Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Disturbing, but not scary

-Hey, it's that day! Do kids even go out begging for candy on Halloween anymore, or have they permanently moved that to the Saturday before? I know the college kids try to limit their rioting to Saturday nights these days.

Despite this confusion, I'll play along with the holiday by presenting my list of the scariest comics I've ever read:

1. That issue of Thor (I think) with an add for Kull the Conqueror (I think) which scared the shit out of me as a kid. It was something about an evil presence in the dark jungle or something. My brother used to taunt me with it, even though he was three years younger. I was a pretty pathetic 8-year-old.

2. (TIE) Everything else. Sorry, but I've never really been scared by a comic. I've found comics to be haunting or creepy or gross, but nothing has ever put me in a state of irrational terror like a good horror movie does.

I was a little surprised when I came to this realization. I really like horror comics--EC and other pre-code stuff, Warren's b&w magazines, Rory Hayes' bizarre strips, Chester Brown's early short stories, assorted horror manga, From Hell--these are some of my very favorite comics. And I don't read them with an unusual degree of ironic detachment or anything like that. These are deeply unsettling comics which linger in my head long after I read them. Take Brown's "A Late Night Snack" (reprinted in The Little Man): it's horrifying, terrible, utterly disturbing, a real testament to Brown's skills--but not scary. Not really.

I've always thought that, for a piece of literature or art to really scare me, it needed a visual component. Now that might be because I haven't read enough good horror--I tried reading some Lovecraft last summer, and man was I ever disappointed. This probably due in part to Lovecraft's torturous prose--he uses words like Todd McFarlane uses lines. His dialogue is absolutely atrocious, particularly when he's trying to write in a dialect. It's almost like his main influence was WPA slave narratives where the white interviewer would indicate their contempt for black subjects by spelling "of" as "ov" or "does" as "duz." And, worst of all, the stories I read weren't remotely scary, or even creepy or unsettling. I'm sure part of the problem is that I'm reading these stories many decades after their themes were integrated into larger popular culture, so the impact of multi-tentacled elder gods is somewhat muted. Or maybe I just don't find that shit scary. In any event, reading Lovecraft certainly didn't convince me to try to make time in my schedule to read other horror prose. Maybe one day if I'm ever facing long commutes again....

Despite their apparent inability to scare me, I do find comics to be a good medium for telling horror stories. As a medium based in art, comics can pack a quite a visceral punch. And the nature of the medium allows the reader's eye to linger on these images, giving the artist a pretty powerful canvas on which to work. Unfortunately, I also think this is what prevents horror comics from scaring me as well.

Bear with me a minute. My favorite horror director, hands down, is Dario Argento. There's something about his movies that appeal to me on a very deep level--they're visually arresting, full of haunting images (and not just gore--Deep Red is full of unsettling images, such as the protagonists' exploration of the abandoned house and the killer's eyes staring out of a dark closet). But what makes these images so terrifying is that film is a medium inherently grounded in time. We can't linger on them (unless we pause the DVD, but that's kind of like cheating, isn't it?). They flash on the screen and leave us wondering what they mean. For a horror movie to really scare me, it needs to create a state of dysphoria grounded in confusion. A lot of that depends on the author's ability to control the pacing of the work.

Comics creators can attempt to simulate these feeling by employing a cinematic style. In a horror context, this might be done by obscuring the object inspiring terror, or by altering the frequency, size, and/or shape of the panels to compel the reader to speed up or slow down. But this is no substitute for the inherently temporal nature of film. The reader of a comic can always go back to look at a panel, linger on a panel, or skip ahead to an especially compelling panel down the line. Take, for example, this page from Josh Simmons' House. (And I really wish my scanner was properly, but this is the best I could do given the circumstances.)

Page from House, by Josh Simmons

The male protagonist has lost his glasses and seems to see some human-like figure beckoning him forward. (It's in the third panel as well, but my scanner cut off the very top of the image and then passed out from the stress of actually having to scan something. Stupid $50 scanner.) If this were film, the image of the human figure could be much more ambiguous. The filmmaker could show it only for brief flashes. Here, it's definitively on the page--there's no doubt that the protagonist sees (or thinks he sees) some figure. In film, this could produce a more visceral shock--the image could be manipulated so that the audience themselves were not entirely sure what they were seeing, putting the viewer in a similar position to the protagonist. House doesn't succeed or fail based on that scene alone (for the record, I think it's a very good comic), but it does reveal a fundamental difference between film and comics.

The other major difference is, of course, sound. I think it underscores the temporal issue--sound is only fleeting, and an odd noise cannot be lingered on until one can definitively discern what it is or become comfortable with its presence. Sound bolsters the illusion that the film is happening in the now, that the horrors being faced are immediate and real. It also adds a lot of mood as well--Argento really got a lot out of Goblin, the prog/jazz rock band which scored many of his best films. That makes a big difference to me, and it's another advantage film has over comics. I don't think that advantage is consistent across all genres, but it's crucial for horror.

-Speaking of Lovecraft, I think the greatest good he ever did was to inspire the incredible, mind-bogglingly underrated Rudimentary Peni album Cacophony. Rudimentary Peni started out as a fairly straightforward British anarcho-punk band, eventually becoming Crass proteges with an EP on their label. Actually, the EP on Crass' label (Farce) is totally boring compared to their self-released, self-titled debut EP. Their songs on the Crass-released EP were typically plodding British anarcho-punk. On their first EP, however, singer/guitarist Nick Blinko would occasionally lapse into howls and other non-verbal singing. He also played around with the tone of his vocals, ranging from studio-aided high pitched shrieks to guttural moaning. But not the guttural moaning of today--more like a wounded animal than the popular Cookie Monster style.

Thankfully, their first album (Death Church) found them escaping Crass' shadow. The first song, "1/4 Dead," established their mordant take on anarcho-punk, droning that "Three quarters of the world are starving/The rest are dead." The song ends with a strange flourish--everything drops out but Blinko's fuzzy guitar and Grant Brand's bass. The notes kind of of repeat the harmony of the song, but in an almost playful way--you almost expect Blinko to start laughing. The themes are already starting to move away from typical anarcho themes; song titles include "Cosmic Hearse" and "Vampire State Building." The latter is bizarre--Blinko sings a duet with an inhumanly deep voice, each verse ending in sing-songy repetitions of a single word ("wheelchair" or "mommy," for instance).

Cover of Death Church, art by Nick Blinko

At this point, the album totally veers from the anarcho-punk Brand preferred into Blinko's preferred style. He furiously (and comically) rolls his r's on "Blasphemy Squad." On "When You Are a Martian Church," each line of the chorus is punctuated by droning "aaah" sounds. On "Flesh Crucifix," Blinko moves even further from traditional hardcore/punk vocals; he shrieks like some unearthly creature throughout the song (think John Coltrane's free jazz period), and the chorus is chanted rather than sung.

But that's absolutely nothing compared to1988's Cacophony, undoubtedly the best record ever to emerge from the anarcho-punk scene, and one of the best to emerge from the punk as a whole. Blinko establishes the tone on the first song, "Nightgaunts," by muttering an incomprehensible incantation as the music begins. He repeats the technique throughout the album, often ending songs with whispering, chanting, moaning, weeping, growling, retching, dramatic readings, gasping, purring, or buzzing. Often he does several of these things at the same time.

Cover of Cacophony, art by Nick Blinko

One song ends with an a capella rendition of something which sounds like a 19th (maybe 18th?) century drinking song. Many songs don't actually have vocals--"Zenophobia" mostly consists of Blinko trying to carry a tune by making retching noises. Actually, it does have some words--it ends with a modulated deep voice conducting what sounds like a wedding ceremony, until Blinko stops saying actual words and starts muttering again. The only words in "Imps of the Perverse" are a monologue by a speaker suggesting that Lovecraft should have given up horror writing for the WPA (aha! there it is again!). The song ends with, uh, meowing. I can't possibly do justice to the various bizarre sounds which emanate from Blinko's voice (which is why I uploaded the songs mentioned above). Half the songs aren't actually sung so much as spoken, and those which are sung often contain animal noises rather than lyrics.

This might be a good time to mention Blinko's mental illness. At some point after Cacophony was released, Blinko was institutionalized for mental illness (Wikipedia says it's Schizoaffective disorder). The next Rudimentary Peni album, Pope Adrian the 37th (1995), was based on Blinko's experiences while institutionalized. So there's an element of exploitation involved when listening to Rudimentary Peni. There's an even greater deal involved when considering Blinko's art. In addition to providing the cover art for his band's releases, Blinko also drew the covers for several other hardcore albums and eventually became an "outsider artist" of some renown. Unfortunately, his psychiatric medication leaves him unable to draw. This apparently hasn't stopped Blinko, who quits taking his medication in order to produce art. I really like Blinko's art quite a bit; here's a link to some of his work.

