Friday, July 20, 2012

The Thing About Famous People

In 1993, Scott McCloud published what would become one of the most important, if not THE most important, book in American comic criticism.  Understanding Comics laid the ground work for critical discussion regarding comics.  In the years since, McCloud has become a bit of a celebrity as probably the most cited critic in comic studies.  He's written two other books, toured the country discussing comics, and now makes his living as one of the most trusted and knowledgeable figures in the world of comic criticism (though, he does have a new comic coming out soon, which is very exciting and reconnects him to his Zot! roots).

20 years ago, he presented Understanding Comics at one of the first Comic Arts Conferences, which is held in conjunction with the San Diego Comic Con.  To celebrate the 20th anniversary, the CAC organizers asked him to respond to some papers that have carried out what he started with Understanding Comics, one of which was my own paper on words and comics.

I was incredibly nervous to be on a panel with McCloud, especially because my paper sort of looked to alter some of the claims McCloud made in Understanding Comics (or, more baldly put, I took issue with how McCloud and others defined comics).  More so, though, McCloud is a legend in my field.  Arguably, the most popular and well known name in comic criticism (though, John Lent, Joseph Witek and David Kunzle, all legends in their own right, were also there).  This guy...this guy who made what I do possible...was going to talk about my paper.  I worried he would look at me like a disappointing child, making noises and trying to draw undeserved attention to himself.  

On Saturday, I arrived early, set up my Prezi (which is quite sexy), and waited for the other panelist (most notably, McCloud himself).  McCloud showed up quite early, and luckily I got the chance to sit and talk with him.  I was really nervous about saying something stupid, and a bit nervous that he might see this whole exercise as beneath him.  But really, McCloud was nothing but a genuinely nice person.  We chatted for a while before I became the star-eyed fanboy that I am capable of becoming, and asked him to sign one of my copies of Understanding Comics, which he did without complaint.  

After my paper, and during his remarks, McCloud has a lot of nice things to say about my paper (amid some critical questions, as wasn't all softballs), and afterwards, he thanked me, genuinely, for being a part of the panel.  Really, the honor was all mine.  Having someone like that respond directly to my work is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I was really pleased with how McCloud handled the situation. 

Later, on the floor of Comic Con, there are hundreds of booths in which lots of published authors and artists sign their work, do individual sketches and chat with fans.  This is my favorite part of Comic Con: getting to meet the professionals that do the work I spend so much time analyzing.  Some professionals can be a little standoffish, and I was not immediately impressed with Jaimie Hernandez, who practically ignored me while signing a copy of Love and Rockets #2.  Alex Ross, another legend in the field for his painted pages tends to sell his art work (for THOUSANDS of dollars) from a massive booth with leather sofas and curators in suits.  

And then there was Eddie Campbell.  The tall Scottish artist and author had a hand in the very excellent From Hell, which he illustrated for Alan Moore.  Campbell's frantic artwork, in contrast to the strict, regimented frame count, was as essential to creating the contained chaotic feel of the book.  As I was browsing his section of the Top Shelf booth, he asked me if I liked his work.  I said I did, and we got to talking about how I appreciated his art work, and thought that he, more than any of the other artists Moore has worked with, greatly affected the feel - the mood - of the narrative.  He was genuinely interested and asked if he could read my paper I've kicked around about this topic anywhere (which, as of right now, he can't).  We talked for a while, and I got him to sign a copy of Alec: The Years Have Pants.  Most of the other artists for Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly, and :01Second Books were similarly quite easy to talk to and appreciative of anyone who wanted to talk.  Brecht Evens, who I signed my copy of The Wrong Place at the Drawn & Quarterly booth, took time to illustrate a childhood memory I had in water colors on the title page (also check out Night Animals, which was quite excellent).  

Now, granted, these are people of limited fame.  Had they not been wearing name tags, I would not have recognized any of them but McCloud.  This might account for their more human nature than most other famous people.  Lou Ferrigno, for example, was rarely at his booth and charge $40 to take a photo with him, even if you had your own camera.  I've heard equally unflattering stories about other big name TV and movie stars that make appearances and sign memoribilia.  [In contrast, though, Matt Groening (who was walking through the Drawn & Quarterly booth when I was waiting for Brecht Evens to sign my book) seemed to have an ease with the crowd.  I didn't approach him, though I think I might have made a suggest for Moomin, so I can't speak much more to his dealings with people.]

The people I met above, though, are similarly people who have known some relative success.  Certainly more than I have known.  These are people who have created critically acclaimed art and stories, who have had some critical and financial success in what they do.  I am, by comparison, a nobody.  Just a fan, interested in their work.  Still, they took the time to interact with me.  Again, it is a large part of what I love about Comic Con. 

Maybe what Eddie Campbell and Brecht Evens realize is that it is the fans that make these conventions, and the relative popularity of these artists, authors, actors and personalities famous.  It's my money and interest, like the money and interest of hundreds of thousands of similar fans, that keeps comics and other popular culture ventures afloat today.  This is what I think Lou Farrigno has lost sight of: it's not anything inherent in his person that makes people want to take picture with him - it's the one moment in our collective consciousness in which he played the Hulk.  Had he not done that, he would be just another big bodied actor that no one knew about.

Maybe I am super jaded so when these creators show appreciation and a bit of humanity I find it surprising.  There are so many people of dubious talent that cast unflattering lights on genuinely talented people that makes me tentative to talk to someone famous (I'm looking at you, Lindsey Lohan).  It was nice to see and talk with genuinely interesting, talented people who were not above talking to the people that made them famous.  It was a nice experience and I was really happy to get the opportunity to talk with these people and look forward to what I bought from them. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Holy Pretentiousness, Batman...

Let's get it out there right now, before I get into the crux of this entry and people descend upon me with claims of preference: I love Marvel comics, and not ironically or nostalgically.  I love to read Marvel comics, and some of the best writing in comics comes out of this huge publisher of superhero comics.  But I also love to read other comics, too.  Like anyone with any credibility in comics criticism, I firmly believe that Art Spiegelman's Maus is as important to the history of the form as any Superman or Spider-Man comic out there.  As far as I am concerned, comics are comics are comics.

