Five sucky stories about comics

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.


4 Responses to “Five sucky stories about comics”

  1. Dick Hyacinth Says:

    I meant to say something about Spurgeon’s list, but I didn’t. I think it did inspire me to write something fairly positive on Monday, when I had intended to do something totally unfair like compare Steve Englehart’s run on Avengers to Town Boy or something like that. Actually, I might still do that some day.

    I think the real tragedy here is that no one has picked up on Cancer Comics. Maybe it would help if you capitalized it. Oh, and the continued crappiness of most blogs is bad, too. I was going to praise myself for limiting my posts to 3 a week or so, but then I remembered that one of my posts is basically a week’s worth of words for most bloggers. Ah, well.

  2. Mjolnir C. Hammer Says:

    The reason for #3 is #1.

  3. Matthew J. Brady Says:

    I thought about writing something about Spurgeon’s post, listing stuff I was excited about or something, but I didn’t really spend the time formulating anything because I got excited about the latest issue of Jack of Fables or something. Sorry, I guess I’m too lowbrow to talk about this sort of thing intelligently. I did find it inspiring though, but my best bet is probably to just write about stuff I like. Like Tekkon Kinkreet; I just finished that one, and it was awesome. Or Super Spy. Or, who knows, any of the tons of great stuff that’s coming out right now. Comics are cool, is what I’m saying, I guess.

  4. Bill Burns Says:

    Bechdel’s ongoing strip, Dykes to Watch out For, is more visually interesting than Fun Home, and really needs a decent collection.

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