Archive for the ‘Intramural circle jerk’ Category

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!

I don’t just hate comics…

April 3, 2008

…I hate criticism too. Two sentences from the introduction to Fantagraphics’ Popeye Vol. II, by Donald Phelps:

1) It is extraordinary to reflect that in this comic strip, which calls to mind Gilbert Seldes’s dour reflection on The Katzenjammer Kids — they looked the way people who never read comic strips thought they all looked — what appear to be drawing conventions, and the most rudimentary at that, turn out, on close and serial scrutiny, not to be conventions in the generally acknowledged sense at all; nor the “style” to be any acknowledgeable style, even a bad one; least of all, the sense of any authority, any fanfaring of the strip’s personality, its worthiness and beaming future intentions, in terms of a visual plumage, such as the daft elegance of Bringing Up Father, the jaunty scurry of Jerry on the Job, and the slapstick swank of Polly and Her Pals alike convey.

Hey, I like asides and semi-colons, but you can have too much of a good thing. And, worse, the sentence is so long that, by the time he gets to the final clause, the author himself has forgotten to give it a verb. Seriously, parse that last clause–what is being predicated of “the sense of authority”?

2) He [Segar] evidently acquired early on in the Popeye sequences not only the grand operatic gravity which he imparted to the lovely little businesses, like the one with the pillow described above, or Olive Oyl’s kittenish-wistful tilting of Popeye’s sailor hat in the Skullyville adventure; but of Segar’s apprehension and general deployment (at once “primitive”, i.e. in its literalness, and sophisticated beyond most of his contemporaries) of “actual” time-space, his use of both attenuation (the longueurs, the off-stage sequences of action, chronicled in the characters’ reactions); the use of pause and double-take (in which I do not believe he was matched until the advent of intimate-toned comic strips like Johnny Hart’s B.C., Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, and Mell Lazarus’s Miss Peach, and later, Momma); and, on the other hand, the excited jamming of conversations, interjected comments, hasty summaries of relevant information, or the conveyance of which he advanced the use of dialogue balloons in alternating tier or stair-steps.

…I’m sorry, what were we talking about again? First of all, something has gone wrong with the expression “he evidently acquired … not only [blah] … but of Segar’s apprehension”. He acquired of Segar’s apprehension? What? Second, “his use of both attenuation”…and what? Both blah and blah, right? What’s the second “blah”? Third, something has gone seriously wrong with this phrase: “or the conveyance of which he advanced the use of dialogue balloons in alternating tier or stair-steps.” Huh?

These aren’t cherrypicked examples. They are two of the particularly egregious sentences, but they’re far from the only frankensteins in the introduction. There seems to be lots of interesting stuff in the introduction. But I’ll be damned if I can get through the syntax.

I’m not just being an arsehole here (emphasis on just). I literally cannot parse these sentences; they do not make syntactic sense to me as English sentences. If it was just some blog-post, then the reaction would be “whatever” — god knows I live in a glass house, a glass house made of over-long sentences. And, uh, glass. But this should have been proof-read at least once, preferably by somebody concerned with whether the sentences, you know, actually made any goddamn sense whatsoever.

The strips themselves, of course, are the shit. Not least because: first appearance of the real Jones.

It’s at times like these that I miss Fanboy Rampage

March 31, 2008

As everyone knows by now, some stupid judge on Wednesday decided to destroy Superman by handing him over to the money-grubbing, undeserving heirs of some schmuck who barely had anything to do with making Superman great. And you know who will pay for this? The fans, that’s who. Goddamn Siegels, sticking it to the fans.

Oh, wait, you didn’t know that? Man, you must not have read this blog@newsarama thread, then. But of course you haven’t read it. If you had, you would have committed hara-kari in shame over being associated in any way with this hobby, and then you wouldn’t be reading this very blog entry.

I wonder how many people are like me here–I’m more familiar with the fictional history of the injustices suffered by Siegel and Shuster than with the actual history. That’s the fictional history presented by Michael Chabon in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Rick Veitch in Maximortal. And this legal decision is one hell of a victory for the good guys, if that fictional history bears any resemblance to the actual one–as it surely does. Well, apart from the monstrous homunculus whose kryptonite is human faeces.

Anyway, I just wanted to share two of the highlights from that thread, for anyone who for some crazy reason baulks at trawling through the approximately nine-thousand other comments. First, Abhay, as usual, knows the score:

“I DON’T UNDERSTAND ANY OF THE FACTS, HISTORY OR LEGAL ISSUES BUT I HAVE AN OPINION ANYWAYS! LET’S HUG! LET’S HUG WITH OUR TONGUES!”

Amazingly, Abhay makes this gag well before the clusterfuckery comes out in full force. It’s almost like he can tell teh futare! But even Abhay’s comment gets topped by this comment later on from “Jerk-El”:

“OH NOES! I MUST HAS MY SUPERMANS! IF I NOE HAS MY SUPERMANS I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MAKE WHITE WEE-WEE AT NITE!!

IF THEYS BAD SIEG-ELS TAKES MY SUPEMRMANS AWAYS FROM ALL-GOOD AND MIGHTY AND WEALTHY DC COMICKS WHAT THEN? WHAT THEN?

I GO MAKE WHITE WEE-WEE NOW WHILE I STILL HAS MY SUPERMANS!”

Now that’s entertainment.