Leaving aside any issue of exploitation, Cacophony is a genuinely unique album. It's a shame that more post-punk/indie rock types aren't aware of it, because it stands up next to some of the most daring records of the 1980s (or any decade, really). It's in the same general region as the Butthole Surfers at their peak, but even their appreciable weirdness is dwarfed by the insanity and innovation of Cacophony. Maybe it's Rudimentary Peni's association with Crass which has kept them away from those who would most appreciate their best work. Maybe it's the band's goth overtones, or the obscurity of their label, or maybe just that no band could ever hope to build upon the strangeness of Cacophony. Whatever the case, Cacophony is the closest I've ever heard to a scary album, and it's one of my very favorites as well. Do check out those links in the spirit of Halloween or whatever.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A bunch of comics which remind me of Bone, and which I like about as much as Bone

-Well, I'm taking this as very good news. More the crime volume than the horror one--a cover illustration by Jose Munoz suggests that this is something I want to buy when it comes out. (Or sometime shortly after--next summer is going to be really chaotic, I'm thinking). Unfortunately, I can't read the fine print with the contributors' names, so I can only hope that the interior matches the exterior. The horror volume seems to be treading in areas I appreciate but don't love--Wrightson, Kaluta, old Marvel monster comics. The inclusion of Thomas Ott is promising, however, as it suggests a very broad approach to horror comics. I'll definitely flip through it in the store.

-Via Tom Spurgeon, Kevin Huizenga draws two characters from Powr Mastrs. There's no stopping the momentum of this book!

I've been thinking--there have been an awful lot of alternative/underground-type fantasy comics in the last year or two. I've commented on this before, but I'd never really considered that these books are, in many ways, following a path similar to Bone. I mean, these new fantasy comics differ from Bone in a lot of ways--very few of them combine Jeff Smith's supreme craft skills with his largely straightforward take on the fantasy genre. But there are similar themes at work--naive characters inserted into conflicts which they don't understand, great mysteries gradually revealed through exploration and adventure, generous dollops of humor. An overview:

The oldest of all these comics is Dungeon, an import from France. Probably operating more in the tradition of European comics I've never read than Bone, Lewis Trondheim, Joann Sfar, and their collaborators craft a world filled with bizarre creatures and funny animals wielding medieval weapons. The series is divided into several categories. The main narrative (such as it is) is basically a trilogy: The Early Years, Zenith, and Twilight. Each part of this trilogy is a multivolume work; all have had two volumes released in the US, except The Early Years (which, tragically, only has one volume out--what are you waiting for, NBM?) There are additional works, however, that are basically excuses to use Zenith-era characters without disrupting the larger narrative. All volumes are either drawn by Trondheim or by artists with similar styles--though I should note that Christophe Blain is a bit more inclined toward crosshatching, and Kerascoet's sketchy lines are almost closer to Sfar than Trondheim. But, generally speaking, you have rather "cartoony" line art with mostly flat coloring. It's a pretty significant departure from Smith's elegant brushwork. What's more, his style is more dramatic--Smith uses heavy pools of ink to create greater contrast, and he relies more on his characters' ability to convey subtle emotions. Smith will remain focused on one basic "shot" for longer than Trondheim, who frequently changes perspective and scene from panel to panel.

Page from Jeff Smith's Bone: Ghost Circles

Compare it to this page from Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar's Dungeon Zenith, volume 2 (art by Trondheim)

Furthermore, as is generally typical in European comics, Trondheim is more reliant on color as an aspect of composition; he uses it to pop his characters, which tend to be smaller on the page. (I can't really comment on Smith's use of color, since I've only read the b&w Bone.)

These different approaches to art tend to underscore the very different aims of each comic. Smith is committed to an overarching narrative, a struggle between good and evil. The humor in Bone tends to work as comic relief or as a way to establish characters (so we have expectations to draw upon in the more dramatic scenes involving the Bone cousins or the Red Dragon). In Dungeon, the larger narrative is generally subservient to Trondheim and Sfar's main ambition--to produce a work of comedy. At least that's the case in the early volumes--by the time we reach Twilight, the story is much darker and the mood more melancholy. The characters are in a more reflective mood, and Trondheim and Sfar mostly use the fantasy setting to give them the chance to consider their lives and rethink the decisions they have made.

There's a little of this in Bone; the older characters advise the younger ones, hoping to convince them to make better decisions than they made. But that's mostly a plot device for Smith; for Trondheim and Sfar, it's the main point of Dungeon: Twilight. The first volume hints that the planet is about to undergo some massive ecological catastrophe. This happens off-panel in the second volume; the authors would rather have their characters contemplate the past than go on a quest to save the world. In fact, by the end of the second volume, these characters are not on any sort of epic quest--their quest is trying to make amends for the past while finding their place in the present.

So Dungeon, then, lacks the epic feel of Bone. Which certainly isn't a bad thing--I don't think of the epic as the ultimate form of comic storytelling, or any other type, for that matter. But what do these books have in common? There's the humor, which I've already noted. It's not the same kind of humor, exactly--I always felt that Smith's was rooted in Peanuts (how many comic interludes ended with an exasperated or dejected Fone Bone shouting at another, off-panel character? how many Peanuts strips ended with Charlie Brown doing the same?), while Trondheim and Sfar's humor usually comes from putting their characters in absurd situations (Herbert, one of the main protagonists, relies on his foes' attempts to steal his enchanted sword as his main form of defense--whenever anyone touches the sword, the ghost of one of its previous owners appears to massacre practically everyone in sight). Smith and Trondheim/Sfar are equally fond of emphasizing environment. Smith's are fairly conventional--caves, mountains, and forests--but he emphasizes the visceral qualities of these environments. Characters are drenched by rain, buffeted by wind, blinded by darkness, and chilled by snow. Trondheim and Sfar, however, are more likely to put their characters in bizarre, exotic environments. Much of this is due to Trondheim's art; even something as quotidian as a forest becomes a strange, alien landscape via Trondheim's pen.

Not every fan of Bone will be as enamored with Dungeon. Smith draws in a style which might be more familiar/appealing to fans of American adventure comics. Likewise, his epic scale might be more appealing to the American comic reader than Trondheim and Sfar's more character-oriented story. I don't want to overemphasize the differences--Dungeon is still an adventure series with strong fantasy elements. There's something fantastic on every page; one of the main characters is a dragon, for chrissakes. But he's a vegetarian dragon, and that alone should give you some indication of the difference between the two series. That's not to say that Smith is slavishly converting the archetypical fantasy into comics form--the Bone cousins are hardly hobbit stand-ins, and a young girl is the primary hero. But he does tend to play things straight; his mysteries serve to invest the reader in his narrative. The mysteries in Dungeon are mostly there to confound the characters, putting them into comical situations. Even Twilight, which takes place many years after Zenith and puts its characters in very different roles, doesn't seem especially concerned with revealing what happened between trilogies.

Fans of Bone who dislike Dungeon's irreverent tone might be happier with Nick Bertozzi's online comic Persimmon Cup. Bertozzi's art isn't going to be mistaken for Smith's anytime soon--it lacks Smith's weighty brushstrokes and high-contrast composition. Like Trondheim, Bertozzi relies on color; however, he sticks to a much more limited palette than Trondheim. Bertozzi almost color-codes his characters--the protagonists and those from their society are green (as is their world when portrayed in flashbacks), while the pirates are red. The water separating the pirates' domain from the rests of the world is, of course, blue, while the rest of the landscape is gray.

Again, art follows story; Persimmon Cup is a very different comic than Bone. The latter is full of mystery, but based on fairly familiar conceits; a dark, nebulous force wishes to take over the humans' world, and strikes a deal with horrible monsters in order to do so. The unified forces which had repelled a similar invasion in the past are now divided. The royal family hides its most important member in a humble woodland cabin. Various factions debate whether to serve their own interests or work together to eliminate the greater evil. Smith's juggling of these various plot elements is masterful, and his character designs make the mystery all the more intriguing. But I never really felt completely in the dark when reading Bone.

Compare that to Persimmon Cup. It's still early in the narrative, but this world is still a mystery to me. How much of his fictional world is Bertozzi showing us? What do the pirates want? Who or what are the weavers producing tapestries for? What does it mean for Persimmon to be "seeded?" Despite this confusion, there are enough archetypical characters for us to make some sense of what's going on. Garo is the classic hero who violates the rigid rules of his society in the name of forbidden love. Persimmon, the object of his affection, is unwilling to step beyond the boundaries of her society, but has been forced to do so against her will. Muncle betrays the two, revealing that the ties of the individual to the society (expressed via adherence to its norms) are stronger than those between individuals within the society. Olidg is from an antagonistic group, but is bound to the hero through extenuating circumstances.

