Friday, September 28, 2007

Lots of numbers here

-I've been following the debate on the Beat regarding the utility of sales charts, including Brian Wood's somewhat shrill claim that they are a destructive force in the comics market (he's mostly talking about Vertigo titles, including his own DMZ). Heidi made an especially useful point today, based on conversations with retailers at Diamond's recent Baltimore summit. The retailers she spoke with claimed that they made their decisions based on what happens in their store, rather than what Paul O’Brien and Marc-Oliver Frisch report every month on the Beat. The one caveat to this is speculation that "bad" retailers might let these charts influence them.

I'm a little skeptical of this possibility. It's unclear what we mean by "bad" stores here--stores that only stock Marvel and DC? Stores with very little product on the shelf, especially graphic novels? Stores run by fanboy types who want their sales to reflect their own prejudices? I've shopped in a variety of stores I would consider "bad" in the last couple of years (at least they seemed "bad" to me on the day I visited them), including a few that actually stocked titles from the Fantagraphics/D&Q side of the spectrum. What they all seemed to have in common was a shared sense of complacency, bordering on torpor. Some of them catered to a very limited customer base: you could tell they depended on sales to subscribers, only ordering a handful of copies for the shelf (in one store I visited, most of the floor space was dedicated to the cheap bins--the only part of the store anyone else was browsing at the time). Other stores primarily catered to non-comics readers--people seeking kitschy pop culture items or toys or or RPGs or even (believe it or not!) baseball cards. Some of these stores were marginal, in the sense that a couple of fairly minor bad breaks would probably put them out of business. Others were well-established institutions with large, dedicated customer bases; these stores also could probably be taken out with a few bad breaks, but that's kind of the nature of the industry.

Nothing in the operation of these stores suggested that their owners altered their orders based on anything they read online. A few of them appeared to be owned and operated by people who have probably never heard of the Beat,, or maybe even Brian Wood. Others were run quite professionally, in perfect harmony with the existing clientèle's needs (and thus of limited use to me, an casual shopper not tuned into their frequency). These weren't stores run by grudge-holding Comic Book Guy types--they were either completely divorced from the larger comics-reading world, or they were too attuned to their established customers' needs to let any potential Vertigo money pass them by.

I think the much stronger argument would be that sales charts might prevent stores from pushing marginal DC/Marvel titles to their customers. In other words, why bother recommending Crossing Midnight to a Fables fan if you're pretty sure the former will be canceled soon? In my experience, "bad" stores don't make these kinds of recommendations--it's the better stores that actually go out on a limb by suggesting material that their customers may end up rejecting. (Besides, some of the "bad" stores probably only order enough copies of Crossing Midnight to satisfy their subscription customers, so there wouldn't even be a shelf copy to recommend.) And, needless to say, any readers who pay attention to the sales charts may very well reach this conclusion on their own, thus robbing Crossing Midnight (or whatever) of additional sales.

But there's nothing wrong with this kind of pessimism if the retailers/consumers are correct in their suspicions. Wood's argument (as I understand it) is that existing data does not factor in reorders. Frisch counters these arguments at his own blog, but I think there's another issue in question: how large can these reorder numbers be if they all fail to reach the top 300? The lowest ranked book in the top 300 falls somewhere between 1200 and 3000 copies sold; over the last year, the average has been 1897. That's certainly high enough to make a significant impact on overall sales--assuming that these marginal books were actually hitting somewhere in the four figure range for reorders. I have no idea if that's true or not, but consider this: Wood's title, DMZ, has been in the 14,000-12,000 range for the last year or so. Actually, that's misleading--it started at 14,704 for #10 and has steadily dwindled to 12,175 for issue #22, mostly at a steady pace until #20, at which point orders declined somewhat sharply. For DMZ to make up the gap between #10 and #22 on reorders, it would have to sell another 2529 copies--about 17% of the initial sales. For these reorders to equal 2500+ and still not show up in any iteration of Diamond's top 300, they would have to be spread pretty liberally across several months. That would be kind of a neat trick.

Admittedly, Vertigo titles aren't highly perishable commodities like regular DC or Marvel titles, which rely more on dedicated fans who tend to miss issues only by design. I don't doubt that demand for Vertigo back issues persists a bit longer than for superhero titles. But they're not like issues of Eightball either; there are new issues coming out every month or so. The further one gets from the first month of release, the less demand there should be for a particular issue. If one waits several months to buy a back issue of a title, that means there are even more issues to buy before being caught up. At this point, Vertigo's increased shelf life is surely offset in part by its much-ballyhooed trade program.

Even more important is Diamond's discount policy. Discount rates are significantly lower on reorders, thus encouraging retailers to lay in enough copies to meet demand with their initial orders. This goal isn't always achieved, of course; otherwise retailers would never reorder anything, ever. But, as Frisch himself points out, if reorders were really such a significant chunk of overall sales, retailers would begin to account for this increased demand in their initial sales. After all, it's in their financial interest to do (both in the sense of maximizing discount as well as keeping potential customers away from competing stores). So it's logical to assume that declining initial sales for Vertigo titles such as The Exterminators, Crossing Midnight, DMZ, Army@Love, etc., etc. reflects decline in the actual demand for these titles among customers of comics shops throughout North America. And these aren't statistically insignificant drops in sales; as Frisch shows, they're steady, month-after-month declines. It's just too much to think that these numbers are so compromised that we can't take them seriously.

-Which brings up the question of what, if anything, Vertigo should do about the situation. I'm going to assume Frisch is right in arguing that reduced monthly sales are not sufficiently offset by increased TPB sales (though not everyone believes this--check out the comments on the DC sales thread for alternate theories). Frisch suggests streamlining and consolidation of resources, allowing Vertigo to focus its promotional budget on a few worthy titles. Maybe that's what they had planned for the long run; maybe Vertigo launched a bunch of under-promoted titles in the last year as some kind of gladiatorial challenge or initiation by fire or something. There might be something to that, actually. One wonders if Vertigo's editors just aren't all that confident in any of their new titles, thereby leading us to the current what-shit-sticks-to-the-wall? scenario. Unfortunately, none of the shit is sticking (with the exception of Jack of Fables, which probably wouldn't have stuck without the success of its parent book Fables). With Y the Last Man near completion and 100 Bullets not far behind, Vertigo is running out of books that break five figures in monthly sales.

In a comment left at the Beat, retailer/critic Randy Lander expresses hope that Brian Wood will save the imprint, with increased sales for DMZ and a successful launch for Northlanders (his upcoming book about Vikings). I have no idea why the former would happen, unless the disparity between pamphlet and sales trades is truly monumental. Diamond's sales charts indicate DMZ is losing readers, and (as mentioned above) I see no reason to doubt this. Compare it to Vertigo's two heaviest hitters. Fables and Y the Last Man sell at a much, much more consistent rate, and they're both garnering double the sales of DMZ, at least in initial orders. (There's no data for Y in the August charts because it didn't ship that month; see July's chart for the most recent data on this title.) DMZ is in no danger of cancellation, of course, but it's not a flagship title. (It's not really logical to compare TPB figures based on Direct Market numbers, since so many of the sales are to bookstores. But if you're interested, the last DMZ trade launched at 5489 in DM sales, whereas the latest Fables collection did 12,168. The last Y the Last Man collection was in the same area.)

This doesn't mean that Northlanders won't be a Fables/Y level hit, though. If it's an appealing comic, that would certainly help; I'm not prepared to offer any judgments on that, because it really doesn't sound like my sort of thing and I'm not a typical Vertigo reader. As far as buzz goes.... Okay, take this with a grain of salt, but I tried entering "Northlanders" into Ask Cerebra, and I only got 12 results. By comparison, a search for "Tomine Shortcomings" yielded about 30 hits related to the upcoming graphic novel. Maybe this reflects a bias on the part of the blogosphere, but I'm positive that it also reflects on Vertigo's promotional efforts for Northlanders thus far. Which is kind of a bad thing, since orders for the first issue are due pretty soon. I think.

