plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Out of my Depth, and Paddling Furiously

As everyone likely already knows, Tom Spurgeon has his own comics site now. And yes, as all my fellow comics bloggers are saying, it is likely the new Journalista in terms of how essential it is to the online comics commentary community. He makes a fantastic start with some excellent posts, particularly his response to Dirk Deppey’s articles about the recent changes at Marvel. I find Spurgeon’s perspective to be incredibly insightful, and Deppey has already promised in a thread on the Comics Journal message board that he will have a reply. I’m riveted to this discussion already.

Also of note on Spurgeon’s site, and the reason behind this post, is a link to a Newsarama interview with Jeff Smith. There was apparently a bit of controversy at the San Diego con regarding Smith’s choice to sell the single-volume Bone trade himself at his booth and to debut it at the con prior to offering it up for sale on the direct market. A few retailers were upset at that decision on the grounds that it directly competed with them after they had spent the last ten years carrying the single issue Bone comics as well as the trade paperbacks in their stores. Newsarama columnist and comics retailer Brian Hibbs even wrote a column addressing the issue (it’s only a small section of a longer and broader column, but he does have some things to say on the subject).

All of this raises questions about small-press convention etiquette, as well as broader questions about the responsibility of the small-press publisher to a system that is, more often than not, indifferent at best to the small publisher. I realize that there are shops out there that really make an effort to stock and sell small-press and self-published material. I live in a city where there is more than one such shop. However, the majority of direct market stores don’t support the small-press creator or publisher. They probably couldn’t afford to even if they wanted to. The large company publishers’ policies and the mechanism of distribution are both very good at making life difficult for the retailer. In such an environment, any shop that carries a small-press book of any kind is really sticking its neck out. This is something that should be appreciated. These retailers should be graciously thanked at every opportunity. However, does this mean, when it comes down to it, that the small publisher owes these shops first go-round on any new product they put out, or that publishers are obligated to refrain from selling their own product at conventions?

It’s hard enough right now in the direct market for books published by the first four publishers in the Previews catalog to find a sustainable audience. All of those publishers filed under miscellaneous, as it were, have an almost impossible task in getting noticed, capturing the attention of retailers and then maybe a reader or two in a given shop. Conventions provide an opportunity to deal with consumers directly, and give consumers a chance to actually look through the products rather than guessing based on Previews solicitations whether or not they’ll like something. The average small-press creator or self-publisher can sell more books in this way in a single weekend than in months of having one or two books sitting unnoticed on the shelf of a comic shop. To not take advantage of such an opportunity would be unnecessarily stupid. Further, to be able to sell a book directly, at cover price, with no one else (such as Diamond) taking a cut is great for publishers, and again, to not take advantage of that situation is stupid.

Now, things are messed up all around, but retailers and small publishers have the toughest go of things. If the readership was unsatisfied with the product that’s currently available, they wouldn’t be buying it, and if the big companies were unsatisfied with their audience I would suppose that they’d try to diversify their product lines or impose some sort of quality control. So yeah, it seems that the smaller publishers and retailers are getting the bad end. But what to do? The ideal thing would be to grow the audience for comics in general, but it seems that inasmuch as that’s being done right now it’s not being done in the direct market. This isn’t the fault of retailers, of course. I think it’s more of a structural problem with the direct market itself. What the DM seems to do best is selling single issue comics week in and week out. At this point I want to make it clear (if it isn’t already) that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’m really going from memory to a large extent. So if any retailer-bloggers out there can help me out with some info on how this works, that would be great. I guess what I want to know at this point is, what are the benefits to the small/self-publisher in selling through retailers as opposed to directly to consumers when at a con? And in the case of longer-form work, this would apply even when not at a con. And if there is no benefit, then is it reasonable to expect a small/self-publisher to act against self-interest and sell through a retailer purely out of a sense of loyalty to the direct market (or for whatever reason, I just grabbed the first one that came to mind. And I don’t mean to trivialize loyalty, either)?

And by the way, have I said how much I love my retailer? Heh heh…

Oh boy.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Getting There, Getting Distracted

Folks, my upcoming series on SMT #49 is proceeding, I assure you. Alas, it's moving a bit more slowly than I thought it would due to some things coming up. I have an exam in less than a week, my wedding anniversary is coming at the middle of the week, I've started working on some comics, and I just got the new issue of the Journal which is keeping me from the work I should be doing on all the other things. If I'm feeling feisty I'll post tonight. As it turns out some of the things I've been thinking about recently anyway are tying into the Sandman Mystery Theatre comic I've been reading. Of course, you might say that the fact that I was thinking about those things has influenced the way I've been reading it, and you'd be correct. So yeah, I'm sorry to all those people who are checking up on me. Both of you can expect to see something shortly (a guy can always count on his wife and his mom!). In the meantime, go out and buy the new issue of The Comics Journal. It's packed with all kinds of great reading, probably enough to keep you chewing on for six weeks until the next one comes out. The Journal: it's not just for guys like me anymore!

