Monday, July 23, 2007

The comics industry needs Go-Gurt!

-Via Blogorama, an interesting piece about the difficult balancing act facing comics in the graphic novel era. On the one hand, increased respectability has potential financial benefits (maybe, depending on who you ask). On the other, this higher profile might, in part, reflect the continued disrepute which clings to comics as a medium. The hipster middlebrow types* who shape (or, rather, attempt to shape) public opinion are supernaturally attracted to all things outre. It nourishes them, separates them from the masses. Allows them to carve out an identity for themselves, or (for the less ambitious) to leech onto the current hot movement. Which is to say, don't believe the hype. The popularity of Naruto is much more important than Time's opinion of Fun Home.

Anyway, here's the passage that caught my eye:

But some argue “Maus” was followed by a greater work. In early 1987, “Watchmen” concluded its 12-issue run, delivering an epic murder mystery, Cold War melodrama and probing, skeptical examination of superhero-worship.

Now, look. This guy Peter Rowe isn't just talking out of his ass; he actually has a quote from Tom Spurgeon, which is a pretty good way of establishing some modicum of credibility. But really, who exactly is it that thinks Watchmen is a "greater work" than Maus? I mean, besides those folks whose biggest gripe against Watchmen is the lack of toys?** I like Watchmen just fine--it's not Moore's best work, but it's a great comic. But seriously now--better than Maus? I'm not sure From Hell is better than Maus.

*The highbrow (by which I mean "academic") types are also reading comics, but either (a) purely for their own enjoyment, or (b) in the service of obscure projects which hold no pretense in shaping public reading habits. For instance, a couple of years ago my wife sat through a nearly incomprehensible presentation on depictions of the apocalypse in popular culture; said presentation drew heavily from Watchmen (hey!) and some manga she didn't recognize (and which I could not identify from her description). In case you weren't aware, most academics are more interested in description than prescription, which explains the vitality of their role in current popular discourse. In fact, practitioners of any applied sub-discipline are often looked upon with some mixture of animosity and amusement by those who work in the purely theoretical mainstream of the field. At least that's been the behavior I've observed.

**I've actually seen people who take great personal offense at Alan Moore's refusal to sign off on Watchmen toys, as if Moore is being unconscionably selfish. I'm not sure what to say to these people--I'm not sure we even speak the same language.

-I'll have another installment of the ever-popular 90s series tomorrow, but before that I'd like to touch on one subject I neglected last week. As I've already mentioned, part of the Image Myth is that the only reason these comics sold was rampant, foolhardy speculation. Of course, any fool could tell you that Spawn and Youngblood probably wouldn't have sold around a million each without the support of speculators. But again, this ignores the question of how these books became so popular in the first place. Speculators were attracted to popular artists. They might have used Wizard (or that other monthly price guide, and I don't mean Overstreet--anyone else remember its name?) as crib notes, of course, but Wizard didn't spin this hype out of thin air. There was a massive popular demand for comics drawn by the Image founders, particularly Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld. These were juvenile comics, to be certain, but many (perhaps most) of the readers were literally juvenile.

When she was publicizing her fill-in issues of Teen Titans, Gail Simone mentioned that her teenage son expressed an uncharacteristic interest once he saw the art--which, of course, was supplied by Rob Liefeld. Simone concluded that there was something about Liefeld's art that attracts adolescent boys. I totally agree, and would mention McFarlane and Lee in the same breath. But as of 2007, Marvel and DC are in no position to publish art so blatantly juvenile. Lee has maintained his popularity, but he was always the most grounded in realism of the three; I think people mistake his excessive linework for detail. Perhaps more important, Jim Lee represents the acceptable Image alumnus. He's a socially-acceptable conduit for all the accumulated Image nostalgia. True, Marvel occasionally publishes comics featuring art by Liefeld or Marc Silvestri, but their contributions in the last few years have been limited to cover art or hermetically sealed miniseries with no impact on any other books. Even then, normally art-agnostic message boarders will vociferously denounce their reappearance in the mainstream (such as it is), as though their very presence will somehow resurrect the "dark ages" of the 90s. You know, back when kids actually read comics.

I'm not trying to defend the Image founders on aesthetic grounds, but on commercial grounds. They were enormously popular; they attracted a wider audience than Grant Morrison or Alex Ross ever dreamed of. And, sadly, most of that audience is apparently not reading comics anymore. At least that's the impression one gets when reading message boards or blogs, where many posters don't think twice about admitting their love of Darkhawk (Darkhawk!), but swear up and down that they never liked Rob Liefeld. In fact, they never even read X-Force #1, no siree.

Everyone is in favor of Marvel and DC publishing comics geared towards juvenile readers, and many adult readers seem to particularly enjoy these comics. They present versions of characters which hearken back to the readers' childhoods, after all--the Avengers before Bendis! Dick Grayson is Robin! and so on. The art is usually clear, competent, and maybe a bit plain--an aesthetic somewhere between Bruce Timm and Curt Swan, ideally. Yes, it's no wonder these comics are so popular with adult readers. But are children (or their parents, grandparents, etc.) buying them? Certainly not in comics stores, no. Maybe in book stores? We really don't know, but when I'm in Barnes & Noble, I certainly see a lot more kids reading manga than Marvel Adventures: Avengers. And it's not something good like Drifting Classroom, either--it's stuff that I just can't get into as a 30-year-old man, for whatever reason. But then again, it's hard to produce comics for children that aren't dull as dishwater, transparently pandering, or secretly intended for adults. It takes a certain mindset--not exactly naiveté, but a real disingenuousness. Jack Kirby had this quality, and so did Harvey Kurtzman. But then again, so did a lot of other, lesser talents.

