Thursday, April 20, 2017

other people's stories

Last week, in rural New Jersey, my little nephew took me to visit an alpaca farm. I mean, technically, his mother took us both, but it was his idea, spiritually. He’s not quite three years old and I’ve never met someone so fully on my level. About a week before the visit my sister got a call from the farmer, who was sure it was going to rain. (It did.) “The alpacas don’t like getting wet,” he told her. We don’t either so she changed the day. Farmer Nick thought the visit was for my nephew, but the occasion was in fact my birthday. We got there early, and as we waited the herd regarded us with benign curiosity. We were aliens who had landed outside their pen, and I loved them so much I thought I might die.  

This particular birthday was not one of the unsettling momentous ones, but the one before that—the kind that really make u think. That morning my nephew bounded into my room at the crack of dawn with a balloon he’d picked out at the grocery store. He had already told me about it when I was still in Chicago, but still. It was a good day, a long one, and just before I went to sleep I looked at my phone for the first time in a while and realized that, while we were at dinner, the U.S. had fired 59 missiles into Syria, in retaliation for the government’s use of sarin. I know a lot about sarin because I watch Homeland on Showtime. Part of me wishes I didn’t.

The first story is the alpacas: Ella, Titan, Clarisse, Olé. Fifteen of them in all, including the weird horny one who had to be kept separate from the others and the one who bit me, Angelina. I was a little mad at her even though it didn’t hurt. Farmer Nick told me the poufs on top of alpacas’ heads are called topknots, which is the most perfect fact. I don’t have a framework for the number 59. Is that a lot, as these things go? Brian Williams quoted Leonard Cohen and I was so tired I thought I surely misunderstood. That’s always my first thought: maybe it’s me. It almost never is.

There’s this thinness to things I’ve always felt, I don’t know how else to explain it. There’s a membrane between the life I lead and infinite almost-lives I could have led or might lead yet, and it’s impossibly delicate, like a soap bubble. It’s weird to know. In a month or two Nick will shear the alpacas except for their topknots, and some lady will use the fleece to make dolls in their likeness to be sold in the farm’s little shop. Angelina’s effigy costs $24, and her topknot is perfectly rendered. It takes the lady about four hours to make. Sometimes the alpacas hum to one another—the real ones, not the dolls—but Nick doesn’t know what it means.

Here's Tucker Stone on getting clean, a thing I read right before my trip. I see myself in his story, even though it’s different. I know what it’s like to look for the line between giving yourself some credit and romanticizing your worst mistakes. I don’t have a story about that time really, at least not a narrative that’s firmed up in the way the stories that you tell people about yourself tend to do. Some stuff happened, and then I got into the sort of thing that men mythologize in their important novels, or women do on nighttime dramas about sexual murder. You know how it is. At the time I valued nothing, least of all myself, and I didn’t have an adult who was in a position to help me see past what would prove to be a moment in time. I couldn’t have known, just for instance, I’d have this funny little nephew. Back then the future wasn’t for me, and now the past is something I can’t quite relate to. We have our routines, but they change. Every morning Nick bangs on a trashcan to let the alpacas know it’s time for breakfast, and they come bounding down a short dirt run with hilarious urgency. Those alpacas love to eat.

When I got home from New Jersey I watched the Walking Dead season finale. It was uplifting, with last-minute saves and a tiger who eats some bad guy’s fucking face. You know things are bad when the Walking Dead seems hopeful. Historically, its finales, like every other episode of that show, have been bleak stories about death and dread and the relentless way in which the world will beat you down. Well, not this time. A few months ago I read that the producers thought the real world was so messed up that they needed to dial it back and give people a break. The day before I watched the tiger maul the bad guy a reality television star decided to drop a 22,000-pound bomb on Afghanistan. I don’t know what to think about that, but I’m still mad as hell that they killed Glenn. Ugh, imagine thinking Rick’s some kind of hero. The tragedy of that show is that Rick Grimes will never die.

It’s curious to me, the stories people find inspiring. Last summer I went to a museum completely dedicated to the Kon-Tiki expedition, which is the one where a deluded Norwegian sailed on a raft from South America to Polynesia. 4,300 miles on the least impressive log raft you’ve ever seen in your life. One of the first things you see in the museum is this plaque:

I’m not sure how long I stood there staring at it, but it was a while. This fucking guy. I found myself thinking about James T. Kirk for some reason—Chris Pine’s version. I guess I’d recently watched one of the Star Treks. But more generally I was thinking about white guys who do crazy things they plainly should not do, against the advice of literally everyone, and somehow it all works out for them and we call that heroic. I have this theory that maybe it’s not.

This season Walking Dead had an episode about a white guy like that. Some soldier, I don’t remember his name. He was gunning for war with another group of survivors, and to get the ball rolling his big idea was to get himself murdered in the dumbest, most melodramatic way possible. It didn’t work and he ended up getting this gentle teen murdered instead. Morgan, a principled pacifist who loved the gentle teen, pieced together what happened and confronted the soldier, who made a condescending speech about how he’s going to lead their army to victory, and Morgan had better fall in line. It brought tears to his own eyes. Morgan took this in in total silence and then, later, without warning, murdered the soldier--brutally, with his bare hands. At first you think he’s had a psychotic break because he hates this soldier so much, which would have been fair, but then Morgan starts echoing back parts of the soldier’s speech to the bad guys and you realize he’s made this clever move to gain their trust and therefore the advantage. I’m obviously not explaining this well at all but trust me, it was incredible.

After the bad guys leave, Morgan tells the whole story about how the soldier got the gentle teen killed. We know it’s true because we just watched it all unfold but truly, he sounds out of his mind. Ezekiel (the guy with the tiger) believes Morgan immediately, like doesn’t experience a single second of doubt even though Morgan sounds like a lunatic. It’s this implicit trust between two black men who deeply respect each other. Twenty minutes before I had watched that soldier give his condescending speech to Morgan and thought: here’s a guy whose deluded machismo has worked for him his whole life. A guy who’s absolutely bonkers, but in this way that’s been coded as heroic. Now he’s running around getting people killed because he thinks he knows best, and no one calls him on it, ever, because it’s invisible to them. (This guy was a total Rick, come to think of it.) But Morgan saw. And then Ezekiel, and by extension the audience. I don’t want to go off on too much of a tangent because what do I know about the black experience, but I know what it’s like to watch guys like that soldier walk around, impervious to critique, while they assume that you’re incompetent or dumb or crazy when you try to tell them the most basic things you know and believe. If you’re not careful you’ll come to make those assumptions about yourself.

