I'm old enough to have grown up with a set of hardback encyclopedias, and I'm pretty sure the reverence I had for those gilded volumes through my childhood isn't a feeling that has an analog in the world today. My parents kept them in a lit glass cabinet, if you can even imagine. We weren't a lit glass cabinet-type family, but owning a set of encyclopedias was a whole aspirational lifestyle back then. That dumb cabinet, those fake leather covers--it all seemed to me the height of class and intellectualism through my formative years in rural Tennessee.
As an adult, one of my first freelance jobs was writing an encyclopedia article about bearbaiting, a task for which I was ill-equipped in almost every way. Hundreds of years later, I'm still not sure if the word requires a hyphen. I was plainly a fraud, but more alarming than that was the fact that no one seemed to care. There was no council of learned elders debating the finer points of bearbaiting (or botulism or baccarat) in a castle(?) somewhere out there, as I had vaguely imagined. With sudden clarity I grasped something that truly changed the way I understood the world: A lot of people have no idea what the fuck they're talking about, maybe least of all when they're paid to explain something.
But then there's Joe McCulloch. I'm willing to concede that he knows everything. I bristle when men explain things to me (through their writing, or to me, specifically), comics especially. I rarely care, I'm naturally skeptical, and anyway that's not a mode I particularly respect. But there's a sort of zen to a Joe McCulloch explanation that transcends human ego. His words just float before my eyes, uncanny. Correct. With not infrequent turns of phrase that make me jealous. The din of a million other nimble distractions. I mean, man, sometimes that column made me blue. But it never made me bristle, to my recollection.
Comics has plenty of guys who aspire to be walking encyclopedias, people who haven't quite figured out that there's more to the world than whatever it is they think they know about it. Joe outshines that set easily, in part because the questions he asks of comics can't be answered on a messageboard. His clear-eyed writing--sometimes survey, sometimes history, and sometimes closer to pure criticism--particularly on works I would never think to give the time of day, is always good storytelling and sometimes real art. He offers something without stooping to prove.
Anyway, today's the last day of Joe's long-running column at the Comics Journal. I hope he turns up somewhere else soon. There's a lot of stuff I still don't understand.