Monday, October 20, 2008

Fun vs. art

So I've been playing a lot of Saints Row 2, which kind of feels the first new game I've played since the Carter administration. I usually spend my summer gaming time catching up with older titles, which I did again this year--God of War 2, Digital Devil Saga 2, and Morrowind being the main titles. But it's good to play a current-gen game again, and it's good to play something as much fun as Saints Row 2.

Of special note is how much more fun Saints Row 2 has been than Grand Theft Auto 4, at least for me. I realize this puts me in a small minority. GTA4 boasts a substantially bigger map, better graphics, better music, and a better sense of immersion--after multiple sequels, gamers feel that this is a real world they're operating in, with recurring characters, institutions, radio personalities, and whatnot. But nothing in GTA4 compare the fun of blasting over dirt hills in a police cruiser to chase down litterbugs and not having to worry about cousin Roman's gambling debts.

The gaming media's meta-narrative to the release of GTA4 was that video games were finally graduating from mere entertainment to actual art.* The main character, Niko Bellic, is haunted by his past in the war-torn Balkans; he struggles between his desire to avenge the wrongs he's suffered in the past and his desire to start over in the United States, a land of opportunity where immigrants can transform themselves and blah blah blah. I'll admit, this is somewhat sophisticated for a video game, but it's downright hackneyed by any other measure. America as a land of opportunity for immigrants? An old, old trope which GTA4 lets stand without significant revision, or even interrogation. Compare it to the Godfather movies, where the plight of the immigrant pushes Vito Corleone to the world of crime as a means of advancement. Revenge/past vs. forgiveness/future? A very poweful theme, and the one which resonates the best in GTA4. Unfortunately--


The end of the game doesn't really give the player the opportunity to make their own decision. I was playing GTA4 in a future-looking way, letting Darko (the initial target of Niko's rage) live. The ending suggests another opportunity to choose revenge or forgiveness, but then pulls the rug out from under the player by forcing a final, revenge-oriented mission. It doesn't matter whether the player seeks revenge on Dmitri Rascalov (dig the absolutely appropos-of-nothing-other-than-Russianness literary allusion!) or not--someone close to you is going to die, and you're going to have to seek out revenge--or, as the case may be, even more revenge--anyway.

This is actually not a bad opportunity for GTA4 to reinforce a theme: no matter how forward-looking you might wish to be, the past will always return to haunt you. More specifically, an individual might choose to forget the past, but that's not good enough if others choose to remember the past and seek their own vengeance. Not a bad theme, especially when dealing with ethnic tensions and war. The problem is (a) this has nothing to do with war or ethnic tensions--the animosity between Dmitri and Niko is entirely grounded in the new world; and (b) it undermines the previous theme of personal choice that the game had gone so far to establish.

Consider, again, the decision to kill or spare Darko. When presented to Niko, he's a wreck: racked with guilt, ravaged by drug addiction, in no way a functional human being. No matter how you play it, there's no material reward for killing or sparing his life--no new missions, no new weapons, etc. From an emotional/story standpoint, there are greater rewards for sparing his life. If the player chooses to kill Darko, Niko will admit that he feels no better for having done so. If they spare him, other characters and Niko himself will suggest this is an emotional breakthrough, a real turning point in Niko's life.

There's nothing wrong, per se, with having this forward-looking message undermined by having Dmitri or Jimmy Pegorino (depending on how one plays the game) kill either Roman or Kate (again, depending on how one plays the game). But at this point, the game moves from player-controlled to cut scene-controlled; Niko's reactions are predetermined. At this point the player feels less in control and more along for the ride. In other words, GTA4 goes back to being a typical video game.

