Thursday, December 11, 2008

What I'm looking for is a list from an omniscient robot

-Found a bunch of links to best of 2008 lists today. I'll post an updated master list tomorrow. The most interesting new ones definitely those from Drawn, but they're really unusual lists. And kind of problematic for my project (more on that tomorrow). But they're still really good lists, especially for people whose interests in comics are broad enough to include things that technically might not be comics. If you know what I mean.

As for the others.... Look, the lists you've all seen by now are, generally speaking, the best lists out there at the moment. With maybe one or two exceptions, these new lists fall into one of two categories: lists from well-known sources which kind of suck, or lists from basically unknown sources that don't suck. Okay, there are also a few unknown/suck combinations as well. The biggest gap between name value and quality of thought comes from the Washington Post (scroll down). Their list from last year sucked as well. I'm willing to bet that their lists are comprised entirely of whatever they're sent, and that 90% of what they're sent comes from Dark Horse and DC. Either that or this list is farted out by someone who doesn't have the time/energy/expertise to put into such things. But based on some of the strange choices in 2007, I'd guess the former.

Plus: the first appearance of Buffy on one of these things! Shit, I thought all that was over by now. I suppose this will pop up on a few other lists, especially if Entertainment Weekly bothers to make one this year.

-A few people have shared some thoughts about the process of making lists in the past couple of days, and I agree with very little of what I've read. Undoubtedly the least valuable of these posts comes from Lucas Siegel of the new Blog@Newsarama. I feel sort of responsible for the shit storm that follows in the comics, given that I mockingly linked to the article yesterday (Heidi MacDonald even repeats my description of Siegel's position as "affirmative action for superhero comics"). Really, I'm not sure it merits this much attention in and of itself (as an expression of a larger sentiment, perhaps it does; more on this later). Tom Spurgeon pretty much captures its spirit perfectly in describing it as something "from a Usenet Group in 1996."

But this isn't the first instance of anti-best of list backlash from the new Blog@Newsarama crew. Getting much less attention is this post from Sarah Jaffe, taking the New York Magazine top 10 (or 12) list to task for not including the collected Local. If that's going to be her standard for excellence in these lists, she's going to be sorely disappointed; in my experience compiling these things, very few books show up in more than a small fraction of lists. And from what I've seen so far, the collected Local isn't going to be one of them this year. Why? For one thing, it's a collection of comics previously published from 2005 to 2008. Bloggers and writers for comics-oriented publications tend to ignore these sorts of collections, making them particularly dependent on lists coming from general interest publications. Of the six lists like this I've compiled so far, only NPR includes the collected Local. No comics-focused sources have ranked it yet.

Still, I take Jaffe's comment to be more boosterism than complaint; I think she's more interested in drumming up her readers' interest in the book than anything. I was more disappointed in the comments her post elicited, especially this one by Ryan Higgins:

It’s depressing sometimes that these lists always consist of books that I can’t sell to save my life. Outside of Fables, I stocked a few of these, and not a single one has sold.

I'm not sure what Higgins' point is. If he's bemoaning his inability to sell quality works to his customers, I would think this would be more of a self-deprecating statement. You know, "what does it say about me as a salesman that I can't sell comics which the critical consensus rates as the best of the year." Or maybe, "Boy, our customers suck." That kind of thing. Instead, this seems more in line with Lucas Siegel's position that there are too many "pretentious" choices on these lists, that critics don't have their finger on the pulse of what the comics industry is really about, etc., etc.

This isn't anything new, of course. We've seen countless examples of superhero fan rage at the alleged snobbery of the art/literary comics contingent. I'm finding the superhero people a little touchier lately, though. It used to take statements of outright derision to set them off, but I'm seeing increasingly volcanic reactions to the omission of superhero comics from discussions of what constitutes the "best" in comics. I first noticed this during the Best American Comics 2007 fiasco from last year; it looks like we're seeing it again now.

