and Heidi MacDonald.)

Comix and match

July 14, 2004

I’ve been writing a lot of stuff, lately. If you think you’d like to read some of it, please be sure to scroll down and read all them posts down there. There’s links too.

Actually, quite a few of today’s links tie in to previous posts. For example, we can add NeilAlien’s scolding of Sequential Tart for its systematically bad netiquette to this post on holding great comics institutions to their own high standards.

We can also add Alan David Doane‘s gut-level reaction to Dan Clowes’s Eightball #23 to my own take on the book. And remember, I’ve also reviewed Invincible, Demo, and Black Hole at that self-same site.

Speaking of Eightball #23, Chris Butcher has announced his intention to blog every reaction to the book he comes across. He’s started with citing mine and Alan’s CBG reviews, his own sorta wond’ring aloud inquiry as to how the book will be received by superhero fans (to whom I say: Don’t worry, it’s not at all the condescending, lazy patronizing of the genre and its fans that you may be expecting), and a Comics Journal messboard thread on the book that demonstrates with admirable clarity why that board needs to be death-rayed out of existence.

Chris also makes the case for why not all comics publishers are created equal, and why the ailing Alternative Comics is more equal than others. I’ll drink to that. A reminder for those of us who are San Diego-bound next weekend: Alternative will have a booth there, and it’ll be a great chance to do some shopping. Plus, if you buy something you end up not liking, Milo George will buy it from you. Go Team Comix!

John Jakala is disappointed with Street Angel #3, which he says is not in line with the happy-go-socky tone of the series’ first two issues. Unsurprisingly, I’m both intrigued and impressed. Looking forward to reading it.

Marc-Oliver Frisch has the scoop on the intricacies of continuity–or the futility of communication, depending on your POV–over in Spider-Man’s section of the Marvel Universe. Hey, I care about these things.

Finally, I duke it out with Jamie Rich, Marc Singer, and NYT writer Charles McGrath over the nature of alternative/art comics here. If nothing else, it contains a list of comics I guarantee you you’ll enjoy…

Rich texts

July 14, 2004

Jamie Rich, formerly of Oni Press, goes ballistic against the New York Times Magazine article on comics and graphic novels that this blog (and many others) features so prominently. Jamie rightfully takes writer Charles McGrath to task for completely ignoring manga, the dominant form of comics in this country today (with the possible exception of strips). Equally egregious is the McGrath’s complete androcentricity, mentioning just four women cartoonists before launching into a whole explanation of how men who are lonely, chronic masturbators make the best comics, a lacuna that Rich points out before adding to the woefully brief list. (Both men ignore Phoebe Gloeckner, the greatest of them all, which, sadly, is no surprise at this point.) Rich is also right in attacking McGrath’s fundamental error: Describing comics as a possible replacement for prose literature due to the public’s rapidly shrinking attention span in one breath, then citing as prime examples of good comics a veritable who’s-who of the cartoonists whose work demands the absolute maximum attention one can give, from Chris Ware to Dan Clowes to Los Bros Hernandez to Chester Brown to Alan Moore, in the next. The absuridty of the first half of that equation is only surpassed by McGrath’s attempt to shore it up with the second half.

But where Jamie’s tirade falls flat is when it seeks to marginalize the work of those creators (well, not Alan Moore–the Fanta/D&Q set) as being as inconsequential to both contemporary comics and to the mainstream pop-culture experience as the hardest of the hardcore superhero fetishists. Frankly, I think this is so preposterous on its face it hardly needs refuting, but what the hell.

There are elements of this argument that bring to mind similar, sense-making stances espoused by others. The idea that the “new mainstream”–the kind of books published by Oni, AiT, and occasionally Dark Horse, Image, and Vertigo–is what may carry comics to a new level of popularity in North America is a common one, traceable at least back to Fantagraphics co-founder Kim Thompson’s essay “more crap is what we need.” You see echoes of this argument (sans the “crap” designation-slash-denigration) every time you see a blogger argue (accurately) that we’re dealing with a very weird industry if a straightforward espionage title like The Losers is considered outside the mainstream.

Another element of Jamie’s argument that rings true, though it’s not something he himself says explicitly, is that the artsy crowd’s antipathy toward superhero comics, and genre storytelling generally, is indeed as far removed from mainstream thought as are the superbooks they’re lambasting. I’ve often argued that normal, non-comics-reading people don’t really care whether or not a story is a superhero story (beyond the sense in which some people just might not dig ’em, the same way some people don’t like westerns or romantic comedies or horror or Merchant-Ivory pictures or whatever)–all that matters to them is whether it’s good. The idea that a main character who wears tights and shoots lasers out of his eyeballs makes a story superior is stupid, but so is the idea that it makes it inferior. Getting snobby about this is as lame as getting snobby about the fact that it’s obvious that the Hulk could defeat Superman, because the Hulk is the strongest one there is.

Finally, there’s an argument to be made that using R. Crumb’s relentless self-deprecation, stunted social skills, and disturbing preoccupation with onanistic sexuality as a model for the ideal comics creator is a self-defeating (or at the very least unpleasant) tack to take. I myself have heard from at least one noteable alternative-comics creator that the way the Shadow of Crumb falls on all his successors is oppressive and uninspiring. Personally, I’d prefer to have Crumb as a role model than to be in the fine arts or rock and roll and be forced to ape the misogynistic self-aggrandizing machismo of a Picasso or Jagger, but the idea that there’s essentially one way to make good comics is stultifying and wrong. It is also oversimplifying things to sum up art/altcomix as lonely white guys struggling to make human contact, as McGrath does; obviously this summary flows naturally from his equally limited view of the cartoonists themselves.