I think this problem has less to do with the shortfalls in the story and more to do with a failure to recognize and capitalize upon the unique features of video games. Does the player identify with Niko, playing the game as he would? Or do they seek the greatest possible entertainment? If the producers of GTA4 wished the former, then there's a lot more they could have done. Take the Darko revenge delimma again. There's no reason for the player to kill Darko other than sadism (which, of course, is nothing to underestimate in this context). But what if the game had started in the former Yugoslavia, the player exposed to the treachery and atrocities that shape Niko? What if they were forced to play through that betrayal? That would make the decision to spare Darko much harder to reach.



It's that tension between character and player which video games have not yet explored to the fullest. In its most simplistic (and most common) form, these usually amount to simple morality questions: do I kill an NPC to receive some kind of incentive (money, new missions), or do I spare them because that's what I think the character I'm playing would do? Do I help out these NPCs (thus opening a new mission), or do I ignore them? When confronted with these decisions, the player usually opts for whatever maximizes the entertainment quotient. Ironically, as more gaming genres incorporate elements of RPGs, they're failing to emphasize the "role playing" part of the equation.

Improving this role playing element is one path** toward making video games closer to genuine art, and it's certainly the more intriguing step from a formalist perspective. Video games are a unique medium in that they are played rather than read. There's a level of interaction just not possible in other media. Sure, in comics or novels, the reader is forced to use his or her imagination to fill in the blanks. But in video games, choices are left to the player. Or, rather, they can be left to the player, if the developer chooses to make the game that way.

As it stands, video game developers have relied on crude reward systems to provoke player reactions: more missions, better weapons, money, etc. A few games have aimed at a more sophisticated approach, like my favorite game of 2007, Bioshock. In Bioshock, the player chooses to either kill or spare Little Sisters. There's a material reward either way--can't forget the imperative to maximize entertainment!--but there's also an emotional reward. To harvest Little Sisters' energy (or ADAM, to be more precise), the player must observe their reaction--thrashing, the appearance of abject terror in their eyes. If one spares them, they become normal little girls again and thank you. Some reviews of the game were more impressed by the Little Sisters' reactions than others. I thought it was a good idea, but not perfectly executed; I chose to spare the Little Sisters, but I was unmoved by their protestations one way or another. There was also a not-especially-scintillating ending based on my decision to save the Little Sisters. But once again, it was the material reward (unlocking new attacks) which motivated me.

Bioshock gets a lot of credit for its BIG SHOCKING TWIST about 2/3 through, which calls into question the nature of free will in a video game. But, for my money, the most effective game I've encountered re: immersion into the character is Persona 3, a game developed very late in the life cycle of the PS2 (at which point, one presumes, development costs are no longer so monumental that ROI concerns overwhelm any hope of upsetting the entertainment:art ratio). I've never played a game that so successfully communicates its theme--in this case, the idea that life is precious, and should be savored no matter how ominous the future is. The player only has so much time to develop relationships with NPCs, level up the character (both in terms of the school simulation and the more traditional RPG quest), and complete the main quest. Spend too much time doing one thing and the others suffer. And the overwhelming sense of dread and defeat makes those moments of connection with other characters so much more meaningful; entertainment maximization starts to lose the battle with characterization.***

But I still think that entertainment trumps art in Persona 3, just as it does in Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto 4, Mass Effect, and countless other games which try to balance the two. To some extent this is understandable; given the outrageous costs of producing games for current gen systems, game developers must center their efforts on maximizing sales. There's not much room for narrowcasting, so it's no surprise that customer entertainment is the primary concern. I guess that's why so many people have pinned their hopes to smaller developers; perhaps, as is the case with film, certain types of innovation only occur in projects with a smaller budget, where ROI pressure is less daunting. And maybe the larger developers will pick up on these innovations and increase the sophistication of the medium across the board.

The biggest hurdle remains consumer expectations. Developers and publishers have conditioned players to view games as diversions rather than art, products rather than creative endeavors. It's going to take some reeducation to change these attitudes, assuming that the bigger publishers care to change them at all. And it's going to take something more than Grand Theft Auto 4's weak literary asperations and failure to capitalize on the inherent strengths of video games.

