Did the year we just left behind fail comics fans? That’s been arguably the hottest topic among comics bloggers and critics over the past month or so. Faced with the task of assembling their thoughts about the best and worst the medium brought us in the final year of the millennium’s first decade, a great many writers say that something just wasn’t right with what they read. Others, however, say the fault may not lie with comics overall, but just with the comics the first group was reading. And ground zero for the debate is the Savage Critic(s) group blog (to which I am an all too occasional contributor).
Perhaps the strongest — and certainly the strangest — articulation of the “something went wrong in ’09″ point of view was made by the inimitable critic Abhay Khosla. In a piece titled “So, Why Do Nerdy Things Work?”, Khosla took an essay ostensibly concluding a series on the pros and cons of John Rogers’s <i>Blue Beetle</i> run and used it as a springboard for discussing the year of his discontent. He kicked it off by assembling a round-up of similar skepticism:
I wasn’t very happy in 2009 anyways.
Apparently, I’m not completely alone: Messrs. Tim Callahan (“something’s missing”), Chad Nevett (“I think people are just tired… I can’t really defend things.”), David Brothers (“I’m bored to death”), Dr. Geoff Klock(“It’s diminishing returns… it is time to stop showing up on Wednesdays…”), Alan David Doane (“I have to admit that I have not been reading a lot of comic books lately”), and well… me in my last essay, according to some of you (“I’m pretty sure whoever wrote this comic is the Green River Killer, guys. I’ve been spending time in the crime lab, and I think I just cracked this mother wide open.”).
Are you like LL Cool J in that you can’t live without your radio — but nor can you live without your comics? I know the feeling. That’s why I was so excited to be a part of the annual best-of episode of Inkstuds, the venerable comics podcast hosted by Robin McConnell. My fellow Robot 6-er Chris Mautner and I were joined by Comics Comics’ Tim Hodler to discuss Asterios Polyp, George Sprott, 20th Century Boys, Pluto, You Are There, You’ll Never Know, Multiforce, and The Photographer, and we even found the time to debate whether or not we’re in a comics Golden Age. Give it a listen!
We’ve already linked to Tucker Stone’s decade-in-review piece for ComiXology. But I’m happy to do so again because of this elegantly simple three-graf summary of what the ’00s meant for the various strands of North American comics. Seriously, top this, pundits:
Although it would be hard to look at the last ten years of comics and see much of the decade’s woes frankly expressed, it’s not hard to see the seams of conflict that float beneath them. Marvel spent its time messing around with the same sort of surface-y relevance that used to be the purview of the 70′s clunky DC Comics about race relations and drug abuse comics, with stories like Civil War that could be seen as an exaggerated version of Red Staters versus Blue Staters. (Or Secret Invasion‘s religious nuts are a-coming. Or Dark Reign, which was probably planned by a group who assumed America wasn’t gonna Choose Hopefully.)
DC went in a different direction, embracing the public’s love for nostalgia mixed with Will Ferrell’s adult man-child films, and started telling various kids’ Crisis stories with hard R plot twists. Manga publishers underestimated their audience, then overestimated it, and are now currently in the throes of figuring out how big, exactly, it is. Companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly kept their toes in the new, but found that the market for high-priced reprints of classic comics was strong enough to make a Comics Criterion Collection viable.
And down at the bottom, abandoned by a distribution center that didn’t care, tiny publishing houses carved out a business carrying unedited works of self-expression, depending on the Ignored Masterpiece rating doled out by the blogosphere to sell off their 200-count print-run. Webcomics became an actual opportunity for creators to make a living outside of the direct market.
Now, the meat of the piece ends up being, more or less, that critical discourse is irrelevant (this is a theme of Tucker’s), and that the real movers and shakers of comics in the ’00s were the readers who suddenly made a wide variety of modes of expression in this medium viable simply by buying and reading what they enjoyed. But if you ask me, Tucker’s deadly accurate encapsulations of Marvel, DC, manga, alternative comics, reprints, artcomix, and webcomics sorta invalidate the argument that arguments are invalid. (The Criterion Collection comparison is a killer.) Read the whole thing — including the rather glorious concluding list of good ol’ fashioned good comics — and see what you think.
