SMASHback #1: The Tower

April 3rd, 2016

Back in February, I appeared on a panel at the London Graphic Novel Network’s S.M.A.S.H. event. There were a lot of great speakers at those events (including our own Maid of Nails, friend of the website Kieron Gillen, America’s next top comics critic J.A. Micheline, Mazin off the Kraken podcast, and Jam Trap poet Chrissy Williams), staggered across three panels focusing on MEANING, ART and REPRESENTATION in comics.

The plan was to write series of posts inspired by these talks, but then this happened.

Trying to appear big and clever on the internet has never felt less important to me than it did in the aftermath. 

Anyway, I spoke on the art panel at S.M.A.S.H. and as a comics critic in the company of artists/editors, I figured I would be the least qualified person to talk about the subject so I did what I always do: I overcompensated. Only Mister Attack will ever see the first draft of my introductory talk, the charmingly titled “COMICS ARTISTS ARE WASTING THEIR LIVES”. In the end, I settled for a slightly less arsey approach that focused on different modes of reading, and how we might want to develop our understanding of our own biases so we can better make them fight to prove which opinions are best.

You can listen to what I actually said and the subsequent panel debate here (headphones recommended, audio’s a but quiet!), read the version of this pitch I submitted here, or if you fancy getting the right mix of depth and brevity you can now read the text I brought with me on the day below.

None of these versions are quite the same. None of them quite get across what I thought I was trying to say. I wouldn’t have it any other way.


  • The idea that comic books can be easily broken into ART and WRITING seems to me be to be a holdover from a specific area of comic book culture.
  • I’m thinking here of comics from Marvel or 2000AD that tell the continuing stories of fixed characters with rotating creative teams – the credit boxes, with their list of art and script droids, create a context in which you’re encouraged to imagine what would happen if you swapped one name out for another.
  • So you look at a John Romita Spider-Man comic and wonder what would happen to it if Chris Weston drew it.
  • What would it do to the dialogue? The story?
  • We could mock the limitations of this approach, but I’d rather salvage what’s useful in it to build towards an acknowledgement of the fact that collaboration, and by extension the interplay between the visual and verbal components of a comic – maybe even the narrative and the non-narrative – flow back and forth into each other.
  • Crude as they might be, these traditional fan debates provide a way of framing these questions.
  • For someone who doesn’t have the greatest vocabulary for describing visual art, this is a good place to start.
  • These debates about favourite inkers also point us towards a more far fetched idea:  that fandoms have their own tastes and intelligences, and that we might want to identify and actively cultivate these wherever we find them.


  • I think now of Jonathan Lethem writing about Jack Kirby’s return to Marvel in the late ’70s.
  • Lethem wrote an essay on this that provides a personal insight into of a comics community in the process of revising its collective judgements.
  • Kirby was a king to these people, but his work didn’t exactly embody the values of the moment.
  • To quote Lethem: “Artists since Kirby had set new standards for anatomical and proportional ‘realism’: superhero comics weren’t supposed to look cartoonish anymore.
  • This suggests to me communal intelligence, one distinct from but necessarily composed of the values of individual readers.
  • Even if you think that the community in question was wrong about those Jack Kirby comics – and I do! – such a system of values has its uses, even just to give us something to push against.


  • As an example of how this idea of competing fandoms might be worthwhile, take Douglas Wolk’s references to the deliberate “ugliness” of certain schools of alternative cartooning in his book Reading Comics.
  • What purpose does this serve?
  • Well if you think about the sort of anatomical standards Lethem was describing, the attempts at producing a sort of idealised beauty in a Neal Adams Batman comic, for example.
  • The weird, floppy limbed spaghetti people that Pete Bagge draws look way less traditionally attractive in comparison
  • and if you look at the two types of art, and try to think about what sort of stories these different sort of figures necessitate, and what might happen if you put one character in another’s comic, and whether one of these comics might be a reaction to the other
  • then you might start to develop an idea of what the values of these comics are and what their audiences might be getting out of them that could give you a decent insight into how that art’s functioning
  • Which isn’t to say that all comics are equally wonderful or anything, just that if we encourage the various fandoms and cultures around comics to develop their own experiences we might have a better idea of what we’re arguing about.


  • I’m a fairly ridiculous man, so I’ll finish on a ridiculous note.
  • What I think that we want to do, as a room full of people who are willing to spend their Saturday night listening to people talk about comics
  • Is to re-imagine the conversation around comics as a modern Tower of Babel, one with the existence of different languages built into its premise rather than its downfall
  • This comics community would be — if not an affront to god, then an affront to anyone who thinks they know exactly what comics are and how they work.
  • Different modes of reading comics aren’t just possible, they’re necessary.
  • I don’t know where the centre of the comics conversation is these days, don’t know what’s considered beautiful and ugly, and I think that’s a good thing.
  • With all the art styles and genres and fandoms and delivery methods out there, we’re not all reading comics the same way.
  • I think we should embrace this as an excuse to develop not just a new language of comics art but an explosion of new languages, a heteroglossia, if we want to stop talented cartoonists like the ones I’m sitting here with today from wasting their lives.


On that last point: big thanks to my fellow panelists Katriona Chapman, Hannah K Chapman, and Mark Stafford, everyone I met and blethered at in the pub, and especially to Joel (aka GO COMPLEX) for organising the whole thing.

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