Let's assume a very, very rosy scenario for Northlanders, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 a month, with a matching number of TPB sales over the first year. Obviously there's no doubt in anyone's mind that the book will continue in its monthly format. But what about a more realistic scenario--about 10,000 a month, with initial TPB sales being somewhere around 75% of that. (The second volume of DMZ did somewhere around 6000 in initial orders in the Direct Market according to ICv2. The sales of the issues it collected ranged from 15,212 to 14,640, according to Frisch. I assume that bookstore orders were no higher than DM numbers.) Is there really any value in continuing to produce the monthly book, aside from the usual "amortization" justification? Why not release it as a series of original graphic novels?

OGNs have been a mixed bag for Vertigo. Pride of Baghdad (written by Y the Last Man creator Brian K Vaughan) shipped 10,734 initially. The following month, Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall sold an astounding 15,289 to the Direct Market. Those are major triumphs for the imprint, and indicate that Vertigo can sell OGNs if the creator appeals to enough readers. Better yet if the OGN is a spinoff of an existing series, even if it doesn't exactly tie into the main narrative. Less popular creators like Mike Carey/John Bolton or Gilberto Hernandez* have had modest success with OGNs at Vertigo; the former sold 4244 copies of the poorly-reviewed God Save the Queen**, while the latter sold 3452 of the seldom-reviewed Sloth (and we're talking initial sales only, naturally). Those are probably higher sales those titles would have garnered had they been collections of serialized comics. Less successful was Rick Veitch, who presumably still has some cache with Vertigo readers from his Swamp Thing days. His OGN, Can't Get No, sold only 2908 copies in initial Direct Market orders.

I'm not sure what the threshold is for Vertigo to cancel a book these days. Seems like it's gotten lower here recently, but how low can it get? Still, Vertigo isn't exactly ready to abandon the pamphlet format, either. It's pretty clear that the imprint's OGNs seem to succeed the most when they can build off buzz generated by monthly titles. Launching a series of OGNs featuring a new property would move the imprint into unprecedented territory. It might eventually happen, but the time doesn't seem quite ripe to go in this direction yet. In the long run, Vertigo could use a few more bestselling OGNs like 1001 Nights of Snowfall so as to condition its readers to buy more OGNs featuring recurring characters. That might be a step toward launching a series of OGNs with a popular creative team (Vaughan would be a good choice, but his TV gig might limit his work in the comics medium). In the short run, Vertigo could probably stand to take Frisch's advice. I think Brian Wood would thank them for doing so.

*In the Direct Market in the early 21st century, at least. I have little doubt that Hernandez will be better remembered than Vaughan or Willingham in 30 years. Assuming that our desperate struggle for existence will allow us to time to think about old comic books at all.

**BTW, Vertigo promoted the hell out of God Save the Queen, didn't it? How many bloggers got a review copy of that book, anyway? (And why didn't I get one? Is it because I keep calling for DiDio's ouster?) I remember reading dozens of reviews, ranging from lukewarm to outright hostile. Probably not what Vertigo was hoping for, though the timing was late enough that it probably didn't hurt their initial sales. Then again, it probably didn't help increase reorders, either. I kind of wonder if it might have made Vertigo gun shy about promoting a new book by soliciting a massive number of reviews. Maybe they should try that trick again, only with a better book.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Liefeld Retrospective II: New Mutants 87-100, 1990-91

Part one: Hawk and Dove

Note: this might look a little weird if you're using a news reader. Sorry about that.

Having completed Hawk and Dove, Rob Liefeld moved on to Marvel, where he was initially assigned to an Alpha Flight relaunch. When this fell through, he was transferred to Bob Harras' "X-office," where (according to Liefeld's memory) he specifically requested New Mutants, since its low sales ensured greater creative freedom. That's one version--this claims that Bob Harras sought out Liefeld, thinking a younger penciller would better suit the title's young cast. The history of the title certainly corroborates Liefeld's version. New Mutants was an X-Men spinoff which had enjoyed modest success at best. It chronicled the adventures of a group of adolescent mutants, sort of a retread of the original X-Men concept. It had gone through a number of creative directions, of which only the Chris Claremont/Bill Sienkiewicz run has any lingering resonance among non-fetishists. New Mutants wasn't quite tabula rasa, but it was a better fit for the 22-year-old Liefeld's aspirations than any other mutant title.

Simonson was officially listed as the series' writer through issue 97, but it's unclear exactly how much input Liefeld had on the plot. All the new characters were apparently his design, but the tone of the book was still in flux during the issues credited to Simonson. Cable is as much teacher as soldier, expressing genuine concern for the emotional health of his young charges. Besides, I don't think Liefeld's ever tried to claim that he was actually the primary plotter on these issues. In any event, Simonson left after the X-Tinction Agenda crossover, which took up the last three issues of her run. Starting with issue 98, Fabian Nicieza scripted over Liefeld's plots; they would retain these roles when the series was relaunched as X-Force in 1991.

Liefeld's first issue was technically #86, an Acts of Vengeance crossover featuring Vulture, a Spider-Man villain. But in my mind, the Liefeld era didn't really begin until the following issue, the first appearance of Cable. With this issue, the tone of the series shifted dramatically; Liefeld and Simonson replaced the School For Gifted Youngsters premise with a much darker, paramilitary theme. Cable was much older than the rest of the team. He carried a massive arsenal of guns--in fact, he doesn't use any super power at any point during Liefeld's New Mutants run. It's not even clear if he's a mutant, though practically every character seems to know him from somewhere. As a teenager, I found his mysterious past far more compelling than his cybernetic accouterments or his predilection for massive firearms. It's not clear who is responsible for this air of mystery; Liefeld, Simonson, and Harras have all tried to claim credit for Cable.

Bob Wiacek was the inker assigned to this first issue. His style was a pretty significant departure from Karl Kesel's; while Kesel tended to add heft to Liefeld's lines (occasionally via dense pools of black), Wiacek tended to encourage Liefeld's habit of using many little lines where one or two strong lines would have sufficed.

Figure 1: Wiacek's inks involved a few tradeoffs.

On the other hand, Wiacek's inks seem to have encouraged some better character work out of Liefeld; perhaps he was being especially proactive as an inker, if you know what I mean. In figure 1 above, Skids shows a great deal more personality than any of Liefeld's characters from Hawk and Dove. In figure 2 below, Liefeld draws his adolescent characters with reasonably convincing adolescent bodies. In later issues, these characters would be much bulkier. Their more modest appearance in #87 better suited Simonson's creative direction, in which Cable is both instructor and leader for the team.

Figure 2: Liefeld's teenagers actually look like teenagers. They also look like weenies, if you ask me. Especially Rictor (far right).

Liefeld generally seems a little uncomfortable in the first issue. His style is much blander than what we usually associate with Marvel-era Liefeld; some panels might actually have been re-drawn by the Marvel art department. (In fact, I seem to remember reading an interview with Liefeld in which he complains of John Romita Sr. "fixing" his art.) The next issue saw a change in inkers. Hilary Barta was the regular inker through issue 94, and Liefeld's art improved as a result. Barta tended to ink Liefeld with much bolder lines, a style better suited for Liefeld's millions-of-tiny-lines style of pencilling. I was kind of amused by this, since I remember Liefeld and Barta having some kind of gripe back when Image was publishing Barta's Stupid, a comic parodying Image (not to be confused with Don Simpson's Splitting Image). Of course, I might be remembering this wrong; I don't have that issue of Hero's Illustrated handy.

Figure 3: Barta adds some almost Mignola-esque touches to Liefeld's pencils. Detail from a two-page splash panel.

This issue also sees Liefeld moving more towards the style which would define his run at Marvel. Two page splashes abound. Scarcely a page goes by in which some figure doesn't break the borders of a panel. And, much to the chagrin of many readers, Liefeld moves further away from a conventional understanding of anatomy.

Figure 4: The Blob unhinges his lower jaw, perhaps in order to swallow a small cow whole.

