December 22nd, 2008
A trout (poached) in (coconut) milk, yesterday. I am a literal mind.
So, our intersphere jizzgame of soggy biscuit has been incredibly successful so far, a fact I find somewhat mystifying, but - go figure - maybe bloggers like reading about blogging. I dunno. I’ve invited Plok or Pillock (which, wow, it used to mean penis, another thing I did nut no - all our British slang means penis, in the end, somehow) from the consistently excellent and engaging A Trout in the Milk to chat. Because we only deal with peoples using the WordPress, it seems to have worked out, coincidentally.
Mindless One: Right. I’m going to change my method from the Andrew Hickey interview and just go for a gentle back-and-forth, like a tiny rowboat in the middle of a windless lake.
The windless lake is comics blogging.
In the simile.
How to start..? I suppose – one thing I think’s pretty noticeable in your posts is that you refer to your audience as “bloggers”, which I find quite unusual – no-one else I know/read does this, at any rate. I think it’s possibly a mutual interest, that we have here as ex/semi-BBers from a once-great board that, really, probably shortcircuited a couple of years ago at least, but we do seem somewhat in pursuit of, desiring this ethereal notion of an internet ‘community’. (I think? I liked the board we came from, as was, a great deal and I like the way most or all of our sidebar convey themselves, their personae) Paging Howard Rheingold!
So… what was the question? Yeah, this mode of address and other things, like I saw you in Brad Curran’s CSBG comments iirc, chiding him – quite correctly, I thought – for being unpleasant about Mike Sterling, whose surname is so far as I’m concerned an adjective… are you trying to foster a sense of community in the comics blogosphere? Are you everyone’s genial cyberspace uncle (I have no idea how old you are)? Or is it more about the currency of ideas, we exchange them for free, for the price of a broadband hookup? Or both?
Plok: Huh, now that’s a question about something I didn’t expect…I do call you all “Bloggers”, don’t I?Where that comes from, as an affectation, is probably pretty straightforward: I mean, I grew up knee-deep in it, the sarcastic employment of mass media catchphrases that generally tend to talk down to people, which people at first cling to and then later in their development like to poke holes in, and reappropriate for other uses. This is postwar culture: if not open rebellion, at least open irony directed at the lumping of all people together in an infantilized (or at least, um, receptive) mass-mind — a “participation mystique” of commercial culture that shatters once we grow a little older and start wanting to get active. Jung would no doubt add that the cultural is mirrored by the individual: we all progress up through the comforting, conventional address of children’s stories to our own self-crafted literary expressions, and I guess that’s where we leave one type of community, the one we were born into, for another that we choose for ourselves. Is there a writer anywhere who hasn’t made sarcastic use of the catchphrases and touchstones of the shared childhood? ”Bloggers” is probably just like that: I’m echoing Captain Kangaroo, or maybe Stan Lee.
Well, I’m in my early forties (ouch), so I’ve been eating, drinking, and breathing this convention my whole life. “Hey, Kids…!” But then suddenly you’ve got some noir-ish dude with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth saying it, as he trains a gun on the bad guy, or sends his girlfriend to jail. It’s a very neat trick as far as the literature of alienation goes, though it’s often used poorly or in a slapdash way. Because it’s such a natural channel for expressing that stuff, I guess.
In terms of why I do it, I think it maybe is directed at a sense of community — I like to say the reason I started blogging was because I couldn’t just start talking to people about my grading system for Fantastic Four comics, without becoming a social outcast…but on the Internet, everybody’s a social outcast already, so it’s okay! So just as the people who download music are the same group that buys music and goes to concerts, we bloggers are out here only talking to ourselves…nobody reads us but us.
It’s freeing! Because it’s essentially a fan press — we’re out in the wilderness, doing our thing all unobserved. A wonderful situation to be in, lots of mental and social elbow room, room to find a voice of one’s own…having a virtually consequenceless writing/reading environment is, I think, as important for growth as having a writing/reading environment that’s fully charged-up with consequence. And comics blogging’s a real weird one, because it looks like such an UTTER waste of time…and yet there’s something happening out here, past the city limits of culture, that if we were to apply the normal yardsticks to we would have to allow is quite probably exciting and important.
And the whole “it’s free, barring the cost of broadband” thing definitely comes into it too, I think…
I guess I wouldn’t mind being a bit avuncular from time to time, though I mostly just say it because otherwise I’d have to launch into whatever I’m posting about with no preamble…and for me, I generally need some kind of preamble, because I tend to go all over the map in posts. The least I could do is say “hi it’s me again” first, just to skeletonize the ranting. However, if I decode my own blog…I mean I usually try to live up to its title, really just try to say something that ought to be obvious, in so many words and out loud. So I guess I’m aiming at the pedagogical in some way, on some level…
…Yeah, Brad Curran, that was sort of strange. We’re all alone out here, so we’re making our own rules, and nobody ever writes ‘em down because they’re probably mostly a bit too fluid for that…but oh Lord, I hesitate before talking shit about other bloggers, and I’m just a small fry! I think our community has an identifiable structure of a sort, in this sense anyway: every blogger’s as much of a dork as every other blogger. No one else is ever going to support us or appreciate us but ourselves, so we owe each other a degree of tolerance and forgiveness…and some respect, for those who’re our shining lights! And who don’t do it for the money, or the Lilliputian “fame”, just happen to bestow upon us these big clearing-houses that everyone gets to know about and talk about, basically non-corporate sites though they might be affiliated with a store or with somebody’s own art or whatever, but the blogs themselves are not businesses, and because of that they make blogland fun. Sites like Mike’s, and the Weblog Updates, put them together and you’ve got yourself some nuclei of conversation that are about more than “buy more comics” or “do not criticize big companies”. So, yeah: I mean, occasionally people will flame away at each other, but at least you can say they don’t do it in cold blood, which I think is one of our few taste-boundaries — if you look at other sectors of the blogging universe, ours is a pretty nice one all in all, often thoughtful, very community-oriented, almost always friendly…I think we’re a net social good, in the universe. And — just to polish off the last of this great big meal I seem to’ve made of this — I guess when I do (foolishly) traipse on over to other sites where arguments are taking place, it’s because I wish there was a greater sense of perspective at work in them, I think occasionally that people are making undergraduate mistakes. I often visit Geoff Klock’s blog, for example, and I’ve taken to making the odd comment there just because I think many of his commenters have a pronounced contemporary bias that informs their narratizing of trash culture and history — I mean we’re all looking for narratives to place ourselves in, so bias is easy to slip into. And I guess at some level I imagine I can help to correct that, though of course I really can’t, it’s usually a thread-killer. But I do it anyway. For a sense of community, I guess?
