Archive for the 'fandom' Category

Simon Reynolds on fandom

I think I’ve met them all now. For me, there are no more heroes left. And no new ones coming along, by the look of it. It could be that this is a time marked by a dearth of characters, or that the smart people in rock aren’t interested in self-projection but in obliterating noise. But really, I think, it’s the case that, in this job, you don’t have the time to develop obsessions, what with the insane turnover, and all the incentives to pluralism.

The heroes you have kind of linger on from a prior period when only a few records passed through your life, when you had time to get fixated, spend days living inside a record. It’s a real effort to click back to that frame of mind, which is bad because fanaticism is the true experience of pop – I think of the splendid devotion of all those bright girls who, as soon as they’ve got hold of the new Cure or New Order or Bunnymen record, immediately set to learning the lyrics by heart then spend days exhaustively interpreting the Tablets From On High, struggling to establish some fit between their experience and what is actually some drunken doggerel cobbled together in a studio off-moment.

Seriously, I approve. I approve the deadly seriousness, the piety, the need for something sacred in your life. However deluded.

It’s become a reflex for critics to castigate the readers for being partisan, for being sluggish and single-minded in their choices. We exhort you to disconnect, discard, and move on, acquire a certain agility as consumers. But maybe this ideal state of inconstancy we advocate only makes for fitter participants in capitalism. For the one thing that makes rock more than simply an industry, the one thing that transcends the commodity relation, is fidelity, the idea of a relationship. There are voices that you turn to as a friend, and you don’t just turn your back on your friends if they go off the rails. You hang around.

–Simon Reynolds, Melody Maker, March 12, 1988

First thoughts on Oscar Wao

Junot Díaz
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Riverhead, 2007

I really enjoyed Díaz’s voice here — even beyond the geek references, his writing has a clever & confident conversational elegance — and the content was often absorbing, but I was disappointed to find that the parts didn’t add up to a whole.

Díaz introduces us to Oscar, then looks elsewhere, only to return occasionally — so that this Life of Oscar is missing its main character for at least half the book. Díaz also declines to allow Oscar to grow. Is he crippling his novel’s potential power, or boldly avoiding cliche? I can imagine some defenses here — to read it as a tragedy (it’s the pathos, stupid, not the character development), and place it in a context of stories like Jaime Hernandez’s Death of Speedy Ortiz (in which the titular climax is never shown, only hinted at, and the title character’s importance is shown only through his effect on friends and family). But I’m still left feeling unsatisfied.

The much-discussed geek references are thrilling to geek readers who have never encountered them in a Pulitzer-winning novel before, sort of like hearing characters swear on early South Park. On a few occasions they really add another dimension of meaning to a real-life scene, or conversely demonstrate the depth of feeling previously unnoticed in lines from a campy old Stan Lee script. I wish this happened more often; usually they’re more superficial. Obviously Oscar gets a lot out of his fandom, but I don’t think Díaz ever really explores what he’s getting or how that works.

The most successful characters are the women. It’s especially rewarding to move around in time and have the past deepen our understanding of the future. As we learn about the tortures that shaped each stubborn young woman into a haunted matriarch, we begin to love and forgive them.

A couple formal things threw me — is Yunior narrating the whole book? Why is one (and only one) chapter narrated in Lola’s voice (after a brief second-person introduction in italics)? How is the story enhanced by the revelation that we’re hearing all this from a guy who sort of knew some of the characters in college? If hearing Yunior say “I guess I could have handled that better, but in the end I didn’t, oh well” makes the book more realistic, but less satisfying, are we better off?

Díaz is a joy to read; I’d love to see him do non-fiction, especially arts criticism. He knows a lot about people, and books, and what they can do to each other. I really wish this one had come together for me.

on Scans_Daily

Catch-up time: Scans_Daily was, until today, a Livejournal community where fans posted and discussed scanned excerpts of comic books. I’m pretty sure it began (in 2003, according to Google’s cache of the userinfo) as a spinoff from some other community along the lines of Depp_Daily where fans posted and discussed photos of male hotties. In the time I followed it, S_D’s volume grew to the point of dozens of posts per day, and I had to “de-friend” it to keep all my other friends’ posts from getting choked out.

