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Trouble with Comics

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Last week, Frank Santoro and Sean T. Collins engaged in a discussion of contemporary comics criticism, that raised several issues on the lack of in depth criticism of newer cartoonists and the lack of outlets for the same. This is related to my own call for critical and cultural…

This is a terrific piece by Heidi. Sometimes, anger can cause one to write at too high a pitch, causing the reader to pay attention but miss the finer details, kind of like blaring a speaker in their ear, but this one is nicely controlled. A couple things it makes me realize is that never once in the thousands of reviews and columns I wrote did I try to really focus on female cartoonists, which I think is a failing. I could rationalize that some relatively well-known ones like Hope Larson and Lilli Carre I find pretty overrated, but honestly, I find most cartoonists overrated these days. It’s hard to name any work that arrives without flaws or deficiencies, regardless of gender. Lisa Hanawalt’s book was one of my favorites this year, a laff riot but also honest and uniquely weird. I do think comics criticism is barely into adolescence, at best, and the relatively small impact comics as a medium has on the culture means appreciation for female cartoonists will be slow-going. Even in the huge film industry, there are few female directors getting their shot, but no doubt the likes of Kathryn Bigelow has inspired many young women to make their own films. In a sense, I’m more worried about the comics industry and comics medium themselves first, the state of criticism second. At the same time as I’m acknowledging my own foibles, I have to say, in this context Marc Sobel’s line about a “distinctive female perspective” seems awfully patronizing. It sort of reminds me of a comment I read last week on Facebook where a guy took issue with my use of “African-American” just because Morgan Freeman on The Today Show said he prefers to be called “black.” I guess Mr. Freeman provided the distinctive black perspective and there are no others. 

As far as the Santoro/Collins piece, I had a very different reaction, more about why criticism has stagnated a bit and what factors drove me to mostly abandon writing about comics in favor of writing about other media at my own blog, even if it’s a much larger pool. I wrote to Santoro about this and he replied that he wanted to get back to me on some of it, so I’m waiting for that response before I publish that rant. 

On ADD on Santoro on Chaykin on Blitzen..

I have to agree with ADD on this one. Nothing against Frank, as his musings are clearly out of admiration and fondness for Chaykin, Simonson et al. But you know, those musings are really just another form of nostalgia, right? And I use nostalgia neutrally, or ambivalently—it can be good and wholesome and charming and add a golden luster to how one sees the modern world, and it can have a deleterious effect as well, blinding one to the way things are. And I say that while at the same time believing there is no single reality, and hey, as far as nostalgia goes, instead of doing another review I’ve been reading old Roy Thomas/Dan Adkins Doctor Stranges, so who am I to judge?

But back to the musings, for whatever potential one might have seen in Chaykin based on Time2, or Kaluta, or Simonson in, I dunno, Star Slammers, well, maybe they reached their potential as far as long-form storytellers. I get uncomfortable when people try to put their own expectations and projections on someone’s career and complain when the results come up short. It’s only short based on their expectations, not necessarily the artist’s himself. As ADD pointed out, no one is beating down a Walt Simonson’s door. I like Simonson’s art and occasionally his writing. As best I can tell, he’s doing mostly covers and I think a comics adaptation of World of Warcraft these days. It’s probably accurate that those aren’t dream jobs for him, and it’s a pretty good indication he’s not in high demand, whatever we may think of his skills. If he wanted some career advice, I’d say do a John Byrne and try to be a bigger fish at a smaller publisher like Boom!, Dynamite or IDW with short miniseries. I seem to recall Simonson being a candidate for the second phase of the Dark Horse “Legend” imprint back in the early ’90s, and he decided to go to Malibu/Bravura instead, did a handful of issues of Star Slammers, his own creation on which one supposes he may have had his greatest creative freedom, and it didn’t come out on time or set the charts on fire, and obviously that’s going to have a ripple as far as subsequent opportunities.

Chaykin is quite a different story in that he went and had a Hollywood career away from comics and came back, not so much a beaten man as so many who toil for Marvel or DC are by his age at the time, but maybe more of a pragmatic, focused artist, satisfied to tell a series of action adventure stories, always in his distinctive voice and with his distinctive quirks and fetishes, political viewpoint, and often in the ’30s-’50s periods he favors. Occasionally he’ll draw some superheroes, not because he likes them, but one supposes because it keeps his name and style in front of people who buy lots of comics. I read Chaykin’s recent Dominic Fortune and, while I didn’t think it was great, I gave credit to Chaykin for working to modernize his art to keep in touch with the times, and also, for better or worse, the story was pure Chaykin, with Nazis and blowjobs and bun hairstyles and fishnet stockings and the like. That it came out as four issues rather than a graphic novel seems to be just Marvel’s general publishing strategy—when was the last time they did an OGN? To me, Dominic Fortune is a reasonable extension and refinement of a lot of the ideas and tone of American Flagg!, by which I don’t mean it’s as good but just that you can understand how the guy who did this kitchen sink, young man’s book in the ’80s could grow and refine through every project until he comes to this point. I don’t know that Chaykin has ever done anything so either deeply, nakedly personal or so labyrinthine and layered in story that it really required a “longform” book. Don’t most artists arrive at a less-is-more philosophy eventually?

I guess rather than lamenting Chaykin, Simonson and Kaluta never getting around to their own respective Great American Graphic Novels, I’d just be happy that they’re getting work. Kaluta is another guy who kind of went away from comics for a while, and now he’s back revisiting Starstruck for IDW and did a nice run on Madame Xanadu for Vertigo, both of which seemed fairly challenging projects and neither calling on him to change his style to fit any sort of house model or idea of what’s hip right now. That’s an accomplishment, just as it’s an accomplishment that Chaykin, a somewhat influential but never terribly commercial writer or artist, could go away from comics and come back and still be very busy into his 50s.

—Christopher Allen