Archive for October, 2007

Five sucky stories about comics

October 31, 2007

Holy shit! Black Jack is coming back to the English language.* This is the best news since the announcement that Al Columbia has a new project, or that Fantagraphics is reprinting Pogo, or that Viz is reprinting Gyo/Uzumaki or that the Ha/Morrison Authority will never be finished.

Well, maybe not the last one.

But it’s further proof of the by-now hoary truism that this is the best time evah to read comics, especially if you have the sort of catholic tastes typified by Spurgeon or McCulloch (and which I, more or less, share). So much material, new and old, of every genre and form imaginable, that it’s actually impossible to read it all, much less afford it all. Let us cherish these golden days before the inevitable environmental apocalypse when we’ll spend our every waking hour fighting off the giant mutant cockroachs etc.

Which brings me to the main topic of this post. No, not the cockroaches, the current golden age. Damn, I fucked up the segue, huh? Anyway, the aforementioned Spurgeon recently posted a piece about These Wonderful Times We Live In. It was a thoughtful and upbeat bit of commentary about some of the good things in These Wonderful Times.

Naturally the collective blogosphere reacted with utter indifference.

I think this indifference is quite revealing of the nature of discourse in general, and not just what passes for it on the internet. There’s a very simple reason that nobody’s talking about Spurgeon’s piece, and I’ve already stated it. Let me repeat it for those who weren’t paying attention: it was thoughtful and upbeat.

How do you respond that something that’s not half-baked and not a hatchet job? What are we going to say, Joe Sacco should be toiling in obscurity and poverty? Gray’s Annie sucks?** You don’t start a debate by saying something defensible, sensible and positive. Anyone who’s followed comics blogs for more than two days knows that.

So let me say, just for the record, that Spurgeon is absolutely right. These are indeed Wonderful Times.

That said, comics still suck. Here are five sucky things about comics that suck, because it’s important to remember: comics suck.

5. Neil Gaiman

In a sensible world, Gaiman would be recognised for the middling journeyman that he is, the comics equivalent of Stephen King or Joss Whedon. That is, a competent storyteller but nothing more.

I was a teenager for most of the heyday of Sandman, and I occasionally got into debates about whether Sandman was unbearably precious or not. My interlocutors maintained that, just because a comic inspires letter-writers to submit their cod-goth poetry, doesn’t mean the comic is precious. It was just the fans who were precious.

In hindsight, I think we can all see that I was right. It was the comic.

Sandman was an entertaining and competently written comic that had a baleful influence on comics for at least the next decade. It was thanks to Sandman that most of the Vertigo material for the next ten years was pitched as “dark fantasy”, which is a euphemism for “fantasy for the coolest guy in their D&D group, or for women who like Anne Rice”. That’s right, Sandman was just a better-written version of Anita Blake.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But let’s not act like Gaiman was ever any more than a poor man’s mash-up of Alan Moore and Italo Calvino.

4. “Graphic novels”

Various people have whined in one way or another about current trends in high-brow/middle-brow/respectable/quality/”art”/cancer comics. Their complaints don’t necessarily have much in common, so that it’s probably misleading even to say that they have a unified target. Perhaps the best description of their target is that they’re the sort of comics that can call themselves, with a straight face, “graphic novels”; or, the sort of comics that, if they were real books, would be filed under “literature” at your local Barnes and Noble. Some of these complaints remind me of the complaints that old-timers make when their neighbourhoods are gentrified by what used to be called yuppies: “These damn snooty upstarts with their ‘cafe lattes'”. Still, I do share some of their concerns (as I ought to, considering where that first link leads).

In particular, I think that the newfound legitimacy of “graphic novels” has led to (a) a valorization of certain genres (autobio, memoir and middle-class drama) at the expense of others and (b) an overvaluation of writing at the expense of visual aesthetics.

