The dreary intercourse of comics life

200812121428Last 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.


 

Comments

  1. It’s too bad that the comics industry doesn’t have one, just one, critic of the caliber of Roger Ebert, or Pauline Kael, or Robert Christgau, or Dave Marsh, or insert your own favorite. Someone who loves the medium so much that he or she reads everything; someone so articulate, so involving, so entertaining, and a damn fine writer to boot (with a damn fine editor in tow, someone I lack myself), that we would all rally around his or her choices at the end of the year and go, Ah, these are the comics that qualify as Best of the Year, period. I’m not saying we don’t have a lot of good writers writing about comics (The Comics Journal brimmeth over with them); we do, but they’re not really covering all the bases. Everyone works well within their own personal box seats in the stands. but we don’t have one who covers it all (I think Joe McCullouch comes close, I like that Noah B guy but he’s got a potty mouth, Tom Spurgeon is terrific but sometimes his sentences throw me across town, and, Heidi, I’ve read your pieces in CBG and you’re pretty darn sharp yourself). Ebert watches, Kael watched thousands of motion pictures (both good and bad), Christgau and Marsh listen to thousands of records (both commendable and crap). All genres. All eras. And, yes, they were all paid for their reviews and insights and talent. I’d want that one exceptional comic book critic to be paid handsomely, too. But until we do that we’re all just throwing our personal choices out there harem scare’em and that’s fine, but where’s the consistent and respected consensus? Some folks are even admitting that there may be additional high quality material published during the course of this particular year; however, they just haven’t read the books so they won’t be considered. Can you imagine Ebert skipping Fargo or Kael Bonnie and Clyde? How many are skipping Skyscrapers of the Midwest? I honestly don’t believe there’s an absence of worthy material out there. It’s THERE…we just need somebody knowledgeable and dedicated, who we can continue to respect and always look forward to, to show us more of what is available, as it comes out and as part of a Best Of list at the end of the year. The comics industry needs its own Lester Bangs. There would never, ever be a dreary year in comics again if we had our own Lester Bangs.

  2. Tom Spurgeon says:

    I think there are three books done this year easily as good as Alice and Sunderland, The Arrival and Exit Wounds or I wouldn’t have written my response the way it did. But that’s not even the standard introduced into the argument. The standard is such a drop off you can call this year “dreary.” As you seem to be asserting, it’s really difficult to notice such a huge drop-off that you can whip out the “dreary” moniker. Whether or not 2008 was as good as 2007 is an argument for another time. I’ll join in as soon as I’m done reading the 2008 books.

    I agree with Grant’s argument that certain aspects of book publishing in particular are calcifying in a way that isn’t healthy, which is why I didn’t rebut those points, and I’ve been writing about that for about two years now.

    Jim, I do make an effort read everything, but I can’t write as well as any of those people you mention. I spend 15 hours a week on CR — maybe up to 18 if a major cartoonist dies — and I don’t get to rewrite as much as I should. It’s shameful, and I’m frequently embarrassed by my efforts, and I’ll make a better attempt at writing more effectively in the year ahead.

    I agree with what seems to be your sentiment about critics not trying to read as much as they can. I don’t understand how anyone can put out a best-of list without having tried to read everything they can, and I don’t understand how anyone can have the time to do this until, I don’t know, February or so. One of the reasons I responded to Steven is that I thought he hadn’t read nearly enough material to make a sweeping statement like he did.

    Me, I’d rather read Jog’s reviews than Kael’s reviews, Heers essays over Christgau’s, and I’d rather read the parts of Groth, Scholz, Levin and Khosla that fulfill or have fulfilled the Bangs role than Bangs. But I know that’s just me.

    As much as comics values critical discourse over empty-headed boosterism and self-affirmation and the fulfillment of marketing initiatives we should get down on our knees every night and thank god someone as smart and funny and insightful as Jog writes for us for basically free. Viva la Jog!

  3. Michael says:

    Anyone who thinks Grant was saying there were only two good comics in 2008 wasn’t paying attention. He was saying there were only two superlatively great comics in 2008.

  4. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Well, that’s not exactly what he said, either, but I’ll grant you it’s closer than my rushed description above. (Both of Grant’s choices were reprints, for one, so really no superlative great comics in 2008, although some from previous years were published there.) This is a message board post, so I’m using short hand. I’m fully aware of exactly what Grant wrote and responded to that, not anything else.

