This is going to be one of those posts that some people hate where I link to things and comments on them and post on them. So sorry. It’s also meta as hell so it gets an official Hot Beverage Rating.
A few months ago there was a Kerfuffle over a comics which some indie comics enthusiasts thought was artistically exciting, while others couldn’t see that for all the racism in these comics. I wrote about it at the time, and wondered if indie comics—so lively and lovely—were actually being given a larger social context.
The most energizing thing about comics these days is you don’t have to be in any school. Each and every gem of a comic seems to exist in its own, infinite, contextless universe. This is also a product of the extreme hybridization of all forms as well. The “international style” of comics that is gaining ground in the actual mainstream (libraries and books) is one that draws equally from America, European and Manga influences, and the internet insists we mash everything up all at once all the time. Context seems to have less and less inherent value against this backdrop where immediate emotional resonance is the currency. Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes comics one of the most vibrant and relatable mediums of the day.
This prompted the gang over at The Hooded Utilitarian to unite last month for an Indie Comics vs. Context Death Match roundtable. Now, like many people, I have a complicated relationship with The Hooded Utilitarian, a loose confederation of comics commentators; many of the contributors are clearly smart people and good writers, but perhaps because it is a loose confederation much of the writing is highly self-indulgent. As I wrote in the comments on one post,
You guys remind me of a bunch of rich kids at a summer camp who decide one of the counselors is a killer and form a “Super Excellent Detective Club” and spend the summer livening things up by finding clues and snooping around. Except the counselor is the comics medium.
The results of the Death Match were perhaps not what might have been expected: Johnny Ryan is subversive, Hipster Hitler uses historic tropes for humor, Matt Groening used to be funnier, and you can use Google Trends to embarrass anyone. The work of cartoonist Jennifer Cruté was favorably analyzed under the rather inhospitable title “Race and the Risks of ‘Kiddie Garbage’ Cartooning.” A fellow named Owen A wrote about New Small Press Comics In Context which had some interesting artistic analysis, but also concluded of Roman Muradov that
The book has nothing at stake but its own circular insecurities. Its most beautiful moments are expressions of the sheer emptiness of its content, but, tragically, they are undermined by its alternation between simpering self-consciousness and self-satisfied intellectualism.
which prompted Study Group founder Zack Soto to comment:
Jesus this article is some lazy garbage.
…which kind of sums up the “Indie Comics Establishment” view of THU in general.
Now after all of this, I regrettably found myself adrift trying to grab hold of Where We Are and What It Means in this golden age of comics. While still trying to make sense of it all, along came the galvanizing Santoro-Collins dialog which seemed to echo the need for valuable criticism and more esthetic context like that once provided by The Comics Journal, Destroy All Comics or Comics Comics, in a world where even having a conversation is a chore (see below.) Santoro wrote:
So the people that do it hardcore – like Rob Clough – do it out of love for the medium. Which is awesome. However the small subculture of engaged comics reviewers is getting older, myself included. I really hope that members of the younger generation will start writing about each other. I’m seeing some hints of it here and there, but not many organized voices. So much of comics culture is death-dealing to makers in their early twenties. The “pap pap” demographic of comics is so insular – which is fine – but out on the circuit younger makers are telling me that they never read this site, or any websites related to comics at all. There’s really not much for them in most comics sites that reflects their tastes or their concerns.
Inherent in all of this is the chaotic explosion of comics all around us, at a higher level of artistic craft than we ever expected to see. Look through a pile of Ignatz nominees, or walk around a Comic Arts Brooklyn and there is a thrilling riot of color and style and format. But there’s also the deep down nagging insecurity that wonders “Is this really any good?” or is it just “beautiful moments [that] are expressions of the sheer emptiness of its content”?
There is definitely a lot of cool noodling for the sake of cool noodling these days. The cool noodling is validated by the idea that Gary Panter and Fort Thunder did it so it must be okay. It reminds me a lot of the early days of newspaper strips…a riot of amazingly beautiful pages that are almost impossible to read. But do you need to read any of it? I’m okay with beautiful pictures for the sake of beautiful pictures in any era. But are we raising a generation of punk Alex Toths?
The conversation got a little bit real with the matter of Michael DeForge, definitely one of the most lauded and admired cartoonists of the current generation. In the original THU conversation, DeForge got batted around a little because it turned out no one was really familiar with his work. In stepped bold and fearless Ng Suat Tong, with a piece called “Why Michael DeForge is the greatest cartoonist of his generation: The Critics Explain”. Ng is known as one of the most caustic comics critics out there — like Mikey, he hates just about everything, and in this case he quoted critic after critic calling DeForge’s work creepy while concluding that he didn’t find it that creepy. While many DeForge lovers leapt up in alarm over the review, in order to be the best at anything, you need to survive challenges. I thought Ng’s piece was a valuable look at DeForge’s work — even from a negative viewpoint, it enhanced the dialog and added to the framework.
