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(?)...so 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.
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6 comments:

  1. Kim, a lot of what you’ve said here describes my reading experience with this comic pretty accurately so I have to say thanks for the confirmation that I’m not crazy for intensely disliking this thing while a lot of people gush over its excessiveness.

    Ultimately, where I came down on this thing is that I see it as being an expression of the fetishisation of a strange collage of comics’ print-medium traits and references to artistic production aesthetics, the latter of which have been curated in accordance with a logic of taste that I struggle to find a connection to. Bayers’ nonsensical worship of print, that you singled out, makes sense in that light as an expression of his personal affinity for the amorphous idea of “comics” that he maintains in his mind. I suspect, given the pulpy newsprint that this comic is printed on, that Bayer and co. have fond memories of reading 70s/80s-era comics as kids and that ATC’s object-design is meant as an evocation (an empty one in my mind) of the feeling they had reading those comics or the feeling they have now when going longbox-trawling for finds that promise the frisson of a pop-surrealist encounter, that kind of halting moment one can get from trying to understand the absurdity of a pulpy product produced from a perspective distanced in time and environment.

    I think Marra’s inking style fits into this fetishisation of aesthetics too. It looked to me like he was incorporating a variety of references from Wally Wood-like fine-feathering to Mike Royer’s blotchy inks over Kirby’s pencils in the 70s to the Liefeldian ruled straight-line hatching and flares of light off metallic surfaces – the purpose being to make images that resonate with a particular feeling, the problem being that this feeling is entirely tied to the relationship that readers have developed to that kind of art, devoid of its content.

    I read the social commentary stuff that you mentioned as another component of Bayers’ attempted evocation of a type of comics, specifically the socially conscious comics of the 1970s that were coming out of Marvel and DC from writers like Steve Gerber, Denny O’Neil et al. The fact that it was so clumsily worked into the story and barely held together as a consistent allegory felt to me like it was intended as another piece of aesthetic set-dressing rather than an earnest attempt at making a (misguided) political statement.

    For me, this was a comic that was all surfaces; there was nothing I could find to hold on to. Like I said, I ended up honing in on the fine aspects of what I though Marra might have been doing with his inking because I was bored by everything else; but then I had to check myself and ask “what’s the point?”. If this series is meant to be taken as a recovery of the superhero genre into the realm of art-comics by way of irony then I think it failed at that by being nowhere near self-aware enough to pull that off. I can’t help but think of the superman analogue, Atlas, whom the comic presents as a symbol of white male privilege, as being the perfect stand-in for the creators themselves…

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    1. Thanks for this. All the reviews I read except for one were pretty complimentary/superficial, so it's nice to see someone else dig in a little. All your observations about the production stuff sound spot on. It strikes me as a real lack of imagination and artistry to try to evoke that fond childhood memory by literally recreating the object. It seems to me that approach is always going to fall short. Apologies in advance for bringing up copra AGAIN, but there's an interview out there somewhere where Fiffe talks about how his goal is to really make each individual issue feel special--like reading it is an event. Here Bayer's making indie comics with this false sheen of mass production. It doesn't serve the art. It doesn't serve the reader. What's he going for, a sense memory? This is shitty newsprint, not Proust's madeleine. You want to inspire a sense of wonder...and ideally you're doing that even for the people who don't necessarily share your same background and experiences. You want to take a memory and translate it, to make people understand.

      Can't really comment on the inking stuff, which is over my head...not a fan of the feathering, though. I think describing it as a comic of surfaces is correct. And I dunno, if they're aiming for a rollicking good time with a totally meaningless story, I'm having a hard time understanding why they'd kick things off with the subject of race relations in modern-day America?? I understand that Marra does a lot of these heavily stylized racially-charged stories on his own time, too, and to me these are telling choices. You're right, Atlas is the perfect stand-in.

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    2. Fair warning: I'm going to take your repeated invocations of Fiffe's work on Copra as permission to get a little indulgent in what I'm about to write (I've just finished reading the first four rounds of Copra trades for the first time and I'm still a little caught up in the afterglow of that experience).

      I liked your reference to what Bayer was doing as "making indie comics with this false sheen of mass production" - it's like he's trying to absorb himself in the idea of replicating the efforts of the numerous renowned greats of the medium; the people who submitted themselves to gruelling production schedules and were nevertheless able to produce work that has had a lasting influence beyond what it's pulpy roots would lead one to expect. You can draw a parallel between that kind of attitude and Fiffe's comments about "breaking the Kirby barrier" which similarly refer to the idea of giving yourself over to past production methods as a means to inspire creativity. There's an obvious difference, though, between the way this attitude works for the ATC project and the way it works for Fiffe's Copra, and what it comes down to, I think, is sentiment vs action.

      The attitude around ATC strikes me as bluster that neatly fits into the project's aesthetic of pastiche but isn't working to generate anything more interesting than that. When you look at how Fiffe's allowed his regular production schedule to affect his work, you can see the way that he's been forced to grow and adapt as a result - those issues from 13 to 18 were a marked leap forward in his ability to inject himself personally in the writing and the issues from 19 to 24 were a further refinement of his staging of illustrated combat and his balancing of propulsive plot momentum with pauses for revealing character moments. You can also see how his deadline-oriented mindset has encouraged a spirit of uninhibited experimentation that produces, on the whole, more hits than misses.