Digression, as long as we’re talking about community and bias, and especially the reappropriation of childhood cultural touchstones (which after all is what comics are all about): it seems to me that your part of the world clung to the universality of these things longer than mine did. It isn’t just Blue Peter and Doctor Who; when I first visited London there were just the four kinds of channels, which meant everyone was watching the same things on TV, all the time. Water-cooler talk was effortless, compared to Canada…strangers on the street would discuss Blind Date with one another. In Canada (and, if timesed by ten, the U.S.), even then it was all “did you see that? have you seen this?” So going to this massive city where everyone was automatically connected in the media-content sense to a far greater degree, that was really fascinating. Just an obvious and outward form of the difference between nations and continents, I guess…the same thing in essence as encountering the colossal welcoming weirdness of the almighty Pub…which I’d never understood was itself a pastiche, until I went to this place in Truro on my second visit that was literally just this old couple’s house! And then it clicked: most of the things I was looking at were an often-daring mixture of found culture and made culture, old culture and new culture (though sometimes the “new” was to my eyes actually very old), and the sense that people were purposefully negotiating these real/false/who cares elements each day as they went about their lives was something I found strangely…I don’t know, healthy? In a way productive of tolerance. Hmm, maybe I’m trying to say that the inhabitants of London were simultaneously proud, and diffident…and therefore I found them very charmingly self-deprecating, even as they were showing themselves off for the distant cousin, and impressing him powerfully. Of course I also read some Hello! magazines on the train at this time, and they made me laugh my ass off — I hadn’t realized that there was a large and vocal contingent of America-worshippers in the UK, who could of course NEVER understand the States…bias, right? They regarded America through a foggy English lens, never saw it for what it was, because they never saw themselves for what they were. So they seemed pretty foolish, as though they believed the UK was essentially “boring”, because it was too slow-moving, not flashy and trashy enough, failed at having a history that started at nine o’clock in the morning each day, and died again at sunset…failed by being the possessor of a grand and successful continuity of persons and places. Which was an astonishingly wrongheaded way of thinking, to my mind…
Sorry, where was I?
Oh yes, community, and why I dip my toe in Internet arguments. I guess it is because of community: I would like us to have a nicely varied one. You guys came from Barbelith and stuff like that, I know — I was blown away to read the discussions in the previous Circle Jerks where all of a sudden it gets all Crowley-ish — so, here’s a good opportunity for enjoying…um, the chiasm in community? Because that’s not my background at all, I was never a poster on a board, basically all my comics conversations were only ever between myself and one other friend who lived down the street from me, and even my non-comics conversations tend to make most people excuse themselves politely. In the normal course of things, if you guys and I ever talked our conversations might well be confined to generalities (poor diction on my part there — isn’t the problem with generalities that they’re insufficiently confined?), like “I liked Flaming Carrot” “oh yeah, Flaming Carrot’s great” — but here, online, we can occasionally explore the interesting tensions in the way we together enjoy our mutual interest.
And I think it’s a GREAT community we’ve got going here, actually — anyway it’s certainly been great for me. Which was more than I ever expected. Though I guess you brought it up in the previous installments — what I think of as my “community” is just one small piece of a fractured mirror, one kind of spectral light coming through the prism…there’s a (oh no, I’m getting Newtonian with this prism thing) whole unobserved ocean of bloggers out there, and there are quite a few of them I find very offputting should I happen to glance their way — not “pretty shells” at all. And there’s more of them than there are of “us”…I mean look at the change Blogorama‘s going through, I think it’s pretty obvious they’re cycling out their old readers and replacing them with the message-board men. It used to be like Taiwan; soon it will be China. I can’t say I think that’s a good thing.
But, whatever. New “countries” are springing up all the time. Like this one here! So maybe when I come over all avuncular on these other sites I’m just trying to say “hey, over here…we’re here too, me and the folks in my bookmarks, it’s not just you guys by yourselves”…although perhaps this is a strategy I ought to abandon, because it doesn’t seem to work as well as…well, as well as just doing this back-and-forth here, for example. I mean they’ve all got their thing; they don’t need me poking my nose in. And I prefer this thing, in any case.
MO: I think it’s maybe not true that your readership is entirely bloggers; you’re presumably privy to the same wordpress stats – I love the little graphs they give you -that we are and while I’d guess maybe up to a quarter of our readership (hello, readers! that’s an affectation I’ve always time for, since first encountered in The Beano, I guess) are also bloggers, sometimes, I do know for certain I read A Trout in the Milk, among other things, when I wasn’t a blogger. I was prenatal, I suppose you might counterpoint. But I still have problems thinking of myself as one, as my workrate, etc. might reveal.
Plok: Hm, readers who aren’t bloggers…yes, I guess that’s probably true. Maybe I just think I’m more covered if only other bloggers read me — I mean they can’t very well kick, can they?
MO: I think it’s interesting the bit about reclaiming children’s cultural touchstones: I’m prone to be rather cruel about (superhero, obviously, because it is that of which we speak here) comic fans, certainly as they exhibit themselves on the near-consequenceless environment of the internet, but recently I’m coming round to the notion that while a portion of them may be irredeemable, gnarled with misanthropy with several specific varieties therein – those you can probably guess; there are behaviours they exhibit which if I’m perfectly honest with myself, I haven’t exactly cut the bonds to entirely.
Like, I am still something of a completist and having begun buying Secret Invasion I finished, leaving only a small hollow of regret, low-level irritation. And, afterward, I bought the Dark Reign special! Well, I liked all the other Bendis & Maleev collabs… now I just feel like an asshole, and I think I’ve pretty much been treated as one – maybe I even deserved it — it’s still a chafe, you know?
