Friday, December 30, 2016

precious things

I came to comics via Tori Amos fandom, which probably says it all. Sandman was the synthesis of all the things in life I cared about during a certain stretch of being a teenager—reading, listening to the Cure, and sleeping—and I think, had the Internet been more of a thing back then, I would’ve gotten into comics way sooner. I don’t have some big story about what put me off at first. There were two shops in my little town, and the first one, the crummy one, was run by a guy who was really friendly; I remember talking with him about Charles Vess, who was a regular there. But his shop was just these tables full of dusty old boxes that I didn’t really want to touch, much less rummage through. (And for what? Where do you even start in a place like that?) The other shop was staffed by a handful of condescending deviants and the two most sullen boys from my high school, and that place was Classic Comics: big dark room with cardboard boobs everywhere. The vague sense that someone was masturbating in the back.

"The Cipher"
tfw your entire backstory could be printed
on your vagina thong (All images in this post
are from All-Time Comics, coming in 2017.)

Years later, my college boyfriend gave me some graphic novels (the Dark Phoenix Saga, Watchmen, stuff like that) and I liked them. I liked them a lot, actually, Watchmen especially. But at the same time there was something sort of off-putting about that situation that’s hard to articulate—this sense in which they were offered as a project for my betterment. That’s a feeling that has persisted through the years, and so over time I’ve compiled this large, diffuse category of boring things that men have tried to talk me into caring about--Bob Dylan, Woody Allen, jazz music, all of history, sports. Marvel Comics.

At some point I moved to Chicago and started reading Chris Ware. Man, I really loved Jimmy Corrigan. I still do. By then of course there was the blessed Internet, but for whatever reason moving past Ware didn't happen for a while. Eventually I gravitated towards indie for a lot of reasons, one being the toxic culture stuff that I had first sensed in that dimly lit circle-jerk shop of my youth. As it turns out there’s some of that in indie too, but with superhero stuff there’s also this thing where a lot of the talk surrounding those comics in particular is boring to me. I rarely know what anyone is talking about, and nothing I ever hear makes me want to learn more. So much trivia, so many people who seem a little too caught up in the historicity of comics. Knowledge often used in service of scoring points by people with something to prove. That's not everyone, of course, but first impressions are hard to shake.

"The 'Urban' One"
where to start...I like that his alias is pretty much "the 
black one." I like that he's a disgruntled criminal vs the 
white Captain America guy's Mr. Perfect. (V transgressive.) 
Finally I really really like that his origin story is being 
"overwhelmed by pervasive despair of his urban surroundings" 
where everyone's in jail or using heroin. Is one of the All-Time 
Comics villains the Mexican Rapist, because this straight-up 
sounds like Trump to me.

I think that COPRA has changed my mind. I came to it late, in spring 2016, but my timing was good. Just a few weeks after I read Round One this thing by Abhay Khosla came out. That piece talked about the merits of the comic in a way I’d found lacking in a lot of the stuff I’d just read through online, but more than that, it was speaking my language—talking about movies in a way that I used to think about poetry and painting. Around that same time (it might have been the same week, even) I heard some of the story of Bergen Street Comics. Comics being Comics, I think there’s a good chance you knew that place, if you’re reading this. I did not, but I liked hearing about it. There was a way in which that shop—its wares, its philosophy, its look and feel, the whole deal—sounded like the antithesis of that circle-jerk shop in my hometown. I could hear in the story of that place the same democratic type of vibe I perceived in reading COPRA…a form of inclusion that isn’t about Inclusion, with the capital letter, as a promotions tactic or an end in itself, but as an implicit assumption that this is just the way that things should be. I don't need to read a press release about how they're for everyone; I can sense for myself that there's no one masturbating in the back, if you will. Consider the title of this interview that Chris Mautner did with Michel Fiffe, “My Aim Is to Be as Appealing as Possible,” and in a nutshell that describes an attitude I find to be sorely lacking in comics. (In fact it sometimes seems to me that comics tries to be as unappealing as possible.) To be clear, being as appealing as possible isn’t about pitching to the lowest common denominator or crafting an effective elevator pitch. It’s about creating a world—whether it’s on the page or on the Internet or IRL—that different kinds of people want to spend time in. That’s what Fiffe does. That’s what my favorite comics writers do. That’s what comics shops should strive for, and often don’t. Or so I’m told. I don't exactly seek them out.

So anyway these three things—Fiffe’s comic, that Savage Critic essay, the Bergen St milieu—kind of came together like pieces of a puzzle for me to form this expression of superhero fandom that was not repulsive or arrogant or pathological or boring. Here it was actually about sharing the love of a thing. Which is a little sad, because that's what fandom should always be about, right? But that's not a type of fandom that I perceive in comics very often, anyway (even on the indie side). Instead a lot of times fandom is about the ownership of a thing, or the worship of a thing, or mounting a defense for a thing, or explaining a thing. The eminence of some fucking thing. For the first time this whole swath of comics that had just seemed gross to me was suddenly…appealing? I didn’t just want to read that stuff—I felt excited to read that stuff in a way I hadn’t felt excited about reading in a while. Those people showed me what they love about those comics without litigating their importance or perfection, and I could see for myself why they're worth reading. Though of course it’s still hard to know where to start.

