Archive for June, 2005

so THAT’s what I’ve been trying to figure out

Tom Spurgeon interviews the editors of Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium

SPURGEON: I found Robert Warshow’s essay really fascinating for what it revealed about this profound ambivalence — or almost impulses competing to exhaustion — regarding the lurid underbelly of comics, particularly EC. Why is this kind of engagement with the act of reading comics, even secondhand, so rare among even those who are writing about them?

HEER: So much of popular culture is prefabricated — i.e., follows strict genre rules — that the response to it, whether positive or negative, tends to be also rote and predictable. Thus people look at a horror comic and think: this is so gory, I hate this. Or conversely, ah this is exactly the type of gory stuff I love. It takes a rare individual to actually look at a piece of popular art and analyze it, looking at what it can do or can’t do. Warshow had that ability — and so did a young film critic who learned a lot from Warshow: Pauline Kael. As Warshow once wrote, a man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man. That is to say, the critic must analyze not just the movie, but also his response: step outside of himself and see what his response says about the work of art. — sorry for the sexist language: Warshow was writing in the 1950s. Also, pop art is rarely just good or bad, it is always mixed, adulterated. So a critic needs to be able to respond to both what is good while acknowledging the bad.

Forgive me. I’ve been reading nothing but comics blogs for about 48 hours.

Some of the conversation that resulted:

(01:02:53) me:
(01:09:24) james nye: ‘ The only side a comic falls on that really matter is good comics vs. bad comics. It doesn’t matter who publishes them.’
(01:09:31) james nye: but of course that isn’t true
(01:11:23) james nye: in the same way that, say, bands on major labels can still write great songs, and indie-rockers with devout followings can still write terrible songs, but for those who support one ethos over another, who’s writing the songs is still tantamount
(01:12:59) me: there’s the temptation, for me at least, to try to vote with my dollar
(01:13:13) me: and pick up something because it represents a trend i want to encourage
(01:13:24) me: rather than because it’s outstandingly good
(01:14:07) james nye: right
(01:14:28) james nye: of course, once you remember that indie music (and indie comics) are in no real danger of ‘dying’ per se, you’re no longer obligated to do so
(01:14:46) james nye: and can instead choose quality, rather than feeling you have to support the movement as a bloc
(01:14:48) me: right
(01:15:21) me: and i can buy much more for the MLLL than i’d consider getting for myself
(01:15:35) james nye: haha
(01:15:38) james nye: yeah, that must come in handy
(01:16:25) me: i got both volumes of Flight because I thought it was diverse enough that lots of people could find something to enjoy, then form an individual interest in those particular creators and follow them online, etc.
(01:16:56) me: plus its possible historical importance (made a little too explicit by Scott McCloud’s introduction)
(01:17:09) me: but I don’t think I’d get either one on my own
(01:17:36) james nye: well, that’s your prerogative as comics ambassador to reed college
(01:18:40) me: :)

(01:19:26) me:
(01:20:11) james nye: heh

(01:20:46) me:
(01:21:00) me: holy shit
(01:21:34) me: CARTÜNNEL
(01:21:51) james nye: !
(01:23:13) james nye: it’s like 5-Card Nancy, except you walk through it