I can't attribute this trend (assuming it's actually a trend and not a figment of my imagination) to anything with absolute certainty, but I've got some ideas. We see many superhero partisans (perhaps most notably Paul O'Brien) cite the popularity of superhero movies as evidence that superhero comics better reflect mainstream tastes than something like Acme Novelty Library. Somehow this leads to the conclusion that anything purporting to list the "best" comics is somehow flawed if it fails to include superhero comics.

The problem here how you get from the factual statement that the general public likes superhero movies to the questionable conclusion that best of lists/anthologies must include superhero comics. There are at least three assertions one must accept to get from (a) to (b):

1. There are superhero comics from the period in question which are worthy of inclusion in best of lists/anthologies.

2. The aforementioned superhero comics will appeal to the segment of the general public which enjoys superhero movies.

3. Best of lists/anthologies must reflect popular tastes in order to be considered legitimate.

Clearly there are problems with all three assertions. In clarifying his original post, Siegel suggests that most shonen manga somehow qualify as superhero comics. I think this greatly stretches the definition of "superhero" as a genre, but we'll leave that aside. By including things like, presumably, Naruto or Bleach, you can beef up assertion #2: these comics are popular, and they're popular for the same reason movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight are popular. Again, I've got my doubts about this, but let's put that aside. Does the popularity of these comics necessitate their inclusion in a best of list or anthology?

I don't see how this follows. There are a number of commenters who distrust the idea of best of lists because they overvalue the concepts of objectivity and expertise. In other words, you can't trust most lists because (a) they reflect the list-maker's subjective tastes and (b) it's extremely unlikely that the list-maker will have read every single comic of any merit in any given year. Thus, once can view the inclusion of a couple of superhero comics as evidence that neither of these problems afflict a given list. If a list full of artsy fartsy comics includes one or two Marvel or DC titles, it can provide the illusion that the list-maker has expertise in/appreciation of all areas of comics, even if the only superhero comics (s)he has read all year long were written by Grant Morrison.*

There are, naturally, going to be some people who include Captain America alongside Alan's War in their lists not out of tokenism, but out of a genuine respect and admiration for each work. But no one should get upset when mainstream publications ignore Marvel and DC, and possibly Dark Horse and Image as well. Ask yourself: do you really think that the average person sitting down to write one of these lists for Time or The Onion or whatever is going to hold Rage of the Red Lanterns and Bottomless Belly Button in equal regard? Can you not see the difference in appeal among the types of people who make these sorts of lists? Sure, Rage of the Red Lanterns will outsell Bottomless Belly Button in the short run**, but does that obligate those of us who actually take the time to make these lists to include something by Geoff Johns on our lists?

Are we even obligated to read Geoff Johns' output when making our lists? I would argue pretty strenuously that we aren't, that most of us who think enough about comics to assemble a best of 2008 list probably know by now whether or not we like Geoff Johns' work. To some, this might diminish our expertise, or reveal our subjectivity. This concern is misguided. Certainly, I would not value a list written by someone with a very narrow range of interests, or a very limited familiarity with comics released in 2008. That's why I have criteria for inclusion on the meta-list; I'm not going to take a top 10 list which includes eight superhero comics, Penny Arcade, and something by Jonathan Hickman very seriously.

But we should be realistic. Does everybody who makes a list share your interests and prejudices? You'd have to be very, very naive to expect every list to cater to your tastes. Does every list reflect the same level of expertise? Of course not. Not everyone making a list will be able to afford to buy every comic of interest to them, and they probably won't be able to find every one of these books in the library or a bookstore which permits reading in the cafe. Most of us won't recieve complimentary copies of Kramers Ergot 7, and lots of those folks might not put it on their best of 2008 list because they can't afford to buy a copy for themselves.

I really don't have a problem with that, though. There are a lot of lists to choose from out there. It's only December 11, and I've already found at least a dozen worthy of consideration. And hey, I'm going to do a lot of the work for you by compiling all these lists into one meta-list reflecting scores of different perspectives. The final top 10 probably won't be entirely to your liking, but what's stopping you from making your own top 10? You could make it nothing but superhero comics if you want. I mean, I won't take it seriously, but other people might. It might bother you that your list won't have the same reach as those from major media sources; if so, I guess you'll just have to get over it. Sorry, but that's life.

