Wednesday, September 17, 2008

New Comic Day Blues

I'll lay out my current problem with comics with the following two examples.

In the first, a friend very well-intentionally purchased for me a stack of new comics. I looked through the stack with those sort of unfocused Matt Groening eyes, pulled out the Amazing Spider-Mans because I was following that particular arc, and said I really couldn't read the rest. I didn't say this to be ungrateful, but because I didn't want this person to waste money like this again. I had zero interest in reading those floppies.

"You can use them as research."

"Denny O'Neil told me years ago that I read too many comics already, and that I needed to read books. Do you think Warren Ellis goes into the comic store and purchases these sorts of titles as either research or entertainment?"

"He might."

"It's just that...I would have preferred you use the money to buy me a book like Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. Or that new Drawn & Quarterly graphic novel."

I'm a wretch, right? I should have just read the comics and shut up. But then there would have been more the next week. And the unread stack grows and grows, making me feel guilty and out-of-touch. And some books are fairly entertaining, and some books are torture.

Now here's another example. I was going through my collection and getting rid of some titles & volumes. As I was sorting, three comic-related books caught my attention and fairly begged me to stop and read-re-read: Omaha The Cat Dancer, Bloom County, and Kyle Baker's Cowboy Wally. All three immediately grabbed my interest and forced me to stop my work and start reading. Contrast this to the tepid reception I gave the New Comic Day stack.

To be fair, I had that same instant-interest reaction to the TPB of Jack Kirby's The Eternals, for which I also dropped everything to read in the store.

But this is the problem. To be clear, this is to an extent a personal dilemma reflecting my own developing tastes. But I think some of it might be more universal.

One more example. I received World Of Warcraft: Something Or Otherland in the mail to review. I didn't even know what to do with it. You know that scene in "Airplane" where Robert Hayes says he has a drinking problem, and then proceeds to inncorrectly drink the water from the cup? That was me, only with reading instead of drinking. My eyeballs and brain could not stay focused on this comic. I couldn't even say if it was a good or bad book. It was something so out of my realm of either interest or expertise, that in the end all I could do was write that the art looked okay and that I guessed fans of W.O.W. would find it of interest.

Am I out of touch, am I too old? I read Hope Larson's Chiggers and found it a great book for teens. But then I've read other stuff for teens and I've been like: bleh.

A lot of it boils down to following tried-and-true characters and showing the "love" by purchasing the issues every month. But how long can you do that if the books are not delivering?

There are too many reprints, too many indie options, too little money, too little time. How much am I going to learn about writing comics by reading titles that are mediocre themselves? Isn't that like in the 1990s when artists would break into the biz by studying the work of Rob Liefeld?Shouldn't I instead be reading the best the medium has to offer? And then go and watch the best movies, and expand my scope and read a breadth of non-fiction and fiction books?

And I've asked this before: is it fair for me to review books that are crappy? Or books that are obviously not written for me? Or should I take a page from "Spinal Tap" and just write one sentence reviews: "shit sandwich."

And yeah, some of the comics which I think are the worst get great sales numbers. And according to the polls, we just might be voting in a presidental candidate that might bring us at least four more years of exactly the sort of administration that gutted this country for the last eight. Majority rules?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this New Comic Day.


  1. I have not had a "pull list" in over a year and I can't say that I miss it. There are no comic shops even near me. I still read a lot of comics because I review them myself but those come in the mail. My entire exposure to comics other than that are online and the Archie digests the grocery story carries. I do occasionally miss having a new issue of Daredevil to read but I don't miss the addiction to the weekly comics fix. I probably read more comics now than ever. (Well, I guess I read more when I was 14.) On my desk right now I have Essential Fantastic Four, a bunch of Paul Pope's THB, a bunch of Uncle Scrooge, a Rom, All-Star Superman... (Plus not-comics like Ulysses and Hemmingway's Garden of Eden.) I guess my point is, you don't need the weekly comic shop visit to enjoy comics. At least I don't. (No disrespect to fine comics retailers. Love ya mean it.)

    And on the question of what to review. Well, on my site I've committed myself to reviewing everything that is sent to me but I do admit in some reviews that I'm just not qualified to figure out what the heck the book is. So, that's usually how that kind of review goes. "I have no idea what this thing is..."

  2. Anonymous1:20 PM

    1. Reading nothing but comics (good, bad or indifferent) will cause you to write nothing but comics. Judging from Goodbye to Comics, you have a good grasp of narrative structure in a long-format, but other aspects of storytelling (character arcs, framing devices, setting, context, etc.) could suffer.