Again, it's fairly early (I hope) in the narrative, but the nature of Persimmon Cup is still up in the air. Will this primarily be a love story? Will the protagonists eventually escape to a place where they can defy the strictures of their society? Will they revolutionize their society, changing it into a more open world? Any of these possibilities assumes that the real antagonists are the authority figures of the loom world, but the real antagonists might remain hidden. Garo's yellow cube seems to behave as a virus, suggesting that an unseen force might be at work. Bertozzi probably has many cards left to show. At this point in Bone, we pretty much knew who the bad guys were.

Furthermore, Bertozzi is clearly more concerned with systems of labor and ecology than Smith. Both are interested in political systems, though. Smith mostly limits this analysis to the ways which members of a society might be pulled in opposite directions--towards defending and maintaining one's home on the one hand, and eliminating a greater (but not immediate) threat on the other. Bertozzi is mining themes of conformity and individuality--somewhat more personal themes, but it's quite possible that he'll move towards the broader focus of Bone. Right now, the bizarre world of Persimmon Cup may frustrate some readers, but it's dealing in pretty classic, universal themes.

That brings us to Christopher Forgues' Powr Mastrs, which is probably the most outre of the group. If there's a master narrative, it isn't apparent yet. New China, the fictional world in which Powr Mastrs is set, is organic, full of interdependencies and unrevealed relationships, but there really isn't a single character you could point to as the protagonist yet. I mean, maybe Subra Ptareo is the hero, but if so he's not a traditional fantasy hero. He appears in the first and last chapters of the first volume, making him the most prominent character, but the story is clearly not being told from his perspective. He's not especially heroic either--with the possible exception of Laz, he comes the closest to providing comic relief. He's been duped, and the other characters are constantly snickering at him.

In fact, New China and its denizens generally defy the conventions of fantasy comics. There seems to be a fairly rigid society (or several rigid societies) operating in the background, but there's no real sense of how well it treats its members, or how just its laws are. Some characters make gestures towards heroism or villainy--various witches for the former, Ajax Lacewing for the latter--but the complete lack of context puts that all into doubt. There's no overarching struggle or quest at work. This confusion is intentional, according to the Picture Box website--it describes Powr Mastrs as "the story of a tribe of mystical warriors whose power relations are constantly in flux. As power shifts, so do physical and psychological identities." That's what makes Powr Mastrs so intriuging--typical relationships between hero and villain, or even protagonist and antagonist, are not in effect. I find this highly appealing. Fans of Bone may or may not. If one's main attraction to Bone was the cast of colorful characters, competing factions, and general sense of wonder, then one probably should check out Powr Mastrs. But what if the hypothetical reader was mostly attracted to Bone's linear narrative depicting an epic struggle between the overwhelmed forces of good versus the overwhelming forces of evil? In that case, you might be happier saving your $18.

Those readers wanting that epic struggle between powerful villains and not-so-powerful heroes might instead want to check out Kazmir Strzepek's Mourning Star. Strzepek makes it pretty clear from the outset who the bad guys are--the Rule, a ruthless band of murderers who (from what we've seen) appear to be trying to take over what's left of this post-apocalyptic world. The protagonists are pretty obvious too--Klavir, a young man searching for his missing girlfriend; Futch, a ghost who feeds on dreams (by flying into the mouths of sleeping people); Wilm, a world-weary middle-aged man; and an unnamed amnesiac, apparently an assassin who uses scissors as his primary weapon.

Another similarity to Bone in its early stages: we have a pretty good idea of what's at stake, but we don't know much about the people at the top of the power structure. The leader of the Rule hasn't appeared on-panel yet, but there's a misshapen girl with wooden arms who might be pulling his strings. The amnesiac assassin is headed toward a city, but we don't know what lies there, or how they protect themselves against the Rule. Likewise, Klavir and his companions have arrived at Northern Cross, a entrepot of some type under the control of the Rule. We don't know what's in store for them there. And hey: the first volume ends in a cliffhanger. Mystery abounds!

Out of all these successors to Bone, Mourning Star is the most concerned with plot. And it's similar to Bone in that it takes well-worn tropes from various genres and works them into something fresh and exciting. We've seen all this stuff before; some of it's so ingrained in our literary traditions, it's downright Jungian. The quest for a loved one in a post-apocalyptic world should be immediately familiar to any Brian K. Vaughan fans. The arrival in a seedy entrepot reminds me of the first Star Wars movie. The talkative, semi-bungling band of killers is reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino's various work (which, in turn, means they're especially well-worn tropes). The amnesiac killer reminds me of something, but I can't seem to recall what it is. In any event, Strzepek puts all these cliches together with such skill and charm that you can't help but be entertained.

The other major similarity between Smith and Strzepek is that they both embrace cuteness as a device for gaining the reader's sympathy. Like Smith's Bone cousins, Strzepek's characters are vaguely anthropoidal, but clearly not human. And yet they're all pretty cute, flailing away at giant monsters and threatening each other with torture and death. It's this blend of humor, suspense, and adventure that made Bone such a great success, and Strzepek is using a similar formula.

Cuteness and violence (albeit implied violence) in Kazmir Strzepek's Mourning Star

Of all these Bone-like comics, Mourning Star is the closest to Smith's original vision. It's not derivative; it's actually a fair bit darker, closer to Mad Max than Lord of the Rings. Hell, I don't even know if Strzepek has even read Bone. But those who bemoan the lack of quality Bone-ish material in today's comics* should save further complaints until they've read Mourning Star.

*And by that I mean less Heidi MacDonald and more the people who leave angry comments on her blog.

Oh, and as long as I'm editing this, let me add that I intended to include more scans, but my scanner seems to have died. Sorry.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I bought a lot of comics yesterday

-So long to Johnny Bacardi. Hope you stick around leaving comments across the blogosphere. I also hope you reconsider at some point and come back.

-You need Powr Mastrs. Especially if you liked Mourning Star or Multiple Warheadz, cause there's a similar narrative device at work--you're plopped down in the middle of a very strange world with no information about how anything there works. Plus the characters are engaging and their designs interesting. It also reminds me of Leila Marzocchi's Niger, which I reviewed a few months back.* In the review, I said that Niger compared unfavorably with Larry Marder's Beanworld, a comparison I drew because they both were ecological fantasies. I thought Marzocchi's work suffered from an inadequate explanation of what was going on. What I didn't mention (but should have) is that Marzocchi might have intended to shroud the actual working of her ecosystem in mystery, in order to stir a sense of wonder or curiosity from her readers. It doesn't really work on that level either, I'm sorry to say--the weirdness isn't particularly compelling or entertaining. I'm not interested in the mysterious workings of her ecosystem, and said mystery doesn't supply enough atmosphere to make her characters more interesting.

Powr Mastrs, however, succeeds where Niger fails. There are clearly economic, political, and social relationships between the characters, but we have no idea how this system or systems work. Unlike Marder, I don't imagine that CF is interested symbiosis and dependencies in and of themselves; instead, he uses them as an effective way to bring greater texture to the world he's creating. I like that a lot. I don't know that we as readers will ever be privy to the laws which govern the world of Powr Mastrs, and I certainly can't make any claims about how much of this kind of thinking CF has done. It doesn't really matter. The hints of a complex system of obligations and dependencies are the exact right amoun to make CF's fictional universe richer, providing his vibrant characters with an equally vibrant environment. Like practically everyone else who's reviewed Powr Mastrs, I can't wait for the next volume.

*Sorry I never got around to reviewing the second issue, but I really didn't have much to say about it. I actually think the art was better in the first issue, and that was the main reason to buy it in the first place. I haven't decided if I'll buy the third issue.

-I finally got Jason Thompson's Manga: The Complete Guide yesterday, and somehow this led to me trying to explain Dragonball Z to my wife. In doing so, I came to realize that I liked that cartoon a lot more than the vast majority of superhero comics I've ever read. At least as far as plot and characterization go--when you start to factor in my preference for comics versus animation, it gets a little more complicated. But putting all that aside, it's not really close--watching Dragonball Z was a more entertaining experience than reading Lee and Claremont's X-Men (to choose something I liked as an adolescent) or Waid and Kitson's LSH (to choose something I liked as an adult). I don't know if there's any deeper statement to be made beyond this. I will add that I like Dr. Slump better than any variation on Dragonball, which thus means I like Dr. Slump more than almost any superhero comic I've ever read. But that's just common sense.

(Yes, I am aware of this. It's probably what sparked this line of thinking in the first place.)