Maybe later in the week I'll try to write something about why comic books have been so much more successful in this regard than video games. Really, though, the biggest reasons are obvious: the price of producing a comic presents a much lower barrier to entry, the form has been around longer, there's less distance between creation and consumption. But there are certainly some parallels, so it might be worth thinking about in greater detail.

*Or, perhaps more accurately for GTA4, literature. But that sound weird, so I'll be sticking to "art" in this post.

**The other path is best embodied by games like Okami or Shadow of the Colossus: immerse the player in lush, beautiful environments. That's a valid approach, but one about which I don't have much to say yet.

***Though, to be fair, your character is a bit of a blank slate. These sorts of open ended games are a different beast entirely. It will be interesting to see if Fable 2 can live up to its promises; if so, that's another valid way to expand the horizons of video gaming. But Persona 3 doesn't really fall into this category, since the game's deep emotional atmosphere pushes the player into a specific direction. It's almost more impressive; you create the character's personality with your reactions to the game.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

For the record...

Mark Waid needs to grow up. It's time for a lot of comic book professionals to grow up, actually.

Ranking Breakdowns

One thing I didn't mention in my review of Breakdowns was its positioning on my early best of 2008 handicapping. I had previously stated that I thought the strongest candidates to top this year's meta-list were (in no particular order) What It Is, All Star Superman, and Bottomless Bellybutton. It's pretty clear that Breakdowns will probably be in the running as well, partly because it's published by a traditional press, one which is (presumably) well-equipped to put review copies in the hands of mainstream critics. More importantly, Art Spiegelman is inarguably one of the most respected cartoonists in the world--I'd guess that he's actually the single most respected.* That reputation, along with the relative mainstream friendliness of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," might propel Breakdowns to the top slot on many year-end lists; it almost guarantees that it will appear on many, many lists from mainstream outlets.

I would consider this a good thing, inasmuch as I would agree with these hypothetical list-makers that Breakdowns is worthy of great acclaim. If I were asked to choose the best comic of the year from the current frontrunners, I would certainly pick Breakdowns. In fact, I'm sort of inclined to pick it as the best comic of 2008, period. It's one of those rare, absolutely essential books, and I don't say that lightly.

So then, why am I only "sort of inclined" to make it my best of 2008? For one thing, the year isn't finished yet--there's another couple of months of releases yet to come, and at least a couple of unreleased books are very, very strong contenders--Nocturnal Conspiracies, a collection of David B's short material from NBM, and Kramers Ergot 7.** But the stronger consideration is this: should I rank a collection of previoiusly published material at #1 for the year?

I had a number of reprints on my best of 2007 list. Actually, half the list consisted of books which contained prevoiusly published material: Notes For a War Story, Phoenix: Sun, Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus, Town Boy, and Alias the Cat. Three of that group were the first available English translations of international work, so I don't feel too bad about including them. That leaves us with Alias the Cat and Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus.

The former was originally published in serialized form by Fantagraphics (I think), making it largely inaccessible to most readers in 2007. I had never read it before, so I was very happy to see it in one collected edition, in a very clever package, reminiscent (at least to me) of The Cat in the Hat or other Dr. Suess books. And it's not all that high on my list at #8. As for the Fourth World collection (#5): on the original list I wrote, "I'm a little loath to include this new series of reprints, since Kirby's Fourth World material has been reprinted several times in numerous formats." That still sounds right. If I were judging these books purely based on quality of content, well, Kirby at his best beats just about anything, short of maybe Kurtzman, Kelly, or Crumb at their peaks. Or maybe Tezuka.