    2. Regardless of what you state, here, you seem to be pretty well read and intelligent. Read what you want or what you think you need, but don't constrain yourself to only those things you feel you should read based on the past. I was an avid sci fi geek most of my life, and an advocate of the genre's better-written luminaries. Then, some point, I shifted to more main-stream works. Doesn't mean I won't read sci fi anymore, but it also doesn't mean I search it out anymore, either.

    3. Remember the words of Mark Twain: "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read."

    4. There are things I read because I feel "I must" and there are things I read because I actually want to do so. The weird thing is that I almost always forget the entire contents of the books I felt I must read.

    5. The issue with bad gifts is ALWAYS that line you must draw between gracious acceptance and bitter truth. If not for presenting the truth, I would have a house filled with Garfield paraphrenalia. You know, from that one time when I was 11 and mentioned I liked the character to an older friend of the family who proceeded to give me every piece of marketing chochki that was available at the time. And there was a lot.

    6. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon. Awesome book. Truly awesome.

  3. You can often learn more about writing from badly written examples than well-written ones.

    Writing about sitcoms, Earl Pomerantz had this to say the other day:

    I believe, at least when you’re starting out, you can learn more from an inferior show than from a good one. The good shows hide their skeletal underpinnings more artfully, so they’re harder to break down and learn from. In inferior series, the story structure is easier to follow.

    And in all writing forms, reading good examples gives us milestones and goals; reading bad examples shows us what not to do.

  4. Life is to short to buy and read crap you don't enjoy. you're supposed to stop and smell the roses, not stop and smell the skunk weed.

  5. The law of diminishing returns kicks in eventually. I find myself making purchases (more often than not) based on the creative team as opposed to characters. Characters always have ups and downs, but writers tend to have a little more consistency. Instead of focusing on what people tell you is the best, try and figure out what you genuinely like, look for the common denominator, and mine that vein as much as possible. There usually tends to be a common thread amongst the stuff the I like across the film-book-comic continuum. It's just a matter of dropping any pretenses or preconceived notions you have and then running with it.

    Not a defense of the current administration per se, but as Adam Smith once noted, there is a great deal of ruin in nation, or to put it a different way, countries are pretty tough. The recent 500 point drop in the stock market is bad, but it still isn't anywhere near the disaster that Black Monday was in 1987. A Mad Max style meltdown didn't happen then, and I doubt one will happen now.

  6. Val,

    I loves ya. But seriously, every weds you post something that is similar to this.

    You love comics, but every weds you focus on how much you either:

    dont have the time for them
    dont have the money for them
    hate them because they are too dark
    hate them because they are cheesy
    how you only read this one cause its only good thing on stands
    etc etc.

    seriously, i love negativity sometimes, but if its always the same "im over it" kind of stuff, it gets to be a bit trite.

  7. Reading books without pictures is a good idea, for balance, if nothing else.

    Funny books will rot your brain, if I remember correctly.

  8. You're definitely not a wretch, but, if I were the friend, the phrase "I would have preferred" would've hurt a bit, yeah. How'd your friend take your advice on what to buy?

  9. I buy bad comics because I review them, but you shouldn't have to read bad comics because you don't want to, Val. If you have any particular monstrosities I'd be happy to take them off your hands. ^^

    Otherwise I read comics that I don't regularly buy in the shop, if only because I want to keep up with the events across the universes for said research purposes, but it doesn't go beyond that unless I realize something's really, REALLY good.

    Which brings me to the most shocking thing that happened this week, Val: Titans #5 was actually competently written. In fact, I dare say it was GOOD. Not Watchmen good, but it was more on par with Winick's Exiles days, with excellent character moments. What the hell is up with THAT?! Oh, and they got a different artist, who while he occasionally has bizarre facial expressions, is leagues above Benitez or Churchill. I was in so much shock over this that I actually bought the issue after reading it.

  10. there's no one market for everything.

    It's "got an assignment: give it all ya got & go out the door kickin' & screamin'" or nothin'.

    As for the floppies, I wait in vain for nothing since Cooke left Spirit. Although, the Romita Jr. return to ASM has perked up my joy levels a bit.

  11. In a way, one of the things that I tend to complain most about the poorer comics these days is almost an advantage as far as the problems you mention: the fact that they take about five minutes to read.

  12. If you were writing a romance novel, wouldn't you have to read other romance novels to understand the conventions of the genre?

    You don't nessecarily have to follow those conventions, just know what they are.

  13. Read what ya like, that's always the way to go. And I feel the same way about most new books as you do; the only reason I keep up with them is so I can keep up with them in the event I ever, y'know, make it (ha ha). I'm one of those sticklers for continuity types.