-I also flipped through Best American Comics 2007 yesterday.* I don't know, looked pretty good to me. I mean, I'd probably get if I didn't already have a lot of this stuff. The main impression it left on me was the overwhelming desire to get Alias the Cat.

*Okay, I read a few of the stories while drinking coffee in Barnes & Noble. I bought Manga: The Complete Guide, so it's not like I was completely freeloading.

-I implore you, Steven Grant, to start naming names, or at least get a bit more specific. I'll limit myself to one criticism for now: "mainstream" and "indie" (by which I assume he means "real indie"--see the actual article for more on that) aren't just marketing, simply because the method of production is different. For DC and Marvel (and to a lesser extent Image and Dark Horse), the assembly line method is normative. This is not the case for "condescending," low-selling publishers. But then again, I think criticisms of the assembly line method of production are something of a sore spot for Grant. Anyway, if anyone wants to annotate his column for me, I'd appreciate it.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Happy birthday... my beautiful wife, whose humor, intelligence, and general pleasantness should serve as a model to all of us. Especially me, probably. Anyway, here's some clips for you, honey:

T. Rex is pretty close to her favorite band, you see. Happy birthday!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Breaking out my wife's calculator for all of you

-Important complaining dept: Man, there's nothing worse than having your team lose in the waning seconds of the game, only to have the moment celebrated by loud Bears fans living beneath you. I hate this NFL season.

-This might sound obvious, but bear with me. I've been thinking about the current run of Captain America, specifically how the title character's death pretty much necessitates a bunch of covers featuring supporting characters and/or villains. Maybe Tom Brevoort's ongoing series on Marvel comics covers (here's the latest entry) has got me thinking about the changing nature of covers at Marvel/DC. For the last three or four issues, Captain America has not appeared on the cover (mostly because he's currently dead). As recently as the early 90s, I can't imagine this situation taking place at Marvel. In fact, here's an illustrative example.

There was a storyline in the late 80s in which Steve Rogers (the regular old Captain America) being replaced by the dude who used to be the Super Patriot, and then went on to become USAgent. Rogers started calling himself "The Captain," and wore the costume that USAgent wears now--which is basically a variation on the traditional Captain America uniform. It was close enough that any reader would recognize it as somehow related to what the title character usually wears, but different enough to make them wonder why he was wearing it. (You can see the first cover featuring the Captain here). Other issues featured the replacement Captain America wearing the traditional costume (example). Captain America continued to appear in the box in the upper left corner of the comic, even though the comic (from what I vaguely remember from flipping through it at the drug store) continued to focus on Steve Rogers. I can't say for certain why this course of action was taken, or whose idea it was, but it certainly kept irregular (or "casual") readers from being too confused: yes, this issue of Captain America does feature Captain America.

This storyline went on forever (just over a year), during which time the covers featuring the replacement Captain America gradually started to outnumber the ones featuring the Captain. Of the first five issues of this extended story (Captain America 337-341), the Captain appears on four covers, with the replacement Captain America limited to one cover appearance. Of the next five (342-346), only one cover clearly features the Captain, two feature Captain America, and another two either feature both or are ambiguous (and by "ambiguous," I mean this). In the final four issues, Captain America is on two covers, the Captain on one, and both on another (the final issue in the storyline, where they appear to be fighting each other).

I have no idea if Marvel was reacting to declining sales figures or what, but there's an unmistakable trend towards featuring the more familiar costume over the more familiar character (Steve Rogers). I didn't actually read these comics, so I'm not sure how well each cover reflected the larger "new Captain America" storyline. But, if you were only an occasional Captain America reader, the covers indicated that the status quo prevailed, and that the story between the covers was one featuring the same intellectual property who had always appeared.

Compare that to the more recent covers. Captain America is nowhere to be seen. There are no clear indicators of what is going on, other than the vague "Death of the Dream" title. Obviously, anyone considering the purchase of an issue of the (semi-) monthly Captain America comic either knows about the current story, or doesn't care. There are no casual purchases; Marvel depends upon a market of dedicated readers for their pamphlet-style comics. We all know this, but it's an interesting illustration of the massive change in the industry over the last 20 years.

-Which brings us to the zero sum hypothesis of Marvel/DC sales. Tim O'Neil mentioned it in a recent review column, leading Tom Spurgeon to questioned its accuracy. Spurgeon is particularly concerned with data indicating a growth in periodical sales, which in turn suggests a greater number of readers entering the market. The conventional wisdom here is that new readers, inasmuch as they exist, are drawn to events and their key tie-ins almost exclusively. Spurgeon posits that this might not be true, given the growth in the midlist titles (which he defines as those ranging from 50 to 100 on Diamond's top 300). I thought this sounded a little fishy, so I looked up the actual figures, going way back to 2002. I picked September because that was the most recent month for 2007 data. I looked only at numbers 50, 75, and 100 on the Diamond chart. A better study would consider all 51 books in this range, but I've got other things to do, unfortunately. My calculations below include the total change from the year before and the percentage change. These are the second and third numbers in parentheses, respectively:

September 2002:
50. Adventures of Superman #608, 33,871 (NA) (NA)
75. Robin #106, 25,996 (NA) (NA)
100. Harley Quinn #24, 19,661 (NA) (NA)
Total: 79,528 (NA) (NA)

September 2003:

50. Thor: Vikings #3, 35,066 (+1195) (+3.5%)
75. Arkham Asylum: Living Hell #5, 26,066 (+70) (+0.3%)
100. Robin #118, 21,811 (+2150) (+10.9%)
Total: 82,943 (+3415) (+4.3%)

September 2004:

50. JSA #65, 41,459 (+6393) (+18.2%)
75. Birds of Prey #73, 32,070 (+6004) (+23%)
100. Elektra: Hand #2, 25,638 (+3827) (+17.5)
Total: 99,167 (+16,224) (+19.6%)

September 2005:

50. JLA Classified #12, 43,174 (+1715) (+4.0%)
75. Defenders #3, 30,768 (-1302) (-4.1%)
100. Wraithborn #1, 22,118 (-3520) (-13.7%)
Total: 96,060 (-3107) (-3.1%)

September 2006:

50. X-Men First Class #1, 39,859 (-3315) (-7.7%)
75. Checkmate #6, 28,887 (-1881) (-6.1%)
100. Jack of Fables #3, 22,373 (+255) (+1.2%)
Total: 91,119 (-4941) (-5.1%)

Septbember 2007:

50. Sub-Mariner #4, 40,130 (+270) (+0.7%)
75. Superman Confidential #6, 31,152 (+2265) (+7.8%)
100. Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters #1, 23,731 (+1358) (+5.7%)
Total: 95,013 (+3894) (+4.3%)

And, by way of comparison, below are the aggregate totals for the top 10 selling books each month. I've included notes as to which books are special cases. "Event" books are major crossovers, like House of M. "Prestige" books feature creators whose work doesn't appear on a regular basis, thus making their appearances something of a special event. (Note that I included Astonishing X-Men #5, as Whedon's continued involvement in the series was questionable at the time. I did not include subsequent issues, once the series' ongoing nature was clearer.) I've also noted the first issue of high-profile miniseries, as well as the rare project attracting readers from outside the comics industry (such Dark Tower series or Joss Whedon's recent Buffy comics). I'm not sure whether or not this dynamic applies to Transformers comics, but I've listed them anyway. Again, I've included the total sales difference from the previous year and the percent change:

1 prestige (Spider-Man/Black Cat (Smith))
2 licensed (Transformers (2))

1,307,902 (+336,240) (+34.6%)
1 event comic (JLA/Avengers)
2 prestige comics (Batman (Lee), 1602 (Gaiman))
1 debut (Ultimate Six LS)

1,078,577 (-229,325) (-17.5%)
3 event comics (Avengers (2), Identity Crisis)
3 prestige (Superman/Batman (Turner), Superman (Lee), Astonishing X-Men (Whedon))

1,117,633 (+39,086) (+3.6%)
2 prestige (Ultimates (Hitch), All Star Batman (Miller/Lee))
3 event (House of M, JLA, OMAC Project)
1 debut (Ghost Rider LS)

1,326,019 (+208,386) (+18.6%)
7 event (Civil War, Amazing Spider-Man, Wolverine, 52 (4))
1 anniversary (Ultimate Spider-Man)

1,104,652 (-221,367) (-16.7%)
3 event comics (World War Hulk, Incredible Hulk, ASM)
2 minor event comics (Uncanny X-Men, X-Men)
1 outsider friendly (Buffy)
1 prestige (ASBAR (Lee/Miller))

There are two major spikes in sales for each category. Among the midlist positions, 2004 saw huge, double digit growth. Sales for positions 50-100 have fluctuated since then, but they haven't fallen back to their 2002-3 levels. For top 10 titles, the big growth year was 2003. In September of that year, the Loeb/Lee Hush storyline in Batman, Neil Gaiman's 1602, and the long-awaited JLA/Avengers crossover all had issues ship. I would propose that these two events were related. Throw in Grant Morrison's New X-Men and the continued success of Ultimate Spider-Man, and you could argue that superhero comics had a bigger buzz in 2003 than at any point in the prior decade. I tentatively suggest that these buzz books attracted new or lapsed readers. I would also suggest that these new readers stuck around. There were many fewer buzz books in 2004, so sales from these new readers filtered down to the midlist titles like JSA or Birds of Prey. Finally, in the years since 2003, I think we see an inverse relationship between top 10 sales and midlist sales. In 2005 and 2006, top 10 books sold more aggregate copies, while midlist titles sold fewer copies. In 2007, top 10 books declined in sales, while midlist titles increased in sales.