Today Livejournal suspended the community. It’s unlikely to return in that form. Brian Cronin has a piece up on CSBG@CBR, suggesting that writer Peter David may or may not have had something to do with it. Peter David posts an account of his involvement. Johanna D-C’s round-up includes a link to writer Gail Simone’s thoughtful response. [Edited to add: Brigid Alverson has another interesting response].

A lot of fans are responding to the news with accounts of how S_D persuaded them to buy comics they otherwise wouldn’t have. That’s the case for me — I followed the community from something like 2004-2007, and I certainly wouldn’t have shelled out $50 recently for the American Flagg! hardcover if not for a Scans_Daily post by Warren Ellis pointing out various formal innovations Chaykin used on a single page of the first issue (the “1996!!!!!!!!!!!!!” page). During that time I was also director of the Reed College Comic Book Reading Room, and a fair amount of our $4000 annual budget was influenced by the online chatter on S_D and the blogosphere.

When I started working for Top Shelf, I posted an excerpt of Alex Robinson’s Lower Regions (a Top Shelf book) to the community. Since it didn’t feature Green Lantern and Aquaman humping each other, it wasn’t a wildly popular post, but it caught some attention from RPG gamers and Alex Robinson fans, and Alex himself showed up the comment thread to interact with them a little bit.

A friend (in a private post) grumbled today about the dismissive attitude of certain commenters (“oh well, it was full of bitching and slash anyway”), declaring that reaction to be part of a broader discomfort that many male fans have with the feminine form of fandom. In response, she more or less said “a man in S_D feels like a woman in a comic shop.”

[Edited to add: I should clarify that the comments below use S_D as a jumping-off point for a broader discussion — I admit I haven’t visited the community in at least a year, and I can’t defend or attack whatever it may have become recently, or the reasons for its removal.]

I remember being pretty shocked at the culture of S_D when I first discovered it years ago. It was a thriving community of fans interacting with superhero comics in an entirely different manner than I was used to. But it didn’t feel like “this is how they do it on the internet,” it felt like “this is how they do it when women are in charge.” I soon decided that superhero-comics-fandom (as represented by S_D) was a subset of fandom as a broader entity — that these folks were performing more or less the exact same practices (fanfiction, slash, icon design, roleplay, claiming) on Green Lantern that were being performed on Harry Potter and Stargate Atlantis and every other entertainment property in the world, to some degree.

And it felt weird. I recognized these characters and these images, but they were looking at them in ways that I had never imagined. It felt, now that I think about it, a lot like visiting a Sunday service at the black church across town (part of the annual swap that our churches held on MLK weekend, our token response to MLK’s observation that “at 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and ‘Christ has no east or west,’ we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation”). We were reading the same book, but in a vastly different manner.

It’s remarkable to me how segregated superhero fandom is. There’s “masculine” fandom (largely on message boards?) and “feminine” fandom (largely on Livejournal), and seldom do the twain meet.

I’m not very interested in superheroes these days one way or the other, but I appreciate what fans see in them — both kinds of fans. It seems to me that other sorts of fandom have been able to integrate themselves more successfully — despite the fact that anime and manga are explicitly categorized as “for girls” and “for boys,” they seem to coexist peacefully at conventions and online, and there seems to be a great deal of overlap. Contrast that with your standard comic shop or convention.

I think there are valuable tools and insights to be had from both of these approaches to the material, and I do wish for a little more intercommunication.

Edited again to add: Lisa “Ragnell” Fortuner has some passionate but helpful thoughts up on Robot 6, summarized in a comment to her own post: “This is a matter of legal murkiness, not gender hostility. One you react to by decreasing your profile or just ceasing your activities, while the other you react to by increasing your profile and stubbornly continuing your activities. Surely, you can see the difference here and the disastrous potential.”