And I still – we talk about this quite a bit, in the Mindless mailboxes (the most exciting behind the scenes blogchat in all comics I will unverifiably claim) and I do wonder if it’s because of the form to an extent – am prone to a certain amount of definitionalism: e.g. “that cannot happen/have happened/it did not happen like that, I saw a panel, a static frame depicting something quite clearly, not this”. Continuity and stuff, I’m not linear about it, I can’t really bear that – I don’t like the apparently fairly commonly held notion that these things should be easily comprehensible and, thereby I think, pat – but I’m interested in the more SF, timetwisting angles of the thing. It’s a thing I’m interested in. But yeah, childhood affinities stretched into this incredibly elaborate, wild, troubling even thing – I could make an argument for populism, the popular form, but i) I’m not especially interested in being an arbiter of taste (because there are people who will always be ten steps ahead in that game for one and because taste is – I think there’s a strong class component in it and I have no interest in trying to get high art about this shit) and ii) someone would just say, ‘if you’re so gah-dam populist, why not read manga?’ Which I do and have, occasionally, just the big boys – Otomo, Shirow, the guys that’ve had films – but it’s just a kind of bewildering and terrifying mass to me. I wouldn’t know where to start, and I don’t think the stuff popular with today’s Western teens would necessarily… fit?
Anyway, I get the impression you’re kind of on the outs, a bit, with the modern superhero – maybe you’ve just learned your lesson, which I think I will shortly with the onset of $3.99 Marvel Comics – but then, I still think of you as very much engaged with that world, in a non-specific way. Sometimes I do wonder if I just occasionally buy some items because I want to engage with an ethereal other through the lines, talk about what’s happening NOWNOWNOW always and that’s just what we do? What is happening in fictionland this week – it’s not news, it’s…? And I found it very hard to build up a communication system, at first even within myself, even although I’m an English grad, even although I have a fairly decent command of the language, because what boards offered in… 2001(?) was pretty terrible, lowlevel moaning, always moaning – primarily about the new regime at Marvel, one which I found quite exciting. How do you fully engage with this culture? (I think this way is the best so far, although I’m terribly indolent at getting out there) Do you, do I even want to? (That’s probably the nub of a question?)
…I appreciate the stuff about England, although it’s perhaps better spent on the other (English) Mindlesses, ‘snot an epithet I’d ever accept as applicable. You’re Canadian, right? You understand? But certainly, I found seeing Wales identifiably transmogrified and animated, in various Miyazaki films; he still does it, really if you look at Howl’s Moving Castle, a certain time period, but seeing your land – Britain, I am not Welsh – through alien eyes has a real scalecasting effect. I just live here… it becomes humdrum, normal, ugly even. Tired.
Plok: Me, I’m a superhero comics fan who’s been left behind, really…and quite a long time ago, too. Listen to Dan Didio and Joe Quesada witter on about the importance of “good stories”…it’s crudely propagandistic, don’t you think? I mean, with a few exceptions I don’t see any of these “good stories” out there…I can’t even look at the racks of floppies in my LCS anymore, it’s like looking at a trashcan full of shiny wrappers for crappy candy bars. Not that there’s anything wrong with candy bars, but at a minimum you want the wrapper to contain something aside from more wrapper, right? Like reading a comic full of nothing but cover pages: a novel with nothing in it but the dedication. It gets very, very old and static and stultifying.
I’m not sure class can really apply to the aesthetic appreciation and canonicity of superhero books — for one thing, at best I think we can have a para-class thing going on with this, that is if everybody agrees (which they won’t)…because “Nostromo” is still considered by the wide world to be far above us, really the idea of classism as regards the superheroes has to be, like…who’s the most gentlemanly bum? And, is that a good thing, to be the most gentlemanly bum? The folks on Blogorama use “art-house” as an epithet, as though classism existed here, but I think that’s just cover for an inability to reappropriate the touchstones of childhood by actually reappropriating them…and as for canonicity, ha, that’s a laugh, like kids playing dress-up, we are all dancing around the ladder pretending we have climbed it, but we haven’t…
By which I mean the pretense to canonicity and hierarchy and class is just a prismatic splitting-up of the superhero aesthetic (so sue me, I like the Prismatic thing!), and the affection for the things of childhood seen through different eyes, which until they are grown-up eyes with grown-up capabilities will never be able to see the same thing. But, this growing-up business probably should’ve been achieved long ago, actually: I mean what has the whole history of “waves” in superhero comics been, except an attempt to (I will invoke Jung again, not that I’m a Jungian but I will) preserve the ego-focus through the process of revitalization? You look at Robinson’s “Starman” — it’s aged badly. But at the time it had a great force, that occluded its shortcomings. A story about growing up and inheriting, not about becoming a legacy hero but becoming your own legacy reader…it amazes me that anyone who wasn’t of a particular age when it came out could like it at all, it’s just so of its time. Of course there are half-a-hundred other examples of this reappropriation…
So these people out there of whom you say you haven’t cut the ties to their attitudes completely…well, you haven’t, that’s right, because they represent the choice you made as a reader, only in contradistinction: given the choice to change by giving up, change by adapting, or change by freezing in place in a way they never did before, they looked at ego-preservation vs. revitalization, they looked at the problem of maintaining the ego-focus against the process of revitalization instead of through it…and they decided not to pursue the latter/hope for the former, in other words they decided it would be best to abjure auto-critique, and defend the touchstones of childhood so strenuously that they now demonize the liveliness that once attracted and compelled them, when they were not frozen in place.
Anyway, so quite obviously in another way you must have cut your ties to their attitudes, because they’re out there howling against Grant Morrison’s attempt to reinject liveliness into the superheroes, and you’re not. And they’re strenuously maintaining that a rising tide lifts all boats, in order to strongarm you into approving what’s not worth approving, and you’re not going along with it…so I would guess it’s probably harder to see your face reflected in their mirror than it seems at first glance…
And again, where was I.
Oh yes: the prismatic thing. I really think it fits. So, I’ve talked a lot about how the Seventies boys wanted to go off and do more “literary” things with the superheroes, because they found they excelled at that kind of thing…Alan Moore is really like the Newton of “art” (ugh) comics, in that what’s been said about Newton could be said about him: he wasn’t the first of the modern minds, but the last of the antique ones. The smartest and most formally subversive of the old guys who liked to work in four-colour art because it was all they knew, all they’d practised on. Of course that isn’t entirely fair, he’s ended up going well beyond that sort of thing…but one wonders if he would’ve gone beyond it at all if DC had let him do “Twilight“. They’re letting Grant do his “Twilight” (or are they?), and it’s making me worry that he’ll never make another “Invisibles”-grade authorial statement, just get sucked into being the Emperor of the Toybox for the rest of his life. Not that I don’t appreciate his reivigoration of the superheroes qua superheroes, it’s a magnificently ambitious project and I think he pulls it off with elan…”it’s a magnificent beard, and I know you want one!”
