That kooky firebrand, Noah Berlatsky, is once again taking potshots at comix’ sacred cows. Now, I should say that I agree with some of this comics comics critique of Berlatsky’s approach. In his criticism Berlatsky often seems to be trying to raise his arbitrary preferences to objective aesthetic standards by the force of sheer rhetoric alone (but, hell, doesn’t everyone?). It’s an exceedingly thin line between “Modern art comics suck!” and “Marvel is better than DC!”.
On the other hand, Berlatsky’s brief take on Clowes and Ware, in the comments section, is pretty spot-on:
“[Clowes’] visual sense seems very pedestrian to me; his layouts tend to be pretty boring, that monochrome color thing he often does strikes me as drab and ugly; his drawing is blandly half-assed in a way I don’t find charming at all. His stories seem magical-realist in a really perfunctory way that seems completely New Yorker ready. I don’t see much in his work that seems to use the comics medium impressively. Without his literariness, I don’t think he’d really exist, so yeah, it doesn’t make sense to suggest he’d be better without it.
Chris Ware’s another story; obviously he’s an amazing artist with a unique visual sense. Unfortunately, I think he’s been abandoning much of that in recent years in favor of…a drabber, more literary approach. His layouts are moving more towards grids, for example, his stories heading more towards New Yorker territory, rather than some of the absurdist or (really excellent) satiric stances he took in his early days. I think Ware has done less literary comics, and I liked them more, at least. “
Indeed, on both counts. Both artists have stultified as they’ve grown all respectable and stuff.
Take Jimmy Corrigan, for instance. A lot of the crazy Superman/Smartest-boy-in-the-world stuff from the original comics was left out of the book, and I think that was an artistic mistake. That material was far superior to the interminable but oh-so-respectable 19C flashback (“It’s a generational saga!”) that bogs down the second half. At any rate, I enjoyed it a lot more. I also find Quimby and the Big Tex/God/Robot Sam et al. collection far more appealing than the latter parts of Jimmy Corrigan, or his most recent Rusty Brown stuff.
Even so, what saves Ware’s recent work from falling too far down the New Yorker hole is that it’s still fairly unrelentingly bleak. I can’t imagine the New Yorker, or any other bastion of middlebrow literary respectability, publishing work that is as routinely vicious in its black humour as Ware’s work remains.
As for Clowes, I suspect I have more time for his earlier work than Berlatsky does. For instance, strips like Needledick, Suicide, Desert Island, etc were funny, startling bits that could only be done in comics. Even some parts of Like a Velvet Glove pack a strong visceral punch–not an effect often associated with Clowes’ work today. But I thought the quality of the Eightball back-ups declined markedly, starting with #10 or so. And once Ghost World was finished, Clowes’ stories all seemed to me like J. D. Salinger fanfic, at least in their tone and thematic content. David Boring was so well-named that I didn’t make it past the first chapter.
(Speaking of Ghost World, wasn’t the insertion into the movie of Steve Buscemi as a Thora Birch-screwing mary-sue just utterly creepy? I’m sure there was no squicky wish-fulfilment at all in Terry Zwigoff’s and Clowes’ decision to turn a physically ugly, anachronistic, older man and social misfit, dissatisfied with modern culture, into the obscure object of desire for a spunky, quirky teenager. No doubt they did it to make the story more commercially appealing; which may help explain why Art School Confidential didn’t exactly set the box office alight)
But Clowes’ worst flaws can be summed up in two words:
‘Nuff said, true believer.