(01:36:06) me:
(01:36:20) me: I remember the episode of Batman Beyond he mentions
(01:36:55) me: I hadn’t really thought about the depth of transformation that occurs in Bruce Wayne – hopefully the film will inspire similar thoughts
(01:37:19) me: but that episode of the show suggests that he even calls himself “Batman” in his head, not “Bruce”
(01:38:03) me: he was renamed that night. every single part of his mind and soul became directed to the mission.
(01:38:37) me: his creation of “Bruce Wayne” is almost the most disturbing thing of all
(01:39:10) me: because behind every single dopey smirk and wink is an absolutely soulless, calculating warrior
(01:39:46) james nye: yeah–in the movie, there are a couple scenes where we clearly see him doing a tone-deaf parody of how a billionaire playboy is supposed to act
(01:39:58) me: i imagine that he doesn’t sleep. he perfected some kind of Eastern meditation that fulfils the biological necessity in like two hours per day
(01:40:24) me: he strives for absolute efficiency in all aspects of his life
(01:40:36) me: and he gets incredibly close
(01:40:42) me: but he’s not a robot.
(01:40:52) me: he slips occasionally
(01:41:15) me: after all, behind all of this is a scared and incredibly pissed-off little boy that wants his parents back
(01:41:45) me: and that is the great tragedy.
(01:42:38) me: see, Superman really is Clark Kent. He is an alien, but every aspect of his life comes from being raised on a farm in Kansas by Ma and Pa Kent.
(01:43:22) me: Superman is an alien who was raised a human. Batman was a human who has transformed himself into an alien.
(01:43:50) james nye: but they both create personae with the intention of fitting in
(01:44:10) james nye: bruce wayne is a parody of gotham’s elite that did nothing to stop the crime wave that killed his parents: rich, ineffectual, aloof
(01:44:24) james nye: clark kent is a parody of humanity at large, the humanity that s-man is charged with protecting
(01:44:34) me: no. Superman’s is entirely genuine. he hides only insofar as he has to keep people from realizing his secret
(01:45:21) me: he might occasionally flirt with thinking that he’s better than all of us, but that’s not the core of who he is.
(01:45:37) james nye: now, hang on
(01:46:20) james nye: my understanding is that he knows that he’s better than all of us–in terms of moral goodness as well as physical ability–and what’s interesting about his character is that that knowledge never grinds him down and he never gives up
(01:47:00) me: no. he’s relentlessly idealistic in the face of mountains of evidence that humanity is shit and maybe doesn’t even deserve saving.
(01:47:08) me: because that’s just how you do it in Kansas.
(01:49:16) me: which is why it was so powerful to read Kingdom Come where his world crumbles, he can’t deal with the cognitive dissonance, and he retreats from the world to his holodeck – not a holo-representation of Krypton, but a Kansas farm where he spends years in isolation
(01:49:41) me: because it takes a lot to disillusion Superman
(01:51:03) me: then Wonder Woman comes and makes him realize that he’s just childishly trying to block it out, and it doesn’t take her five minutes to persuade him to go out and make things right
(01:52:03) me: but that all comes from Ma & Pa. that’s the source of everything. That’s where he retreats when he has nothing left in the world, and that’s what makes him get off his ass and rejoin humanity.

on the comics signatorship

For those of you who don’t know (namely those of you who’ve never spent even ten minutes in conversation with me), I run the comic book reading room at my school. Recent conversation with one of our more dedicated readers () yielded some of my thoughts on the matter:

apologies to Eliah for cutting out a lot of his comments:
On a new resource for the room
(15:24:07) me:
(15:24:19) me: i think this will be a great asset
(15:24:36) eliah: it looks pretty cool
(15:24:36) me: it’s recieved great reviews across the board
(15:25:11) eliah: surprisingly inexpensive as well
(15:25:36) me: yeah
(15:25:48) me: check out the sample
(15:26:33) eliah: that looks awesome
(15:26:37) me: big entries for hulk, hellblazer and heavy metal
(15:26:57) me: a decent review of a 4-issue Peter David miniseries for Chaos! Comics
(15:27:58) me: a summary of the howard the duck debacle
(15:28:03) eliah: heh
(15:28:16) me: for something like hellblazer, i really need an article just like this
(15:28:24) me: who did what when, what was good, etc
(15:28:32) eliah: yeah, and i agree with it pretty well
(15:28:35) me: ’cause i’m not going to read 200 issues of hellblazer
(15:29:55) me: (Giant-Size Man-Thing is still the best title of a comic ever)

what my job (as i see it) entails
(15:31:53) me: grr. the database needs updating badly. maintaining that stuff was work enough; now that I have to make purchasing decisions as well it’s quite a task
(15:33:34) me: i almost want to divide the signatorship into a “creative director” and “operations director”
(15:33:44) me: but i still want to do both, and think I’m good at both
(15:33:56) me: and i’m not sure i could tolerate someone else doing it
(15:34:01) me: :/
(15:34:24) eliah: is there a lot of administrative-type work?
(15:35:03) me: i haven’t even had to deal with the paperwork-and-Senate stuff much yet
(15:35:12) me: thanks for reminding me. more headaches
(15:35:39) eliah: ha. sorry.
(15:35:52) me: i was thinking of the mailing lists and inventory management
(15:36:23) me: although the emails should be written by the person who’s making the purchasing decisions
(15:36:39) me: “here’s why i bought this comic”
(15:37:53) me: and controlling our purchasing is really a hefty task. not only am i trying to monitor upcoming releases (trying to predict what will be good out of hundreds of short ads three months in advance)
(15:38:09) me: and checking out online reviews to see recent stuff we missed
(15:39:54) me: but also trying to cover huge gaps in our coverage of essential reading – why buy another shitty Batman issue when we don’t even have anything by Seth?
(15:41:00) me: all the while trying to come up with a coherent coverage philosophy as an institution
(15:41:12) eliah: eh? coverage philosophy?
(15:41:45) me: what sorts of things should a comic reading room (for [Reed] college students) have?
(15:42:24) me: not to mention that getting people to realize, read, and appreciate what we already have could be a full-time job
(15:42:47) eliah: hey, just reading it can be a full time job.
(15:43:09) me: and if I buy things too quickly because I’m racing to cover shameful gaps in our coverage, it floods and nobody reads any of it
(15:43:37) me: I bought two hefty trades of Alan Moore’s Supreme run just at the end of the year
(15:44:08) me: in September they’ll have to go on the shelf (cause there’s a huge stack of new stuff from summer) and i’m afraid they’ll disappear there
(15:44:38) me: not to mention that I also like to read the damn things myself
(15:44:48) me: not only personally but in my role as signator
(15:45:16) me: maybe i can stay at Reed after I graduate and just… signate