That said, there seems to be this belief that I want to squash here and now.  Some people claim that comics with spandex superheroes are only popular with children or with nostalgic older fans (see Matthew Putsz's Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers for a long and elitist detailing of a cross-section of Putsz's experience in comic shops).  There is a pervasive claim that comics like Maus, Persepolis (by Marjane Satrapi), Palestine (by Joe Sacco), and other such books are for adults, and Marvel and DC (sometimes Image and Dark Horse), comics with superheroes, are for children.

This is the most aggravating claim that anyone can make about comics, and I feel it's my duty as a comic critic to show this claim for what it is: pretentious, elitist claims made by those who would like to distance comics without superheroes from the history of American comics, a history that is strongly built on an empire of superheroes.  This is a claim that has dogged all new popular mediums since mediums have been new and popular.  Plato disdained writing, claiming that it degraded memory and people's oration and rhetoric suffered because of it.  The novel was original seen as flimsy in comparison to poetry, even as recently as 1849 (particularly for women, who, as the fairer sex, where seen as the target audience...take that Hemingway, author of ladies literature).  Films were not as good as plays and TV was never going to be as good as films.  And so on and so on.

This introduction is important, because I don't want any charges of prejudice leveled against me, claiming that I am some sort of nostalgic fanboy or that what I love is the trashy, simple joy of comics.  I am by no means a "comicbook guy" similar to the same named character from the Simpsons.  In fact, I am woefully under-read in a lot of the Marvel and, more so, the DC Universes.  I like that Marvel has a massive, expansive Universe, complete with it's own history, but it's not why I continually return to it. What I love about Marvel is the story telling.  I like Marvel comics the same way that I like science fiction, fantasy or some other type of genre fiction: the escapist narrative that sheds light on my own existence.

It seems the overarching problem with superhero comics is, as so many seem to claim, that the story telling is subpar or that the artwork is sloppy or too polished (as if something could be too well drawn, colored and lettered...).  While this is certainly true for some superhero comics, this seems to be a bold statement to make about the entire genre.  Superhero comics, like all genre fiction, are judged by its worst examples.  A while back, Molly Templeton quoted Lev Grossman in her Twitter feed raising this exact concern about genre fiction: "You wouldn’t want to judge literary fiction on the basis of its mediocrities. So why judge genre fiction that way?" This question strikes at the heart of the issue here: why should all superheroes comics, and all comics for that matter, be judged based on some examples that were less than stellar.  People still read novels even though some novels are not as good (see Snooki's novel or the series of novels by Nicole Richie [Richie gets her own author page on Amazon she has so many novels]).  Still, people buy and read novels by more respected authors, or some might say better authors.

In order to differentiate between the novels that are worth reading, and those that are worth burning in lean times to stay warm, people toss a lot of labels around: genre fiction, pop-fiction, literary fiction, etc.  The things that are not good get lumped under one of a plethora of labels, and "good" books are literary fiction.

Yes...there are certainly differences between Nicole Richies' self-indulgent novels about rich people, diamonds and heiresses, and say Ulysses by James Joyce, which is self-indulgent in it's own ways.   And I am certainly not suggesting that we should not make claims about which one is better.  What I want is to stop lumping all books with similar content together, and judging the entire lot by the worst examples.

This has been happening for ages in science fiction and detective novels.  Authors like Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke have long been saddled with the label "science fiction", and are lumped together with the cheap, poorly written pulp fiction paperbacks popular in the early 20th century (though, even some of those are not all that poorly written, even, I might add, good).  There is no denying that some science quite terrible.  But it would be a massively sweeping generalization to claim that all books which set the story in the future are terrible.  Occasionally, as with Bradbury, the Literary Elite will begrudgingly accept that certain work maybe, might, just possibly in the right light and context, be good enough to read alongside the "canon" of literary excellence that starts with Beowulf and goes through Joyce.

Now, at the crest of legitimization, where comics seem poised to break through the collective consciousness ("break through again" is actually more accurate; any scholar of comicbook/American history might note that, at one point, comicbooks were the most dominate media in America with over a million regular readers monthly for certain titles), there seems to be an effort to segregate "good" examples of literary comics from "bad" examples of genre comics, with superheroes falling into that last category.

Like with science fiction, detective fiction, steam punk fiction, and fantasy, critics begrudgingly make certain exceptions, and Frank Miller and Klaus Jansen's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon's Watchmen are trotted out by comic critics as the "acceptable" superhero comics.  There is no doubt that these books are really good (though I have a hard time reading Miller's work as critical of any establishment after his Occupy Oakland rant), but they are not the only ones that are good.

Now, it's not my intention to go through a litany of other texts that should be added to the canon of "good" superhero fiction.  Instead, I want to question the validity of sectioning off all superhero comics under one label and judging the whole lot as one unit, save a few "good" examples.  It probably should be enough of an argument that at least two comics have garnered critical attention AND featured superheroes (Batman, in fact, being the second super hero ever created), but to take this one step further, I want to examine a recent Wall Street Journal article"Worst Comic Book Ever!" by Tim Marchman a thinly veiled review of Leaping Tall Buildings that instead tries to explain the popularity of The Avengers film and how that film does not reflect on the medium as a whole.

Marchman seeks out to explain why superhero comics are not as popular as their filmic counterparts.  He begins:
In its first three weeks in domestic theaters, "The Avengers" has taken in almost half a billion dollars. According to the calculations of people who care about such things, this has it on pace to become one of the three highest grossing movies ever. Soon, Hollywoodland will inflict on the world new Spider-Man and Batman films that might make even more money than "The Avengers."...You might thus assume that superhero comics, the original properties on which these franchises are built, are in flush times. They aren't. The upper limit on sales of a superhero comic book these days is about 230,000; just two or three series routinely break into six digits. Twenty years ago, during the comic industry's brief Dutch-tulip phase, hot issues of "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" sold millions.
It's interesting, first, that he flippantly dismisses the box office revenue from the Avengers film while simultaneous holding up the comic sales figures as a sign of hard times.  It doesn't seem that the "almost half a billion dollars" equates artistic success, but the "[t]he upper limit on sales of a superhero comic book these days is about 230,000" shows how the industry is failing. [As a side note, I wonder how many books sell 230,000 copies...]