When Morgan repurposes the soldier's words, the implication is that he—not the soldier—will lead the resistance. But then there’s another turn: the final scene is about Carol, this middle-aged lady who the soldier had wanted to sacrifice to the bad guys in yet another dumb complicated plan that didn’t work out. (Long story.) Carol’s the most heroic, capable person on the show by a mile, but people outside her core group constantly underestimate her; it’s one of the few subtle themes the show conveys really well. So anyway Carol’s walking around and it’s suddenly clear that she’s going to be the one who leads Ezekiel’s army. It’s the opposite of the dead soldier’s crazy plan, a reversal that is absolutely earned and perfect. I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much it moved me, seeing this clichéd white guy savoir story turned on its head by these two characters. I don’t mean to make the Walking Dead sound too good—it’s often terrible, and even the episode I’m talking about had some problems—but occasionally it blows me away. You know, alpacas aren’t prone to violence, Angelina’s zombie chomp notwithstanding. While we were walking around Nick’s farm, every once in a while an alpaca would just drop in the dirt, giddy, and roll around like a dog. Apparently this is how they style their hair.

Peter Quinn’s my favorite character on Homeland, or maybe anything. I get why people hate that show, but the acting is really something to see. Rupert Friend (that’s Quinn) is the best, in my opinion, and I say that as someone who’s crazy about Mandy Patinkin and Claire Danes. Quinn’s whole thing this season was recovering from a brain injury caused by sarin. Nerve gas was a big storyline last year. Quinn talked about it at great length; in fact, I think he used more words just explaining sarin than he’s used all the other times he's ever talked on the show put together. He’s not the kind of guy to give a speech.

Last year Quinn showed his terrorist friend a sarin attack on YouTube not so long before his terrorist enemies gassed him (and put that on YouTube). Life comes at you fast, as they say. He convulses and foams at the mouth, and it’s awfully hard to watch. Very graphic. The show has gotten a lot of mileage out of that scene; if you watch the series you’ve sat through it at least a dozen times, like the show is stuck in this recursive loop of a spectacle it manufactured itself. Homeland is very true to life in that way. At one point Quinn watches himself foam at the mouth on Carrie’s phone. You wouldn’t believe Rupert Friend in that scene. Jesus Christ, he is tremendous. Anyway Quinn should’ve died but he’d been given a partial vaccine or something? The writing on that show isn’t always that great.

More than a quarter of the 80-some casualties in the Syrian sarin attack were children. It’s a horrible way to die, Quinn told his terrorist friend, and that was striking because, seriously, he’s seen some shit. In New Jersey a Sesame Street balloon bopped gently around my room as I watched the clip of Brian Williams quoting Leonard Cohen. Cookie Monster, my favorite. Sometimes I find it hard to track what’s going on, to hold the threads, to find a coherent narrative arc. I crunched the numbers: 86 people, two dozen children, 59 missiles. Fifteen alpacas and, later, one big 22,000-pound bomb. The truth is I’m very bad at math. Around half a million people have been murdered in Syria since 2011. The reality television star was eating one beautiful piece of chocolate cake. I was eating chocolate cake that night, too, actually, because it was my birthday. But I had two pieces.

Peter Quinn was a CIA assassin. His spiritual predecessor, Nicholas Brody, was also a murderer, but he was tortured for eight years in Afghanistan so it doesn’t really count. Brody was sort of annoying, to be honest, but in Quinn Homeland found a way to make this messed-up nightmare killer a very sensitive subtle character, and that was years before his injury. Carrie: another complex portrait of moral ambiguity. Beautifully written. Some estimates say that Muslims account for more than 90 percent of terrorist fatalities, but that’s not the world you see on Homeland. I’d ask how that show has never believed in itself enough to make the death of a single brown person mean something in six seasons of being on the air, but that’s math that even I know how to do.

This season Quinn struggled to come to terms with his brain injury, and watching it was sort of unbearable. We have a brain injury in my family, so in a way I’d been watching for most of my life. Drunk driving is a lot like sarin, as it turns out, except for the degree to which the government cares to address it. Carrie’s self-righteousness in the face of her own inadequacy was so familiar that sometimes watching her made me want to puke. A lot of Quinn’s story was nuanced and true in a way you just don’t see on TV. He thought he had nothing to offer but you could so plainly see all the ways in which he was wrong. I bristled when some small-hearted recapper at the New York Times wished he would just go back to normal. God, I was absolutely fucking furious. You know, actually, I’m still really mad. But in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that I said something very similar about Quinn to my sister just the day before. Sometimes you glimpse a piece of yourself in someone you don’t wish to be. But it’s only a piece.

Representation is a thing we hear about a lot these days, and there are those who mock calls for it as though it’s some childish form of narcissism to hope to see yourself in other people’s stories. More than our literal reflections I think stories show us the selves we struggle to understand, and their potential. It helps to have many different points of view. Grace to be born and live as variously as possible. I’ve been thinking about that line for 15 years. At some point I figured out that a story’s lack can be the story itself, so that’s the one I try to tell—an effigy in its likeness, with a topknot that’s remarkably true to life. Alpacas are wary of people, did you know that? Much more skittish than you might think. Nick said that if you stick around long enough, they start to relax. They can see you’re still a dumb old human, of course, but on some cosmic level they come to regard you as an alpaca. Sometimes they’ll hum to you even though you won’t know what it means.  

Sunday, April 2, 2017

shaky red-faced men of marvel enjoy banner weekend out-worsting one another

Looks like some of the top personalities at Marvel Comics have shifted from unwittingly fanning the flames of their troll problem to inciting violence against a comics critic. As someone who occasionally writes about Marvel, I find this shift alarming. Probably everyone should? It seems to me the next logical step will be stirring up harassment against their own fans. 

