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?


Johnny B said...

Gee, now I wish I'd read Heidi's original post a little more closely! I skimmed over it, read Spurgeon & Collins' opinions, and still really didn't form one of my own because it just seemed like a tempest in a teapot. Maybe I'm just too apathetic about such things, who knows.

I do know that I've never felt that anything had to be anything to be aesthetically successful. That would be my slightly uninformed, objective, and distanced opinion, assuming anyone cares.

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

I think "cancer comics" is a great term. If I understand M. Hendrix, it means the same as what I've called "spinach comics". Viz. worthy, serious comics that Are For Grown-Ups Because They're About Serious Stuff Like Cancer. The sort of thing that, if it were a film, would be concerned eminently Oscar-ready.

(Not that there's anything wrong with that)

Or maybe s/he just meant comics about cancer. Which are also cool. I'd love to see a cancer comics anthology, featuring the two books you mention, plus "Our Cancer Year", excerpts from Watchmen (remember the cancer subplot?) and the grand-daddy of cancer comics, "The Death of Captain Marvel".

Dick Hyacinth said...

Okay, if that's what you mean, then let's try and come up with a workable definition. Are Cancer Comics the equivalent of movies like I Am Sam, something intended to provoke a base emotional reaction without stimulating any additional thought? Or are we going to be broader, and include more ambitious books like Fun Home? Or do we really go all-out, and include Anders Nilsen's recent work?

I think it's the first option, material of a sub-sub-New Yorker level of sophistication. Put it this way: if it reads like an elaborate pitch for a Sally Field-type movie, then it's a Cancer Comic.

Chris Mautner said...

Hey man I loved Places in the Heart!

Jones, one of the Jones boys said...

Aw man now you gonna have all the Sally Fields fans up in here all "don't be disrespecting the Flying Nun" and "Magnoliaz 4evah!" and such

Hugh Stewart said...

The most embarrassing part of the whole Beat debate is that I had no idea that the Brian Chippendale from Lightning Bolt was the same Brian Chippendale who created Ninja.

I lost like a zillion indie-comics/indie-rock snob points!

Anonymous said...

Hey Dick, can you at least put a link (and a return link as well) when using an asterisk? It seems so non-internet-y and reminds me of my least favorite TCJ messboard poster, Mike Hunter.

Anonymous said...

IMO the responses where as acerbic as they where because Heidi has an unfortunate tendency to throw out some bullshit-mixture which contains just enough individual true bits that someone can maintain a credible defense of said micro-point for as long as it takes for the thread to die. In the end, she'll have been "somehow a bit right". I believe this abuse of the public's short attention span is unintentional in her case.
However, she also regularly falls back on "I can't find the time" when called upon her bullshit and there clearly relies on everyone being too polite to point out to her that if she's too stupid to make a sound argument in the time she can find, she perhaps ought to stay away from the argument in the first place.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I'd be happy to start including those kind of links--in fact, what I'd really like is some kind of text box to appear when you drag your mouse over the footnote. I just have no idea how to do that. Actually, I'm not entirely sure how to do internal links, but I can probably figure it out.

Matthew J. Brady said...

I haven't been reading Mr. Wonderful, or any of the New York Times comics, for that matter. I guess I've been assuming they'll get collected eventually, and I'll buy the print version (um, the collected print version; I know these are printed in the newspaper/magazine, but don't most people read them on the web?). These are getting collected eventually, right? I think the new Acme Novelty Library is supposed to contain Ware's "Building Stories", but does anyone know of any plans to print the other ones at some point?

On the other topic, man, The Beat has turned into some sort of high(er)brow Newsarama, hasn't it? I'm probably the last person to make this connection, or at least the last one to think I'm clever when doing so.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Okay, I think I figured out the internal links thing, and I've edited this post in such a way that it works on my computer. Anonymous #1, I hope you're happy.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, that Beat thread has totally moved into "windbags dismissing large segments of the industry despite never having read books comprising said segment" territory. I mean, there's a strong, strong anti-intellectual vibe going on over there right now. Maybe bashing of non-Bone independent comics will replace manga bashing?

Dan Coyle said...

"I believe this abuse of the public's short attention span is unintentional in her case."

It's not. It's the behavior of a passive aggressive who wants to be everyone's friend and yet be the mean mommy at the same time.

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