…but Alan has a definably “post-mainstream” output, in the sense that they pissed him off so much he pulled the old Coriolanus trick: ”Rome, I exile YOU…”
But, what if they hadn’t pissed him off?
In the Nineties, when I left Marvel FOREVER (only to be lured back in the time of the Green Flash, when you had Jim Mahfood drawing Ultimate Marvel Team-Up and Peter Bagge and James Kochalka making duelling Hulks…well, if Seth was lured back, why shouldn’t I be?), I fled to Fantagraphics, Vertigo, some DC mainstream comics…but these things all weren’t the same, and I went through a little period of cognitive dissonance, trying to justify to myself the feeling of liking Messner-Loebs‘ Flash, while at the same time I knew perfectly well that Jaime’s Locas stories were better…and so I should like Bill, but not Flash? I should decry Flash: just another fucking artist-killing corporate franchise. That was really preying on my mind: how do I reconcile still liking this stuff, even though it may be done well? I would go back to Kirby’s output at Marvel, or go back to Gerber’s Defenders or Englehart’s Avengers…and ask myself, “how do I find a way to hate the sin, but love the sinner?” Of course it was the wrong question, because I conceived it too narrowly. Those guys did remarkable work in the idiom of superheroes, because they had a meaning they wanted to get out there, and it was a good meaning, and so who the fuck cares if it was a corporatized idiom? As I see it, mainstream superhero comics have been dying this whole time, over the whole modern era. Talented creators with unusually credible skills have just been giving it mouth-to-mouth for sixty years or so. The whole period has been the Green Flash: Kirby saved Marvel from drowning by pulling it out of the lake, the Seventies boys kept its heart beating, Claremont and Byrne took over when they got tired, the Nineties stabbed its heart with adrenaline and figured that’d be good enough, so call the paramedics and tell them we don’t require their services…and then it died, but the paramedics arrived anyway just in time, but then…I don’t know, the corporate masters decided it was good enough just to have a guy they hired off the street dress as a paramedic, and stand nearby, and everything would be fine? Way I figure it, to the extent this idiom succeeds in being a corporately-owned and -directed one, it’s only because constant artistic chest-compressions keep it respirating, i.e. maintain its value. And when they go, it goes. Without the inspiration of the artists, none of the corporate properties have any value at all: if even the Roman Empire fell, how can Spider-Man be a guaranteed moneymaker no matter what, forever? This is like a doctor working weekends in a free clinic in the inner city, not like a doctor being offered the chance to be Barack Obama’s personal physician. I mean, what a joke. Things started to break down in the Eighties at Marvel, and began to break down even more in the early Nineties…and then it was just all adrenaline, no craft, no skill, just bullshit and hype keeping it going. And it all crashed out. And then it was revived. And now here we are. But no one’s figured out what’s been happening, so its pulse rate is dropping again.
At DC during this same period, they weren’t doing particularly exciting things, but they were doing the right things, as often as not. At least, more right things. But they’ve started slipping a lot too, through the last ten years or so. And Marvel’s just screwed, they have all these properties that can only work when they’re in skilled and dedicated hands, but they think the properties supply the value to the artists, rather than the other way around.
So I think this idiom deserves a little cruelty: or, call it honesty. Mainstream comics fans are killing mainstream comics, because they think “barely passable” or “fundamentally uninteresting, except with Thor” is good enough. They tolerate unprofessional or uneducated work, like science fiction fans who somehow just can’t get enough of the story where the destroyed planet turns out at the end to have once been called a funny name, now what was it, oh yes…EARTH. Awful, clunky cliches are everywhere, inescapable. Inexpert riffing (even sometimes, expert riffing!) on a fetishized past rather than an honoured one. Look at me, I can’t bear to scan the new floppies! I see the covers and they don’t attract me, I think about how much imagination I can expect to find in them and I sigh. What’s inside those wrappers that’s worthy of my attention, which by the way has never been at more of a premium? I buy TPBs of Tom Strong and Hellboy instead…when I can find them in amongst the fucking Sentry TPBs. But the thing is, take away the NOWNOWNOWness of the serialized corporate characters, and there’s little reason to read them at all. There’s precious little reason for me to break out my old Avengers comics, if I’m no longer engaged with, if I in fact despise, new Avengers comics. I’ve got hundreds of dollars in my pocket a month to spend on comics, and the only things I’m buying are repackagings of old comics from all over the last thirty years or more! At a certain point it turns into the aesthetic of novels: no one spends 90% of their time reading novels put out just this year, that’d be both stupid and impossible. I don’t go see movies in the theatre anymore, for the most part: I rent ‘em when they come off the New Release wall, or somebody burns ‘em for me, or I see them on TV. And sometimes I don’t even rent a movie in a year, and I don’t really miss it. I mean I’ve got lots of things to read, see, scan, work on…like anyone else, I’ve got a ton of different interests. If I’m addicted to some show and then I miss a few episodes, chances are I’ll shrug and say “ehh, I’ll see it all one day, I suppose.” These are extraordinarily delicate, transient enthusiasms, if you take away the ability to access through them a pure love of the art and the craft. If all you see is shit, you’ll stop caring. When I read an issue of The Oath, I went on a big Dr. Strange reading spree, hauled out the longboxes and the Treasury editions…and I’d probably still be on that kick (I can never really go off Dr. Strange, those old comics are way too visionary), if I hadn’t seen some lackluster Bendis Doc that made me think “oh, what’s the point?” I was going to buy the TPB of The Oath right away, top priority…and I still want to buy it and it would still be good, but as long as I’m aware of how shitty Dr. Strange comics are in the NOWNOWNOW world, I’m not sufficiently enthused to remember to look for it. Like, it’s come down to the point where reminding me I like Dr. Strange makes me not want to read Dr. Strange, and how stupid is that? Whole swaths of the serialized narratives I now consider to be blanked-out, never really happened…my co-collector Ed used to call this the “Roll Your Own Reboot” strategy, but I’m not sure I can maintain sufficient positivity for it to work the way he meant, because as time goes on there’s less and less stuff I’m willing to deign to call by the name “and then THIS happened”. For me, the X-Men ceased publication (after releasing issues more and more infrequently and unpredictably) sometime in the late Eighties, began publishing again in about 2000, with an accompanying spinoff called X-Force/X-Statix, but then very quickly disappeared from the publishing world altogether. Jesus could write it now, and I doubt I’d be that interested: ehh, I suppose I’ll read all that someday, eventually. Avengers hasn’t been published in years. I dimly remember a book called The Incredible Hulk…hey, whatever happened to that? A shame Fantastic Four got cancelled after Englehart’s run, I thought they were going to relaunch it at one point but then they didn’t after all. Too bad.