Still, Liefeld occasionally shows off some talent for composition. Although he did not do so consistently, Liefeld was capable of imbuing his panels with a great sense of motion by emphasizing multiple diagonal lines. He was also surprisingly good at creating depth by placing objects in the extreme foreground. This creates some degree of compositional tension by making the subject of the panel smaller than the figure in the foreground.

Figure 5a: Liefeld uses perspective and a tilted camera angle to create an interesting composition. I don't know why all these characters are all running in different directions in the first panel.

Figure 5b: Liefeld sacrifices anatomical accuracy for composition; note the multiple diagonal lines, moving the reader's eye all around the panel.

As the series progressed, Liefeld grew more comfortable with designing the page as a whole, again with an emphasis on motion. It's oft been said that Liefeld seems to get bored with the actual act of drawing comics--that he'd rather draw pinups or design new characters. You can see a bit of that in New Mutants, but I'd call it more like restlessness than boredom. Tasked with drawing a dialogue-heavy scene, Liefeld tries to draw the talking heads in the most action-packed method he can devise.

Figure 6: A talking heads scene gets Liefeldized.

Liefeld uses a series of similarly-sized panels to show each member of the team, even those with no dialogue at the time. These panels all overlap, cascading into the penultimate panel, a large group shot. In the third panel, Cannonball grossly overreacts to Cable's dialogue; Liefeld uses subtle speed lines to indicate his shock. Likewise, lines angrily radiate from Rictor's head in an expression of rage. The page doesn't really work--the facial expressions are wildly inappropriate, stupid even. But it's evidence of Liefeld's playful attitude towards page composition.

Figure 7: Parallel layouts by Liefeld. Note the diagonal composition of the backgrounds in the largest panels. These diagonals feed into the diagonal direction of the smaller panels. This diagonal movement suggests that Caliban and Sabretooth are converging on each other.

At other times, Liefeld comes closer to success. In figure 7 above, Liefeld depicts Caliban stalking Sabertooth in symmetrical pages. This isn't just a cheap parlor trick; it actually works in the context of the scene. Caliban thinks he's hunting Sabertooth while Sabertooth thinks he's setting a trap. It's a deadly cat and mouse cliche, but Liefeld makes this sort of hackneyed plot device a bit more palatable.

Figure 8: Liefeld using a few of his favorite techniques.

Of course, the parallel panels are a rare example of Liefeld illustrating a quiet moment. His forte is clearly action, and his art bristles with kinetic energy. As I mentioned earlier, it's rare that Liefeld goes a full page without having at least one figure break panel borders. In figure 8 above, Cable punches Wolverine clear out of the second panel; his body overlaps into the panels above and below. But that's not even the most interesting thing about this page. In the first panel, Wolverine jumps from off panel right into Cable's face, with the speed lines in the background accentuating this motion. The full page bleed in this panel is crucial; it was an uncommon printing technique at Marvel frequently employed, so the impact c. 1991 must have been far greater than it is in 2007. The full page bleed suggests that Wolverine isn't just jumping into the scene from off-panel, but off-page. Even in an age where full panel bleeds are a common sight, it's a highly effective panel. The final panel sees Liefeld playing around with white space, a Liefeldian tick which I suspect began with the final issue of Hawk and Dove. Unfortunately, Mike Carlin's editorial freak out and subsequent cut-and-paste job put this purely in the realm of speculation. Regardless, Liefeld uses the white space on this particular page to his advantage. The final panel featuring two figures surrounded by a vast expanse of white. It freezes the moment in time, building anticipation for what happens on the next page. The effect is even stronger when juxtaposed with the extreme dynamism of the first two panels. This is far more sophisticated storytelling than we usually associate with Liefeld.

Figure 9: On the other hand....

But look, I don't want to overrate Rob Liefeld here. These impressive pages are tiny islands in a sea of crap. Just a few pages after composing such a effective fight scene between Cable and Wolverine, Liefeld draws a real stinker of a panel in which Wolverine throws away a damp cigar in disgust (don't ask). It's a completely nonsensical drawing. Why is Wolverine hurling the ruined stogy with all his might? Why is it falling downward, when the extreme foreshortening of his arm indicates that it should be hurtling straight toward the reader? And worst of all, where the hell is the lower half of his torso? These would all be acceptable quirks if they weren't all happening at once. Or if the drawing wasn't so fucking brain-shatteringly ugly.

Figure 10: .....

And then there's Liefeld's decision to insert a diagram from The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe right in the middle of a page. Actually, I can't say this is what he did for certain, but it sure looks like one of Elliot Brown's technical drawings. If, say, JH Williams were to do this, we'd consider it a postmodern masterstroke. But, since it's Rob Liefeld, it's pretty easy to chalk it up to laziness or some misguided nod towards, uh, something or another. It's totally jarring--no one is looking at a map or blueprint, so it doesn't fit into the narrative flow of the comic. Juxtaposed with Liefeld's scratchy, imprecise lines, the schematic is violently out of place, grinding the flow of the page to a excruciating halt. It takes the reader right out of the story--which isn't always a bad thing. Here, though, it's just another moment of Liefeldian lunacy.

Liefeld and Simonson's run was interrupted by the X-Tinction Agenda crossover, which looked so unbelievably bad that I didn't bother to read it. The pencils look rushed; they suffer from Joe Rubinstein and Art Thibert's inks, which emphasize all of Liefeld's worst qualities. Still, the crossover cleared the deck for the complete Liefeldization of New Mutants. Half the cast were written out of the book by the end of New Mutants #98, replaced by original Liefeld creations like Shatterstar and Domino. More important, Liefeld took over plotting the book. Gone was Simonson's central motif of Cable guiding these older adolescents into adulthood, giving them the tough love they need, etc. etc. In its place was a more Claremont-ish approach: Morlocks, the Mojoverse, the Hellfire Club, and an ever-expanding cast of mysterious strangers.

Figure 11: Nicieza makes his mark immediately. Note the use of smaller print for Deadpool's aside--a nice touch.

I hate to say it, but it's an improvement, really. Liefeld throws a lot of balls in the air by the end of New Mutants #100. It's unclear how well he would have juggled them in the long run, but in the short run it set up a lot of potentially exciting (if potentially formulaic) plots. Even more striking is the improvement in dialogue under Nicieza. Simonson's dialogue was solid at best, spectacularly bad at worst. Way back in issue #87, Boom Boom (a valley girl type) refers to Freedom Force (basically the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants) as "the absolute worst dolts in existence." That's unbelievably bad, even by the standards of early 90s Marvel. Nicieza injects a bit of wit to the proceedings, probably a necessary change to offset Liefeld's portentous plotting.

Figure 12: Hope you aren't into background detail.

The last three issues also see Liefeld take over inking duties, and the change is pretty substantial. Liefeld was never much for detailed backgrounds, but they all but disappear now that he has to produce 22 finished pages of art every month. His layouts also suffer, marked by more mundane panel and page compositions. Which is bad--devoid of those creative layouts, Liefeld's art is muddled and confusing. (Okay, it's confusing with the creative layouts as well, but at least it's an interesting type of confusion.)

Figure 13: When panel breaks go bad.

Worst of all, Liefeld's compositions lack energy. Even when he indulges his pet idiosyncrasies, the pages don't move so much as collapse in a heap. In figure 13 above, the full figures of Cable and Warpath intrude on the final panel. It doesn't work; they seem to be trampling on Warpath's head as he enters a cab. And those backgrounds...Jesus, man. Are they inside or outside?

Figure 14: Nice threads, dude (he's wearing a vest without a sports coat).

Liefeld bounces back by the end of the issue, where he's playing around with camera angles and negative space yet again. In figure 14 above, he breaks from a row of conventional panels to let Cable's head and vest define the positive space. It's a more successful panel than the one below (figure 15), which seems more like Liefeld running out of ways to amuse himself while drawing a boring, dialogue-heavy scene.

Figure 15: This has to violate some rule of cinematography.

In the final issue of New Mutants, Liefeld is mixing in a few non-gimmicky panels with actual, honest-to-God good compositions. He doesn't do it consistently throughout the issue, but it's something of a step forward for the young artist.