Left to my own devices, I ramble

Greg Burgas has an interesting take on Darwyn Cooke‘s new series Will Eisner’s The Spirit. The comment section includes this idea from David Wynne:

“If DC really wanted to honor Will Eisner, they’d start some sort of graphic novel imprint in his name and use it to showcase books like Fun Home. The new Spirit book strikes me as a blatant example of milking Eisner’s most famous property for a few more bucks … especially since as far as I know, the last thing Eisner himself was interested in doing was reviving the Spirit.”

I think David is right on the money here, actually. Warren Ellis, Paul O’Brien and others have been pointing out for years that because Marvel and DC cannot own creators — they can only own characters — they approach everything from the perspective of character.

From the CEO’s chair, the big money comes from movies and toys and underpants featuring the characters, and publishing comics allows them to keep those characters alive. Here’s Marvel in 2000: “The Company’s strategy is to increase the media exposure of the Marvel characters through its media and promotional licensing activities, which it believes will create revenue opportunities for the Company through sales of toys and other licensed merchandise. In particular, the Company plans to focus its future toy business on marketing and distributing toys based on the Marvel characters, which provide the Company with higher margins because no license fees are required to be paid to third parties and, because of media exposure, require less promotion and advertising support than the Company’s other toy categories. The Company intends to use comic book publishing to support consumer awareness of the Marvel characters and to develop new characters and storylines.

A rung down on the corporate ladder, the perspective is different, but conveniently works toward the same end. At the editorial level, it’s an affection for the characters that drives every decision. Decades ago, Marvel and DC encouraged a fanbase to think about comic books in a character-based model, and the fans swallowed it. And then those fans grew up to be editors. So now the comic book company (a small subsidiary of a larger entertainment/media corporation, remember) is run by people like Quesada and DiDio who honestly believe they are undertaking a sacred trust — to do their duty to Spider-Man and Green Lantern. They owe it to these characters to ensure that they are featured in cool and popular stories.

And the vast majority of the remaining readers feel the same way (because everyone who does not feel this way has been DRIVEN OUT). The “shared universe” concept — the promise that all of these characters live in the same world and interact with each other — is a brilliant strategy for encouraging character-based (and company-based) thinking. According to this concept, every comic book is an artifact from another world, depicting events that actually happened in that world. Everything that has ever been depicted in a Spider-Man comic book has actually happened to Spider-Man.

Consequences:

  • The remaining fanbase is extremely emotionally invested in the characters. If you put out a Batman comic book I don’t like, you are insulting my friend Batman. If you write a comic book in which Sue Dibny is raped, then you have caused my friend Sue Dibny (or worse, my reader-avatar Sue Dibny) to be raped, and I am understandably hurt and furious.
  • Creators’ rights are never a priority. Who the hell cares how you treat Bill Finger? What’s important is how you treat Batman. Who created this story? Who cares? It’s a “Marvel legend.”
  • Non-fans are never welcome. Sorry, kid, Green Lantern and I have been friends for twenty years, and you can’t just expect to barge in here and become a part of the relationship that we share.
  • The stories must be “realistic.” I must take pains to carefully sort each story as “canonical” or “noncanonical” — and which “universe” it belongs to — and maintain an exact chronology of how all the stories interlock with each other.
  • Thanks to inept emulation of Watchmen and Dark Knight, “realistic” now also means “cynical,” or possibly “miserable.” Getting a reputation as a “fun” comic book will hurt your sales. No. Seriously.
  • Story ideas that contradict the established facts or tone of the Universe are rejected as impossible.
  • Story ideas that do not take place within the Universe are rejected as irrelevant.
  • The incredible schizophrenia which characterizes the modern superhero concept. 50 million people saw the first Spider-Man movie in US theaters, and millions more beyond that — the concept is obviously tremendously popular. Millions of kids have the toothbrushes and the T-shirts and watch the TV shows. But the Spider-Man comics, none of which sell more than 50,000 issues, are full of juvenile attempts at “sophistication” and radical changes which are inevitably reset to the status quo within 6 months. Devin Grayson complains that she can’t do anything interesting with Batman because at the end of the day Batman has to appear on Underoos, but nobody under the age of 16 is reading the fucking comics.