As if we even need a framework. Also inherent in all this is an anxiety among those of us schooled in The Canon that these darned kids with their tumblrs don’t even care about Binky Brown, let alone Ghost World. I enjoy DeForge’s work as a creepy surreal visit to an unfettered imagination, but it doesn’t satisfy me as much as a complex narrative like “The Death of Speedy” or Black Hole, or even keenly felt and resonant memoirs like Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life or (hell, I’ll say it) Maus. That is my personal taste, but it’s also the general trend of history where more people read and enjoy Huckleberry Finn than The Sound and the Fury. Folks like a good yarn, that’s plain.
Tumblr is the antithesis of a yarn, unless it’s twenty different colors tangled together into one giant ball of yarn. The other weak point in all of the current era’s excitement is that it’s mostly all praise. Most people (myself included) just go around “liking” and “sharing” things, the very activities that social media most encourage. Ng touched on this again, in a response to Santoro/Collins:Comics Criticism: Even comics critics don’t care about it
Some questions should spring to mind immediately upon reading this. Why is it of special concern, for example, that younger makers of comics are not reading TCJ.com or any website related to comics at all? Are they representative of the alternative comics readership as a whole? Or are they simply the kind of people Santoro would prefer read TCJ.com and comics criticism? Comics has a long history of cartoonists not engaging with criticism and critics at all; they for obvious reasons preferring the company and conversation of their “own kind.” No doubt long time comic aficionados will begin pointing to the classic comic histories or the critical works of Seth, Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, Art Spiegelman et al. It should be pointed out, however, that the very idea of a negative critique is anathema to this school of criticism (unless it is directed at blind intransigent critics). It is adulation and evangelism which is required. Such is the rarity of this engagement that one might say that the arrival of a celebrated cartoonist into the unhallowed halls of comics criticism is, more often than not, greeted with a joyousness befitting the arrival of the Queen of Sheba (the royal metaphor here being no accident of choice).
This led Caroline Small to call for more actual cartoonists to practice criticism:
Having spent a great deal of time lately thinking about critical theory and art practice in the company of some marvelous, critically minded practitioners (and not thinking at all about comics), I second Suat’s suggestion that at least one reason comics criticism is in this condition is because so few cartoonists practice criticism. And by “practice”, I mean read and write not journalism, not the “theory of craft” (as Frank Santoro does so brilliantly and charmingly), but classical “criticism” – argumentative/philosophical/descriptive essays, about art in general, both inside and outside their area of specialization. In fields where there is a strong critical culture, there is typically also a significant population of working artists who consider critical conversations about art, with other artists and critics, in their own and other fields, to be an essential part of their creative practice. Something they do for themselves, because it makes their art richer and better.
BTW, if you are a total masochist or are stuck in an airport with a wifi connections, there are tons of comments on just about every post I just linked to. The Hooded Utilitarian has its own boosterish clique of commenters that tends to drown out useful dialog, but most of the usual suspects are heard from everywhere.
So here we are, in a golden age of comics without any Brahmins to tell us who we should invite to dinner and who we need to shun. And yet, despite the dispiriting lack of context AND useful criticism, people do slip through. Earlier this year Sam Alden got elevated to “Comics It Boy” just because people kept reading his stuff and liking it. (I believe my own piece was one of the first longer examinations of his work, she said patting herself on the back.) Simon Hanselmann is another example of someone who has built up a following via a long, complex narrative that resonates on many levels using simple cartooning tools that go back to Maggie and Jiggs. (The Beat’s own Jessica Lee has been a huge supporter of his work, she said handing out another back pat.) I’ve yet to really jump into his work but its promise is immediately evident. In the liking and sharing world, having many people like and share your work is the ultimate praise.
This democratic process leaves many would-be arbiters of taste on the sidelines, though. And a little bit of dialog would be welcome to sniff out the next Alden or Hanselmann before everyone else figures it out.
