Monday, September 18, 2017

portrait, a comic by simon hanselmann

The melodrama of indie comics culture is a lot like reality television; I find it entertaining as an observer, but I’m glad that’s not my life. The stock characters include a broad spectrum of Dumbs and Post Dumbs, eccentric sociopaths, and your racist uncle, and I prefer to gawk at these turkeys from the side of the stage like the judgmental twit that I am. Oh, I’m not talking about the good eggs. (I'm not talking about you.) I’m talking Whore Feud, or maybe that hobo-themed wedding. I mean, dang, we all wish wish that Comics were better, but watching that stuff is definitely the next best thing.

Here at the intersection of entertaining, off-putting, and ridiculous you’ll find Truth Zone (TZ), a series about alternative comics culture by indie superstar Simon Hanselmann. TZ is a long-running web series at Comics Workbook in which the artist makes fun of indie cartoonists, publishers, critics, fans, and other industry figures. The online iteration of TZ is often funny, and sometimes approaches what you might call criticism. But I’m here today to talk about “Portrait,” a little zine you can buy on Hanselmann’s website. The first run of “Portrait” (which was, at the time it was sold, advertised as its sole run) was around 500 copies. It sold out quickly and has since had at least one additional printing, which to my mind raises an interesting question—namely, how much of an audience exists for a comic like Truth Zone?

I ask because recently I realized I’ve lost any ability I might have once had to discern what is truly niche. Internet culture is near mystical in that it has rendered everything universally known and totally obscure at the same time. I had this epiphany in the middle of the night not so long ago, when I came upon this tweet making fun of a writer for New York magazine who misunderstood a joke that someone had made about a dumb political cartoon:

It's seriously sort of crazy, the levels of stupid arcane knowledge you need to parse this tweet:
  • how detestable Jesse Singal is (OK, not hard)
  • that, here, Singal is totally misunderstanding a joke that someone else made (harder)
  • about a political cartoon that's not pictured 
  • and then Singal got embarrassed, so he deleted the tweet 
  • also the joke Singal misunderstood used the clappy meme (a Twitter joke format)
  • that was in the style of Shanley's infamous "daddy" tweet 
I’m probably missing a level or two? Point is: 1,200 likes. I dunno, maybe 1,193 people truly heart that tweet. Or maybe it’s that theory I have, where people never feel more self-satisfied than when they recognize an obscure, layered reference. It makes us feel clever--like we're part of some club.

Hanselmann’s “Portrait” traffics very heavily in this type of insider thrill. Subtitled “Fake Criticism,” its short strips parody tumblr callout culture, James Sturm, Tom Spurgeon, Nobrow, Box Brown, the president of the Comic Book League Defense Fund, and any number of other people who I have forgotten or never recognized in the first place—but the references are always coded and frequently elliptical. Hanselmann presumes readers' familiarity with his subjects, obscuring real names and associations, which makes it more difficult for outsiders to understand what he’s talking about.

Even if you’re not a fan of Megg & Mogg, it's interesting to see how Hanselmann filters these anecdotes through his characters, especially the way in which their established personalities add depth to his commentary. More generally I reckon the degree to which you’ll enjoy a given strip depends upon your level of contempt for its subject. My favorite with a bullet was hobo wedding because the only thing funnier to me than the idea of a hobo wedding is the groom getting super mad when someone brings it up on his book tour years later.

But what about when you don’t have contempt for Hanselmann's subject? What about when the subject is in fact you, or people like you? I wrote here about Hanselmann's "Wes Craven's Crumb," which was at least in part about me...probably. The thing is, in a culture where everything is both universally known and impossibly obscure--as it is on the Internet, as it is in indie comics--a lot of stuff becomes plausibly deniable when your preferred mode of talking shit is encrypted.

Sometimes these are sharp little comics, and sometimes they’re just nebulously rude. Take, for instance, the opener, “Change.” Hanselmann’s target here is James Sturm, but sharp-eyed readers might notice that Hanselmann replicates some of the exact same attitudes towards Tillie Walden that got Sturm into trouble in the first place.