I mean, golly. Why (apart from blatant emotional problems) does Mark Waid think that someone should put a fist through a comics journalist's smug-ass face? Well, you see, Jude Terror wrote several articles for Bleeding Cool about how it is absurd, yet in no way surprising, that Marvel decided to blame its lagging sales on “diverse characters” because their core audience “didn’t want female characters out there." I mean, really, will the Diverse ever stop asking Marvel for handouts??

Marvel isn't running a charity, y'all.

Worse than all that, if you can even believe it, Jude Terror had the gall to quote--at length--Marvel’s vice president of sales, David Gabriel, in one of these articles. Out of bounds, asshole!!! Thankfully, Marvel’s dimmest self-appointed spokesboy quickly pointed out that Terror had cherry-picked the five-paragraph quote for his fake news post:

Seriously, science should study this incredible man, who's out there out-worsting himself on twitter dot com seven days a week.

Anyway, I know what you’re thinking: how seriously should we take these veiled threats from Mark Waid and Tom Brevoort? They plainly don’t intend to punch Jude Terror or anyone else in the face, ever--and even if they tried, either one of em looks like he might have a heart attack if he so much as stands up too quickly.

No, I really doubt those guys pose much of a threat. But here's the thing: Waid and Brevoort have a combined Twitter following of 130,000 people—many of whom, according to Marvel’s VP of sales, are the kinds of fans who “didn’t want female characters out there” (i.e., disgruntled white men).

I don't think it's much of a leap to say that those are the kind of followers who might just go to a comics convention and punch someone in the face. Maybe worse.

You know who doesn’t tend to have violent, disgruntled followers? Comics critics who write about social justice. (Also, just as a point of comparison, Jude Terror has 549 followers on Twitter.) Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen Nick Spencer bang on about how criticism (against his consistently bad choices, as both a writer and a person in the world) incites violence...somehow? He's never been too clear on how that works.

Nick...the people who read Women Write About Comics aren't the ones you have to worry about, I assure you. I think all the time about how crazy it is that this guy has appropriated other comics people’s (legitimate) fears, but that’s another post for another day.

(Meanwhile, I can only hope that making fun of Nick Spencer for being a giant pussy isn't inciting violence against him. Let's all pray on it.)

Is there no one on Marvel’s public relations, human resources, or legal teams who’s savvy enough to grasp that Marvel’s employees should maybe not be out in the world representing them in this way? Are there not potential legal implications for your company when your senior vice president of publishing implies that, if he knew a fellow industry professional’s legal name, he would hunt him down and physically assault him? Is there no one in communications who understands that this type of stuff repulses the very demographics that Marvel should be aggressively going after, in terms of sales (...or grasps that the people they seem to consider their core audience don't seem to be buying enough comics)? Could someone in human resources maybe arrange for an anger-management course for the shaky red-faced men of Marvel? Something? Anything? 

My guess is that these are the kind of blind spots you have when you haven’t hired enough “diverse characters” and your company culture sucks. The dumb irony of it is that the absolute smartest thing that Marvel could do for itself is hire some of its most vocal critics as consultants. Do a focus group, at the very least, my god. But since they’re never going to do that, I'll give Marvel a free piece of advice: Poach whoever the social media nazi is at DC. Stat


Saturday, April 1, 2017

unpopular opinions: comics edition

Man oh man, was I full of unpopular opinions today! Somehow I managed to keep all these terribly uncharitable thoughts to myself--not one, not two, not three, but FOUR separate times over the course of just one ding-dang day. That's way, way more discretion than I care to muster. Maybe I can offset my regularly scheduled two to four hours of shitty insomnia with a ritualistic Airing of Grievances. My opinions...they are sort of bad. But they are mine.

1. Peter David can go fuck himself

Oh hey, Comics. Heyyyyy. It's me, Peter David. Quick favor I gotta ask. Boy, this is awkward. It's just embarrassing for me, a racist-ass Man of Comics, to stoop and make myself vulnerable in this way. But, what the heck, here goes: Can you guys give me $88,000? I mean, I know there are trans people who are virtually unemployable because we live in a nightmare world, and that people are crowdfunding their fucking insulin because same, and that every talented comics person on earth who's had far fewer opportunities than me has some magical "Patronus" that converts their actual labor into legal tender, but, like, I just spent a good 20 minutes coming up with this dubious anecdote about my bitch ex stealing all my hard-earned money. OK, look, I'm also willing to (begrudgingly) sign your comic if you'll send me a self-addressed stamped envelope with a check for $88,000 in it. I'm a nice guy, that's why that stupid bitch stole all my money. Everyone says. I'm so nice that if this half-ass blog post manages to reach six figures I'll even appear on your Old White Man diversity panel to discuss how the Actual Poors are out there crippling their young for money like the mongrels criminal swine they are. Please just help me out of this one jam.

Lord. I mean...

Wait, what's that? You think it's in bad taste to comment on someone's financial distress? Uh huh, I get that, but newsflash: I'm the tackiest bitch you know, and also I think this is pretty much unethical. To be clear I'm not at all unsympathetic to this guy's plight. I've been self-employed for most of my adult life and I get it. I really, really do. I totally understand how that situation snowballed, dubious anecdote notwithstanding. David says he's going to use any extra "to pay any taxes due on the new income." he serious?? This guy fully expects fandom to give him $88,000. Can you imagine?

I mean, they probably will.

2. Maybe it's time to give up on Marvel
Um...listen, I'm not going to tell you how to live your life. I myself have written about diversity at Marvel many, many times, which is pretty weird since I don't read Marvel comics. I just feel like maybe the time has come to recognize that Marvel leadership from the C-suite on down to whoever the fuck David Gabriel is consists of deluded garbage people who would probably cripple their own children to make a buck continue not selling comics about Straight White Man in Tights Model No. 1058B-1C. Like...enjoy reading Marvel comics and live with that knowledge, or boycott them forever, or something in between. Whatever you gotta do, you know? I think all of those choices are valid. But this discussion isn't going anywhere, ever, in my humble opinion.