But notice that I didn't put Tezuka's Phoenix: Sun at #1 either. Again, in terms of quality, it would have been justified; no one on my list, with the possible exception of Lat, beats Tezuka as a pure cartoonist. But I'm just not comfortable putting collections of fairly old material so high on a list of this type, even if some of it had not previously been available in English. I'd be sending a message that I don't really agree with, that the best days of the comics medium are behind it. Is that grading on a curve? Yes, kind of, but not exactly. I'm a hopeless antiquarian in many ways, but I'm very bullish on the future of comics. As much as I cherish older, classic work (I'm enjoying the hell out of the Popeye collections, now that I've found time to read them), I'm more excited about the present and future. I want my lists to reflect that kind of excitement.

So, then, what about Breakdowns? All of the material from the original edition comes from the 1970s. The only new addition, "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," is itself a couple of years old. I'm quite familiar with most of the older stories; "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" is new to me, but that's only because I was too lazy/cheap to track down the issues of the Virginia Quarterly in which it originally appeared. In short, nothing in this book should come as a revelation in and of itself to anyone sufficiently engaged with the comics medium.

And yet, as I write this, I'm sort of leaning towards putting this in my (provisional) top slot for a couple of reasons. First, as I noted in my review, the pairing of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" and the original Breakdowns in a single volume greatly increases the impact of each. Actually, it goes a step further: it almost creates an entirely new work. But that's not so far off from what I had to say about Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus: "Better yet, the sequencing of the stories in published order has given them a new power. You can see Kirby's deft world building, always present yet always subservient to his desire to entertain his readers. And maybe I'm just in a different state of mind 10 years after I last read these stories, but the Fourth World seems so much more vibrant in this format. The Paranoid Pill, Happyland, the Glory Boat, the Hairies--these are some of the best ideas in the history of comics, each one better than the last. It's enough to make me reconsider whether or not this is actually Kirby's best work. I can't recommend these books highly enough."

There's something else, however, that Breakdowns has going for it: Spiegelman is a living, working creator. "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" isn't brand new, but it's not that old, either. It's more reflective of the present than the Fourth World omnibus. That's not to say that Kirby's comics are firmly relegated to the past: clearly he has an enormous impact on contemporary artists. Hell, the current Big Event at DC is based on his work. But that's the thing--none of this is an extension of his work; it's all reinterpretations or homages or pastiches. Jack Kirby's presence certainly looms large in 2008, but Art Spiegelman is alive and still producing great comics.*** That means a lot to me, and probably pushes Breakdowns to #1 on my best of 2008 list, barring any further revelations.

The next question: will I be able to resist putting Fantagraphics' new Pogo series at #1 for 2009? I'll probably avoid the temptation for the first volume or two. But what about the later ones, like once we get into Simple J. Malarkey and whatnot? Man, that's some awfully good stuff....

*Anyone want to try to list the other most respected living comics creators among the general English speaking population? After Spiegelman, I'd say (in no particular order) Joe Sacco, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, and Allison Bechdel are probably the top tier. Rutu Modan, Adrian Tomine, and Jaime Hernandez would round out the top 10, IMO. But am I underestimating the mainstream appeal of Gilbert Hernandez, Grant Morrison, Craig Thompson, or Posy Simmonds? What about Robert Crumb--does his history of misogynistic work cancel out his monumental accomplishments in the eyes of the general public (by which I mean the segment of the general public which is willing to think about comics, but not too hard and not for extended periods of time)? Is Stan Lee a part of this discussion? Do people still think about Matt Groening as a cartoonist, rather than a multimedia mogul? How about Gary Trudeau--would the public think to lump him in with the names above?

**Although...I didn't see it in Diamond's solicitations for November or December. I guess I might have missed it if it ended up in the merchandise section or something. Is it still supposed to debut at APE?

***This generally reflects my decision to put Notes For a War Story as high as I did. Coconino originally published it in 2004, only three years before its English translation. And Gipi is an active cartoonist, one of the best in the world. Hopefully one day these sorts of books will appear in an English the same year as their original release, but I'm not too worried about it in terms of list-making.

