Last week, perhaps laboring under a case of the winter doldrums, writer Steven Grant expressed his lack of enthusiasm for the year in comics just passed and thus, Dreary-gate was born:
The story of this decade is the slow undermining of the creative process in comics. This is the real “final crisis” of 2008: everything has settled into its own commercial niche, and shows every sign of staying there. This time it’s happening with the cheerful collaboration of talent across the board. It’s the result of several things, all offshoots of the industry’s successes of the past few years. Habits have been fallen into that are now generally accepted as the nature of things, when they’re thought about at all.
Although there was much of merit to Grant’s essay (see below) we here at SBM also detected just a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder in his writing, and indeed, after the column received a round of criticism, he responded, admitting that he hadn’t been in the best of moods that week, but standing by his general criticism:
But none of that matters all that much either. The fact remains that very little leaped to mind, and what did leap to mind were reprints. (I note that the first public “best of” list I ran across this year, from NPR, predominantly featured reprints, some of it of material not done very recently, so I’m not alone.) We tend to consider “best” a superlative, something standing on its own obvious merits, but it’s never more than a comparative, against the current crop. Last year, had anyone asked me what the best book of the year was, there was absolutely no question: Bryan Talbot’s ALICE IN SUNDERLAND. (I believe Dark Horse still has copies if you haven’t seen it.) Literate, ambitious, gorgeous, fascinating. Where was this year’s ALICE IN SUNDERLAND?
Tom Spurgeon gives a long, point by point rebuttal, making this a hard argument to follow because both gentlemen are writers whose “stream of consciousness” writing style is quite literate and well thought out, but also a bit circuitous. (Unlike this here blog, which is obviously labored over for days and days, and reads like the poetry of a Dalmatian with ADD.) Anyhoo, Tom does dissect the two most easily disputable parts of Grant’s thesis, namely that there weren’t more than two good comics in 2008 and that cartoonists should be more famous. He also takes on, less successfully, I think, Grant’s view of the state of the industry:
His general argument is also untenable, in two basic ways. The first is that just because Grant believes a “Best-of” list is a proclamation declaring work that makes it into the pantheon doesn’t mean that everyone else sees those exercises the same way, or should, or that people are going to find convincing conclusions based on that belief. The second is that Grant introduces standards that don’t make 2008 dreary, they make every year dreary! I would have a hard time selecting any year with multiple new works better or even on the same playing field as Krazy Kat, Kurtzman’s EC war comics and Palomar, for pity’s sake. I challenge Grant — I’ll run it here if he doesn’t want to waste the column inches — to give us five recent years in which making a Best-Of according to his standards was achievable. If he can do this, and I have my doubts, then we can see if a 2008 list compared to those lists is so lacking as to make its dreariness evident.
The Beat will poke her head from the sand and say that much of what Grant says made 2008 not as good as 2007 in comics is true! At PW, I pretty much see (note, see not read) *everything* — manga, mainstream, book house, indie — and have for a few years, and there was a slight, but noticeable decline in new, exciting books. In 2007 you had EXIT WOUNDS, ALICE IN SUNDERLAND and THE ARRIVAL. In 2008, you had a new book from Rutu Modan, but it was older material, nothing at all from Bryan Talbot and Shaun Tan. The biggest splash of ’08 was definitely Dash Shaw and BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON, and, to answer Grant’s question, Lynda Barry filled the collage spot with WHAT IT IS, but most of the notable stuff was foreign — Umezu, Tezuka, Trondheim, Guibert — and collections of great old stuff — Mauldin, Segar, Caniff, etc., etc. KRAMERS ERGOT 7 (or KEVII, as it’s being called,) is indeed an epochal book, but it feels more like the summation of a movement than a new movement. It had to be done, but it’s unlikely that coffee table-sized books that cost more than coffee tables will become the new format of choice.
Plus, if you look closely, most of the books coming out from Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hill & Wang and so on, are beginning to slide into two camps: non-fiction “teaching” comics, such as the bestselling 9/11 Report graphic novel, (which had a little-noted, low-selling sequel this year), and bestselling fiction adaptations, like Tokyopop/HarperCollins’ manga adaptation of Erin Hunter’s The Warriors, which have sold thousands and thousands of copies. Seriously, even though I like the idea of a series of fantasy novels about kitty cats, if you know how many copies those Erin Hunter books sold, you would be amazed. Even something like Del Rey’s Dresden Files graphic novel has sold, oh, maybe 1000 percent of the number of copies that TAMARA DREWE has, sadly, ensuring that we will get lots more mystery series adaptaions than books by Posy Simmonds, a fact that would be dreary even on a perfect summer day.
Taken all together, the picture is, if not exactly “dreary,” then, perhaps…stable. I think 2008 was a year of stabilization for comics. The gold rush ended — and in a yearlong recession, that’s a lot better then “crashed horrifically.”
I think part of all this is the yearly introspective instinct for a return to “standards” and “quality issues” as people make their “Best of” lists, etc. It really does come down to wanting better and better comics.
Meanwhile,writer James Vance makes the valuable point that much of what Grant said was valuable in a different way:
His exhortation to write your own story (as opposed to recycled Kirby, Moore, Miller or whoever) and then move on, was far more valuable than the negligible business of who’s a household name or Grant’s personal opinion about the dreariness of recent work.
However, what’s most notable about Vance’s post is that, believe it or not, he totally makes a Trini Lopez joke, and I was totally going to make a Trini Lopez joke this morning, because Trini Lopez was one of the Dirty Dozen,and you see, this whole thing all comes full circle and that is the magic of storytelling.