(Allcaps in the original)

Once more unto the breach

March 4, 2008

For those of you who can’t wait to get your wonk on until Brian Hibbs writes another 70,000 words on Bookscan sales, Dick Hyacinth has more on his meta-list of 2007’s Best Comics.

I kid, I kid. The entire blogosphere thanks Dick for doing this. As they say where I come from, you’re a dead-set legend.

(Oh, and we thank Brian too!)

As you probably know if you’re reading this blog, Dick collated all the best of lists into a meta-list. In his new post he splits the lists into two types: those that came from comics-specific sources (like Jog, the Journal, etc.), and those that came from more general sources (Time, Salon, etc.).

Then he points out an interesting difference between the two. Lists from comics-specific sources summed to this meta-ranking at the very top:

  1. I shall destroy all the civilised planets
  2. All-star Superman
  3. Alias the Cat
  4. Scott Pilgrim gets it together
  5. Powr Mastrs
  6. Exit Wounds
  7. Shortcomings.

By contrast, general sources gave Exit Wounds and Shortcomings meta-rankings of #1 and #2, respectively.

Prima facie, this is kind of surprising. You might expect to see a lot of variation further on down the list, but more agreement (across the two types of source) about the very best comics of the year.

As an analogy, think about films of 2007. Critics might disagree about the rest of their top ten–was Zodiac among the best of the year? Was The Bourne Ultimatum? Was Norbit? But they mostly agreed that No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood were, between them, #1 and #2, the exact order to be determined by a no-holds-barred cage-match.

In other words, people disagree about the very best. But you might expect them to agree about the very very very best.

Obviously, when it came to the comics of 2007, they didn’t. General sources liked Shortcomings and Exit Wounds rather more than comics-specific sources did. Well, what gives? Here’s Dick’s suggested explanation:

This alone doesn’t prove the “Chris Ware and his ilk have undue influence” theory (especially since there isn’t a whole lot of formally ambitious work on [the general] list), it’s interesting that the four [I think he means five; even Homer nods] titles which bested Exit Wounds and Shortcomings on the comics-focused lists could safely be described as more “fun” than these two graphic novels.

That’s an interesting suggestion. But I’d like to suggest another couple of explanations for the disparity in ranking.

Dick sort of acknowledges this in his aside, but Chris Ware has at least two (often conflated) “ilks”:

(1) the formalist/experimental ilk–think Fort Thunder, Paper Rad, Dash Shaw, et al.

(2) the autobio/depressing/tales-of-everyday life ilk–think Clowes, Bechdel, Matt et al.

The higher ranking of Shortcomings and Exit Wounds on list collated from general sources shows, I suspect, the influence of each ilk among the different types of source.

Comics-specific sources often care a lot about visual aesthetics and get excited about books that look distinctive, use comics-specific technique in novel ways, etc. That’s certainly true for me, and it seems true for Dick from some of his past comments.

By contrast, general sources seem to respond more to more universal narrative elements–by which I mean elements that are common to artworks across different media. Things like dialogue, thematics, plot, etc.

Yeah yeah it’s an overgeneralization blah blah blah…but it seems plausible that lists appearing in general sources, in comparison with comics-specific sources, are more likely to be either (a) written by someone with more experience in other media (film, prose, theatre) than in comics, or (b) written for an audience with more experience in other media. Doesn’t that sound plausible?

And PLEASE note that I’m NOT making any claims that one set of emphases/interests is better than the other, or that one side has a better idea of what makes for good comics. Different strokes for different folks, man. It’s all good.

Anyway, the five books that beat Shortcomings and Exit Wounds on the specific list are–to be as polite as possible to those two works–MUCH more visually interesting than they are. I’d guess that that probably explains as much of the disparity as their greater “fun” value.

The general list would probably look very different if art/visual culture sites and mags published their own top 10 lists and they were included. I bet stuff like Maggots (my personal #1 for the year, although I didn’t do a serious list) and New Engineering would rank much higher. Although I don’t know whether there’d be call for such lists at, fuck, I don’t know…Wallpaper? Taschen Readers’ Digest?

There’s another factor which might have contributed, too. At least three of the top five on the comics-specific sites (Superman, Planets, Alias) either draw heavily on tropes from the comics of yore, or need a lot of context to appreciate them, or both. Which would, again, boost their standing among comics-specific sources.

As for Scott Pilgrim, well, comics-specific sources are all big fat nerds, so naturally they’d respond to a book that grossly pandered to their stunted development.

(Again, I kid. The problem with the most recent Scott Pilgrim volume was that it didn’t pander enough. It was at its best when O’Malley stuck to the dopey video game fights and throwaway gags that dominated previous volumes, and at its worst when it attempted anything more. You can clearly see O’Malley straining against the formula he has written himself into, since that formula so patently doesn’t allow for the sort of depth that he apparently wants to mature into. Unfortunately, he’s stuck with it…but “My Scott Pilgrim Problem–And Ours” is a post for another day, a day that I can pretty much guarantee will never come).

Anyhoo, that’s my 2 cents. None of this is to say that Dick is wrong–the comics-specific top five are more fun and less serious. I just reckon they’re also more visual and, well, comics-specific. We can both be right; every child gets a prize!

Of course, the real explanation is probably that it’s just statistical noise and there is no deep meaning. But where would be the fun in that? Or, more importantly, the blog posts?

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.