Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ultimate meta-meta commentary

MarkAndrew at CSBG is the first person to really take up the initial meta-list, and he made some interesting points. I'd been meaning to say a bit more about the list, so I'll chime in with a few comments of my own. But just the top 5 for today; I'll get to 6-10 tomorrow, hopefully.

1. Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan

I still haven't read it, but I haven't really been actively seeking out a copy (for the record, I'd been trying to catch up with all the 2006 books I hadn't managed to read yet, like Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators; I'm currently working on Rebel Visions, which I've owned for years but had only flipped through up until recently). MarkAndrew and others have suggested that it's not quite the best comic of the year. I expect that I'll agree after reading it--as my best of 2007 list probably indicates, I place a high value on works with a distinctive visual flair, particularly those which combine high-level cartooning, atmosphere, and symbolic content. I'm not sure that Exit Wounds fits my personal aesthetic preferences, but I'm reminded that Fun Home, a book similarly lacking in visual pyrotechnics, was my favorite release from 2006. Modan hasn't received the same kind of acclaim Alison Bechdel did, however. I'm not sure what to attribute that to--better timing, better publicity, a story which was of greater interest to an American audience, or simply overall quality. I would be shocked if I ended up liking Exit Wounds as much as Fun Home, but that's more about how much I enjoyed the latter than any misgivings about the former.

One last thing. I've only got the data for 2007, but I think it's a reasonable assumption that Fun Home would have been last year's consensus best comic/graphic novel and that Persepolis would have won in 2003. That's three out of eight for this decade so far. Would it be too much to ask for mainstream articles on women in comics to focus on this achievement rather than Wonder Woman?

2. Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Another one I haven't read, but intend to do so at some point in the future. I think I've been pretty open with my disdain for Tomine's work, a feeling I've had since I first encountered his work in the mid-90s. I've tried reading Tomine off and on in the ensuing years, but I'm always underwhelmed. Maybe it's a weakness on my part. I like thematically similar work by Jaime Hernandez or Dan Clowes, but their comics are somewhat tempered by more appealing art; any bleakness is offset by overwhelming visual beauty. Tomine really never offers that. His line is much less fluid, his lettering more mechanical. He seems to eschew cartooning in favor of a more realistic style, but there's not sufficient detail to lose oneself in. He forces you to concentrate on his incredibly unsympathetic characters.

I guess it's fair to say that I don't get Tomine. But it's been a few years since I last read anything by him (I'm guessing that my most recent exposure to his work came c. 2004 when I read his contribution to one of the Best American Unrequired Reading volumes). I'm generally pretty open to revisiting things I didn't enjoy the first time around. I didn't get Kim Deitch when first read his comics about 10 years ago, but I now consider him one of the greatest living cartoonists. And I like the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, one of Tomine's primary influences. I'm eager to give Tomine another shot, but I'd prefer to read Shortcomings before buying it.

3. All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

As MarkAndrew noted, I did declare this the "token superhero choice," but I also noted that it's the only viable Grant Morrison work from 2007. I think its high placement relative to other prestige superhero projects (most notably Jeff Smith's Shazam) is largely due to critics' eagerness to include something by Morrison on their lists. Morrison might be the most critically acclaimed writer (as opposed to cartoonist) working in comics today, but A-SS has been his only real bright spot since 52 ended.* With the exception of the rejuvenated Geoff Johns, all of the writers on 52 have kind of struggled with writing comics in DC's shared universe. Many of us were hoping that Morrison would thrive at Wildstorm, but that's been an unmitigated disaster. Batman has been surprisingly dull, hampered by sub-par artists. That pretty much leaves All-Star Superman, well-illustrated, unfettered by continuity, unquestionably the most Morrisonian of all Morrison's 2007 work. But still....