Figure 16: A pair of well-composed panels from New Mutants #100.

Liefeld isn't relying on speed lines or panel breaks in these panels--he's using his innate sense of composition to imply movement and action by leading the reader's eye all over the panel. On the other hand, these panels also reveal his ongoing issues with anatomy, which appear to have worsened as he's taken over on inks.

I don't want to oversell Liefeld here. He's not an accomplished artist on New Mutants; to the contrary, he's an incredibly frustrating artist. Liefeld flashes moments of skill throughout the book. You can't help but wonder what he could have done if he'd continued to work on his craft. Some of these pages are very sophisticated for a guy who'd only been drawing comics for a couple of years. These are not the majority of his pages, unfortunately. Furthermore, any casual reader would be overwhelmed by his poor rendering and frequently sloppy storytelling to notice these infrequent triumphs.

But is what the average New Mutants reader would have seen in 1991? Let me try to put myself in the mindset of a 12 year old boy for a minute. There's a lot of cool stuff going on in Liefeld's pencils--curvaceous women, brooding heroes, slobbering villains, and nonstop action. The insertion of a schematic diagram of the Danger Room? Probably would have taken me out of the moment, but I would probably have found it incredibly cool. All those lazy backgrounds? I thought they were great at the time because they made me feel better about my own inability to draw convincing, detailed backgrounds in the comics I was making (in fact, my comics suddenly featured a lot of loosely crosshatched backgrounds). Liefeld's books popped right off the shelf, promising action which no other artist could deliver. Hawk and Dove only hinted at these qualities, but New Mutants delivered. It's no wonder this book vaulted him to superstardom. And it's no wonder that today's fans don't want to read Liefeld-drawn comics anymore--there just aren't that many 12 year old boys buying comics these days, and the 12 year old boys of yesterday are kind of embarrassed that they ever liked this shit.

Next: X-Force, the point at which the phrase "diminishing returns" becomes relevant to the discussion.

The war on fun

-I swear to all of you, the second part of the Liefeld thing is about half done. I've got all the illustrations all edited up, nice and illustrative, and I've written about half of it. Should be posted tonight or tomorrow.

-Interesting analysis of the Green Arrow/Black Canary wedding/death thing by Johanna Draper Carlson. The problem is that, for most readers of superhero comics, fear of commitment is purely academic. If anything, they probably have a romanticized view of marriage: nothing but maid service and frequent sex, while you can just let yourself go. Plus, if you can convince your wife to read Sandman, maybe you can turn her. That opens the door to a variety of miracles: Showing off your (presumably hot) wife at conventions! Doubling your weekly comics purchases, since she'll be buying just as much stuff!* Convincing her to dress up like Wonder Woman for your private amusement! Convincing her to dress up like Wonder Woman so you can show her off at conventions! Other sick and twisted things too, I bet!

Also, isn't Judd Winick married? I thought that cartoon he created featured a stand-in for his wife or something. Maybe it's time for a deep psychological analysis of Winick and his oeuvre. Uh, I'll let someone else do it.

*JUST KEEP HER AWAY FROM THE MANGA. You want her buying things you actually want to read yourself, right?

-For those who helped me out with all the suggestions for online outlets for mini-comics purchases, please note that the USS Catastrophe is back up, possibly for a limited time only. Major hat tip to Mr. Hodler for pointing this out.

-Scenes from the class struggle in North American comics: Here's a debate between Joel Bryan and some Livejournal dude (parts one two three and four), which, beneath a lot of heated rhetoric and factual inaccuracies, elucidates some of the current tension in comic fandom. A brief synopsis: Inspired by a piece in the Onion AV Club, Bryan declares the monthly pamphlet format of comics to be a hindrance to the comics medium. Individual graphic novels would be preferable, since this would give the creative teams more leeway to actually tell complete, coherent stories. (There's also some stuff about royalties and creator ownership in there; it's sort of a rambly piece.) The Livejournal guy, one "Andy," responds that Wikipedia and piracy (!) make it easy for a dedicated reader to follow continuity. A rather peeved Joel Bryan shows up in the comments, prompting Andy to basically reassert his position, including this gem:

Seriously, I read books, I've written papers for college (not the same as a novel, granted), and I've observed as best as the Internet allows while real authors write real books without using pictures. And you know what, they do it much like I read comics and write college papers, by researching the hell out something.

Somehow missing that this essentially makes any further argument moot, Bryan continues to prod Andy, who (despite having won the debate in the passage quoted above) changes his argument. First, comic books aren't art, they're "pop art." So any literary pretensions are ultimately Quixotic and detrimental to the medium as a whole. Second, he invokes manga to defend the monthly, serialized comic, an argument so littered with misconceptions and lazy argumentation that I'm not going to subject you to my 200+ word refutation.

Anyway, Bryan responds with another rambling post contending that, from a reader's perspective, continuity is a loser's game. Since so much of it will later be retconned by later writers and editorial regimes, there's no point in trying to follow it. He also (quite rightfully) points out the hypocrisy in superhero uberfans calling their detractors snobs:

Want to talk snobs? Go to a comic store and listen in on some hardcore fan conversations sometime when jargon like "newbies" is being tossed around (although they're not a patch on music store geeks).

Back at Livejournal, Andy expands on his anti-art position by claiming that great art/literature can only be produced by accident. When someone questions this odd stance, his responds:

I feel this first step into not creating crap is to get off whatever horse makes people try and make great art.

So there you go. After peeling and prodding by Joel Bryan and commenters at his own blog, Andy reveals why he's afraid of losing the monthly serialized comic: it will make comics boring, literary, and anti-fun (fun being directly proportional to the amount of time which must be spent on Wikipedia in order to make the comic comprehensible). We'll be awash in comics about people arranging matchsticks or something. IT'S GOT TO BE ONE OR THE OTHER, dudes! There's not room for both!

I probably wouldn't have mentioned this at all if not for Abhay Khosla's inspired review of the new Doctor 13 trade. Khosla links it to a tradition of decrying the grim-and-gritty-ization of comics, which dates back at least to Alan Moore and Don Simpson's Pictopia. I suspect there are older iterations of this theme; in fact, I'm almost certain that some newspaper cartoonist was expressing basically the same things about EC's crime-and-gore line (but that might be faulty memory on my part--I might be thinking of Fearless Fosdick, which isn't really the same thing). The gist is this: complaints about the darkening of mainstream comics inevitably become co-opted into DC and Marvel's marketing of said comics. It's a rather nihilistic/fatalistic argument, and I don't really mean that as a criticism. You really owe it to yourself to read the whole thing, but I will pull one quote directly related to what I'm talking about here:

People who care about how charmless and talentless DCU comics in the present are? Stopped reading them, or at least I'd hope they have as that's clearly the most rational response.

But what, pray tell, do you do when you've determined that DC (and Marvel) comics are suffering from a lack of fun? Well, you can try to start reading other comics instead, limiting your doses of superhero comics to select titles and reprints. Or you can reevaluate your notions of what constitutes good comics--maybe "fun" isn't the only thing you should be looking for in your comics reading.

Unfortunately, I think this is where I worry that the proponents of non-superhero comics have actually hurt the chances of getting superhero fiends to read comics in different genres. For years, proponents of indie/alternative/whatever comics have decried superheroes as an inherently stupid or creatively bankrupt genre. I strongly suspect that a large segment of the superhero-only fanbase processes these words like Livejournal Andy: the proponents of art/literary comics insult my comics as "stupid," but they're not because they're fun and exciting and I like them. Thus, the people who insult my kind of comics must want to eliminate any sense of fun or excitement from the medium. Ergo, any comic which aspires to anything beyond empty entertainment is going to be stuffy and pretentious--anti-fun.

