Posts Tagged ‘clueless critics’

Dept. of Psychiatry


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Friday, December 19, 2008


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I know everyone’s excited about Punisher: War Zone Watchmen, but this is the comic I’d really like to see adapted into a movie. (Click to enlarge.)

Actually, it would present even greater adaptation problems than Watchmen does, but no need to get into that now. (And yes, I’m aware of The Jazz Singer. Why do you ask?)

(The above cartoon nicked from O. Soglow‘s excellent out-of-print collection Pretty Pictures, by the way.)

Also, a few links:

1. A David Heatley interview, for Frank’s reading pleasure.

2. Charles Hatfield has written the most in-depth review of The Goddess of War I’ve seen to date.

3. Probably 90% of Comics Comics readers have already heard this, but Sammy Harkham (perhaps best known as a CC cover artist) gave a predictably great interview to Inkstuds.

4. Not many of you will find it as train-wreck entertaining as I do, but I can’t keep myself from linking to The Comics Journal‘s go-to superhero guy Tom Crippen, and his hilariously prolonged quest [more (!) here, here, and here] to get other people to read and explicate an essay by the legendary Donald Phelps for him. (I won’t speculate on why Crippen can’t read it himself.) No real point here. I just want to feed the beast so it keeps running, though a wiser man than I has advised me against it. In any case, the whole saga captures the recent flavor of the Journal quite nicely.

[UPDATE: No one has said anything to me about it, but upon reflection I think that posting #4 was a little juvenile. In my defense, I value Phelps’s writing a lot, and I didn’t like the way Crippen and his blogmate Noah Berlatsky were treating such an accomplished guy with so little of the respect he’s earned. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t deserve being slammed. But still. Bill Randall and Jon Hastings both displayed a lot more maturity and reasonableness in their responses. Anyway: lesson learned, and new leaf turned. Merry Christmas, everybody!]

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Two Things


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Thursday, November 6, 2008


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I. The great Frank Santoro talks to Tim O’Shea about Cold Heat, Olde Tyme printing, and this very blog in a new, must-read interview.

In my mind, this quote is the most obviously noteworthy:

Tim Hodler is really my ace in the hole.

II. I just read the latest issue of the ACME Novelty Library, and it’s pretty much just amazing. When we started Comics Comics, we often said that we wanted to avoid covering the obvious big names (Ware, Crumb, Clowes, etc.) too much, but after this and the other most recent volumes of Ware’s work, I’m really starting to rethink that. Ware’s just too good to ignore. (So are those other guys, really.) I think Dan might be writing about this one, so I’ll keep my thoughts brief, and just note a couple things:

1. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a comic before that featured a character that I felt such profound sympathy for at some points, and so viscerally hated at others. The range of emotional effects and subtleties of characterization that Ware is able to achieve is really astounding. I don’t care what anybody says.

And

2. There are zero, count them, ZERO self-deprecating jokes or comments in this book. In fact, though people still complain about them constantly, Ware has included that kind of thing in his work less and less as time has gone on. (I don’t count the sketchbooks, both because they collect older work not originally intended for publication, and because if there was ever a place for personal artistic self-assessment, you’d think it would be in low-print-run diary/sketchbooks. Anyone who buy’s an artist’s journal hoping not to hear what that artist thinks about his work is … odd, to say the least.)

I am very, very confident that those brave critics who claim to only like Ware’s early work (because he “tediously” beats himself up too much, and has a “one-note” emotional palette) will revise their future assessments in the face of the incontrovertible evidence that he doesn’t do it as much now as he did in the work they claim to like. Or they will if they ever read something he’s drawn since last century. I mean, these critics and message-board warriors hate “one-note” art, right? So I assume they hate pounding on the same piano key over and over themselves…

(Don’t even get me started on the whole he’s-always-dark-and-negative thing. That makes about as much sense as complaining that Groucho Marx never “really got serious.”)