Oddly enough, the experience is remarkably similar when you try to read the Bible with the assumption that its separate parts cohere into a perfectly unified and consistent truth.

Anyway, I need to contextualize all this:

  • DC is more than just the backwards-looking nostalgia-rape cesspool called the “DC Universe.” Thankfully, it has other branches: the theoretically-interesting but currently-lost “alt-superhero” line Wildstorm, the excellent and undercapitalized “nonsuperhero comics for grownups” line Vertigo, the very promising but not-linked-from-the-main-site teen-chick-lit line Minx, the screwed-up-once-but-came-back-better manga line CMX, and the I’m-told-they-exist-but-I’ve-never-seen-them DC Kids or possibly Johnny DC, it’s unclear. Marvel, meanwhile, maintains a kids’ line, Marvel Adventures, and the bizarre little imprint Icon, which you can only get into if Joe Quesada wants to make you happy — i.e. you are a topselling creator on Marvel’s superhero books or you have known Joe since old times.
  • Superheroes, while an appealing concept, are so poorly executed these days that I generally avoid focusing attention on them. The best superhero comic coming out today is Robert Kirkman’s Invincible.
  • The comic industry is much, much bigger than just these two irritating companies, and they’re probably going to be increasingly marginalized as the industry continues to evolve. I guess I’m just trying to more fully lay out what’s so irritating about them, and why they are this way.
  • There are bigger concerns facing the industry, largely concerning distribution. The mechanisms aren’t in place to get comics in front of people in a location and format that suits them. The infrastructure isn’t in place to support creators while they create. There aren’t enough comic stores in place that don’t suck, and there are hardly any stores with enough cash to buck trends. There aren’t enouch publishers who understand how to deal with bookstores. And so on, ad infinitum.
  • As always, Warren and Dirk have already said it.

Also, here are some Grant Morrison quotes, because it pleases me to quote them. I don’t actually like many of his comics, but he sure as hell knows how to work a sound byte:

“My ideal comic is the one which perfectly expresses its moment and makes you want to dance like your favourite records do. The ideal comic is a holographic condensation out of pure zeitgeist. Pop is my god and goddess, Warren, and I believe comics should strive to be popper yet than Pop itself. I particularly despise the cynically perfect, utterly barren, ultimately charmless retro-pastiche of OTHER PEOPLE’S IDEAS which has come to characterize so much of the output of tired creators who should have had the dignity to move on when they ran out of words of their own.”

“I’m doing MARVEL BOY and whatever else in a Utopian 21st century spirit – I’ll aim the comics at a wide, media-literate mainstream audience and slowly but surely help generate that audience, just like you. I’ll continue to act as if being a comic book writer is the same as being a pop star. I’ll continue to learn from stuff I think breaks new ground. If at the moment I think comics aren’t being sexy enough or FuturePop enough or incendiary enough, I’ll attempt to fill the gap with the sort of thing I want to read. Whatever happens, I know I’ll sell more comics than the crawling half-men who believe we’re all doomed in a ‘shrinking market’. Look out of the window at the planet you live on, morons! There are billions of those bipeds and they keep making more of them! How much bigger does the market have to get before we’re eating Soylent fucking Green? Get out and sell comics to these people!”

thinking caps on! comics and oikoumenikos

In response to this post by Christopher Butcher, excerpted below:

I totally love comics, and the schizophrenic state of my bookshelves will explain that it is not a certain genre, style, or delivery format that I love, but comics as a medium.

This all-encompassing love of comics is not universally shared; I’ve known this for a very long time. I try not to let the clique-ism and self-consciousness bother me when it comes to people dismissing work out of hand, but honestly? I think about the same of someone who writes off manga as a whole as someone who writes off comics as a whole: not much. And it’s not just manga, but any genre/format/style/country’s work. It seems so completely limited in scope, and more often than not those words seem spoken from a position of ignorance rather than any considered or researched position.

