Monday, December 31, 2018

my favorite comic of 2018

Someone new comes to town. Someone goes away. There are only two plots in all of literature, a late mentor once told me, and it’s only now I realize he was paraphrasing another dead novelist. I think in comics there’s undue focus on innovation—on who came first, and what comes next—when most of the time it doesn’t matter. If there are only so many ideas, what’s important is the articulation. It isn't about who has an idea so much as who conveys it in a manner, in a time, in a place, so that the idea feels like it's speaking to you.

My favorite comic this year is an eloquent exploration of not one, but both, of the classic storylines in just 14 pages and a few hundred words. Four months after her daughter was born, the cartoonist Geneviève Castrée was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She was dead before the girl turned two. In between, Castrée made A Bubble, a children’s board book about their time together that was published posthumously. It is a story that could’ve easily been weighed down by sentimentality, conveyed with a lightness of touch as effervescent as the book’s central metaphor. 

The artist’s conceit of suspending herself in a soap bubble was of course a reference to the isolating nature of Castrée’s illness, which had its own demands. (“That’s what the bubble book was about,” her husband told Pitchfork. “She knew that she was shut off from us and the people that she loved.”) And yet it seems to me the bubble also conveys a certain intimacy, a nod to the almost otherworldly relationship between mother and child in those first years of life. A bubble’s surface is semipermeable, and Castrée’s daughter appears inside and outside its barrier, or sometimes both.  

Every page, with the marked exception of the book’s only spread, is a portrait of mother and daughter on an unadorned background, as though they live in a world where nothing else exists. The story takes place during that liminal time when a child begins to grasp the concept of the autonomous self, and a mother learns how to let go. To build a bridge, Castrée wrote the book from her child’s point of view, and drew herself into places where she never was, and never will be. A Bubble is, on one level anyway, a mother’s lament. Many readers will relate to Castrée’s ambivalence about working too hard, I think. 

But as much as this is a folk tale, it is also one woman’s story. It must have been a strange and heavy task for Castrée to compose what she surely knew to be her final work of art, and stranger still to balance the personal, painful nature of the story with its public consumption (which she planned). What we are privy to, as this late woman’s readership, is her effort to preserve a time that her small daughter will not likely remember. This is heirloom-quality drawing, down to the lovingly rendered textiles that comprised the Elverum family’s real clothes. The book’s most magical imagery, from the single spread I mentioned before, reminds me of the work of Frida Kahlo, with fauna and wildlife serving as emblems of the family’s home in the Pacific Northwest. Like Castrée, Kahlo knew pain and suffering, and there’s a powerful melancholy magic in how both women imagined life beyond the confines of their beds and bodies. 

Eternity no longer appears as such, but only as refracted through the most ephemeral of things. I think Castrée’s strength as a cartoonist was in her ability to locate truth in contradiction. The great irony of A Bubble is that the artist died before she ever drew a single bubble on the page, leaving the work incomplete. I suppose there’s some technical reason that she saved the bubble for last (a task that was ultimately carried out by her friend Anders Nilsen, per his remarkable essay for The Comics Journal), but I find myself wondering about the significance of that membrane—and its absence—in this story about life and death. It is there, and it also isn’t there, a marvel in all its porousness and integrity. In art, in memory, in progeny, there is a sense in which we persist when we’re gone. On the back cover of the book, the artist walks off the page. She doesn’t saunter into the abyss, to the right, but exits left, as if she’s returning to the story inside. Castrée’s daughter trails behind, blowing bubbles. 

A dumb quirk of human existence is how our most fundamental experiences, birth and death, transcend understanding. Too often mistaken for child’s play, the purpose and privilege of imagination is to answer these failures of intellect. Our stories are simple, but rarely easy. Someone comes to town, he told me. Someone goes away. 

Sunday, July 8, 2018

"celebrating" steve ditko

I don't know much about Steve Ditko, but I've always found him relatable. To feel compelled to participate in comics, yet want to keep its culture at arm's length...well, I guess you're either the kind of person who finds that incomprehensible, or someone who thinks that sounds relatively normal and sane.

There's always been an unsettling degree of fan entitlement surrounding Ditko, but I didn't understand its extent until the last few days. Since his death was announced on Friday there's been an outpouring of intensely sociopathic stories from the people men who stalked him, pestered him, or asked him for favors, presented as though they're some sort of celebration of his life and work. It's incredible to me how often Ditko is the person in these stories who's regarded as cranky or crazy or rude. A common misconception these guys seem to have is that they were offering Ditko some sort of favor. What I see anyway is that they wanted something from him, and felt aggrieved when they didn't get it. Maybe they wanted to talk to him, like the time my nemesis harassed Ditko under the auspices of a mainstream magazine. Maybe they wanted to offer their work up for Ditko's consideration. (What a treat, for him!) Maybe they wanted to offer Ditko the exciting opportunity to collaborate with a stranger, or to pay their respects by turning up at his workplace to stare at him like he was an animal in the zoo.