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You’re the Töpffer! (or, The Worst Blog Post Headline Ever)


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Thursday, July 17, 2008


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There have been too many explosive and exciting posts around here lately, so how about something a little more sedate and twee?

The July issue of Harper’s magazine includes a long review (subscription required) of David Kunzle’s two recent and indispensable books on Rodolphe Töpffer. Written by art critic Jed Perl, it’s generally a smart, thoughtful piece, and displays none of the condescension you commonly find in articles like this printed in the mainstream press. He still gets comic books wrong, of course, but it’s kind of interesting (to me) just how he goes astray.

Most of the review is about Töpffer and the books themselves, and Perl only addresses Töpffer’s relationship with comic books in general near the end of his article. First, he takes issue with Kunzle’s speculation that Töpffer’s work has been neglected by American comics fans because of “a narrowness of vision, a chauvinism that cannot bear to see the invention of so fertile, popular, and American a genre conceded to a European master.” Perl disagrees:

I’m not sure that the problem with Töpffer is that he is European so much as that his work is nearly two hundred years old. After all, much of the comic illustration done in nineteenth-century America can feel equally anachronistic to cartoon aficionados of our day. It is in the very nature of the popular arts, which are overwhelmingly oriented toward the present, that even their most powerful traditions will be reformulated with a vengeance that crushes the sort of art-historical niceties that quite naturally interest a scholar such as David Kunzle. Intellectually, I can see that Töpffer is on a continuum with the contemporary graphic novel, just as I can see that the silent movies of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are on a continuum with the comedies now playing at the multiplex. But viscerally, what I feel very strongly, perhaps most strongly, are the differences. What is most striking in contemporary graphic novels is the dizzying overlay of influences, the thickening stew of twentieth-century allusions. Graphic novelists like to mix elements of earlier comics and noir movies and potboiler mysteries and art deco and art moderne and create a contemporary brew, a brew that’s frequently laced with irony. And when I turn back from this work to Töpffer’s picture books, I find that I’m face to face with an unself-consciousness that feels alien, strangely and wonderfully so.

First of all, on the question of why Töpffer’s neglected, I favor Kunzle slightly more than Perl, though both of them are basically right. (The fact that good, readily available English translations of the strips didn’t previously exist probably hasn’t helped.) What’s more interesting to me, though, is just how alien and anachronistic Perl thinks Töppfer’s work is. The most surprising thing about reading Töpffer, in fact, is just how contemporary and of-the-moment his comics seem. (Incidentally, I also think Perl’s wrong about Keaton and Chaplin, whose films haven’t aged poorly at all; there are still plenty of people who watch their silent movies for fun today, far more than watch dramatic silent films such as, say Intolerance. They aren’t as alien as all that. I wonder if humor ages better than drama?) Barring the clothing styles, and the occasional reference to politics, culture, and then-current events, Töpffer’s strips aren’t that different (except in terms of quality and skill) from many of the mini-comics you can find sold at MoCCA or SPX.

Perl goes on:

The aggressiveness of so much comic art is fueled, at least in part, by a need to compete in the commercial world. I sense that pressure in the work of Hogarth and Daumier, whose caricatures can be fearsomely real, with evil and folly solidly evoked. Even Winsor McCay’s magnificent early-twentieth-century Surrealist dream-worlds have a sharp punch to them; they are meant to stand up to all the other news in the Sunday papers. Töpffer is a very different case. He approaches even the least sympathetic of his imperious professors and self-indulgent young men with a certain gentleness of spirit. It’s significant, I believe, the Töpffer originally conceived of his picture books as entertainments for his family and friends; he was, at least initially, remote from the commercial world, and could afford to affectionately embrace his nutty subjects.