The alternative is to convince oneself that the absence of "fun" in Marvel/DC books somehow entitles them to status as works of serious literature. Ergo, Black Adam is a great literary character because he doesn't behave like a stereotypical supervillain, and The Death of Captain Marvel is great literature because it doesn't get resolved with a big fistfight at the end. If you actually believe this, you aren't going to react well to people who call superhero comics "stupid." I mean, Captain Marvel dies of cancer, just like people do in real life. Black Adam struggles with morality, just like people do in real life. How can you call these books stupid? Dude, I think you secretly hate comics.

I really think that fans of superhero comics just can't process the comics industry as anything other than a series of binaries. There's good guys and there's bad guys (or, for a different kind of fan, there's realistic characters and there's unrealistic characters). There's on time and there's late. There's Marvel and there's DC. There's fun comics and there's boring comics (or, for a different kind of fan, there's stupid comics and there's serious comics). Try to engage people outside of these ridiculous binaries and they go into some automated "snob alert" mode, as if your intention is to replace all their favorite comics with copies of Optic Nerve (which apparently shouldn't even count as a comic--it's more like a misguided attempt to force literary expression into a "pop art" context).

I don't mean to say that critics of superhero comics should have held their tongues all these years. Marvel/DC comics frequently (okay, usually) are stupid, and anyone who thinks so has an inalienable right to say so. And really, how on earth can one look at the last 40 years of non-superhero comics and dismiss them all as stuffy, pretentious crap? Have these people ever read anything by Robert Crumb? Did they assume that Hate was about race relations in America? For God's sake, what about Sam Henderson? Aaah, I already know the answer to that question: "Those comics are poorly crafted and immature. Humor doesn't work in comics form. Also they feature sex/nudity, and I'm not a pervert."

What makes all this so incredibly frustrating is that today's proponents of indie/alternative/whatever comics often champion books which are fun, entertaining, and frequently batshit crazy. For every Fun Home, there's a Scott Pilgrim. Do you want to know why "snobs" keep suggesting Scott Pilgrim or Street Angel or Amazing Joy Buzzards (which I didn't even like!) or whatever the current flavor of the week is? Because those are the sorts of comic which would appeal to people who are sick of DC and Marvel's clumsy stabs at maturity or endless recycling of continuity or generally inability to wring any more interesting stories out of these dessicated and ancient characters.

But really, these folks don't want fun comics--they want superhero comics that remind them of how much fun they had reading them as a kid. This could lead us to all sorts of armchair psychology, but that's really more than enough for today. I still have to finish writing that Liefeld retrospective.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Cucumbers and porn

-Does anyone else have trouble digesting cucumber peels? I had the worst stomach ache last night, but not in an involuntary-expulsion-of-body-fluids kind of way. And it's gone now. I guess I'll have to throw out all that couscous salad.

-For once, I'd like to see a story tangentially related to Fantagraphics appear on the Beat that doesn't result in the same bunch of hicks turning out to defend the honor of whatever happens to be opposed to Gary Groth's evil empire this week. Would this guy be complaining if the book in question had been a decapitation-heavy issue of JSA? (Kind of an ad hominem attack on my part, but check this out. And this and this. Sorry--I've been annoyed by his comments for a while, and I decided to try to figure out if there's a pattern. Yes there is--this is exactly the sort of consumer who makes the Direct Market such a shithole.)

Also, what happened to Mark Engblom? I used to think he was a kind of amusing presence in the comics blogosphere, kind of like a friend's older brother who would occasionally hang out, but was always kind of clucking his tongue at what was going on, yet would occasionally say something that made everyone at least tolerant of his presence. But now, man? I think he's the type who would totally narc on us for having a few, harmless beers. Christ, dude, he apparently wants this very blog to go away! More importantly, I have to think he's out of his fucking mind or a really lazy debater or maybe just not all that smart (see the link to the Beat above; while you're at it, also look here, with response here). I used to think you were Chuck Cunningham, Mark, but I guess you're just Wayne Arnold, with maybe a little Jared from Subway thrown in.

Anyway, my take is this: in this day and age, human reproduction is a crime against the environment, and anyone who comments with a "you don't understand cause you are a childless libertine" argument should be viewed in this light (ie, as criminals). And really, the conventional family structure will soon be obsolete, as global warming and the energy crisis force us to move towards a more communal living system. That's another good reason to think of procreation as a felonious act against human civilization. Who's going to feed all these kids, once society has collapsed? Not Mark Engblom, I bet.

(To be fair, high schools will be long gone by then as well. Hey, was anyone else reminded of the fourth season of The Wire when they heard the details about this story? Are the administrative types in today's high schools even trying to maintain the illusion of providing children with an education? I kept thinking of poor Mr. Prezbo, trying to get his students interested in math by teaching them how to beat the odds when shooting craps. How in the hell are you supposed to teach art history to kids without being accused of pedophilia? Do they even try to teach art history in high school anymore?)

One final note: someone claiming to be the mother of the girl in question left this comment. I assume this has been confirmed, since Heidi hasn't put up any kind of disclaimer. Boy, am I glad I'm not a high school teacher, let alone a junior high or elementary school teacher. Joe Rice, how do you juggle the need to keep kids interested and the need to avoid lawsuits?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Of those 130 hours, many were spent on the phone while the game was paused

-You know, when I saw that Graeme McMillan had linked to Tom Brevoort's defense of the indefensible (ie, Civil War #1 winning a Harvey for best single issue or something like that), I figured that the ensuing discussion would further the superheroes vs. non-superheroes debate that's been reignited here lately (partly my fault, to be fair). I didn't expect that the actual debate would be over the correct spelling of "superhero." But that's what we got, courtesy of Rick Rottman's comment that Brevoort had misspelled the word. I would almost have thought that Rottman was a Brevoort alias, aiming to shove the discussion waaaay off-course, but many of you are probably familiar with Rottman's blog, Bent Corner. Actually, some of you might remember that Rottman was the unlucky fellow who Brian Bolland was threatening to sue for...libel, I guess? Never heard anything else about that, and the posts are still there, so I guess it was all empty bullying.

Anyway, Matt Brady (Newsarama version) shows up to defend Brevoort's spelling, then everyone marvels (PUN INTENDED!) at the turn the discussion took. Meanwhile, no one is responding to Brevoort's specious "it deserved to win because it was popular" reasoning. Also meanwhile, Harvey Kurtzman is shedding a tear in heaven, while Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and Carl Barks are yelling at him to come back to the table so they can get back to playing cards.

(A print of "Comic Book Legends Playing Poker in Heaven" will be available in the Hyacinth Gift Shop as soon as I convince someone to paint it.)

-Self-referential item #1: Brad Curran's "all indie publishers sell out" post (which has a couple of pretty funny lines) made reference to my predilection for MMA and frequent focus on Rob Liefeld. Somehow or another, it got picked up by this mixed martial arts splog, where my (fictional) quote was attributed to one Kuk Sool Won.

BTW, do any of you know what the purpose of a splog is? I've had one post here show up in a manga/anime-centered splog; there might be others, but blogger doesn't seem to be tracking links as well as it used to. Anyway, splogs: what are they good for?

-Self-referential item #2: I was going to make some joke about how this site was ripping off the initial concept for my blog (just to emphasize the point: by "joke" I mean "I don't actually believe this," given that many of the posts there have 200+ responses), but then I started looking at some of the entries. I had no idea there were so many terrible, terrible web comics. I knew there were bad ones, but I didn't know how painfully, revoltingly bad. I mean, this stuff is brutally offensive, both in terms of aesthetics and content. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that there's so much misogyny, given that (a) web comics are relatively cheap to produce, and (b) it's a medium that allows single individuals to express their innermost, ickiest thoughts with virtually no filter. It's the perfect venue for dudes with a grudge against half the species.

What's interesting is the frequency of other disturbing elements, which aren't inherently linked to webcomics as a medium. First, there's a widespread reliance on Photoshop to paste pre-rendered stock figures into scenes, thus reducing the amount of actual drawing which goes into producing the strip. (Also, the actual rendering of the characters and backgrounds on Photoshop, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; it's just not a good fit for those who have no actual artistic talent to speak of. Not that traditional methods would be better, but some people seem to think that it's okay for computer-rendered art to look like utter shit.) Second, there's just an incredible number of comics dealing with geek culture elements, in particular gaming culture. Jesus. Gaming culture makes comics culture (which I still think is more like "arguing about continuity at the comics shop and/or on message boards" culture) look like brandy and cigars at the Athenaeum Club. This comes from someone who's put about 130 hours into Persona 3, mind you.