3. Comics Alliance has shuttered forever
I don't care about this at all. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

4. Dan Nadel should promote whoever he wants
I have a lot of random, semi-deranged Mystical Comics Opinions, and while the logical part of my brain understands that this is something I should be ashamed of, it's actually a thing I sort of enjoy about myself. Anyway one of these Opinions is that your preferred editor at TCJ dot com says something about you. Mine is Dan, largely because he's among the few comics people who will admit to having an opinion.

I'm not sure what it would take to persuade me to leave a comment there ever again, so I'll just say it here...Dan Nadel should blog about the cartoonists he's published whenever he feels like it. Some dude left a comment that was all for some reason I find it shocking that a person who's very involved with art would stoop to name favorites and Dan, in what I think must be the only capitulation I've seen him make in years of reading that website almost daily, was all I feel you, I should probably stop doing that. Really?? Countless pieces of feedback about what they should be doing at TCJ--and countless times either one of those guys dismissed it like the smarmy dicks they so often are--and that's the critique that struck a chord?

I mean, editing, or some real attempt at editorial coverage, is one thing; blogging is another. But something that always speaks to me as a reader, whoever the writer and whatever their project is--even a little blog post--is when they talk about something they really believe in. The stuff that they love. Like, I'd go so far as to say that's something people should really cultivate in themselves. If I wanted some fake gesture to objectivity, my fave would be Tim.

Monday, March 27, 2017

comix links/what I've been reading DOUBLE HEADER

Back in February I made a deal with myself to read a book every week, and I've been posting about it here to hold myself accountable. I'm behind! I've been busy lately and I'm so, so behind. But I'm not giving up. Plus I have some comics links? What a special treat for you.

Salem's Lot by Stephen King
I absolutely love vampire stories, so I was a little nervous about rereading this childhood favorite. Needn't have worried: totally holds up. Turns out King's tendency to set stories in hokey small towns pairs particularly well with the theme of 'corrupted by the undead.' There's this one sweeping scene in particular where he describes all these vampires in this tiny town bedding down in their hidey holes that's so, so good.

With this read of Salem's Lot I felt like I really came to understand why Stephen King was so appealing to me as a kid. The main thing, which I feel sure has occurred to literally everyone else who's read a lot of Stephen King, is that some of his best characters are themselves children. Mark Petrie is the best character by a mile in Salem's Lot, and there were an awful lot of well-written kids in his other stories, at least the way I remember it--The Shining, Pet Semetery, It, etc. Firestarter. Carrie. The other big thing is that it's much easier to overlook bad prose and technical flaws when you're a kid because your brain doesn't work so great yet. Recently I was talking about trashy reads with a friend and I mentioned Stephen King and he was all, "I just think good storytelling is good storytelling," and what could I say? I can see you think I'm being a real twit, but I write things for a living, so I guess it's hard for me to overlook when a Storyteller needs a better editor. Anyway Salem's Lot isn't perfect, but I think it's a much better book than The Stand (the last thing I reread).

I think my next Stephen King reread will be The Shining.

The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
I had to read this book for work, but it bears mentioning because this story is seriously bananas like whoa. It's horribly overwritten, but if you can get past that it's this enormously charming and sad (and true) story about these Polish zookeepers who turned their facilities into a sort of Underground Railroad stop for the resistance after Nazis murdered all of their zoo animals. :( There's also all this crazy stuff (that I didn't know, at least) about how the Nazis' ideas about "purity" weren't just about eugenics, but also about the plant and animal kingdoms. For ex, the zookeeper couple knew this other zookeeper in Berlin who became a Nazi officer during the war, and he became obsessed with inbreeding even though that totally went against some of the most basic principles of zoology.

Anyway you've probably heard of this book because there's about to be a big movie? I hadn't, but I'm not on top of these things. It's got Jessica Chastain and everything! Looks terrible, but I recommend the book.

Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
This was another book for work--a collection of the "Dear Sugar" columns that this novelist wrote for the Rumpus a few years back. New Sincerity--that whole thing has been out of fashion for a while, but I have real affection for it. Maybe it's where I am. I live in Chicago these days. I think Dave Eggers and Stephen Elliott read "California," but they both come from here. David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest in Normal, Illinois. (Isn't that perfect?) Sufjan is from Detroit. I'm not sure that Isaac Fitzgerald moving to Buzzfeed symbolized anything so much as maybe he was tired of being poor? The Rumpus seems to be run by a halfwit these days, that's probably not helping anything...

Anyway one of my Opinions is that one day, when we look back on the Snark vs. "Smarm" War, Smarm will be vindicated. I sort of go back and forth between being a snarky person with an earnest streak and an earnest person with a snarky streak. I struggle with sincerity, like I find it really, really admirable but also disgusting? I suspect this is generational, but maybe it was some childhood incident. Point is I think too much of either is not so great, and I'm suspicious of anyone who seems too committed either way.

"Dear Sugar" was an advice column, a form that is repulsive to me. I think people who write advice columns are maybe the most unbearable of us all. But this lady seems mostly okay, if a bit much, and parts of this book were very good.

"White Artist's Painting of Emmett Till at Whitney Biennial Draws Protests" (NYT)
There was a whole thing on Twitter the other day about Peter Bagge's Zora Neale Hurston comic, and I found reading about this other kinda-sorta similar controversy somewhat clarifying. Sometimes questions get framed in a way that people dismiss as incorrect, and thus aren't taken seriously by the people who need to consider them the most. Like...on one level some of the questions being raised around the comic were incorrect. You know, "why was Peter Bagge hired to do this" was answered with "he wasn't"...then the argument sort of shifted to pitting Bagge's extant Zora Neale Hurston biography against a non-existent Zora Neale Hurston biography by a black cartoonist, as though Bagge won out over this other imaginary comic...which finally turned into "why didn't Bagge give this idea to a black cartoonist," the answer to which I think is sort of obvious. But, you know, I read Bagge's Margaret Sanger comic back before I got delisted by D&Q for suggesting that they didn't publish enough women, so I can say with some confidence that it's confusing why anyone thinks his books on "great women in history" or whatever are worth publishing. Like I was mad that I even read it, and that book was free. Totally artless and uninspired. IMO that guy has nothing to say.