I'm not prepared to defend these conclusions to the death or anything, especially since I don't trust my math. But they do seem to suggest that the market has changed since 2003, and that there is some kind of inverse relationship between top sellers and mid-sellers. I'm not sure that it supports the zero sum theory, but I don't think it rules it out, either. Things get more complicated when you try to factor in TPB sales. Let's say that a sizable number of readers who were around c. 2004 have permanently switched to that format. If so, then one must surmise that continued sales increases indicate that there are many new readers coming into the market to replace them. It's also possible that new readers initially attracted to the collected editions are migrating to single issue periodicals, perhaps so that they can participate in online discussion of contemporary comics (that was the case for me, back in 2004).

One final thing: it's also worth considering all this in light of the sales analyses which appear on the Beat. And wouldn't you know it, the first one (for Marvel) has just gone up. I'll try to have more on this subject once I've read both reports.

Friday, October 19, 2007

And then they moved the library to a new building which I hate

-Not really a review, but a note of appreciation for Bookhunter; if you want a real review, you couldn't do much better than Dirk Deppey's. I mostly want to say this: if libraries have been a big part of your life, you will want to read this book. Back in my childhood/adolescence, I spent a lot of time in libraries. I liked our local branch just fine, but the main county library was almost magical. The building was one that would have looked modern in the middle of the 20th century--very flat, lots of blue-tinted glass and white bricks. It was much darker and much, much larger than our local branch. Downstairs, there was a room reserved for children's entertainment--puppet shows, mostly. The children's section was enormous, with murals on the walls and toys in the center of the room. The main reading room was imposing, surrounded by the main fiction stacks on one side and the genre fiction on the other (paperbacks in spinner racks), right next to several big, two-story windows. The nonfiction was upstairs, with a balcony looking down on the reading room. That's where my brother and I found many of the books which expanded our love of comics beyond superheroes: Fantagraphics' The Best Comics of the Decade, books about Pogo and Krazy Kat, a collection of Pat Oliphant cartoons, histories of comics which included underground cartoonists other than Robert Crumb, and even Lorenzo Mattoti's Fires. And right next to the comics section (in the mid-700s) was a mysterious employees-only area, shrouded in darkness, yet made all the more intriguing by a large window affording glimpses into this world.

And that's not even getting into all the time I've spent in various university libraries, some of which were legitimately Sala-esque. I want to emphasize, however, that my psychological attachment to libraries was not a precondition for enjoying Bookhunter. Even not plagued by such strong bibliophilic memories will find it incredibly entertaining for reasons best explained by Deppey in the link above (here it is again, for the lazy reader). But people who share my strange fascination with libraries will find special pleasure in reading Bookhunter.

-With all the talk of the impending deaths of formats and whatnot, I thought I'd once again share my completely uninformed, unrealistic solution, a clumsy application of elements of the manga publishing model on North American comics. It goes something like this: DC and Marvel should stratify their main lines into three categories--one for kids, one for the dedicated fan, and one for "prestige" projects. The latter would be totally untethered to continuity and would feature works by creators whose approach might be too idiosyncratic to exist in today's "shared universe" publishing model. Kind of like what the All-Star line was intended to be. These comics might or might not be serialized in pamphlet form, but most sales would come from collected, graphic novel-type volumes.

The hardcore fan-oriented line would be condensed into big, thick anthologies, perhaps with a production process similar to the television model being used by Countdown: one or two head writers producing outlines for a staff of several writers, each of whom would be assigned a strip (or possibly multiple strips). The art process would be further broken into assembly line steps, with dedicated layout artists separate from the penciller. These anthologies would be printed on cheaper paper than today's DC/Marvel books, but would still be in full color. The stories would be dense, giving readers a whole lot of bang for the buck. The anthology format would allow Marvel and DC to cycle through intellectual properties, while maintaining that "shared universe" dynamic so important to many superhero fans. The individual strips would eventually be collected in some type of format, so that readers wouldn't be forced to buy an anthology if they were only interested in comics starring the Flash or Wolverine or whoever.

The children's line would follow the same anthology format, but with more attention paid to synergy with cartoon and/or movie versions of the characters. Stories would be self-contained, for the most part.

There are a ton of problems with this plan, the biggest being that it would drastically reduce sales volume in DM stores. I don't want that to happen; it's the people buying every X-title who allow stores to stay in business, which in turn allows me to buy the comics I want to buy at my local comic shop. But if the Direct Market were to collapse at some point, a series of anthologies might not be the worst way to go. I mean, assuming we're ignoring the internet here. In any event, I would think that the comics industry would be in better shape today if that model had been adopted in the 80s. But that's not an especially useful way of looking at current problems in the industry. And declining manga sales suggest that the anthology model is no panacea. So what I'm basically saying is, we'll look back on this conversation in 20 years and laugh, remembering a time when human beings could sit around and speculate on the future of comic books rather than trying to fight off the marauding motorcycle gangs who prey on our fragile communities in their ongoing search for food and petroleum.

(Oh, and on the same subject: Stuart Moore repeatedly mentions on this Beat thread that overall sales are up for comics (and I assume he's referring to North American-produced comics sold in the Direct Market here). I thought the current fretting wasn't due to reduced aggregate sales, but dips in the sales of mid-line titles. Like, the big crossovers are stealing readers away from the mid-level titles. Now, to say that's bad, you have to put a little trust in anecdotal evidence--like growing negative reaction to all these fucking crossovers on the internet. And then you could look at sales figures for something like Fables--they're remarkably even from month to month. Put them together and you get this: You hype the latest crossover to hell, browbeating your reader into buying everything connected with it. But since this hypothetical reader needs to eat, certain sacrifices must be made--in this case, Dependable Mid-Level Title is dropped in favor of Countdown to Infinite Whatever: The Search for H.E.R.B.I.E. So sales drop on Dependable Mid-Level Title and it gets canceled, or a new creative team turns it into something unrecognizable. Then the reader (and this is speculation based on anecdotal evidence) gets burned out on crossover mega-events and just quits reading comics. A lot of things happened in the 90s which nearly killed off the industry. This phenomenon was not the most important factor, or even one of the five most important factors, but it was a factor.)

(Oh, and if TPB sales offset lowered pamphlet sales, thus making Vertigo basically healthy, how can you explain the cancellation of American Virgin, especially with four other ongoing titles selling around the same level or lower? Are those titles (Exterminators, Army@Love, Scalped, and Crossing Midnight) going to significantly outpace American Virgin's GN sales? If not, then surely they're in imminent danger of cancellation, right? That's four titles in total--a quarter of Vertigo's current, uncanceled, ongoing output (the other titles are Hellblazer, Fables, Jack of Fables, Y the Last Man, 100 Bullets, Un-Men, and DMZ, plus the newly-launched Vinyl Underground). And of those remaining titles, Y is months away from wrapping up and Un-Men isn't really burning up the sales charts. Surely this talk of problems at Vertigo is more than half-baked rhetoric, yes?)

(And just to repeat myself, I very much want to see a successful Vertigo, because I think it's good for the overall health of the Direct Market. More importantly, it funnels in new readers into other (better) comics, and I'd like to see the people who make those comics be able to make a decent living off of them.)

-Two quick Trader Joe's reviews:

Colombian House Blend French Roast whole bean coffee: This was perfectly fine, about as good as what I normally drink in any coffee house around town (bearing in mind that 99% of the time I order the darkest roast available and drink it black). Sigh. Maybe I'm getting to that stage in my life where I only want to consume one particular product for every product category, and it's gotta be French roast when it comes to coffee. But then I remember that I can't stand eating any particular breakfast cereal for more than two weeks at a time, and I think, "NO! The fault lies with the exceedingly poor quality of Trader Joe's Safari Blend! I like medium roasts, so long as they don't taste like grass!"

