Tuesday, August 30, 2005

They had a melody and a beat, but the scene didn't seem complete.

It’s 8:30pm, I’m listening to a mixture of songs on iTunes (Currently Gorillaz’ “Dare”, just before that, Bibel Gilberto’s “Baby”), and my head is unraveling. I should tell you now that this column may make no sense whatsoever and should not be taken too seriously; certainly I’m not passing opinions on people passing laws. But consider yourselves warned.

(Roisin Murphy’s “Ruby Blue”, now.)

If there’s one thing that I think that everyone who pays attention to online comics commentary has discovered over the last few weeks, it’s that admitting boredom is somewhat of a social faux pas (The contrarian in me would like to point out that, if comics really were that exciting and worthy of commentary right now, then surely so many people wouldn’t waste so much time arguing about whether or not one person is allowed to be bored with comics. The contrarian in me would also like to point out that he’s aware that pointing that out is likely to get his virtual head kicked on, so perhaps he shouldn’t bother. Nonetheless). But still, I’m feeling more than a little bored with online comics commentary these days. It feels as if the last month has been home to pointless arguments on top of pointless arguments – if it’s not Heidi asking whether the American mainstream is too insular and superhero fans getting defensive, then it’s Paul saying that he’s bored and indie fans getting accusative, or Alan saying that he wants the comics industry to die and then getting defensive and accusative when people disagree and point and laugh. And what’s the one thing linking all of these together, besides the eagerness for me and others to watch (and join in on) slagging matches online?

None of them were really about anything.

In the grand scheme of things, whether Paul is bored of all comics or just superhero comics or not comics at all but the direction the majority of superhero comics have taken over the last two years, or what Alan thinks of the comics industry, or even whether Heidi thinks that the American mainstream isn’t looking outside of itself enough… none of them matter. Actually, that’s not true; Heidi started with something that outsiders should care about, but it was the start of a conversation that then got hijacked into a different, dead-end, discussion of “Runaways isn’t really a superhero book because they don’t wear outfits, and anyway, if you don’t want to read about superheroes then don’t read about them, manga lover” (And suddenly, I see the connections between Heidi’s and Paul’s shitstorms that I had missed before… That they’re both about people who would like to see mainstream superhero books look elsewhere for influences and the different sets of fans who seem to have problems with that idea. Hmm). But Paul and Alan? They were just stating their opinions, and all of a sudden everyone weighs in as if the word of God was somewhere in there. What was that all about?

I have this idea in the back of my head, heated with the fires of my fragile ego considering the near-demise of Fanboy Rampage!!!, that we’re nearing one of those changes in the online comics conversation landscape. It feels as if we’re stuck in a rut, talking about ourselves too much these days, instead of comics; that people are too entrenched in and fond of their current positions with snark and arrogance and passion to actually, you know, engage in actual conversation about the things that we read and enjoy and – perhaps more importantly - the things that we dislike and why we dislike them*. That Warren Ellis is starting up a new style of message board that seems as much non-participatory blog as it does interactive posting, makes me oddly optimistic that things are happening again for the first time in a long time.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next, you know?

