Monday, September 11, 2006

Comics For Nobody!

Comic book enthusiasts have many obsessions, but one of the most prevailing is to get more people involved in their hobby. To turn non-comic book readers into true connoisseurs of the artform, to spread the word, to turn them into one of us.

The desire for this might stem from the simple desire to have somebody to talk to about the latest issue of Genericman, or the desire to convert may come from a wider concern that unless new readers are found soon, the entire medium will roll up and die.

Unfortunately, you can expose somebody to the finest in graphic literature, show them the finest art the medium has to offer and you still won’t be able to compete with the fact that there are a lot of people out there who just won’t read them. Ever. Because they just don’t like them.

My fiancée is a fine, fine woman, and I’m not just saying that because she’s a journalist who wanders around the house in her underwear, just like Vicki Vale. She’s smart and funny and sexy as fuck, but by God, I couldn’t get her to read a comic book for anything.

She understands my passion and loves the way I can’t help doing a little happy dance whenever new comic books arrive in the mail, but she won’t ever read one for herself. Her reasons are her own and have something to do with the fact that she thinks they don’t let the reader rely on their own imagination, but no matter how much I debate this point with her, she won’t cave in.

A lot of it does have to do with the still widely-held perception that comics = super heroes and that is all there is to it, (even though I have tried with many, many, non-genre efforts). Fact is, the idea that an adult could pick up a super hero comic cold and find it fascinating is more than a little weird. Get ‘em when they’re young with that sort of thing. It’s the only way.

But that’s okay. So I can’t get her to read a comic book, big deal. It doesn’t harm my enjoyment of them. I don’t feel the overwhelming need to discuss the latest issue of All-Star Superman with anybody the instant it comes out and I figure the medium is strong enough to do without those extra sales.

And yet…

I fucking love comic books. I adore the way words and pictures go together like that. I like all kinds. I like intense autobiographical navel gazing and I adore big super-hero punch-ups. So how come I only buy, at most, half a dozen comics every month?

Every month the solicitations are released and every month it’s the same old shit, over and over again. I just can’t get excited about 99% of comics released every month, and the more insular and inward-looking they get, the less interest I have.

I don't live anywhere near a comic store, so I don't even have the option of stumbling across any independent comic that turns out to be a heart-wrenching work of genius. I don't have much money, so spending it on the sheer hope that something might be good based purely on the views of others is a hard fucking step to take.

So if there is little more than nothing for me, and nothing at all for most other people, who else is left? And what’s the fucking point? Why fucking bother?

All that you can do is ignore the vast majority, let it all slide by, let it go. Embrace the love and leave the rest. With that attitude I have little doubt that the death of the whole industry will come a little closer every day, but I just can’t be worried about that.

The industry may die, but the medium is forever.

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….

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Cheap trades and the internet have shot the traditional comic shop back issue market in the spine. It’s so easy to get that elusive issue of Iron Man through an internet auction and in a world where you can get a comprehensive amount of the Thunderbolts series in trade form, why bother looking?

It’s a shame, in more ways than one. Without an idiosyncratic selection of back issues, all comic shops begin to blend together. There are always the wonderful exceptions, but the formula is depressingly easy to replicate: A good selection of the latest issues from the big boys, a few independent comics that everybody likes, and the usual merchandise, much of which is getting creepier by the day.

Of course, there are benefits. Trade paperbacks are sexy and you get a good chunk of story for your money. It’s made it a piece of piss to get complete runs of series. The work of a creator like Alan Moore can be almost completely bought in trade form.

But still, while an internet auction can have a fair amount of excitement as you bid for that one issue you want more than any other comic that has ever existed, it’s still impersonal and strange. You might have to resist the odd temptation to buy complete runs of Power Pack on E-bay, but is it really as much fun as buying them one at a time, building up a complete collection over years?

Personally, when it comes to buying comics, nothing in the world beats the feeling of finding that elusive issue of Hellblazer that Gaiman did in a pile of New Universe crud. Digging through piles and piles of ‘80s Starman comics, only to turn up a few early issues of Matt Wagner’s Grendel that you never dreamed of seeing before.

It might be a real bitch reading a series out of order, but if it was good enough for William Burroughs, it’s got to be good enough for us geeks. Narrative cutup gives new perspective on the overall story, getting Frank Miller’s Daredevil comics when you see ‘em cheap sees Elektra return from the dead dozens of times, poor old Matt Murdock going from bad to worse to good again.

Ironically, the worst thing about collecting this way is when the goal is finally achieved. It took me 15 years to get all the stories in the original Love and Rockets series, but when I got the last the brief sense of jubilation was replaced by… nothing. Got ‘em all now. What’s next?

(And how come a week after I finally cave in and get the Chelo’s Burden book for $50 after never seeing it anywhere for more than a decade, it shows up at the local second-hand bookshop for $10 the next fucking week? Is the Universe laughing with me, or at me?)

Still, at least there is always something new. Once you’ve got a copy of every comic Garth Ennis ever wrote, there is always those early issues of Cerebus, or those three issues of John Byrne’s Next Men, or the latest Complete Peanuts book to find.

Besides, once the back issues vanish completely from comic stores, they have to go somewhere, don't they? They don't just evaporate. The dream of that perfect comic book shop, with copies of every comic ever published for sale, lives on...