Monday, September 24, 2007

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.

18 comments:

Carl Walker said...

Hmm, you do like to put words in peoples' mouths, don't you?

Anyway, I do find this interesting if only because the word "fun" is endlessly repeated throughout the superhero-oriented comics blogosphere particularly because these readers are bashing various superhero comics for lacking "fun" while praising other rare examples for actually containing "fun" (usually accompanied by nostaglia for when everything was "fun"). What's interesting, then, is your appropriation of the "fun" meme into the context of the "superhero vs. indie" conflict. Admittedly, you were prompted to do so by the wacko LJ guy, but it's still the first time I've seen "fun" used in this way. Not sure exactly what to make of it, mind you.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I don't mean to keep harping on the "snobs" vs. capes thing, but that's what came to mind after reading these two things so close together. And I definitely think there's this impression among superhero-only readers that non-superhero stuff, especially as you get into the Fantagraphics/D&Q side, is either poorly crafted dreck or ultra-serious matchstick-arranging. I'd go out in search of quotes to back up my position, but I feel like I'm on pretty firm ground here. Also I don't feel like putting another hour into this post.

I really do want to get off of this superhero/art thing, because it's a false binary. Probably 2/3 of all "snob" types like superhero comics--and I'm not just talking about reprints and parodies like Superfuckers. I probably buy about 7 or so every month.

Matt Brady said...

Very nice look at the superhero/indie debate there. You seem to have summed it up pretty well, and the rejection of any possible grey area is probably as good a reason for these sorts of ridiculous arguments as any (and hell, it's the reason for most stupid arguments, I think).

Oh, and I love the hilarious look at nerds' view of marriage. Those fat slobs don't know anything about women! Har har har, they're virgins! It's funny, those sorts of jokes can get tiresome, but the way you put it cracks me up to no end, possibly because I imagine somebody will read it and get royally pissed off. I hope I haven't ruined your chances for some angry comments.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

C'mon Dick, why are you wasting time on these small-time feuds? Why don't you pour some petrol on the bonfire that is

Noah Berlatsky v. T. Hodler

Dirk Deppey v. Chris Butcher

or

Dave Sim v. everyone (again!)?

Surely the point of your blog is, in large part, to recreate that schoolyard scene of standing around and cheering on "Fight! Fight!"...or am I mistaken?

Jeremy Donelson said...

The snobs vs fun stuff is on the ball. Good analysis.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Geez, Jones, where have you been? (No, seriously, where have you been?) I thought it was common knowledge that I'd pulled a bait-and-switch, promising the kind of egging on that you crave while providing something far less satisfying. Didn't the name change clue you in?

Okay, just for old times' sake...

1. This one is actually a little relevant to today's post, in that Berlatsky is essentially dressing up the anti-snob argument in the cloak of legitimate comics criticism by making the fallacious argument that Chris Ware and Dan Clowes embody all non-superhero comics (that might be a bit of a distortion, but I'm not going to re-read his posts just to satisfy you, Jones--maybe if you were paying me I would, but you aren't so I wont). The only thing I can really add to Hodler's counterargument is that I almost detect a note of RC Harvey in Berlatsky--in their recent, more subdued work, Clowes and Ware aren't playing to the natural strengths of comics. (That might not actually be Harvey, but it's someone who wrote for the Comics Journal c. 1998. I know that narrows it down a lot.)

2. I didn't see the initial volley in this one, so I'm speaking a little out of ignorance here, but this seems to be clearly in Deppey's favor. Especially after today's Journalista.

3. Who cares? I mean, Sim's a great talent, but why exactly should we take him seriously re: his misogyny, let alone engage him on the subject?

Joel Bryan said...

Jones is pretty much right. It is small-time. I mostly reacted to someone calling me a "moron," which is what set off basically a one-sided debate. I spouted off to him in his LJ for that and for missing the point of what I wrote- which he admittedly hadn't even bothered to read. Then I reiterated in my own blog... and I saw the title of his response, "I THINK COMICS NEED TO DIE" at which point I totally lost interest in the guy until I saw that you wrote about us here.

And I don't see that he particularly won the debate. Just because we totally obsessive geek types love to Wiki the hell out of everything doesn't make us inherently superior to the readers who don't want to have to read tons of reference work in order to get a whole story. He's never explained why all that should even be necessary. Neither have you. No one can because it's not.

Yes, you CAN do all that research- and believe me, I have. But in terms of craft, everything you absolutely need should be contained in the story itself. All research should still be ancillary and extra-curricular.

Also, the gist of his original post was that anyone who doesn't want to do that is stupid. Which is the most elitist bit of snobbery I've ever seen from a guy whose friends then go on to call ME a snob.

And as far as the gray area goes... I'm the cat who's been arguing for that all along. It shouldn't be an either-or proposition at all.