    HOWEVER, to balance out the mediocre crap I buy, I have a plethora of classic goodness to read at my disposal so I bombard myself from both ends of the spectrum. :D

  14. Worrying about who the target audience of the story isn't really the point. You are the reviewer, so yours is the only opinion that matters.

    But to play devil's advocate with myself, if you look up Roger Ebert's review of Aliens (the sequel I think), you'll find that he really disliked the movie. Wasn't his thing. But he gave it the highest rating because the movie set out out to do something, and succeeded. In other words, the movie was exactly what it claimed to be--he was not duped into seeing it, expecting something else.

    Must a reviewer be objective? An "objective opinion" sounds like an oxymoron.

    People can't help what they're interested in. But I also think that quality is universal.

    As long as you're open-minded, you can tell when a story is good, whether it's aimed at kids, teens, boys, girls, whatever. A good story--a really good one--is accessible to anyone. If the WoW story failed to do that, I'd give it an F.

    Paradoxically, there are also times when you can tell something is good... but it just doesn't resonate with you. Maybe it's not your cup of tea, or maybe it was missing some crucial element that only you seemed to notice. It happens.

  15. The first major schism in my habits came when I had to delay buying new issues. "I'll get it next week," I thought. And what happened was that the NEXT issue came out, and I realized I didn't miss it that much.

    The next schism came in 1997, when I moved to NYC and started paying rent. My $100/week comics budget disappeared. (No, I didn't spend all of it every week. Usually around $80.)

    Now, like you, I go into a comicbook store, and there's not much I want to buy. There are lots of trades, but I use my B&N employee discount to get those. Here are B&N HQ, we get free magazines, so I have a big stack of DC Comics to read, but nothing has knocked my socks off yet. (Reign in Hell, Catwoman #81, Booster Gold 1,000,000 , Rogue's Revenge)

    As for reviews, do this. Review the stuff you think is great. Don't even list the other stuff, because people will think it's subpar. I call this "The Thumper Strategy".

    Now, if you want to get rid of those comics, I'll gladly give them a good home. A pound of cheesecake for a pound of comics?

    Now, the last good BOOK I read... well, there was "Totally Toxic (Caped 6th Grader Series, #2)" by Zoe Quinn, a charming book for tweens. And I celebrated my 20th high school reunion by reading "Please Stop Laughing at Me" by Jodee Blanco. And an advance copy of a book about Roald Dahl, and how he spied for Britain while in the U.S. during World War II.

    Remember... you are no longer in school. Read for enjoyment. Share that enjoyment with others.

  16. In his movie reviews, Roger Ebert sometimes notes something along the lines of, "I'm not really the audience for this movie," and then attempts to give it a fair going-over. At some point, I stopped being the audience for most new superhero books so I slowly, painfully weaned myself from them. Painful because there's that nostalgia factor for something that once gave so much pleasure, and because I still have a little emotional investment in the characters.

    But yeah, I think life's way to short to waste even the 5 minutes it takes to read mediocrity. Although reading something truly lousy is sometimes rewarding in an MST3K kinda way.

    Please don't feel guilty about not wanting to read a lot of dross. Read what you enjoy, what compels you to read it. Take the extra time and do something wonderful with it!

  17. Only books and movies?

    What about life experiences?
    travel whatever you can experience new things.
    Meet new people, try things that you havent done before.

    read international comics, books movies, tv shows etc, if you dont have money webcomics are an option most of them are done by not americans,
    You can learn things from bad comics the things that you shouldnt do,

  18. Valerie,

    To answer your first question, no you shouldn't have shut up and read them anyway. It was very nice of the person to do that but ultimately why waste their money and time and your time? Besides situations like that never end well. As for your larger question I can only say this. Follow your bliss. For myself I largely do superheroes. I love them. I always have and I always will. But ultimately that's just genre. Bottom line if a comic doesn't make me want to tear into it, read it like a crack addict burning for a fix and then do it all over again, then why am I bothering? I've for budget reasons jettisoned a lot of stuff in recent months because basically it was more like work than fun to read. Okay so the little kid in me still thinks in terms of the size of the pile. But truthfully I'd rather read one or two really good books than ten so so ones.

    Anyway that's just my buck o nine.



  19. I love your image from Arrested Development! The only thing missing is the Vince Guaraldi piano music.

    I think you dealt well with the Amazing Spidey issues. You were upfront with your friend, and now s/he has a better idea of your tastes for the future. Some immediate guilt can make for future benefit.

    (And besides, the arc ain't that great anyhow!)

