Monday, September 11, 2006

Welcome to the House of Fun

For all the four-colour joy that comics can bring, they really seem to mess with the heads of their creators. Sometimes this is a good thing. Most of the time it isn’t.

The history of the medium is littered with lost minds and suicides. Some of them showed a fair amount of imagination, some were horribly mundane.

On it’s own, the suicide list is extraordinary. Jack Cole writing that last letter to Hugh Hefner. Wally Wood reaching for the gun as his body gave out. Others hang themselves, or throw themselves off buildings.

In each case, the reasons are different. The crushing disrespect shown towards comic creators for much of the medium’s history is a guaranteed factor in some, but it can just as easily be financial pressures, health problems or a relationship break-up. Not every life ends in the gutter between the panels.

Of course, suicide is always the most extreme response to mental and social pressures, and the history of comics has its fair share of creators cracking under the strain, but stopping short of the ultimate end. It can be sudden, or it can slowly take place over a period of years, the creator’s audience often watching in disturbed fascination as it goes on.

The most prominent example of this is the last few decades is, of course, Dave Sim. Despite the extraordinary feat of completing a 300-issue tale and the amount of incredible moments that fill those issues, it is almost impossible to review his work without noting that Cerebus apparently drove the Canadian creator completely bugfuck crazy.

Sim would almost certainly be the first to argue this point and is very, very good at articulating his point of view. It might be one that is not shared by many of his readers, but his arguments do contain some good points, no matter how personally disagreeable they may be.

But you only have to read Cerebus to chart the progress of a man who, over 30 years, goes through some extraordinary changes, both professionally and personally. How much of his later writings against the great feminine void were a result of his divorce can be debated, although the religious themes that fill the last 50 issues of the series can be undoubtedly traced to his own conversion to the Church of Dave.

Still, if Sim has lost his mind, he has done it very well. He has channelled his energies into his work and has carved out his own place in the universe, which is something to be admired.

Much of the claims made against Sim are born in his work or in interviews, but the latter can be the worst place to judge him or anybody else. Interviews can frequently be read the wrong way, with sarcasm and irony lost in the transition from the initial conversation to the transcript. The interviewers themselves can mould the piece to their own ends and if they go into it with preconceived notions, the chances of it sticking to those initial impressions can be high.

Frank Miller can suffer particularly badly in this. Much of his work, particularly recent efforts such as the second Dark Knight series, appears to be misunderstood and those misconceptions can are only reinforced by further interviews with the man. It can be depressingly easy to view Miller as a right-wing fire-breathin’ terrorist-hatin’ man-of-war who lost it five years ago when the Twin Towers fell. The truth might be more complex, but who has time to consider I these days?

Even creators who command a lot of respect in the industry such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison can appear to be absolute fucking loonies in interviews, especially when they discuss their various magick techniques. Even if their beliefs are no more outlandish than your average religion. Morrison in particular is ridiculously easy to misinterpret in interviews, without his knowing wink and sarcastic Scots accent, he can often come off in interviews as, well, a cock.

The internet has only fuelled this, and with its ability to allow creators to talk to their fans, can also lead to the conclusion that the creators have lost it. But this can often be due to those same people not thinking things properly through before posting their thoughts for all to read. Getting your opinion out to the world three seconds after an epiphany might sound like a good idea, but sometimes creators such as John Byrne and Mark Millar should show a bit more restraint or accusations of mental illness are inevitable.

And yet, those with genuine mental problems often use their comics to work through their troubles. Robert Crumb has raised his own sexual deviances to high art, while Evan Dorkin has also worked his problems out on the page, most obviously in the astonishing Dork #7. Dorkin might have a mind cluttered with popculture fueled neurosis, but putting it out to the world in his comics must help.

Perhaps, for all its bizarre history, comics are the best place for people not quite right in the head. The high level of imagination and productivity needed can push things to the surface, but with relatively few other collaborators, the creativity involved can only shine.

Besides, there are always those who work in the industry for decades, producing thousands of pages of quality work without ever losing it. Staying strong for years and living full, productive lives. The old school who came into the business during the war and stayed through the whole evolution without losing their minds: Joe Kubert, Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, Stan Lee, Gil Kane.

Well, maybe not Kane so much….

5 Love Letters:

Blogger Tricia S. said...

Alan Moore could be misrepresented in an interview? This is true although when I skimmed an interview he seemed to really understand what went wrong with the modern age of comics.

Of course this is only one viewpoint. What you guys said is applicable to all human endevor, not just comics.

9:23 PM

Blogger Smith said...

Most of the time Moore comes across as one of the most rational people in comics. However, I think he loses a few people when he starts talking about worshipping a sock puppet and meeting Gods constructed out of pure mathematics. Although it has to be said he still manages to make even that sound as mundane as popping down to the shop for some milk...

10:39 PM

Blogger Apodaca said...

Who is this Smith person, and why has it taken so long for him to start writing?

7:57 PM

Blogger Smith said...

I'm just a guy, y'know?

I used to post on CBR under a different name years and years ago and I suddenly felt the desire to vent about a whole bunch of comics-related stuff. Funny how that happens.

10:23 PM

Blogger Paul said...

Smith is not just any guy, Dan. Oh, no.

3:55 PM


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