Monday, September 26, 2005

All The Dos and The Don'ts and The Will and The Won'ts.

As my brain and body get older and reach that difficult age where atrophy sets in in earnest, I find myself with very few ambitions left to realize. Yes, there are few people alive who have led lives as full and worthy as mine – Youngest graduate of MIT, People’s Best Dressed Man three years running and, perhaps most impressive of all, hottest comic blogger 2004 – but even I know that a man with no unachieved ambitions is barely a man at all. Look at Mark Millar for proof of that. Therefore, it’s with great joy and only a little humility that I announce my latest and, indeed, greatest aim: To become comics’ very own Bill O’Reilly.

I keep reading about people complaining about “comics journalism” and talking about what a poor state that it’s in (Well, if you ignore Tom Spurgeon and The Comics Journal, at least), and my reaction always ends up in a cynical “Well, the industry has the journalism that it deserves” train of thought before inevitably derailing itself and thinking about something like why Grant Morrison’s version of Mister Miracle somehow managed to be incredible and disappointing simultaneously. But the more I think about it, the less I genuinely think that the case, because the journalism that the fanbase, at least, deserves should be as divisive and biased and full of bile as the fans themselves. In other words, the comics version of Fox News.

Not that I’m the first person to cotton onto this idea, of course; Alan David Doane, a man once referred to as my cosmic twin (The exact phrase being “It’s like Dirk Deppey got split in half like Kirk on Star Trek, and you two are Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.” I’ll leave it up to you which one’s which), seems to have been working the biased pundit angle for awhile now, popping up when you most expect it to bemoan “capes” and how superhero books are killing the industry which, by the way, he’s counting the days until it dies. It’s all an act, of course – No man who gets that upset about Identity Crisis really doesn’t care about superheroes – but it’s a successful act. Even though he has become a parody of himself, he’s still someone that people talk about and expect to see pop up whenever Geoff Johns, James Kochalka or the direct market’s reliance on The Big Two are mentioned. He is, if you follow the tenuous “Conservatives = Mainstream publishers. Liberals = Indie creators” analogy I appear to have accidentally created in my head, the Michael Moore of comic punditry.

Or at least the Al Franken.

As the comic fanbase becomes more fragmented – Something that I actually see as a good thing, as it dissolves slightly the generic identity of a comics fan as someone who is apparently duty-bound to support both A History of Violence and Ultimate Fantastic Four purely because they happen to share a medium – I’m surprised that more people haven’t followed Doane’s lead and tried to become standard bearers for whatever their personal pet cause is. I know that Newsarama’s Matt Brady has often been called Marvel’s bitch – and, admittedly, things like the weekly Joe Fridays interview with Joe Quesada don’t help that – but it’s also a site that runs a regular column from Brian Hibbs, who stood up to the House that Stan Built and won, and regularly runs anti-Marvel comments and reviews. It’s a shame, in a way: Comics fandom, after all, is a laughably divided beast; it only takes a couple of pages of comments following any Newsarama story to see that. The majority of people who post there, or at The Pulse or the Bendis Board or Fanboy Rampage!!! or almost any comic-related board, have axes to grind and agendas to further, and they’re not afraid to let you know about it.

So why isn’t anyone playing up to this?

I’ve slowly become convinced that there’s a massive gap in the pundit market for this kind of thing. A Marvelcentric version of Newsarama that reports on August’s Diamond sales figures by emphasizing Marvel’s strong grip on the top 20, instead of the six DC books in the top ten. A DC-directed version of The Pulse that reports on the buzz surrounding Infinite Crisis and the upcoming Wonder Woman and Superman movies, before pausing to laugh derisively in the direction of Marvel and Fox’s seemingly stalled X3 project. Add in a Manga site and a generic Indie site (Am I the only one who feels sad that Manga and Indie, which both are made up of multiple genres and approaches, still seem to only qualify as generic catch-all categories? Probably not) and you’re good to go.

The fans don’t want balanced journalism, because whenever it’s given to them, the conversation still dissolves into He Said She Said arguments over who’s the biggest, best and strongest of all. Stories that seem to have no discernable downside, such as DC announcing a well thought-out relief package for retailers affected by Hurricane Katrina, find themselves spun into part of surreal twisted conspiracy theories (“Good for DC, but where is Marvel’s response? Doesn’t the House of Ideas think of the New Orleans-based fans and retailers? Joe Quesada doesn’t care about black people!”) spun by people who always seem to want “their side” to come out smelling of roses and everyone else to look as if they’re killing the industry.

Someone should take advantage of this phenomenon. All my previous intentions along the lines of putting things in context and not picking sides dictated by others? I see them now as the failed crushed dreams of the child I once was. I see now that the future comes in playing to smaller audiences that will agree with you entirely, reassuring all their preconceptions, and knowing that they love you for it.