I was astonished to read this account from Eric Reynolds, associate publisher of Fantagraphics, about the time he and Gary Groth visited Ditko's studio:
"Soon after the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie came out in 2002, Gary Groth and I were on business in NYC one day and had a few hours to kill. Gary said, "Wanna meet Steve Ditko?" It sounded good to me. We showed up at Ditko's 5th Ave. studio and knocked on the door. Ditko answered in a dirty white t-shirt and pants that looked like they also needed a good wash. [Cool detail, Eric!] Although he knew Gary and didn't seem unhappy to see him, we were not exactly greeted hospitably [What is the correct amount of hospitality with which to greet two people--one of whom is a stranger--who turn up unannounced?]
Ditko somewhat carefully slid through the door without opening it widely, into the hallway, conspicuously not inviting us in. [Perhaps this was a hint?] I did my best to peek through the door and get a sense of his working space but couldn't see much. [This is gawking, and most people consider it rude.]
That said, Ditko was actually relatively friendly and despite not inviting us in, he proceeded to talk to us in the hallway for 90 minutes or more. [hmmmm] At some point, conversation turned to the Spider-Man film, which was raking in money at that time. Ditko seemed disinterested in the money - he was much more concerned with receiving credit for his (co-)creation, and clearly resented the victory laps that Stan Lee was taking in the media at the time. If I had one takeaway from the conversation, it's that he palpably hated Stan Lee. Much more than he liked money, despite clearly living very modestly.
I remember Gary pressing Ditko on the nuances of his philosophy about this (insisting that Ditko should be making money off the film and not be content with a simple credit in the film.) [Is there perhaps a distinction to be made between a "philosophy" to be argued and a personal choice?] Groth and Ditko went back and forth about this for awhile, and at times Ditko seemed to genuinely enjoy having someone to spar with on an intellectual level, but eventually he became a bit agitated and asked us to leave as semi-politely as he could. [...after 90 minutes of what sort of sounds like a condescending lecture to a 74-year-old man about his choices.
It was a great conversation that I wish had been recorded, despite being one that I mostly tried to stay out of the way of and just soak in. Sadly, 16 years later, it's already fading from memory. RIP, Steve Ditko! You deserved to outlive Stan Lee."
For Eric Reynolds, this encounter was a once-in-a-lifetime meeting that he imagines should have been recorded for posterity. For Ditko, by every indication, it was an annoyance that happened all the timeHere's the thing: there's a fundamental difference between having respect for someone's work and being respectful towards them as a person. I don't want to single out Reynolds in that he's one of many, many people who seems incapable of making this distinction. They aren't necessarily bad people, but fandom is a form of blindness. It inspires a form of pathological self-involvement that can be dehumanizing to the people we wish to honor most. Take Brian Michael Bendis, who seems to think that Ditko should have found his own exploitation touching. Seriously, this is crazed:

A more enjoyable genre of Ditko anecdote (for me, anyway) is the people sharing their "hate mail"--i.e., feedback they requested and received. (I would pay 50 US dollars for a coffee table book of these letters.) This one from Fred Van Lente isn't a pure example, since the hate mail was actually solicited by Dave Sim for some reason (lol), but anyway Van Lente offered it as an example of Ditko's "legendary prickliness." To wit:
"Sim had written me to say he enjoyed me and Ryan Dunlavey's Comic Book History of Comics. He had been corresponding with Ditko on an unrelated matter and somewhat puckishly said he had forwarded the Marvel origin issue on to him to see what he thought. Sim (and I) were both surprised when Ditko wrote him back write away, and Sim forwarded the reply along to me. This is it."

"The assertion that it was a "personal fantasy" was a little puzzling since the part of the story was comprised of entirely of cited quotations by him in his later writings and anti-Marvel/Lee political cartoons. I mean, if it was a "personal fantasy," *he* was the person, you know what I'm saying?"
Yeah, actually, I know exactly what Van Lente is saying. He's saying that his appropriation of Ditko's words, used for his own purposes, somehow made more sense than Ditko's understanding of his own life, presented on his own terms. I guess I disagree.

Here's Chris Ryall with another "perplexing response" from Ditko that is in fact stunning in its simplicity:

Chris, allow me to translate this gnomic text: Ditko thought your comic fucking sucked. You know, he could have been nicer about it. But when you consider how much time Ditko put into reading and responding to piles of comics he ~inspired~, it seems more than fair. I don't find it outrageous that Ditko took no satisfaction in having inadvertently spawned a stack of comics he didn't care for. I have a harder time understanding the pride with which so many people have been sharing stories like this. My own feeling is that anyone who truly respected Ditko would have left him alone or, at the very least, shown some humility when he didn't respond to their overture.

I don't mean to glorify Ditko's personality (which I find, in turns, sad and endearing), his reclusive ways, or his Randian beliefs. But I do want to float an idea I've been thinking about with regard to a different comics story: The "comics community" as it's championed in the broadest sense has never really been about the people. It celebrates the work. All too often it celebrates the work at the artist's expense. Ditko was exploited by Stan Lee and Marvel Comics, and as a reward he got to spend the rest of his life vetting thousands of tiny (often well meaning) acts of exploitation from the people who admired him. I don't wish to present this as a tragedy. Understand it was a failing.

Given the way that Ditko was treated by Marvel and, later, other industry players, it seems to me an extraordinary act of generosity that he continued to make comics at all, much less until the end of his long life. It's a shame that it was never widely regarded as enough. The salient question is: What would have been?

Friday, June 15, 2018

unpopular opinions

Occasionally on social media there will be a thing where people confess their "unpopular opinions." A true coward's meme, the UOs is where people unload takes that they've privately long believed to be clever, but are too boring for normal people to talk about. As it happens I have one of the last opinions on earth that is truly out of step with every corner of society: I hate Mr. Rogers.

I hate Mr. Rogers now, I hated him when he was alive, and I hated him most of all when I was an actual child. Fucking haaaaate. Not just him, but also his hateful slippers, his nightmare cast of puppets (especially that ruddy faced one, not to be too unhinged but that puppet was seriously a cunt), hate his slow way of talking, his whole condescending way of being.

I always secretly took this to be one of the most fundamental things about my personality, and possibly the key to everything that's wrong with me, but recently my mom revealed that it was a simple case of modeling. "Oh, I think you got that from me," she said. "That simpering tone of his, I honestly couldn't stand it." My childhood role model was the Cookie Monster, which was maybe a more pure antecedent. I'm still living his values to this day.