"The Perfect One"
Just super impressed by this perfect white man. 
Legit lol @ one of his superpowers being "to absorb 
tremendous trauma." 

Around the same time as all of the above I was watching Jessica Jones, thinking about it in terms of Marvel’s own attempt to be “as appealing as possible”—what that entailed, and why, and who it seemed to be appealing to. All sorts of people liked Jessica Jones, I’m sure, but the many, many takes I was reading at the time were almost exclusively written by men. There’s a certain indignity in sitting down to write about your messed-up feelings about some dumb show to see that Arthur Fucking Chu has deemed it “a huge feminist achievement,” or that Vulture's resident fanboy used the occasion of its saddest sex scene to write about his horny level. (Spoiler alert: horny level = high.) I was keeping this long list of idiotic quotes about Jessica Jones from these men who seemed to me distinctly unqualified to talk about feminism, or maybe anything. I hated the discussion around that show. I hated the show itself. I hated the writing, the acting, just all of it.

In lieu of unpacking all that, I’ll just tell you about a scene in Episode 6 where Luke Cage—upon learning that Jessica was raped, tortured, and forced to murder his wife—says, and I quote, “You let me be inside of you.” You know, referring to the fact that they had fucked. That isn't an appropriate thing to say to anyone you’re fucking, particularly if you just found out that they were raped and forced to murder someone. And yeah, okay, that someone was Luke’s wife, but he knew even as he said "You let me be inside you" that Jessica didn’t really kill her; Kilgrave did. Why that was portrayed as a trauma that Jessica inflicted on Luke, rather than a trauma that had been inflicted on Jessica, is one of many questions I have about that show.

“You let me be inside of you.” Yeah, no, I cannot. But I’ll tell you who can: men, who universally sympathized with Luke in that scene in their reviews. Just as a sampling, let’s take a look at what some of the boys of comics had to say:
“He had a right to be furious, especially because Jessica doesn’t have any defense.” –Oliver Sava, at AV Club
(Oh, I don’t know, maybe Jessica’s defense was that she was raped and forced to murder someone and now she’s all fucked up. Just spitballin’ here, Oliver.)
“Declaring her a piece of shit, with ample justification, he walks off.” –Sean T. Collins, at Decider
(Feels like I should acknowledge that the parts I read of Collins’ take on that show seemed better than a lot of what's out there? But...)

When Zainab asked me to do Critical Chips, I told her I was going to write about Jessica Jones or COPRA, and ended up writing about both. Sometimes you just have to go with your own weird shit. I found it interesting, hating this show that was clearly meant to appeal to me, and being really into this comic that seemed mostly to appeal to people who aren’t like me at all. (I mean, I'm sure plenty of different people read COPRA. But mostly men write about it, and their comics backgrounds are more or less the opposite of my own.) My essay ended up being about a lot of things. Too many things. And the problem with trying to say a lot is that you don’t really have enough time to say any of it especially well, so it was arguably a mistake to spend so much space making a point that the Savage Critic piece had already made quite ably: that for all the things COPRA has to say about fandom, it’s wrongheaded to think of it as a work of glorified fan fiction. But it’s just crazy to me how much emphasis that gets. Because for all its referents and nods to its forebears, COPRA’s most salient feature is that it’s fiercely special.

Ah yes, another article praising Fantagraphics for its irony...
that old chestnut. But seriously I find All-Time Comics writer 
Josh Bayer's assertion that he wants to "diversify superhero
fandom with his vagina thong comic...fascinating?

That piece indirectly discussed another place where a lot of considerations of COPRA go wrong, which is in talking about the story as a weakness or an afterthought. The consensus seems to be that Fiffe is more of a visual artist than a writer, right? The TCJ review of Round One (which epitomizes everything under discussion here) says, “Perhaps it does not matter that the storytelling falters, because there is no real story being told, no point to get across”--a sentiment I've read in a lot of different places. To me the story seems quite consciously postmodern: meta, skeptical, and probing. Postmodern stuff has a tendency to skew cold and technical, which is why the story works so well with the warmth and enthusiasm conveyed by the art. (It's a work of checks and balances in other ways, too, where Fiffe's palpably insane work ethic is tempered by his forward momentum, heavy violence is cut with aesthetic distance, etc.) Fiffe wisely skirts irony, though I think he pokes fun at himself a little. (There’s something about the way in which the details are so super specific, yet don’t matter at all. Also I'd point to the way in which the super recognizable, hyper-masculine tone of the text doesn't drip with derision like the hardboiled cliches of, say, Alan Moore's Rorschach.) Anyway it’s curious to me that so many people who plainly love superhero comics fail to see the story’s cleverness and humor. Maybe that’s even more of a testament to the stereotypes of genre than whatever derision superhero comics still receive from more literary types. Comics in general seems to lag behind every other area of culture in its insistence on harping about "high" and "low," and the inability to let go of these outdated binaries is the reason we have this absurd situation wherein Fantagraphics, an art comics publisher, is about to put out an "ironic" superhero comic that will almost certainly wind up perpetuating the same old shit it purports to rail against. Lord, even Marvel seems to have figured out that vacant ladies with big titties and vagina thongs being "mysterious" around some white hero who's overcome so...very...much is not a storyline that plays to a diverse audience in what will soon be the year of our lord 2017. Literally the last thing I want or need from a comic is for a man to explain to me why vagina thongs are "art." That is not appealing to me--or, I will wager, people like me--at all. Had Fantagraphics thought to include a single woman on the large team of people collaborating to produce All-Time Comics, they might have learned this lesson the easy way. Contrast the high-concept inclusion projects of Fanta (like its Pepe bs and All-Time Comics) and, to a lesser degree, the PR tactics of Drawn & Quarterly with the output of a smaller publisher like 2dCloud, and there is a whole separate essay to be written about the landscape of art comics publishing today.