Surely I'm not alone in thinking the quality of A-SS declined in 2007. In its first year, Morrison was doing some incredible work, culminating in Clark Kent's interview with Lex Luthor in prison--probably my favorite Superman story of all time. This year kicked off with a good, if somewhat sappy, story about Superman's relationship with his adopted father. From there, however, we got two comics full of Bizarro Supermen. I have a pretty low tolerance for the whole Bizarro concept to begin with, and if anything Morrison's take on it was less interesting than, say, Jeph Loeb's. I found the latest issue, in which rogue Kryptonians chide Superman for protecting humans rather than dominating them, pretty dull stuff. I guess I'm more interested in this comic when it doesn't take my interest in Superman for granted. Cause I think Superman is pretty boring, really.

Having said all that, at least some of the votes for All-Star Superman (and probably the great majority of those coming from non-comics-oriented sources) were for the recent hardcover collection, which reprinted the earlier, better issues of the series. I'm reasonably confident that mainstream reviewers are going to be less taken with the subsequent volumes.

*I would say that it's his only bright spot since Seven Soldiers ended, but a lot of people out there liked 52. I thought 52 had many bright moments, most of which were apparently the work of Morrison; on the whole, however, I found it more tedious than wondrous. A lot of smart people loved it, but I think their love for superheroes as a genre comes with fewer conditions than mine.

4. I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets by Fletcher Hanks; edited (w/ afterword) by Paul Karasik

I guess I disagree with MarkAndrew (and Johnny Bacardi, for that matter) in seeing this as a "so bad it's good" type of project. To me, Hanks' works represent the true wonder of Golden Age comics--these are stories from an era when the rules and standards (both moral and aesthetic) which would later restrict comics had not yet come into being. Hanks takes the illogical idea of superpowered crime fighting to twisted-yet-logical extremes, making much of Mark Millar and Warren Ellis' oeuvre seem rather limp in comparison. There is tremendous value in these stories beyond camp. Of course, I suspect that many of the people who included I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets on their lists value it primarily for reasons of irony. But that's their problem, not mine.

5. Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together by Bryan Lee O'Malley

When I first started reading comics again in the summer of 2004, it was largely as a way to comfort myself, a back-to-the-womb kind of thing. So I was mostly reading superhero books, even though I hadn't done so for years. Scott Pilgrim was one of the first non-superhero comics I read after returning to comics. It was kind of a jolt to the system at the time, a reminder of the many, many great books that have nothing to do with skintight costumes or crime fighting. I've enjoyed the series since then, but not as much. I'm increasingly conflicted by the popularity of Scott Pilgrim: it's very good for what it tries to do, but is that enough to justify its massive critical acclaim?

This kind of gets to the other side of the "fun" issue. Many of us (myself included) mock the relentlessly dour superhero comics which the big two produce, mostly because, as a genre, superheroes work best when they're fun. But the idea that "fun" is all that comics can aspire to is far more troubling than anything Marvel or DC publishes. Unlike Jim Blanchard, I'm not opposed to fun*, but my favorite "fun" comics have something else going for them: incredible craft, an underlying darkness, or a subtle commentary on human nature. O'Malley has grown by leaps and bounds in the course of making Scott Pilgrim, but the fourth volume doesn't change the fact that this is still a pretty slight series. It's a little more grating this time around, because the issues Scott deals with (commitment, poverty, adulthood) are perfect for some kind of deeper commentary. It's kind of funny--Scott's going through some of the things I was going through when I started reading comics again four years ago, but ultimately he has nothing to escape from (and thus no reason to start reading the comics of Geoff Johns). There are moments of doubt, but you always feel like nothing bad will ever happen to Scott Pilgrim. And so the fourth volume of the series feels more like (well-crafted) escapism than ever. I don't really like the implications of it being the fifth-highest charting graphic novel/comic in 2007.

Reading some of O'Malley's recent interviews, I almost wonder if he feels somewhat constrained by the need to maintain a tone he established years ago, when he was (presumably) a different person and a less skilled artist. I think O'Malley's first post-Scott Pilgrim project will be pretty interesting, but we've got two more crowd-pleasing volumes to go.

*OBSCURE JOKE OF THE DAY; for the record, I've never met Blanchard and know little about him outside of his (apparently fictional) depictions in the last issue of Hate.


Ian said...