But I digress...he goes on to claim that comics are "clumsily drawn, poorly written and incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in years of arcane mythology", and this is why they are not popular today, even as the form seems (again) poised on the brink of cultural acceptance, and America hungrily snaps up all the superheroes it can in film form.

He is right: the mythology of superhero comics is dense and can seem impenetrable, even to those who are interested in it.  In my own experience, I have no idea what happened to the X-Men.  I used to read them in the early 90s, then drifted away.  But when I returned with Joss Wheddon and John Cassaday's very excellent Astonishing X-Men, I have yet to piece together what has happened, and I don't really know where to start.  I went through the House of M trade paperback, and get that a lot of mutants were conveniently eliminated in one of the most baldly "Deus-ex-Machina" of devices.  How to connect the two, though, is fuzzy.  I could dump a lot of hours into reading various lists and suggestions for assembling the history of the X-Men, but honestly, my interest hasn't been piqued yet.  For now, I am fine reading just Astonishing X-Men even after Wheddon and Cassaday handed the reigns to Warren Ellis and several other artists.

Access to the Universe can be daunting, and if someone wanted to go into a comic store, pick up an Avengers comic to casually see where the movie stems, this person would be faced with a wall of single issues, collections in hardback and paperback, and cross-over series in which the team is pit against or with other teams.  There is no clear starting point, no Avengers #1, as there is with those that Marchman says are better books, like Watchmen or Walking Dead.  Comic shops are often rightly labeled as being dens of defensiveness where outsiders (non-fans) are marginalized (just like record shops of yore).  Marchman's claim that mainstream comics have given up on a general audience in favor of it's own continuity and niche of readers, and the audience in turn has given up on it is not quite untrue, but not exactly true.  The shape of superhero comics requires a more nuanced examination than Marchman gives it.

The thing is, Marvel and DC comics are not intended to be read like other books.  They are not so much single narratives that allow the reader to step in at a clearly defined beginning point and read to a clearly demarcated end.  These publishers are more like Rockstar Games or Blizzard Entertainment, in the way that both publish what is known as "sandbox" games: sprawling worlds with tons of options for narratives and linear progressions that are left to the reader to work through.  Blizzard has made quite a name for itself with World of Warcraft in which the player just exists, choosing to go on adventures, or just to hang out with friends.

Granted, playing WoW (see how hip I am) or Grand Theft Auto is a different experience to reading, but the intention is the same.  The point with sandbox games or massively multi-player, on-line role-playing communities is not to get to the end, but to enjoy the experience of the world (see Harold Goldburg's All Your Base Are Belong To Us for more on how massive games like WoW and GTA are unique narrative experiences).  To say that any of these games is less good than, say, Mario Bros. because the narrative is too expansive is to miss the point.  The Mario games, and all linear story lines, are different than Red Dead Redemption in both what they are doing, and how they perform that agenda.  What connects them is the medium used by both, but the use of that medium is what separates them.

Likewise, this is precisely what I think Marchman has done here: miss the point of Marvel and DC.  He claims that there have not been too many new characters introduced to the respective Universes in 20 years, and instead the two publishers rehash prior glory (he cites BEFORE WATCHMEN and Avengers V X-Men as two prime examples).  The BEFORE WATCHMEN issue is a whole nest of bees that is going to have to wait.  The point here is that Marvel and DC are not interested in expanding their base of characters (though, that, too is not entirely correct; there are plenty of new characters introduced in the last 20 years, but they aren't going to replace Spider-Man or Batman).  Marvel and DC want to explore what narrative possibilities exist for a set of embodied metaphors.  What is interesting to me is seeing how Iron-Man, a wealthy, powerless individual with a cool suit of armor, would deal with, say, government mandates that encroach upon individual liberties while masquerading as national security (Marvel's Civil War), or how Superman, with the power to stop anyone doing anything but who believes in restraint and individual will, would deal with the rise of violence in his own medium (DC's Kingdom Come).

I feel that Marvel, more than DC, has an interest in adapting their stock of characters to an ever-changing readership base, just like World of Warcraft is interested in updating their universe and game play options every few years.  Marvel has questioned the role the government and vigilantes play in American culture (Civil War), the concern of an overreaching and oppressive security force acting in the name of nationalism (Dark Avengers and Siege), the concerns of invasion by hostile forces while opposing sides lose sight of community goals due to polarization of rhetoric surrounding personal beliefs (Secret Invasion), a return to core values of nationality (Age of Heroes) and so on, and so on.  Captain America, who has punched Hitler in the face, is an interesting character (and by extension a metaphor) in these debates (and the careful hand of Ed Brubaker explored that metaphor in a really interesting way in the past few years). [note: the titles in italics are the overarching story-arcs; individual titles are published under and between these story arcs, so Iron-Man, for instance, will have a few comics published during Civil War and some published during Secret Invasion and so on.]

So part of what Marchman sees as a problem, as stagnation, is misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding Marvel and DC's agenda, and misunderstanding the unchanging stock of characters as unchanging character agendas and motivations, and narrative arcs.  These characters are lenses through which the reader can examine a part of their own life.  Certainly, my day to day life is free from alien invasion, super powers, and the ability to fly into outer space, so these books are different than who Marchman finds valuable: Chris Ware, Jamie Hernandez, Robert Kirkman* and others who, "By a quirk of the comics with the stuff of real life and whose work is treasured by people who read books that have spines".  Interestingly, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth examines the disparity between fantasy and real life; a narrative in which the title character imagines himself to having something like super powers.
[*note: Walking Dead is published by Image comics, which Marchman hails as being an "influential boutique house"; Image is famous for it's own superhero universe and was founded by Jim Lee, current DC co-head honcho, and sought out  Brian Michael Bendis, who Marchman sites as the key problem with Marvel, for his writing and art style, which he has since taken to Marvel.  It could be said that Image is just a different version of Marvel with a more differentiated catalogue and more relaxed ownership rights - but the difference in content is minimal at best.  As Marchman notes, Kirkman worked with Marvel but eventually left; Marchman asks why he would want to give Marvel the credit for his new characters, when really the question that should be asked is if Marvel wanted new characters.]