    For what it’s worth, I’d have no objection to anyone writing there were only two superlative works in 2008 and wrote just that — or one. Or zero, for that matter. I know plenty of people that will likely think that.

  5. Tom, you wrote a review about Jeff Smith’s Bone that was published in The Comics Journal a few years back and that was outstanding. Your writing is as good as any of ‘em. Besides, you dig Kamandi. I appreciate your mentioning Levin; that jolted me, Levin could indeed be considered the Lester Bangs of the comics industry. Viva la Jog right back at ya, and I’m feeling less dreary already.

  6. I don’t see how people can afford all this stuff nowadays, let alone sit down and write reviews.

    I can’t afford to dedicate myself to a monthly comic book other than a handful of Jonah Hexes or the new monthly Spirit because I’m practically guaranteed a complete done in one story.

    I get more excited plunking down $16.00 or so for a DC Showcase or Marvel Essential trade, knowing that $16.00 is stretched across 24 issues or so in collected reprints.

    Most money I get to spend on comics these days are on the ones I churn out. The only reviews I’m interested in reading are those of my own.

    ~

    Coat

  7. Boo-hoo. So grunty Grant finally realized that comics have genres.

    Maybe next he’ll discover that they also have pages. Whatta putz.

  8. Steven R. Stahl says:

    Grant argues persuasively in favor of approaching a comics-format work as if one were setting out to write a novel, and hoping to impress both associates and strangers with his creativity, innovativeness, and attention to fine details. There is no way to achieve those goals if one does a Batman or Spider-Man story, as the writer, as the artist, or both. The properties of the commercial serialized character won’t allow it.

    It’s natural for a comics writer or artist to want to do series, to maximize his earnings potential and to earn money regularly, but he’ll be choosing economics over art, unless he somehow manages to produce works that are diverse enough and sell well enough that publishers won’t want to pigeonhole him.

    I’ve been wishing that comics were published as original novels ever since I began reading them regularly, because endless serialization will inevitably ruin any character; my favorites, Dr. Strange and the Vision & Scarlet Witch duo, were essentially thrown away by Marvel Editorial because neither they nor the writers they used were willing to use, or thought of using, the heroes as fantasy genre characters instead of as superhero characters.

    Dreariness wasn’t nearly as much a focus of Grant’s piece as was the belief that no one, least of all the reader, is served well by monthly serialized fiction.

    SRS

  9. Torsten Adair says:

    As bookseller, I was surprised that there aren’t big, fancy, ask Santa titles this holiday season (aside from Absolute Sandman). The best selling graphic novels at BN.com are licensed titles like DC Vault and Marvel Chronicle and Watching The Watchmen.
    The stuff I want, it comes out next quarter. But there’s always stuff to sell and recommend. Some, like Three Fingers, didn’t get much press. Others, like Superman Red Son, are interesting, but hardly literature. But it gets easier every year to seduce the innocent, so hang Mr. Grant upside down, and his frown will look like a smile.

  10. Jessie says:

    My God, it’s almost as big a scandal as the great Paul O’Brien Boredom of ’05!

  11. I read “Exit Wounds” because it was supposed to be one of the best comics published that year, and I was underwhelmed. It was definitely a good story, but I wouldn’t have placed it on a Top Ten list. Same goes for Fun Home.

    I think Mr. Grant’s point was that in an effort to come up with a “best of” list for 2008, he didn’t get very far, and that was a disappointing realization for him. If you’re doing a top ten list, and you know with absolute certainty what the top 2 or 3 would be then those are really the “best of” and the rest of the list is just filling up space through #10, and I gathered that sort of thing just doesn’t interest Mr. Grant.

    Plus, Mr. Grant isn’t a comics reviewer/critic. He’s an op-ed comlumnist with a day job. Let’s not be so harsh.

    In order for there to be a comics equivalent to Roger Ebert, that person would need free and unlimited access to every comic or graphic novel published, the time with which to read them all, and the ability to solely live off of or independently of comics criticism. I don’t see that happening.

  12. Mark Coale says:

    can a person get Seasonal Affective Disorder when they live in Vegas?

  13. I’ve bought five copies of Barry’s What It Is and given them away to people in the last year. Never done that with a comic before. Amazing book.