Perl’s kind of right here, and a lot wrong, in totally charming ways. First, while I take his point about commercial concerns, that argument cuts both ways; there’s a reason for the cliché that satire closes on Saturday night. Daniel Clowes’s “Why I Hate Christians” wasn’t exactly a blockbuster money-making idea, for example. And, you know, Ziggy and The Family Circus seem to have done pretty well. Secondly, I think it’s kind of wonderful that he thinks that “graphic novelists” are actually competing in the commercial marketplace. Outside of a few superstars and flukes, the newspaper strip world, and the DC/Marvel axis, comics has to be one of the least profitable media businesses in the world North America. It would be kind of great if this misconception spread around, though. And third, I think a trip to the USS Catastrophe site is in order for Perl. Töpffer’s not the only artist making minimalist, gently humorous picture-books primarily “for his family and friends” and “remote from the commercial world.” Signing himself up for a subscription to King-Cat wouldn’t be a bad start, either.

I’m really not trying to pick on Perl here, because in the main, this is actually a fine, smart article. His errors of interpretation are only worth highlighting for the way they suggest that the public conception of the form may be changing (and the ways it definitely isn’t). It would be kind of hilarious if this idea of the aggressive, wealthy, alpha-male cartoonist really caught on.

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What’s the Difference Between "Pictorial" and "Graphic"?


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Saturday, November 3, 2007


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Don’t mistake this astonishing work [The Arrival] by Australia’s Shaun Tan for a picture book, even though it consists of nothing but pictures. At 128 pages, it’s what could be called a pictorial novel, since the usual label — graphic novel — suggests more of a manga- or comic-style book, bristling with text.

–Elizabeth Ward, The Washington Post

Oh good, another category! If this catches on, we’re in for a new round of many, many wonderful arguments. Where’s Eddie Campbell?

UPDATE: Campbell responds (!)

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I Need To Take a Break


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Sunday, September 16, 2007


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Since I’m not exactly the most prolific blogger in the world, here’s a link to a roundtable at Newsarama I was asked to participate in.

I just re-read my answer, and Jesus Christ! “Nabokov” and “mise en scène” in the same breath as Dr. Strange! If that’s not a warning sign, I don’t know what is.

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Some Not-So-Fancy Footwork


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Friday, September 14, 2007


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So Noah Berlatsky has responded to my last post, and while he does clear up a few misunderstandings, his response basically provides a clear demonstration of my point: he makes a series of over-the-top judgments and claims, based on apparently arbitrary or contradictory premises, and with little or no evidence to back up his theories.

Here is what we learn:

  • The creators of “art comics” are overwhelmingly obsessed by memoir and literary fiction.

    [Berlatsky does not say what he means by “literary fiction”, or provide examples. There exist many, many examples of comics — Jim Woodring, Julie Doucet’s dream comics, Gary Panter’s Jimbo, Teratoid Heights, Marc Bell, much of Love & Rockets, Paper Rad, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, etc., etc. — that I don’t think would fit, whatever his definition might turn out to be.]

  • Memoir and literary fiction are very close to the same thing, and hardly “separable”.

    [I don’t know how to respond to this, other than that I don’t understand it. Again, a definition of “literary fiction” would be helpful.]

  • The cartoonists’ “obsession” with realistic subject matter stems from “a desire for literariness and respectability,” a desire Berlatsky sees “as being linked to the pulp past.”

    [This is his key assertion in both posts, and he really should back it up. I don’t want to simply repeat the substance of my last post, but as I mentioned before, other than a few cartoonists who have dabbled in, parodied, or expressed their affection for the genre, it is difficult to identify any younger cartoonists who seem very exercised about superheroes one way or the other. Surely there must be some evidence somewhere for his main thesis…]

  • All memoir and all “contemporary literary fiction” can be described as tedious, pretentious, and self-absorbed.

    [Again, Berlatsky gives no examples, and no definitions of his terms, but is still quite comfortable providing a very broad-brushed condemnation of two enormous genres.]

  • Elegy and nostalgia are also more or less the same thing, and therefore elegy is “just about the worst of all possible modes for art”.

    [Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, and Rilke: your stock is dropping!]

  • Michael Chabon’s novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is the “best example” of a comic book striving for literary respectability.

    [One would think that the absence of pictures would disqualify this.]