*Of course, you'd have some people who would consider the inclusion of a Grant Morrison comic as prima facie evidence of pretentiousness. We can probalby dismiss these people as the types who would rank Essential Power Pack as the number one comic of the year, thus establishing that they're not quite ready to sit at the grown-ups' table yet.

**I'm guessing. In the long run, I expect that people will still be reading Bottomless Belly Button years and years after all but the most ardent fanboys have forgotten what a Red Lantern is.

-BONUS TERRIBLE GROSS OUT COVERAGE: For the vast, vast majority of you, this will be the worst thing you see all day. Do you dare click on the link? Please note: I'm not kidding. This is terrible, and you might regret looking at it.

-EXTRA BONUS LINK UPDATE: Right after posting this, I read Tom Spurgeon's review of some undoubtedly terrible comic by some D-list celebrity. I don't know how Tom's going to feel about me saying this, but that's one of the best reviews I've read in months; insightful and very funny. Just wanted to point out my appreciation for it, since Tom doesn't have comments and probably wouldn't publish correspondence saying nothing more than "That was awesome, dude."

21 comments:

Todd C. Murry said...

That was awesome, dude.

Sean T. Collins said...

This makes me glad I disconnected from Blog@'s RSS feed the second the old crew announced their departure.

Alan David Doane said...

Everything that's wrong with the Direct Market in one paragraph:

"I'm not sure what Higgins' point is. If he's bemoaning his inability to sell quality works to his customers, I would think this would be more of a self-deprecating statement. You know, "what does it say about me as a salesman that I can't sell comics which the critical consensus rates as the best of the year." Or maybe, "Boy, our customers suck." That kind of thing. Instead, this seems more in line with Lucas Siegel's position that there are too many "pretentious" choices on these lists, that critics don't have their finger on the pulse of what the comics industry is really about, etc., etc."

Bravo, Dick. Nicely observed.

Heidi M. said...

I wish I hadn't clicked that link.

Lucas said...

Hey Dick, thanks for the well thought out, worded and (mostly) respectful comments. I'd like to make a couple points that I hope you'll take to heart.

1) I do, in fact, read primarily superhero comics. Being in my position as a writer for Newsarama, that is our primary audience, and such it's what my focus must be. It's also what got me into comics, and I honestly, genuinely enjoy superhero stories.

2) I do, however, also read a LOT of non-superhero comics. Whether they're from major publishers like Vertigo, Image, Dark Horse and the like, or from the more traditionally viewed "indie" publishers. It was about two years ago that I started to branch off from just Vertigo and Image and really started to explore things from Top Shelf, AiT/Planet Lar, and Oni, and now even into such as Alternative comics.
3) My all-time favorite comic writer is probably Damon Hurd. Since I was introduced to his work through My Uncle Jeff, and later A Strange Day, he has remained the top spot for me, even though his output is a bit infrequent.

My post was never intending to diminish the quality of any of the books on these lists. Rather, it's more what you started to talk about in this post, that there are so many different tastes of comic readers. I like the idea of celebrating comics as a whole medium, rather than pigeon holing it into one section or another. Statements like this:

"You could make it nothing but superhero comics if you want. I mean, I won't take it seriously, but other people might."

are really what bug me the most. I guess Heidi was right in a way, and I am kind of seeking a bit of affirmative action for top ten lists. What I'm looking to see, though, is a top ten list that serves to open more people up to the medium of graphic storytelling. Some people are going to jump in specifically because of more personal realistic stories, some are going to jump in because of books featuring characters they're familiar with from their youth or the big movies. Unfortunately, I guess I'm really looking for categorized lists, which is a whole other can of worms, I know.

My new column over at Blog@, My Opinion is Right, is meant to be a basic, from the gut rant. It will be derisive and divisive, and I won't lie and say that's not the intention.