These superheroes were really made to be serialized into infinity, most of them. That if you terminate that seriality you’re in trouble everyone knows (or should know, after the Nineties — nobody really wants to read Fate or Heroes Reborn)…but there’s another way of terminating seriality too, and that’s by terminating the seriality that’s IN MY HEAD! You said “NOWNOWNOW”…yes, I think it’s the very thing. I like it a lot. It’s the key to my wallet, it’s fantastically addictive, the urge for more background, more knowledge, more rabbit tricks, more neatly-turned revelations of character that delight. Soap operas and fantasy trilogies and Star Trek shows and novelizations and Lord Of The Rings and Wodehouse books and TV shows all run on it. It’s a very effective recipe for sales. But if that souffle of seriality ever falls, good night nurse; it’s over, might as well turn out the lights.
Well, the 3.99 cover price is gonna get you, I bet. For me though, it’s really already over. Because at this point, it’s mostly comics bloggers that get me excited about reading comics, not comics companies. Bloggers that remind me of how much I like comics. Not comics companies. I’d just about rather the companies all went away, except insofar as they maintain the ability to republish old stuff I like…that anyway I find out about or recall when I read comics blogs.
But then some comics blogs suck, too, and that’s a problem.
Basically here’s the bit of the worser crew of bloggers that I retain: these superhero comics are the things of my childhood, and what I’m after is a chance to reappropriate them for my own uses in adulthood. To make my own comments and observations with/through them, even just as a reader. This doesn’t mean I necessarily want to read anything “realistic”, obviously: I don’t need the comics to GROW UP, that would only short-circuit my appreciation for them, their usefulness to me. I DO need the stories and the art and the craft and the liveliness to be there, that were there when I was young. I need them to be THEMSELVES, in other words; to be true to themselves. Basically, the past of the superheroes is my past too, a past I never tire of exploring, and I want that past of mine to have turned out to be my present as well, a present I can relate to that is, and not some scarred dystopian alter-present that has sweet fuck-all to do with the stuff I used to like and still do.
Like, I really loved the Iron Man movie, you know? I thought, “screw comics, I’ll just watch these movies from now on — these can be my comics”. But then as soon as Samuel L. Jackson shows up with an eyepatch, I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride. I can see it all turning into an irritant, instead of a pleasure. I have no confidence in the movies either.
Well…maybe I have just a bit more.
In more concrete terms: what makes a superhero comic/story good, isn’t hard to figure out. Morrison does it all the time. Superhero comics are incredibly simple: actualization and ethics are mobilized to cope with crisis and change, fate steps up to you and you punch it in the nose, and thus become a man. Duh: these are children’s stories. So what did the post-Watchmen world reveal? That a children’s story is an adult’s story too, flip flip flip is it the two faces or the vase, that you see? Now that’s a good reason to write “realistic” superhero comics, to show that effect. Lots of people have done it, and done it really well. But now this is NOT what’s on offer.
I’ll use Moore again: in ABC. Having made the point of flipping the children’s story and the adult’s story, then he decides to say, look, these two don’t have to be *opposed*, actually. They’re both present. This is essentially what I take to be the virtue of the Seventies boys at Marvel, what ABC points out — you can tell both kinds of stories at once, it’s fine. Oh, I don’t know, maybe that’s not the most brilliant analysis I’ve ever tried on, but…there has to be a reason my tastes are what they are. I can’t stand the inversion that Marvel and DC practise: SUPERHERO COMICS ARE GROWN-UP!!! No, they’re not…but if they were, that’d be just about enough to kill all their appeal stone dead. Is that the danger of definitionalism? ”This means THIS!!!” No, it doesn’t have to, you’re wrong. Children’s stories are elliptical by their nature, I think: full of dream-logic and magic. Morrison does wild things with that elliptical nature, by pushing it to the limit — Jog has a good thought on it, that the ultimate Morrison comic would just be random panels of MEANING! With no room even for words, just well-chosen individual letters.
Oh, and the manga stuff, yeah…I haven’t ventured into it yet either, I know what I’d probably like, what I’m looking for, but it’s like a huge wall of stuff I don’t really know how to make selections from. Physically don’t know how to find “Yotsuba&!”, I look and look, and there’s so much stuff I don’t know where to begin or end. Anime’s working a bit better for me, I saw Death Note and then bugged Sean for a list of things I should check out. Death Note was fantastic, there was real life in it — it made me think I should broaden my horizons. Plus, I was happy because it’d been dubbed right here in Vancouver, showing I guess that we’re not total morons…
And it’s funny you should say that about seeing your own country through alien eyes, actually: for years and years and years, Canada just made TV shows and movies basically for export — like “Pepsi ‘B’” in the Simpsons…and then American movies would be made here, too. Totally the typical Canadian-American pattern, anyway I got pretty good at telling at a glance when something had been filmed here or just down the road in Seattle. Or in Toronto. So I’d be seeing myself through alien eyes all the time, and managing to make these distinctions: ”yeah, the quality of the light is like here, but that’s Seattle…no, no way that’s filmed in New Mexico for real, lookit the trees…” That Jackie Chan movie “Rumble In The Bronx” was made here — and in it, the mountains are RIGHT THERE, it’s so ridiculously not the Bronx, I can only imagine what American audiences made of that…
In many ways our finest hour. A lot better than seeing a show made here, filmed here, pretending to be the probably-American Town With No Name, and then it was BROADCAST here…! We don’t do that anymore, or not much: now we make TV shows and movies for our own domestic audience, it’s way better.