And, yes, I will name names: Adrian Tomine, Alison Bechdel and Jeffrey Brown, for example. None of these three cartoonists are particularly talented or interesting visually. In fact, that’s an extremely polite understatement for Brown, who is a crude and inept draftsman; at least the other two don’t look like they draw with their feet, and their feet are retarded.

There’s nothing wrong with these genres, and there’s nothing wrong with comics whose writing is stronger than their visuals. Hell, I like Tomine in small doses, and enjoyed Fun Home.

Nonetheless, the gentrification of comics means that many new comics readers are going to prefer these sorts of books to many other books favoured by us old-timers. And because new comics readers are mostly coming from an appreciation of literature, they’re going to value what is literary in comics, and not what is specifically comics. Fun Home was a good book, but its virtues were those of literary fiction, not of comics.*** These are well-written stories that happen to have pictures with them, not comics that needed to be comics.

And that can be irksome to those of us who think prefer, say, Jim Woodring or Tony Millionaire or Shintaro Kago or… It’s as though the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only ever gave out Oscars to Merchant Ivory adaptations.

3. Comic Blogs

What are you wasting your life for? Go outside, read a book, spend some quality time with your loved ones. Hell, read some comic books if you have too.

2. Manga

Nah, just kidding. I love manga.

1. Seriously, I can’t afford all this cool shit

Just like it says.

Aw, hell, I can’t even maintain the hate for more than two points. Goddamn These Wonderful Times.

* I just saw that Jog had exactly the same reaction to the news as me. Holy shit, indeed.

** I, for one, believe Spurgeon when he says he enjoys the strip. At its height, it had an uncanny, eerie sort of allegorical power that outweighed the politically odious elements of its anti-New Deal ideology.

*** Some of its literary virtues: depth of allusion, strong characterization. Some comics virtues that it did not have: arresting visuals or for that matter visuals that did anything beyond illustrating the writing; particularly effective panel transitions. Yes, yes, false dichotomy, blah blah fucking blah.

“Content”, the easy way

October 11, 2007

Watched Lilya 4-ever last night. It was not as wrist-slittingly depressing as I’d hoped. Certainly not a patch on such curl-into-the-foetal-position classics as Requiem for a Dream or Dancer in the Dark. Miserabilist rating: emo.

And now, the funny books.

Top 10 comic book characters who are thinly veiled disses/caricatures of real cartoonists:

10. Zor

Alan Moore as a megalomaniac with all the wrong ideas about how to cast Magic Missile and other useful spells.

9. Chafe

Seth as, well, Seth. Probably the most hateful entry on the list; definitely the funniest.

8. The Chris-Ware stand-in who appears in the Rusty Brown story in Acme Novelty Library, you know, the failed art teacher

More proof that Chris Ware is his own harshest critic.

7. Funky Flashman

Stan Lee as fast-talking huckster with a bad hairpiece.

6. The Writer

When John Ostrander killed him in Suicide Squad. Cute gag.

5. Morlan the Mystic

Alan Moore again, with rather more affection this time. Keep casting those spells, Alan, and eventually you’ll get enough experience to reach level 17!

4. Billy Friday

Alan Moore one more time, in this case parodying himself and everyone else who belonged to either the “British invasion” or the grim’n’gritty progeny he helped vomit up onto the comics wasteland in the late eighties/early nineties.

3. Alec

The ultimate autobiographical proxy.

2. Viktor Reid/Viktor Davis

Dave Sim as misogynist boor.

1. Dave Sim

Dave Sim as misogynist, lunatic boor.

That said, Dave Sim is still one of the most talented cartoonists of his generation, and Cerebus one of the best comic books of the past thirty years. Hate the playa, not the game, yo.

You got your superheroes in my international espionage/No, you got your international espionage in my superheroes

October 9, 2007

Like my mum always told me, if you can’t say something nice, then say something extremely mean-spirited instead.

Checkmate: A King’s Game. Greg Rucka, Nunzio Defilippis, Christina Weir, Jesus Saiz, and a cast of thousands. DC, 2006. $14.99, 168 pages.

Grown adults enjoy this comic book?