Basically, what it all comes down to for me is, I love comics. I love superhero books sometimes, I love mainstream non-superhero books sometimes (I was happy to see Fables on New York Magazine's list), I love obscure art-house style books sometimes, too. I want more than anything for more people to recognize comics as a great place for storytelling of all types, and one of the things that will help that happen in my opinion, is for major outlets to give a list that shows how good stories can be told in several genres and with several types of characters, from the tiniest book only publisher to the major monthly serial units.

I hope this more rational explanation gives you a better idea of my personal point of view on this. Thanks for reading at all, though!
-Lucas Siegel

kenny said...

Wow, talk about painting with a wide brush....

So, if you think Grant Morrison's more hype than substance, you're automatically a Power Pack fan, huh?

Or if you like Hickman and Penny Arcade, you only read superhero books?

You're shooting yourself in the foot with such pretentiousness. An intelligent person can like Penny Arcade and Hickman, not like Morrison, and still not like superhero comics, you know.

I'm tired of reading articles that insult the reader for not liking Morrison. What the Hell kind of hold does Morrison have over every comic book blogger?

Anonymous said...

What the Hell kind of hold does Morrison have over every comic book blogger?

Back in the '90s, he gave them a legitimate excuse to masturbate. And they've loved him ever since.

--King Mob

Dick Hyacinth said...

I'll address Lucas first:

I'm not sure what your reading habits have to do with this argument, honestly. Nobody is criticizing you as a comics reader; we're criticizing something you wrote as a comics blogger.

I'm a little surprised that you're embracing this idea of affirmative action for superhero comics, because it admits that superhero comics can't compete on their own when non-experts (ie, writers for mainstream publications) review them. Marvel and DC have way more resources than anyone outside of the traditional book publishers; they should be able to get their books to anyone who they think has a shred of influence. You do, in fact, see a lot of Vertigo books on these lists. I don't know that DC and Vertigo share the same marketing team/strategy when it comes to such things, but they do have equal resources for putting books into people's hands.

And last year, when they had a book with wide appeal to put in people's hands (All Star Superman), it did very well; it was the third highest-ranked comic on the 2007 meta list. And #4 was I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, another superhero book (albeit a very different one).

I think the evidence indicates that superhero book can compete if enough people think they're worthy of inclusion. If there are fewer such books on this year's lists, I can't help but think it's more a reflection of the quality of 2008 superhero books than a sign of narrow focus or whatever you think the problem is. Since there's no All Star Superman hardcover for this year, I expect the best hope for superhero inclusion comes from The Umbrella Academy. The first All Star Batman collection and one of the new format Watchmen things might have an outside shot.

The reason I don't take all-superhero lists seriously is that they're almost always written from a position of ignorance. People who read stuff outside of superhero comics tend to include those comics on their list. Very few people who are legitimately well-read outside this genre will draw from it exclusively when making a years best list. If I see any counter-examples of this, I'll be sure to point them out.

Some might counter that a list which fails to include superhero comics is also coming from a position of ignorance, which is potentially true. I do think that it's a lot easier for non-superhero fans to be exposed to superhero comics than vice versa, simply due to the nature of the direct market. But putting that aside, it's not like non-superhero books are their own genre. Where Demented Wented, Bottomless Belly Button, and Alan's War: these three books do not constitute a single genre or sensibility. A lot of people (not necessarily you) think that all alternative comics are variations on Blankets. It's simply not true, and that's why I don't feel bad about lists which don't include superhero comics. From a market perspective, it's the dominant genre; from an aesthetic perspective, it's just one genre among many.

Dick Hyacinth said...

Kenny, I think you misinterpreted some of what I said (and it wouldn't be the first time I didn't express myself perfectly clearly here).