I've been waiting my entire life to confess this unpopular opinion, but after this year, which seems to be the Mr. Rogers centennial or something (?), I figured I'd have to take it to the grave. Well anyway I guess tonight's my night because I'm deeply, unreasonably, characteristically irritated by the take that Rob Rogers being fired from the Pittsburgh Whatever is some grave affront to democracy. Oh, you're talking about the guy who drew this?

I honestly can't believe I have to say this: This is a terrible cartoon. TERRIBLE. Terrible on every conceivable level on which a piece of "art" can be bad. Terrible even for the (almost uniformly) shitty genre of political cartooning, which is itself inconceivably terrible. I'm not even cherrypicking! Literally every spiked cartoon of this guy's I've seen is this degree of bad. Of course they're running them all at the Nib, lol. Let freedom ring.

It's honestly amazing to me that people care about this? Rob Rogers and Ted Rall? American heroes, the first line of the First Amendment in the good old U.S.A.?

*holds up that one cunt-faced puppet* These people are idiots, and they are actively making us all dumber. *flaps her horrifying toothless mouth for emphasis* GET A GRIP

Saturday, June 9, 2018

tonight I'm thinking about anthony bourdain

Heavy week's going out heavy. I don't know if you read this. My nephew's fourth birthday is next week, so a year younger than the boy in the story. I've been making him this little book about his life. Going through pictures. Kids are unhinged narcissists like everyone else but they don't have to hide it yet, so I know he's going to love it. His father's been out of town these last two weeks; just knowing the magnitude of this (very real) anxiety and sadness his father's absence for a *business trip* has introduced into his life gives me some perspective on what that article is talking about. My brother-in-law has sent him a postcard every day he's been gone. My sister put the first one in his carseat for him to find, texted me about how solemn he became when she told him what it was. "It looks very special," he said, and clutched it to his fucking chest. He's not quite as maudlin as me yet but he's getting there. I have full faith I'll have him listening to one of those Whole Foods muzak kids' version of the Cure's oeuvre by age five at the absolute latest. Anyway reading the NYT thing I feel connected to the little boy in the story in this distant muted distinctly American way. Reading it I feel things that are bigger than me, things I can't understand but sort of make me want to die, and there are times I don't know where to put it or a constructive outlet to channel it into or know what number to call and ask for the manager because that's how my kind handle these things.

I was reading Ronan Farrow's new book these last few days, about the death of diplomacy in American government. I guess I knew a lot of it already but he's a writer, like a writer-writer, and seeing it all laid out in this way that was so stark was also something. I recommend it. At the center of it were these two old-school diplomats, including a woman I'd never heard of who was the last American with a human heart in Pakistan. She was prosecuted by the government for espionage for stuff like having dinner with Pakistanis, because we're in a time and place and point in the War on Terror where there's no longer a framework to recognize that as a thing that someone who works for the Foreign Service might wish to do. Richard Holbrooke worked so hard to get Obama's administration to turn away from literal warlords committing unspeakable atrocities in the name of fighting the Taliban to maybe get some money to some fucking farmers that his actual heart burst in his chest. That's how hard he cared about Afghanistan. You know, he died and that was that.

So anyway that's been the week in my brain leading up to today, to Bourdain. One of our last Great Diplomats. I say that with absolutely no exaggeration. Bourdain was also someone who meant something to me on more of a personal level, not because I knew him but because I could see myself in him. He was someone else who lived more than one life and it's wild when you see someone else who got away with it, who's walking around and talking about it all in the right way, a piece of your story expressed through this person who has--who had--a much, much better personality. Bourdain didn't have that repulsive self-glorifying tendency of every writer I ever admired growing up. I always thought that was because before he was ever a Writer, he had an actual job. He had this attitude of humility (not as a celebrity, but as a person in the world) that I found relatable. I hope I have it too.

In my twenties I was in New York for a month; it rained the whole fucking time but a highlight was a visit from my friend Kevin and the night we went to Les Halles. I think Bourdain had already moved on by that point, but it was just this emotionally charged thing of visiting this place that had been so important in the life of someone we both idolized. Kevin and I grew up in this dumb town, both people who were super interested in humor and food in a place where there wasn't a lot of interest in those things. Bourdain was an international phenomenon from the beginning I guess, but these were still the early days of internet, where you felt like you were really finding something, like it was yours.

By total fluke I came across an incredible story about Bourdain yesterday, not even 24 hours before he died. This is Ben Rhodes, the big Obama guy who has a new memoir that I was skimming for work.

I feel just as self-conscious as everyone else who's been talking about this today...but I'm grateful to have come across it. I have a feeling, knowing Bourdain got to hear that. It's a lesson too, that you can mean something like that in someone else's life and not even know it. I'm adding it to my list of things to think about when I feel these things that are bigger than me. Pulling down his books from my shelves and maybe cook myself a steak. It's a hard world, and Bourdain's gift was never letting us lose sight of that, even as he offered it all up like a jewel.


Thursday, April 12, 2018

disgruntled comics links

Who doesn't love some serious ass after-school special comics links? Literally everyone, including me, you say? Sounds like we're in my wheelhouse. Let's jump right in.

1. Brandon Graham has been accused of misconduct
If you're reading this, I have to imagine you're aware that cartoonist/critic Carta Monir recently tweeted a warning to women, and especially trans women, about her fellow comics maker Brandon Graham. I'm going to (try to) set aside my own take in the service of some more general observations and questions. Is that the right choice? is one question, and though I've thought on it the answer remains an immutable I don't know.

I think people tend to stop at I don't know, when maybe that's the place you have to begin.

