Archive for the 'criticism' 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

Where are the sister series to 33 1/3?

or, “Let’s Build a Canon”

I’m a big fan of the 33 1/3 series of music-crit books published by Continuum Books. I appreciate the diversity of authors and approaches they’ve published, from book-length interviews to song-by-song analyses to New Journalistic anecdotes to short fiction to essays in aesthetics, written by everyone from Douglas Wolk to John Darnielle to Colin Meloy to Chris Weingarten to Dan Kois.

33 spines

Boing Boing commenter “Jack” has a great point:

…the concept has potential since in the MP3 world we live in it’s hard to have a physical connection with an album.

We really are physically disconnected from our media — not just music, but TV, video games, news, blogs, webcomics. If you’re like me, most of the stuff you consume is in digital form, and even that which isn’t ephemeral (a dwindling amount, as our media shift from our hard drives to the cloud) is still untouchable.

This is the appeal of the webcomic T-shirt — it’s a way to substantiate an insubstantial thing that we love. You can’t cuddle with your favorite characters, but you can have the next best thing. I’ve never actually owned a physical copy of Low, but I own Hugo Wilcken’s 33 1/3 book on Low, and that makes me feel — however irrationally — like I own it more than I would otherwise. I’ve demonstrated a commitment to it.

(I think of this as part of a larger pattern of active consumption, i.e. the set of actions that readers take in response to a work, as a way of “claiming” it. Fanfiction, mounted art & posters, cosplay, cover songs, claiming communities, shoutboxes, etc)

At any rate. Offworld linked to these sweet mock book covers by Olly Moss. They’re inspired by the staggeringly design-y design history of Penguin Books. I wish they were real.

GoldenEye by Olly Moss

GoldenEye by Olly Moss

And it got me thinking: why aren’t there little books, critical retrospectives, for video games? The potential audience is in the millions, and they’re eager for a tangible connection to the ephemeral electronic entertainments of their youth. You don’t need permission from the copyright holders.

The critical turf is a little different — as I understand it, video game history seems to be about a few gigantically popular games that become cultural touchstones for a generation, and then a second tier of considerably less popular games, and then the recognition level drops even more steeply. That’s probably changed somewhat as the industry has matured and widened, but this enterprise inherently needs a little distance — at least ten years since release. So you’re either facing the challenge of writing the definitive book on Mario 3, or you’re writing about Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and trying to sell enough copies to break even.

There’s an additional challenge, of course, because old games are generally “out of print” in a way that albums aren’t. Thank God that emulation is starting to make some older titles legally available via programs like Nintendo’s Virtual Console, but it’s not the same, is it? And for computer games… God help you if you want to play Warcraft II on a modern machine.

Legend of Zelda by Olly Moss

Legend of Zelda by Olly Moss

Still. I want a half-dozen 100-page books on my favorite half-dozen games. Call it D-Pad Books. Come on, world. Make it happen.

For that matter, where are the books on great movies? I know there are hundreds of books on Citizen Kane, but where is the 33 1/3 series for films? Hmm… a quick search reveals that Macmillan is doing it, with the BFI Film Classics series. And, uh, they have been for years, without me noticing. Whoops. Anybody have any experience with those?

(By the way, Olly’s also done some sweet vintage movie posters of modern movies.)

Oh, it’s Dave Sim time again

Heidi’s post yesterday has kicked off another debate about Dave Sim, particularly relating to his new book Judenhass. For the record, I pretty much agree with her.

Skimming through the (108 at this writing) comments, Charles Hatfield weighs in:

Me, I’m not inclined to see this as a question of “separating the art from the artist.” Making that separation would impoverish my understanding of the art.

The Lovecraft example in the thread is apropos: racism not only informed Lovecraft’s life, it also informed and shaped his art. (For evidence of this, see, e.g., “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” a.k.a. “The White Ape.”) I read Lovecraft, when I read him at all, knowing full well that he was an ardent racist and in no way anxious to defend him from that charge. The dread of otherness that informs Lovecraft’s fiction is a symptom of his racism, though it also makes for interesting, intense, nightmarish fiction that can be read from a variety of other perspectives. I’d say this applies to Sim’s stuff, certainly during the second half of CEREBUS (though I confess to having read only a part of it). For this reason I don’t think Sim’s “philosophizing” is separable from his art. I’d say we’ve got to take it all, the whole package, and read the art against the artist, and vice versa.