Twitter user @FstewartT made some astute comments about where this comic went wrong. This is just an excerpt:

Seeing these tweets, Hanselmann took to the DMs to explain himself, inadvertently revealing that he had exactly the attitude towards Walden that he was so vehemently denying.

These messages are a veritable Bingo card of bitter old-man comeback crit (the very thing Hanselmann was supposedly skewering):
  • passively aggressively responding to a critique of his work that he wasn't tagged in
  • thoroughly condescending (Allow me to explain my work to you)
  • berating successful young female cartoonist for her "weird arrogance" and "daddy's girl privilege"
  • berates another young female cartoonist for...tweeting?
  • hilariously self-important
It's all very Fantagraphique, is it not? Same old shit, thinking it's some type of new shit. Well, anyway, for your information, Simon Hanselmann was NOT mad. It's totally fine with Simon Hanselmann if you have some sort of reading comprehension problem, and also if you don't like jokes.

@FstewartT wasn't having any of that, lol.

Not to worry: Simon wasn't mad about that, either. He's just sorry no one gets it. It's cool with him that you're such a fucking moron, and he definitely wishes you the best. xoxo <|:-)

Once you understand that Hanselmann's roast comics are often diametrically opposed to his idea of himself, you begin to pick up on more dissonance in these comics--ostensibly progressive subjects with weird retrogressive undercurrents. It's incoherent and at times dishonest, taking the most extreme and misguided version of an argument and implying that it represents something larger. 

Is this art? By Hanselmann’s own admission, no--but he certainly sells it as such. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I’d wager most of the people buying “Portrait” or the bags of literal garbage (Artist Trash™) he sells in his online shop are fans of his art comics and his persona, not consumers of his criticism. Here's Hanselmann in a recent interview with Dan Nadel:

The Truth Zone is just the jerky side of comics. The first one, Landscape, I subtitled A Safe Space for Assholes. It's a safe space to just be a prick and just shit talk people. ... I try not to engage with the internet too much. If I'm gonna make snarky comments, I do it in comics form. Then I make money off it, and it's like an artistic statement. And I feel like it's better somehow. 

Better for who? Just as an example, let's take a look at “The Birthday Reporter."

Had this appeared online at Comics Workbook, it would have been a gentle spoof of the Comics Reporter that maybe also had something to say about the ongoing conversations surrounding comics journalism more broadly. Compiled in a limited-edition zine and sold for $8 plus shipping, it seems to me that it becomes something else: having fun--and making money--at someone else's expense, in an ecosystem in which they're likely to hear about it second- or thirdhand. (The thousands of dollars Hanselmann made off this throwaway gossip comic inarguably makes him one of the best paid comics "critics" today.) It's interesting and perfectly meta, the dynamic these tiny batches of zines create: in-groups within in-groups and rumors within rumors. But it's also a straight-up chickenshit form of "criticism"--and it's telling that, when he's confronted with that, Hanselmann will piss on your leg and tell you it's raining.

Sometimes it's a fine line between being a critic and being a piece of shit. It's something I think about sometimes, as someone who tends to take a tone not unlike Hanselmann's. (Not so long ago, for instance, we both went in on All Time Comics.) We could have any number of conversations about what criticism is--what it should accomplish, and how--but to me, it boils down to this: If you're going to drag someone, do it out in the open. Own it. Otherwise, you should stick to making fun of people privately, behind their backs, like a goddamn adult.

Is “Portrait” art? No, not really. Is it criticism? Nah. I think it's best described as an artifact—one that perfectly encapsulates a certain aspect of the alt-comix milieu, with its middle school-grade sociopathy and infighting. I find it entertaining, but I don't respect it. Hanselmann says he's turning his focus inward for the next Truth Zone comic--a step in the right direction, ethically, but one that I will read with low expectations. Hanselmann has many gifts, but self-awareness is plainly not one of them.