An indisputable fact is that Carta's tweet made some information that had been in a whisper network more explicit. In this the truth or falsity of the whispers' content is beside the point; this is only to say the content existed. (I know because I heard it from people who aren't Carta long before this ever happened.) In this, Brandon Graham is not especially unusual; I've heard whispers about plenty of other people, too, and obviously the ones I've heard represent only a small fraction of all the whispers there are. It's just this thick undercurrent of shit that most people, most of the time, prefer to imagine isn't there. I think a lesson the Aziz Ansari scandal imparted was that, to some degree, a lot of people regard sexual misconduct that's not straight-up nightmare rape as distasteful--a matter that polite society has no place discussing. Like it's something that should be worked out behind closed doors. If Me Too is a reckoning, it's only the tip of the iceberg in that most of these discussions remain underground. Personally? I feel nothing but gratitude any time some piece of information makes its way to me, even if I'm unlikely to need it, but it comes with a heaviness - a sense of responsibility that is neither logical nor actionable, beyond a point. So there's both horror and relief in understanding I'll never hear most of it.

What does it mean, just in general, to make a whisper network public (or at least less private)? That's a whole fraught thing, as the Media Men List made clear. We have imperfect tools in this imperfect world, and there are drawbacks. (Did you see the Comics Men List? It was...not good.) Again, zooming out from the specific content of Carta's tweet, and any consideration of its veracity - that tweet was objectively more responsible than an accusation couched in an anonymous list. It was, explicitly, a warning, even if it was a vague one. Now, you can also choose to view the content of her tweet as some sort of Brandon Graham takedown, but there is a larger sense in which publicizing a whisper network (to whatever degree that's even possible) takes the onus off women to keep each other safe by transfering these difficult and clandestine and sometimes personal conversations that usually happen amongst ourselves as opportunity allows into a more public forum. It is a sad and futile thing, a whisper network--a patch that attempts to address a problem that's on our minds, but largely out of our hands. Going public with a piece of information helps normalize discussions about violated boundaries, about harassment, assault. Rape. These things are happening all the time, yet are very hard to talk about under the best of circumstances. It's that much more difficult when they brush up against your livelihood.

Comics as a "community" is never even going to begin talking about accountability for predators if we can't find some way to broach these conversations. "What is okay, and what is not okay?" is (at least at this point) a more useful question than "What, exactly, did Brandon Graham do?" Comics outlets that gleefully opined on 2dcloud's issues earlier this year aren't going to touch this story with a 10-ft pole, dismissing it as gossip or in-fighting, but of course that's not quite what whisper networks are. At what point would a comics site deign to acknowledge that this semi-public whisper exists, much less take a side? Probably only if Brandon ends up thoroughly disgraced, and maybe not even then. But listen: it shouldn't wait. These conversations are difficult and uncertain and risky, and women have been shouldering all of that, forever. For any man who's been accused, specific consequences--whether they're taken by an employer, a conference, a publisher, a website, whatever--are one thing, but I'm not sure that we'll ever get around to talking about the circumstances under which those consequences are even on the table if we can't first find a space, however uncertain, where we stop regarding this as holding a referendum on one man and start making room for women (for anyone, actually) to air grievances without being treated like pariahs. Discussing consequences doesn't always have to be the end goal, because frankly that's not always appropriate. And even when it is, it is in some ways secondary. Punitive measures can only go so far as a deterrent; a much more effective deterrent, to my mind, is to create a cultural climate in which it's more difficult for predators to quietly do their thing. It's like putting a bell on a cat.

Meanwhile, people will whisper, whether it's about Brandon or someone else, because that's what they've got. Also, they will watch. Carta's tweet is a canary in the coal mine for whisperers of all stripes. Whisperers are watching Brandon Graham, who at one point said he would invite more specific accusations. That's certainly possible, though it might be easier said than done; he has reacted with some hostility to light criticism of his work in the past, which was a far less personal matter. The whisperers are watching Brandon's circle--the people he knows and the fans who are speaking up for him--who, thus far, have been more outspoken and defensive and, in some cases, aggressive than he himself has been. (That's how comics works, as a rule; cf. Chris Sims.) And maybe most of all they're watching Carta, who (so far as I can tell) has received way more blowback and harassment with regard to this than Brandon has, or will. These are real individuals in a specific situation, and I don't want to minimize that - but they are also emblematic. You could sub in other actors for Brandon or for Carta and I think events would unfold in a similar (if not precisely the same) manner.

All to say that I'll wager that, in watching all this, the whisperers are feeling somewhat discouraged. Reader...consider the possibility they're watching you.

2. A digression
This isn't a link, but indulge me for a minute:

It was my birthday last week, one of the weird ones. One of my oldest friends had their own weird bday exactly one week prior, so we decided to go somewhere to commiserate. Much of our time involved sitting or floating in warm water and not looking at phones, which was predictably good. (This level of activity is about all I'm capable of now, as an Old.) There was a pool, I guess it had a lot of salt in it or something, so it gave you this uncanny buoyancy. I honestly can't think of anything I'd rather do than float around like a corpse all day. That's the sort of mood I've been in this year.

Anyway my friend and I would corpse-float for these long periods of time, and when we'd reconvene, they'd always been thinking these really deep thoughts about the future, reflecting on this milestone, whereas I was just like...I really thought that by this age I'd be better at putting on eyeshadow. Frankly I just pictured myself as being better at makeup by now; that had seemed to me a thing that would come with time. I have a natural shallowness that I try not to worry about too much, or maybe I just don't always care about the same things that other people tend to care about. I don't know. But anyway what with the world being the way it is lately, this shitty birthday, and just a difficult year, personally, even I have had to give some level of thought to the limited time we have in this life, and whether or not the things I'm doing make me happy. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I'm increasingly unsure that comics is one of those things. This isn't my 'fuck it, I quit' moment. Just like...I don't feel too good about it lately.