That’s very well said. Lovecraft’s cosmic terror and racial anxiety are definitely related (although I wouldn’t call one symptomatic of the other, but rather categorize them both as manifestations of a general fear-of-Other). And Sim’s artistic output should only be seen as a product of the person he was at the time he created it.

Lovecraft, who once owned a cat named Nigger-Man
Lovecraft, who once owned a cat named Nigger-Man and wrote it into “The Rats in the Walls”

Elektra, in another comment, offers a fairly common rationale for distinguishing between historical bigotry and contemporary bigotry:

I’m not a Lovecraft fan either, but I can excuse the bigotry of a man born in the 19th century in a way I can’t excuse it in a man living in the 21st century.

But here’s the really interesting and ironic part: Judenhass appears to be Dave’s plea that we accept responsibility for the Holocaust in some way — that we stop being bewildered by the question “how could it have happened?” and acknowledge the latent judenhass that lies within each of us. It invites us, I assume, to consider the Holocaust as a manifestation of fears and desires that are inherent to ourselves.


As Heidi points out, there’s an irony here. It’s not only that Dave is eager to analyze the xenophobia* that led to the Holocaust while oblivious to the xenophobia that underlies his own attitude toward women. It’s also that we in the comics community seem to be throwing up our hands and saying “how could Dave have happened?” in the same way that Dave’s new book demands that we not do toward the Holocaust. Rather, he demands that we look within ourselves and see that repulsive act as merely an amplified incarnation of anxieties that are fundamental to our society’s (or species’) collective mind.

It’s an open question whether Dave’s demand is fair or not. But if we accept the premise that “the Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum but is part of a long tradition of anti-Jewish sentiment,” we ought to be consistent and ask whether “the nasty bits of Dave Sim’s frauenhass did not arise in a vacuum but are part of a long tradition of anti-female sentiment.”

Is Lovecraft excusable because he wrote from a culture of bigotry? Is Sim culpable because he doesn’t? (Doesn’t he?) I don’t think these are sensible questions, because we shouldn’t be in the business of “blaming” or “excusing” artists. The question is whether the artist has anything to teach us. To my mind, the answer is clearly “yes” for both. But what they intended to teach us is almost always a very small fraction of it.

*”Xenophobia” here used in its broader sense, “fear of those who are different”

History in the making; or, silly comics journalism

Steve Murray reviews an Avengers comic book for Comics Nexus.

Whether you realize it or not, it’s rare that someone can actually stand in the middle of an event that is going to be truly world-changing, and think to themselves: “Wow, that is going to change the entire world.” Oh sure, everyone loves to throw around the “9/11 changed everything” rhetoric — but honestly, has your day-to-day life changed in any significant manner since then (besides the fact that you can’t bring a bottle of breast milk onto a cross-country flight now)? But conversely, how many people do you think that were eyewitnesses to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in 1914 thought to themselves, “Yes, this is definitely the kind of act that will cause the deaths of 20 million people by the time this all plays out”? (20 million. Try wrapping your mind around that number sometime.)

So, to witness the beginning of something big, and realize just how big it’s going to be: it should be considered a rare treat. And here, in this issue, you will get just that.

You heard it here first: New Avengers: Illuminati #5 = more important than the First World War.
PS. Also September 11th.

My promo text isn’t this over-the-top, and I work for a publisher. Come on, guy.

Somehow I’m reminded of this scene from The Princess Bride:

MAN IN BLACK: You’re that smart?
VIZZINI: Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates?
VIZZINI: Morons!

Try wrapping your mind around that number sometime!

on Reading Comics: 1


I’ve been awaiting Douglas Wolk‘s new book Reading Comics — “the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics criticism by the leading critic in the field,” according to the publisher — with a breathless enthusiasm not seen since the last Scott Pilgrim book was released.

Thanks to my accidental subscription to Amazon Prime last December and the miracle of two-day shipping, it’s now in my hot little hands and I’ve been tearing through it eagerly.