Monday, October 13, 2008


So I did a lot of book shopping for the first time in a couple of months this weekend, picking up a couple of Spurgeon-recommended titles along the way (a 1970s Doonesbury collection (guess they're more common in Oregon?) and a copy of Sick, Sick, Sick). And it was good to finally get a copy of the first issue of the reconfigured Love and Rockets, which I hadn't been able to find until this weekend. But maybe the best purchase was one I made impulsively, picking it up as I was walking to the cashier with a different book: the revised edition of Art Spiegelman's Breakdowns.

It's not like I didn't want a copy of Breakdowns, but it wasn't really a priority. Ten years ago I ached to have a collection of Spiegelman's earlier work, partly due to Scott McCloud's discussion of these strips in Understanding Comics. I eventually bought Art Spiegelman: Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps, a catalogue of a German (or maybe French?) exhibition of Spiegelman's art from throughout his career (highly recommended if you can find a copy; the text is in German and English, so it's doubly recommended for those trying to learn the German language via comics criticism). And so I came to read much of the classic, formally adventurous Spiegelman work of the 70s: "Ace Hole, Midget Detective"; the original "Maus"; "The Malpractice Suite"; "Don't Get Around Much Anymore."

The new version of Breakdowns includes a facsimile of the original edition, right down to a cardstock replica of the original cover. This greatly expands the early Spiegelman material currently in print; to the aforementioned short stories, we can add "Cracking Jokes," "Little Signs of Passion," "Day at the Circuits," and "Soap Opera Strip." Furthermore, and perhaps most crucially, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" is now in available in a format which allows it room to breathe. Breakdowns is printed on nice, big pages, a vast improvement on the oversized thumbnails in Comix, Essays, Graphics and Scraps. That alone would probably be enough to make the revised edition an essential purchase for anyone who doesn't already own the original. Spiegelman's reputation for formal inventiveness is confirmed again and again in these pages. Re-reading "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," you can almost feel Scott McCloud's arguments about panel-to-panel transitions originating from a close examination of this one-page strip.

But what really ends up dominating the book is a different side of Spiegelman's artisitic persona, that which is forever linked to the Holocaust through the seminal Maus.* The only new material included in the revised Breakdowns is "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," an autobiographical essay originally serialized in the Virginia Quarterly from 2005 to 2006. I had never read this story before. Those who did might be slightly less impressed, but for me, especially when paired with the original Breakdowns material, "Portrait" was a revelation.

"Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" is as deep and affecting a portrayal of dysfunctional comics obsession as I have ever read. Spiegelman echoes countless other cartoonists in portraying immersion in comics as a coping mechanism, an escape from the terrors of mundane reality. What sets "Portrait" apart are two crucial things: (1) Much of what Spiegelman is trying to escape is directly related to the permanent trauma his parents suffered during the Holocaust. (2) This is Art Spiegelman, the godfather of literary/art comics we're talking about here. When Spiegelman's alienation from his baseball-playing peers drives him into the arms of Harvey Kurtzman, there's something deeper going on.

Spiegelman depicts his parents as constantly suffering from the guilt and pain of Auschwitz, informing all their actions and helping to establish their son's mistrust for the outside world. At the same time, Spiegelman is an eager consumer of mass culture--comic books, television, coonskin caps. It's no surprise that he embraces Mad, splitting the difference between the two: a raucous attack on "the adult world," yet a product of the same. Even so, immersion in comics is also a way of courting parental--or, rather, materanal--approval. His mother buys him a cartooning kit under the condition that Spiegelman applies himself and becomes a competent cartoonist. Spiegelman obliges by replicating the goofball anarchy of Kurtzman and his successors in his homemade comics; later he produces interesting-yet-derivative underground comics. His father remains a distant presence throughout this, suggesting that his son's interest in comics--or even his capacity to laugh in such a fucked-up, evil world--indicates some sort of failing on his part. Then his mother commits suicide.