Part of that's discussing things like in item #1 (bit of a downer), but some of it's more personal. I like reading about comics, I like talking about comics, writing about comics, all of it. But a part I don't enjoy so much is some of the baggage that comes with it, some of the people we keep around, and how bad we are at sticking up for each other. Sometimes I hesitate to talk about small things anywhere near a conversation about bigger things because that's not a shift in gears that people seem to understand, but to me these problems have always felt to some degree related. I think some folks have trouble trusting that anyone has a sense of proportionality, and so they conclude we can't discuss anything or anyone without sending them to comics jail or throwing books on the comics bonfire. They worry these discussions can't have nuance, which might be because they themselves are incapable of nuance. This is a working theory.

Anyway I don't have some explosive story, or any one anecdote that encapsulates this feeling. Just a vague wish that I could put whatever I'm going to put out into the world without getting back something weird and upsetting, such as (for ex) a long public "debate" on my thoughts on Crumb fuckability run by an industry professional who looks like this:

Whatever. I got a lot of shit for implying that Jeffrey Dahmer was ugly that one time so I should really shut my cruel bitch bullying mouth. But I don't need to solicit anyone else's feedback to conclude from this man's facial hair alone that he's a loser, a nitwit, and a probable virgin who at some point in his life has studied the art of magic. I guess my rule is sort of like that thing they say about jobs, relationships, and apartments in New York--pick two, but you're not getting three. I ain't even counting that shirt.

I'm trying out a new policy: if you see something, say something. I'm done with these pieces of shit. If an industry person treats you in this manner, however petty it may be, I urge you to call them out on it, meanly. And if you can't - I'm your Huckleberry.

3. Juliet Kahn on Cathy comics 
I'm behind on my comics reading lately, but someone linked to Juliet's piece at the Comics Journal(!) and it's awfully good. Juliet's so sharp. While I was reading I kept thinking about this quote from Lynda Barry, who is not a fan of Cathy comics:

Sort of a throwaway comment but there's a lot going on. So many levels of "bad feminism" (on both sides, Lynda and Cathy), plus some stuff about sincerity and autobio and how we relate to comics, as readers. You know, does real-Cathy have the right to draw zaftig-Cathy is a boring topic. But there's something that rang true to me about Lynda implying that comic is hollow and even opportunistic.

I don't remember having any strong feelings about Cathy growing up. To me it didn't feel relatable at all, just sort of more what the world was selling? Even as a child I understood that Cathy wasn't a person you wanted to be, and that wasn't just what the world was telling me; it was what Cathy was telling me. I feel like the argument that people hate Cathy because sexism speaks to me more than, like, the idea that Cathy is somehow a feminist comic. But here's a thing I know: nothing ever seems sadder and more repulsive than a brand of feminism that isn't close enough to your own. probably is a feminist comic? Ack!

4. The NYT has hired some comics critics 
Some personal news: the New York Times doesn't seem to be hiring people who write "suck my dick" in their comic book reviews, so I didn't make the cut for America's Top Comics Critic. I just assume I was being considered? Odds are at least one of the 20 people who read my hobby blog was part of the Gray Lady's hiring team, but of course you never know. In any case the people who've been hired are Hillary Chute, who is mostly an academic, and Ed Park, whose work I don't know at all.

Is Hillary Chute a critic? I don't know. She's a first-class academic--truly interesting and innovative. My knowledge of her work for lay people is mostly her interviews with cartoonists (a different skill) and a couple pages of that new book of hers (which honestly looked sort of bad to me). I think whether or not she'll be good at this kind of writing could go either way, and I sort of don't care. I'm not really the person that kind of review is written for. What I *do* care about is how much say that Chute has in what's becoming comics canon. This is a thing I talked to her about, oh, maybe five years ago when I interviewed her about her work for a mainstream outlet. (She dodged the question, if you're wondering.) I think...I think no one should have that much say in the comics that people are reading now, and also 100 years from now. I think that's a responsibility she doesn't take very seriously, or at least didn't when I talked to her about it. I think her tastes are too narrow - but that is to some degree an academic thing more than a Hillary Chute thing.

Ed Park...from his bio he sounds to me like more of an actual critic. I know he's been associated with The Believer, so I assume (perhaps incorrectly) (...but I really don't think so) that his sensibility will be very similar to Hillary's. I saw someone praising the NYT for hiring a woman and a person of color, and you know, that's swell, but diversity of perspectives isn't only about the identity of the people who have them. I think it's also about what they're looking at.

5. COPRA Round 5 is here
Ending on a high: COPRA Round 5. I spent some time yesterday flipping through the collections just to appreciate some of the things that comic does best, an activity I'd recommend. I've fallen down on the job for my Chris Ware roundtables, which I organized and then promptly got too busy to actually run. (If you were one of the participants, please know how sorry I am about this!) I think at this point I'll just do the Ware posts myself, but maybe a COPRA roundtable someday? Dare to dream.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

slasher, a comic by charles forsman

Last weekend I gave myself over to an unwholesome taste I rarely indulge and can’t quite recommend: I read a comic I thought I’d hate because I knew I’d take pleasure in trashing it. I guess some gals—well, at least the protagonist of Charles Forsman’s Slasher—are pedophiliac serial killers who get their rocks off at the sight of “knife play,” while girls like me are content to sit on a couch and quietly explore the depths of their contempt. One difference to note is that I was born this way, whereas Slasher’s Christine Sobotka, in her latex suit and gimp mask, is the product of one man’s imagination.

“Jesus, why?” is one question that might be asked of a comic book that consists of a 25-year-old woman masturbating her way through a murder spree. Over at the Comics Journal, Leonard Pierce entertained it with less than half a heart. “She [Slasher’s protagonist] can only get off sexually at the sight of blood,” he writes. “Why? It’s not really important.”

Oh, okay! He continues:

“The quest for an irreducible meaning behind mass violence is, in life, largely futile and easily confused effort, and in art, almost never more than a narrative crutch. Forsman wisely doesn’t spend more than a token line or two on the origin of her mania, instead plunging us directly into its expanding consequences.”