I have, admittedly, a gigantic man-crush on Douglas Wolk. He’s smart and observant, he’s a talented writer and communicator, he likes the right things (i.e. almost everything), he’s forward-looking and intelligently backward-looking, he cares and writes about things besides comics (his article on Numa Numa was great; his definition of rockism is extremely relevant to comics), he’s done his homework and knows some actual aesthetic theory, and he’s got a genuine boyish love for everything he talks about that comes through in his writing. He is, in short, one of my role models. Here’s the list of “SEVEN STRONG OPINIONS ABOUT COMICS” that appears on the postcard advertising his book:

  1. The Golden Age of comics is right now.
  2. Comics are a medium, not a genre.
  3. Comics are not literature, in the same sense that they’re not film or sculpture or cooking.
  4. Comics are drawn: they’re not just representations of a story, but images made by an artist’s hand.
  5. In fact, they’re a specific kind of drawing: cartooning, which is based on visual metaphors — deliberate kinds of distortion and symbolic abstraction.
  6. That means that extended metaphors are what comics do best. Their style is their substance.
  7. Also, comics are awesome.

If you’ve known or read me for any length of time, some of these will sound familiar.

Actually, that’s one of the problems for me in reading Reading Comics: everything in here is so damn familiar. It’s delightful to see my own secret thoughts expressed by another and published in a mass-market book with a national distribution, but once the “finally! somebody said it!” feeling wears off, I fear that I won’t have anything to say in response.

Thankfully, Wolk and I are not in complete brain-sync, and although I’ve only just finished Part One of the book, I have a couple thoughts so far.

Observation One: It Needs Footnotes

Never has a book cried out more desperately for footnotes. Wolk’s critical worldview demands that he be all-encompassing, but I suspect it’s his personal tendencies that call him to write with humility — to cover his bases, qualify his statements, and admit the exceptions to his theories. It’s another way in which his writing feels familiar, because I do the same thing myself: I don’t hesitate to praise another’s work but tend to present my own ideas tentatively, attempting to communicate every subtle nuance of my perspective, and phrasing them with enough caveats that I can be sure of their truth. Unfortunately, as some helpful mentors have informed me, such equivocation weakens one’s prose and makes it harder to read.

Sometimes his parenthetical style is a sign of that hesitance, but other times it’s a sign of disorganization — his (admittedly contagious) enthusiasm is such that he can’t resist throwing in tangential comments and anecdotes, when they might better belong in another section. In fact, the whole structure of the first half feels a little uncertain to me — it’s all very good stuff, but chapters begin and end somewhat arbitrarily and don’t always flow. I think I’ll have more useful comments along these lines later, when I’ve digested more.

Observation 2: On “furcation”

One of the central ideas of the book is this divide between “art comics” and “genre comics.” There’s no arguing the fact that the market is quite bifurcated (or, as he points out, trifurcated, when you include manga), but I believe that the division is harmful and stupid and does readers no favors. It locks them into one school or the other, exacerbates their existing prejudices against comics on “the other side of the fence,” and discourages cross-contamination or cross-examination from one side onto another. And honestly, I see a hell of a lot of “in-between” works cropping up — the eternal “Scott Pilgrim question,” you might call it. Maybe he’ll address this in the final chapter, but comics as an industry desperately needs to address the concept of “the new mainstream” — the folks buying Buffy comics and Blankets and, hell, Sandman (this is not a new phenomenon). Comics are never going to reach the general public as long as people feel that reading a comic involves joining a subculture, regardless of whether that subculture’s mascot is Superman or Crumb or Naruto. I’m desperate for a view of comics in which readers don’t have to “choose sides”; I wonder how much the childish good-vs-evil mentality of our childhood heroes continues to lock us into that framework.

To drop a music comparison (which is my natural instinct, but coincidentally also one of Wolk’s techniques): Is there a division between art music and pop music? Of course. Ought there be? I’m not so sure. I know that for listeners of my generation, John Bach and John Lennon are both dead white guys who wrote good music a long time ago. They’re next to each other in my iTunes library, and switching between them is trivially simple. If I sort by date, the 1950s section is populated by the black American gospel of Sam Cooke, the white American rock of Elvis Presley, and the melodic French modernism of Francis Poulenc. In the 1950s, the three of them played to completely separate audiences — probably no one on Earth attended the concerts of all three — but fifty years later they’re all accessible to me from the same place, in the same listening context. And that prods me to consider how all three of them are working from the same Christian themes, how all three made public the conflicts and connections between spirituality and sexuality, and whether that tension is reflected in the way their music balances passionate chaos with tempered control. Presumably, similar ideas could be inspired by simply putting the entire library on “shuffle” and listening for new connections.