  14. It would be a dreary year indeed that didn’t have room for more than one Trini Lopez joke. I say, go for it whenever the mood strikes you.

  15. jimmy palmiotti says:

    TORSTEN…agree, where the hell is a giant collected jonah hex book for bookstores?

    how many more watchmen books do i need? well, I need a few more, but thats it!

    lol…there are really so many wonderful books out there and part of the fun is the search and recommendations of the people here.

    I write them down and search them out…even Heidi’s recommendations once in a while as well !!!

  16. Kurt Busiek says:

    >> 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.>>

    To disagree with this mildly:

    1. A minor point — The Dresden Files is not mystery, but urban fantasy. And the next one probably won’t do as well, since it’ll be an adaptation of an existing novel, not a new comics-only work in a bestselling franchise.

    2. The real point — I think we’re going to get as many Posy Simmonds books as Simmonds manages to produce, given her available time, interest and inspiration. Even if TAMARA DREWE had kicked WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE’s sales ass up and down the charts, I doubt it would make Simmonds produce any faster than she does. And her books seem to do well enough to keep her doing them as long as she wants. That’s not dreary, no matter how much other stuff there is out there.

    But on that note — when is some enterprising publisher of finer graphic entertainment going to do a comprehensive reprinting of Simmonds’ longrunning 1980s strip from The Guardian? I have one of the collections, and it’s great stuff, but the reprint is incomplete and choppy. We need the whole thing! Fantagraphics, D & Q, I’m looking at you…!

    kdb

  17. Jesse Post says:

    I think Tom Spurgeon’s reviews are at the caliber of a Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael — they’re brief, they put the books in a context I can understand, they analyze, explicate, and draw a picture of what reading the book would be like. He also takes pains to not just throw his opinions at you — all of them are delivered with humility. I base many of my buying decisions on them.

    And Jeet Heer’s reviews are at the level of my favorite long pieces in the NY Review of Books or the NYT Book Review.

    If you only look at casual blogger reviews that are rushed and often not edited then yes, you’ll see a dearth of quality criticism, but if you look at the reviewers who take the art form of criticism seriously you’ll see comics criticism has a lot to offer.

    Also, on the subject of the lack of good books this year, I wonder if the “Ten Best” list writers are suffering from genre blindness. If you’re only thinking over the literary darling books and none of them appealed to you then you’re right to feel dreary. But the major genre publishers (Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, etc.) put out such a huge volume of work each year and a percentage of it is always of high literary quality. I feel that books like “Runaways” and “Cairo” and “DMZ” and the odd superhero one-shot or story arc are often unfairly overlooked in this kind of critical overview.

  18. Alan Coil says:

    Mark Coale asks:

    “can a person get Seasonal Affective Disorder when they live in Vegas?”

    Yes. SAD is a result of a lack of ultraviolet light reaching the retina. People who spend too much time indoors, or who work the midnight shift, can suffer from the effects of SAD at any time of the year.

    The ultraviolet light strikes the retina, is transferred to the Pineal Gland, which then stimulates the body’s metabolism, thus making people more energetic and in a better mood.

  19. “SAD is a result of a lack of ultraviolet light reaching the retina.”

    Shouldn’t it be called Luminal Affective Disorder then? It apparently has nothing to do with the seasons (even though I know the relation of sunlight to winter time. The disorder itself isn’t dependent upon what season it is.)

  20. Ziga Sparovec says:

    For the record, and for those interested, Shaun Tan did have a new book in 2008. It is called “Tales from Outer Suburbia” and it’s a collection of short stories. It’s formatted as a children’s book, but is above and beyond that (but will probably be shelved in the children’s book section of your store). Tan is not really a graphic novelist; he uses all different types of combinations of the written word and illustrations.

  21. Sidebar re Trini Lopez & THE DIRTY DOZEN: Lopez originally had a much larger role in the movie that is evidenced in the final script; you can see from earlier scenes that he was being favored as a major character (as opposed to Tom Busby, Ben Carruthers, et al who rounded out the bottom half of the Dozen). Lopez agent pulled him from the picture just prior to the filming of the big climax, intending to get more money and 3rd place billing.