Pierce imbues the cartoonist’s dubious narrative choices with the sort of sweeping philosophical import one might find in the work of Cormac McCarthy; failing to find fault with the idea of a woman who takes sexual pleasure in her own evisceration, Pierce concludes that here’s a comic that really makes u think. Mmm, does it, though? Because when I ask why this young woman finds sexual satisfaction in a 14-year-old boy drawing a knife across his concave chest, say, or why she doesn’t mind when some other pervert saws off her hand, my spirit isn’t quite so equivocal. In fact, I can say with some confidence that the answer to Why is Charles Forsman’s protagonist turned on by these unspeakable things? is: because the cartoonist decided to make her that way.

To catfish is to pretend to be something you’re not to lure people in - a lie told to another person in service of your own satisfaction. Catfishing is central to the plot of Slasher, but it is also, if you think about it, part of the packaging of Post-Dumb comics, the genre to which this comic book belongs. The Post-Dumbs, you may recall, are artists like Johnny Ryan and Benjamin Marra whose shtick is to take loaded, politically incorrect imagery and empty it of meaning. These artists play with plausible deniability, mostly through the haphazard deployment of irony, a recognizable aesthetic, and a modern point of view, but at the end of the day they’re trafficking in old stereotypes. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find there’s nothing there.

Forsman is a millennial who has been to comics college, so Slasher is the Post-Dumb genre with a socially aware twist: he casts the gender of his serial killer against expectation. James Sturm is proud, I’m sure, but much like “The Sponsor,” the problem here is that Slasher’s gender commentary can’t quite obscure its misogynistic attitude. The feminist swell I’m meant to feel when Forsman shows me Christine’s sleazy boss hitting on her isn’t enough to make me overlook the cartoonist’s stereotypical representations of (just for instance) mothers as overbearing and mentally unstable. Some images, like an unhinged woman giving herself an empowering haircut in a bathroom mirror, will be familiar to readers from the language of cinema. Others, like a lady in a gimp mask chowing down on a fistful of raw ground beef in the supermarket, are newer, if somehow more tired. The effect, either way, is the same. 

Roughly a thousand years ago I read a book of writing advice by Stephen King. One of the exercises he recommended (at least as I remember it) was to write a short story about a cat burglar who was...wait for it...a woman. Wild and crazy stuff. That’s basically the plot of Slasher, except with violent perverts. Christine Sobotka is a seemingly mild-mannered data entry clerk who’s secretly in love with Chester Brown’s grandchild, who she met via fax on the Internet.

Her father dies, so she decides to start doing sex murder? Then a road trip to see Chester Brown Jr. Jr. doesn’t quite go as planned. Gosh, I really don’t want to spoil things for you, but hopefully you’re getting the sense that this is not so much a story that hangs together as an undercooked thought experiment.

As with all Dumbs and Post-Dumbs, Forsman exhibits a certain level of craft and competence. He can draw a hell of a cover. 

He’s more or less proficient at the level of the sentence, of the panel, of the page. Where he struggles in Slasher is in fleshing out the idea of a nightmare person necrophilia comic beyond a shallow elevator pitch. (Hey, does Bret Easton Ellis meets Juno sound good to you? I guess it sounded good to Netflix.) There is often something quite commercial about “edgy” work, is there not? I believe the line between offensive and appealing is more porous than these men care to admit.

Post-Dumb comics are part of the legacy of Robert Crumb (the ur-Dumb, if you will), who’s celebrated for his use of politically incorrect imagery. The key difference between Dumb and Post-Dumb is that with Crumb, that imagery meant something, even if it meant different things to different eyes. Now we have post-race racism instead of regular racism, post-gender sexism instead of plain misogyny, so on/so forth. I was pondering this lineage a few nights ago as I was writing a thread venting about old Crumb, when I noticed something interesting: One of the authors of an old AV Club piece that named a panel in which Crumb raped a woman as its #1 “unflattering moment from autobiographical comics” was Leonard Pierce, the same critic who gave Slasher that glowing review.

Which comics artists do we - the “comics community” - interrogate, and which ones get a pass? I found myself thinking about Pierce’s praise for how Slasher challenges its audience to “look at a lot of our assumptions about the nature of violence in both life and art” (lol), and also Tucker Stone’s more compelling, if somewhat antagonistic, interview with Aleš Kot, which hit on many of the same topics in a different register. I don’t wish to say those pieces fail to attend to the issues at hand so much as that, taken together, they express a larger cultural force, a skewed perspective we might endeavor to correct. The ur-Dumb set a double standard in which a provocative indie comic, no matter how incoherent or appalling an expression of the id, is presumed to have worth and intellectual integrity, whereas anything with mass market spit-and-shine is automatically an object of suspicion. Too often there's something fundamentally dishonest about the way in which violence against women in indie comics is drawn and discussed. 

But here I’ll admit to one of my own limitations: sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between finally seeing into the matrix and viewing everything through the lens of my own irritation. It was the possibility that I was mistaken about Slasher - maybe even more so than the prospect of a delicious hate read - that convinced me to give it a shot. After all, Forsman’s Revenger series is published by Bergen Street Comics Press, home to Michel Fiffe’s Copra trade paperbacks, one of this world’s few perfect things. Plus, of course, Forsman recently became a mainstream success, with The End of the Fucking World having broken the salon barrier (meaning the woman who cuts my hair enthusiastically recommended it). I was curious.

Alas, there was no need to look past my assumptions, which were met and exceeded; Slasher is just another exercise in empty titillation from a bad boy with a brand (albeit a brand that’s more capacious and flexible than most). Like its Post-Dumb brethren, Forsman’s comic falls somewhere between aimless, listless satire and absolutely thoughtless entertainment, a combination doomed to fail. If we’re digging for meaning—that pesky why—the Post-Dumb genre is like a joke that’s not a joke in that it expresses something true without the courage of conviction. I find it lazy, despicable, and bloodless. Writing this post, I’m reminded of the time I taught a writing class, where sometimes I wondered if I spent more time commenting on papers than the students had spent writing the papers themselves. In my fantasy, in lieu of this review, I’m handing Charles Forsman a copy of Slasher with a single comment scrawled in red pen: Suck my dick.