When I was creating my Best of 2007 list for PWCW (which felt strange as I didn't read that many comics that year to be honest) I left Scott Pilgrim 4 off of it. I read the book and enjoyed it very much, as I have all of the volumes of the series. Perhaps because I felt the book was, like you wrote, a fun and light story I felt it wasn't worthy of being top 10 material. Then again the first three volumes of Jack Kirby's Fourth World stories took the top three slots on my list so I'm obviously a huge hypocrite.

I really should read all four books closely in one sitting. To be honest the first thing I look for in a new Scott Pilgrim are the moments of video game nostalgia. You want to talk about "back to the womb," I'm thrilled to read a reference to "River City Ransom." But underneath all that stuff O'Malley is tackling a subject that's similar to what Tomine deals with. Just like how I get bugged that the Academy Awards ignores comedies in favors of movies that self-consciously declare themselves "prestigious" perhaps I should give a Scott Pilgrim another shot (and I'm already a fan of the series).

The Fortress Keeper said...

I totally agree with you re. All-Star Superman and Fletcher Hanks.

The past year of A-S-S (that sounds bad) was entertaining enough but fell well below the standards of the first issues. Since I'm a bit cash strapped a this point, I'll just pick up the first hardcover and leave it at that.

There's a lot of irony involved in Fletcher Hanks current "fame," but he's no Ed Woods. Like you, I see Stardust and the like as great extensions of the "anything goes" Golden Age aesthetic.

Those stories are pure, insane fun that don't require any quotation marks to validate their contemporary acclaim.

MarkAndrew said...

I read them all, but Iowa City has a GREAT graphic novel section, and I'm not above sitting at the bookstore (or, in the case of Scott Pilgrim, standing at the comic shop) to read 'em all.

1. EXIT WOUNDS "Hive mind" was a misguided attempt a t humor.

Exit Wounds is really, REALLY good. Easily a top fiver on my hypothetical, non-existent list. You should read it.

But it was good in a different, less flashy, more subtle way than most of the recent works that are slapped with the "Best of the Year" tag.

2. SHORTCOMINGS OK. here's why Tomine's stuff bugs me. He seems more narrowly focused, even myopic, than Jaime Hernandez or Clowes. His stuff is all about people and their problems. He's not really world-building or making any sort of grander point.

He's also a LOT bleaker than either of them. There's always a little ray of hope in Clowes' stuff, somewhere. And, yeah, I agree that his stuff lacks immediate visual appeal, too.

That said: I really liked 32 Stories. And I liked Shortcomings, about # 43 worth on my hypothetical, non-existent Top fifty list.

3. ASS Man, I disagree times 1,000. Batman is soooooo much better. I'll take ambitious, albeit flawed, experimentalism over whistful nostalgia any day.

4. FLETCHER HANKS Fair enough (I guess) but it has to be judged using a VERY different set of standards than EXIT WOUNDS or THE ARRIVAL if you're going to call it "good."

"Not good" may have been a poor choice of words, but it seemed the easiest way to keep focusing on the work and not get into a discussion of the variability of critical standards over time. (Which, come to think IS a really good topic for a post....)

But I was trying to do some actual reviews, instead of using the works
as a springboard for unrelated thoughts.

(Although thank you for responding to the most interesting and important part of my Spider-man /Marriage piece. The discussion on the blog was fairly annoying 'specially since I don't ACTUALLY give a shit about the pretend maritial status of pretend people.)

Anonymous said...

I think if you compare the number of articles about Persepolis since it was published to the number of articles about Wonder Woman in that same time period, Persepolis would win by a mile. The Wonder Woman articles have really only popped up recently, and they already seem to have run their course. But Persepolis is still making headlines (note Dirk's "Persepolis link of the day" has almost become a regular feature in his daily round-ups).

Paul Karasik said...

I have made the case elsewhere (and actually go into it in length in the upcoming Comics Journal interview) that the work of Fletcher Hanks is neither camp nor, even, "so-bad-its-good".

Since the book has come out I have spent a lot of time reading blogs about contemporary comic books and there appears to be a general feeling that they are simply not much fun to read. Whether you consider Hanks a viable artist with genuine talent or a campy hack, I think that all must agree that these twisted tales are fun to read.