(* - This may end up being a footnote longer than the actual original text it spins out from, but that can’t be helped. Something that I’ve noticed increasingly over the last few years is the idea that “good” comics conversation should focus almost exclusively on the positive, only talking about the books and the creators that you like. It’s something that Warren Ellis has put forward more than once – I seem to remember that it’s one of the original guiding principles of Artbomb, for example – and a school of thought picked up more recently and confrontationally by specific bloggers, with Chris Allen’s infamous “if you don’t like what’s going on, don’t change the system from within, don’t elaborate on where everything’s gone wrong. Just die. Die and die again. For me. Please.” Rant being a prime example. And there’s definitely something to that way of thinking – To suffocate the unliked by removing the oxygen of publicity, to hammer the analogy to death. But isn’t it also kind of… I don’t know, lazy? Maybe I’m being old-fashioned, stupid or a fan of well-reasoned bile – And this is where you can keep your “Maybe you’re all three, and ugly, to boot” comments to yourself, dear reader – but isn’t there some value in not just ignoring what’s bad and wrong and something that should be improved, but talking about it and the ways in which it fails the critical test? A well-loved comics commentator and myself were kind of randomly emailing each other about the whole “I’m bored of comics” thing the other week and the point was suggested to me that the reason that the commentator was upset with the original column wasn’t that he thought that the boredom was a personal failing but a failing as a pundit; that it was irresponsible to ignore all of the interesting stories out there purely because they didn’t happen to intersect with the author’s personal interest in the industry. If that’s the case – and I’m not sure that it really is, to be honest; I’m as undecided about it as I am about most things – then isn’t it equally irresponsible for pundits to constantly bitch about the state of modern superhero comics, or default into the by-now-please-just-stop-it “joke” of replacing a word in any given superhero book title with the word “assrape”, without trying to articulate what’s wrong in a vaguely intelligent fashion?)

Of course, I could be wrong.

Marlena Shaw’s singing about “California Soul” now, and Kate’s almost home from work. It’s time to stop free associating, I think.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Apathy only ruined me.

I’m bored with comics.

No, wait. That’s the quick way to get lots of people pissed off at you, isn’t it? I forgot about that. So, you know, forget I said anything. I’m not bored of comics at all. I love comics. They’re great. No, really.

But the thing is, I’m kind of with Paul O’Brien on one thing, at least. It’s weird to see that many people’s response to “I’m bored with comics” is to immediately assume that you’re just reading the wrong comics. Is it really that impossible that someone can genuinely be bored of something, even something as broad as an entire storytelling medium? That his column – in which he didn’t actually make such a blanket statement, but I’m not really sure that matters in the grander scheme of things, once the reaction gained a certain momentum – provoked the kind of response seen in the thread linked above, which starts as backhanded “I know you’re more intelligent than X-Men readers” compliments, and moves onto less subtle insults the more he refuses to agree that, yes, his entire problem is that he’s not been reading enough Fantagraphics books, seems somewhat surreal to me, as if everyone seemed to have read a different column from each other, and have their own take on what Paul was actually saying. There’s probably more than a small element of a need for validation going on in the “If only you read [X], you would find your interest in comics reborn” comments – Not so much “Everything I read is wonderful, so follow me”, but more “But I love comics… If you don’t like them, does that mean I’m wrong?” perhaps – something that seemed backed up (to me, at least, although I know that other people who I love dearly disagree) by the passive aggressive dismissiveness that greeting O’Brien’s suggestion that, instead of necessitating reading more comics, getting bored with comics may actually be a sign that you go off and do other, non-comic-related activities altogether. The very first reply to that comment, after all, was “Some of us enjoy comics as an artform”, which felt a very defensive immediate response. Surely everyone would agree that it’s only healthy to have some kind of life outside of any hobby, right?

A common thought to those who think too much about the state of the comic industry these days is that there aren’t really any “casual” fans left, that they disappeared sometime between the time the Direct Market became the primary distribution network for comics and the time that X-Men #1 had five covers for no immediately non-money related reason. This common thought normally ends somewhere around the area of “What the medium needs to survive is more casual fans, because that’s the sign of a healthy industry.” I find it funny and kind of scary to see that the same people who are so gung-ho about opening up the industry by pushing non-superhero work that would, theoretically at least, appeal to casual readers are amongst some of the most appalled at the idea that someone can not only say that they’re bored of comics, but also entertain the idea of ditching them and going off and doing something less boring instead.

But then, I have a strange sense of humor.