No offense, gentle reader. “No offense.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

now trending: rapscallions' sad fantasies

Here's a thing I truly believe: it's not cool to make fun of other people's sex stuff. Like... of all the losers on the internet, is there any sadder demographic than would-be Chapo middle school alphas whose bon mots are always about how Arthur Chu isn't doing it correctly, or enough? This type of teasing is transparently insecure and deeply unattractive. We're all just out here trying to live.

That being said, Tim Kreider writing a New York Times column on roleplaying after being in a romantic relationship for three weeks has got to be the saddest shit I've ever seen:

My, how quickly things can change. For example, in the space of just two paragraphs, I found that nigh on a decade's worth of creepy stranger crushing on Tim Kreider had transformed into a sort of uncomfortable pity. (He's devastated, I'm sure.) Immediately, it got worse:  

Oh no. Somehow Tim Kreider's role-playing scenario involving Nabokov is more horrifying than every sad horny detail that preceded it. But, hey, I don't want to leave you hanging. I know what you're wondering. Did Kreider fuck?

Sigh. Do you know how hard it is to find a male writer even marginally attractive in your imagination these days? This piece came out almost simultaneously with Kreider's new book, which I pre-ordered, but now I'm holding onto it till I'm in a better frame of mind. Anyway I was reminded of all this upon seeing this headline at Slate, which suggests to me a trend:

Nothing against Ted Scheinman, I guess, but his new book (of which this is an excerpt) is so clearly "Urban Outfitters novelty book about Jane Austen, about a decade too late, and by a man" that it sort of grates in the first place. And in the second place, there's how the piece begins:

You see, this intrepid reporter has discovered that people at cosplay conventions have sex with each other. But also they read? Worlds colliding!! Old people have sex! Wow. adorable.

Ugh, this piece has so many levels of condescension I can't even keep track. I guess to me the joke of it isn't old people's sex lives, but the writer's attitude towards the subject as though it's even remotely interesting or scandalous. Humorists often take the central question of essay writing to be Am I punching up or down? when sometimes the question is more Why am I sitting here, punching myself in the face? You know, what do you think is funny, who do you imagine to be the object of your joke, and is that the same as the actual joke to your readers? I found myself thinking about this as I encountered a weird degree of antipathy towards that post I wrote on promotional headshots - like, lots of people who felt compelled to say, out loud, some version of "oh, you think this is a good use of your time?" (as though that even ranks among all the many ways in which I waste time, haha, please), plus a number of comments about "bullying," including someone who berated me for not being as good of a person as Simon Hanselmann? Sometimes comics really makes u think. Like, what if it's time to recalibrate my moral compass and STOP bullying Jeffrey Dahmer and that warlock from Game of Thrones and START finding a way to commodify trickle-down gossip and/or using all my sacred comics hobby time to write plot summaries of new episodes of Jessica Jones? Mmm, I'll pray on it.

Two pieces of writing advice. Try to be kind - but when you're not, try to mean it. Also your writing is always going to be bad when you're trying to be cool, and that's especially true if your jokey piece about sex has any whiff of a boast. Take it to the bank. 

Monday, February 12, 2018


An Airing of Grievances: Last week I had a piece at Slate talking about tokenism and Françoise Mouly's hiring practices at the New Yorker, which I've been complaining about now for, oh let's see, two years? Three? Feels like forever. Now you know.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

let's fix your promotional photos: a special guide for men in comics

Yes, I know you could care less about self-promotion. You are an artist! An artist, and moreover a man (a white man) (a straight white man) who imagines that not caring about your appearance is a virtue rather than the inevitable product of the way in which you were socialized. You bristle at the very notion that anyone expects you to put any effort or thought whatsoever into selling this thing that you spent an absolutely obscene amount of your time putting together. When no one buys into your new project, why point fingers at your "promotions" (one broken link in a tweet and an instagram stacked with actual pictures of someone's puke) when you could blame "the system," like a real artist. Like a man

Probably the idea of taking more than one terrible selfie in the deadening glare of your computer’s camera for the profile that website will be running next week strikes you as absurd. Insulting, even. (Let me guess: you're fundamentally opposed to the very idea of selfies anyway.) You're incapable of comprehending why anyone wouldn't just repurpose some random photo of himself at a con, seated behind a table, staring like a glassy-eyed criminal awaiting his sentence in a courtroom, as his promotional photograph. Well, I'm not here to change your mind. Nor am I here to teach you photography. I'm just here to tell you how bad you look, and give you a few tips on looking better.

First I suggest you take a look around. Have you ever noticed how the women of comics look incredible in their promotional photos? Their most tossed-off selfies on twitter are old skool mall-grade glamour shots, and you would do well to study them. (Every time I see Katie Skelly’s perfectly manicured nails I wonder where it all went wrong for me.) Honestly, most of the time, you can do whatever you want with your twitter—but when you’re promoting a new comic, doing a Kickstarter, inviting the public to visit your table or your panel at a show, or sending an author photo to a website, you really owe it to yourself and to your work to put in a little bit of effort.

OK. So generally speaking, the men of comics favor promotional photos that fall into five or six main categories. Your first task is to assess your type, which should be very easy.  

