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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. 

Rolling Stone’s 15 Essential Batbooks

Sean T. Collins does yeoman work here with a tough remit. From the Intro, he admits some of the books on the list are deeply flawed, and some, like Batman: Court of Owls Vol. 1 and Batman: Earth One are too new to be considered “essential,” and I daresay neither will be considered essential, ever. But I can understand their inclusion. I would nitpick that as much as I like them, three Grant Morrison books is one too many for a list of 15 and a character who’s been around 83 years (and if you have to have three, isn’t The Black Glove better than R.I.P.?). More importantly, why no representation of O’Neil/Adams’s run, (collected in Batman Illustrated: Neal Adams or Batman: Tales of the Demon), which among other things debuted Ra’s al Ghul, upon which much of the Nolan film trilogy is based, and they also did the first really murderous, darkly humorous Joker. And what about the Englehart/Rogers run (collected in the now OOP Strange Apparitions but not hard to find), which had a Batman able to pursue a romantic relationship with his best match, Silver St. Cloud, while not losing sight of his mission, not to mention presenting a Joker as fiendishly clever as any seen before or since? Either or both of these would have been better choices than the throwaway floppy Untold Legend or Earth One, which is just the latest reboot of Batman’s origin, with a mediocre creative team and changes for their own sake that will have no impact, as the Earth One books are rather self-contained and not related to the DCU continuity. And are the Batman Chronicles really as essential as Dick Sprang or Jerry Robinson stuff that came a few years later and has more of the elements and characters most people associate with Batman, just because the very first Batman stories are more historically important? But hey, around a dozen of the most notable collected Batman stories out of a possible fifteen is solid work. At least he didn’t pick The Dark Knight Strikes Back.

TCJ.com - Hello To All That

I wasn’t too worried about the new Dan Nadel/Tim Hodler revamp of TCJ.com, but it’s off to an even better start than expected. Now, I’m not offering anything close to a comprehensive review; one nice thing here is that there’s quite a bit to dig into and most of the articles, columns, interviews and reviews are relatively lengthy. Just a few thoughts on the ones I read first:

Tucker Stone on Johnny Red - Tucker’s a good reviewer, but it seems like he exposed a soft spot here. This sounds like a raft of formulaic, derivative old sub-Enemy Ace bollocks—why not let rip with some anti-aircraft fire? I realize he knows one of the other three people (Grant Goggans) in America who might be getting this book, but still. (Note: I just realized I wrote this after a loving review of a book of Adam Hughes’ T&A covers. My daughter was embarrassed by Power Girl’s cleavage.)

Sean T. Collins interviewing Blaise Larmee. Jaunty Sean T. is a thoughtful interviewer and Larmee is an exciting young talent. But while Larmee isn’t insulting, I wasn’t really into the games he was playing here. Which is fine. Maybe from now on I’ll just focus on his lovely comics. (Note: sometimes we shouldn’t interview artists we like. For me it was Kevin Huizenga, but it didn’t ruin my affection for his comics.)

R. Fiore’s Funnybook Roulette. Hey, Fiore’s one of my favorites and I’m glad he stayed on. The line about Toy Story 3's characters exchanging one god for another is brilliant. Still, call me a dick editor but if I was Nadler I'd want to launch this new webmagazine edition of “Funnybook Roulette” with something about actual funnybooks. Not cartoons. (Note: this kind of attitude may be why nobody lasted very long with me editing them at Comic Book Galaxy.)

Bob Levin on the Frank Frazetta stolen artwork case. This is the best piece I read yesterday, and it’s not even in my top 20 Levin pieces (never mind his full-length books). It was sad/funny to see commenters on the piece ripping him for a) not appreciating Frazetta’s artwork the way they do, and b) practicing an un-tabloid reporterlike restraint by not intruding further into the lives of the hurting, feuding Frazetta kids (Bob could get another good piece about how we consume Art while not really caring about the artists themselves and the pain that results in or from their art). There’s a kindness in his method, and in not pressing too hard on what seems pretty clearly an opinion that Frazetta’s work was simplistic, didn’t evolve, and even suffered some technical failings in the classic sense of believable light sources and the like. He also maybe thought Frazetta was kind of a loudmouth, if only judging by the TCJ Gary Groth interview years earlier. 

While the piece offered no new revelations in the story (and even missed one or two recent developments), I appreciated the psychological insight of it. If your world-famous Pops moved your family out to the boondocks, that might feel a little stifling, might cause some resentment. I liked Levin’s problem-solving here; lacking juicy quotes or an obvious hook for the story (he hitches a ride on the Art of the Steal/Van Barnes story, but it’s not enough of a parallel with Frazetta to get him very far), he turns inward, seeing in the aging lion Frazetta and the void his passing left for his survivors his own struggles and obligations with his elderly, stroke-surviving mother. That’s more of a fiction writer’s technique, feeding off one’s own life when inspiration ebbs. It works nicely here. (Note: I just really like Bob Levin’s writing).

Good luck, TCJ.com. Glad to have you back.

—Christopher Allen