Robot 6

The Middle Ground #90 | On the unreliability of memory and Wikipedia

One of the interesting things about the fact that Marvel and DC dominate comic book history – with a parallel stream for “alternative comics,” which is so vague as to include Robert Crumb, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Eddie Campbell and Marjane Satrapi, depending on who’s doing the defining at the time – is that everything else seems up for grabs. This past week, I found myself relying on the internet to find out about some of the 1990s publishers that have since gone the way of the fondly-remembered dodo, and the malleability of certain areas of history was brought home very, very clearly indeed.

Take, for example, Valiant Comics which has a Wikipedia entry that claims that it was “the first company to attempt to follow a real-world timeline” (Even if you ignore that Marvel started off trying to do that, Valiant’s Jim Shooter did exactly the same thing with his earlier New Universe at the same publisher) and uses a wonderfully biased blog post as reference for those who want to learn more about the company, one that claims that the publisher “adopted a writing style that was unheard of in comics; people in the books acted just as they do in real life” and compares the publisher to Pixar in terms of originality, adding that the characters are “often called the most important of those created after the Marvel revolution in the 1960s.”

But wait, you say, it’s just being cited by Wikipedia, that hardly counts (I submit the Wikipedia entry for Jeff Parker as proof of the spectacular – and spectacularly amusing – unreliability of that site, as much as I genuinely wish he had been on Hot Off The Grill With Bobby Flay), and you’re right, to an extent. But when Valiant can use the phrase “The first storyline “Children of the Eighth Day” deserves to be uttered in the same breath as the masterpieces of the art form: Watchmen, Maus, Dark Knight Returns, etc.” on the back of their Harbinger reissue, things seem a little crazy. It’s not just Valiant that has this kind of rabid fan endorsement and nor should it be, nor is there anything wrong with this level of enthusiasm; but when such hyperbole somehow gets cited as fact, that’s just… weird.

It’s also doing a disservice to the work; Harbinger is a great superhero book – I’ve been catching up with Valiant lately – but it’s just not something that would automatically appeal to someone whose prior exposure to comics was Maus and Watchmen; it presumes a familiarity with the cliches it subverts, for one thing, and has less interest in a more complex reading of humanity than either of those two books, preferring to work in shorthand and stereotype to make its point quickly and move on. Comparing Harbinger to three of the most successful comic books ever made is just inviting disappointment unnecessarily, as much as it’s an irresistible pull quote.

And yet, what is out there to contradict this kind of thing? There’s no “official history” of comics, and even less of an attempt to create one for companies and characters that aren’t still in print, so their memory almost has to be protected and reconstructed by the hardcore and biased. Maybe it’s what they’re due, in some strange way; karmic payoff for not surviving the turbulent world of publishing coming in the form of being memorialized so strongly, unrealistically. It’s a kind finale, in a way; you might not stay in print, but your epitaph will make everyone wish that they could have known you way back when.

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22 Comments

“but it’s just not something that would automatically appeal to someone whose prior exposure to comics was Maus and Watchmen; it presumes a familiarity with the cliches it subverts”

Watchmen depends on the same familiarity with the same cliches and a bit of knowledge of comic book industry history on top, so your point here makes no sense.

@Dudeski

sorry – I didn’t require any comic book knowledge to read and enjoy watchmen. Don’t even know where you’re coming from with that

A lot of history is based on well propaganda documents going right back to mesopotamia. In this case it is more obvious since it hasn’t been filtered yet.

Love you, Graeme, but I strongly disagree with the idea that “Alt Comics” is one single thread of comics history where all material not published in a genre idiom is painted with one brush. From the undergrounds through to modern literary graphic novels with a zillions stops in between, there’s a ton of writing that does very rigorous historical work that divides literary comics material into all kinds of movements, methods and eras.

And I also disagree that without some kind of “official” comics history, there’s nothing to stop this kind of ridiculous PR grab. There’s the facts! Between the Comics Journal, books by the likes of Douglas Wolk and Jeet Heer, a multitude of articles in the NY Times, the New Yorker and beyond and countless blogs that love comics but could care less about superheroes, there’s more excellent public discourse to discredit this stuff now than there’s ever been – and even if there wasn’t, you could poke a hole in that ad copy Wiki crap with about 12 seconds of time and 12 ounces of common sense.

Good on you drawing attention to this though.

I’m pretty sure that there should be the word “American” in the article somewhere. In the larger perspective of comics, DC/Marvel is pretty fringe.