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

boyz II men

Mental health status: went shopping for a dress yesterday, got some absurdly expensive sweatpants instead. Also something called an ex-boyfriend shirt, because even retail has gone post-dumb. I think post-dumb retail must be middle-aged men trying to interpret the millennial sensibility? (Which is, I guess, essentially what post-dumb comics are: those guys trying to be cool.) Then I went home and watched the episode of Twin Peaks with the little kid who fires a gun into Norma's diner.

I was really struck by that asshole kid in camo, standing next to his asshole dad in camo. Both silent, same stance. Quite a heavy-handed scene, especially for Lynch, who prefers to explore these themes in a way that's more elliptical. Yet it wasn't really exaggerated; at least it struck me as a pretty literal snapshot of life in these United States (if you don't count the zombie child barfing up swamp water in the next car over). (What was that??) My little nephew is now of an age where I'm starting to see the world work on him, so I guess I worry about this stuff in a new, more viscerally horrifying, way. Yesterday morning my sister told me about how he'd come home really upset after getting bullied by two kids at the playground. My brother-in-law eventually intervened, at which point one of the bully's mothers came over and started yelling about how he had no right to butt in. Kids will be kids, I guess you could say, or maybe "it's not their fault," which seems more accurate. Either way it's hard to get too worked up about that. But I spent the entire day yesterday, and a good part of today, thinking about this fucking mother, who I hate with my life. One of the things she yelled was about how she was trying to teach her son "to be a man"--a swipe at my little nephew, who just turned three, who was weeping through all of this. Hard. Still on the ground, where this lady's (older, bigger) asshole kid had knocked him. I used to think that I didn't want kids because I don't like them, but I've come to understand it's because I would go to jail.

It's been interesting reading the Twin Peaks recaps, just seeing what people find to say. Obviously not the kind of show that lends itself to summary, so it's sort of like watching someone trying to recap a poem mixed with an episode of Blue's Clues. It's sad to me what television writing has become. I'd give just about anything to read Jacob Clifton on this show. Part of it is that this crop of writers is just working too fast, which isn't their fault, but still. I read this (by Laura Hudson, who did the Vulture recaps) a while back in near total disbelief:

I'm not inclined to berate someone for not "getting" David Lynch for obvious reasons (what he does) plus some maybe less obvious ones (I'm not a twit). That being said: some of these recappers really, really don't get David Lynch. Intellectually, at least, I try to leave a lot of room for what people find problematic? That just feels like the right thing to do. But, like, how do you not get that the entire show is an interrogation of masculinity? How do you miss that?? That whole "Lynch is bad on women" take? I'm sorry, but no. Nooo. I mean, there are some threads you could pull, sure. I'd go so far as to say Lynch is pulling some of them himself. (I think? e.g., that scene with the French escort?) But at the end of the day Twin Peaks isn't really a show that's about women; it's about sexual violence and men and masculinity. 

Anyway I've had to semi-retire from the entire internet until I can get caught up. It's unfortunate that just around the time we figured out how to let people watch television at their own pace, it became almost impossible to avoid spoilers. (I'm just now realizing this entire post is just one long complaint about getting old.) In general I'd really like to read something smart about Twin Peaks. Where is the good television writing these days? It has to exist, right? I believe.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

how about some comics links

I don't know if it's because I've handed out my annual compliment or what, but I'm feeling salty as all heck. Let's do links.

1. Frank Santoro's latest crowdfunding project: lol
Ultimate Master Professor of Comics/semi-literate grifter Frank Santoro has launched a new crowdfunding project. Now too lazy to rise even to the level of grift, Santoro is, in his words, "passing the hat" so you can fund his "labor" of "going through life as the human equivalent of a crumpled up ziploc of skunk weed" hand-binding a comic for his parents. Which is a nice idea in theory, I guess? For one thing, they're divorced, as Frank explains in the write-up. Tough stuff. Probably the only thing that can cheer up a divorced person is a Book of Kells-grade outsider art manuscript about your life's most embarrassing moments, lovingly bound by your willfully unemployed son.