crossover burnout
(15:53:02) eliah: hey, did you catch House of M?
(15:53:19) eliah: I’ve just read the first so far
(15:53:24) eliah: and I kind of like it
(15:53:33) eliah: but i’m worried it’ll just be another big stupid crossover
(15:53:37) me: i don’t know what to think
(15:54:21) eliah: ‘course, i also don’t know some of the back-story
(15:55:10) me: DC Prelude to Countdown to Infinite Crisis on Infinite Crossover really burned me out, i think
(15:55:17) eliah: heh
(15:55:23) me: and i’ve been unfairly dismissive of House of M as just the Marvel equivalent

DC Comics declines to innovate
(15:55:36) eliah: I’ve still not managed to get into any DC titles
(15:55:53) eliah: I grabbed Green Lantern, but it didn’t really get me
(15:56:58) me: i’m so skeptical of mainstream comics these days
(15:57:19) me: green lantern was a big hoopla because Hal Jordan’s back
(15:58:00) me: I was never terribly attached to him in the first place, but he was gone
(15:58:11) me: with a rather cool corruption story, even if he didn’t make much sense as a villain
(15:58:20) me: but then he was the Spectre, and that was cool
(15:58:45) me: but i feel like this is just DC declaring all the GL stories of the past ten years invalid
(15:59:02) me: not exactly “progressive”
(15:59:02) eliah: They seem to mess with their back story a lot
(15:59:46) me: messing with continuity is one thing. i’m more concerned with the fact that this represents a conscious rejection of the possibility that they might tell new stories
(15:59:59) me: “we’re going to go back to the way it was in the good old days.”

Archivism, and originality, in an ephemeral artform
(16:00:50) me: I dunno. it’s a tough thing to argue, because unoriginality is more excusable in comics than, say, novels
(16:01:07) eliah: Why?
(16:01:35) me: Mark Twain’s works are still around and easily accessible – much more so than most contemporary debut novels
(16:03:00) me: whereas comics start becoming harder to find, the moment they hit the shelves
(16:03:06) me: they’re printed once and gone
(16:03:17) eliah: true. there is that inherent ephemerality…
(16:03:25) eliah: excepting collected editions
(16:03:59) me: until we [i.e. the comics industry]have a robust archival program – and we’re much further on that than we used to be, but there’s a long way to go – new readers have no way to get to old classic stories
(16:04:02) me: not to mention:
(16:04:34) me: 1) lack of coverage – new readers can’t know about the old classics if no one tells them
(16:06:00) me: 2) the comics business has changed tremendously in the last 70 years. production values have grown so drastically that people used to contemporary comics may be unable to accept decades-old coloring
(16:06:56) me: and some writing doesn’t age well either

a depressingly-accurate analogy?
(16:08:08) me: can you imagine if every CD went out of print a month after its release?
(16:08:53) me: you’d be limited to “new releases” every week, plus whatever stuff the label decided to put together in a “compilation”
(16:09:03) eliah: yeah, that would suck

past vs. present
(16:09:19) eliah: and it is hard to look at 15-yr-old books after a bunch of modern stuff
(16:09:26) eliah: but that just makes the present more exciting…
(16:10:08) eliah: a rather unique medium
(16:11:01) me: but the important thing about the past is that we can evaluate it! we have a critical context for it; we can eliminate the crappy stuff and concentrate on the best!
(16:11:26) me: i have no idea whether House of M is going to be good
(16:12:21) me: I know that Joe Sacco’s Palestine is a landmark of investigative journalism in comics form, well-reviewed in all camps
(16:12:52) me: or that Carl Barks’ Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge influenced a generation of cartoonists
(16:12:59) me: you get the idea
(16:13:49) me: when I’m (painfully) aware of the great stuff of the past that we don’t have access to, it makes me reluctant to gamble on new stuff
(16:13:50) eliah: yeah
(16:14:03) me: so that’s a tough balancing act

cry for help/input?
(16:14:51) me: I’m gonna try to keep leaving Diamond Previews in the MLLL every month so other people can look through them

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).


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