Archive for the ‘Comics suck’ Category

This is why we can’t have nice things

August 5, 2012

This is what happens when you view the entire history of comics through the lens of one very small genre which has, thanks to various accidents of history, become the dominant entry-point for a particular type of reader. You get asinine questions like this, about Floyd Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse:

One of the things that blew my mind was how those strips feel so much more modern than your average Golden Age super-hero comic, even though they started eight years before Action Comics #1.

That’s right, kids. We’re in a decade that had, inter alia, Prince Valiant, Krazy Kat, Terry and the Pirates, Popeye in Thimble Theatre, Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy, Alley Oop, Dick Tracy, Li’l Abner…and we’re asking why another canon-level comic strip seems modern compared with Action fucking Comics #1.



Make Mine Martin: Digital colouring, remastered with extra rambling

May 30, 2012

At Robot6, Brigid Alverson has a short response to my last post, where she offers an elegant explanation of what’s wrong with that kind of colouring: the visual clash between gradients + heavy black lines. (In a comment here, Matt echoes Brigid’s sentiment)

I know essentially zilch about visual theory, but that explanation sounds persuasive to me. In fact, it’s made me think through some of the mainstream artists who have made digital colouring work for them, and many of them use a thin line: Gene Ha, Frank Quitely, John Cassaday — note that these guys often do their own inks, too. And then there’s Frazer Irving and Kyle Baker, who do their own colouring as well, and they often forgo lines altogether when marking colour boundaries.

But Dave Stewart, of course, like his rough contemporary Mark Schulz, worked in that Wally Wood tradition of thick brush inks. So maybe it is as simple as that, that clash between gradients and heavy lines, that explains why Laura Martin’s recolouring looks so goddamn, bloody, I-can-hardly-stand-to-look-at-it, good-god-why, no-seriously-why, not very good.

Funnily enough, until I started reading that IDW reprint volume, I would have called Martin one of the better colourists in the mainstream biz; her frequent collaborations with Cassaday are good stuff. And IDW has delivered a lot of tasteful reprints with no attempts at “improving” the art, so again: what went wrong here? How could people with good taste do this?

It’s such a shame because, come on, the main appeal of The Rocketeer is that art. Does anyone really think to themselves “gee, I really wish I could read about the adventures of some guy with a jetpack, and his gal pal Bettie Page”? …well, okay, some people probably do. But for me, and a lot of others, the drawcard is the art and — while design is a part of that, and that does still shine through the hideous recolouring — it’s even more about Stevens’ linework. And if IDW thought the original colouring was too garish, then hey, they could have released it in black and white…but, you know, in an affordable version.

I just wanted to stare at some nice art — why you gotta play me like that, IDW?

Bring on Fantagraphics’ B/W EC reprints, I say…

One last thought: if Brigid’s right about this style of colouring, is the mismatch something that’s going to persist, or is it just a shift in taste? There was a recent back-and-forth in film blogs about the shift to digital film and how that’s changed the basic “look” of modern cinema. David Bordwell, who’s just released a book about it, represented the old guard by criticising the new look; he quoted Roger Ebert:

Film carries more color and tone gradations than the eye can perceive. It has characteristics such as a nearly imperceptible jiggle that I suspect makes deep areas of my brain more active in interpreting it. Those characteristics somehow make the movie seem to be going on instead of simply existing.

On the other hand you had Jim Emerson, who’s also part of the old guard, being more sceptical about the inherent inferiority of digital:

I love the poetic language Roger and David use to describe the living, breathing, singing qualities of film, but I wonder how much of it is subjective and how much is objective. […] I wonder how much our perceptions are conditioned by our expectations and what we’re used to seeing, rather than the inherent trade-offs between digital and analog formats.

At least about film, I think Emerson’s probably right — relativism about aesthetic properties is way more plausible to me than anti-relativism. But what about comics? In ten, fifteen years time  will the kids who’ve grown up on modern superhero comics prefer this newer, shittier look?

…ha ha, just kidding, everyone knows that no kids whatsoever have grown up on superhero comics since the 90s, except Matt Seneca, and he’s a total freak. So until next time, true believers, make mine Martin!

There really is no accounting for taste

May 23, 2012

Original version:


Original version:

…and so on, for 140 or so pages.

I find it — no exaggeration — genuinely hard to read Laura Martin’s recolouring of Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer, as it appears in the 2011 reprint volume from IDW. I cannot understand how anyone could possibly look at something like this:

and decide that what it needs is a bunch of slick, plastic-looking colour gradients to muddy up Dave Stevens’ linework.

My critical motto has become “different strokes for different folks”, but I look at this reprint and my mind just boggles. The people who published this — and according to the internet, Laura Martin was hand-picked by Stevens himself to recolour the work — thought this was an improvement? Some readers prefer it? Fuck it, any readers prefer it?

Are you shitting me?

Kuhn was right: I literally live in a different world from these people; it is impossible for us to understand one another.

[Images pilfered from: IDW preview art, Chris Sims — one of the readers who, mirabile dictu, actually prefers the recolouring, and Wil Pfiefer]

Zap! Pow! Comics aren’t just etc.