While we're on the subject, do any of you out there go to coffee houses which feature more than, like, three types of coffee at any given time? I mean, are there parts of the country which have massive cafes with 10+ blends sitting in the carafes? That's my dream coffee house, sort of like those bars with several dozen beers on tap and several hundred in bottle, including all those fruity Belgian beers which don't really taste like beer at all. Mmm, Lindeman's Frambroise. Even better, Lindeman's Pomme.

Country Italian artisan bread: I assume that the nature of Trader Joe's artisan breads vary significantly by bakery, so your local store might not carry the version of this which severely strained my jaw muscles last night. This is an insanely chewy bread, with a positively rubbery crust. I've never had so much trouble eating bread before. It tastes very good, and has a very rustic texture--beneath the crust. I'd describe the crust's texture as akin to industrial-grade sound dampening material.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More on the only subject that matters: MMA fighters' nicknames

-Well, there's a new question for the blogosphere to ponder: out of all the comics-related blogs on the internet, does The Beat have the dumbest readers? Consider this before answering. I know that isn't the reaction Heidi MacDonald was going for. Maybe it's time to address the troops? (This doesn't really cut it, which is a shame considering that my pull quote comes first. And the bit unfavorably comparing bloggers to actual cartoonists is sure to stir up another round of "Amen, Heidi!" Awesome. Can't wait.) Unfortunately, given the quality of the comments in her previous two posts on the subject, I suspect that MacDonald's original essay will long be cited as an argument against any shred of literary or artistic ambition in comics. Stupid generalization fever: catch it! And then stay the fuck away from me.

Actually, the most compelling (by which I mean "only compelling") variation on MacDonald's argument comes from Top Shelf's Leigh Walton, who is the only person I've seen even attempt to identify the mystery villain who's out to destroy all comics narrative.* Basically, Walton is arguing that the NY Times/New Yorker/Best American... editors are influential "tastemakers" who influence the perceived "prestige" of a particular piece of art/literature/whatever. The dearth of non-genre material** in Best American Comics 2007 exacerbates this trend. Walton is a little ambivalent about what that means, aside from maybe some greater financial compensation.

This is something we can work with, but I'm still not convinced. The influence of the Times and the New Yorker are, if anything, in decline; they're increasingly seen either as middle class banalities or stodgy antiques. I say that with a certain appreciation for stodginess; that's influenced what the Times has run in its comics section, and I think we've gotten some great material that otherwise might never have seen the light of day (I'm mostly thinking Mister Wonderful here--I worry this will be the last Clowes work we'll see for the next five years).

You could probably make a better case that the McSweeney's connection is more problematic in the long run, since that readership is more likely to take Chris Ware's recommendations as commandments from on high (I actually wrote this before reading this excellent piece by Matthias Wivel). But, as Walton and Kyle Baker both hint, McSweeney's readers probably are going to flock for Best American Comics 2007 type stuff anyway. Besides, I seriously doubt that the Ware-Eggers axis is going to become an Orwellian voice in the comics world of tomorrow. There are too many people sniping from dark corners in the outlying area. Plus, you know, how many people actually read McSweeney's? Surely a lot more than those who read Kramer Ergot, but surely a lot fewer than those who read Achewood.

If Ware is the King Tastemaker (and I'm not totally convinced that he really is), that makes him the most conspicuous target for an entire blogosphere worth of snipers. The ongoing decentralization of the media hasn't entirely leveled the playing field for comics criticism, but it's the best venue of all time for diverse opinions. Some of these opinions belong to people of questionable intelligence (see above), but that's the trade-off. Factor in webcomics' potential for even greater decentralization, and it's hard to imagine that Best American Comics 2007 is going to hinder any future Jeff Smith OR Geoff Johns from getting whatever attention she or he deserves. The real question is whether things will be so fractured that no one can actually make a living producing comics. But that's a different (and much more depressing) debate.

One last thing: what the hell is with Adrian Tomine in that NYT picture (see either Wivel or Walton above)? That's such a terrible picture. It's like he knew that this tableau would come back to haunt him.

*This is a gross distortion of MacDonald's case, but it's basically what some of her "supporters" are arguing.

**Or whatever it is that's allegedly squeezing out stuff like Bone. MacDonald mentions autobiography, heavily formalist comics, and other material of questionable accessibility. I don't want to create a category to incorporate all this stuff, because I think it gives ammunition to people who seem to view the industry as a Manichean struggle between Comics You Want to Read and Pretentious Crap.

(To whichever anonymous commenter wanted internal links to the footnotes: Blogger isn't cooperating, and I don't care enough to try to fix it tonight. Sorry.)

-Anderson "The Spider" Silva is apparently a Spider-Man fan. Not the kind of story I usually link to, but I'm a big Silva fan. Here's a brief summary of all the comics-related MMA nicknames I'm aware of:

Superman-Dennis Hallman. His career is basically over, and I never understood this nickname. The dude's blond. Via bleach, but still.
Batman-Kurt Pellegrino. Actually, that's not coming up as his nickname on Sherdog, but I swear I remember hearing that before.
War Machine-One of the guys on this season of TUF whose name I can't remember and who I've never seen fight. Not much more to add to that.
Hulk-Roger Hollett. An undefeated Nova Scotian who's supposedly the next big thing at light heavyweight. Never seen him fight, so it's unclear if he actually turns green at any point.
Iceman-Chuck Liddell. This one might not be related to comics, actually.
Wolverine-Donald Grice and a bunch of other dudes. Grice snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against Terry Etim at UFC 70. Apparently doesn't possess a healing factor; possession of adamantium claws is uncertain, given that their use is probably prohibited by the NJAC Unified Rules.
Captain America-Randy Couture. You've probably heard of him. Little known fact: he was briefly known as "Nick Fury" after his fight with Vitor Belfort.
Popeye-Dave van der Veen. Are Dutch guys allowed to call themselves Popeye? Van der Veen has a losing record; there's some joke about spinach to be made here, but it's too obvious.
Ninja-Murilo Rua. Apparently didn't think Fort Thunder was a dead end.
Li'l Abner-Forrest Griffen. Please nobody tell him I said this.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Remember back when everyone hated that particular cartoonist?

-I was about to make some comment about Mister Wonderful being the best comic Dan Clowes has done in years, but then I remembered that it's the only comic he's done in years. Still, I'm liking it more than The Death Ray, his next most recent work (that I can remember). I mean, I like Death Ray just fine, but Mister Wonderful so far is tonally very different than Clowes' post-Velvet Glove work (at least the longer narratives, like Ghost World or David Boring). There seems to be a greater emotional proximity between the comic and the reader, probably due to the protagonist's constant internal monologue. Which is not to say that Clowes habitually shies away from first person captions, but Marshal (the protagonist) seems to have a more personable voice. Clowes repeatedly draws him looking into space, effectively locking eyes with the reader. It gives the impression that Marshal is confiding in the reader, a feeling enhanced by Clowes frequently (but not invariably) drawing his protagonist with a fair amount of cartoonish abstraction. Marshal isn't an everyman, but he's more sympathetic than many of Clowes' emotionally distant protagonists.

There are a few other things worth noting. Clowes' play with form is especially, well, playful. In the latest installment, Marshal's thought captions physically intrude on his date's word balloons. It's a clever technique, more successful than his bursts of full color in the (otherwise monochromatic) present-day sections of Death Ray. I also suspect that there's greater congruity between words and pictures in Mr. Wonderful; in other words, the relationship between words and pictures are not disharmonious or contradictory.* Maybe Clowes is avoiding this technique so as not to confuse a more general audience who might lack familiarity with reading more narratively complex comics.

Mister Wonderful might not be Clowes' best work (I like his late 90s short stories the best), but I'm more intrigued by it than anything he's written since the original serialization of David Boring. I strongly suspect Clowes is lulling his readers into a sense of false security so that he can abruptly pull the rug out from under us in a later installment. But it sure would be interesting if this was a low-key, character-driven comedy. We'll see.

*This might be totally wrong; I'd have to re-read some of Clowes' other work, and none of it is handy right now. But this is a technique I associate with him. (back)

-About this mess (and its likely to be just as bad sequel): Has anyone ever considered that regular, fully adult, non-initiate readers (aka "civilians") might be more interested in autobiography than something like Bone? I prefer the latter, generally speaking, but I'm guessing that many (possibly most) of Best American Comics 2007's readers might not be interested in a sublimely-crafted, but ultimately straightforward and unironic fantasy.