  • Berlatsky is happy to use Daniel Clowes as a scapegoat for all the “problems” of alternative comics, but doesn’t feel the need to read the bulk of his work before doing so.

    [Check out his description of Clowes’s comics in the comments of his post: “His stories seem magical-realist in a really perfunctory way that seems completely New Yorker ready.” Are we supposed to take this judgment seriously, applied to the creator of “Needledick the Bug-Fucker”, “Why I Hate Christians”, and “Dan Pussey’s Masturbation Fantasy”?]

  • “Manga is an incredibly vital and diverse art form, with standards of craft and storytelling that leave most American comics whimpering in pitiful little puddles of incompetence.”

    [So what are we to do with all those manga that deal with real-life situations and people, not a superpower or magic spell in sight? Are those manga also “obsessed” with literary respectability? Or is Noah only defending giant-robot and ninja stories?]

There are several other hidden assumptions and unproven assertions and conflations in Berlatsky’s post, but this has gotten boring enough already. In the end, here’s what I take away from his posts: Berlatsky doesn’t like the fiction published in The New Yorker, and somehow, superheroes are to blame.

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A Manifesto Against Vague Manifestos


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Thursday, September 13, 2007


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Noah Berlatsky, frequent contributor to The Comics Journal, is a sharp, perceptive, and almost always provocative critic, though he indulges in critical overkill and scorched-earth tactics far too often for my taste; his judgments often appear over-the-top, and based on arbitrary or contradictory premises. That being said, I almost always read his work when I see his byline, which is more than I can say for most comics critics.

Berlatsky recently started a blog, and his post from yesterday is an excellent example of what I often find so maddening about his writing. It’s a pox-on-both-your-houses piece, claiming that both superhero comics and “alternative” comics are fatally flawed for certain, aesthetic reasons. I don’t want to pick on Berlatsky in particular too much for this, because it’s a depressingly common argument, but I’m frankly tired of hearing it.

He begins by deriding today’s superhero comics as largely formulaic exercises in nostalgia, and that seems to me an at least arguably fair judgment; I can’t think of many exceptions. He then goes on to describe alternative comics as the flip-side of the same coin.

[S]uper-heroes still hang over the art comics like giant, four-color, cadavers. Alt comics seem to be constantly looking up nervously at these suspended, bloated monstrosities, feebly protesting, “What that…oh, no, *that* doesn’t have anything to do with me. We just came in together accidentally.” Or to put it another way, alt comics have a huge chip on their shoulders, and they have responded by rejecting everything super-hero in favor of Serious Art — which, alas, often means seriously boring art. Why on earth is autobio and memoir the standard for art comics? Is there an imaginable genre which makes less use of comics’ inherent strengths — the ability to represent fantastic, magical situations with charm and ease? The answer’s pretty clear: it’s the very boringness which appeals. Alt cartoonists are desperate not to be associated with super-heroes, and the best way to do that is by becoming literary fiction. God help us.

As I said, this is becoming a common position (Douglas Wolk made a somewhat similar argument in his flawed but interesting Reading Comics, as did Marc Singer in his Mome takedown a while back), but I really don’t understand the basis for it. Where are all these boring, serious art comics overreacting to superheroes? Is it really that hard to find comics that aren’t memoir? Or any that aren’t obsessed with distancing themselves from superheroes? Aside from possibly a few members of the older guard, I find it hard to apply that criterion to nearly anyone.

At least Berlatsky has the courage to name names, unlike A. David Lewis in his anti-autobio Publishers Weekly rant from earlier this year. (Berlatsky should read Tom Spurgeon’s response to that, by the way.) But his supposed culprits (Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, The Comics Journal) only make his argument more confusing. Clowes and Ware rarely write explicitly auto-biographical comics, and Clowes is responsible for probably the funniest, most merciless satire of boring memoir comics ever (“Just Another Day”, Eightball #5, rivaled only by Johnny Ryan‘s “Every Auto-Bio Comic Ever Written”). Of course, Berlatsky has admitted to having read very little of Clowes, so he may not be familiar with that particular story. (He is partly right about The Comics Journal, which sometimes allows its reviewers far too much room to go on about themselves rather than the work at hand, but I doubt that was his intended point.)

