I got tired of talking about bad comics criticism, so I got some of my CB compatriots together to write about 10 of our favorite working comics critics.
In the wake of the comics medium’s forty-year hike to serious acceptance, the chances are that now a person won’t get laughed out the room for putting them on a par with Literature. The flipside of the medium having gained this kind of recognition is that it has also acquired a new species of critic who demands that comics be held to the standards of LITERATURE. Since the invasion of these literaries, I have been observing a tendency to ask the question: if this weren’t a comic would it stand up? Would the story be any good if it were prose and in competition with the rest of the world’s prose? If we take away all these damn pictures, would the stuff that is left be worth a hoot?
Thus we see, for example, the recent argument about the 1950s EC comics, started by Ng Suat Tong: “Over two millennia ago, Aristophanes was brilliantly mocking the tragedies of Euripides (Women at the Thesmophoria) and risking prosecution with forthright attacks on the leaders of Athens. Contrast this with what we get in Mad…”
And this: “‘Master Race’ is, however, a children’s story… As a children’s story, it does not contain one iota of the humanity found in a thirteen year old girl’s famous diary during World War 2-enshrouded Amsterdam. It is pathetic that it should still be considered one of the finest stories ever created in comics.”
We might not get laughed out of the room, but the question is: would we want to be stuck in it with some guy who would ask: Since we already have Aristophanes, who needs Kurtzman? Since we have Erasmus of Rotterdam, why would we want Steve Martin? With Wagner still available, who cares about the Firehouse Five? Furthermore, would we let that guy organize the party music?-Eddie Campbell"
I’m pretty sure everyone already finds Ng Suat Tong completely insufferable, so that’s not a battle that really needs to be fought, but this is still a great piece and highlights a major problem in comics scholarship right now.
— Corey Blake, "Will the comics industry resolve to take care of its own?"
As someone who reads comics, watches art film and listens to metal, I’m in a unique position to be driven totally insane by neophytes dipping their toes into the things I’m into and having the nerve-the gall!-to call themselves “fans.” I spend a significant amount of time researching the things I’m into and going on excavation digs to find hidden gems in the various forms of art that I love, and so when someone says they’re a huge Batman fan after only having seen the Nolan movies, or when someone says they’re really into “indie” movies when the only non-blockbusters they’ve ever seen are a smattering of Wes Anderson films and Juno, or when somebody tries to claim membership to the Metal Club by holding up a Disturbed album as identification, my gut reaction is to get a little irritated, maybe even to retort with a catty putdown. After all, I’m the one who’s spent hours, years, of my life plunging the depths of the things I’ve loved. I’ve earned the right to call myself a “fan”-how dare you exercise the same privilege after such nominal involvement in that which you purport to love?
And then, once that initial wash of indignation has subsided, I climb down off my high horse. I keep in mind that there are people out there who can name every title that the Buscema brothers have ever worked on, down to the issue numbers; I remember that there are film buffs out there that would laugh in my face if I told them that I had never seen a film by Bela Tarr; I consider all the black metal kids with their fathomless collections of demo tapes culled from all over the world and reflect that I will never in my life match their dedication. Fandom is a curious thing: You can’t seem to claim membership if you don’t try to kick someone else off the docket, and a lot of the time, if you’re to believe your peers, your credentials don’t seem to be as sound as you think they are, especially if you’re a woman or a teenager. Everyone is going to have to take part in a Beta-Male Headbutting Championship over the things they love at some point, but for those two groups it can practically be a given before entering a conversation.
— I wrote this article for Comics Bulletin. Like everyone else in the world I was inspired to write something about Tony Harris’ absurd outburst on Facebook. I do think that elitism has a tendency to be kind of inherent in any subculture but you fight against that, for God’s sake, you don’t revel in it.
This strategy seems so self-evident that it frustrates me that it’s so often squandered. I accept that solo books with female leads have proven a hard sell for a male-dominated audience, but I don’t see why any team book with seven members should ever have only one or two women. I understand why Cap, Iron Man, Wolverine and Spidey need to magically appear on multiple teams at once in addition to their own books, but I don’t understand why all those other white people need to be there. I don’t understand why Monica Rambeau isn’t on any team at all.
The answer that editors, creators and some fans typically give to these questions about diversity is that story comes first. Story is what matters. Good stories are the most important thing.