Wikipedia still refers to Storm as the “first Black superheroine”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superhero
scroll down to “Superheroes of Color”

However a superheroine (who had her own strip) predated Storm by four years…
http://heroheroinehistory.blogspot.com/2011/02/butterflythe-first-black-superheroines.html

Wikipedia is useful as a starting point, but not as “definitive” reference.

Future history will read like this:
“Charlie Chaplin and his nazi regime… Then came the ‘UN’ and the ‘UN-nazi-ed the world forever”

I agree with Dudeski with regards to Watchmen. At uh-duh, just because you can enjoy without excessive familiarity doesn’t mean that it isn’t really usefull and maybe even part if the point.

As for Wikipedia, I believe Spiderman recently put his finger on it saying “It’s pretty accurate about things no one cares about.”

The thing about Wikipedia is that it’s not interested in the truth, only in linking to other sources for information. Wikipedia is covering its own butt — original research is not welcome, because they’d be held responsible for it. Instead, if you can cite a source, you can include it. And the rules regarding what a reliable source are keep getting more and more lax.

For an amazing takedown of Wikipedia, I recommend John Siracusa’s “Hypercritical” podcast from a couple weeks back:

http://5by5.tv/hypercritical/52

The whole podcast is two hours long, but skip about an hour into it and you’ll get the Wikipedia discussion.

While this is good reporting, I can’t really endorse how Graeme seems to throw up his hands at the end and say, “Oh, well.” History is not one canonical text that everyone follows; history is an ongoing struggle for truth. It is the role of anyone who cares about such things to reward more truthful statements and punish excessive bias. Bias will never be eliminated, but it can certainly at least be reduced.

People shouldn’t be trusting cover blurbs anyway.

I’m disgusted with the lies being spread in this Age of Misinformation. But it has always been this way. Remember the (true) cliche that history has been written by the winners? Whether the lies come from Fox News, Rupert Murdoch or the long-dead William Randolph Hearst.

I find misinformation in nearly everything I read. History books that slant the facts and omit important truths. Art instruction books that contain blatantly wrong information. Even the few times I was written about in the newspaper, the articles spelled my name wrong and contained quotes that I never said.

People like Karl Rove and Adolph Hitler have claimed that if you tell the lie often enough, people will believe it. Fox News thrives on this philosophy. This sick, fascist manipulation of people makes me very angry.

The truth is Holy.

I learned to never fully trust Wikipedia when I discovered that I was being quoted on there. Heh.

“Even the few times I was written about in the newspaper, the articles spelled my name wrong and contained quotes that I never said.”

Jake — Dunno where you live or who was writing about you, but that’s … remarkable. Not saying it didn’t happen, of course, but having spent most of my adult life (till some 9 1/2 years ago) as a newspaper reporter & then editor, I’m taken aback.

(The false quotes, that is. The misspelling doesn’t surprise me in the least.)

When supposed news organization like CNN/NBC/CBS/ABC/MSNBC/FOX/NYT don’t check their facts and report biased information, most people applaud them as long as it supports their viewpoint (See Jake Earlewine’s post above). Why should wikipedia be any different?

Because @Paul – and I think you already know this – those news outlets run a lot of op ed stuff. You can’t fact check every word that comes out of an idiot reporters mouth

A better analog – if you are sincerely looking for one – would be an investigative piece, or a documentary – where they do indeed fact-check, get multiple sources, and carefully sift out untruths

@uh-duh – Exactly. It’s mostly op ed. However, ask some moron spouting about how biased FOX news is and they’ll cite Bill O’Reily who as far as I know, has never done a news broadcast on FOX news channel.

@Paul – yep. I have relatives who get all of their “facts” about the world from those opinion shows

Actually, Harbinger was better than Watchmen and Maus. And on par with DKR. Sorry, there, I said it. Plus you could get a #0 with the coupon inside (yes I cut my comics).

FunkyGreenJerusalem

February 16, 2012 at 3:53 pm

“But when Valiant can use the phrase “The first storyline “Children of the Eighth Day” deserves to be uttered in the same breath as the masterpieces of the art form: Watchmen, Maus, Dark Knight Returns, etc.” on the back of their Harbinger reissue, things seem a little crazy. ”

Reading that link made things seem a little crazy – what a bizarre list. Totally subjective, but written to seem objective. He even assigns goals to Image comics so he can declare that they failed at them.
That dude really liked his Valiant.

Well after reading this blog post, I must say you are very much biased against Valliant. So nyeh

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