Robot 6

What comics arguments do you never want to hear again?

42708b62a3Sometimes an interview can be interesting because of the questions the interview subject doesn’t answer. Case in point: Blogger and critic Noah Berlatsky’s interview with The Comics Reporter’s Tom Spurgeon. Pivoting off a recent Savage Critics roundtable on Daniel Clowes’s divisive black-comedy graphic novel Wilson, Berlatksy sets Spurgeon up with a characterization of literary comics of the sort Clowes creates as self-pitying, misanthropic, pessimistic, and tedious. It’s a characterization Spurgeon’s having none of:

[Berlatsky:] …there’s a default stance in certain regions of lit comics land which is basically: “life sucks and people are awful.” Which I think is glib and overdone and tedious, a, and which, b, can be made even more irritating by the fact that the people promulgating it are, you know, fairly successful, and (what with various autobiographical elements thrown in) the result often looks like a lot of self-pity over not very much.

So…I’m wondering how strongly you would push back against that characterization of lit comics in general…and also whether you feel it is or is not ever appropriate to think about a creator’s biography in relation to his or her work in that way.

[Spurgeon:] At this point I wouldn’t push back at all against the stance that says the default mode in lit comics land is basically “life sucks and people are awful” because it’s no longer an argument I take seriously. I don’t think it’s true by any reasonable measure and I’m done with entertaining the notion until someone presents the argument in a much more effective or compelling fashion than what always sounds to me like some angry, lonely, re-written Usenet post from 1997.

First of all, amen. If anything, I feel sorry for people who write off an entire swathe of comics, including the gorgeously crafted and emotionally devastating work of guys like Clowes and Chris Ware (to name the two best-known and most frequently lambasted creators) as woe-is-me whining. What I don’t feel is the need to seriously engage those people.

But this got me to thinking about how there are a small handful of similar arguments about comics I could happily go my whole life without ever encountering again. “Superhero comics are just quasi-fascist male adolescent power fantasies” and “Manga isn’t real comics, it’s just big-eyed panty-flashing speed-lined nonsense for people who fetishize Japan” round out my Unholy Trinity of lame arguments that ignorantly pooh-pooh whole segments of the industry. But the list could go on: People who treat the DC/Marvel rivalry like a titanic clash of good vs. evil, webcomics triumphalism, manga triumphalism, superheroes as modern myths, and “the New Mainstream” can all go jump in a lake.

Chances are that if you’re reading this blog, you’ve discussed comics enough to repeatedly run into opinions that make you want to chew your own foot off. Go ahead and share them in the comments. We can’t promise we won’t use them ourselves, but we’ll at least know you won’t be listening when we do.

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41 Comments

Superheroes as modern myth is at least interesting. I don’t think that’s a non-starter or tired argument. However, myths had a very specific purpose in the past. Myths were mankind’s explanation for inexplicable, primarily natural, phenomena. As the stories and explanations grew and took a life of their own they embraced, established and expanded multiple archetypes based on man’s conditions and relationships. However, these relationships weren’t just man’s relationship to the nature but to other men. Myth became illustrative examples.

Superheroes today do not explain the inexplicable; however, they do provide us with an insight into the zeitgeist. Can an individual get a sense of the zeitgeist and the underlying paranoia of men at a certain point in time by reading comics, specifically supeheroes? Yes, of course. The origin of Marvel’s heroes being primarily radiation based is a reflection of the nuclear anxiety that the U.S. felt in the 1960s. The genetic tampering nature of the Ultimate universe heroes reflects a different anxiety.

One could write more about this, but I’ll stop now.

“Judd Winick will turn [x] gay.”

“Floppies are dead.”

“Digital will never replace print.”

… I know there are more…

I think my list would include: decompression is inherently bad; hyper-compression is inherently bad; everything was better back in [insert comics era here], so all characters should be portrayed as that era’s version; only super-hero comics are worthwhile; only non-super-hero comics are worthwhile… truly, the list could go on and on.

Oh, I would add, “It’s your fault [x] was canceled, because you were too slavishly devoted to X-Men.”

“If you think superhero comics are sexist/racist/homophobic/otherwise problematic, why are you buying them?” is the “America: Love it or Leave it” of comics discourse. I could deal with never hearing that again.

I always loved Batman beats Superman in a fight every time.

Gregory P. Cashman

May 19, 2010 at 12:31 pm

I only read comics where the creative team is entirely Italian.

Joe Quesada ruined __________.