But that’s a red herring, and such a pious one that it might be a holy mackerel. There is no binary choice between “good story” and “better representation.” The “good story” line is popular nonsense. One might as plausibly defend bad spelling by saying “we put story first.” No one has suggested that diversity should come at the expense of story, and there is no tension between those expectations. Story should come first, but, “a better reflection of the diversity of the world wherever possible” should be somewhere on the same checklist."
— Andrew Wheeler, "Everybody in Spandex: On Diversity and Superhero Comics"
“Maybe you should sacrifice some! Maybe you should sell your boots!” is hilariously insulting. It assumes that the people involved haven’t already done so. It assumes that the people involved can afford to do so. If I wanted to launch a new website with robust content right now, or that podcast I talked about, I couldn’t afford to. I have a full-time job, a vaguely-lucrative part-time gig, and I couldn’t afford to do that. It’s a time and money investment that I simply cannot make right now, no matter how great an idea it is or how much money it might make if I take it to SPX or sell it door-to-door. I can’t afford it because I’ve got bills. I’ve got student loans. I’ve got a lot of things on my plate, and even carving out the time that needs investing for those projects would result in something slipping elsewhere. I can only do so much. I can only afford so much. And I possibly have more freedom than a lot of artists, in that I have a job that pays me every two weeks without fail. I don’t have to seek out freelance work like I used to.
[…]I don’t think that artists should have to suffer for their art. If I’m interested in what they’re doing, and I can help out, I will. Joe and Jane Schmo having to max out their credit cards to print their comics is stupid when there’s an audience right there willing to kick in a few bucks to help get it done in exchange for a book or two.
“Well maybe the contributors should pay first!” is a stupid thing to say when every week some new artist learns the hard lesson of “never work for free.” If someone chooses to pay to get their art out there, sweet! That’s how people have been doing it, and I’m sure Visa will be very happy. But if I can help someone else keep their head out of the muck, to not suffer for their art and actually get a chance to love what they do before they burn out or whatever, then let’s do it!"
— David Brothers perfectly articulates all the problems I had with Dan Nadel’s comments about Kickstarter.
So right now on CBR there’s this article, which is ostensibly about how there’s “something in the air” lately that’s causing creators to leave the Big Two to push their own projects elsewhere, specifically at Image. The article does a fair enough job compiling the events that have pushed creators away from what are seen as relatively safe, cushy jobs at the Big Two and of pointing towards the increasingly more demanding contracts from those publishers that are alienating their creative teams. And then it ends on a note of hopefulness, describing the sense that there’s something building on the horizon. But here’s the thing: this is an article published on CBR, where it is currently surrounded by gigantic eyesores of ads for Before Watchmen.
It makes for an unintentionally hilarious juxtaposition between message and context, one that is given a tragic air since the piece was apparently partially inspired by the death of Robert L. Washington III, perhaps best known as the co-creator of the DC property Static Shock. As a recent piece on MTV Geek pointed out, Washington came from an era where creators were especially ill-treated by publishers like DC and Marvel and as depressing as it was to find out how poor he was at the end of his life (to the extent where he may receive a pauper’s burial), it was by no means an uncommon fact to learn about a comics creator. And in that same MTV Geek piece, Valerie Gallaher brilliantly summarizes why it is that so many comics creators wind up so impoverished when she explains “Comic creators have long labored in a bubble that they are makingComics — are engaged in a noble profession that creates the dreams and hopes and heroes of generations of the young and the young-at-heart. And it is a noble profession. But it is my belief that the good intentions and mystique and joy and magical aura around writing and drawing superheroes and funny animals have been traditionally exploited by some publishers in exchange for larger rights-shares (if they deign give their creators any rights over their creations at all), lower pay, zero benefits, zero security, and, in some cases, outright poor treatment.”
But Gallaher doesn’t quite go as far as she should, as both the CBR article and, to a lesser extent, even her own MTV Geek piece as well as a later piece of hers on Paolo Rivera’s departure from Marvel show. The fact is that there’s plenty of criticism of the practices of the mainstream publishing industry (and even of big “indie” players, like Bluewater) but so often it amounts to little more than noise. Just as creators are often afraid of burning bridges and thus stay silent when their peers are mistreated or manipulated, the critical community in comics is too often completely unwilling to step up and put its money where its mouth is, resulting in awkward juxtapositions like the ads framing the CBR article, or the flood of what were basically promotional Before Watchmen videos on MTV Geek’s main page around the time that Gallaher’s Washington piece was up. That the ads in this case were Before Watchmen-specific made things all the more confounding; from one side of their mouths, our commentators are demanding that we be better to the creators who generate content for us, while the other side demands that we go out and buy one of the most controversial uses of a property license in the history of the medium.