Type 1: The Serial Killer

There’s a real epidemic of men in comics whose photos give the distinct impression that, if the opportunity arose, they would choose to eat human flesh. I assume you guys are just trying too hard to look serious? But I can’t discount the possibility that at least some of you are actual murderers. Either way, it would behoove you to try to look more normal. Here are some things you can try:

           Smize. To smize is to smile with your eyes, and you're probably going to have to practice. Look, I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with you, but I do know your regular eyes are cold and dead and weird. One strategy you might try is to talk to whoever’s taking the photo so you appear a little more animated. Think about something exciting (e.g., cookies). Look alive, son.
           Do not gaze into the middle distance. Unfocused staring is not attractive, and it definitely doesn’t make you look smart. It is creepy or, perhaps worse, ridiculous. Try looking into the camera, or just a little bit off to the side.
           Ask at least two human women who care about you to vet your photo. This is good advice for everyone, but it is particularly important if you choose not to smile. 

Type 2: The Cool Dude

When my nephew was a baby, he didn’t know the word for sunglasses. To compensate, whenever he wanted to wear them, he said he “want[ed] to be a cool dude.” It was so stinking cute! But the thing you have to understand is that he was under two years old. You’re a grown-ass man so it should go without saying: You are not a cool dude. Take your sunglasses off. You look fucking stupid.

           Pretending not to care is not a personality. You do care about this thing you’re promoting, right? 
           Are you making a little joke? OK, we can work with this, but you are probably overconfident. Tread carefully. Workshop this photo.
           Do not stand in front of some dumb building or sign. You look like an amateur. In a wedding photo. On a road trip. From a 10-year-old Facebook post.
           Try harder. I can see that you’re already trying very hard! You’re just doing it wrong. Redirect that energy into making an actual effort.

Type 3: The Comics Bro

A Comics Bro is a sentient energy drink with a hair situation who insists on some variation on jazz hands or double guns in all photos. 

These people cannot be helped. I’m very sorry.

Type 4: Mr. Tough Guy
This is complicated, because Tough Guys are really a subtype, and they can skew Serial Killer, Cool Dude, or even Comics Bro. Serial killer-type tough guys, let me reiterate that no one’s saying you have to smile.  But you really must try not to glower, even if you’re doing the irony. Literally the only person in comics who can pull off glowering in his promotional materials is Alan Moore. You are not Alan Moore.

Fake Alan Moore

Let me put it another way. An old friend of mine from high school had this amazing family portrait where his mom, dad, and sister were all smiling and happy and wholesome and he was wearing a metal tee and the most profound scowl you’ve ever seen in your life. It is possibly the best picture I’ve ever seen, and it perfectly captures the exact flavor of ridiculousness that is roughly 30-40% of men’s promotional photographs at Fantagraphics. The main difference is that my friend was like 15.

A more difficult subset to address is the Cool Dude type tough guy. (These are basically all the other guys at Fantagraphics.) To be clear, these are not actually tough guys. These are men who wear hoodies and have read Fight Club four times. They insist upon black and white photographs, and they’ve been working on a comic about William Burroughs and/or sex murder for a minimum of six years. 

Here's a few things you can try:

           Ask yourself if your photo could be mistaken for a mug shot. Be really, really honest with yourself. If the answer is yes, start over.
           Try flexing that face you're pulling into an actual smile. You don't have to smile in the photo itself. But hopefully this will help relax your facial muscles into a more becoming expression.
           You're probably dressing about 10 years too young. I'm not asking you to wear a costume. Simple adjustments can be effective. Launder your t-shirt, for instance.

Type 5: Literally a Bunch of Paint Splatters

Does your promotional photo vaguely resemble a screensaver? Unfortunately, I can only draw one conclusion, and that is that you are catastrophically ugly. Here’s the good news: there's no way you look as bad as I'm thinking. Quit being so hard on yourself! There’s a decent chance you’re “comics hot.” Suck it up and do the photo.

           Or…consider using a portrait. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to draw yourself, or even use someone else’s drawing of you (though in certain situations the latter might be awkward or misleading). The portrait doesn’t have to be realistic, but it should be human-ish and recognizably you.

Ivan Brunetti drew Hillary Chute's "author photo" for Outside the Box.

  • Create a distraction. Do you have a puppy, or a shirt with a crazy pattern? Are your surroundings super interesting? You might feel more comfortable if you feel like you’re sharing the attention with (but not completely shifting the focus to) something else. Please note, however, that your photograph should not feature any other people.
  • People are not shallow for wanting to put a face with a name. Unless you feel that it compromises your safety or something like that, it’s just best practice to honor this basic facet of human nature. Show your face, particularly if the photo is for a festival type situation. 
  •  Know that your art, however awesome it looks in real life, will look like dentist office art as a thumbnail. If you want to use something you've made, again, consider a self-portrait. Or, bare minimum, something with a face.

Special Challenges: You Are Bald

Are you a bald guy? Cool, nothing wrong with that. It’s just that sometimes bald guys - and especially pale 50+ bald guys - need to take special care to avoid looking terminally ill in their promotional photographs. You have one job, and that’s to convince people that you’re not a warlock.
  • Pay special attention to lighting. This is good advice for everyone, but it’s especially important for you. Consider going outside, maybe near some plants. Good vibes! Warm tones. That’s what we’re going for. Avoid black and white at all costs.
  • Do not indulge in the temptation to wear a hat, particularly any sort of period hat. Please take my word on this.
  • Try to look 20% more put together than usual. You know who always looks nice? Daniel Clowes. His shirts look pressed; he has interesting glasses. His pants fit. We aren’t talking about his style, which is sort of nondescript. We’re talking about a feeling: Daniel Clowes is ready. He's just a really sharp version of his somewhat boring personal style. Whatever your thing is, up your game by 20%.

Clowes can get it

  • Engage with the camera. Bald people need to be extra careful about gazing into the distance, for nerd reasons. Work the camera. Patrick Stewart is the absolute master of this. (Just look at that smize, my god.) Compare and contrast:

In conclusion, staging a decent promotional photo is not rocket science. Your photo doesn't even have to be that good, is the thing. It just shouldn't be off-putting.