As the newest member of the Robot 6 crew, I realize I’m still something of a stranger in these parts. I’m a phantom who pops up every now and then to write something about the Con War, and like that — poof! — I’m gone. Who is this “Sean T. Collins,” if that is my real name?
Well, if you really wanna know what makes me tick as a person who writes about comics for a living (or, more accurately, “a living”), check out the lengthy interview Christopher Allen conducted with me over at Comic Book Galaxy’s group blog Trouble with Comics. It tackles pretty much my whole history as a critic, such as it is and such as I am, and sounds me out on a variety of pertinent issues, from the evolution of the comics blogosphere to the usefulness of comparing comics to other art forms like music to whether or not scorched-earth criticism is valid:
[Chris:] I’m curious about the disinclination towards snark. Not that you should do anything you don’t feel, but doesn’t highly intelligent snark, or let’s call it no-holds-barred criticism a la Abhay Khosla or Tucker Stone, have its place? Isn’t it just as valid, as long as the arguments are reasoned and thought-provoking, no matter how harsh?
[Sean:] It may be valid, it may not be valid. It depends on the piece. What I can tell you is that valid or not, it’s not interesting to me, and it’s frequently actively annoying. I also think the harshness quickly becomes an end in itself, so in that sense, I grow suspicious of its validity pretty quickly, I guess you could say. I’ve done it in the past and I reserve the right to do it again, because grown-ups can change their minds about these things, that’s part of the fun of being a grown-up, but for now, it is not for me as a critic or a reader of criticism.
Further scintillating and provocative commentary, and overuse of the words “in terms of” and “engender,” can be found at the link.
Earlier today, The A.V. Club, The Onion’s for-serious arts and criticism auxiliary unit, released its list of the Best Comics of the ’00s, featuring 25 comics/graphic novels and (separately) five reprint collections, ordered alphabetically. Now, it’s just one of many media outlets producing lists of this sort as the decade draws to a close — pretty soon, we’ll be able to come up with a “Best ‘Best Comics of the ’00s’ Lists” list — and disagreement with such exercises is to be expected. Indeed, it’s sort of the point. But I found The A.V. Club’s list problematic in ways that go beyond the usual “That book?No way!” and “Hey, you forgot about …” complaints.
So let’s start by getting those complaints out of the way, since they’re the most subjective. The list’s own introduction cites a quartet of comics that just missed the cut — Scott Pilgrim, Astro City, The Walking Dead and the work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez — and I could see reasonable cases being made for three of the four, not that I’d necessarily agree with them. Given the mainstream-accessible tenor of the list, I also think you can get enough of a sense of the standards being applied to argue for several obvious oversights: David B.’s Epileptic, Phoebe Gloeckner’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, for example. Moreover, the titles selected for particular creators can leave you scratching your head: One! Hundred! Demons! instead of What It Is, the gag/parody-centric Acme Novelty Library oversized hardcover rather than Jimmy Corrigan, Rick Geary’s The Mystery of Mary Rogers instead of, well, any of Geary’s other old-time crime books. Finally, in some cases, I think the selected books are bettered by other, similar efforts: I’d have picked B.P.R.D. over The Goon for quirky horror-action, for example, or The Walking Dead over Y: The Last Man for lengthy post-apocalyptic serials, or Shortcomings over Box Office Poison for slice-of-life drama.
• Eddie Campbell has been offering one great critique after another lately, first on
Asterios Polyp and David Mazzuchelli’s ability to convey a sense of place, and then on Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds (“The impressive thing about Exit Wounds is that there is a keen organizing intelligence at work at every single level of it, from top to bottom.”
• Jeet Heer ruminates on the concept of the “proto-graphic novel,” i.e. graphic novels that were published before the term became ubiquitous.
• It’s a few days old, but this review of R. Crumb’s Genesis adaptation by Bill Kartalopoulos is still well worth your time.
• I don’t always link to Tucker Stone’s “Comics of the Weak” round-up, but this one’s worth noting, as he mimics the prose of “controversial French writer Michel Houllebecq,” which leads to bits like this one on Batman:
Gotham City has but two types of people-those who wreak violence, and those who have violence wreaked upon them. The first type are all men, for the most part, although the occasional lesbian is permitted participation, as long as she has previously received approval from whomever currently holds the title of most cruel. (Said participation is usually considered an important story point, further cementing the little respect or interest that these stories have for women–there are few other places in fiction where “the bitch can stay” is considered interesting or dynamic.