What Marchman fails to see is that superhero comics are doing the same thing as science fiction or fantasy: using one thing to reflect back on the reader.  Like Tolkien uses Hobbits to examine international relations during times of war, comics use superheroes to examine the lives of contemporary America.  So yes, Spider-Man did trade his marriage to the devil, but through this fantastical situation not too dissimilar to Goethe (who I believe is roundly believed to be pretty good), the reader can examine how he or she feels about love, relationships, and sacrifice.  To take superheroes at just face value is a problematic reading, and denies them the ability to comment on something other than themselves.  Science fiction certainly is about more than just space flights and aliens; fantasy is about more than just dragons; hell, even Ulysses is about more than a dude walking along the Thames.  Why is realistic fiction of all variety is allowed to speak to more than itself, but superhero comics, or all genre fiction, are denied this?

The answer is elitism.  Superheroes are not for everyone, creator and readers alike, but this does not mean that it is a subpar literature.  Just because someone doesn't enjoy something does not mean that thing is not worth enjoying.  When I want gritty, realist examinations of mental health issues or family dynamics, I'll reach for Nate Powell's extremely well done Swallow Me Whole or David Small's Stitches.  When I want to know how superheroes would deal with mental health issues or family dynamics, I reach for Dark Avengers or Spider-Man: Brand New Day.  One set shows me the dark, "realness" of the situation, the other explores the possibilities through a man with the proportionate strength of a spider.  One is not more valuable or adult than the other; they are just different.

And this is where I see problems with what Marchman and others like him (Dylan Horrocks, Douglas Wolk,  NPR, etc.) have claimed about superheroes: they are not ever going to be like the tightly contained stories found in other comics (including some that feature superheroes, like Planetary, Criminal, Irredeemable and so on).  They are not going to deal with societal issues and concerns in a realistic way.  They are going to be sprawling meta-narratives that use a fantasy lens to reflect back on contemporary readership.  That's what Superman was doing in 1938, lifting cars over his head and enacting justice the Great Depression-ridden readers wished they could do; it's what superheroes are doing today, punching the problems of America in the face just like we'd like to do.

Monday, May 14, 2012

In Response to NPR and Their Story on "Graphic Novels"

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi wrote a novel titled A Shore Thing.  Say what you will about the art, the craft of her novel, the story, the cover, the state of literature, humanity, etc. etc., one thing no one debates is what to call it.  Her creation is without question a novel.  A good novel?  Probably not.  But, it will be shelved in the fiction section of your local bookstores somewhere near Chuck Palahniuk and Thomas Pynchon.  As much as it would be an insult to compare her novel to, say, Gravity's Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 149, no one can deny that Snooki created a story using fictional characters and fictional situations (sort of), and presented that story using words that made sentences, sentences that made paragraphs, paragraphs that made chapters, and so on.  It might not be the same quality as other novels, but it is still a novel.

Glasses = Author (photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images) 

Similar comparisons can be made in other forms of art.  Regardless of whether it's hung in a gallery or stored in a box in the basement, a photograph is called a photograph.  Paint on canvas is always called a painting.  Moving pictures are always films.  The terms - photograph, film, painting - are divorced from the content and are concerned with the means of communication.  

Photo by Walker Evans of a Depression Era family (Alabama, 1936)
Photo by me of my dog (2008)

Then we come to comics.  Or are they graphic novels?  Or comix?  Sequential art, art comics, independent comics, mainstream comics, superhero comics, and so on and so on.  Comics, as a form, suffers from a proliferation of labels.  Unlike the difference between, say a photograph and a painting which one could claim are both branches of a visually representative medium, the different comic labels separate and divide the medium not by its use of materials or means of information conveyance; these different labels divide the medium hierarchically by content.  There is good, edgy, interesting content (graphic novels, comix, art comics, independant comics) and then there is vapid, mass-produced, flat content (comics, mainstream comics, superhero comics).  One is good, adult art, and the other is cheap, disposable trash.  

This divide within comics comes both from outside and within the comic industry.  Bookstores, media coverage, and comic critics all seem to be keenly interested in separating and labeling the good from the crap.  NPR recently had a story about Daniel Clowes and his art exhibit in the Oakland Museum of California.  The story, titled "The Serious Comic Art of Daniel Clowes", is both telling and problematic.  

While the title is a cute pun on the less-than-funny nature of Clowes work (which is fabulous, by the by; I really...REALLY...loved Caricatures and Ghost World), it seems to suggest that "comics" as a medium seldom create serious content.  The question here, then, is what is serious content?  Clowes work is often humorous, so comedy is not what separates serious from not serious.  The article is keen to draw attention to the dark and sometimes unlikable characters in Clowes work, calling them "unmotivated and cranky" people who don't "like to play by the rules," or as Clowes himself says in the associated interview: " my characters are like the worst customers I could imagine".  

Ghost World and other Clowes books use these characters to "skewer[...] everything, from televangelists to fashionistas."  Through these characters and their skewed, cranky outlooks on life, Clowes claims that a truth about humanity becomes apparent.  He says of Wilson, more specifically: "[He] really just wants to connect with people by being his exact true self, which is something none of us ever do, and he's not interested in changing himself to connect with people, which is what all of us do do. It made him seem much more noble when I figured that out about him."  Again, Clowes is right about his work.  The dark, sometimes horrible characters in his books do help shed light on some of the more materialistic and inauthentic parts of ourselves.  

My problem, here, is not with Clowes' work (or even his assessment of his own agendas), or the deserved space in an Art Museum (the article claims the exhibit will be coming through Chicago this summer when I return home; I will be one of the first in line to get tickets); my problem is that all of what NPR is describing here reminds me of someone else.  Chris Ware?  Certainly.  Robert Crumb?  Definitely.  Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Jason Lutes, Peter Bagge, Posy Simmonds, Anders Nilsen: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.  