Why is Peter Bagge publishing a series about women's experiences at D&Q? Well, I'll tell you why: because D&Q prefers to publish men, by a margin of about 3:1. With regard to race, white to everyone else, that ratio is probably worse. And if you look at artists they "take a chance on" vs. translations, reprints, and artists that otherwise came to them with an established audience? Fucking abysmal. This is a particularly curious choice, given that they're subsidized by the Canadian government. Shouldn't they have more room to take risks?

Then there's the other part half of the equation, the nonblack-artist-depicting-black-experience part. From the Bagge comic thing to the Till painting controversy to the Djann Mann Island cover, there seems to be a standing question about whether or not it's OK for a nonblack person to take on a black subject. And I want to answer that in two ways, with no pretense of having Real Answers, and the obvious acknowledgment of who I am--i.e., the whitest person you know.

I think the first answer, the easy answer, is yes, it's OK. On the level of the artist, yes, OK. What makes it less OK is when nearly all of the representations of black culture that are accepted by gatekeepers into the Holy Institutions--Drawn & Quarterly, the Whitney, whatever it is--are by white artists. Then it's fucking dubious. Then it gets special scrutiny, particularly when the art rehashes stereotypes that are already the status quo, or sterilizes something messy.

The second answer is less straightforward. More of a Mystic Anecdote, really. A few weeks ago, for work, I was talking to the head of curation at the Smithsonian's new museum of African-American art and culture. He was telling me about collecting Emmett Till's casket, the original one, which became available after he was exhumed. Till's mother offered the casket to the museum, and at first they weren't even sure that they wanted it. It was obviously an important historical artifact but it was so charged, so painful, so difficult, that there was like a series of meetings amongst all the curators and the head of the museum about whether or not this was a thing that should even be collected, much less displayed. Eventually they came to the conclusion that it should, and they did. In listening to this story, I felt with absolute certainty that if a staff of (mostly) white people at much pretty any institution were offered that, they would have accepted it immediately.

There's this series of children's mysteries by Daniel Handler, All the Wrong Questions. Sometimes you start with the wrong questions. But this is valuable, in that you come to understand the right ones.

A sad and intimate profile of the late Geneviève Castré's husband (at Pitchfork)
Phil Eleverum has written an album about his late wife's death, and Pitchfork sent a very gifted writer who recently lost a child to profile him. This is just an incredible read--a portrait of Elverum that ends up being a portrait of Geneviève, too. I'm haunted by this description of a "children's book" (not sure if it was a comic?) that she finished before her death:

I mean, Jesus. This is of those things that you know is going to stay with you for a while.

The guy who tweeted a strobe light at Kurt Eichenwald has been arrested
My feelings on this don't seem to be quite so strong as most people's. I mean, the FBI went into the strobe light attacker's twitter and found, like, 20 tweets that were some variation on "After much thought and careful research, I've decided I want to murder Kurt Eichenwald with this strobe light tweet," and that's plainly indefensible. On that level I guess I'm glad that guy is in trouble, because fuck that guy. Where I feel more confused is about the broader implications for the case...haven't yet seen any clear analysis on that. Eichenwald's lawyer argued that a strobe tweet's no different than anthrax and bombs and that seems demonstrably untrue. And on another level still, while I in no way wish Kurt Eichenwald ill, much less want him to die...when Death comes for him, as it must come for us all, please god let him get him be the one person on earth to die by tweets because, seriously, lol.

Admittedly I'm a little hung up on the fact that I think Kurt Eichenwald is a lying liar, which I realize isn't germane, but still. That tweet from his "wife" after the strobe tweet looks soooooo fake. Right? Super fake. I think that's objectively true, and not just my utter contempt for Kurt Eichenwald talking?

Botton line, the best (and safest) way to own Kurt Eichenwald now, as ever, is to tweet him his own picture without comment. Let's just stick with that. You may also tweet as his wife.

Journalist pretends that Kellyanne Conway is human for some reason (at New York magazine)
For me the major takeaway here is that Kellyanne snacks on the exact same gum as Sean Spicer. Like eats the gum as though it were food. What is going on with these people????

Internet Feminists seem to be doing some real soul-searching about what to do with old Kellyanne, which is both dumb and tedious. I think the bigger issue with this particular article is that Olivia Nuzzi is sort of bad at her job.

If you're trying to write a profile that humanizes Kellyanne Conway, I'm going to need something more than "eats gum as though it were food." But also what this writer seems to regard as a surprising air of human warmth comes across to me as Kellyanne palpably playing a role, a character. She just seems so intensely fake?

You know, there's this thing sometimes where reality really is black & white. That's just been one of my takeaways from this life, as an old person. LOL @ this young reporter wanting me to be impressed with her wide-eyed wonder at the humanity of the Trump administration.

How Dilbert's Scott Adams Got Hypnotized by Trump
I feel like anyone who reads this blog has surely read this by now, but I'd be remiss not to include this, one of the most fascinating things I've ever read. The whole first section is sort of a boring rehash of his election-related insanity but after that it's pure wizard magic. Like...from here on out, this article is the only thing I want to talk about with anyone, ever. What's your favorite detail? I have given this great consideration. Right now it is: his two perfectly named religious-themed novellas, The Religion War and God's Debris. But this changes pretty much daily. I'm also obsessed with the part where he forgets how to talk.

I sort of want to read those novellas.

New Trends in Getting Mad Online by Felix Biederman and Virgil Texas
Last in this lineup, but first in my heart, we have the sequel to "The Nine Canonical Responses to 'U Mad'," one of my absolute favorite Internet things of all time. I've considered adapting it for comics many times, but it's too depressing, and anyway it would just be like 9 examples of Nick Spencer owning himself.

This piece is not as good as the original, but it's still very very good. It begins with maybe the truest observation I've seen in a while, or maybe ever:
The act of melting down on the internet...has gone from a niche pastime of crackpots to the central animating force of our politics.
Some of these stories--Jen Kirkman, Jeff Jarvis--I saw unfold in real time, and they were incredible to behold, but the Michael Rapaport story was news to me. Oh my god, it's so good.


Tuesday, March 21, 2017

comics links are back

It's been a while since I've put together some comics links, huh. Not sure what's up with that. I guess subjects like my contempt for All Time Comics and Chester Brown & Dave Sim's feud on prostitution were just so inspiring that they demanded their own longform posts. 