April 10, 2012

Adam is in a place where he really has to reconnect with what it means to be a Master of the Universe

“Writer” James Robinson, discussing a forthcoming comic book about the adventures of a popular children’s toy from the 1980s.

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.

Tempted out of the wilderness by a good old-fashioned fist-fight

September 14, 2007

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:

Adrian Tomine.

‘Nuff said, true believer.

Obviously, I hate comics

July 2, 2007

I never really went away.

That stretch of one set of footprints? That’s where I was carrying you!

The Three Paradoxes, Paul Hornschmeier. Fantagraphics, 2007. $14.95, 84 pages.

There’s a scene in Johnny Ryan’s Angry Youth Comix where long-suffering character Sinus O’Gynus gets sent to Hell. The devil leads Sinus to a well-stocked library where he is to spend the rest of eternity. Oh well, thinks Sinus, this isn’t too bad–and then he realizes it’s not a library. It’s a graphic novel library.

Naturally, he’s horrified. I know just how he feels.

As comics have gentrified over the last five years, they’ve drifted toward the sensibilities of their new, middlebrow readership. They’ve done this largely by imitating the worst tendencies in the modern non-graphic novels familiar to that same new readership. The worst tendency of all being their myopic focus on the minor travails of the middle-class (economic and intellectual), and the most banal of everyday epiphanies.

Exhibit 1,213 for the prosecution: The Three Paradoxes.

Hornschmeier’s last book, Let Us Perfectly Clear, was a collection of his earlier, shorter work. Some might say that book was strongly influenced by Chris Ware, but let’s not mince words. It might as well have been called Schmacme Shmovelty Smibrary, only it fell far short of Ware’s originality, or his savage gallows humour. Still, at least Hornschmeier was aping one of the five best cartoonists of his generation and not, say, Michael Turner. Or Art Spiegelman or Marianne Satrapi, for that matter.

The Three Paradoxes represents a definite step backward in Hornschmeier’s artistic development. For the Ware influence has attenuated, to be replaced by an equally heavy Dan Clowes influence. Visually, that’s troubling but not the end of the world. Thematically, it’s just disastrous. For it’s the trite, “literary” Clowes post-Ghost World that Hornschmeier has now applied the tracing paper to, and not the earlier, funnier Clowes.

Thus the book’s barely-there plot: Paul, a cartoonist, is back home visiting his parents. He has trouble finishing a strip, takes a walk, reminisces about his childhood, free associates about the check-out guy at the service station, frets about an upcoming meeting with an internet pen-pal, and thinks about Zeno’s paradoxes. The End.

A couple of factors mitigate The Three Paradoxes‘ overall slightness. First, Hornschmeier at least avoids the unearned self-pity that so often clogs the new “graphic novels”. His autobiographical proxy doesn’t feel sorry for himself, nor does he offers apologiae for making comics. This latter may reflect a generational difference between the young Hornschmeier and his older peers like Ware, Clowes, et al. Comics are so respectable now that you don’t even have to apologize for making them!

Second, even though his line remains derivative, Hornschmeier is still a visually appealing draughtsman, with an especially gentle use of colour here. The section recounting Zeno’s paradoxes is a treat, a pastiche of Dell Comics (home of Little Lulu and Uncle Scrooge, among others). Extra kudos for his ugly-cute depiction of Socrates, notorious for his bad head.

In fact, the Zeno section is far and away the best part of the book, precisely because it wrests the book momentarily from (semi?) autobiography and thereby allows it to flourish. It flourishes by becoming something quite different, something we might call popular philosophy–explaining philosophy to the layperson.

Popular philosophy has a long and respectable tradition in the West, starting well before the current publishing craze for popular science, popular economics, popular cultural history and popular phrenology. Cicero wrote popular philosophy, as did Lewis Carroll (while cleverly alluding to Zeno, too) and Bertrand Russell, and the tradition is carried on by modern philosophers like Dan Dennett and Ian Hacking.

But popularizing anything is a tricky business, as shown by all the lousy pop books out there. Hornschmeier acquits himself admirably in the all-too brief pages where he discusses the paradoxes in question. Devised by the Greek philosopher Zeno, the paradoxes purport to show that our everyday notions of physical motion are incoherent. Hornschmeier, himself trained in philosophy, presents them succinctly and entertainingly, an object lesson to all would-be popularisers and educators.

By contrast, his attempts to connect the paradoxes with his navel-gazing ruminations in the rest of the book are unconvincing and half-baked. This isn’t so much a novel of ideas as a (dull) novel with some (very well explained) ideas tacked on.

In short, The Three Paradoxes is one of the most frustrating comics of the year. Hornschmeier is clearly talented and intelligent, and may have great work in him. But not yet. Visually, he would do well to develop his own style and get out from the shadow of his influences–no easy matter. Thematically, at least, the solution is clearer: get out of the generic cul-de-sac of autobiography and jump right into the real ideas. For the few pages when he does this here, The Three Paradoxes soars.

Or, to put it another way: less whining, more opining.

Recommended?Maybe in ten years’ time, when we can look back at the early promise shown in this book. Until then, not so much.

IYL Graphic novels. You know who you are.