Also: Deadpool.  
Awesome AND Canadian: a possible paradox.
It's not as far-fetched as it seems: Deadpool is a cranky, unlikable, mouthy mercenary (by definition a loner) who has trouble fitting in society.  Deadpool is tricky because he is not a "hero" in the sense that he does good deeds for the good of mankind (see: Captain America), but he seems to have some sort of moral compass.  It just points to a different North than most other people's compasses.  Unlike other anti-heroes in the Marvel Universe, like Wolverine, Hulk or Punisher, Deadpool doesn't seem to suffer from long brooding periods where we struggles with his past.  He is true to his "exact self" and is uninterested in "changing himself to be with other people."  He is, in short, Wilson.  But in tights and shooting people for money.  And he can't die (or at least not easily).  

Batman, Rorschach, Swamp Thing, Hulk, most of the X-Men: these are all characters that don't bend to the will of others and sit on the fringes of society.   Like Deadpool, these characters wear tights (or with Swamp Thing, plants; and Hulk, tattered pants) and spend more of their time fighting than walking around record shops and vintage clothing stores.  Their agendas, though, are the same as Clowes' characters, both as individuals and as larger metaphors: they are designed to show the reader that sometimes the way things are is not the way things should be.  The superheroes just make that point with their fists.  

Some critics will claim that the slick, glossy superhero/mainstream franchised comics aren't as authentic as the creator-owned books (Douglas Wolk stops just short of saying exactly that in Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean).  The smaller houses like Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics give more control and agency to their authors and artists, restricting them less with editorial constraints and lacking any "house style".  Others will claim that the art is less stylized and more authentic to the artist's vision - not run through the editorial staff to create a certain look. No one can argue that the royalty schemes by smaller-houses certainly seems to benefit the authors and artists more than the shady deals that have marred the larger publishers (see, the controversy surrounding Before Watchmen).  The other claims, though, are more dubious.    

It's true that Marvel and DC have a certain "look" and a certain "type" of story they like to publish, and usually that is anatomically distorted men and women with superpowers (or cool weapons) debating with punches and kicks. It is also true that Marvel and DC hire a stock of editors to ensure that these stories meet retain continuity and the standard established by previous authors and artists, which could be seen as restrictive.  If I wanted to write a story where Superman lost his powers, decided to become a farmer, and fixed and traded antique cars in his spare time (Superman: The Farmer Mechanic), DC would reject it out-of-hand, regardless of how good that story is.  This is because they have a product they want to continue to sell, and any adjustments made to that product need to be done with attention paid to the future.  It would be like if I walked into Hersey and wanted to change the formula of the candy bar to feature nougat; they would reject that idea immediately.  No one wants to open a Hersey bar and find something that is not Hersey, much like no one wants to open Superman and find he is suddenly and totally vincible.  DC and Marvel, like Hersey, are striving for consistency.  However, if I suggest a new bar, Hersey might listen, in the same way that DC and Marvel have tried out new characters in their own Universe (this is even more true with publishing off-shoots like Vertigo and Wildstorm).  

You could argue, then, that you get the same blandness from Marvel and DC that comes from fast food and processed goods, and comparatively, smaller publishers are like Mom-and-Pop bakeries.  True: smaller houses tend to have a more rapidly changing stock, and more freedom to experiment with new flavors.  The smaller houses make their money not from long running characters but from authors and artists.  Drawn & Quarterly is not tied to Berlin as a recurring story line; they are tied to Jason Lutes.  But smaller houses also have smaller consumer bases with more easily manageable expectations.  I have seen some really incredible cupcakes out of some small bakeries.  And sometimes, that is really good.  But sometimes, I want a Little Debbie.  Still, though, both Little Debbie, and smaller bakeries (like Bellaria Cookies out of Plano, TX) call their confectioneries by the same name, be it cookies or cupcakes.

And in reality, Drawn & Quarterly, :01 Second, Fantagraphics and other smaller publishers have a certain "look" or "style" they are going for, what one might call a consistent "house style" - the much-maligned term for the publishing standards of DC and Marvel.  True, what the smaller houses tend to publish tends to be more varied than Marvel and DC, but it is not infinitely expansive.  If I had an episodic book about a dude that could fly, and a really slick art work featuring muscled men and women in spandex, none of the above publishers would be quick to take it unless it was heavily satirical or the art was heavily caricatured (see Death Ray by Clowes, for example).  That sort of story would be better suited at a publisher interested in those sorts of stories.  Just like a brooding, introspective book is better suited for the above-listed publishers.  This idea that Marvel and DC are stifling creativity because they only publish superhero stories is a little unfair.  It's like getting mad that McDonalds doesn't carry steak on the menu.  It never suggested that it did.  Or that it wants to.  

I might argue, though, that Marvel and DC, within their chosen focus, are much more experimental than the smaller houses, and it is their size and volume of publication that can allow for this.  At their core, even the  most idealistic publishers have to turn a profit.  No matter what type of story and art the publisher wants to push, it has to sell in order for that business to be viable, and to claim that Drawn & Quarterly are any less of a business than Marvel or DC is a faulty comparison.  In fact, because smaller houses must sell what they have, with little room for returned product, they can only publish what they feel reasonably sure will sell.  DC and Marvel will sometimes (though, not all that often) give chances to books or characters.  Watchmen, for example, or Marvel's Alias, are both experimental titles (Alias even has a different style of art than Marvel usually will publish) that did well and pushed the limits of what a superhero book could do.  

I don't want to completely blur the distinction, though.  Clowes work has a different agenda and approach towards his narrative than Deadpool, in the same way that Pynchon and Raymond Chandler had different approaches to the novel.  But what I want to do is raise this question: why label them differently?  Why call Clowes work a graphic novel, an alternative comic or part of the comix movement, and call Deadpool a comic or a mainstream comic?  No other medium has different labels based on the content or publisher, so why is it that comics feel it necessary to divide  the form (sometimes divide themselves) based claims about content?

This, I feel, is the biggest problem facing comic criticism.  Having media labels that are divorced from content is essential for the criticism of an art form.  So many books have to wade into the debate over what to call the artifact at the center of the study before any salient points can be made.  It's a debate that will never have a winner.