This crop is not quite so entertaining, sadly. And that's because today's secret word is: racism.

Man, today's secret word sucks. Definitely preferred "whoredom." Oh well, let's do these links.

The Island cover art fiasco
The cover for the final issue of Island magazine has been floating around my Twitter feed for a while now.

I only recently learned that it wasn't drawn by a black woman. In fact the artist is Dilraj Mann, some dude who is not black--a fact that people have found objectionable for reasons that are obvious to pretty much everyone, with the possible exceptions of the artist and the guy who hired him.

I'm going to link Darryl Ayo's take first cause it's the most comprehensive and coherent thread I could find among the many different fragmented conversations that have been unfolding across Twitter. It's really worth reading all the way through. Among other things, Ayo talks about the cover, his own work, and other comics artists--black and non-black--who dabble in similar imagery. Lots of personal observations as well as stuff about the line between outsiders drawing caricature vs. creators' prerogative to reclaim a stereotype. I quite like the way that Carta Monir phrased what I took to be a similar thought here:

There's also some good stuff in this roundtable on the cover at Women Write About Comics, which includes analysis and personal reactions from critics like Ardo Omer and J. A. Micheline, who are both black. (Claire Napier's stuff in there is also very astute.) Oh, and this thread from Zainab Akhtar, who manages to pick a side despite being (I think?) friends with pretty much everyone involved. It seems to me that this level of honesty is very rare in comics, where people naturally gravitate towards criticizing the people they don't really care for and fail to step up to the plate when the person under the hot lights is someone they know and/or like. Hey, that's human nature, but I think friendly fire is hugely important in--and almost totally absent from--a lot of comics conversations, so I really respect her willingness to go there.

Let's round things off with some smart thoughts from Ronald Wimberly:

Meanwhile, Island editor Brandon Graham hasn't been handling these critiques so well. Here's a sampling of what he had to say to some of the gang at Women Write About Comics. In the first tweet he's referring to the artist:

Some of the stuff he said to J.A. Micheline was especially uncool:

I mean jeez. Hey Brandon, now that you've had some time to think about it, do you think you should offer JAM an apology?

Okay, then! Great talk.

Here's my take, for what it's worth: if you're going to publish racially charged imagery, the bare minimum of your responsibilities as an editor is to have your ducks in a row in terms of what's being said (or at least what you *think* is being said) and who's saying it (which is more objective). It is not some grave encroachment on artistic freedom to interrogate something that's plainly provocative and potentially hurtful, particularly when it concerns a demographic to which neither you nor the artist belong. 

All that stuff Graham says about not wanting to question the artist's (non) guess is that has as much (or more) to do with him feeling uncomfortable talking about race, particularly with an artist of color, than his ideas about artistic freedom. It's a curious, but very common, comics phenomenon, this disingenuous pose of neutrality:

...belied by a nasty defensive streak that the defender himself doesn't quite recognize as his own:

There's other declarations like this in Graham's feed about appreciating feedback and respecting other people's opinions, but I see very little of those high-minded sentiments in his exchanges with the people who were actually trying to talk to him about the cover. To be OK with being wrong you have to first allow for the possibility of it--a lot of people in comics forget that part. In this case, that begins with Graham accepting some measure of ownership in his own editorial decisions, including his lack of due diligence. If you think it's your duty to publish work that "provokes conversation" or whatever, you should demonstrate some willingness to give the topic your own consideration first. Otherwise you're just asking people to argue for your amusement, edification, and/or profit. (This is the same problem I have with Gary Groth, btw. Have you ever noticed how reticent the champions of "provocative" work are to participate in these conversations they seem to think are so essential to art?) I'd go so far as to say that editors, publishers, etc. have much more of an obligation to discuss this stuff with their audience than the artists making actual the work.

Phoebe Gloeckner's intimate interview with Julia Gfrörer (at TCJ)
In the spirit of the stuff I was saying about Zainab's comments above, I'm including this link, which I had planned to bury in a non-comics post. I'm not friends with Phoebe Gloeckner (though I've interviewed her), but I feel uneasy about bringing this up for a couple of different reasons. My respect for her is one of them.

I ever come upon something that no one else seems to notice or care about and wonder if it's just you? When I'm in a room of smart people, I tend to assume I'm the dumbest one, and while that almost certainly springs from a deep, unfortunate well of intense self-loathing, I think it often serves me well in life. It's good to second-guess yourself sometimes. But then again what if the real source of the second-guessing in this particular case isn't self-doubt? What if, instead, it's just the idle hope that I'm the one person on earth whose fave isn't problematic? And anyway is every little off-color moment on the Comics Journal's website really worth a second glance? Can't a gal just casually drop the n-word apropos of nearly nothing without it being a whole thing on some busybody's scold blog?

[Exhales through teeth] I guess what I'm trying to say is that I find this fucking weird:

I think this is the panel from Flesh and Bone they're talking about? I don't know that comic.

This doesn't read like an allusion to O'Connor to me. Certainly it's not a quote. I mean, if you want to make a case for religion being an opiate of the masses, I can hardly think of a worse text to cite than Wise Blood, a story written by a devout Catholic about an atheist who finds Jesus despite himself.

Much like the stuff I was talking about with the Island cover, my feeling is that if you're going to trot out the n-word in a published interview, you best have your ducks in a row in terms of what it's saying and who's saying it. Bare minimum, it should be germane to your discussion. You're also, at that point, pretty much obliged to talk about race, even if that wasn't what you were talking about in the first place. (But also, you know, probably it should have been what you were talking about in the first place.) You can't just quote someone saying the n-word in service of "atheism is for smart [white] people like me who aren't deluding themselves." I'm sorry, those are just the rules.

I don't use this phrase so often because it doesn't quite feel like my place, but one thing that's going on here is White Feminism. Another thing that's going on is just a total lack of care around a word that demands thoughtful consideration when it's invoked. And a third thing is editorial at TCJ not having the wherewithal to say, oh hey ladies, why don't we consider editing out this bit where you use this word for (a) for no discernible reason (b) in a quote that you're sort of misrepresenting to (c) pat yourselves on the back for not being sheeple. Think about how many pairs of eyes (at least three, probably more) we're talking about from interview to transcription, editing, and finally publication. No one thought to question this?