This is all to say: I can now put misogyny in DC and Marvel's comics in perspective. If it weren't for the heavy hand of editorial (guided by the heavy hand of bean counters and other corporate types), maybe superhero comics would look something like Shredded Moose. (WARNING: link is really gross and offensive; click with caution. I'm totally not kidding. You will probably wish you never laid eyes on it after seeing it. You may curse my name.)

-Preliminary report on Rob Liefeld's New Mutants: Barbara and Karl Kesel are better writers than Louise Simonson, at least when it comes to dialogue. Also, I think Liefeld's pencils look a lot better with Kesel inking them than Bob Wiacek. Hilary Barta is an improvement; he adds a sort of Erik Larsen-ish quality to them, which works sometimes and doesn't work at others. Todd McFarlane, who was inking the covers, is a very good fit. Maybe he missed his calling.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Memories of albums which smelled like the hippies who sold them to me

-This is clearly Harlan Ellison's fault. (Link via the Beat.) UPDATE: Paul O'Brien beats me to the joke. Foiled again.

-Hey, since there's so much discussion of what we want to see in a comics shop here lately, let me share my thoughts with you: I just want to see comics I don't own and want to purchase. Preferably comics I've wanted to buy for a long while but haven't been able to due to a variety of circumstances. Other things are less important to me--the music being played, the cleanliness of the store, the odor emanating from behind the counter--I just want a place where I can buy desirable comics. Of course, I don't want the store's myriad odors to transfer to the pages of the books I've bought, but I haven't had that happen yet.

But now that I think about it....

When I lived in Columbia, SC, one of the better record stores in town was a tiny, tiny store about three or four blocks from campus called Papa Jazz. It was owned and operated by two old hippies who were really into free jazz. So the store was constantly filled with the overwhelming scent of patchouli and the overwhelming sounds of Ornette Coleman or Albert Ayler or whoever.* Meanwhile, browsing the store's stock required a great deal of maneuvering between bodies, which almost always entailed some unpleasant flesh-to-flesh contact. To shop in this store was to subject oneself to complete sensory overload. That's probably why I only went to it once a month, for a marathon perusal of their stock. (Later, when I got into old surf and garage, I went there much more frequently. But those were quick, in-and-out trips.)

The other big record store in town (Manifest), the one situated next to the big comic store in town (Heroes and Dragons), was more like my every week store. Manifest actually had greater breadth and depth of stock than Papa Jazz, plus it was spacious, well-lit, and generally odor-neutral. The music was frequently bad, but that's just kind of the way it goes in a record store. And, unlike Papa Jazz' loud, incessant free jazz, the bad music which played in Manifest didn't cause parts of my brain to glitch out. Papa Jazz had an extensive used section, so that alone would have encouraged us to go there occasionally; it also had a much larger selection of shady-looking bootlegs, reisssues, and compilations. But Manifest was much more pleasant, even though it was much less convenient to my dorm (and later my apartment).

So yes, when faced with a choice between a smelly, cramped, loud store and an odor-free, spacious, loud store, I chose the latter. That all would have changed, however, had Manifest's stock been less impressive than Papa Jazz'. In fact, now that I'm an old man no longer interested in the latest offerings from Lookout! (or their 2007 equivalent), I'm much more likely to go into Papa Jazz when visiting Columbia; Manifest seems to cater to a different kind of consumer than the 30-year-old version of Dick Hyacinth. But if I were still living there, facing the reality of Papa Jazz being the best record store in town, I'd probably buy more of my records by mail order.**

*I actually kind of like free jazz now, but I didn't at the time. Plus, it's a genre of music I want to control when I listen to it; it's not so fun to have it thumping your medulla oblongata while you're trying to decide if you really want to buy that OOP Milkshakes album that's going for $15 used.

**Hypothetically speaking. Do they still make compact discs?

-Thanks to everyone who suggested places to buy mini-comics and small press comics online, both here and at the Beat (special thanks to Heidi for circulating my request). The good news is that I've found several sites with tons of comics I want to buy. The bad news is that I can't possibly afford them all. At least I know where to go should I discover a bag of money on the side of the road.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Review: Niger #1

I've got quite a backlog of comics sitting on my coffee table right now. I thought I'd review a few independent-type single issue comics (by which I mean "not graphic novels"), some of which are not especially recent. "Not recent" as in "I might review Crickets #1." I haven't ruled out including some scans for later reviews, but it's too late to do that tonight. Sorry. I'll start with the most recently purchased of the lot: Niger #1 by Leila Marzocchi, the latest addition to Fantagraphic/Coconino's Ignatz series. I think.

I can't say I was previously familiar with Marzocchi, but Lambiek says she's been working in comics for 20 years, including a stint with Kodansha! There's hardly a trace of manga influence in Niger, however. Fantagraphics' copy refers to her "dense woodcut style," but that's actually a little misleading. "Woodcut style" usually brings to mind enormous pools of black broken by bold, jagged white lines; Marzocchi's lines are much finer, much more subtle than those in the archetypical woodcut print. They almost appear to be made with etching tools, though the overall appearance does resemble a reduction print. Niger features three tones of red, ranging from a medium burgundy to a very pale pink. (If you've seen pictures of the cover online, please note that the actual printed version only features a single shade of red. At least my copy does.) Marzocchi's characters are frequently set against a solid black background; as a result, the art occasionally looks as if it were drawn on a chalkboard with impossibly fine-tipped pieces of chalk.

The story is quite reminiscent of Larry Marder's Beanworld. The Assembly, a loose confederacy of birds (plus one tree and one unidentified creature wearing false wings) discover some sort of larva in a treehouse. Apparently (mis?) identifying it as a type of bird, they call upon The Hand of Fatima (a disembodied hand covered in Arabic) to issue a fatwa, warning all the predators in the forest not to prey on the larva (subsequently named "Dolly.") The birds then take turns guarding Dolly, who occasionally fills us in on her brief backstory via flashbacks. The tone is very similar to Beanworld (the narrator's reaction to the introduction of the Hand of Fatima: "Does ANYONE still give a crap about The Hand?"), but the initial concept is even more similar. A foreign element is introduced into a preexisting system; beings living within this system try to integrate the new element into it. The story ends before we can gauge their success, but their confusion at Dolly's lack of a beak suggests some struggling ahead.

Unlike Marder, Marzocchi does not lay out the rules which govern her system in the first issue. Prior to the arrival of the Mossy Mammoth, Marder's Beans were part of a cyclical system in which there was no waste, but no creativity either. Niger's ecosystem is still unrevealed at the end of the first issue. It's unclear what Marzocchi is getting at in the first issue; unlike Marder, she doesn't seem to consider symbols and systems as sufficient material for the entire series. (Her gossamer linework doesn't really suit that kind of approach, anyway.) Marzocchi is much more interested in showing how the new element (Dolly) reacts to the system, whereas Marder concentrates on the opposite. But this isn't exactly like Chester Brown's Underwater, either. Marzocchi focuses more on Dolly's avian protectors than Dolly herself. We can understand their dialogue, whereas the language of adults was gibberish in Underwater.

It's a very strange first issue. The opening pages, in which an owl watches Dolly struggle to move into an overturned flower vase, bring to mind Brown's "A Late Night Snack." Marzocchi's owl doesn't see Dolly as prey, however. Once this is revealed, the tone shifts considerably. Marzocchi draws the owl and other forest animals very realistically, while Dolly is a very simple cartoon larva. Dolly thus seems like an innocent in a mysterious, dangerous environment. After the birds' benevolence is made clear, however, she introduces the comical Wingman, drawn in a jarringly cartoony style. Dolly is no longer alone; she almost looks like the larval form of Wingman. Marzocchi also begins introducing more whites lines into the backgrounds.

