Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More ultimate meta meta meta

Sorry about not posting for a few days--I was sick. And not the usual "I don't feel so great so I think I'll take a nap instead of posting" type of sick, but a more advanced type of sick. The kind where you just go ahead and move all your medicine into the living room so that you won't have to stumble back to the bathroom; the kind where you dread every sneeze or cough because you're fairly sure that their violence has bruised one of your ribs; the kind where your desire to bundle up to prevent chills does battle with your desire to keep your temperature under 102 degrees. But, mysteriously enough, my illness seems to have suffered a mortal wound yesterday, even after waking up with the worst fever yet (but not the worst fever of my adult life--I actually got up to a brain-threatening 105 a few years ago, necessitating an emergency room visit; that's another case where the virus just suddenly vanished). And so I feel well enough to return to the computer and blog, newly dedicated to the principle of not complaining about being sick unless I'm really sick.

(One comics related aside: While ill, I was reading the Patrick Rosencranz' history of underground comix, Rebel Visions (which sounds like the title of a yearbook for a high school with a Confederate-themed mascot, and it looks like it too once you take off the cover). This inspired some weird fever dreams, but not based on the content of the comics Rosencranz discusses. Instead, my dreams were all about the possibility of traveling back in time to take certain proactive measures to ensure the continued health of the underground comix industry beyond 1973. After a restless night contemplating how best to eliminate the Nixon/Hoover problem, I decided to feed my brain the intellectual equivalent of applesauce and dry toast for the remainder of the cold.)

One more note before moving on to the second half of the preliminary top 10--I've been rather distracted by pressing, non-comics related obligations for the last month, but that seems to be drawing to a temporary close. It looks like we will be moving far, far away from here in the next few months. This is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying; I'm eager to escape the midwestern tundra, but the prospect of vacating this apartment fills me with fear. Not because of any great fondness for it (the kitchen sucks, frankly), but because there's just so much stuff here. The thought of cleaning out the basement is particularly depressing. And then there's the cross-country trek, complicated by our need to transport two cats (one of them elderly) over the course of several days. What this all means is that this spring/summer might be kind of a low-posting-volume kind of time around these parts. We'll see.


For those new to this, I'm going through all the books which have appeared on the preliminary critical consensus meta-list. The first half of this analysis is here.

6. Criminal by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

I suspect Marvel would have expected the Dark Tower adaptation to be their best-reviewed comic of the year, but obviously the critics disagreed. The success of Criminal is pretty heartening, showing the advantages that can be reaped when a company with the pull of Marvel puts its muscle behind a non-superhero, creator-owned title. Icon initially looked like nothing more than the home for Powers and half-baked J. Michael Straczynski concepts, but Criminal seems to have changed popular perception of the imprint overnight. Now if only there were a few more titles coming out. I like Criminal quite a bit, putting it in my honorable mention-type section.

7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 by Joss Whedon, Brian K. Vaughan, George Jeanty, and Paul Lee

I've never watched more than five minutes of the Buffy television series (I did see the movie, mostly because it was one of the first post-arrest roles for Paul Reubens). It's kind of amazing how dedicated a following Whedon and his show have. Presumably this does a pretty good job at replicating the feel of the series, based on its placement. It's the kind of success which, a few years back, might have been interpreted as a potential savior for the comics industry. Some people might be spinning the success of Buffy Season 8 that way, but I haven't encountered that kind of rhetoric. That's kind of refreshing.

Having no interest in the series or the intellectual property in question, I don't really have any authority to comment on the appropriateness of its placement on this list. But I'd be very surprised if I would agree with its placement after reading it, even after a crash course in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Season 8 did about equally well with mainstream and comics-focused critics, so you can't attribute its high placement solely to lists made by non-experts*. I suspect part of this high ranking is due to a sense of exuberance that the series is back in some form or another. Maybe the TV version of Buffy the Vampire Slayer was such a sublime work of art that its return in any form should trump all other concerns, but I worry that this high ranking makes comics look pretty lightweight to the outside observer. Surely our favored medium can aspire to loftier goals than providing a reasonable facsimile of a television series which has been off the air for years.

*A problematic term, but bear with me.

8. Perry Bible Fellowship: The Trial of Colonel Sweeto and Other Stories by Nicholas Gurewitch

While some might view it as a victory for webcomics, I think it might be worth considering that PBF is, at heart, a comic strip. With all the (almost certainly unfounded) fears of the impending Chris Ware-ization of comics criticism in the mainstream press, this is an interesting development. PBF is a gag strip, lacking much in the way of the kind of semi-autobiographical self-pity that supposedly will doom comics to a relentlessly mopey future. Maybe Ted Rall should rail against Nicholas Gurewitch the next time he has a manifesto to write.