It's here that "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" becomes so instructive. We see a young Art Spiegelman somewhat alienated from his childhood obsessions (in the afterword, Spiegelman notes that, upon seeing R. Crumb's work, he "could leave this comics stuff in his [Crumb's] uniquely capable hands and pursue Enlightenment unencumbered."). Spiegelman continues to drift for a few years after this, producing relatively mundane underground comix and applying what he'd learned from Kurtzman ("MAD lessons") to desiging Wacky Packages for Topps. Spiegelman has essentially entered part of the "adult world" while thumbing his nose at it, while sticking to the bargain he struck with his mother to become a competent cartoonist.

But something triggers a breakthrough in 1972. Spiegelman confronts his mother's suicide with the audacious "Prisoner on the Hell Planet," a landmark story in which Spiegelman details his mother's suicide, his and his father's reaction, and the existential torment he continues to suffer afterward. While the original "Maus" preceded it by a year, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" sees Spiegelman morph into the confident cartoonist who would change the medium. His expressionistic linework reflects his suffering, vacillating from tight, controlled crosshatching to wild, agonizing scrawls. It's a truly cathartic moment, captured in ink on paper.

Or so Spiegelman thought. Early into "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," Spiegelman details the literal pain he felt when revisiting his mother's suicide 30 years later. In this light, "Prisoner on the Hell Planet" is less a temporary release of pressure so much as a dam break, encouraging Spiegelman to push the limits of the comics form. Spiegelman's ambitions are naked, from his annoyance at responses to "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" (peers were unmoved, readers depressed) to his decision to publish Breakdowns in the first place. Having already rewarded his mother by becoming a professional cartoonist, Spiegelman seems to be considering his father by becoming the most serious, important cartoonist of his generation.

The final sequence in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" is a reproduction of an earlier anecdote, in which a bully steals a toy belonging to young Art. When his mother tries to intervene, the bully spits in her face, denying her power to stop him. Spiegelman alludes to the original cover to Breakdowns by playing with the color register here, while substituting the original narration for word balloons quoting a passage on defamiliarization by Victor Shklovsky. Even as the text endorses the formalism Spiegelman embraced in Breakdowns, the images remind us of the acute emotional and familial connection Spiegelman feels towards comics: the one panel left intact is that which shows the bully spitting in his mother's face.

As a whole, the revamped Breakdowns is a postmodern masterpiece. The original Breakdowns serves as a sort of appendix to "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," which in turn provides something of a key to Spiegelman's mindset when making Breakdowns. It's not unlike the sensation of reading "Day at the Circuits;" it's unclear which work is the ur-text, and which is the gloss, thus encouraging circular reading. Similarly, it's impossible to fully extract Spiegelman's formal adventurousness from his autobiography. In a sense, one can only evaluate Spiegelman's comics by considering his relationship to them. It's a tremdously effective way to restore immediacy to a collection of material from 30 years ago.

And on a similar note, here's a little speculation: Breakdowns might end up being the most accessible formalist comic ever released. With the possible exception of Watchmen**, Maus is the most widely read, serious graphic novel in the English language. This widespread familiarity with Maus, along with popular acceptance of its importance and literary legitimacy, might encourage some otherwise recalcitrant readers to pick up Breakdowns. What they will find is a first-rate introduction to the incredible possibilities in the comics medium. Which is not to say that everyone who enjoyed Maus will enjoy Breakdowns--not by any stretch of the imagination. But I really think that Breakdowns will prove a potential gateway into the world of truly great comics for some (hopefully many) readers.

As for those already familiar with this world (ie, most of you reading this), Breakdowns is an excellent reminder of why Spiegelman is so venerated in the first place. It seems that several factors have combined to reduce Spiegelman's relevance in the contempoarary alt comics landscape: the tepid response to In the Shadow of No Towers, the (hopefully temporary) diminishing importance of Maus in a world full of ambitious literary comics***, the previous obscurity of "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!," and Spiegelman's status as an elder statesman--maybe THE elder statesman, the oxymoronic comix authority. This book should convince those of us who had neglected Spiegelman--myself included--of his imporance to the comics medium.