Unfortunately, once the birds appoint themselves as guardians, Niger loses much of the tension which made its first few pages so intriguing. Marzocchi tries to rectify this towards the end of the book. In the last three pages, Marzocchi introduces a new character who may end up being an antagonist for Dolly. Furthermore, the last text in the book suggests that Dolly is eager to remove herself from the birds' protection. That would be a shame, actually; the large proportion of owls among the Assembly ensure that most of Niger takes place at night, which best suits Marzocchi's artwork. The birds also have a few funny moments as they try to make sense of Dolly's presence. As it is, the main pleasures in Niger come from Marzocchi's cobwebs of lines, congealing into spots of bright white bursting out against the black backgrounds. Beyond that, it's too hard for this reviewer to disentangle Niger from the better-known Beanworld. Marzocchi's art is occasionally stunning, but there's not a whole lot of other reasons to read Niger yet; she doesn't successfully replace the tension of the early pages with an effective thematic hook in the second half of the book. Hopefully the second issue will make Marzocchi's intentions a bit clearer.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Help a cheap man save on shipping

I was looking over the Ignatz nominees, and was struck by how many were books which I'd wanted to read but haven't been able to find. Does anyone know of a good site for ordering stuff from a bunch of different small press publishers (by which I mean non-Fantagraphics, D&Q, or NBM--I can get that stuff at my LCS), or am I just going to have to break down and order direct? I'm looking for stuff by the smaller publishers listed--I checked out, but that seems to be mostly on the Brian Wood-Warren Ellis axis, which is really not what I'm looking for (that stuff is also available at my LCS).

Any help would be appreciated.

Games, nihilism

-New idea: since the Marvel/DC binary seems to be like a particularly foul odor cutting through all layers of resistance, why not apply that model to other things for which it makes little sense? First up: Fantagraphics vs. Drawn & Quarterly. For years, fans of art/literary comics have cherished each company as the two outstanding publishers of worthwhile comics in North America. Creators have moved between the two fairly freely, and good will has generally prevailed. NO MORE. Here are a few talking points to get us started:

  • Chris Ware left Fantagraphics because Gary Groth is a crazy tyrant who wanted Ware to draw more like Peter Bagge.
  • Fantagraphics saw that Chris Ware had become nothing more than a hack, and kicked his ass to the curb. Shows what a second rate operation D&Q is to pick up on Gary Groth's sloppy seconds.
  • Fantagraphics was built on the back of Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, and Chris Ware. The only ones left are Jaime and Gilberto, and the latter is doing a lot of work for other companies now; you almost couldn't consider him a Fantagraphics artist anymore. That just leaves Jaime Hernandez, and everyone knows he's just a glorified Archie artist.
  • D&Q should stand for "Dull" and "Québécois," cause all they have is boring, autobiographical Canadians. And wannabe Canadians like Joe Matt.
  • Fantagraphics sounds like the name of a porn company. Oh wait....
  • Draw & Quarterly doesn't care about Black people. Where are all the Black D&Q characters? There's not a single Black character in Clyde Fans.
  • Why is Kim Thompson using a girl's name? Is he trying to fool people into thinking he's a woman? FACT: Chris Oliveros is not ashamed to admit he's a man. FACT: Oliveros is willing to let the comics he publishes do his talking for him; he doesn't need to hide behind misleading first names.

Seems like I was going to add another one or two in there, but I can't remember what they were. Ahhh, that's probably enough to get you started. Go to it!

-The discussion about Paul O'Brien's possible anti-FBI/TCJ agenda brought up the age-old question about love of genre vs. love of medium (or art form, but that's a debate probably best left aside for the time being). On the face of it, I'm tempted to label all the genre camp as mental midgets, but maybe that's unfair. I mean, yes, anyone who only watches horror movies, to the absolute (and possibly angry) exclusion of all other genres, wouldn't be someone I consider an expert on cinema. Someone who only watched horror movies produced by Lion's Gate or Screen Gems, to the exclusion of all other studios/production companies, would be even weirder; I don't know if I'd consider them an expert on horror movies, even. Someone who likes only torture movies...well, you get my point.

BUT, to love a medium so much that the love encompasses all genres, no matter how stupid--that's a level of dedication which I just don't have. Many of us know music fans who express enthusiasm for nearly every imaginable genre out there--you know, the types who claim to like At the Gates and Justin Timberlake equally. These folks bug the shit out of me because I don't know how seriously I should take their opinions. There's no way I'm ever going to like early 21st century bubblegum pop. Should I trust the critic who likes Christina Aguilera as much as Neil Young? Should this equal enthusiasm make me question my own love of Neil Young? Does my massive (and rarely played) collection of 60s punk make me a mental midget?

I suppose one way to guard against this is to take sort of a transcendentalist* approach to art: there are certain genre works that are so good, they transcend the stupid hackwork usually associated with the genre. Hey, that sounds familiar...didn't someone say something like that re: a certain comic about growing up in post-revolutionary Iran?

It's a frustrating topic. I have an anti-humanist streak when it comes to humans' ability to understand ourselves, which is really sort of a haunting, revolting irony given what I've done with my life. But on the other hand, it's incredibly annoying to see superhero fans treat superhero comics Marvel and DC comics as the sum total of the industry. I mean, it's fine insofar as their personal reading habits go, but they have to expect the rest of us (you know, the 10% of the Direct Market reading any non-superhero material at all) laugh at them. If someone told you he or she only watched reality television, you would probably look at said person as someone who probably has nothing useful to say about the general state of television in 2007. Fortunately for us, most exclusively Marvel/DC readers are more concerned with the finer points of continuity than with pontificating on the industry as a whole. But they sure are touchy.

*I'm making a joke; no need to tell me about Henry David Thoreau or anything. I've read Ghosts, dude.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Back to being a jerk

A couple of things I probably would have commented on if I had been around the last couple of weeks. WARNING: Some of this stuff is very, very old now.

-Why does Paul O'Brien have a grudge against Fantagraphics/TCJ? First consider some of his statements in the comments field to Tim O'Neil's recent post about the lack of online reaction to his negative review of Scott Pilgrim in a recent issue of the Comics Journal. Particularly this one:

The Comics Journal has been way out on the fringes of comic book discussion for as long as I can remember, in large part because it spent years only covering material that was way out on the fringes of comics. I regard it as, loosely, the comic industry's equivalent of WIRE - the music magazine that reviews such things as entire CDs of mixing desk feedback and hour-long bassoon improvisations.

This leads ADD to fire back with one of the best comics-related rejoinders I've read all year:

I think the Comics Journal has a great new pull quote for its subscription page:

"The Comics Journal has been way out on the fringes of comic book discussion for as long as I can remember."
-- Guy Who Bought Every Issue of Howard Mackie's Mutant X

On a more recent (but not that recent) front, O'Brien also showed up in the comments to a Beat post about Harlan Ellison's foot-dragging re: the settlement to his lawsuit with Fantagraphics. (Which, for the seven or eight of you out there who are more out of touch than I am, requires Ellison to publish a statement by Gary Groth on his website for 30 days.) O'Brien suggests that Groth's statement contains ad hominem attacks against Ellison, which the settlement expressly prohibits. He and Eric Reynolds do a little back-and-forth on the issue, with Reynolds taking the position that Groth's words are more "color" than ad hominem. (If you want to read Groth's statement, check the link above.)

There's certainly something to O'Brien's argument--the bit about "physical assaults" might be pushing it. But one can't help but see it in the light of his earlier comments on O'Neil's blog. (The bit about "hour-long bassoon improvisations" is especially dense.) I'm reminded of the last great O'Brien-ADD controversy, when O'Brien announced he was "bored with comics" and received heaps of well-deserved scorn. The most revealing part of the whole ordeal was O'Brien's follow-up column, which suggested a deep-seated resentment for non-superhero comics and the people who read them. I still think that might be the most annoying comic-related thing I've ever read on the internet. (Interestingly enough, O'Brien didn't show up for the recent "why do comics shops suck" debate, or its sequel, although his argument is certainly there in spirit. Even stranger, ADD has little to say on the matter.)