For those still unfamiliar with Hanks' work, may I suggest that you slide over to the BONUS page of my website for a Fantomah story that does NOT appear in my book.

(And check out the t-shirts there, too...prices drastically reduced and my wife wants them the hell out of the basement!)

Jason A. Quest said...

The fact that women are well represented on Graphic Novel Of The Year lists doesn't get media coverage for the simple reason that no one's surprised by it. So, women can write insightful and engaging memoirs, you say? Hoodathunkit!

A woman writing power fantasies for adolescent males and/or the irony that a feminist icon has been controlled by men for most of her life... now that's a hook for a story.

Johnny B said...

For what it's worth, I see Hanks as closer to a Wild Man Fischer, creating inspired stuff almost by accident, rather than an Ed Wood type, with good intentions but inept. I don't know how much that distinction holds up, but it makes sense to me.

All-Star Superman was really up-and-down for me last year; moments of genius sitting side by side with moments of not-so-much.

Exit Wounds is something I would have read if I'd been sent a copy, but it doesn't look like anything that I would seek out on my own, shortsighted as I am. I tend to share your opinion on Tomine, hence no purchase of Shortcomings, either.

Chris Mautner said...

Keep in mind that Fun Home had the HoughtonMifflin publicity machine behind it. That's not meant as a slag towards D&Q, they do a fantastic job getting their books out there, but I'm sure HM has more money and resources to spend.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Oh yeah, Chris, no doubt--it's especially impressive considering that D&Q had the #2 book as well.

Jason--I would think that it's an equally appealing hook to emphasize how women are producing books which are changing the public's perception of what comics are capable of doing. Of all the books released this decade, only Blankets rivals what Persepolis and (to a lesser extent) Fun Home have accomplished toward that end.

Sandy said...

You said Fun Home would be the consensus best graphic novel for 2007 and Persepolis would be number one for 2003 (although, didn't Blankets also come out in 2003?), but what about 2000-2002 and 2004-2006? Any ideas about what would take the top spot in those years?

Biggie said...

"He forces you to concentrate on his incredibly unsympathetic characters."

One of the characters in Shortcomings (Ben Tanaka) is so goddamned annoying I stopped reading the book out of frustration more than once.

Jog said...

I'm having a hard time recalling a strong front-runner for most of those years, but I do know that the vast majority of 2005 lists topped with either David B.'s Epileptic or Charles Burns' Black Hole, both single-volume compilations of years-in-the-making works. Too bad the former didn't prompt a wave of earlier David B. works in English...

Anonymous said...

Maybe Safe Area Gorazde in 2000.
Maybe The Golem's Mighty Swing in 2001.
Maybe One Hundred Demons in 2002.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, I was going to suggest Black Hole/Epileptic for 2005. BTW, anyone know what's up with Fantagraphics' publication of Babel? I don't think there's been a new volume since 2006.

Blankets certainly would be strong competition for Persepolis. I can't really say which would have won the consensus best of 2003 pick, partly because I wasn't reading comics then. But it's also worth considering that the comics blogosphere was less developed then, plus there were fewer mainstream publications producing best graphic novel lists. Those two books really helped establish the latter. (Blankets isn't really my cup of tea, but you have to give credit where it's due.)

Jog said...

Last I heard of Babel, issue #3 was due out in Fall 2007; neither Fantagraphics nor Coconino Press have it listed anywhere (Fanta doesn't even have it up for pre-order, as it does with Ganges #2), and I can't find anything useful among French publishers, so maybe David B. just isn't done with it?

Sandy said...

Thanks for the info, Dick and Jog. I had heard about Black Hole, but not Epileptic (I didn't get back into comics until last year).

I just put them both on hold at my local library. (And by the way, how cool is it that I can get these books for free from my library? I've already been able to find Persepolis, Exit Wounds, and Fun Home there, too! Not to mention Swamp Thing, Doom Patrol, Tom Strong, Promethea, and ... um ... House of M.)

Anyway, looking forward to reading those.

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