      I think your framing of Fiffe as a translator of a feeling or experience is particularly apt. The more Copra you read, the more you're able to pick up the impression of a person taking all these influences and obsessions, internalising them, and then throwing them down on the page. The Copra comics bear Fiffe's undeniably personal mark. This is obviously so in the visual sense, most notably in his brushwork which bears the literal mark of his hand (so thick and unladen with ink are his brushstrokes that you can easily imagine the physical motion that resulted in their laying down on the page) but also in the less easily summarised aspects of his style (things like his staging of action, the way he chooses which lines to render with a fine nib and which to leave to his bold brush marks, the way he uses colour pencils to shade forms, or the way he incorporates vibrant flat colours or splashes of ink wash as accents).

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    3. On top of Fiffe's idiosyncratic visual style you've also got the writing which I saw as taking and even more drastic turn to the personal from issue 13 onwards. For instance, in Lloyd we get the well-trodden trope of the character marching towards the void in the pursuit of vengeance but interpreted through the idea of violence as process, an act committed repeatedly as a means of deliberately distracting oneself from the meaninglessness of existence. I think you can draw a line between that and an expression of some of Fiffe's own potential anxiety around his own mindset of distraction, the connection providing a possible explanation for why he's resolved to produce work at such a rapid clip. You don't have to make that kind of assumption, though, in order to see that Fiffe's been able to inject the trope of violence executed with mindless abandon with vitality through the specificity with which he relates Lloyd's experience.

      These nuggets of lived and understandable experience can be found littered throughout the way he writes all of his characters after issue 13 (which I see as the pivotal turning point of the series). Things like Wir's casual estrangement from his friends that gives way to a more profound estrangement from human compassion, or the way that Xenia develops agoraphobia and plunges into a state of depression when she begins to fear that she's no longer in control of her own destiny, and the way these are each written with nuanced detail and drawn in different formal modes that best match the narrative content - these are just a few examples of the way I felt like Fiffe was taking all of the things he was referencing and adding something back. So I definitely agree with you that Fiffe is doing something with what he's riffing off whereas ATC looks to be making little effort to be additive.

      Even if you choose to look at Crime Destroyer through the lens of "comics as performance" that Abhay applied in his essay on Copra (this being the reading I think is most generous to Crime Destroyer), it falls apart for all the reasons of bad comic book storytelling that you pointed out in your review and the fact that it's playing to such a specific set of tastes. There's also the troubling identity politics stuff that you mentioned too - this particular comic read to me like the blaxploitation ethos had been applied to the #blacklivesmatter movement and that just felt far too cynical a narrative ploy for me to get behind.

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    4. Oh man, I wish more people left comments here about copra. The stuff you’re talking about with Fiffe’s riffing and mark-making, I’m almost always going to prefer work that feels more personal like that; that’s a matter of personal taste. More objectively I think one of Copra’s strengths is how it draws out the idiosyncrasies of the work that it’s referencing. Like it emphasizes the specialness of these mass-produced things. All Time Comics sort of does the opposite, directing all of your attention to the stuff that was rote. Copra showed me something I found repulsive through someone else’s eyes; it was transformative in that way. All Time Comics just recapitulates and even emphasizes the stuff I found repulsive about those old comics in the first place.

      There’s a lot to say here about authenticity and what one takes that to mean. Is it about honoring the spirit of a thing, or historical reenactment? There’s also something to say about tradition and which parts of it you wish to carry forward. I see Fiffe really honoring these guys that came before him, but he isn’t lionizing them. He isn’t saying “their way was THE way.” He’s saying, like, look at their incredible enthusiasm, this incredible creativity. Isn’t it crazy? Isn’t it cool? Isn’t that something you want to be a part of? By contrast All Time Comics feels so fake, so hollow, so soulless. As an object it’s sort of wearing this costume, pretending to be something that it’s not. That author’s note? I don’t believe what Josh Bayer saying to me. That mean review of Johnny Ryan (who works on ATC!) on the back page? Am I supposed to be impressed that this comic is willing to criticize its own or something? I don’t know, it just comes across as dickish behavior that makes me want to have nothing to do with comics in the first place. I don’t want to be a part of any of that! I don’t find it fun or exciting or interesting in the least.

      I guess you could say that making a historical reenactment comic is a valid choice--and a different choice--than a comic like Copra. (As you say, even if you’re willing to grant that, the comic fails on its own terms.) But I can’t really regard it as a valid choice, given all the Fantagraphics identity stuff that I keep blathering on about. You know, one time I saw a Fanta cartoonist gloating about their faith in curation, their belief in the Fanta dumpster, etc, and whenever Gary Groth gets pushed on “diversity” issues he inevitably answers something about Fanta being a Grand Meritocracy and it’s all about the greatness of the art blah de blah de blah. It's a huge part of the culture, and it's such a gross lie, which isn’t to say they don’t publish great work and haven’t done important things.

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