My two least favorite arguments:

1. If women aren’t reading superhero comics, then they’re not reading comics! (Usually accompanied by hand-wringing and soul-searching about how to create more female-friendly superhero fare, and maybe a few notes about indoctrinating girls in the Sacred Wednesday Comic Book Buying Ritual.)

2. Osamu Tezuka’s style is so cartoonish, I can’t take him seriously.

“DC hasn’t published a comic about the REAL Legion of Super-Heroes since 1986!”

I get irked by “I can’t stand [superhero movie]. It sets [superhero] back to the [pick any decade].” Not that it’s always wrong, just that it doesn’t really _say_ anything worthwhile.

Also? “Wah, [creator] is so overrated, all their stuff is [pseudo-intellectual / fan service] crap.”

Most of these conversations are as tedious as everyone says, but I think there is more to the “lit comics” debate than Spurgeon (or you, Shawn) are admitting. Certainly, when it’s mobilized as a way of dismissing “lit comics” (what the hell is that anyway?!), these arguments about a self-pitying tone are worth dismissing. But it does seem to me that bildungsroman (whether as memoir or fiction) has a very strong hold on (what I imagine must be taken as) “lit comics.” It’s not exclusive, but my own, admittedly subjective, perception tells me the bildungsroman is unusually visible in comics. (Blankets, Fun Home, most of Eddie Campbell’s work, etc…)

The point being that part of the reason I imagine people fire off about the self-pitying tone of “lit comics” is because they see these comics as being every bit as genre-constrained as superhero comics. That’s not a problem by me in regard to either genre, but since detective, sci-fi or superhero stories are normally marked as genre-confined, but “literature” is not…well, there’s room for a bit of a beef about that, yes? I mean, there is something to seriously engage here. I think Berlatsky deserved a better answer than Spurgeon gave him.

I “love” the argument that trade-waiters aren’t “real” fans of comics; only those who buy monthlies are. I buy trades because they’re cheaper in the long run, look great on my bookshelf, and allow me to enjoy an entire storyline in one sitting. If comic publishers didn’t make money off of producing trades, they wouldn’t.

I am sick to death of hearing Why Barbara Gordon Should Walk/Be Batgirl Again.
Seriously.
SHUT THE FUCK UP.

How about “Characters who dress up in tights and capes to fight crime are crazy/perverts/sadists/etc?” I’m all for characters in actual stories having these qualities occasionally, but when someone writes off an entire genre this way (“well, Kick-Ass pretty much closed the door on superheroes, huh?”), it gets me steamed.

Katherine: Oh, “too cartoony,” that’s a great one! Pretty much no matter which artist is getting tagged with it, from Tezuka to Cameron Stewart. That’s the beginning of a discussion about the book in question, not the end of it, you doofuses.

Ganon4Love: “I mean, there is something to seriously engage here. I think Berlatsky deserved a better answer than Spurgeon gave him.”

I really think there isn’t and I really think he didn’t, and here’s why.

First of all, you’re being entirely too charitable in your characterization of Berlatksy’s quite explicit argument. Berlatksy isn’t saying that “the bildungsroman is unusually visible in comics,” and Spurgeon and I aren’t denying that the bildungsroman is a genre like any other. No one’s talking about the bildungsroman at all–certainly, whatever Wilson is, it’s not that. Berlatsky is saying, flat out, this:

there’s a default stance in certain regions of lit comics land which is basically: “life sucks and people are awful.” Which I think is glib and overdone and tedious, a, and which, b, can be made even more irritating by the fact that the people promulgating it are, you know, fairly successful, and (what with various autobiographical elements thrown in) the result often looks like a lot of self-pity over not very much.

I feel like maybe, and only if you read these people’s work in the most reductive and facile way possible, and only if you’re willing to attribute autobiographical elements to literary work in a way you’d never do with “genre” work despite having no more or less reason to do so in either case, you MIGHT have been ALMOST able to make this argument when “literary comics” was Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, Harvey Pekar, Joe Matt, Chester Brown’s autobio stuff, Debbie Dreschler, Julie Doucet, and cherrypicked Crumb stuff–basically, a period lasting not much longer than the mid-’90s to, I don’t know, 2001 or so. But:

1) Even then, you could only make that case if you ignored any number of major lit/art/alt comics creators–Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez, Jim Woodring, Renee French, Peter Bagge, Gary Panter, the rest of Crumb’s work, the rest of Chester Brown’s work, Al Columbia, Joe Sacco, Paul Pope, David Mazzucchelli, Phoebe Gloeckner, Charles Burns, Alan Moore’s non-superhero work, and on and on.