And that brings us up to the present day. End of the year best of lists are peeping through the pixels, and yet again it’s that darned Michael DeForge kicking things off with “an off the top of my head “best of 2013”
I’m sure I’m forgetting things and I haven’t read Infomaniacs yet. In no particular order
Julio’s Day by Gilbert Hernandez
Beta Testing the Apocalypse by Tom Kaczynski
Eye of the Majestic Creature vol 2 by Leslie Stein
The Library by Chihoi
New Jobs by Dash Shaw
Paranoid Apartment by Lala Albert
Real Rap by Ben Urkowitz
Sakura Maku’s comic in Chromazoid #2
Mighty Star by Alex Degen
Household, Man that Dances in the Meadow by Sam Alden
misc Simon Hanselmann (hard to pick one thing)
World Map Room by Yuichi Yokoyama
The Teacup Tree by Angie Wang
New Comics #1, 2, by Patrick Kyle
+ I guess Attack on Titan before it drops off a bit
edit: forgot Hand Drying in America by Ben Katchor
There’s a pretty strong esthetic in that list, although it would take me a long time to parse it. And then, poor Michael DeForge tweeted about THU’s Noah Berlatsky’s takedown of Art Spiegelman yesterday. It was called In the Shadow of Mediocre Page Design, which, come on, really? If there’s one thing Spiegelman is ace at it’s composition and storyetelling. And that kicked off the mess you can read below, in which all of us “comics pundits” waded in, trying to have a serious conversation about all the simmering issues in bursts of 15 words or less. I mostly did this to learn how to use Twitter’s new custom timelines, and the first thing I learned is that you STILL can’t put the most recent stuff at the top (that’s what $1.8 billion buys you these days.) So if you want to follow it, read UP. But I don’t think you want to follow it.
Along the way I floated my outrageous notion that tumblrs like SPX and Comics ARE The Comics Journal of the day, an idea that heightened the alarm for Sean T. Collins, and Jeet Heer; the latter argued nobly for a tumblr that might be the RAW or Kramer’s Ergot of its day—or just the MOME or Weirdo—and for the concision, strong esthetic and high quality that firm, wise editorial control can bring. (Berlatsky +1’d this idea.) I also invited everyone in the thread over here to the comments—I’ll even throw in tea and a cheese plate—to hash everything out but Sarah Horrocks will only comment on FB, Tom Spurgeon dislikes all comment threads, and people would rather flail publicly in a disposable 140-character format than take the time to write longer thoughts that they’ll be publicly mocked for. (This is not a trait that the THU folks share.)
In other words, the reason there is no critical dialog about critical dialogs is that it is impossible to have a critical dialog at all!
comics and the critics
In conclusion, there is no way to conclude this. I will throw out my own sure to be derided ideas for what I would like to see in terms of putting today’s comics offerings in a more critical and social context. These are all ideas that have crossed my mind as topics I would like to investigate at one time or another but because comics criticism pays even less than comics blogging (the main reason for all of this, I suppose) I doubt I’ll ever get to any of them. Consider these a giveaway table:
§ What’s the dillio with this Tumblr thing I’ve been hearing about?
• There is a large body of comics work, mostly by females, that is set in “an enchanted forest” (Julia Gfrörer, Anna Bongiavanni, Lilli Carré) COMPARE AND CONTRAST
• There is a large body of comics work, mostly by males, that deals with the sea and exploration (Nick Bertozzi, Kevin Cannon, Drew Weing, Cristolphe Blain) WHO WORE IT BEST?
• There is a pretty strong connection between a group of west coast Asian-American cartoonists including Derek Kirk Kim, Gene Luen Yang, Thien Pham, Jason Shiga and Lark Pien. What common themes do they share?
• The much-criticized vein of self-indulgent autobiographical comics inspired by Canadian cartoonists of the 90s has mostly faded away into a far more diverse mix of narrative and more focused non-fiction stories. Why? Are current cartoonists actually less self indulgent than we think?
• The Fort Thunder school of comics has a recurring focus on monsters and body horror; is this just because monsters are fun to draw or is there a deeper meaning?
• Adventure Time has served as both an inspiration and a means of financial support for a lot of the best indie cartooners. How does working for a hit TV show affect their more personal work?
• Many young cartoonists such as Emily Carroll and Blaise Larmee are using “animated comics” in new and pioneering ways. Will they really save us from motion comics?
• There are lots of cartooning schools now—CCS, SVA, MCAD, SCAD, etc etc. How do these schools differ in what their students produce? Is there a shared esthetic among people who graduate from each of them? (Actually, Rob Clough is doing this. Rob Clough tends to do a lot of things I want to see.)
• Many young indie cartoonists have both blogs and tumblrs. How do they use each medium? Does the presentation affect their work?
• Does anyone ever expect to make a living at this without working on Adventure Time? How?
…I’m sure there are many many more interesting questions than these to be raised. I invite you to share your own.
I fear this post is far more messy and badly thought out than the very worst post I’ve linked to above, but it’s 5 am and I have to figure out how to get 400 miles through a storm named after the god of the North Wind so I can eat turkey and meet kittens. It was now or never. I still think the kids are alright, I’d like to see way more context for current comics, more informed criticism, more time to write it, and more money to make it worth while. I suspect we’ll see all those things eventually but in new and delightfully surprising ways that we’ll never even see coming.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.