The only way forward, I feel, is to agree on a term and label the entire medium in that way.  There is no perfect answer here, and each camp will argue vociferously for their favorite, but I intrepidly suggest that we call them all comics (now defining comics is a debate for another time...just go with me here).

It's not a perfect fit, and it feels wrong to suggest the work of people like Clowes, Ware (especially Ware), or even Batman is in anyway comic.  But, I would argue that a lot of labels have overcome the initial denotations and evolved with new, better fitting connotations.  Romantic poetry, for one, is not always about the love felt for another person (The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner here being the best example...though there is a wedding in that bleak, bleak poem).  Sir Philip Sidney's prose romance Arcadia does feature romance in it, but it does more than just explore the feelings between a deluded man and the fiction of a woman he imagines (it is also a densely wrought political statement, and there is a lion fight, I think).  It is true that a lot of the original comic strips in newspapers were funny, but the humor in Hogan's Alley was sometimes quite cutting, and certainly not comic in nature.  Similarly, the term comic can become any work that used framed images and words arranged with purpose on the page to convey information regardless of the content of that information.

I shy away from graphic novel for a few reasons: 
1) The connection to the novel - comics aren't prose novels.  They use a completely different set of communicative signs, convey information differently (though, as I argue in my thesis, not as differently as one might think), but most importantly encode information differently.  The only connection between comics and novels is the narrative aspect of the medium.  It would be quite restrictive to claim that all comics tell stories (see: Abstract Comics edited by Andrei Molitiu and published by Drawn & Quarterly).  But also, films are not called moving-image novels, nor are concept albums called musical novels.  Or plays called staged novels.  Or ballet called dancing novels...

2) It does not allow for comics to be their own medium - The connection to the novel will always lead to a comparison with the novel, which is a well-established and critically acceptable medium.  This will mean that comics are never seen as their own medium - their own art form, really - but rather the bastard off-shoot of the more grown up novel.  It will be impossible for comics to ever achieve any recognition (not to say anything about that horrible legitimacy argument) in the shadow of the novel, which is especially problematic since the two operate so differently.

3) Graphic novel, as a term, has a history built on division - Comics have been published for a long-time, and in the battle for legitimacy, a lengthy history never hurts.  Depending on how liberal you want to be, things like comics have existed since Hogarth in the 18th century, or tapestries since...well...people made tapestries.  More conservative critics generally settle on Rudolph Töpffer as the first to publish a comic, though the Swiss called it something else, in the early 19th century.  There is a history extending from Töpffer through European and US newspaper comics to the comicbook (both short-form magazines and book-length works).  In contrast, the term Graphic Novel has been kicked around since sometime in the 1970s when, as rumor has it, Will Eisner wanted to separate A Contract with God from his better known Spirit comic.  This would suggest that those works called graphic novels are separate from the history of comics, which is patently untrue.  No matter how different Clowes looks and feels from Deadpool, the two can both trace their history back to Töpffer.  
Töpffer doing his best Neil Gaiman impersonation

4) Graphic novels suggest not only artistic merit, but also length - Some of the most interesting comics not featuring superheroes are really short.  Anders Nilsen's Big Questions comic, an existential work examining what it is to be a person, was an annually published short piece.  It was later collected and published in a MASSIVE brick of a book (which is quite good, though it took a lot for me to get it home from Comic Con last year), but it would be inauthentic to claim that these short pieces published on fairly flimsy card-stock, or the massive collection, qualify as a novel.  There is a lack of cohesion to the collection that is necessary for anything to be novel-like.  Likewise,collections of contained story arcs from DC and Marvel would hardly be like the novel, which has a beginning and an end which any book in DC and Marvel lacks.  These collected volumes would be more akin to excerpts (though I shudder to imagine what a complete collected Spider-Man novel would look like...probably something like Garth Marenghi's collected novels...which I can't find a clip of because it's a really obscure reference, but find Man to Man with Dean Learner episode's funny).

More than anything, I find the term graphic novel to be problematic because it does to itself what other media has done to the comic medium (including vaunted titles like Maus and Persepolis): it devalues a form based on outward appearances.  Comics are just starting to be comfortable on the shelf next to other "great" works of literature and art, it would be a shame to celebrate some while marginalizing others.  

In short, comic criticism needs to stop bickering in these fruitless hierarchical debates over labels.  I find that comics is the best as it is most attached to history, least attached to divisive connotations, and the most flexible term available.  There are lots of interesting comics that push the boundaries and make the reader think; some render life in a more brooding, starkly realist fashion (like Daniel Clowes), others like to give the reader an escapist fantasy where the heroes can leap tall buildings in a single bound (like Deadpool).  The two are really just opposite ends of the same spectrum.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Self-Perpetuating Trends and the Perpetual Motion

Last night, Floyd Mayweather improved to 43-0 by unanimously beating the Puerto Rican Miguel Cotto. The scores were close-ish, but Mayweather, who everyone would like to see fight Manny Pacquiao once Mayweather's domestic violence case is behind him, was the clear winner. Probably someone who knows more about boxing could tell you the implications of this fight, but from my seat, until he squares off against Pacquiao in the ring, I have trouble working up interest.

The fight was not what the general public noticed.  When I typed Floyd Mayweather into Google this morning (looking for information about the impending Pacquiao fight), this article from TMZ came up.  It seems Justin Bieber was part of Mayweather's entourage, and from the pictures it would seem Mayweather was happy to have him there.  It could be because Mayweather is no idiot, and having Bieber there instantly makes this a news story, and many people who might not have even known boxing still exists will read about Mayweather's fight.  It could be that Bieber is the hardcore boxing fan he purports to be.  There are a lot of possible reasons for Bieber to be there both cynical and sincere.