  20. Huh. I think my last comment ended up in a spam queue, Val. I'd included a link and that might have done it. Anyway, I basically just quoted Earl Pomerantz - he's a former sitcom writer - and his assertion from just the other day that bad examples of writing can be more instructive than good:

    I believe, at least when you’re starting out, you can learn more from an inferior show than from a good one. The good shows hide their skeletal underpinnings more artfully, so they’re harder to break down and learn from. In inferior series, the story structure is easier to follow.

    I like to read/watch good things to inspire me and give me goals. I read and watch the bad to learn to avoid pitfalls.

  21. Using Warren Ellis (or his Internet persona) as a role model is not necessarily the best idea.

    "What Would Warren Do"?


  22. Honestly? Welcome to my world, I've already been here a while but I'm happy to make space for people. :) I buy the Marvel Adventures line because they're fun, self-contained stories where the good guys fight and defeat bad guys, I buy Marvel and DC's Essentials and Showcases because they contain classic, well-told stories, and the regular lines of both companies are as dead to me.

    I don't need to read them for research--half the problem with comics nowadays is that they're written by guys who never read anything but comics. You're better off reading non-fiction if you want things that help you as a writer (actually, you're just better off reading omnivorously. Read as much as possible and write as much as possible, you're bound to improve sooner or later. That's my motto.)

  23. I think age has a little to do with it, or perhaps more precisely, your accumulated experience is showing. Throw into that mix the fact that there are more choices than ever before, which makes it hard to keep up.

    It appears there's more mediapoly-mediocrity, or perhaps it stands out more now because the field has grown enormously. If something is crummy, I would definitely review it and say it like I saw it - you're educating yourself about what you really want. A no-vote still counts as a vote in your quest. People will absorb your work on the matter once you send back the ore.

    There's also a rapidly aging set of material in the background. There are fifty, sixty, and seventy year old characters out there now - the quality of life for these cultural investigations is not the same as something that's only been around ten years, or two. Law of diminishing returns applies, and you have people using it now as a training ground for their ideas.

    What's your apprenticeship to Wonder Woman like? X-Men? Sure, it's owned by a non-human center of power, but the instincts are collective. Civilization training centers for the kids, they have it so lucky now! Back in the old days, it was all brute force, all the time.

    Maybe what you sense is the collective realization that we've got a consciousness of comics that is now mature enough to start having generational shifts. The pot's finally heated up, and now's when the stew gets cookin!

    Oy. I can't even gather my thoughts on this right now.

  25. I read Grant Morrison saying once that he rarely ever reads fiction. That said, I think Grant Morrison has a lot of problems narrating things in a way that makes them comprehensible unless you're reading an entire arc in one sitting. Of course, DC and Marvel want writers who do long-format stories so they can sell TPBs. Put that information together and come up with something.

  26. oy to the second, and I'll raise you a kvetch.

  27. And this post is why I'm dropping you from my Bloglines. I've been following you for the past year and have just had enough of your complaining and less-than-thought-out diatribes. You need to get over yourself a bit.

  28. ah, you're not out of touch or too old.
    there are a lot of "shit sandwich" comics out there.
    and you make some great points, you would be better off reading great comics, watching great movies, and reading literature to gain influence from rather than whatever the latest superhero is up to.
    i'm lucky enough to only be following 18 titles right now, and a majority of them are limited.
    i mean hell, the only reason i'm following the main batman title right now is because i'm interested in how morrison is going to destroy him.
    read what you want, and don't sweat the rest.

  29. "And this post is why I'm dropping you from my Bloglines. I've been following you for the past year and have just had enough of your complaining and less-than-thought-out diatribes. You need to get over yourself a bit."

    I think you need to get over *yourself* and realize that nobody gives a shit whether you keep my blog on your reader or not.

  30. Oh yeah, I was thinking about this post a little more between lessons this week. If you do just write a "Shit sandwich" type review, people will probably accuse you of nitpicking.

    And the whole Spinal Tap "Shit sandwich" review scene reminds me of a real review I read in some audio-equipment magazine my brother used to subscribe to.

    For the debut album of the band GTR, the review in its entirety consisted of "SHT."

    Can't remember the title of the magazine, but the review lives forever in my heart.

    PS- Right on with your response to Kell.

  31. Honestly, while I think the overall quality of comics is better than ever, I still find "must reads" few and far between. However, truly great comics depress me creatively, as they usually say things I wish I could have said myself. I prefer lousy comics to get my juices flowing, as they make me think of all the ways I could have written them better. Of course, one of the major reasons I feel I could do a better job is because of my interests outside of comics informing my (elevated?) self-opinion.