*Most would probably say that there's a third aspect to Spiegelman's career, best exemplified by his work for Topps: the Mad-loving prankster (a persona which possibly includes his work as a cover artist for the New Yorker). This side is explicitly dismissed in "Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" There's probably a fourth part to Spiegelman as well: Spiegelman the historian/advocate for the comics medium, early 20th century comic strips in particular. That, too, is largely absent from the new edition of Breakdowns (perhaps fittingly, since Spiegelman had not fully established this identity when Breakdowns was originally published).

**"Possible exception" in the sense that (a) I'm not sure which is more widely read, Maus or Watchmen, and (b) it's certainly debatable whether or not Watchmen really deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Maus. Not to say that Watchmen is bad, but it's really, truly no Maus.

***Which I think often amounts to something like this: for years Maus was just about the only thing we had to point to, but now we've got ambitious, high-minded graphic novels coming out every week. So let's not think about Maus for a few years.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

I'm probably opening myself up to charges of elitism here, but let's face it: those charges were coming anyway

Just to clear up a few misconceptions about what I wrote yesterday:

-Anyone who took it to be another "buy what you like" rant greatly misunderstood me. I hate those rants, because they aim so, so low. I don't believe in reminding people not to waste money on comics they don't like. It's a problem, I'm sure, but who wants to try to reason with the people who suffer from it? It's just too depressing to contemplate.

-It was mostly aimed at people who write about comics, regardless of ambition or venue. Anyone who attempts to write a review of a comic amounting to more than a couple of lines complaining about continuity or giddily anticipating the return of a character (or a version of a character) previously thought to be rendered out-of-continuity. If you can't get past the idea that someone might not like your favorite superhero comics, this conversation isn't for you.

-Okay, I'll throw you folks a bone. Too many of you shut off part of your brain whenever you read anything which suggests that mediocrity/putridity dominates the comics industry. (And really, it's a little unseemly that so many of you immediately lapse into "but Mom, comics are serious!" mode whenever anyone questions the quality of popular comics.) This isn't "superhero hating snobs vs. regular folks." That's stupid. Anyone who reads Tucker's interview and comes away with that impression....

-But anyway, I was trying to aim a little higher than the Wednesday crowd, as Dirk Deppey calls them. Specifically, I meant the people who are aware of comics beyond the Image/Dark Horse/IDW level of ground-level indies, yet who continually reward mediocre comics with excessive praise. Which is not to say that these people aren't entitled to their own opinion--it's just that their opinion is, uh, questionable. And I think it's time we actually started questioning the value of these reviews.

-Look, it will all seem a lot clearer in a couple of months, when we start seeing best of 2008 lists with mediocrities sitting alongside genuinely worthwhile material. That's what really infuriates me--a list with Exit Wounds, Shortcomings, Aya, Y the Last Man, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You're obviously exposed to the good stuff--why fill out the list with middling junk? (Part of this is an issue of mainstream press writers only including books they receive as comps; those lists drove me crazy.) I'm considering including a special sub-list only including trusted/legitimate critics, but I don't want to be the one who has to pick them out. Maybe I'll poll some of the critics I respect to get a sense of whose lists should be included on such a list. Please note: this won't replace the regular meta-list, which I would certainly still consider the definitive word on which comics were the best-reviewed in 2008.

-And I guess that's as good an opening as any to remind everyone that it's getting to be meta-list season. If you're one of those people who likes to make these lists way, way too early, please send me a link so that I can include it in the final tally.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hruska Du

The single thing I found the most compelling in Tom Spurgeon's list of things he would change about comics if he could, from item #16:

We criticize and receive criticism without reactionary defensiveness and accept others' ability to do the same with respect for their doing so rather than as an opportunity to press our agenda that much further.