My initial reaction is, I’m with Chris. I’m up for anything, in any style, on any topic, by anyone. Those of you who’ve tracked our institutional purchasing patterns over the last two years can testify to that. (Interestingly, I imagine a lot of that comes from my self-image as purchaser for a diverse group of readers and the possibility that I’ve subsumed my own interests as a reader to the simple question “will someone like it?” But that’s a different topic.)

I often wonder at the disparity between the kind of comics reader I am (a fan of comics as a medium, interested in its possibilities of form and content, in every genre and style) and the kind of attitude I try to cultivate in others. I don’t expect anyone else to be as all-inclusive as I am, and I don’t mind when someone lacks interest in any particular title — I just hope everyone finds things that they like. I try to cultivate the attitude that comics is a medium of art and entertainment, on par with any other medium, and that casual fans are normal and welcome.

The idea of all-or-nothing comics fandom, the idea that there are two kinds of people in the world: comic fans and everyone else, is false and counterproductive (and I’m not accusing Chris of it, I’m just saying it’s common). For one thing, it’s intimidating for newcomers to imagine that they need to read everything in order to appreciate anything. For another, someone who reads one comic and dislikes it is consequently discouraged from trying another one. I’d much prefer that people feel that it’s acceptable to only pick up what appeals to them and bugger the rest. Video stores stock both Requiem for a Dream and You’ve Got Mail; you wouldn’t insist that fans of one should try the other, although there are certainly people who would enjoy both.

Most of the most interesting people writing about comics — Chris and Tom and Dirk and everyone else — are like me; we love everything. But sometimes I feel like that very universalism — this (dare I say it) “team comics” mentality — is contrary to some of our goals about mainstream penetration, at the same time that it’s essential to it.

Chris is right, of course, in pointing out that people’s preconceptions about what they like are often built on shaky ground, and that a trained critic can suggest connections that cut across conventional boundaries and help people fall in love with books they would never have thought to read. Like, say, pointing out that Achewood fans would enjoy the hell out of Cromartie High School, or that Sleeper might cross-pollinate with Death Note, or that We3 is interesting for many of the same reasons as the work of Chris Ware and David Mack.

on immersive reading

I’ve had some thoughts brewing for a while about the artist-audience dance, and the ways that different art media encourage participation.

It would seem that roleplaying (or any kind of creative writing, of which roleplaying is a subset) is the extreme end of this spectrum – you’re creating everything yourselves, with the audience essentially taking on so much creative agency that they swallow the artist and assume his role as well.

But every form of art invites some amount of responsive creation on the part of the audience. I’m interested in investigating how this response is encouraged or discouraged by specific aspects of the original creation:

  • works that imply a whole unexplored universe (like Harry Potter and Star Wars, or really all kinds of sf/speculative fiction) obviously invite it.
  • Serial works also seem to be more inclined to support this: when you only get a weekly or monthly (or less) dosage, you’re inclined to fill in some of the gaps yourself.
  • As I was saying to somebody, serialized works literally take longer to consume – maybe not a longer total length of time, but they’re spread over months or years, and therefore an investment in that work is an investment of a sizeable portion of your life.
  • They also invite a community to form, one which follows the work as it comes out, discusses what’s come before, and anticipates what’s to come in the future.
  • Is that anticipation essential? Are non-serial, one-shot works automatically less likely to inspire audience interaction, because the story’s over and done with the moment it comes out?
  • What else? What makes some works more successful than others in eliciting audience involvement? And how can this knowledge be used to make more immersive art in the future?
  • Am I right in suspecting that thanks to JK Rowling and the internet, a generation of readers is arising that is accustomed to reading art in a more immersive way than in days gone by? I can only offer anecdotal evidence from things like Scans_Daily where I can watch individual fangirls getting into superhero comics for the first time, and automatically start looking for pairings and making icons and applying this whole “fangirl reading vocabulary” or “toolkit” to a new target. I know that fanfiction is nothing new, even in superhero comics, but I still get the sense that this interactive reading method is booming across the board. Look at “claiming” lj communities, where you can literally declare ownership of a celebrity or album or fictional character. That’s as strong an image as I can think of, of this new audience-empowered reading technique.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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