Anyway, I guess my point is this: it's a little weird that a seemingly bright buy like O'Brien (who does good work on the Marvel sales analysis thing for the Beat) seems so bitter about America's leading publisher of art/literary comics. No reasonable person expects O'Brien to give up all his mutant comics in favor of the Ignatz line; personally, I don't care what he likes/buys/reads. But I don't think I'm out of line in saying he's carrying a sizable grudge against Fantagraphics (and maybe art/literary comics in general, though I'm not prepared to make that statement definitively). Maybe it's the same old "how dare they insult my favorite intellectual property custodian" thing (which I'm pretty sure is the cause of about 80% of all the anti-TCJ sentiment among online fans), or maybe it's something deeper. Since O'Brien is a fairly well-respected pundit, I think it's worth casting light on this bias.

-On a similar note: where are all the die-hard Marvel defenders? Tim O'Neil and David Brothers probably come the closest to the DC drum and bugle corps, but I don't see them rushing out to defend Marvel against vociferous fan reaction. I'm not sure exactly why that is--maybe Marvel's recent success, largely at the expense of DC (it's a zero sum game, like it or not), has made such defenses superfluous. I definitely perceive a "circle the wagons" mentality when I check in on decidedly pro-DC communities. It's also possible that Marvel's most vocal defenders (and I'm talking the folks who leave comments on Blog/Newsarama articles) come off as exceptionally clueless.

But here's the thing: many of the most prominent voices advocating diversity and sensitivity in superhero comics are dyed-in-the wool DC fanatics. I really should point out that this is not so true for those bloggers who focus on race; Brothers is clearly a Marvel dude, while I can't really detect what, if any, allegiance Cheryl Lynn or Rich Watson hold. I know Guy LeCharles Gonzalez was very critical of Dan DiDio back when he was still an active online presence. His and Loren Janvier's absence, however, seems to be tipping the balance towards DC partisans.

I wonder to what extent this influences Lisa Fortuner, Melissa Krause, and Dorian Wright to defend DC against (apparently) irrational fan behavior. 2007 has not been a great year for DC, sensitivity- and diversity-wise (it hasn't been great for Marvel either, but there was a two or three month period where DC just seemed to have one controversy after another). I haven't read the comic alluded to in the posts above, and I sure haven't read any online reaction to it. Maybe these responses are justified; maybe I'm just not invested enough in DC's crossover wrangling to care about these overreactions; maybe there's a shared fear that these particular overreactions are vastly overblown, and exactly the kind of thing which will undermine the cause of feminist superhero fans. But I found it a bit odd that all three would devote so much time to overheated fan rhetoric. Fortuner in particular dwelt on the subject for a number of posts.

Again, this is all well and good when seen in the context of the larger struggle for greater sensitivity and diversity in superhero comics. More problematic is Fortuner's defense of the overall editorial direction at DC; even more problematic is Krause's response to Valerie D'Orazio's "why DiDio is on his way out" piece. Fortuner reveals that, while she wants to see sexism and misogyny eliminated at DC, she would prefer that this be done without the elimination of DiDio as executive editor. Krause's response, on the other hand, is total wishful thinking (exactly what she accuses D'Orazio of!) combined with willful neglect of certain realities of corporate culture. Take this for example, re: Mother Jones' recent criticism of DC's handling of female characters:

As for "Mother Jones", I'm not saying it's not an influential publication. It is. It may even have a greater readership than the entire comics industry.

But by the same token, most of those readers do not read superhero comics. (The ones who do already know this stuff.) And as much as Levitz and company are trying to court female readers, I don't necessarily think the readership of Mother Jones is the target audience. Do you really think that Time Warner is going to care that Didio managed to get a bad reputation among people who aren't reading superhero comics anyway?

This completely ignores the reality of Time Warner's position as a publicly traded company. Public relations are a crucial part of corporate culture; the issue isn't keeping DC's minuscule fanbase happy, but keeping Time Warner's army of shareholders happy. (One might also consider that Time Warner is in the entertainment industry, which is dominated by liberal types who might not be crazy about working for a company which produces stuff like Infinite Crisis or Supergirl. But that's a lesser argument.) Negative publicity is more important than a few dozen titles selling 20,000-100,000 copies per month. Even if DiDio, Levitz, et al, never hear a word from Time Warner's suits, the threat of corporate interference (or massive firings) would surely have some effect on DC's day-to-day operations. Putting external pressure on the corporate parent is one of the easiest paths towards achieving the goal of more woman-friendly DC comics, but Krause almost seems to be keeping her fingers crossed that the mainstream media won't pick up on this story.

I'm kind of shocked at how intransigent both Fortuner and Krause are in their defense of DiDio. Firing DiDio would be the clearest way for Time Warner to send the message that the content of DC's comics must be more sensitive to women. I can understand the potential concern that replacing DiDio would be a cosmetic measure which would do nothing to eliminate a culture of misogyny/sexism at DC (though I don't think either Krause or Fortuner are arguing this; in fact, I don't recall either spending much time discussing the editorial culture at DC). But here's the thing--DiDio's most likely successor is Jann Jones--a woman. This doesn't necessarily mean that all DC's misogyny and sexism would disappear with Jones' ascension; one only need look at the career of the late Carol Kalish to dispel the notion that shared sisterhood will win out over cold, hard economics. But still, who do you trust more--Jones (probably best known for this at the present stage of her career) or Dan "we need a rape" DiDio?*

Again, people are free to like whatever they like, and write about how much they enjoy it. But I think there's a fundamental disconnect between the desire to see DC's portrayal of women improve and the desire to see Dan DiDio remain in power at DC. DiDio's removal wouldn't solve all, or even most, of DC's problems. But until DiDio seriously addresses these concerns (and I'm talking policy, not lip service), it's the most logical step toward effecting meaningful change at DC. Krause and Fortuner have a lot to be proud of; I genuinely think they've done as much to change the discourse about women in superhero comics as anyone else writing on the internet. As they become more successful in effecting change at Marvel and DC, I strongly suspect that they'll eventually be in situations where they have to decide between their fandom and their politics. That's not going to be an easy choice for two people so passionate about both.

*This isn't entirely fair to DiDio, whose involvement in the great rape decision isn't entirely clear to me. But, at the very least, he oversaw the shop where this mentality raged, and should be held responsible for allowing it to persist.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


The illness seems mostly gone, aside from a few lingering symptoms. Unfortunately, there seems to be a zero sum game in our household re: colds, because my wife is sick now. I'm afraid that this means that I'll get sick again as her condition improves. Maybe we'll play ping pong with this cold until we can lure some poor sucker into the apartment, then kick him out as soon as he's received the Hyacinth Domestic Virus. Or perhaps we can give it to the cats.

Anyway, I've done almost no comics-related internet reading lately. I've been on the internet fleetingly, but I've spent most of that time looking at stuff related to MMA and the NFL, since sporting events are time sensitive in a way that comics generally are not. I've also been reading Douglas Wolk's book, which seems like it might finally be generating some conversations on the internet. This would be an improvement over the shit I was reading immediately before I got sick, but somehow I don't think the people arguing Marvel vs. DC are the same ones considering Grant Morrison's ability to write for his artists, even though they're precisely the ones who could most stand to consider such questions.

Also I should point out that my schedule's just gone through another massive change, and I'm not sure how it's going to affect this blog yet. Well, I can say that posts probably will retain or increase their current frequency. And yes, I'm still planning to do more on Liefeld. I was just afraid of the potential bio-feedback that would result from mixing New Mutants with cold medication. Maybe it would have made for a better reading experience, but it would have violated the scientific principles that govern my writing at this blog. If anyone else wants to borrow the idea, though, I'm happy to let it go.

More later today or tomorrow.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Sorry. Been sick. Will post when I'm feeling better. No music video non-content content--want to go lie down again....