**

Actually, there’s something else I’m kind of with Paul on. There really is an awful lot of boring superhero comics out these days, isn’t there? I’ve been reading a lot of Essential Marvel collections lately, and two things immediately come to mind about them. First off, they’re entirely unrepentant fun. There is no higher purpose to them – they make no serious claims about splitting whatever the 1972 version of the internet is in half, nor do they try and set up long-reaching continuity for the next two years. Secondly, they’re all about plot. Whatever characterization that is in there is usually glib, broad and completely secondary to whatever bad guy has to be vanquished that month. It’s not even vaguely a new idea, but reading the Essentials books really makes you wish that today’s superhero books had the same speed, direction and willingness to be stupid. Today, it sometimes feels as if all we have are superhero books that are so intent on being clever that they forget how to be readable to those who haven’t grown up with the characters.

**

Imagine if Roy Thomas had written House of M. First off, it'd be over in two issues, and the middle of the first issue would've been something like this:

Page 12, panel 3:
Spider-Man, sitting in bed, looking confused.
Spider-Man (Thinks): Gwendy - - alive? But I remember - -

Panel 4:
A montage – We can see the shooting of Uncle Ben, Gwen dead in Spidey’s arms, Peter and Mary Jane getting married, and Aunt May’s head.

Caption: What do you remember, Peter Parker? The false memories that the Scarlet Witch has given you in this false world…? Or the tragic deaths of your uncle and your lady love that taught you that with great power comes great responsibility… your wonderous wedding to the beautiful Mary Jane Watson… Your beloved Aunt May…? Which memories to believe, Avenger… in this world gone mad!!


Yeah, like you wouldn’t want to read that, instead of the real House of M.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Spirit of Things To Come

What with the dizzying amount of information and outrage flying around Das Interweb on a daily basis – Something I monitor from my high tech console at Fanboy Rampage towers, accompanied by a blonde who can split herself into twenty versions of herself and get possessed by a scary shadow-like dude – it’s not unsurprising that everything eventually seems to bypass lengthy critical focus in favor of assembly-line-like immediate decision making, with most of it tending towards the negative. Wonder Woman killing someone: Outrage! House of M not having much of a story halfway into the series! Outrage! Brian Michael Bendis reupping his Marvel exclusive contract: No surprise at all! And normally, I’m right there with the mass consensus on the burning issues of the day. But occasionally, there are times where I’m left thinking, “Wait, what? Okay, I’ll admit it. I don’t get it”.

Case in point: The disappointment over DC’s announcement that Darwyn Cooke will be working on a new series starring Will Eisner’s The Spirit.

I’ve heard people complaining that The Spirit was not only Will Eisner’s creation, but also somehow his character and his alone; that no-one else should be working on the character now that Eisner’s dead, and that any attempts to resurrect the character are an insult to, or a hijacking of, Eisner’s legacy. But that ignores the fact that, even during the original run of the series, Eisner wasn’t the only creator working on it, what with all the various ghosts and uncredited studio hands who were involved, not to mention the period when Wally Wood and Jules Fieffer took over the reins entirely and sent the character into space for awhile. It’s also not as if Eisner was against other creators doing something with the character once he himself had moved onto other endeavors – 1981 saw The Spirit Jam, with then-new-creators like John Byrne, Frank Miller and Chris Claremont (amongst others, like Brian Bolland and Bill Sienkiewicz) taking on the character and supporting cast, and 1998 brought a new anthology series, The Spirit: The New Adventures, where creators like Alan Moore, Paul Pope, Eddie Campbell and Neil Gaiman tried their hand at the series. Sure, The Spirit undeniably bears Eisner’s mark – and is undeniably his creation – but the notion that he’s remained purely Eisner’s, and should always remain so, is – well – kind of completely wrong.