What that communicates, both to readers and those working within the comics industry, is that we critics are too afraid of getting cut off from Big Two publicity or ad revenue that we stop before making any real waves. Whether or not that’s true doesn’t matter, because the perception is created: we can argue it all we want, but to many readers, those kinds of contradictions are impossible not to notice. But what if we did something? What if we took a stance as a community and stood with creators, refusing to cover work that didn’t meet certain fair treatment guidelines? Or what if we refused to promote works that directly violated principles that we hold dear? What if we became more involved in the way creators are treated in the industry, working alongside those creators to get them the same kind of basic rights that are universal in nearly every other industry— things like unions, health insurance, or any other right you take for granted at your day job?
It’s something I’m personally becoming more concerned about, to the point where I can’t stop thinking about it and how to go about it. Certain aspects of the groundwork have been laid at Comics Bulletin and I really hope that we’ll be able to make some announcements soon, but I’m hoping that regardless of what we may accomplish, this continued focus on the plight of the creator in comics will only pick up more steam and we’ll see even more advancements in the fair treatment of those working in comics.
I wrote a thing about Before Watchmen again, as prep for the release of the book tomorrow. Maybe I’m too mean? Nah. Maybe I’m just like my mother.
It’s important that we talk about this, whether we is comics press or fans or creators, because no one else is going to. There’s something to be said for an objective press, sure, but part of the role of the press is looking at what the news actually means. Looking at trends, at history, at contradictions, at controversies. The comics press isn’t journalism, but we’re part of that same family tree.
So pointing out that there’s chicanery going on with Before Watchmen or how a company treats creators isn’t negativity. It’s doing our job. It’s shedding a light over wrongdoings that some people would rather were left in the past and unsaid. I mean, yo, if someone is lying in public, you nail them to the wall. You point that out. You don’t hem and haw about whether ethics matter. (They do, and you’re a moron if you think otherwise.) You look at the situation, you consider your own personal values, and you choose your position. You pick whatever feels right for you. There are no easy answers, no. But there are answers. Basic ones.
[…]I would like it very much if DC and Marvel had to answer as many questions about creators’ rights this year as they do about dumb plot twists and fan-favorite characters. If they dodge the question, they dodge it. But asking the question, and pulling apart their dodge, is honest work. It’s inside baseball, sure, but it’s also necessary. These questions need to be asked."
The most infuriating part of this editorial piece at iFanboy by Jim Mroczkowski.
This, he posits, is the only alternative to reading superhero comics published by divisions of The Walt Disney Company or Time Warner, Inc. You’re either removing yourself from the entire medium of comics or you’re stuck reading gosh-darned superhero knock-offs with all their weird sex and alcoholism.
There is, apparently, no other option.
Comics journalism, everybody!
Dylan Todd already raised a great point above, but it’s worth noting how comic book Stockholm syndrome continues here, as indie titles are continuously minimized as knock-offs of more popular Big Two titles rather than the extremely diverse, multifaceted plethora of options they actually are. How anyone working in this industry could be unaware of the major strides made outside of the Big Two at the moment is beyond me, but anyone with sense can see that the future of comics rests not in the hands of the increasingly bloated and irrelevant mainstream, but in the independent publishing houses that don’t have shareholders and Hollywood franchises to keep in mind before anything sees print. And even the Big Two seem to recognize this, as their plans for the future of their characters and stories revolve around poaching indie talent.
I honestly think this is sort of an interesting quote because so much of the independent market is built around schlepping out bilgewater that vaguely resembles Big 2 comics with a more “edgy” twist. Filth rises to the top. And of course, people who want to read Superman may not have an interest in people like Jim Woodring and Jaime Hernandez.
That fourth sentence is outlandishly ridiculous, however. “Removing yourself from the medium entirely?” By not picking up a fucking Batman comic? Be willing to dig a little, man.
— Andrew Wheeler on the various ways to interpret the Gary Friedrich/Ghost Rider debacle.