2) Even if for some reason I were willing to grant you ignoring all the cartoonists listed in #1, ignoring everyone but the Spiegelman/Clowes/Ware/Tomine end of things has gotten even MORE untenable ever since. Unless you’re rigging the game by defining literary as “comics about sad sacks or assholes,” you’ve now got a lit-comics landscape that includes everyone from Anders Nilsen to David B. to Kevin Huizenga to Brian Chippendale to C.F. to Yoshihiro Tatsumi to Michael Kupperman to Frank Santoro to Paper Rad to Jeffrey Brown to Lynda Barry to Ross Campbell to Marjane Satrapi to Lewis Trondheim to Yuichi Yokoyama to Hans Rickheit to the Tamaki Sisters to Craig Thompson to Dash Shaw to Johnny Ryan…Even if you loop in the Old Guard of Lit Comics I listed above, I defy you to identity a “default mode” from a rigorous consideration of that group. It’s simply not even a remotely realistic or reasonable view of what literary comics are any more–it never was, but it extra-super isn’t now.

3) And on a personal note, I utterly refuse to concede the point that “life sucks and people are awful” is glib, overdone, tedious, or otherwise an invalid thing to express through comics, regardless of one’s personal level of success or lack thereof. Perhaps it’s all those things if you crudely and sneeringly reduce it to the CHEER UP EMO KID terms of “life sucks and people are awful” as does Noah. But doing so, and dismissing it, in turn invalidates depression, tragedy, pessimism etc. as legitimate, fecund sources for art, which is simply absurd.

4) Finally, and probably most importantly, you could only make this case if you’re the sort of person who’s can read a book like Jimmy Corrigan or David Boring and reduce the sum total of its ideas and execution to a bumper-sticker slogan, in which case more’s the pity for you.

So it’s really only by selectively filtering your data set, and then interpreting that data in the most uncharitable of ways, that you could even identify “life sucks and people are awful” as a disproportionately influential worldview among “lit comics,” and then proceed to kick that worldview and its supposed adherents in the nuts over it. Particularly when a critic has a looooooong track record online and in print of doing exactly that, I feel I’m no longer under any obligation to engage this approach seriously, because I feel its own engagement of the work at hand is manifestly unserious itself.

I’ll agree that it’s kind of dumb to paint all “lit-comics” with the same brush. Comparing Louis Riel to Ghost World to Maus (just to name three books off the top of my head) doesn’t even make sense to me. Focusing on one author, though, and saying “I don’t like Dan Clowes’ work because he’s such an unrelenting pessimist” seems entirely valid to me. Granted, that’s an argument I’ve made personally, after reading a fair amount of his work. He’s sort of a reverse-pollyanna, and I find that attitude just as annoying and short-sighted as I do an unrelentingly positive outlook. This is not to say that Clowes is untalented; I think he’s actually quite brilliant. I just don’t have much use for what he applies that talent to.

But we’re supposed to be suggesting funnybook arguments we don’t wanna hear anymore. So…

I’m really tired of seeing comics fans arguing that the creators of hugely successful multi-million-dollar franchise characters don’t deserve a better cut of the money. Usually, this argument seems to be based in a fear that their favorite funnybook character might be taken away from whatever super hero universe he’s become a cornerstone of, rather than any sort of laissez-faire capitalist belief system, and it just annoys the hell out of me.

Mark: Yeah, that’s fair. Wrong, but fair. ;)

Also, amen on the royalties issue.

I would like to combine the arguments Shaun and Anthony mentioned, which would result in “it’s your fault [x] was canceled because you waited for the trade.” While we’re at it, I would love to see an end to ad hominem characterizations of people who like a given work, character or sub-genre, many of them relating to social skills level or sexual habits and so on. That stuff drives me nuts even when I’m just lukewarm about the work in question, but it sometimes seems to be the primary mode of comics criticism, even from the more “intellectual” proponents of it.

- “Dead characters should stay dead, except for _______ who was awesome and only died because the writer hated them.”

- “I totally understood what happened in this comic, but I think some theoretical new reader would have been confused by it, so obviously it sucks.”

- “Marvel and DC should cut their output down to like ten books each, and they should be like a hundred pages for a dollar but still with the same quality of art and writing. It’d totally be workable if they were on newsprint! Then newsstands would stock them again and then kids and new readers would buy them all the time.”