(The New Adventures series, which only lasted eight issues – I think because the publisher, Kitchen Sink, went bankrupt not long after its launch, although that could be my memory playing tricks on me – really deserves to be reprinted. Hopefully, if this new series is a success, DC might put out a trade or two…)

Another complaint that I’ve seen is that, despite the pedigree of The Spirit, Cooke doing any non-creator-owned work at this stage in his career is a bad thing. And this, to be honest, is where I end up on my soapbox (I know, I’m sorry. But everyone has their pet peeves, and this is one of mine). Let me start by saying I have nothing against creator-owned work. In fact, I’d even say that I’m a fan of creator-owned work, in theory, as much as one can be. But what I’m a much greater fan of is good work. It’s a strange and out there idea, I know, but if a book’s good – if it draws me in and entertains me and makes me believe in it for however long, if it moves me in some way, if it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it – then that’s all I really care about, ultimately. As a reader, I don’t really give a shit about who owns the copyright and the intellectual property (As someone who pays attention to “the industry”, that kind of stuff fascinates me, I’ll admit, but I’d like to think that comic readers outnumber comic industry watchers somewhat, even today). It strikes me as a sad sign that some people have lost sight of what’s really important about comics when they make blanket statements along the lines of “Anything published by Marvel or DC is not a great comic” or whatever; it’s losing sight of the forest for the trees, surely? Judge the comics on their own virtues and stop losing the narrow ideal of One True Way To Push Comics Forward. Cooke seems excited to be working on The Spirit – in a Newsarama interview not long after the announcement, he said “I'm feeling exhilaration, fear, excitement, anxiety, and some naked terror… Will's genius has created a strip where I can explore the human condition from virtually any conceivable angle.” If even half of his enthusiasm comes across in the finished work, I’m convinced that it’ll be worth reading, despite what it says in the indica at the end of the issue.

(John Jakala, once of the Grotesque Anatomy blog and now posting at The Low Road, pointed out the odd double standard of fans being upset at Cooke for reviving The Spirit while applauding Grant Morrison’s new editorial position at DC, where he’ll revive many forgotten superheroes. He suggested that perhaps they’re not upset because Cooke is reviving an old character instead of doing his own creator-owned work, but instead are upset because he’s not working with characters that they would rather see revived. Pointing out things like that is just one reason why I love John.)

Maybe I’m blinkered, though. It’s a possibility. Just as I’ll never concede that Kirby’s Fourth World series are just like Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, but in the ‘70s instead of the ‘90s, there’s the chance that I’m letting my love for Cooke’s work blind me to the potential pitfalls in this new project. But still – Why isn’t everyone excited about this? Cooke is one of the most interesting creators in mainstream comics today, and The Spirit plays to all of his strengths. There’s the old school pulp fiction element to the set-up that we’ve already seen Cooke can handle in his Solo issue and the Selina’s Big Score graphic novel. There’s the interest in stories outside of the normal “Good guy versus Bad guy” set-up, which was one of the joys of The New Frontier’s vignettes within the larger picture. And perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that The Spirit is known for being visually creative. The original Spirit series widened the scope of what comics could do visually to the point of almost recreating the entire language of comics altogether; it embraced experimentation and the influx of outside graphic sources in a way that no single comics strip has done since. In his relatively short career in comics, Cooke has shown that he’s a versatile artist - compare the various styles used in each of the strips in his recent Solo issue, for example – who understands the vocabulary of comic images as well as anyone else in the industry today. His New Frontier covers reinvented themselves each issue, bringing in different aesthetics and styles as necessary, and his sequential pages play with pacing and metaphor in a way that’s almost seemed forgotten for years, if not decades. The idea of putting this artist on a strip where it’s almost expected that new tricks will appear on a regular basis is something that I think is very exciting, and like I said, I’m not sure why other people don’t seem to be embracing that.

I mean, sure; there’s the possibility that it might end up lousy. That Cooke will lose his nerve or get so locked into the source material that he gives up innovation for recreation. But there’s always the opportunity for suckiness on every project; I don’t understand why that can’t just be taken as a given, but put in context alongside the track record of the creator involved and the potential the series has.

Like I said, I don’t get it.