Oh, but I could natter on about it some, I’m telling you…Canadians are of course all over American media products too, but hardly anybody knows but us…sometimes on talk shows somebody’ll say “no, that doesn’t apply to me, I’m actually Canadian”, and then the host will say, “oh…yeah? So, next question…”
Anyway you look at the anime stuff, they show quite a bit of it here on TV sometimes, and there’s just no way to deny the Japanese manage to do fresh things even if they’re occasionally in an offhand or soaked-in-pure-commercialism manner…so yeah, it’s good to see that stuff, there’s actually a “there” there. Sometimes a *trashy* there, but it’s competently-executed trash, it’s got a soul…amazing to behold. Hard to believe our stuff has so *little* soul in comparison. Even fucking Yu-Gi-Oh‘s got more soul than Secret Invasion. In fact I think that’s probably a very fair comparison: Secret Invasion to Yu-Gi-Oh. Their action sequences follow the same pattern: ”but wait, there’s more…! Now I’ll play this *other* stupid card, so whaddaya think about *that*?”
Also Japan has great candy, I just thought I’d say that.
But very little in the way of maple syrup, I should imagine.
MO: Something you said above, I’m actually surprised at how good a fit this is, but I’ve said much the same of numerous Geoff Johns comics – “you don’t want more wrapper”. No, you do not. That’s exactly what Dark Reign is – the way I phrase it is “always the parcel, never the present”, but it’s the same thing, a perpetual motion machine with no end destination… So the journey’s, who cares? I’ve enjoyed maybe 70% of Brian Bendis’ writing, that I’ve read, for all it’s sweaty enthusiasm, hitherto now but he’s just going through the motions – I’m pretty much at the end of my tether with Marvel, and $3.99 was, will be, perhaps embarrassingly, the tipping point. I have Aberdonian heritage, which means my relationship with cash-money is pretty much equivalent to the old stone:blood maxim.
It’s a thing, as Brian might say in his teen’s gangster demotic – I mean, I can’t speak for Mindless Ones as a unit, I’m sure they’re all much cooler than me and could give one anyway, but what’ve the company got for me? The characters, which Morrison said higher-ups had the same relationship to as a farmer to his cows. I certainly do have this kind of awful attachment to the X-Men in particular; other than that, they’ve a few good writers doing comics for them (Ellis, Ennis, Milligan, Fraction, Brubaker, Aaron – I still read Mark Millar out of a possibly misplaced sense of civic pride) and actually a not unimpressive stable of artists at present. So, it’s a kind of fandom, it’s not entirely an aesthetic that I have – I want Mindless Ones to not fall between the two stools of fandom and criticism which I’ll describe shortly (it seems a simple enough thing, but I’ve not seen it anywhere else, so. Claimed.) but to be a crossroads, a Terminus between.
Because I am a populist, as I say, of sorts and as much as I like Scalped, say, there’s not this – and this is my definition of fandom, and why Vertigo has a hard time making series’ stick until they reach some kind of critical mass, overcoming inertia, probably about two years in: fans don’t care about creators (of individual comics, should our readers wish to query that category,) at all, at worst. They’re solely interested in the trademarks that they have these infantile >ah< tendrils of need around. You know, you had those guys at Newsarama – rather than give a rat’s ass about the Siegel family getting paid what they are abso-fucking-lutely due, in the throes of horror at the prospect of not getting any Superman comics. So that’s one pole, which I am pretty much horrified to be in orbit of, but then I could bust out any number of winsome Flex Mentallo, Wally Sage on the phone to the Samaritans, quotes to… not justify, but describe the condition. Of which I am part; I dunno – you ever have a conversation and suddenly people are talking about Batman or something, about which you are the expert, and you get all choked up and excitable because: Oh my God, a chance to discuss my secret, terrible love? Probably not.
Criticism is – I don’t think they need be diametrically opposed, necessarily, but I’m trying to (figu)rout this third path without necessarily just talking about Grant Morrison all the time – it’s an appreciation of the form, which I’m probably underdeveloped in; I just like pictoral genre fiction, I have pretty decent taste in it for whatever (nothing) that’s worth, but I maybe don’t have the toolbox, the vocabulary, to describe why – I don’t know – why Sean Phillips is a better artist than Billy Tan forever.
God, that’s useless.
I think some – quite a few – mainstream comics, if you’re including say Image, Dark Horse, Vertigo, do shit-hot, interesting things with genre conventions.
And in bright colour! Except for Vertigo, where it is done in brown and green primarily – I wonder, sometimes, if that was a stylesheet choice made to separate it from paterfamilias.
So the colour, yes – it’s Flex Mentallo again, the superfan’s bible: “I made a prison, walls covered in sexy supervixens and heroic musclemen, but still a prison”… fandom is crazy and absurd, and I think that’s part of the appeal of these “shitty, wonderful” things… that if you’ve any notion of social etiquette, you’re so far beyond the delimiters of how an adult should behave, fuck it. Buy that Ghost Rider, you’ll probably enjoy the shit out of it. But it’s the idea of confining that – I think it’s a passingly familiar trope, one Moore did use in Tom Strong, in maybe it was one of the Tomorrow Stories specials, the collector, the evil collector who wants to confine Our Heroes and likely in suffocating mylar bags, furthermore. It’s a mild sychosis, really, isn’t it? God knows, I’m sure some of these people haven’t much to look forward to, I do feel sorry for them, but they actively hate new comics, any changes to the mythos of – and it’s always this point – their childhood era; an effect even somewhat pronounced in any number of writers given the (Dark) reign to revitalise said infancy.
Tucker Stone is cruel, but true, when he talks about comics for people – I think it was Captain Britain, and I actually quite like this new MI-13 comic, but you know, Tucker, you can sort of laugh it off. A bit? Ha ha, I don’t, really – who want to be, literally, motherfuckers.
But then, sometimes, as with Frank Miller’s current Batman – I think there’s a certain glee to be had in lolling around in your own poo, metaphorically speaking. It’s a bit of a yardstick for me, All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder.
There was so much more I wanted to say, I don’t know where to begin…
I appreciate anyone making time for my Prismatic Age descriptor – I kind of want it to be a testament, though who ever remembers who coined the phrase ‘Dark Age’, and in fact, who talks about SH books utilising these terms a lot but it’s a tasty poststructuralist box to try and climb out of, one of those 4D cubes that recurses on itself… I am the Batman now, apophenic, and can see the shape of our time. An anonymous taxonomiser; I want to be seen in ten years as one of hose lying bastards who claims they invented VCRs or something. A lying bastard, as one of my friends described my prostrate, sleeping corpselike body once – I’ll have it on my grave.