Really?

I can understand people reading juvenile, poorly crafted nonsense about Batman or Superman or whatever just because they really dig the characters.

Well, “understand” may not be the right word.

But I’m aware that such people exist, just as people exist who will pay money for a sequel to Pride and Prejudice or Hamlet because they want to know what happens to Prince Fortinbras and Horatio after everyone else dies. And I’m aware that such people will shell out their hard-earned, regardless of whether the product embodies even the most basic level of craft, talent or intrinsic interest. Personally, I can’t see myself doing it, but whatever floats your boat. Different strokes for different folks. It’s all good.

And obviously I can understand people buying the occasional good superhero book produced when someone with some actual talent dips their toes in the shallow end of the genre pool. Stuff with genuine moral and thematic complexity, and intellectual depth, like that Moore and Gibbons adaptation of Citizen Kane that everyone’s always talking about.

And let’s not forget that someone might buy a superhero book for the art. Let’s face it, the only reason to buy, say, Showcase Presents Hawkman* is for the one-two punch of Kubert and Anderson. If you’re buying it for the stories, you need professional help.

But Checkmate? What the hell? It’s nowhere near goofy enough to work purely as genre nonsense; it’s resolutely determined to highlight D-grade characters whose last appearance was in some guy’s online continuity-porn slashfic; and, worse of all, the “adult” stuff that author Greg Rucka is clearly most interested in serves, at best, as a baffling distraction from folks in tight spandex fucking shit up.

For the unenlightened, Checkmate follows the adventures of an international superhuman task force, led by such heavyweights as Amanda Waller, some old guy who used to be Green Lantern eighty five years ago and looks like an Aryan Nick Fury, and the updated Mr Terrific. Who is now totally cool because his motto “Fair Play” is written on a leather jacket, rather than a badge on the front of his costume.

Plus, he’s, like, totally black.**

In their first mission, their black ops team infiltrates nefarious terrorist/evil-genius cult Kobra while the diplomats debate UN resolutions about zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Remember those issues of The Avengers or Justice League International that centred around whether the team would get their security clearance revoked? Now imagine how awesome they would have been if they’d spent issue after issue following the drafting of various resolutions by each member of the security council. Now imagine no more, because you can just read Checkmate instead.

Greg Rucka is not a completely retarded comic book writer. He did some nice work on the police procedural Gotham Central (co-writing with everyone’s current favourite superhero-writer-whose-surname-doesn’t-start-with”m”, Ed Brubaker), even if that book was hampered by the need to pay obeisance every now and then to the “shared universe”.

Even better was Rucka’s work on the downbeat espionage sort-of thriller Queen and Country, now apparently on indefinite hiatus while he writes scripts about Chester from Swamp Thing and Max Mercury teaming up to lobby the UN to censure Quraq for blowing up Rocket Red (the one that was in JLE). Queen and Country was a well crafted, refreshingly low-key genre piece that constantly defied genre expectations–the spies were low budget, their interventions ended in failure as often as not, and they spent more time fighting hostile bureaucrats and red tape than they did blowing up shit and having crazy Jason Bourne-style car chases.

This is material that Rucka writes exceedingly well: bureaucratic, political and diplomatic tensions that constrain and shape the lives and careers of his tough-but-flawed protagonists. It also appears to be what he’s most interested in, which should be rewarding for the reader.

Unfortunately, Rucka’s strengths just don’t work in the demands of the superunderwear genre. The end result in Checkmate, as it was in Gotham Central, is middling at best, dull and jarring at worst. Maybe there is a great comic to be written from mashing up, I don’t know, Greatest American Hero with The Wire.

But Checkmate ain’t it.

Recommended: Buy Queen and Country instead. It was a good series, plus the art was better.

* For mine, the best of the Showcase volumes in terms of art, although the Infantino/Anderson pairing in the Flash volume is pretty sweet, too, as is Jonah Hex.

** Not that Rucka was responsible for the new “Mr Terrific”.


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