- any discussion hinging on the definition of “art”, “literature”, or “journalism”

- “Comics should stop catering to old readers and focus on new ones. Also, this story here superficially resembles one from twenty years ago, so it’s pointless and redundant.”

- “Comics today are so compressed that it only takes like five minutes to read one. But I haven’t finished my comics from last week because I haven’t had time.”

- anything related to Spider-Man’s marriage or lack thereof.

I am so with you on the Barbara Gordon one, JRC.

First, any complaint/argument that dismisses whole categories of comics out of hand is not an argument I have time for. Second, I read a lot of what are probably considered “art comics” and I enjoy them a lot, and I do what I can to talk them up at the local shop, introduce them to friends, go to see the creators at cons, etc. All that said, I understand how people get that idea about this type of comics. Yes, those people are ignoring lots of amazing comics that cover an immense spectrum of tone and emotion. And we could certainly point to loads of superhero comics that are pointlessly depressing, nihilistic, etc. But, this is the copy for Wilson from Drawn & Quarterly’s website:
“Meet Wilson, an opinionated middle-aged loner who loves his dog and quite possibly no one else. In an ongoing quest to find human connection, he badgers friend and stranger alike into a series of one-sided conversations, punctuating his own lofty discursions with a brutally honest, self-negating sense of humor. After his father dies, Wilson, now irrevocably alone, sets out to find his ex-wife with the hope of rekindling their long-dead relationship, and discovers he has a teenage daughter, born after the marriage ended and given up for adoption. Wilson eventually forces all three to reconnect as a family – a doomed mission that will surely, inevitably backfire.”
It is not irrational or even unfair to read that and expect Wilson to be a downer. This is a description that the publisher is using to sell the book, not a criticism from a myopic fanboy. Now, I’m sure that’s not all there is to the book. I’m sure it has intelligence and depth and meaning, and the main character probably has more going on than just being “irrevocably alone” or going on a “doomed mission that will … inevitably backfire.” But if the book is being promoted on those elements, it should be no surprise that people assume it to be depressing.
So while I’d agree with Spurgeon that the “life sucks and people are awful” complaint is ultimately invalid, I disagree that the people who make it are necessarily recycling old gripes without thinking about them.

1. The feline appearance of Beast.
2. Who was Xorn?
3. Hal Jordan/Barry Allen/Ray Palmer/etc. is boring.
4. Any discussions brought up by Rob Liefeld or John Byrne.
5. Movie goers aren’t ready for a female lead in a super hero movie.
6. Steve Ditko is crazy.
7. Garth Ennis is mean.
8. Red Hulk’s power levels.
9. X-MEN 3 sucked.
10. The Sentry was great before Bendis started writing him.

Again though, Noah, and the other people I’ve seen making this argument time and time and time and time and time again, was NOT just talking about Wilson, or any one book. He was talking about “a default stance in certain regions of lit comics land which is basically: ‘life sucks and people are awful.’” If this was something he was saying about Wilson specifically based on engagement with that particular work and lambasting or dismissing the book as such, I’d still disagree that this is accurate, or that if it WAS accurate it necessarily means it’s bad–but it’d be an argument worth having, briefly at least, because it’s rooted in the work. But what we have instead is a wave of the hand meant to dismiss whole groups of creators and whole segments of comics, ignoring any number of counterexamples even within the work of the most frequently cited creators (big difference between the ending of Wilson and Mister Wonderful, or Ghost World and The Death-Ray, and so on) let alone all the other people I mentioned. It’s an avoidance of engagement with the comics themselves. That’s why it’s a waste of time.

Wow, I sure am engaging an argument I said I won’t be engaging anymore, aren’t I?

Anyway, I thought of another: “So-and-so/such-and-such is raping my childhood.” A) No it’s not, and B) how about we only use the term “raping” in relation to actual rape?

The Ugly American

May 19, 2010 at 8:27 pm

Old Guard vs. New Guard

Hal Jordan vs. Kyle Raynor

Barry Allen vs. Wally West

Judd Winick is/n’t a good writer.

I for one tremendously appreciate you engaging with the argument you said you wouldn’t, as I found Ganon4Love’s articulation in particular to ring true with me. Particularly liked point 3). I for one am reading many “I’m in my 20′s and aimless” comics, cause I relate. And most are quite good. I I’ll weigh in tomorrow more thoughtfully, hopefully eliciting a response (tonight I collapse).

