Comics Time: “Flash Roughs/In a Hole: Jul-Aug 2010”

“Flash Roughs/In a Hole: Jul-Aug 2010”
Matt Seneca, writer/artist
self-published on the web, February 2011
52 pages
Read it at Death to the Universe

Talkin’ ’bout his g-g-g-g-generation. When he’s not making comics, Matt Seneca is best known as a promising new critic of the things, one of the very few who have emerged on the internet over the past few years who engage with alternative and art comics with any regularity. He does this in post-post-post fashion. For starters, he’s part of the first wave of post-Comics Comics critics. Dan Nadel, Tim Hodler, and Frank Santoro could take the work done by Gary Groth and The Comics Journal in carving out a critical space for comics of genuine literary ambition and execution as read, enabling them to eschew the Journal‘s then-necessary ruthless aesthetic elitism and reclaim genre comics as a valid and fecund field for criticism. (At its best, the young comics blogosphere — and its print funnel, Dirk Deppey’s Comics Journal — did some of this work too, especially the inestimable Joe McCulloch, but I think the Nadel braintrust, through its multiple venues (CC, PictureBox, The Ganzfeld, Art Out of Time), really put it over the top.) In turn, Seneca exists in a world where the Journal‘s distinctions are a pretty distant memory, a world where in the wake of the CC crew’s rehabilitation project, genre work of whatever sort can be unhesitatingly and unashamedly examined with all the close-reading intensity and epiphanic emotion anyone ever brought to “The Death of Speedy Ortiz.” Seneca is also probably several years deep into the post-Internet cohort, a group that never saw print as the primary outlet for criticism or goal of its writers, a group that didn’t exist even five years ago. As such, personal critical interests, obsessions, and conundrums can be pursued with a length and an idiosyncratic focus unthinkable to any primarily-print writer (Kent Worcester excepted). Finally, he’s post-Tucker Stone/Mindless Ones/Noah Berlatsky, the performance-art superstars of Internet comics criticism. Though each of these writers (or group of writers in the Mindless Ones’ case) is very different, each embraces a style of writing and an approach to criticism that (for better or worse — which one really isn’t important here, however) makes them the star of the criticism as much as the work in question; I know this is old news in, say, rock crit, but in my experience growing up, comics critics, even the most outspoken ones, basically wanted to get out of the way of what they had to say about the comics they were talking about. The Mindless Ones’ Morrison-under-a-microscope rhapsodies, Stone’s insult-comic/battle-rap smackdowns, and Berlatsky’s indefatigable, Google Alert-enabled contrarianism all require readers to engage not just their analysis of and opinions on the work, but the way that analysis and those opinions are performed.

Not that anyone ever asked, but I’ve got some problems with all of this. I find that the focus on artsy genre stuff, or genre stuff that can be reinterpreted as artsy (Carmine Infantino?), can get monotonous (must every comic deliver thrills and sexy cool explosions?) and myopic (won’t somebody think of John Porcellino?) and lead to the lionization of some pretty middling work (like Brendan McCarthy’s dopey, weirdly racist Spider-Man: Fever). And I think the tendency to wax loquacious, coupled with the use of a given comic to put on a little show about lots of other things besides, can lead to some errors in interpretation and judgment because the error feels more right than what might result from a more rigorous interrogation of the work. Not every comic, and certainly not every cartoonist’s entire career, can be sussed out from a single panel in “as below, so above” fashion, and all the passion in the world can’t make The ACME Novelty Library #20 a work of life-affirming optimism or people’s discomfort with Ebony White in The Spirit comparable to idiots’ discomfort with the use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn.

So there’s that. Or maybe I just like shorter, more direct criticism. Maybe I just like reading about contemporary works that don’t feature extraordinary individuals solving problems through violence. Or maybe I would like to have been half the writer Seneca is at his age (my shit was pretty embarrassing) and had (or have! who knows?) half the audience he does, or would like to be able to convincingly make comics myself instead of just writing them and/or writing about them.

Point is, I brought a lot of baggage to “Flash Roughs/In a Hole: Jul-Aug 2010,” Seneca’s breakout work as a comics creator. In comics form, it synthesizes many of the features and factors Seneca brings to the table as a critic into art of its own. In fact, the comic itself is both comic and comics criticism: Interwoven with intensely confessional writing about Seneca’s break-up with his fiancée is astute, self-reflexive, process-based discussion of Seneca’s attempt to create a (bootleg, highly personal) comic starring the Flash, as well as passages about the sensual qualities of the work of Carmine Infantino and Guido Crepax delivered in more-or-less straight (albeit handwritten) prose. It feels like the logical place for Seneca’s criticism to go. Both style and emotional impact are such a big part of his critical writing; what better way to enhance both than making that critical writing into actual art that pleases the eye with its bright reds and yellows and bold hand lettering, that aims straight for the heart and gut with ripped-from-real-life doomed romance? Seneca knows his limits as a draftsman — that’s part of what the comic is about, his earlier self coming to terms with how his Flash comic was likely to look when he “finished” it and realizing that the “rough,” pencil-only version might make for more powerful comics — and compensates for it with eye-grabbing color and a welcome willingness to let words work as pictures. Much of this is done literally atop notes in Seneca’s sketch/notebooks — notes for the Flash comic, notes from the art class he was taking at a time; these bleed through and are pasted over in Brian Chippendale Ninja style. You’ll never feel bored reading this comic, never feel like your eyes or mind are being underfed, and this is one of the great strengths that artcomics, which need not meet any of the obligations of the representational, can bring to the table. Seneca, a voracious reader of comics, knows what he can do with the things.

And the same self-awareness he brings to craft concerns forms the lynchpin of the narrative: Knowing full well that we probably got there pages and pages ago, Seneca self-effacingly walks us through the achingly long time it took him to realize that the super-sexy, super-smart new character he’d introduced for his Flash comic wasn’t just a tribute to Crepax’s Valentina, but quite obviously and painfully to his increasingly estranged girlfriend as well. Once they break up, the comic is lost to him forever. Anyone who’s tried their hand at making art will recognize that feeling, that you’re often the last person to figure out what the art you’re making is about.

Even still, I’ve got my reservations about the comic — not so much what it’s about, but how it goes about it. Any work this profoundly personal and traumatic for the author makes those who find themselves unable to get fully on board feel like churlish heels, but c’est la vie: I think I’m past the point where I can appreciate doomed glamour. I don’t see anything glamourous about doom anymore. So when Seneca scrawls “WHEN LOVE LEFT MY LIFE” in giant block letters that take up nearly an entire page, or writes “SHE LEFT.” in white against a black block background, or fairly casually drops in some drug references, or ends on a lightly scrawled note of uplift centered against a blank spread, these things feel calculated for maximum Tumblarity to me, like a fashion photo of a pretty girl in a Joy Division t-shirt. (I am not immune to such things’ charms, to be sure! But that’s on me.) And the writing gets mighty purple in the big climactic (heh) pre-breakup “tonight’s the night, it’s gonna be alright” sex scene. Again, I’m not about to deny that this is how this felt to him in that moment, but sometimes in art as well as in criticism, you need to remove yourself from the equation. Of course, you could just as easily say that maybe I need to take my own advice.

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