I guess the thought I’d like to leave you with here at the end of the year is how there’s this way in which a whole is sometimes greater than the sum of its parts. That's such a platitude, but for me it holds true across a lot of things. Especially comics. Especially COPRA. I think about all those reviews that center Suicide Squad, and I don't doubt that decrypting those references would deepen my understanding of Fiffe's series. Reading any artist who's coming to grips with their influences or is remotely interested in interrogating their own preoccupations, that is going to be the case. As an analogy, I mentioned T.S. Eliot's footnotes for The Waste Land in that Critical Chips thing, and it's true that reading those helped me understand that poem. But in another way I found that process limiting and limited—limiting because of the way in which that homework distracts from the poem’s greatness as its own thing. Limited because an explanation can only say so much. That’s a thing people often don’t get about T.S. Eliot, which is partly his own fault; like so many men, he was very fond of explanation. But he also knew its limits. In Eliot’s final footnote on the last words of The Waste Land:

Shantih, shantih, shantih

he explains, in that wry, poignant tone of his, how the line is untranslatable:
Shantih. Repeated as here, a formal ending to an Upanishad. ‘The Peace which passeth understanding’ is a feeble translation of the content of this word.
I think about that a lot, because commenting on art, whether you love it or hate it or something in between, the challenge becomes saying something that transcends "feeble translation." People love to talk about the ~Magic of Comics~ in technical terms, breaking down the anatomy of a page or panel to demonstrate its ability to shoulder so many different meanings at once. Such explanations have their place, but mostly I find them to be the ShamWow! commercials of comics writing. Real magic--that feeling you get reading the stuff that's the best of the best, in comics and in all art--is not a thing you can dissect. That is not to say it's inscrutable. Whichever parts won't fit in the footnotes...those are the ones I really want to talk about.

This was a companion post to my essay on COPRA and Jessica Jones, which was printed in Critical Chips, a zine of comics criticism put together by Zainab Akthar. That piece has been posted here because there was a production snafu with mine, in print and digital. I’m sure you will be shocked to learn that I’m a fussy nightmare person—not in some evolved way that means I’m organized or anything useful like that, but in a pathological way that makes very small things that no one else will ever notice matter to me. Do me a solid and read it as it was written...unless you’ve read it already, in which case I'll live. Somehow. Some way.

It’s a strange coincidence, but a good one I think, to close out 2016 with three posts that talked about one comic I really like, even if two of them were a dumb link and an anal reprintI wonder if this is a just a website about COPRA now? I should almost certainly write at least 10 more posts on it before I finish that draft about how much I hated Fun Home the musical. Still, the beat goes on, and there's little doubt I'll go back to hating everything in 2017. I'm nearly faint with anticipation for how hard I'm gonna hate All-Time Comics this Spring...unless it's good, which it won't be. Because seriously, that comic looks like shit.

A real fun fact about me that maybe doesn't always come across is that I’m intensely cynical and absurdly emo at the same time. (“The worst of both worlds”--this is the O’Connor promise. I don't think we have a crest or anything but my ancestors carved it into all their potatoes.) As someone who has, for reasons I can neither defend nor explain, taken an interest in some of the more dispiriting facets of comics culture, I rarely do emo these days, but I’ll tell you what: it’s a pleasure to find something nice to say once in a while. I should do it more often. 

Happy holidays? xx


  1. Hi Kim, I've enjoyed reading your take on Copra's expansiveness in the way it deals with influence. I've just read Crime Destroyer and didn't enjoy it at all. I found it far too insular in its treatment of the comics it is acting in homage to and, on top of that, its pretensions at woke subtext by playing up the #blacklivesmatter and anti-trump zeitgeists came off as crude at best, and exploitative at worst (although I guess the comic's aesthetic is partly in tune with the Blaxploitation cinema of the 70s). I'd dig getting your commentary on Crime Destroyer or maybe on the wider All Time Comics venture, once a few more issues have come out, because you seem to have been spot on with your predictions/assumptions here.

    1. Thanks! It's funny, I'm normally not a big hate-reader, but from the second I heard about All Time Comics I felt two things: visceral dislike and near certainty that I'll write (more) about it. I'll be reading the first issues of Crime Destroyer and Bullwhip, anyway.