    Instead, producer-director Robert Aldrich wrote Lopez character Jiminez out of the climax by having the character died off screen with a broken neck during the parachute jump, went back and added an insert scene during the rope climbing sequence which foreshadowed the possibility someone might get killed during the jump, then cut Lopez out of the rest of the picture as much as possible.

    As Tina Turner said in an entirely different picture: “Break a deal, take a spin on the wheel.”

  22. The Beat says:

    Buzz:

    I did not know that!

    Nice trivia.

  23. Thomax Green says:

    Well I would have to say in retrospect I bought pretty much solely Graphic novels this year. That’s sad to say. Not one new title interested me at all in the last 12 months. So maybe Grant has a dreary point.

  24. Jesse Post says:

    You know, the more I think about it the more I think Steven Grant’s essay is just silly and misinformed (not that Grant himself is silly and misinformed, just that one essay).

    I was looking at my bookshelf to jog my memory of the best comics of the year and realized I can’t comment because there’s so many I haven’t read yet! Which got me thinking, how can anyone say that no good art was released when there’s no way you could have read the entire output of art that was released? Making such a grand statement is ridiculous. Would we ever get away with saying, “Only two good CDs were released this year”? Of course not because you didn’t listen to all the self-produced music, the online-only music, the major-label-yet-somehow-overlooked music.

    I finally had time this weekend to go through my haul of mini-comics from MoCCA. Have any of these best-of-list writers seen Michel Gondry’s comic? Or the latest installment of Mark McMurray’s awesome “Dumb Jersey White Boy”? Or any of the 2008 comics from Will Dinski, Robert Goodin, Dave Roman, or Matt Kindt? I’m not saying Grant should like those or even that he should read them, but that the fact of his not seeing them (and everything else that came out this year) invalidates his statement.

    And I still think he and the other naysayers are suffering from genre blindness. Comics are awesome.

    I’m officially shutting up now.

  25. Calvin Reid says:

    Dreary comics in 2008? First I’m sure there are dreary comics every single year. Let’s go over some 2008 titles on my best of list.

    Bottomless Bellybutton by Dash Shaw (wildly praised, for good reason)
    Skim by Mariko and Jillian Tamaki (widely praised)
    Me and the Devil Blues by Akira Hiramoto (widely overlooked)

    and for good measure I’ll throw in Alan’s War The Memories of G.I. Alan Cope by Emanuel Guilbert and Breakdowns by Art Speigelman. And I could list many more titles.

    Obviously best of lists don’t tell the whole story but its hard to say that 2008 was just as good a year as any recent year for good comics.

  26. Steven R. Stahl says:

    Some posters here seem to have entirely missed, or dismissed, the main point of Grant’s piece, which was an angry reaction to the perceived overcommercialization of the comics field, to the point that the vast numbers of homogenized, unimaginative comics published overwhelm original material and prevent artistically-minded writers and artists from making impressions on the public.

    One might think that, yeah, Marvel and DC are publishing loads of garbage, but it’s a free market, and they’re essential to the industry, and there’s nothing I can do about it anyway — but the situation is getting worse. “Secret Invasion” was a disaster in terms of the plotting in the main miniseries, in the editorial coordination of the tie-ins — I can’t think of a single good thing to say about it. But there Marvel is, basing yet another event on SI, when SI should never have been published. Perhaps there isn’t anything one person can do about the overall situation, but ignoring it won’t do any good.

    As Grant noted, there are good comics being published, but they could be considered jewels buried in a mass of (expletive deleted).

    SRS

  27. Jesse Post says:

    I disagree with that, too; in fact, I think the opposite is true. “Literary fiction” and “memoir” comics (for lack of better terms) capture the public attention way more than “Blue Beetle” or “Skaar, Son of Hulk.” The literary press and the general mainstream press will review/cover “Bottomless Belly Button” or “Exit Wounds” before they cover superhero stuff.

    Heidi would know more about this than me but it seems that the mainstream press only covers the superhero genre when a major character dies or gets married or something, and with good reason; those characters are cultural icons while the stories they inhabit are niche and fan-focused.

    So I don’t think the great books are drowning in a sea of superhero press but I would posit that the great superhero books go unnoticed in the sea of literary press. I would also posit that some of the truly great non-genre works like those I listed above go unnoticed regardless of what Marvel and DC do that year, and that critics should seek them out before they declare the year a creative wash.

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