I particularly enjoy the part where he says "That's just the way it has to be." Uncompromising.

Just so we're clear: Frank Santoro has made a comic about his parents' most embarrassing stories that is...a "gift" - a special, special gift...that he wishes to publish himself, in an edition of two, for his parents' eyes only...and maybe also for his primary audience, the people of France. Alls we need to do is fund Frank's artisanal bookbinding lessons so he can spend six months making those two (2) books for the low, low cost of $2,600, $1,000 of which will compensate Santoro himself for the time he spends throwing other people's money at this absurdly extravagant, yet fiscally worthless, comic book that no one will ever see.

Jesus take my keyboard: I cannot even. Is this satire? Is he doing the irony? Or is Frank Santoro just a giant fucking tit. 

Oh man, haha, I almost forgot about the rewards. The rewards! Gotta say, the rewards don't exactly inspire confidence in this guy's bookmaking prowess:

What, you were expecting to get a glimpse of his actual comic thing, like online or something? Don't get greedy. What Frank Santoro has for YOU, my friend, is a PDF of his old blogs, which he has lovingly compiled complete with brand new scratchpaper covers. No idea why Best of the the Cold Heat Blog pdf here hasn't yet had any takers. Looks topnotch.

*sigh* Where's Craig Yoe when you need him? He'd print that thing for a kind word and two shiny nickels. I mean, am I seriously being asked to believe that a book worth $1,300 (at cost) is the logical outcome of this piece of shit kickstarter, even if I were to suspend human judgment and say this is a thing worth funding? Say, what brave soul at The Comics Journal is going to stand up for production standards and ethical considerations when it comes to fleecing all the comics sheeple? Hmm? I'll wait.

2. Post-dumbs promoting themselves badly is extremely my shit
I maintain a very small, but very valuable, archive of screenshots that consists entirely of fake metal Fantagraphics dudes who are extremely bad at promoting themselves. This is strictly for laughing reasons (plus, obviously, "something is wrong with me" reasons), not because I was planning to be a jerk about in public or anything. Only now I guess I am going to be a jerk about it in public. Look, I'm sorry, this is incredible.

What do you think, is he doing an irony? ENHANCE.

I wouldn't have thought it possible, but with this WOLF tattoo I think Benjamin Marra has officially usurped the title of dumbest looking fake metal Fantagraphics guy from that one dude who's always tweeting a photo of himself on the throne from Game of Thrones. The king is dead. Long live the king.

3. Brian Cronin's sexual Hulk articles
I haven't actually read these sexual Hulk articles because (1) please and (2) I feel it could only detract from how much I treasure the idea of them. Brian Cronin...thanks.

4. Check out Chase Magnett's Jack Kirby sketchbook
On Kirby Day Chase Magnett posted photos of his Jack Kirby sketchbook, which is a collection of other artists drawing Kirby creations. What a charming thing, right? I legitimately love this. Here are some of my faves.

5. Sarah Horrocks Alert!
Sarah Horrocks is doing crit at Brandon Graham's new online concern. Her first post, which takes a look at where contemporary comics artists are going wrong with two-page spreads, is quite good.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

thanks, jog

I'm old enough to have grown up with a set of hardback encyclopedias, and I'm pretty sure the reverence I had for those gilded volumes through my childhood isn't a feeling that has an analog in the world today. My parents kept them in a lit glass cabinet, if you can even imagine. We weren't a lit glass cabinet-type family, but owning a set of encyclopedias was a whole aspirational lifestyle back then. That dumb cabinet, those fake leather covers--it all seemed to me the height of class and intellectualism through my formative years in rural Tennessee.