What I'm mostly taken aback by is the number of people who apparently take Heidi MacDonald's post as a rallying cry against...something or another. Chris Ware? Comics with any hint of artistic/literary pretensions? Tom Spurgeon? It varies from commenter to commenter, really. Oh hey, here's my list of the worst comments so far (bearing in mind that further bad comments might be only moments away):

Grady Hendrix (a writer for the NY Sun) posits a spectrum between superhero comics and "cancer comics." I know of at least a couple of examples of the latter (Mom's Cancer and Cancer Vixen are the two that spring to mind), but I never hear anyone talking about them. In fact, these seem to be the very definition of middlebrow comics--they certainly seem to reflect mainstream taste more than Groo. Hendrix admits to being an outsider, and I guess I can understand this misconception. I just hope that no one else latches onto "cancer comics" as a talking point. Or have they already? Oh God....

"tomthecat" somehow turns this into a complaint about the format of various Marvel and DC published collections, as though there were a single hive mind making all bookstore-oriented publishing decisions in the comic book industry.

I suggest that "logic was prevailing." It was at the time, but I shouldn't have been so quick to make this claim.

KC argues that the problem with comics from the "indie world" is their failure to institute a harsh division of labor between writers and artists. Furthermore, this is due to laziness and cheapness on the part of publishers. This comment, by the way, is the one most likely to have been written by someone too young to remember the Ultraverse.

Brad thinks the anthology should have included Funky Winkerbean. Maybe there really is something to this "cancer comics" thing! He also seems to think that the anthology is intended to be a college text book of some kind.

Alan Coil wins absolute worst comment with his suggestion that MacDonald's critics are motivated by sexism. Now that's pandering! (BTW, I predicted last Friday that the appearance of Harlan Ellison's street team would launch the thread into "epic" territory. I'm not sure if I was right or not--it seemed to be chugging along pretty well before Coil appeared. For more of Alan Coil's forensic exploits, see here.)

(EDIT: It gets worse.)

MacDonald is distressed that her post sparked condemnation (and rabid, somewhat confused agreement) rather than enlightened discussion. I think the reason the "debate" proved so useless was her initial gambit of linking a critique of Best American Comics 2007 which almost everyone on earth would agree with (ie, it could have included worthy comics from a wider range of authors and styles) to a much more difficult to prove argument about young cartoonists' prejudices (and maybe snooty comics critics' prejudices? it's unclear who's doing the "valuing" in MacDonald's synopsis of her argument) against genre fiction and/or recurring characters. The nature of this argument allowed for a variety of comment-leavers to twist it into something bizarre and unrecognizable,which only dragged the "debate" down further. It's not that a discussion about middlebrow comics isn't worth having, but, as it stands, it's based on a premise that many people find untenable.

The current talking point seems to be that the negative reaction to the piece was unwarranted and extreme. I'll let other people debate whether or not that was true. I think it's fair enough to call Christopher Butcher or Dirk Deppey firebrands, and I doubt they'd disagree too much with that characterization. And Tom Spurgeon can be pretty acerbic too, no doubt about it. But there are plenty of negative reactions from cooler heads, such as Chris Mautner, Sean Collins, and David Welsh. I think there's something to the fact that these reasonable folks didn't think of the post as an invitation to a dialogue so much as a baseless straw man argument.

One last thing: when I first read MacDonald's original post, I was reminded of this:

That's a cartoon by Ted Rall from The Comics Journal #200, published in 1997. Maybe this isn't a specific generational trend, but a stage which many young cartoonists pass through?

-Trader Joe's reviews: Haven't done this in a long time. Let's see what I can remember, and hope that I don't repeat (or contradict) any earlier entries:

*Safari Blend whole bean coffee: Yuck. The package promised rich, chocolaty, nutty, sweet flavors, but I was overwhelmed by a strong, lingering green taste, reminiscent of jalapeno flavored candies minus the heat and sugar. I also thought the flavor was too acidic and thin, especially in light of what the label promised. Maybe they meant raw, green nuts. I've had good luck with the other TJ coffee I've tried--the Costa Rican Tarrazu blend, which basically delivered what it promised. I'm not sure if this was a bad batch or what. I thought that was one of the points of a bean blend--to minimize variations from cannister to cannister. Speaking of which, the pictures of lions and elephants on one side and kangaroos on the other was kind of amusing. I never been to Australia, and can't say I remember having any Australian coffee before, but I'm 100% certain this is what the Outback tastes like.

*Fresh mushroom ravioli, with mascarpone and asiago cheese: The filling was pretty tasty, but the dough was too thick, almost leathery. The raviolis might have been a little too big as well--I recall them being about two inch rounds. Once again I'm reminded of a similar, yet far superior, TJ product--the fresh gorgonzola ravioli. The pasta is much tenderer, and the filling at least as good. But then again, I really like pungent cheeses.

*Lemonade, refrigerated in a 64 oz. carton: Christ, this was terrible. If you long for the taste of lemon Theraflu, but want to avoid that fattening dextromethorphan hydrobromide, then this is the product for you. The frozen concentrate is better, but still a little bland.

*Braided, marinated mozzarella: Good stuff. Not quite as good as a fresh mozzarella in brine, but still very creamy and easier to manipulate. Makes an excellent grilled cheese sandwich, but I'd recommend adding some kind of additional flavor--like basil and tomatoes or balsamic vinaigrette (brushed on the interior of the sandwich).

This might be a good time to bring up my grilled cheese technique. Many of you are already familiar with the two pan trick (briefly: heat two pans, place sandwich between them, add a weight to the top pan if it's not sufficiently heavy). But here's the other key, borrowed from America's Test Kitchen: brush some vegetable oil directly on the outward-facing pieces of bread, then add some salt. If you use both these steps, your grilled cheese will be extra crispy. And who wouldn't want that?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Wrapping things up

-I have to admit, I was really shocked that so many people (by which I mean any people at all) were so flabbergasted by the very notion of serious comics industry journalism. See here and here.* At Blogorama, Jennifer de Guzman mentions a few crucial, underreported stories, which apparently convinced the naysayers that they were wrong (or else they went off to complain about the new Captain America costume**).

I'll add one more thing: I think there's change a-coming to the Direct Market. The portents are there--the customer base is aging, and DC and Marvel are trying to extract every last drop of blood from this base through variant covers and enormous crossovers. Meanwhile, it's clear that both publishers have their eyes on the bookstore market. Marvel is publishing more books intended for that venue (the Stephen King adaptation (and there's another coming, right?), the Anita Blake-type stuff). DC is doing the same (Minx, the growing number of OGNs from Vertigo). DC is diversifying even further by trying to establish an online presence through Zuda. Marvel will probably follow suit at some point in the future. Meanwhile, Diamond is in the process of trying to implement greater professional standards on the DM as a whole (increased minimum sales requirements, barcodes, its POS initiative).

Maybe I'm wrong, but there seems to be something going on. Not in a "power players making decisions in a dark, smoky room" kind of way--major historical changes are not generally enacted by decisions of Great Men, but by a confluence of economic, social-cultural, and political factors. This is not All the President's Men. There appear to be a lot of pieces in play, but it's possible that these are all unrelated events which do not signify any impending changes. I suspect that the situation would be clearer, one way or the other, with a little information about what's going on at the top echelons of the industry. The hard part is obtaining that information.

*I'm assuming that Graeme McMillan was asking "does anyone report real news," not "is there any real news to report?".
**Which, admittedly, is pretty fucking ugly. Alex Ross' immense success is prima facie evidence of...something or another. Definitely something bad. I'm having a hard time putting it into words this morning.

-Getting back to another theme from earlier this week: Hey, you know what comic would work well on the internet? Beanworld. I guess it depends on how Larry Marder feels about merchandising. By which I mean merchandising his creations; his history at McFarlane suggests that he's okay with merchandising in the abstract. Anyway, it seems like the perfect strip for the Achewood model of webcomic entrepreneurship: a rabid fanbase, beloved characters, plenty of potential t-shirt slogans. I don't normally buy licensed merchandise, but I'd certainly do so in order to keep Beanworld going.

-I didn't manage to read the vast majority of the Ignatz nominees--in fact, there's no single category for which I read everything. But I do possess opinions (quite possibly ill-informed) about a few categories. Outstanding series has a bunch of very strong nominees. I really, really like Mourning Star, but I think Dungeon is probably the greater achievement as a series to date. I might have favored Atlas, but I haven't managed to get the latest issue. I really need to order a copy. As for the minicomics, I thought Seven More Days of Not Getting Eaten was absolutely fucking awesome. I like Matt Wiegle's work quite a bit; you can read some of it here. Outstanding online comic--much as I blather about Achewood, I'm strongly tempted to go with Nick Bertozzi's Persimmon Cup. You should totally check out Thingpart as well. A lazy man might describe it as something like Perry Bible Fellowship if that strip were ghost written by James Kochalka. Hey, a lazy man just did!