Honestly, why make these daft things about FACTS – facts about fiction are about as useful as wheels on a pillow. That’s the perverse thing: childish things like play and story, these are actively developmental. Silly boys.
I do think you’re right about it being a net-good, or at least our sector, hooray for us, we would think that, wouldn’t we… not just happy-face positivity, but constructive thought – the internet is actually pretty terrible for letting inchoate – is the term primal whine taken? – that then, the sense the walls are seething downward, it percolates quite effectively through the thing, I *think* because of actual physiological issues, with the eyes and posture, but I’m not a doctor, it’s just a notion – a prejudice, even – I’m working on. I think I’ll end on that, yeah. A nice prejudice.
Plok: I was just mentioning this to Tom Bondurant, that we’ve all gotten so screwed up with the matter of the superheroes — justifying our interest in them, but you know, they’re just stories! It’d probably be weird *not* to be interested in them, they’re a special little fantasy subgenre which has two big things to know about it: one, it’s vigourous, and two it’s simple. And, it’s a part of history too, a part of taste…it’s the shared touchstone of childhood again, like nursery rhymes, Christmas cartoons, the Hobbit, Winnie The Pooh. Disney movies. Now, what I’m thinking is that the superheroic fantasy is very, very good at telling a particular sort of story with economy and verve…heroic fantasy in the myth-derived sword-and-sorcery vein, but set in urban environments and modern psychologies and played straight, and in the past a lot of people would push at the confinement of this story in a lot of different ways, and thereby produce pleasing, even startling new work. Kirby did the Fourth World — couldn’t have been made, there would have been no point to it, had it not been for the preexisting superheroic vocabulary which he helped to invent in the first place. Similarly, Watchmen — all those costumes are there for a reason, of course! Because the superhero is an historical artifact of the twentieth century, and it means something, it’s not just ephemeral garbage that got into the culture by accident, it arose out of the culture.
But, maybe in the last few years the superheroes have been repurposed, somewhat. Do they all still represent that simple, vigourous, occasionally aphasic, super-modern dream-evocation? Maybe they don’t, and maybe that’s where all this stuff comes from: if you wanted to view the superheroes as semi-mythic creatures, trading on the same fascination that makes it so easy to sell any book so long as it has the words “King Arthur” or “Grail” on the cover — I mean seriously, consider the potency of the attraction the Matter Of Britain exerts, eh? What’s it been, eight hundred years? And people are still rabid for it all…
But if you wanted to do that, then you might push at the envelope, you might even invoke the absurdity of the superheroes, but you would still play it all essentially straight, essentially as Bulfinch’s. Even if what you wanted was to create a Bulfinch’s for contemporary times, a mythologization of the cab driver and the cop…and this kind of re-mthologizing effect is something that’s at the heart of all modern fantasy, isn’t it? My favourite example is always Chesterton’s “The Napoleon Of Notting Hill”, because it’s the cleanest, but it’s not like this technique’s especially rare…
Even if you wanted to something adventurous or metatextual, in other words…you would still play it straight. Scott Mcleod talks about the Formalist and the Storyteller in Understanding Comics…I think in superhero comics the Formalist is more than justified in coming out to play, but only the Storyteller can really create new features to really fix reader attention with — i.e. you can’t make any new stuff if you’re not playing it straight. Otherwise you just get metacommentary, villains named Reflexio or something, there’s no flow. I mean, let’s all go play with our Legos, you know, it’s a simple and satisfying and (re)creative activity, but only if you experience the flow of work — you forget you’re too old to playing with Lego, you’re just thinking about what to build. But there’s not much point playing with ‘em if all you’re doing is keeping uppermost in your mind the fact that it’s kind of a waste of time. Which it isn’t, at all: just so long as you’ve got that Flow going on. But lacking that, yeah…you could be doing “adult” things instead. And as my friend Ed is fond of saying, some people feel that way about fiction itself! It’s “not real”, so it’s not important: to them, it’s like it doesn’t even exist. What to do with these people, their imagination has a focus I just can’t understand at all! But oh well…
So, arguably you’ve got a whole lot of people out there who don’t know how to embrace the simplistic construction of the superhero story, and this makes the mainstream comics landscape a lot less interesting than it should be, or could be. Superheroes as “low” culture have always borrowed from their “higher” cousins, relentlessly topical, unashamedly magpie-ish…fair enough, but knowing what to do with it all is a different story. Who do the vast majority of Big Two comics really appeal to now — by which I mean to say, what kind of story-appreciators are they attracting? If you look around, with a few exceptions I think you’ll see that comics writers aren’t aiming so much at framing modern psychologies in the mythic or quasi-mythic narrative much anymore. No doubt Kirby was always thinking about Perseus and Hercules and Gilgamesh…but I don’t think you have to go too far to see writers thinking more about, oh I don’t know, about the cult of celebrity, or about subcultural procedural details whether they’re the details of the police force, the armed services, the criminal organization, or anything else. And that’s the model of the detective story, of course, not the mythic hero. So, what kind of art is best suited to that type of story? What kind of visual idiom fits that kind of thing best? NOT capes and cowls, unless you have something interesting to say with them. Or, look at all these bits of superhero eschatology, all the dark, blasted dystopian futures out there — at some point the future terminates. It’s hard to play that shit straight for very long, I think — it’s just one note. Not that any of these things can’t be done well — anything may be done well — but not all of it is going to be done well, and it’s then you end up with…I don’t know, a new type of fan?
So at a certain point, Storytelling peels away from Formalism, and just having formally-subversive stuff all the time, without playing anything straight even if silly — or worse, playing things straight that totally miss the mark of verisimilitude because you don’t really know how to do it — rather beggars the vitality of the superhero. Basically at that point it’s just delivering a bunch of eulogies with great-looking, but oddly unaffecting, art. The subliminal message being: this stuff’s dead. It isn’t dead, though, because that’s just a rumour — someone who enjoys the Storytelling game can easily bring it all back to life, as I said before superheroes are simple — really simple.