Actually, I think the last half of the statement could use some clarification in the form of a concrete statement; I think I know what he means, but I'm not sure. But the first half is crucial, and a sentiment that seems to be building among those of us frustrated with the relationship between critics and cartoonists. I've seen too many creators freaking out in public over honest (if not always thoughtful) criticism. I don't know if it's a mentality endemic to comics or to a culture overlapping with comics. Kevin Smith's frequently callow relationship with his critics suggests the latter. (BTW, how funny is it that Smith's Wikipedia page cites the MTV Movie Award for "Dirtiest Mouth" (sponsored by Orbit gum!) among the awards won by Clerks II? Surely this is a joke, right? Or would Wikipedia's gestapo editors purge such levity?)

Even more cutting is this bit from Tucker and Nina Stone's interview with Chris Mautner (this being Tucker speaking):

Watchmen, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Criminal, Carl Barks, Darwyn Cooke, David B, Lynda Barry, Charles Burns, Krazy Kat—those comics, those creators get real serious writing because they earned it, because they did something that’s worth talking about, that’s worth taking seriously. If you’re not getting really brilliant reviews, really incisive, intelligent response—it’s because you don’t deserve it. It’s because you’re a waste of time to the people who might write those reviews. Not because “it’s comics.” It’s because that thing you did was just middle of the road, and you can’t say anything smart about middle of the road. Because you didn’t earn it, and no sour apples begging will get it for you.

Comics readers seem to love the mediocre. I don't think the problem with comics criticism (in a broad, broad, very inclusive sense) isn't that it rewards terrible, bottom-of-the-barrell work; it's that it rewards second-rate work. Any stab at respectability, no matter how modest, is too-often greeted with hosannas. I've seen people laud Kingdom Come because it used foreshadowing--which I'm sure we all remember is an actual, honest-to-god literary technique! I guess that's a step up from those who think crying superheroes holding the charred remains of less-famous superheroes connotes respectability.

Look, there are certainly people out there who don't care about anything other than Wolverine slicing people up (or the 2008 equivalent, shocking events which will change everything you thought you knew about She-Hulk). But this isn't a Manichean struggle between those people and those who actually want some shred of readability or craft in their comics; I'm not lining up with people who think Starman is the greatest comic of all time in a struggle against those who pay exorbitant amounts to see Batman strangle the Joker with his own intestines, provided that it's in continuity. I want to read legitimately good comics; I want to be an advocate for legitimately good comics and nothing else. It's not enough that a comic doesn't cater to a narrow, dying audience. I want comics which are good, which aspire to something grander than "at least it's not as bad as Wolverine: Origins."

In film reviews, a middling review is often worse than a abysmal review. In comics, works desrving of a middling review win major industry awards. Joss Whedon may not insult your intelligence as egregiously as, say, Jeph Loeb, but he doesn't belong in the same company as Harvey Kurtzman. Many people are well aware of this, but it's always good to remind those who don't quite believe you. Especially in an environment where anti-intellectualism isn't just prevalent but normative. Don't believe me? Consider this comment from the Blogorama interview:

He [Tucker Stone] tried to show he was “down” with comics by saying he liked an issue of the Detroit Justice League that found by accident. But he immediately started espousing the glories of Chris Ware and the “Arty” comics that he can find in NYC.

See? What kind of fucked up culture are we in that familiarity with a terrible, terrible superhero comic confers expertise, while modest praise for a book regarded as instrumental in establishing a bridge to the literary world is evidence that one is out of touch and unqualified to judge the value of an issue of Nightwing? Christ, this idiot seems to imply that Acme Novelty Library isn't even a REAL comic! This is an absolutely outrageous statement, but it's sadly not unique.

We can't say or do enough to eliminate comics' love affair with the mediocre. It's so obvious. Don't make me allude to a certain national political figure here.