What seems to have caught a lot of people's attention, though, was that 50 Cent, who has been critical of Bieber, was also part of the entourage.  There is a lot that can be said about this intersection of American culture.  Is this the bridging of a gap between two ideologically disperate music camps, like when Dylan went electric, Eminem covered "Stan" with Elton John, or when Aerosmith and Run DMC did a duet of "Walk This Way"?  Probably not, though Bieber has had or has discussed collaborations as far reaching as Ludacris, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, Usher, Busta Rhymes, Ke$ha, and Chris Brown.  Has 50 Cent buried the hatchet and decided that Bieber is okay?   Back in 2010, 50 Cent demanded, in no uncertain language, that fans of Bieber (or as he said, Justin Beaver) disengage from 50 Cent (though he tried to back peddle some, it created quite a stir among Bieber's often rabid fans).  It could be likely since 50 Cent had some unkind words to say about fellow entourage member Lil' Wayne around the same time, and no one seemed to upset in the ring that night.  Or, and maybe most likely, it could be that everyone is literally witnessing the maturation of a young Bieber as he moves from teenage heart throb to full-grown adulthood, taking interest in blood sports to rebrand himself as a more masculine celebrity.

The interesting cultural talking-points abound.  But what I found most interesting was not so much the moment itself, but how people talk about the moment, particularly on my newest interest: Twitter.

I'll admit it: I'm late to the Twitter-wagon.  Truthfully, I still don't quite "get it", which is code for how apathetic I am concerning social media outlets.  Facebook works well for me, and until I started trying to create an on-line, professional personality, I didn't think everyone wanted to be inundated with updates concerning what brand of toothpaste I was currently using (Colgate MaxFresh).  But this morning, when I thought about what sort of thing Academic Keegan would post about, I noticed that "50 Cent and Justin Bieber" was trending.  That's odd, I thought, which is the same reaction I would have if someone told me melons and handguns were on a buy one get one free offer.

Later in the afternoon, though, it was still trending.  Maybe there was a fight, I thought, and I tried imagining something that could kill 50 Cent.  This is not because I think about that often; more because so many have tried and failed before.  He was shot nine times and lived.  The man just doesn't go down.  A swarm of angry Beiber fans, I thought, taking him on like Hydra battles The Avengers...that might work.

Still later (I'm on British time, so it's evening now), the headline was still on the "Worldwide Trends" list, so I caved on clicked the link.  The list of posts that contained that exact phrase was at first alarming, but then became quite confusing.  It seemed that most of the posts read like this:

 Or like this.

(To be fair, the posts seemed equally divided between people in disbelief and people posting this picture).

This was a really interesting phenomenon.  It seemed that Twitter was self-perpetuating a trend.  The more people idly posted about how they couldn't believe Justin Bieber and 50 Cent were a trending topic, the more that topic was forced onto the consciousness of the Twitter users.

Lots of search engines use this idea of "trending."  Google+, Facebook, and the ill-fated Yahoo all seem to be interested in suggesting what the reader should be interested in.  I'll admit it: sometimes I find this to be really useful.  I found out a lot of people have died because Yahoo puts it into the top news stories when I log in to check my mail.  And the "What's Hot on Google+" has been a good way to waste time with pictures of cats or woefully misguided "facts" about the Universe.

What is interesting about Twitter is how, unlike with the other sites mention, the topic trends are generated by user input.  That is, when you go to Yahoo and search for a story, it stores all of those search terms.  Their list of story trends tends to be what people have searched for.  This is a good cross-section of what people are thinking about at any one given time.  The content, though, is not just from Yahoo users, but from anyone who has a website.  Yahoo doesn't just search itself for a phrase, but it searches a good section of the internet including news sources, blogs, Wikipedia and so on.  Google+ searches for user created content that has been shared or "+1"ed often within a certain amount of time.  Reddit probably has the most useful rating algorithm, created by Randall Monroe of xkcd fame and best described it here.  

Twitter, though, just searches it's source material all generated from with Twitter itself.  So whenever someone posted anything with the phrase "50 Cent and Justin Bieber" (that phrasing alone is a gold mine of rhetorical analysis as to who is listed first, and why they are listed this way), even if to say they couldn't believe it, that was registered as a post.  The more people post that they can't believe something, and the more real that something becomes (Peter Pan had a similar technique when trying to revitalize Tinker Bell).  No one has shed much light on why people are interested in that pairing, or what was really happening, or what it means for the landscape of popular music; most people wanted to talk about how they just couldn't believe that other people wanted to talk about 50 Cent and Justin Bieber.

This is perpetual motion: something triggers a chain reaction that eventually starts to feed that same reaction.  50 Cent and Bieber did something that caused a reaction (some people posting about it).  That reaction (the first salvo of posts) caused another reaction (the phrase growing in popularity).  That second reaction creates more reactions (posting in disbelief), and so on and so on (rising and continuing popularity fueling further posts in disbelief, etc. etc.).  The reactions no long need the initial stimulus (two people doing something) to continue creating more reactions.  The trend is fueling it's own trendiness.

If only we could harness this in some way to create energy in the Universe.  And maybe that's what can come of this: finding someway to use Justin Bieber's star power like the power from an actual star.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Impact and Commercial Education

There have been mummers around departments regarding "impact" and research.  The idea being that our research needs to reach a wider audience, and a good academic will have some way to quantify how their research has been impacting the general public.  As with any changes to policy, there has been some resistance.  After all, the impact academia has on the general public cannot be empirically measured.  How can you compare the values of two disparate fields?  Of course medicine will help humanity live longer, but without an English department to teach the doctors how to communicate, or a History department to teach the doctors about the past mistakes and successes, the field will be unable to advance.  There is no way to quantify one's ability to think, and those attempts that have been made to do such are shown to be either heavily biased towards one learning style (IQ tests) or heavily biased towards one sect of society (standardized tests).  Impact, it would seem, is just another attempt to funnel funding away from seemingly unnecessary humanities departments for the more easily quantifiable sciences and business departments (CEO X graduated from University Y's Business and Economics Department so clearly that makes more valuable contributions to the greater good of mankind).

I don't know that I buy the above argument.  Like with most things, there is certainly a note of truth to it, and especially in America, there has been a move by right wing politicians to de-emphasize the importance of college education while also making it difficult for all but the wealthy to go.  This could spiral quickly into discussions of class-warfare and arguments about the relative merits of the economy today, but that's not the central point I want to make.