Regardless of how you feel about the concept of awards (especially in the comics industry, which certainly has several dozen too many), you have to appreciate the Ignatz' ability to convince a bumpkin like me to try some new stuff. This gets said quite a bit, but there are way, way, way more good comics available now than at any point in human history, and they're coming out in a variety of forms. Good luck to all the nominees, both this weekend and in the years to come.

...And right as I finish writing this, Heidi MacDonald stirs up a huge shitstorm. I'm not sure I've completely absorbed what she's getting at, but I'm fairly certain that all the comics I've listed above qualify as things she wants to read and considers largely absent from the world of art/literary comics. Hmm. If it weren't for SPX, I would guess that comments thread would reach epic proportions this weekend, especially once the usual dumbasses show up (see: any discussion of the Ellison-Fantagraphics lawsuit or the Nate Fisher case). I'll be keeping an eye on it, regardless.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Potential problems in the march towards webcomics (or, get offa my lawn!)

-A bit more on journalism: Here's an example of a good piece written without inside sources. How much better would it be if there were some inside sources? Quite a bit, one would think. In fact, it could be a highly informative and entertaining piece. The Wildstorm relaunch has been one of the most great Marvel/DC catastrophes of the last five years, but it's been overshadowed by DC's other scheduling disasters, DC's drooping sales, negative fan reaction to Marvel's big crossover events, and both companies' questionable depiction of women and minorities. It's highly unlikely that Scott Dunbier is responsible for the whole mess--there has to be more to this story. I don't know if Marc-Oliver Frisch has the connections to push this story any further, or even the inclination to do so. If anybody else does, however--please do so!

-Those of you smarter and more keyed into the outside world are probably already aware of this, but for those like me: cartoons by Graham Annable on Youtube (via Kazu Kibuishi, sort of--he was linking to the newest one). If you're not familiar with Annable, you should be. Here's his site.

-Speaking of not being keyed into the outside world: let's talk webcomics. I don't read enough of them, and it makes me feel bad because they're a wonderful opportunity for cartoonists and readers alike. Tom Spurgeon is so worried that he isn't covering them enough on his website that he took the opportunity presented by a nasty email (the "suck it, grampa" letter) to talk about webcomics in a variety of ways--as a platform for delivering comics, as specific works of art, and as a potential savior of the comics industry. It's a typically Spurgeon-ish piece, concerned with potential of webcomics to economically benefit a wider range of cartoonists. It also reflects Spurgeon's catholic approach to comics, arguing that webcomics are not fundamentally different from print comics in any aesthetically meaningful sense. Thus, rhetoric painting webcomics as a paradigm-destroying revolution-in-waiting is overblown; there's still a fair degree of fluidity between print and online comics, and it's unlikely that readers process the comics much differently depending on where they read them.

If I'm interpreting him correctly, I think we're basically on the same page. (Spurgeon's got more of a problem with online interfaces, which I've never found especially problematic; but this strikes me as a minor disagreement.) It's not such a radical position to evaluate webcomics as a subset of the larger comics world, with no special consideration given to the method of dissemination or the cost to the consumer. Spurgeon's off-the-cuff list of quality webcomics reflects this mindset. The New York Times comics are produced for print, and are available online mostly for convenience's sake; I'm pretty sure the same is true for Ben Katchor's Metropolis work. I would speculate that some within the webcomics community would protest their inclusion on his list, but there's no doubt that these particular comics are vastly superior to almost all of those produced for the internet.

But for those of us who aren't as invested in webcomics as a movement, it's a good list of high quality work. It breaks down some of the stereotypes about webcomics exemplified by this Homestar Runner cartoon (link courtesy Heidi McDonald). Of course, those stereotypes exist for a reason, as Spurgeon notes (and as I noted a few weeks ago). I think this is related to a different point of Spurgeon's: a big part of the discourse on webcomics is that they are potential gold mines for their creators. The biggest goldmines of all--PvP and Penny Arcade--have spawned legions of imitators, all focused on the excruciating details of various flavors of nerd culture. I hate these strips. I have no use for their progenitors either; they either deal with pastimes of no interest to me, or they make me feel bad about participating in the pastime in question.

And this is what makes me a bit queasy about webcomics as the future of comics publishing. There seems to be a meaningful link between poor quality and the desire to become internet comic moguls. The "suck it, grampa" letter itself reflects this outlook:

We see the internet as the Future of comics, and are aware of emerging business models that support this theory by proving that online comics can succeed by selling merchandise and advertising associated with a freely-distributed webcomic. This is, in fact, The Future. Pretentious Art Comix from Drawn & Quarterly that 130 people buy are not the future. They are The Problem.

Look, I love Achewood as much as any comic published in any format at any point in comics history, but it would be absolutely disastrous if every comic had to follow Chris Onstad's publishing model. That model, it seems to me, depends on Onstad's incredible cast of characters and unparalleled gift for writing distinctive dialogue. It's the perfect combination for a merchandising empire: plenty of beloved slogans and characters to emblazon on t-shirts, posters, and bottles of hot sauce. Furthermore, Onstad's success in giving each character a recognizable voice surely spurs sales of Roast Beef's zines and Nice Pete's novels. Onstad's profits are high enough to provide for a family of three in an area of the country notorious for its high cost of living. And yet Achewood itself does not suffer from this extensive merchandising.

It's unrealistic to expect other webcomics to succeed with this model; not everyone is as talented as Chris Onstad. More importantly, not everyone wants to create a comic which lends itself to vigorous branding. Could Chris Ware have made a living off of a webcomic version of Jimmy Corrigan? I find it difficult to envision a market for t-shirts adorned with lines of dialogue from the comic, or cookbooks purportedly written by its characters. But there's clearly a fairly significant demand for the actual Jimmy Corrigan comic, which has sold over 200,000 copies in graphic novel form. Will there be no room for these kind of comics in the future? Will it be all Peter Bagge and no Dan Clowes?* Or will the future Dan Cloweses have to make money in some other endeavor, content that their work is at least out there for people to read?

For year, that was the only solace for alternative-type cartoonists: at least somebody's reading this stuff. We're not completely beyond that yet, and it's uncertain (unlikely?) that we ever will be. But in the world of print, especially now that traditional publishers are in the graphic novel business, there are opportunities for producing serious work in exchange for moderate sums of money. What happens if this avenue is closed off? One would guess that an online version of Fun Home would have done okay on advertising, given that many of its readers would comprise an identifiable demographic for advertisers to target. But what about Nick Bertozzi's The Salon? Would Bertozzi have been able to sell naked Picasso t-shirts? Who would advertise on his site? The tourism board of Paris?

The answer, I suppose, is that The Salon is part of The Problem, one of those Pretentious Art Comix which are holding back the webcomic revolution. It's easy to proclaim that web cartoonists can make a living off of advertising and merchandise, but it seems to me that there's a much narrower range of comics supporting that model than Spurgeon's correspondent is letting on. It seems to me that dependence on ancillary income streams puts the cartoonist in an uncomfortable position, one that might encourage pandering. Which is nothing new in comics--Marvel or DC thrive on pandering, couldn't exist without it. But when you ask cartoonists to depend on merchandise sales, you're asking them to get in the business of creating popular intellectual properties. When you ask them to depend on advertising, you're asking them to get in the business of demographic farming. These are the economic models upon which broadcast television has historically depended. That's nothing to emulate, at least not for creators more interested in quality than profit.

Having said all that, I do think the move towards webcomics is all but inevitable. I think it will be a great way for a wider variety of young cartoonists to show off their work, and a wider range of material should (theoretically) be available to those who don't have access to comics shops which carry everything under the sun. But I worry that the future might be bleak for those who want to make a living by producing more challenging, adult work. One possible solution would be a multi-tiered pricing structure for content, much like in the contemporary television industry. Comics which can survive on advertising and merchandising could be the equivalent of the major networks, free to anyone who wants to read it. More artistic/literary work would be more like HBO, perhaps bundled with other content (the Modern Tales model, I believe) or offered a la carte (not necessarily via micropayments, since it's unclear if that's ever going to catch on). Or maybe Valerie D'Orazio is right, and Marvel/DC/other custodians of intellectual properties will embrace a wider variety of styles and offer employment to deserving cartoonists. (I think my model is more likely, but hers is probably more desirable.) Or maybe the changing global economy will encourage socialism, thus forcing the government to pay cartoonists. Or maybe the impending ecological apocalypse will ensure that only the very most talented people are allowed to produce comics instead of working on the farm tower.

Then again, maybe webcomics will never fully replace print comics, in which case I should have spent this afternoon doing something more productive and/or fun.

*For the record, Peter Bagge is one of my very favorite-est cartoonists ever. I just wouldn't want every comic to read like Hate.