The other part of this story demanding attention is the ink-and-paper nature of this collection. I recorded only one vote for the web version of PBF; the rest were all for The Trial of Colonel Sweeto. It's not that Perry Bible Fellowship was obscure before being collected; it's one of the most popular webcomics* around. Clearly, though, Dark Horse's handsome collection has a great deal to do with its placement. It will be interesting to see if the upcoming publication of the Great Outdoor Fight sequence from Achewood will achieve similar success.

*Again, a problematic term for a comic printed in such a large number of alt-weeklies and college newspapers, but please bear with me again.

9. Immortal Iron Fist by Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, David Aja, and others

I neglected to point this out before, but it really bears mention: Ed Brubaker is the only creator with multiple entries on this preliminary list. That's a pretty significant accomplishment, especially in light of the diversity of this list. The other lesson to take away from Iron Fist's high ranking might be the critical success of the bubble world model. The only other superhero title on this list, All-Star Superman, is similarly shielded from the demands of continuity, giving the creators greater latitude.

Iron Fist is also interesting because it seems like one of Marvel's best chances to attract some of the manga readership which has been ignoring its comics for the last few years. The second storyline, in which Iron Fist participates in a plot-advancing tournament, shares a number of structural similarities to popular boys' manga. I'm not sure what exactly Marvel could do to make these readers aware of Iron Fist. Does Shonen Jump run outside advertisements?

10. The Arrival by Shaun Tan

For those wondering, the Angoulême Festival award did not factor into these rankings for various reasons.* Despite its high placement, I think The Arrival was the victim of poor timing--the real tidal wave of critical attention didn't seem to hit until Angoulême. If most of these lists were being remade today, I strongly think that Tan's book would have placed higher. Consider: The Arrival got almost all its support from mainstream sources--only 78 of its 353 points came from comics-focused sources. This book didn't seem to be on a lot of people's radars until recently. I don't expect that Tan's next project will escape notice so easily.

As to the quality of The Arrival--I still haven't read it, so I can't say. But there does seem to be a very lively debate over the quality of the book going on right now, with Matthias Wivel taking it to task for reasons that seem pretty valid to a dude who hasn't actually read the book. Tim Hodler reminds us that Tan wrote and drew the Arrival for children, a fact which I had either never heard or had completely forgotten. There are other all ages-appropriate books in the preliminary top ten, but this is apparently the only book specifically intended for a younger audience.

*Juried awards just don't seem to fit into the model of this project, at least not in my mind. It might be worth making an Awards Show Consensus list, but all the conflicting categorization makes me a little reluctant to try it. If anyone else wants to give it a shot, by all means....

I was thinking about going through all the titles which I was surprised not to see on this list, but I think I'm going to hold off on any further extended commentary until the master list is complete. Don't want you folks getting sick of this subject just yet.


Ted Rall said...

Maybe Ted Rall should rail against Nicholas Gurewitch the next time he has a manifesto to write.

Why would I do that? "Perry Bible Fellowship" is great.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Re: The Arrival - While it's not obvious from the discussion or appearance of the book, the fact that it's published by Scholastic is probably the main indicator that it is "intended for children". I don't know if I would completely agree with that sentiment; there's too much complexity and symbolism for the younger set, if you ask me.

Re: Shonen Jump ads - I don't know about that magazine, but Shojo Beat has plenty of ads for other comics companies (CMX, Del Rey, even that All Nippon Air Line yaoi comic), so I don't see why they wouldn't take an Iron Fist ad. I would be surprised to see Marvel do something that smart though...

T Hodler said...

Thanks for the link, Dick. I should probably say that Matthias Wivel pointed out a Shaun Tan interview that pretty convincingly shows that at least Tan himself clearly intended The Arrival to work for all ages, including adults. (Though it's definitely still stocked in the children's books section at Barnes & Noble and the other big box stores, for what that's worth.)

In any case, I intended in that post to question myself for holding a "children's book" to a lower standard in the first place. Not that this matters for your post.

I'm really enjoying this meta-series, by the way. More please.

MarkAndrew said...

Re: Comic Blogger's Favorite comic -

It's Booster Fucking Gold, isn't it. (Please say no.)

Dick Hyacinth said...

Good news: it's not Booster Gold, which didn't do all that well. I think its popularity peaked a month or two before people started making these lists.

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