Also, the part about my "Somehow missing that this essentially makes any further argument moot, Bryan continues to prod Andy," I didn't "continue" to prod Andy. I wrote the entirety of my response after reading his first post. At which point I felt I'd wasted more than enough time on this guy and he wasn't worth the effort. I felt pretty stupid for having risen to his bait in the first place. I really should've taken the high ground and let him have his fun calling me a moron and misunderstanding... uh... what he couldn't be bothered to read in the first place.

That anti-continuity post was my only refutation of Andy. That's as far as I went and then I started thinking about why all this anger on his part, on my part, on the rest of fandom's part and wrote my "I Against Comics Manifesto."

As far as the "literary pretensions" thing goes... that's absolutely foolish. I never said superhero comics have to jump into being pretentious. I merely stated and will continue to maintain that they need to just stop being as crappily written and as lazy as they currently are. They don't have to necessarily aspire to be Thomas Pynchon... they just need to get their collective asses together and stop being random and mercenary.

I don't know what Andy wrote about manga. Strangely, manga would be an example of what I was arguing for in the original post he didn't bother reading. Manga series tell complete stories for the most part. They have legitimate beginnings, middles and endings and the best of them can be (but not always are) more satisfying in terms of character development than an endless monthly series where the status quo must be maintained for solely financial reasons, thereby negating the whole point of writing fiction of ANY KIND in the first place.

Ok, that's my last word on this super-silly controversy. I just felt I needed to clarify some mistakes you made in your account of it, which otherwise is probably a lot more cogent and direct than anything written by either myself or Andy.

But also to be quite honest- being involved in this sort of mud-slinging crapfest is exactly the reason why I'm losing my interest in participating in superhero comics fandom. After writing all of that, I really can't justify the time or effort I've expended on addressing dreck. I'm way more into my Japan blog because that's much more enriching an endeavor and less full of ridiculous cranks.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Joel, I think you misunderstood a few things I wrote. Read it again and I think you'll see that I'm not misquoting or misrepresenting your position--I'm talking about Livejournal Andy in a lot of those instances (mostly things he said in the comments field). Plus you might want to scan for sarcasm a little closer.

And this isn't really a controversy in my mind--it's just a window into a certain mindset among certain comics readers. By which I mean Andy, not you.

Joel Bryan said...

Dick- Oops! I did what I accused Andy of doing. Yeah, I just reread this and you're right! Actually I somehow missed the parts where we basically agree.

I owe you a big apology. Man is my face red. I'm just a bit overly-sensitive about these things right now I guess.

Dick Hyacinth said...

It's no big deal. It's happened before, actually, so it's probably a fault in my writing style. "Hillbilly Byzantine," you might call it.

Andrew said...

Your final analysis of my post forgot to mention I'm a self-contradicting egoist troll.

Caleb said...

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

This is my new favorite sentence. I think I could contemplate it, zen koan style, for hours. Man, the imagery! A horse that, as soon as you get on it, tries to convince you to make great art! Jesus, that's a fantastic sentence!

Nice piece, by the way. You and Abhay make me feel horribly guilty for devoting so much time and space to superheroics. But in a good way. I guess. (Damn you).

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Where have I been? Why, slaving over a 1000 word review of the hot new comic that all the kids are talking about, "DC Showcase Presents Shazam!"

...man, blogs really are the definition of quixotry, aren't they?

Anonymous said...

Huh. Strange. I essentially gave up on DC and Marvel about a year ago. (Excepting Blue Beetle, Birds of Prey, few other random titles as I get interested.)

And I'm not having a problem finding interesting superhero comics. Invincible. PS238. Dynamo 5.
Even really small press things like Heroes Anonymous.
I guess I'm just not 'indie' enough to hate superheroes, and I still like fun. Quel dommage.

This capes/indie split is so 1990s, man.

Matt Brady said...

Is quixotry a word? If so, I need to learn how to pronounce it and try to work it into conversation as much as possible.

Alicia said...

My impression of superhero-only readers is that they come to comics specifically when they are in the mood for superheroes, and if they want something else, they go to some other medium. It's not that they (presumably we're talking about the non-reactionary breed) fear all indy comics are about matchstick arranging, there's just little interest in finding out whatever they might actually be about.

To be honest, though, I know maybe two people who read exclusively superhero books these days. Most comics readers I know would admit their diet was mostly superheroes, but that's also the bulk of the material produced every month and the easiest stuff to get hold of. I've never seen, in the past ten years, any real resistance to the idea of comics that aren't about superheroes, and plenty of enthusiasm for the Vertigo line and its ilk.

(I have seen some resistance to the idea of buying American comics that were in black & white, though, which struck me as very odd. It seems there's a younger generation of reader cropping up that associated black & white with manga and color with American books.)

Prodigal said...

I really think that fans of superhero comics just can't process the comics industry as anything other than a series of binaries.

Then I would argue that you are mistaken, because I am a fan of superhero comics who suffers from no such belief.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, that should probably be more like "these sorts of fans of superhero comics," or "superhero fans who feel personally threatened by Gary Groth" or something. I mean, seriously guys, I bought five honest-to-God superhero comics today! Including one that wasn't written by either Matt Fraction or Grant Morrison!