What I can’t accept, and where Jamie’s argument completely loses me, is here:

…this old guard of alternative comics, as good as most of them are, represent a world that is just as closed off from the bulk of the population as superhero comic books–and like the raging fanboys that this side of comics often decries (a bit like the closeted jock picking on the effeminate kid), they like it that way. They want to horde the crumbs of success and recognition because, like capes and tights, the chronic masturbator cartoonist is just as outmoded as the kid who wants to be Superman and beat up the bullies that pick on him.

There’s no doubt that many of the top art-comics creators prefer their own mode of expression to any others (cf. the Gilbert Hernandez/Craig Thompson discussion in the Ditko issue of the Comics Journal a few months back, in which Beto can hardly say a nice thing about anyone, even artcomix stalwarts like Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Jeffrey Brown, Dan Clowes, and (yes) Robert Crumb). But here’s the thing–so do I. I feel like my non-comics-snob bonafides are well enough established that I can say this: Pick a work at random from any of the authors profiled in the NYT piece, and then pick a work at random from any of the creators currently racking up headlines at the superhero sites. You don’t need to be a superhero-basher to realize that, with a handful of exceptions, the former will beat the living snot out of the latter nine times out of ten.

Why? Because rather than immersing themselves in a sea of continuity, convention, capes, and cliche–that is, rather than making comics about other comics about other comics, world without end, amen–they’re able to directly address what it is to be human. You don’t need to have read Ghost World to understand what happens in Ice Haven, you know? Meanwhile, as I’ve said before, try to get maximum enjoyment out of New Frontier without knowing who “Ollie” and “Dinah” and “Barry” are before you pick up the book. Listen: I love superhero comics, and even I can see that the vast majority of superhero comics are removed from “the bulk of the population” in ways that books like Jimmy Corrigan and Diary of a Teenage Girl and Palomar could never, ever be.

In Jamie’s experience, a creator like Matt Wagner may indeed have been more influential over comics in the past 25 years than was R. Crumb. But in your average movie exec’s experience, the late Don Simpson was likely a more influential figure over cinema in the past 25 years than was Scorsese. Who do you think matters more? (Okay, that was unfair, I admit it. Replace Simpson with, say, James Cameron or Sam Raimi, two fine, idiosyncratic, maverick, humanistic, influential filmmakers who are simply not on Scorsese’s level, no matter how much I happened to like Aliens and Evil Dead 2.)

I think Jamie gets tripped up because McGrath got tripped up–he tried to make an argument for why comics may become one of the popular arts again, but supported it with evidence for the medium’s greatness, not its popularity. Jamie responded with an argument for why the great books shouldn’t be popular, and in the process seemed to believe them to be less great. Neither argument works.

Postscript: Marc Singer has also aimed a poison pen at the NYT piece, not so much as for what it gets wrong (and he points out those things with the same accuracy as did Rich) but what it got right, in his own view at least: The notion that 99% of art/altcomix are autobiographical in nature. This isn’t the first time that I’ve wondered exactly how many alternative comics Marc has actually read–I recall a post in which he dismissively referred to Dan Clowes as, among other things, “a non-genre writer,” which I’m sure will surprise readers of Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, David Boring, and The Death-Ray. In a similar vein, I’d be curious to find out what’s so autobiographical about Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Jim Woodring’s The Frank Book, Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar, Jaime Hernandez’s Locas (yes, I know he was an L.A. punk too, but a young George Lucas occasionally drag-raced–does that make The Phantom Menace autobiographical?), Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell’s From Hell (perhaps Alan gets a pass for having written Swamp Thing?), Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Paradise, Dave Cooper’s Crumple, Dan Clowes’s Ice Haven, Paul Hornschemeier’s Forlorn Funnies #5, Ron Rege Jr.’s Skibber Bee Bye, Mat Brinkman’s Teratoid Heights, Marc Bell’s Shrimpy & Paul and Friends, Paul Pope’s 100%, Jason’s The Iron Wagon, Sammy Harkham’s “Poor Sailor,” Jordan Crane’s The Last Lonely Saturday, Nick Bertozzi’s The Masochists, Hans Rickheit’s Chloe, Renee French’s Marbles in My Underpants, Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, and on and on and on… But heck, if I’ve got to put up with facile generalizations in order to have access to semi-, pseudo-, seemingly-, and straight-autobiographical books like Maus, Quimby the Mouse, A Child’s Life, Ripple, Mother Come Home, I Never Liked You, Black Hole, Perfect Example, My New York Diary, Cages, Epileptic, Safe Area Gorazde and so forth, I guess that’s a trade-off I can handle making. What I couldn’t handle is actually believing that those books speak to no one’s experience but their respective creators’.

Cognitive dissonance

July 14, 2004

Am I the only one who thinks it odd that a man who thinks Louis Farrakhan must be shown proper respect is also the writer of a Captain America series? I’m just asking.

(I dunno, maybe I’m wrong. Like Cap and HYDRA, Farrakhan fights against a shadowy conspiracy, too.)

Everybody dance like there’s cash in your pants!

July 13, 2004

Just got this in my inbox, from Checker Publishing:


First Trade Collection of “Funniest Comic on the Internet” Slated for November

DAYTON, Ohio — Checker Book Publishing Group and cartoonist Chris Onstad have reached an agreement under which the publisher will collect Onstad’s Achewood comic strip in a series of three trade paperbacks beginning in November.

Checker’s first Achewood collection (ISBN 0-9753808-6-9, $19.95, 180 pp. tpb), is as yet untitled, but is slated for November publication, and will collect Achewood strips from its debut in October 2001 through June 2002.


How about that! Congratulations to Chris Onstad for proving that being funny as hell is a lucrative occupation.