Of course they didn't. Because this is what you get when you're operating in indie comics, a mostly white space that works under an ethos where "transgression" is always valued and "art" makes anything permissible: two white women having a nice philosophical chat about god and how much more self-actualized they are than n*ggers. (Now that sounds more like a Flannery O'Connor story.) Every time I start to type some uneasy disclaimer about how I honestly don't think that's what's in their hearts (I mean, I really don't), or how I have empathy for Gfrörer, who was thrown a bit of a humdinger there, I just keep looking at that excerpt. Like...that's the text. And it really didn't have to be.

TCJ: more levels of racism than Southern Gothic literature.

Matt Furie wants to save some fucking frogs
Just wanted to take a moment to note that Matt Furie is continuing his brave fight against racism by donating the proceeds of his Pepe gear to help save endangered frogs or some shit.

Never quite saw myself objecting to someone donating money to save an endangered animal, but here we are. Then again, whoever thought I'd want a white power Pepe? (I mean, apart from me. Cause I'm still pretty sure I don't want that.)

If this whole thing doesn't strike you as absurd, I don't know what to tell you. Think harder.

Alan Moore karaokes his own terrible rap music
After I wrote about Alan Moore's Brexit rap a while back, someone on Twitter linked me to this live performance. It is...well, it's incredible.

It sort of reminds me of British cringe comedy in that I feel almost physically uncomfortable watching it, yet it has a certain charm?? V. confusing.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

all time comics: crime destroyer #1

If Hot Topic were to make a commercial in the style of Robert Rodriguez, you’d have something like the live-action trailer for All Time Comics, the new superhero line of floppies from Fantagraphics. Vapid enough to make any Marvel movie seem like masterful storytelling, the trailer is wildly successful in setting the tone for your reading experience. Much like Crime Destroyer #1, the trailer is a pointless waste of money—the difference being that, with the comic, the money will be your own.

Fantagraphics has built its brand on championing sophisticated artists, original ideas, and strong points of view. Given its stable of cartoonists, who are almost all auteurs, many onlookers were surprised when Fanta announced it would publish work that involved such a high degree of collaboration, much less for a genre it has historically regarded with disdain. What surprises me is that Gary Groth took one look at this material and staked “Fanta does superheroes” on a badly regurgitated DC Universe. Gary, baby, I’ve got an idea for a series starring not-Wolverine that’s gonna blow your freaking mind. Action!! Muscles! Big. Ole. Titties. Call me.

Despite All Time Comics’ profound lack of originality, Josh Bayer, the writer who created the series with his brother Sam, likes to describe himself as an innovator. “Every Velvet Underground needs an Andy Warhol behind it,” he said in an interview, humbly characterizing his role as a creator and his brother’s role as the project’s initial financier. It’s an interesting analogy. On one hand, we have the most fiercely original band in rock history, whose avant-garde sensibility shaped the likes of Bowie and Sonic Youth. On the other, we have Josh Bayer pulling a bunch of comics clichés out of his hat without the wherewithal to deploy them in an interesting, entertaining, or even marginally self-aware way. Note how some of Crime Destroyer’s lines (below, left) seem ripped from the journals of Alan Moore’s Rorschach (at right).

The difference of course is that Rorschach was supposed to sound ridiculous. Riddle me this: if Fantagraphics is such a meritocracy, how did this lorem ipsum-grade script, which never should have made it past the first edit, earn the approval of all those discerning eyes? All Time Comics is not a love letter to the comics of old, as some have described it, nor is it parody; it is the comics equivalent of off-brand cereal. 

In assembling a team, Bayer shows some facility, if zero interest in working with anyone who’s not a man. (Not that there are all that many women associated with Fanta, but off the top of my head, Trina Robbins, Anya Davidson, and Katie Skelly all have aesthetics that would have made sense for this project.) Jim Rugg’s cover is a lot of fun even if the characters, from left to right, move inexplicably from more realistic and detailed to cartoonish and abstract. What happened to that purple lump at the bottom? Did our heroes stomp all of the drawing out of him?

Predictably, Herb Trimpe’s pencils are well done (if too busy for my taste). While I like the idea of an intergenerational team, I wonder how much opportunity there was for meaningful collaboration. The disparate styles on the cover echo lightly through the rest of the book. Trimpe’s detailed drawings and Alessandro Echievarria’s oversaturated color palette, for example, sometimes feel at odds with one another. Just a few tweaks would’ve mitigated the problem by a lot; you can see that those big colors are most successful in the panels and spreads where they have room to breathe, and my guess is that a more tightly edited palette would’ve better served the art.

I’m at a loss for how inker Ben Marra fits into all of this—I don’t read superhero comics, so all this teamwork confuses me a little—but there are a few depth-of-field problems I take to be his, that were then perhaps exacerbated by the colorist? Listen, I’m out of my wheelhouse, but there are places where something went wrong.

This fight falls flat...and also looks flat.

I can say with more confidence that the writing is weak. In Issue #1: “Woke Fukitor” “Human Sacrifice,” our hero battles a gang of Satanic white supremacist gutter punk lizard people who dress like pilgrims for some reason. As mixed-up as that may sound, I’m not one to look a gift horse in the mouth: the pilgrim hats are by far my favorite part.

Ah yes, every mother's worst nightmare...finding the dread pilgrim hat. My second favorite part is when Crime Destroyer says he knows the sewers "as well as his own face."

Haha, that's just too good. I know these streets like I know my own FACE. I'm totally going to start saying that.

So that's one thing: I only laughed at this comic, never with it. I think the stuff that's meant to be whacky and fun just comes across as formulaic, and that's at best. At the other end of the spectrum we have its attempt at political commentary, which is just unfortunate. It’s plain that the racially charged plot, which invokes slavery, lynching, and Black Lives Matter, is meant to echo real-world tensions—though to what end, I cannot say. There’s a whole thread about how black people are complicit in their own misery—Crime Destroyer burns down his own store and Anji, a half-black(?) white supremacist, wants to sacrifice herself to Wotan, whoever the fuck that is—but you know what? I’m not even gonna go there. It’s not worth my time, much less yours. Bayer’s heavy reliance on chunky exposition manages to explain nothing, and how could it be otherwise? This is irredeemable nonsense, which I might have been able to forgive had it managed to be the least bit entertaining. A word of advice to the creators as the series moves forward: more pilgrim hats.