Sandy Bilus of I Love Rob Liefeld, the Comics Internet tips its collective hat to you. Picking up the torch from the sadly discontinued blog of Dick Hyancith, Bilus has compiled a “meta-list” of the 100 best comics of 2008, as tabulated from the personal best-of lists of dozens of critics and commentators. Behold the Top Ten:
1. Bottomless Belly Button, by Dash Shaw
2. Acme Novelty Library #19, by Chris Ware
3. All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
4. Too Cool To Be Forgotten, by Alex Robinson
5. What It Is, by Lynda Barry
6. Ganges #2, by Kevin Huizenga
7. The Alcoholic, by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel
8. Skyscrapers of the Midwest, by Joshua Cotter
9. Kramers Ergot 7, by various
10. Capacity, by Theo Ellsworth
The point system used to tabulate the list makes it easy for books that made it onto a lot of individual lists but didn’t top them to put in a strong showing; perhaps that explains the blowout victory of Bottomless Belly Button, which I recall as being widely liked but few people’s #1 pick.
For you front-of-Previews types out there, DC’s All-Star Superman is the highest ranking superhero comic, coming in at a strong #3. DC/Vertigo’s The Alcoholic is the Big Two’s next-highest representative at #7, while its labelmate Scalped comes in at #12. The top Marvel book, and second-highest superhero comic, is Omega the Unknown at #13. Manga’s top-ranking title is Travel at #16. Click the link to see what else made the grade.
Me, I’ve got some quibbles here and there, as is to be expected. But overall, if you’re looking to do some shopping this holiday season and don’t mind being a year behind, you’d be hard pressed to top this for a wishlist.
Writing for Slate, Sarah Boxer (who, it should be noted, is a cartoonist in her own right) penned a review of Tim Hamilton’s adaptation of the Ray Bradbury classic Fahrenheit 451 that — initially at least — seems flummoxed by the whole “graphic novel boom” thing:
It’s hard to know what on earth Bradbury was thinking. Did he just give in to the enemy? And what was the artist, Hamilton, thinking, when he illustrated the fire chief’s rant with his own tableau of degraded books: Hamlet for Dimwits, Time magazine, and, yes, two Classic Comics editions, Moby Dick and Treasure Island. (Hamilton himself illustrated a comic-book version of Treasure Island before taking on Fahrenheit 451.) It’s as if author and artist were vigorously waving a white flag and shouting, “We couldn’t beat ‘em, so we joined ‘em!”
Later on she adds:
Graphic novels may win some new readers, but the text is almost always shortened to make way for pictures, and what survives of it is radically different: It’s mostly dialogue, like a screenplay. In the graphic-novel version of Fahrenheit 451, almost all of the words are spoken. Even the pictures confirm that the novel has become a script.
By the end of the review, however, she turns around and suggests that Hamilton’s adaptation was more in keeping with Bradbury’s own interests in the medium and the book’s larger themes. It’s all very confusing.
Still, who reads all the way through an article these days? The damage was done and the review was muddled and grumpy enough to incite a firestorm in the comments section:
Welcome to the first 2009 edition of Everyone’s A Critic, now safely ensconced at its new home at Robot 6.
For those who aren’t familiar with the series back when it was over at Blog@Newsarama, the object of this column is to offer germane discussion on comics criticism, macrame and similar lighthearted fare. OK, I was lying about the macrame part. That was just to draw you in.
Every so often I’ll be poking out from my hidey-hole and offering my thoughts on a particular review-related issue of the day, pointing you towards an interesting discussion or review or talking with some of the industry’s more intelligent and articulate pundits.
I say “every so often,” because at this point, for a variety of reasons that I can’t go into right now (I’m lazy, my big toe hurts), I don’t have the ability to do the column as a biweekly, let alone weekly, thing. As things settle down it will, I promise, but for now it will more or less show up when I feel the discussion is germane enough. I like typing the word “germane.”