Divide and conquer.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dashed Off

I am behind on deadline, and writing a column without any idea of what I’m going to write next. I am entirely free associating here, which is never a good idea. This could be an interesting disaster, or worse, a boring disaster. You have been warned, dear reader.

There are times where I start to wonder if I’m one of the bad comic readers. You know, the ones that are Killing The Industry and not doing enough to push things forward, to paraphrase Mike Skinner. I mean, oh sure, I worship at the altar of Eddie Campbell and Nick Abadzis like any good person should (and therefore worship First Second Books, who launch next year with new works by both creators. They also have new Jessica Abel work. It’s as if they looked at my bookshelf and thought about how best to get money out of me. If they announce an Aimee Bender/James Jean collaboration any time soon, then I’ll know for sure that that’s what they’re doing), but is that enough? That’s what I keep having to ask myself. Are those just painfully small parts of a comic whole that is still predominately owned by the superhero genre?

What brought this to mind most recently was my reading, a couple of weeks ago, of both volumes (so far) of Flight, the critically-acclaimed anthology of mostly-new creators that - if you believe the hype - are going to be the Next Important Talents in the industry. Or, rather, what brought this to mind was the fact that I was left kind of cold by both books. It’s not that I hated them, or even really disliked them. It’s more that I didn’t have any strong reaction to them at all; they were pretty, and some of the stories - Derek Kirk Kim’s in the first volume in particular - were great, but the majority of the writing felt flat and undeveloped. It felt as if the praise for the books had come from people who were far too eager for there to be a Next Important Talent to actually wait until said talents had sufficiently honed their skills.

The problem, of course, isn’t that the books left me cold in isolation. No, the problem becomes more clear when I tell you that Street Angel also was something that I just liked, instead of loved. And when I tell you that I thought that, while technically excellent, Ice Haven felt sterile, as if it was the work of someone who had read lots of interesting things but never really experienced anything themselves. Not to mention that my manga reading has consisted, at this point in my life, of under ten books.

Meanwhile, I find myself buying at least two superhero books every single week, and am kind of looking forward to Infinite Crisis, despite myself. But, you know, shhhh. Keep that to yourself.

It’s weird that I genuinely feel slightly embarrassed at admitting all of that, as if I’m somehow failing the medium, the industry and probably this very website. I keep on wondering if it’s something to do with the medium itself; in terms of prose, I tend to entirely stay away from the strong genre works in favor of self-consciously quirky fiction or non-fiction books of every stripe and color. Maybe, I think to myself in my darkest moments, it’s not my failing, but the failing of the entire history of comic books.

You see, superhero comics have this entirely different background in my life that gives them an "in" that the other comics that I read don’t have; I literally grew up with these characters, and so have some sick nostalgic bond to them, in some way. It doesn’t matter when the writing on, say, JLA falls short in some way because my long history with the characters in one form or another allows me to subconsciously fill-in-the-blanks. Long-running superhero books with devoted fan bases can afford to be underwritten for the majority of the time - in fact, it may even be a plus - because the reader can bring whatever ideas they have in their head about the characters to the book. The devotion leads to a readership all-too-forgiving of lazy or bad writing, and so the writers can afford to get lazier, and the readership becomes less discerning because they get more and more used to bad storytelling, and before you know it, you have House of M and me looking forward to Infinite Crisis.

New books, on the other hand, don’t have any nostalgic leeway before I start reading them; they’re judged cold, and inevitably found wanting (Another reason that I think I find a lot of non-genre books lackluster, and one that is entirely down to my lizard brain, is that the ones that I read are generally in genres that I’m already interested in in other media, and for some reason I find myself judging them by the criteria of that other media. No, I don’t really know why I do that. Yes, when I think about it, I think it’s dumb, too) unless they meet some other emotional touchstone hidden somewhere inside my head or heart. This may be why books like Local or Flytrap made more of an impression on me, because I could connect with the emotional core of the story much easier than I could the more abstract Flight tales.

(I had a theory once that the average comic length - 22 pages, give or take - wasn’t long enough for the writing to have the complexity of even a well-written short story; I wasn’t suggesting that this was a fault of comic writers, but of the comic format, which had to give weight to other concerns, such as keeping things visually interesting by having a stronger external narrative than interior. But then I discovered Kevin Huizenga’s work, and realized that I was just talking nonsense to myself.)

The sad thing, I guess, is that I’m aware that I judge the comics that I’m interested in unevenly, giving more credit to the superhero books than they deserve, and less to the books that - well, probably deserve it, and yet I still do it without making any effort to change. There's probably some witty rejoinder I should be writing here about how I represent the majority of the direct market in that manner, if I stopped to think about it. Alternatively, the sad thing might just be that I’m looking forward to Infinite Crisis.