Posts Tagged ‘Jon Hastings’

A Possibly Tedious Clarification


Sunday, September 16, 2007

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Sorry if this post is boring, but I want to highlight one recent comment from Jon Hastings, partly because it makes a really good point, and partly because it gives me an opportunity to make clear something that I haven’t been trying to say over the past few days. Hastings writes:

I find myself agreeing to all of your points, but can’t help being, emotionally at least, on Noah [Berlatsky]’s “side”. For me at least, there’s so much baggage from old internet arguments over the merits of super-hero comics vs. alt/art comics that I find it is really easy to make the kinds of mostly baseless, sweeping judgments that Noah is making here. My beef was never really with alt/art cartoonists, but rather with those comics critics (self-appointed or otherwise) who I saw as using the work of those alt/art cartoonists to attack my beloved super-hero books.

I’m not at all unsympathetic to this view, and couldn’t be less interested in using “serious” comics as a cudgel against other kinds of comic book stories. I think it’s understandable for long-time comics readers to occasionally get a bit defensive when it sometimes seems like only relatively straight, self-evidently serious works approaching “proper” subject matter (Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, etc.) are seen as respectable in the wider world. (I don’t think this is actually altogether true, mind you, but it can feel that way.) Maus, at least, I think fully deserves its high reputation (I haven’t read the other two, which I guess should be my next homework assignment), but really, this is one more reason to say God bless Robert Crumb, the one artist to have broken through who can’t by any means be separated from the comic book’s anarchic and fantastic roots.

Over on the Fantagraphics blog, the great designer Jacob Covey also commented on this sort-of-stupid blog fight, and his take is really pretty smart, though I’ll admit I had to read it a couple times before I got some of it. Covey writes, “The subject is ‘art comics’ versus superhero comics– a distinction I already find vague and silly seeing how the two ideas rely on a black and white separation though I see a vast overlap. Not to mention that this [precludes] the one genre from ever being considered art, which is a bit presumptuous.” I agree with that comment entirely, except to say that I wasn’t trying to argue that “art” comics are inherently better than superheroes.

Covey also very kindly describes Comics Comics as “the definitive fringe art-comics periodical”, while admitting that with PictureBox as a whole, he can’t help but feel “there’s a bit of validity-through-outsiderness going on at times.” I can’t speak for PictureBox (though I imagine Dan might take some issue with that), but at least in terms of Comics Comics, that couldn’t be further from our intention. That’s why we’ve covered so many “mainstream” subjects in the first place, from Dick Ayers and Steve Gerber to Alex Raymond and the Masters of American Comics show. Whether or not we’re successfully realizing our goals is of course for others to judge.

In his second post, Berlatsky made at least one point that I really agree with: “The cultural space within which a work is produced, and the way it is received, has a lot to do with a medium’s health.” If critics are capable of doing anything at all (and they may not be), they can help shape that cultural space. There are many great traditions in comics, from the Harvey Kurtzman legacies of comic satire and unglamorous war and historical stories, to superhero tales (which at their best can be wonderfully surreal and pregnant with political subtext and sometimes just silly fun), to less easily classifiable work like that of Fort Thunder and Jim Woodring, and a whole lot more besides. All the various contributions of Japan and Europe and elsewhere should be included, and yes, I think that comics that deal with real life in an at least somewhat realistic and serious manner should be, too. Few readers will, or should, find all kinds of comics equally to their taste, but the cultural space I would like to encourage has a place for all of them, and will judge each work on its own individual merits, not on arbitrary generic guidelines.

Again, I apologize for this kind of boring stuff, but I don’t want to be misunderstood, and thought it might be good to have this on the record.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

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1. I don’t want to turn this blog into an all-Lauren Weinstein, all-the-time promotional vehicle, but it’s been a good month for her. First, there was the new Believer interview, and now she’s mentioned in the same breath as the great Daniel Clowes in a New York Times review of Ariel Schrag‘s new anthology Stuck in the Middle. Which is too awesome not to mention.

2. I also don’t want to turn this blog into an all-Patrick Smith, all-the-time promotional vehicle, but he is apparently the 146th greatest cartoonist of all time, which is also too awesome not to mention.

3. I enjoy Sean T. Collins’s blog quite a bit, but I don’t really agree with this sentiment from a recent post:

The thing that most irks me about [Alan] Moore’s work, even his best work, even his work I enjoy a great deal, is how ostentatiously writerly it is–the way his Godlike Authorial Hand shows in every move machination of his clockwork-precise plotting. And the thing is, to employ a criterion frequently used to lambaste superhero comics of a very different sort, what does this say to you about life, anyway? I think it’s awesome that there’s a completely symmetrical of issue of Watchmen, but it has sweet fuck-all to do with the way the world actually works.

First of all, who said art has to tell you anything about life? Who says art has to tell you anything about anything? This is not a criterion I use to evaluate comics. (I realize that not everyone will agree with me on this.)

Secondly, whatever a person might think of Alan Moore’s work in particular (I mostly like it, especially in the work from his pre-ABC years), this kind of complicated, thought-out, formalistic art has a very long and healthy pedigree, and I for one find discovering the hidden riddles, subtle thematic symmetries, and multiple levels of meaning buried in a well-conceived example of that kind of work to be one of art’s primary pleasures. It’s why I like the books of Nabokov and Borges and Gene Wolfe, the comics of Ware and Clowes, and the films of Kubrick. This kind of art may not reflect “the way the world actually works”, but it can certainly reflect the way the artist’s mind works, and can provide a readerly pleasure otherwise unavailable. A comic or movie or whatever that really reflected the way the world works would be as chaotic and unformed and nonsensical as life itself, and very difficult to understand.

Which isn’t to say that I disagree with Collins’s larger point: art doesn’t have to be so deterministically planned out to succeed, and certainly more improvised fictions also have their particular charms and effects. (And it would be foolish to deny that over-plotting can be stifling, and that Moore’s comics sometimes suffer from that.) But both strategies can work, and I imagine most artists use a little bit of both as a matter of course.

Also, I have to say that judging from the recent mainstream comics I’ve read, it’s simply not the case that writers are over-thinking their comics’ formal aspects.

UPDATE: While I was writing this, Collins put up another post, clarifying his problems with Moore, and making his argument a lot more supportable. I don’t really think Moore is quite as guilty (in terms of leaving “only one way to skin the cat” of his stories) as Collins does, but it’s certainly a fair point.

4. On a somewhat related note, a Jon Hastings post referenced by Collins does a really good job of explaining one of the more common problems with current mainstream comics. (I’m referring to part II of the post.) This argument seems a lot more convincing and specific than the standard complaint that the problem is just “too much continuity”.

When I read superhero comics as a kid (and I didn’t read very many, other than the odd issues my mother bought me for long trips or on days when I was home sick), the references to past events and other comics titles were often the most exciting parts. They indicated that there was a whole big world of this stuff to explore, Iron Man and the Hulk had had tons of previous adventures, and if only I could track down Avengers #89, Hulk #55, or whatever, I could follow along. (I never actually went ahead to do that, and left the mysteries unsolved by continuing to read superhero comics only very sporadically, but I may have enjoyed the ones I did read all the more just because of that. I never spoiled my imagined versions of their incredible adventures by actually reading them.) Which is all just to say that I think Hastings is making sense when he explains why comics “continuity” references doesn’t always work that way anymore.

5. And now the bloviating ends.

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