First, I was actually claiming that the people who hate Grant Morrison with a passion, and would see a list which included his works as too pretentious, are the ones who are more likely to cling to the mediocre comics of their youth. You can certainly like Power Pack and Batman: RIP at the same time, and you can also dislike Grant Morrison and still enjoy all kinds of other worthwhile comics. I'm just saying that the people who would label a list with All Star Superman as overly pretentious aren't going to have many nice things to say about Acme Novelty Library, The Rabbi's Cat, and other non-superhero books.

(For the record, I didn't particularly like anything by Morrison from 2008, and he hasn't done anything that I would seriously consider placing among the year's best since Seven Soldiers.)

The Hickman/Penny Arcade thing was more like a joke at the expense of some lists I read last year at CBR (IIRC). I really don't like Hickman's work or Penny Arcade, but I know that both will show up on lists made by smart people. My point is, a list like that would probably reveal a narrow perspective. Not necessarily, of course, but I would probably want some evidence to indicate that a person making such a list had actually read more than just Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse. It doesn't make the list less legitimate as a barometer of this hypothetical person's tastes, and it might be of use to readers with similar tastes. But for my purposes, it's not very useful.

kenny said...

Sorry, Dick! I hadn't had my coffee when I flew off my handle there! Plus, I've been toying with the idea of making a best of list for my buddy and I was actually going to include both Pax Romana and Penny Arcade on there! lol Seriously, though, I was. It was also going to have Flight or Run, Body World, Never Been, and Love & Rockets vol 1. But now I'm all insecure and stuff! lol My reason for Pax Romana is simply it's my first exposure to Hickman and I liked it. Penny Arcade, because I don't even know. This is why I just e-mail my friend and don't make a blog exposing what an absolute idiot I am! lol

Anyway, I'm really sorry. I totally did misinterpret everything you wrote. Thank you for being so cool about it!

Matthew J. Brady said...

"The reason I don't take all-superhero lists seriously is that they're almost always written from a position of ignorance...If I see any counter-examples of this, I'll be sure to point them out."

All-manga lists would probably be a decent counter-example, or at least an example of a similar type of list in a different genre.

By the way, Dick, have you seen this post by Sean Kleefeld? I had to respond, because it made me consider why I like lists, and what I get out of it. And it probably also shows why I was annoyed by Lucas's post: I don't think lists are meant to objectively posit what the absolute best comics (and etc.) are, but rather point out the critic's favorites, according to their own personal taste. So the idea that my (or anyone else's) tastes are pretentious because they don't necessarily include someone else's favorites is at least annoying, if not outright insulting. I suppose if you're writing for a "journalistic source of record" you might want to try to develop some expertise in what's out there in order to have a more informed opinion, but it's still an opinion, and of course nobody's going to be able to experience every facet of the medium, so even the greatest "experts" are going to be coming at it from a subjective angle. I'm not sure what Dick's opinion on this whole thing is, but I see his meta-list as less of a scientific determination of the "best" comics but an achievement of as complete a consensus of opinions as possible. It's a pretty fascinating project, and I love seeing how it shapes up.

Other notes and comments: Yes, Dick, I blame you for the shitstorm in that Blog@ article, because I followed your link there and started the bitching. So it's all on you.

Oh, and Local might get some notice this year because the series reached an end, as well as the hardcover collection coming out. I know I expect to mention it at some point on my list.

Dick Hyacinth said...

I would exclude an all-manga list from the Meta-List project if it was planned as an all-manga list. I haven't seen a list comprised entirely of manga that bills itself as a list considering all comics, regardless of format or country of origin.

Could an all-manga list be written out of ignorance as much as an all-superhero list? Sure. Manga's a different case because it's not a genre; I would want to see if the list moves across genres or if it sticks entirely to one particular niche.

But here's the thing: generally speaking, the people who take the time to make these lists are pretty well-informed and well-read. That might change based on venue; someone responding to a message board thread asking for posters' picks of the best of the year might toss out a few titles off the top of their head. That's why I'm a little reluctant to consider message board lists, or even Amazon lists.

I did see the post by Kleefeld, and I think there's a link to it somewhere in the post. I was partly responding to it in the title to this post. That title also kind of sums up how seriously I take that kind of argument.

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