It is true, I suppose, that when Ware and Clowes reference superhero comics, they usually do so through parody or satire, though I think it is far too simple to categorize their approach to the genre as simply contempt or as an attempt to distance themselves from it. Clowes’s Death Ray is one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read, and while his Dan Pussey stories are fairly devastating in their treatment of superhero comics, they don’t exactly treat the “art comics” world with kid gloves, either. I would also argue that Ware’s references to Superman and Supergirl in his Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown stories are just as much elegiac as critical.

Outside of those two artists, it’s hard to think of cartoonists struggling against superheroes at all. Gary Panter and the Hernandez brothers have made no secret of their affection for the genre, Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka make decidedly friendly parodies of it, and most alternative cartoonists of today seem more than happy just to ignore it altogether. (Note that ignoring the genre is not the same thing as “constantly looking up nervously” at it.) It’s true that some older cartoonists, such as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Griffith, haven’t been shy about badmouthing superheroes, but even they have been willing to champion superhero artists they think are worthy, such as Jack Cole and Fletcher Hanks. In any case, when those artists began working, it made some sense to distance themselves from the superhero genre, which still overwhelmingly dominated the public conception of comic books. These days, I don’t think many younger cartoonists care one way or the other about it.

I think the main problem with Berlatsky’s complaint is a confusion of subject matter with form. At the risk of being pedantic, let me explain. Recently, superhero stories have arguably been better told through movies than in comics. Many of today’s superhero comics, slavishly attempting to recreate cinematic effects, are consequently often closer to glorified photo-funnies than real comics. This, however, does not mean that the superhero comics of Kirby, Ditko, Toth, Cole, etc., are any less purely “comics”. They were told by gifted artists and masters of the comics language, who knew how to exploit the medium’s strengths.

Likewise, just because a cartoonist chooses to tell a realistic story about ordinary life (subject matter that has historically more often been tackled in literary prose than in comics), it does not follow that the resulting comic is therefore “literary”. Both Ware and Clowes know the language of comics as well as anyone, and have innovated hugely within the form. It is hard to think of any cartoonists more engaged with comics history. And whatever your opinion of their merits, it is likewise difficult to imagine works more purely “comics” than Building Stories and Ice Haven. I can name maybe a handful of current artists who might actually fit Berlatsky’s description, creating dull, pseudo-respectable “literary” comics stories and apparently unable to or disinterested in fully utilizing the language of comics. On the other hand, I can think of scores of innovative, engaged cartoonists who are advancing the form in many different genres without seeming to worry about literary respectability at all.

Berlatsky’s conclusion also baffles me:

In moments of hope, I think that in twenty years Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and the Comics Journal will all be seen as a quaint detour in the history of the medium, and comics will be a hugely popular, aesthetically vital medium mostly created by women in a manga style. That’s not because I hate Chris Ware or the Comics Journal (I don’t). It’s just because I think, overall, it would be a better direction to go.

Again, this is a not uncommon refrain from comics readers, but its logic escapes me. I have nothing against manga, the best of which seems to me to be just as artistically valid as anything created in North America, and the inclusion of more female voices would be an obviously healthy development, but I will never understand so many comics readers’ apparent desire for “hugely popular” comics, and the implied belief that that popularity goes hand in hand with being “aesthetically vital”. While there are many popular works of art that are also aesthetically vital (Dickens), there are at least twice as many aesthetically vital works that will unfortunately never be hugely popular (Melville).

I don’t care if comics in the future are aimed at 13-year-old girls or 31-year-old boy-men or both or neither. I don’t care what genre they fit into, or what country they’re produced in. All I want are comics that are good. Hoping that cartoonists of the future ignore the best American cartoonists of the recent past, especially for reasons that don’t make a whole lot of sense, doesn’t seem like a particularly promising way to go about getting them.

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