Look, let's say you missed lunch and were starving, and the only thing available to eat was Go-Gurt (or whatever that yogurt-in-a-tube is called). Realistically, what can you expect from this tube of green goo? It's not made for you. It will sell regardless of what you think about it, in fact. If tubular dairy sludge were the only food available, I would be the first one to complain. I'd much rather snack on something like wasabi peas. But I don't think we should try to feed kids a less-pungent version of wasabi peas--they want their Go-Gurt. Do you think the manufacturer of Go-Gurt eats that shit? Do you think that the average 11-year old Go-Gurt fiend grows up to eat nothing but squeezable foodstuffs? Why don't we let the kids have their Go-Gurt, for Chrissakes?

-So anyway, I'm thinking about reading some of the "classic" work by various prominent Image guys for the first time since puberty. I rarely read any reviews of this material which seeks to do anything more ambitious than ridicule it. Hey, that might be all that it deserves, but I'd like to find out first-hand. If I follow through with this impulse, I think I'll start with the works of Rob Liefeld--aside from McFarlane, he seems like the Image founder with the most fully-developed identity as a writer/artist/creator. I'm not interested so much in evaluating the quality of these comics from an adult (or semi-adult) point of view--I'm more concerned with trying to figure out why I liked these comics so much when I was 15. So yeah, maybe I'll work on that once I'm done with my 1990s reminisces.


Brona said...

I never read Spawn, and wasn't much of a Marvel reader, but I was a huge McFarlane fan when he was drawing Infinity Inc. for DC in the '80s. Certainly what I remember of him from that time doesn't suggest the kinds of anatomical excesses that are associated with Liefeld these days. Did his style change while I wasn't paying attention?

Chad Nevett said...

I just read Chuck Klosterman's Fargo Rock City this weekend and I could see a series of reviews of early Image work to be similar in that "look at something everyone mocks in a non-ironic and intelligent way." Would be very interesting reading.

Leigh Walton said...

Naruto, of course, is Go-Gurt. In fact, I would swear I once ate a tube of Go-Gurt that was exactly the hideous (awesome) neon orange of Naruto's outfit.

Christopher Butcher said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher Butcher said...

Hey... I don't regularly read (despite all the linkage, which I appreciate) because you kind of started blogging as I was falling behind on my reading. But I did want to add:


2) I Own all five versions of X-Force #1, X-Men #1, and every book Image published for at least the first 2 years. I am chiming in to let you know that Darkhawk was shitty methadone for people that couldn't handle the real Image hardcore books.

Darkhawk. He's about as cool as Terror INC. He's like an ineffectual, emo Green Lantern.

Admitting to liking Darkhawk is worse than liking SHAFT or BADROCK or WARBLADE, because he was approved by the Comics Code Authority.

(Fixing link to Cat and Girl)

Anonymous said...

Go-Gurt always struck me as something moms buy for their kids HOPING they'll eat it, but your point remains. Good topic.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I think "hipster" is a word you can safely use when and if you've finally given up. Remember that Life in Hell strip "The 9 Types of Boyfriends"? When you know good and well you've become "Old Man Grumpus," you know you've given up. Then you can start calling people hipsters, perhaps while listening to Fleetwood Mac or Steely Dan.

Re: McFarlane's anatomy (in, um, his art), just consider the poses he placed Spider-Man in. He's greatly overshadowed by Liefeld, but his sense of anatomy was pretty off as well.

Steve Flanagan said...

Wasn't there a piece in the last Comics Journal (not the new one, my copy hasn't reached me yet), arguing that Spiegleman wasn't important enough to include in that "masters of Comic Book Art" exhibition because he hadn't produced as many comics as Jack Kirby? A bizarre opinion, but there you are.

Matt Brady said...

Re: critical consideration of Image founders: I forget who it was (Tim O'Neil, perhaps?), but I read a blog entry a while back in which somebody said they had picked up a collection of Heroes Reborn Fantastic Four and thought it was a pretty enjoyable read. That was written and illustrated by Jim Lee, I think. So while the general consensus about the Image founders is negative, every so often I hear that people still kind of enjoy them. I'll still steer clear, though.

Steve Flanagan said...

I wonder if there is anyone complaining that they can't get jewish mice or cat concentration-camp-guard dolls.

Benjamin Hall said...

Great post!!

I'm guessing the other magazine you refer to, but couldn't fecall the name was "Hero" (Overstreet had "Fan").

I remember flipping through my buddy's copy of X-Force number one when it came out and being blown away by what appeared to be 22 pages of giant gun shootin' fight scene. I started reading it then and enjoyed the art to such a point that when Mike Mignola stepped in to draw an issue I was horribly disappointed by this "hack" artist and his simple lines screwing up my awesome X-Force.

Since then Mike Mignola has become one of the few artists that turns my knees to jelly with just the mention of his holy name and I find it hard to get excited about Liefeld's work at all.

But I've never felt he should stop drawing comics. People are obviously still buying them.