The thing is: I understand why people are saying that the Humanities, particularly English, History, Art, and Culture Studies are unimportant.  There have been several opportunities for me to mix with research students from other departments over the course of my tenure at Aberystwyth, and every time I walk away feeling slightly inadequate.  I meet someone who is helping grow soy in sand and looking for practical ways to implement this new process in developing countries.   This weekend, a woman has spent her time in Aberystwyth studying sheep burps and farts, and the impact this release of gas has on the environment; it was suggested that her research might shed light on the how climate is changing and what people can do about it.  This is some seriously valuable research that will have an immediate effect on society.  

These are easy sells, though.  These are the durable, four door sedans on the car lot of academia.  Everyone knows where they are going, what they are going to do, how they will perform, and there is an inherent, immediate value to them.  Humanities are more like the cross-over, station wagon-looking hybrids.  They look and seem flimsy and untested.  There is a hypothetical value to them, and maybe over time with some more rigorous research and trial and error experiments, a more durable sedan will come of it.  But until then, people are hesitant to invest.  

A good academic, like a good car salesperson, needs to sell the value of their commodity to the consumer.  

There are going to be a lot of other academics that might take issue with my rhetoric here.  The commercial model of education is not the most popular one.  Even scientists with research directly applicable to the general public find the grant writing process a hurdle in the way of interesting research and get bristly when asked to validate their work.  The idea that people are buying education, or that the ability to think critically can be purchased in the same way that people buy shirts or hamburgers, is certainly uncomfortable from both ends.  After all, the consumer model suggests that there is a thing, a t-shirt or a hamburger for instance, that the consumer can walk away with.  It also suggests that there is a product I have to sell, something tangible that they can walk away with.  This is what has lead to a rise in students demanding that they deserve an A for paying the tuition (or parents demanding that their kid get an A because the tuition was paid).  After all, they put the money into the machine, a pretty sheet of paper with gold lettering should come out the other end.  This conception of the educational exchange is not quite accurate, and it needs some deeper consideration.  

Firstly, what I am selling is not the paper diploma, but an experience, like going to Disney World...but for the mind.  In this way, the consumer bears the responsibility of making the most of the experience.  If I go to Disney World, or rather Great America because I tend to dislike costumed monstrosities and overpriced souvenirs, I would never dream of complaining that I had a bad time because I spent my entire time sleeping in the arcade, and when I staggered out around closing time to try and get on one of the rides, the attendants were rude to me and wouldn't let me go.  That is my fault for not making the most of the opportunity I purchased, and the owners of Disney World would never apologize if I spent my whole vacation in the hotel eating the overpriced food and getting drunk on the overpriced booze.  The rides and attractions were there, just outside the doors, and it's up to me to get on those rides and enjoy myself.

Now, one could suggest that in this way people could find fault if the experience is not worth the price (and this is certainly a concern for the very costly American Universities).  This is a fair complaint.  After all, no one would go to Disney World if the experience did not seem worth the price.  Or, maybe more importantly, if the consumer was not convinced that the experience was worth the price.  Yet, Disney World is constantly packed, and some colleges are struggling to put students in the seats.  What Disney, Chevrolet, Hersey and other titans of industry do better than Academia is sell their product to the masses.  For years, Universities and Colleges have been stuffed to the brim because they were sold as stepping stones to the next stage of life.  Places to go until your life started for real.  Because of this, students went to college thinking that if they just made it through, a good job was waiting for them on the other side.

This is where the analogy with Disney World breaks down: unlike other commodified experiences, Disney World does not give out a certificate that details how well the Disney Corporation thinks you spent your time.  Imagine that: when checking out of a hotel, the clerk hands you a table that rates how well you used the minibar and if you were successful in navigating the halls to the pool.  You would then have to take this certificate to the next hotel and they would judge which type of room you could get.  It would make you think twice of clogging up the toilet or leaving the soaking towels on the bed.

But my point still holds: academics need to be better salespeople.  We cannot expect to sit in our Ivory Towers, or as is the case with Aberyswyth, our brutalist architecture and expect everyone to see the value in our work.  I work with intangible ideas and concepts.  No one can see the changes I make in society, but the work I do is valuable.  

But it's my job to show people that.  

Just like with Disney World or Great America, I need to line my experience with bright lights, loud noises and bold colors.  I need to show people that reading and understanding comics is not just interesting to comic readers, people interested in narrative theory or semioticians.  This has relevance to everyone's life.  I am not just talking about the interesting narratological aspects of juxtaposed framed image/text combinations, I am talking about how people conceptualize stories.  How people communicate and understand their own life.  True, it is theoretical, but it is my job to explain in the best way possible how these theories about reading literature apply to people.  The claim that academia is self-perpetuating and navel gazing is often leveled at researchers.  There is the assumption that we spend our time writing papers no one will read that will get published in journals read by a few students or other scholars.  Essentially, humanities departments make more humanities scholars that in turn cycle back into the University and make more scholars.    

There is good reason for that.  For a long time, there was a certain snobbishness about academia that refused to talk down or explain in simple terms what we were doing.  One of my favorite professors here, Prof Damian Walford Davies was talking about his favorite answer given at an academic conference.  At the conference, the speaker gave a densely analytic reading, and someone asked if he might restate it again in simpler terms (I'm paraphrasing here).  The answer was, "No. What I write about exists on the edges of human consciousness."  We all had a good laugh, but that idea is unironically prevalent in a lot of academics. I was reading the introduction to a book on functional grammars, and the author talked about how discussions about the oddities of language were not of interest to him (or, by extension, any academic linguist) and that this book was more to his liking.  He used some phrase like "academic tour guide" or something to explain how tiring he found it, relating his research to people that were only interested in grammar, and not experts in it.  

I was appalled.  That, I thought to myself, is exactly what I am meant to be doing.  That is not all that I am meant to be doing, but that certainly is a part of my job.  People are interested in oddities, and as an expert in the field, I should be happy and able to talk about these oddities to the curious masses. I also need to clearly express to them how the more theoretical aspects of my research are applicable to their lives.  If I don't, I can't expect them to think they need to pay for the opportunity to hear me talk.  

But, like people who go to Disney World, the consumer is left to make the most of this experience.  By agreeing to pay for this opportunity, I reserve the right to tell other people whether they made the most of it, or whether they wasted their time.