As an adult, one of my first freelance jobs was writing an encyclopedia article about bearbaiting, a task for which I was ill-equipped in almost every way. Hundreds of years later, I'm still not sure if the word requires a hyphen. I was plainly a fraud, but more alarming than that was the fact that no one seemed to care. There was no council of learned elders debating the finer points of bearbaiting (or botulism or baccarat) in a castle(?) somewhere out there, as I had vaguely imagined. With sudden clarity I grasped something that truly changed the way I understood the world: A lot of people have no idea what the fuck they're talking about, maybe least of all when they're paid to explain something.

But then there's Joe McCulloch. I'm willing to concede that he knows everything. I bristle when men explain things to me (through their writing, or to me, specifically), comics especially. I rarely care, I'm naturally skeptical, and anyway that's not a mode I particularly respect. But there's a sort of zen to a Joe McCulloch explanation that transcends human ego. His words just float before my eyes, uncanny. Correct. With not infrequent turns of phrase that make me jealous. The din of a million other nimble distractions. I mean, man, sometimes that column made me blue. But it never made me bristle, to my recollection.

Comics has plenty of guys who aspire to be walking encyclopedias, people who haven't quite figured out that there's more to the world than whatever it is they think they know about it. Joe outshines that set easily, in part because the questions he asks of comics can't be answered on a messageboard. His clear-eyed writing--sometimes survey, sometimes history, and sometimes closer to pure criticism--particularly on works I would never think to give the time of day, is always good storytelling and sometimes real art. He offers something without stooping to prove.

Anyway, today's the last day of Joe's long-running column at the Comics Journal. I hope he turns up somewhere else soon. There's a lot of stuff I still don't understand.


Thursday, August 24, 2017

tig notaro on louis ck

Tig Notaro’s putting some heat on Louis CK for all those sexual misconduct rumors. Damn, good on her. I can’t really comment on Notaro's comedy as comedy--haven’t watched her standup or her show--but I saw the better part of that movie about her cancer stuff a while back and I was pretty impressed by her as a person. I talked about this idea of “transgressive” comedy some last year when Patton Oswalt (who I’m not so crazy about) was doing material on grief…I find that very compelling and admirable and, like, risky as art, if not particularly funny. Sometimes I’m not sure what comedy should do. I mean, obviously it should do whatever the fuck it wants, but I wonder if there’s room in my own way of seeing things to call something comedy if it isn’t really funny ha-ha. Check out this headline from US Weekly yesterday.

A few years back I wrote a thing for Noah about why Louis CK will never get Cosby’d. Reread it today and feel it really holds up. Those two situations are different in any number of ways, and Tig Notaro’s comments are substantively, tonally, and contextually different than Hannibal Burress was on Cosby. But the most important area of overlap (or lack thereof) I see is that Cosby, when he finally fell, no longer had much cultural currency. He was working and making money, yeah, but by that point to most people he was more of a memory than a working actor or comic. It’s about relevance more than output. Like, Woody Allen still has relevance as a working artist, and that reckoning isn’t going to come until he finally eats it or gets too old to do real work. By the time someone’s dead or irrelevant it’s just safer to contemplate whatever dissonance there is to deal with because there are no longer any real stakes. It becomes an intellectual exercise. 

I’m tired and not explaining this so well, but more and more I just find myself thinking about ethical consumption and distance and diffusion of responsibility. This is from that HU piece I mentioned: 

I just wonder about how me paying 40 dollars to see Louis CK ten years ago ties, however loosely, to bad things that actually happened to people in the world. I didn't know that stuff then--I don't even know if it had started back then--but I understood something about his attitude towards women. You know? Like the sort of knowingness with which you'd regard a transcript of Bill Burr's Thanksgiving table conversation if it emerged tomorrow. At what point do thoughts become action, and how much of that has to do with being famous for those thoughts? For being celebrated for them? 

Louis CK built his career on masturbation jokes and all that stuff about how his wife never wanted to fuck.

On an entirely separate anxious wavelength: the Louis CK and Cosby conversations both started at Gawker. (Before Hannibal Burress, there was Tom Scocca.) Who has the muscle and the guts to start those conversations now?