Instead, two more repetitive arguments. I’m somewhat tired of discussions of “event fatigue” (pun!), and Steve’s point of “this story here superficially resembles one from twenty years ago, so it’s pointless and redundant” is really true. I’m a new reader, and so when critics would complain with phrases like “The Dark Knight did superhero deconstruction, give us something new” it doesn’t take into account new readers.

Finally: what the hell is “new mainstream”?

“Wow, I sure am engaging an argument I said I won’t be engaging anymore, aren’t I?”

Thanks for taking the time to do so, Sean. I think it’s worth it, mainly because the particular argument you cited above seems to condense wider prejudices and attitudes. That’s what I was trying to get at: it’s not the letter of what is said that matters, or that is all that interesting, but the perceptions and reactions that seem to be evidenced in these recurrent arguments. I mean, people repeat them for a reason (and I don’t think it’s just because they’re obnoxious or deliberately trying to lower the level of the conversation) and I wonder what those reasons are and how they might be addressed more directly. Dismissing them only confirms the worst suspicions (“alt comics fans like depressing comics *and* they are too snobby to talk to us”).

Ron from up North

May 20, 2010 at 9:01 am

Any sentence construction in which “The Sentry” is either the subject or the object.

A value judgement is something that doesn’t have a true answer. The problem is not in dismissing any one individual creator, but questioning the legitimacy of any genre because of one creator in that genre. I personally don’t care for most superhero comics for aesthetic reasons. That doesn’t make them inferior, it’s just something that’s not my cup of tea.

Re: Mainstream vs. Independent: I would go even further and say that I would classify something like Marvel or DC in a different category than something like Fantagraphics/D-Q. Not just for the subject matter or because they have a larger audience or because of the fact that mainstream comics are basically ads for movies. To say nothing of the term “mainstream”. Comics with heroic fantasy appeal to comics fans while what’s considered “alternative” would resonate better with the general public if they knew it existed. It’s like the assumption relatives have that because you like a particular comic you’ll like anything that happens to be executed in that medium. That’s like saying ‘if you like PBS, then you’ll love Spike TV!’

Comics stores should not be frequented every Wednesday but as often as one goes to any other store, and “not as good as it used to be” is usually translation for “I don’t like it anymore”, but those are different arguments altogether.

Dylan Williams

May 23, 2010 at 8:56 pm

Sam, you are so so right in my book, as usual. Thank you.

With due respect to Sam, I think the argument I’d most like to hear the end of is “Mainstream comics are basically ads for movies.”

I haven’t read any of his work (looking forward to getting Body World) but I’m tired of hearing Dash Shaw sucks from people with as much familiarity with his work as myself.

Any discussions regarding style.

Most people only like what they like and refuse to acknowledge there are other ways of approaching comics.

Also:

I could go on forever on how anime and cartoons, manga and comics are the same thing, and the attempt to categorize them separately slows the US down from expanding genres quicker.

I could go the rest of my life without hearing anyone argue that there is some massive difference between the product Marvel and DC have been producing for the last couple decades. When creators switch teams every couple years, it tends to make the comics themselves very similar.

OT- Why I feel mainstream comics are basically ads for movies: Scratch ‘movies’ and make it merchandising as a whole, since movies are ads too. It’s been that way since STAR WARS showed how successful you can be with product tie-ins. Most Marvel/DC fare has a circulation of 25,000. That’s barely enough to keep the comics going, even when a comic makes money, from a stockholders’ point of view. The real money is in movies and ancillary products. There would be no IRON MAN comic if there weren’t IRON MAN movies. There wouldn’t be the movies if there weren’t toys etc. Superheroes from the big two are not just the comics but properties the parent companies can exploit. When they have something like STRANGE ADVENTURES or BIZARRO COMICS the editors may be benevolent but the stories are still tied-in with the rest of their continuity. If they could exploit something like Chris Ware they would. Sure, there are several mainstream comics that are not blockbuster movies but the options have definitely been sold.

I could go the rest of my life without hearing “Bendis destroyed the Avengers” or “Wolverine and Spider-Man aren’t REAL Avengers.”

Here’s one: Chuck Austen.

I could do without ever seeing the Bendis Sucks/Bendis is great debate again. Similarly, arguments about the “real” version of a character or team are ridiculous.

I love it when people refer to fictional characters as ‘real’. Makes us all seem so well adjusted.

I’m essentially not down with any debate whose purpose is to negate the significance or worth of a genre, artist, writer, publisher, etc. I think that’s what’s overall annoying about those types of arguments. It’s not the specific issue – it’s the declarative statements, the arrogance, and the bullying nature of them.

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