Below, on one of the worst pages of cartooning I’ve ever seen in my life, we learn Crime Destroyer’s backstory, such as it is. Once upon a time, Crime Destroyer was a war hero whose family was killed by looters. (I think??) Like...he returns from "the war" to his small town...which is overrun by criminals...doing crimes...who then murder his family, who lived in the store for some reason(?) Crime Destroyer murders the criminals, burns down his house-store, and moves to Optic City to fight the Satanic white supremacist gutter punk lizard pilgrim people. That's the best I can do. The vague, stilted second-person narration is brought to life in six awkwardly arranged bubbles that float hideously over a screensaver featuring Crime Destroyer's disembodied head. It’s as though each person on the ATC team was in competition with whoever went before him to make this page more ugly and confusing as it went through production. The counterintuitive layout, the arrows, the background, those colors, the story itself—there’s just no conceivable explanation for this series of choices other than “hold my beer.”

I’ve compared All Time Comics unfavorably to COPRA (here and here), and character construction is just one more area in which this observation holds up. Despite knowing little about old superhero comics, I immediately recognized the antecedents of Crime Destroyer, whose lack of superpowers, reliance on gadgets, and war against urban blight point straight to Batman; of Atlas, a flying goody-two-shoes with alien powers who’s always blathering about antimatter a la Superman; and of Bullwhip, who is a blatant Wonder Woman knockoff in both character design and her affinity for S&M. Crime Destroyer, with his ridiculous fist-of-solidarity shoulderpads, isn’t the kind of ripoff that’s going to inspire the empty chatter about copyright infringement that surrounds Michel Fiffe, so let’s put it this way: what is an artist’s ethical obligation when he co-opts someone else’s ideas? My own feeling is that if the Bayers are going to model their creations so heavily on seminal characters, they should have something—anything—to say.

That’s a little different than insisting that the work should have a coherent message or be politically correct. I like to joke around about the Fantagraphics guys I call the Post-Dumbs (artists like Marra and Johnny Ryan, who also works on ATC), and the Bayers, with all their heavily stylized stereotypes, seem to fit right in. So far as I can tell the Post-Dumb hustle is in taking loaded imagery, emptying it of meaning, and then decorating its husk with an aesthetic strong enough that people will mistake it for an idea. I don’t know how else to say it: there’s nothing there. Contrast the “satire” of Johnny Ryan with Joan Cornellà, another Fanta artist who makes nonsensical comics that traffic heavily in scatological sex and violence. Cornellà’s strengths are so plain that anyone on the street could tell you what he’s got--arresting images, perfect color palettes, a sense of timing, a surreal sensibility—elements that come together in a way where not quite making sense becomes part of its perverse social commentary. The fuck do those other guys got, apart from a well-respected indie publisher? “Irony”?

Cause that’s the real selling point with All Time Comics, is it not? The sheer novelty of Fantagraphics doing cape comics. That the publisher thinks “are superhero comics art” is even a question says one thing. That it seeks to answer it with this weak, retrogressive claptrap says another. I genuinely wonder who this gimmick is even geared toward. Not to women. Not to superhero comic fandom, surely. Not to the average Fantagraphics reader (meaning folks reading Dan Clowes and Charlie Brown), who is accustomed to buying comics as graphic novels or collections. Anecdotally, my local shop, a regular comics store with a large selection of action figurines and an indie section comprised mostly of books, had never heard of ATC. They had to order it. I imagine I’d have to go to a specialty shop like Quimby’s to find it on the shelf.

And, you know, maybe people are doing that, or ordering it themselves from Fantagraphics. But so far as I can tell, the best way for most people to buy All Time Comics is Comixology. That wouldn’t even be worth mentioning were it not for the author’s note on the inside cover, where Josh Bayer crows about how he’s single-handedly bringing back the pleasures of a bygone era by making a comic book that you can hold in your hands:

The ALL TIME COMICS revolution is just beginning, so tell your friends to switch off “Nyech-flix” and unplug the Galaga console and start paying attention to the real ink, paper, and stapled beauty of ALL TIME COMICS. Paper and ink is the true lifeblood of comics, don’t ya know? And it’s never gone away!

Funny you should say that, Josh, given that literally every other Fanta comic I own has better production values than this thing. (Like…who is he talking to, even? Fanta only entered the digital marketplace for real a year or two back, and it’s hardly their focus. All of my own Fanta comics are on paper. Even over on the corporate comics side, floppies still outsell trade paperbacks and digital by, like, a lot.) This is not to say that ATC looks bad. Clearly a lot of care went into printing this comic, even though it looks and feels disposable. The colors look quite nice. But you know where they look even better? On a backlit screen, where they’re a little less muddy. 

It's just one more example of how everything about the concept and execution of All Time Comics seem deeply confused. Production decisions that were, with old superhero comics, engineered to maximize speed and profit—in-house collaborations, floppy format, variant covers, different titles set in a shared universe—have here been rendered cumbersome, slow, and expensive. Crime Destroyer #1 came out in early March; the next release in the All Time Comics line, Bullwhip #1, is showing a ship date of May 31. At this rate, it seems uncertain that the first four characters will have been introduced by the end of the year—that is, assuming the series lasts that long.

My guess is that it won’t, but who knows? The combination of nostalgia and mediocrity is one that often proves irresistible in today's marketplace, and there's no telling how many of these things are already in production (or what the contracts look like). I hope to see at least a few more issues, anyway, just because I enjoy hate-reading it to an almost unwholesome degree. Josh Bayer has talked about how the series has "a greater significance beyond itself" and how "it stands for all comics," and I agree; for me, it epitomizes everything I dislike about Fantagraphics, alpha bro mall punks, and sexist male comics culture. All Time Comics offers no perspective on the past, and little pleasure in the moment. But it gives me a warm feeling about the future, thinking it will fail.