But we get all this confusion about them, like the pomo debates of the Seventies and Eighties about literature, repeated without useful articulation now, here, at a time when the costumes and the capes are often vestigial features of stories past, not vital ingredients of new stories. It’s just accent: lots of stories now are about the big BANGS, but those bangs are just violent, just spectacle, they’re not really integral, they’ve got no psychological dimension to them, they don’t connect the exterior experience to the interior one. Wrapper, in other words. But for myself, what I like about superhero comics is the stuff that anybody can get, the stuff that isn’t embarrasing to bring up with non-comics people. Mostly, people do connect to this style, this art, these simple conceits — it wasn’t a popular form for nothing! And there are still superhero comics you can pass to a person and say “take a look at this” and they will…they may not think it’s wonderful, but they’ll look at it, and they’ll get what it’s about. They might not, on the other hand, quite know what to make of Palookaville if you hand it to them, although they’ll certainly “get” the art…but most people are decently well-educated about superheroes, at least about their existence — they’re supposed to be bright, brash, exciting, and short, and you’re supposed to imagine yourself as Spider-Man or Batman, and kids are supposed to like them. Very easy to understand. Absolutely: buy that Ghost Rider…! I mean, it’s 2008: there’s no “juvenile” culture anymore, we have sixty-year-olds walking around with ponytails listening to emo-rock on their iPods — there’s no shame anymore, like I keep saying by borrowing your term, it’s all gone prismatic — the shared touchstones have a value in themselves, because there are fewer and fewer of them, so I think people can respect these innocent things of the past a lot more now, the things that cohered with one another, that made a little map of our sociocultural home town. Well, Iron Man was a big hit, right?
Anyway, a “third way” at Mindless Ones? Mebbe so…you know, the criticism thing, I agree with Sean Witzke, it really does have to be about feeling — but what’s the feeling, right? This is absorption into Flow, too, possibly…is it really worth talking about superhero comics? Never mind, don’t bother me, I’m busy talking about superhero comics… Of course one doesn’t have to examine one’s personal tastes and preferences, but as a reader I keep coming back to Mindless Ones in part because you all make that feeling pretty explicit for me, and it gives me things to chew over about what my own tastes are. What’s the feeling, that Mindless Ones celebrates? A certain amount of anarchic freedom coupled to joy, a certain amount of interest in having form meet function more elegantly, just in order to get past all the technical bullshit and get on with the hallucinating, right? The first step of criticism is, doubtless, just being able to say what it is you like…and actually, though the millions may disgree, it seems to me that this is the way (and no other way!) to reinvigorate the genre: what is it that you liked, and how come. If as a reader you can’t say this, the ship’s probably past saving anyway. “Art comix” need no sweeping analyses because they’re not genre work, they can stand on their own feet, they’re already safe, they make up their own conventions…but I always like to think of Howard The Duck, brilliant stuff just hedged slightly about with an air of costumes and capes and superhero conventions — that’s the satire, but it wasn’t cold satire or pointless satire (those two things are probably the same), and without Howard’s placement in the Marvel Universe it would not have worked the way it did. Today you could not do it, probably. The use the superheroes are put to is too filled with tedium to support it! And oh my God, THAT’S SAYING SOMETHING!! Sheesh.
Basically the Prismatic thing…it really is the world of the postmodern superhero, we all thought Watchmen was “postmodern” but it wasn’t, it was just the peak of modernism…but this shit here, this world of unbridled pastiche, this is the real deal, and it is a CHALLENGE for writers not to just make “Iron Man = Prison Break with sci-fi” or whatever, because none of this stuff is roadmapped, and just pilfering from what’s popular in other forms can’t be as easily assimilated by superhero-y-ness, because the superhero-y-ness has splintered, it’s open to redefinition now, you can’t lean on it, you have to build it into something intentionally instead. And if you’ve got a certain kind of interest as a writer or a reader, it’s a tremendous opportunity to explore the form’s basic resilience — I’m thinking Morrison’s kitchen-sink Sentinels in New X-Men as a nifty demonstration of this, nothing really changes, Xavier has a school, there are X-Men, they’re mutants, there are Sentinels, fine fine fine…but it’s got a lot more J.G. Ballard in it than usual, right? And well, whyever not? Hmm, maybe it’s not as good an example on paper as it is in my head…still, what I’m going for: it’s a bad sort of time to try and protect superhero orthodoxy, the costumes may be iconic but that’s not enough any more. That’s NOT exploring the form’s resilience, that’s asking it to sit in a corner and wait for time to roll backwards…it isn’t interesting! You can’t read an action figure, it has to have a story attached to it! You can’t eat a wrapper. All these come-ons and teases and Sixth Sense-derived “OH NO YOU WILL NEVER SEE THIS COMING!!!” Oh yes, we will. What could actually happen, after all? Try to replicate the appeal of “24″ or something in a comic…I don’t know, the thing is people are pretty much already paying for “24″, aren’t they? So how do you really get them to unbelt for another couple of hundred bucks a month if the story need, social need, artistic payload of a superhero comic, is no different from the payload carried by “24″, or anything else that’s on TV? The only thing “24″ hasn’t got, that the current superheroes do, is the reeking sense of nostalgia for a time when these comics were about their own stuff — a sense of (ugh) legacy, now you see Jay Garrick or somebody talking about CSI shit with Black Canary and realize that they’re dressed really strangely…but the only thrill in that is a dissonance we’ve already plumbed to the bottom of twenty years ago. So, can it last? Will that approach work? What the superheroes did may have moved on to people working in other media, I don’t know. But it’s a good reason to talk a lot about Morrison, because he’s still in there pitching with the superheroes…I mean look at Seven Soldiers, there are real moments of excitement in there…it can still be done, all this stuff can still be woken up, he’s proven it. It’s just that, post-bankruptcy, Marvel eventually settled on a strategy that seems to me unsustainable in the long run…and DC largely followed suit. Look at the movies, the one time they made a superhero movie that could’ve come right out of a superhero comic of today, it was Superman Returns, and it sucked. The rest of the time they’re at least trying to contact the real animating juice behind this stuff, and that mostly works. Or look at Moore, he broke the modernist mould with Watchmen, and then tried to put it all back together with ABC, in full consciousness of where the superhero gets his energy from, all the various sources of pleasure in this particular kind of fantasy world, the taproots and the influences…and it was working really well, but then they just had to go and piss him off again, so that was that. So as I was saying to Tom, decent superhero stories used to cover the landscape, and now they’re rare — and it shouldn’t be a mystery how come. People just aren’t writing them, that’s all.
Phew! Now would you believe I’m not even sure if all that was the stuff I wanted to say?