The point is, I’m much more interested in criticism that is colorblind rather than segregated. It’s (usually) not difficult to read a work within the context of its closest neighbors — what’s more difficult, less common, and more useful is to read a work out of its niche, to find the context dictated by its content rather than its circumstances.

Wolk is doing some of that, simply by writing the book he did: READING COMICS, not READING ART COMICS or READING GENRE COMICS. Comics, he argues, are united by certain formal characteristics and are worth considering as a body, and I’m completely with him. God knows most Marvel artists could to learn something from Charles Schulz, or Jaime Hernandez, or Ai Yazawa. In his effort to be descriptive, though — to explain comics as we see them — I think he’s missed an opportunity to encourage that assimilation process.

intimations of Douglas Wolk

That’s the paragraph that follows a long list of random Favorite Things in Douglas Wolk’s soon-to-be-released book Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Just from what I can scavenge from Amazon Reader, this is going to be a hell of a book.

spring 06 begins.

In conversation with Devin today, I realized that my current aesthetic is largely based on a “complexity = depth/density/richness/skill/value (=good)” mindset. Probably influenced by (and or influential upon) my years of listening to metal. Whatever the reasons, I am much more comfortable praising texts (here used in the most broad sense of “text,” i.e. any work of art) that are multilayered or dense. Partially it’s just sheer respect for a) talent and b) effort. Partially it’s because I know how to analyze a multilayered piece: strip apart the layers, decode all the different things that are going on, and put the pieces back together and see how they interact with each other. It’s what I’ve been doing with Mega Man; it’s what I do with Chris Ware. It’s what I did with Bach, that one time.

The problem is that this is a pretty limiting aesthetic. It seems naïve to me now. Obviously, I have appreciated and do appreciate works that are profoundly simple, or simply profound, or whatever. I can admire the emotion in a single curved line of a cartoon face, or the elegance of a melody, or the color balance of a design, or the look of a typeface, or the phrasing of a line of poetry, or the profundity of a statement. But I don’t have the tools to explain why, and I think that makes me uncomfortable.

I also secretly wonder whether it wouldn’t be better, maybe, to read a beautifully-phrased line of poetry, in a well-designed typeface, as part of a well-balanced design, spoken by an elegantly-drawn cartoon face, stating a profound truth… perhaps even while hearing a beautiful melody. And if that isn’t so, then I’d like to figure out why.

It is true that different aspects of a work can often work at cross purposes. The beauty of a writer’s phrasing can distract (or detract) from the content of his/her work. An intricate comics page that takes you 30 minutes to read will probably lose any sense of urgency that the story may have been building toward. But shouldn’t it be possible, for a capable enough creator, to anticipate such interactions and actually work with them? That is, for the piece’s form to be perfectly suited to its function, and vice versa? Clearly it’s not the case that every combination (of form and function, or combination of different aspects of form) is advantageous. But I’m still not able to dispel the notion that More Is (or at least Could Theoretically Be) Better.

~ ~ ~

In writing this, I realized that I read texts differently than I do comics, visual art, and music. Warren Ellis has written before that music feels like is the closest medium to comics. I suppose I see what he means, in a way. Text seems inherently different from visual and audial media because there’s no sensory component to the reading experience – or at most, a very very tiny component (like, controlling the reader’s reaction by controlling the spacing on a page).


But in general, the visual form the text takes matters almost not at all, especially in prose. In some types of prose it seems that the goal is almost a stylelessness – so that there are as few barriers as possible to complicate the process of getting the ideas into your head. To get back on topic a bit: it seems that when you read a text, everything is cerebral. Everything is ideas. Whereas the sensual arts, the audiovisual (possibly also kinaesthetic?) arts, are fundamentally rooted in some kind of concrete thing. At this point in the conversation I would be gesturing with my hands a lot. Both visual art and music feel like things I can visualize in the air in front of me, things that I can gesture with my hands to talk about.

I do think the cerebral/concrete distinction is real. But maybe some of this other stuff… Maybe the reason I can visualize music is because I’m used to doing so. As David Schiff tried to impress upon me, the way I think about music is almost entirely dependent upon the way I’ve been taught to think about music, by various cultural influences. I’ve seen videogame music represented as diagrams and scores and waveforms and codes, so I can visualize it in all of those ways. I surely have a completely different conception of music than does, say, an Indian tabla player, or a Tuvan throat singer, or a West African drummer.

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.

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.