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Progress so far, such as it is (the pressure, man)

I've read through SMT #49 a couple of times, and even read it backwards, in fact. I've chosen not to do a plot synopsis because the nature of this experiment is such that the plot isn't the main thing I'm looking at in terms of things to think about, and also because this is part one of a four part story and so it's all kind of out of context, again by design. In other words, I'm dealing with just this single issue rather than the whole story. The reason for this is that I'm trying to find things that aren't necessarily related to the context of the story. Certainly some of the stuff is part of the story, but other stuff is just me going off on a tangent. So anyway, here are some of my notes so far, and topics I expect to touch on whenever I have the time to do so:

Transition from pulps to comics…publishers are mob front

Beginnings of WWII, reference to Justice Society not being able to stop it, just as they didn't... sort of a way that real-world events work their way into a world where the costumed crimefighter exists...

Sandman of real world, Sandman of the pulps--how do they play into each others' expectations?

Pulps influencing real life behavior, but not in children…widely read by adults

Dian…author, blocked, going to write for pulps

“Dames don’t write adventure stories” ooh, sexism in the industry. Fun.

“While it is intellectually appealing to regard life’s adjunct activities as inherently inconsequential—it must also be noted that much of who we are is found in what we do.”


“Our follies are what make us attractive to ourselves—as well as of interest to others.”

As captions in panels featuring a cartoonist. Follies? Just what are we saying here?

And then this:

“The man who spends his life lost in the great pursuits, with no time for the lesser—is the man who would go through life enlightened—but unnoticed.”

Great? Lesser? Enlightened?

“And no amount of personal enrichment—makes complete anonymity desirable.” As the pencil falls to the floor…

“No! Don’t shoot—I’m just the artist!”

And this one has some pulp excerpts too.

Oddly enough, I really don’t know what to say about the dream sequence as it relates to this issue. I’ll have to let it stew a bit more.

“—the attractive, but ultimately hollow rewards of hobby—“

Someone is clearly trying to come to terms with a love of the diversionary, no?

And this mob dude is trying to halt the publisher that his brother’s doing artwork for…

A creator getting shafted regarding treatment of his own character?

Much to ponder here… I’ll update this list soon, I’m sure.

Monday, October 11, 2004

And the Winner Is...

I have chosen the comic that I'll be subjecting to my jeweled criticism experiment. Through the careful process of sticking my hand into a long box in my attic and pulling out whatever I grabbed, I have narrowed down the list of candidates from one And that book is:

Sandman Mystery Theatre #49!

I'm glad that it turned out to be a company comic, and I can tell just by looking at it that I'll be able to find lots of wonderful Reading material inside. I'll give it a couple of reads and then proceed with documenting my findings here. Don't worry, I'm sure it'll still be a fun read when I'm done with it. I don't expect to ruin it for anyone.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A New Experiment: Jeweled Criticism

Something Jon posted in my comments down below got me thinking about something. We were talking about the assumed primacy of text in reading (he was talking, I was injecting pointless nonsense here and there...), and alternative modes, or lenses through which a critical apprehension of an art object may be obtained (in addition to, not instead of, the text itself, just so I'm clear) came up. A link to a published discussion between a neurologist and a mathematician sent me off on a mental tangent from which I was destined not to return, and I started thinking about the apprehension of the universe through use of mathematics. I started thinking about the way that mathematical models change every time something in the universe or in the realm of theory manages to fall outside of the established models, thereby not invalidating previous models, but expanding on and enhancing them (and I don't really know what I'm talking about, but I'll forge ahead for a bit anyway), and allowing the same thing to be looked at in a whole other set of ways.

I am interested in applying that to the way that I read comics. I want to try to examine a book through a variety of different approaches and schools of thought, to see what kind of understanding I can come to regarding the work. And because I like to make things difficult for myself, I will choose a comic that is generally regarded as not meriting such a close look. I haven't chosen it yet, but my guess is that I will be able to get a nice series of posts on the subject in the coming fill-in-the-blank period of time. And in case anyone wonders, yes, the quality of the work itself will be considered, but it will be considered along with everything else I can see in it as well. I hope to go into a great amount of detail and cover a broad range of topics. It's a completely insane and useless thought experiment just for times that I get bored, but I invite everyone to come along with me. I might find something really cool.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

R.I.P. Jacques Derrida

Cancer has claimed the life of Jacques Derrida. He was one of the people who most influenced my aesthetic sense and critical views, as well as my view of the world in general. Fittingly, words cannot express my gratitude to the man and to his influence on western thought.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Unpacking the Tidy Packages

In my previous post addressing realism and respectability, I must admit that I decidedly did not have in mind the superhero/autobio dichotomy that seems to surface every time there is a discussion about realism and respectability in comics. I don't think that I have to remind everyone that there is a vast amount of content that exists apart from those two subjects, as well as a vast amount of content that exists within them. The typical reaction I read when someone notes that many superhero comics are poorly written and/or cliche ridden is that autobio comics are equally so. And it happens in spite of the fact that the person being critical of the superhero work did not ever explicitly hold up autobio as a contrary example. This is of course true in reverse as well. And it underscores a real problem with serious discussion of comics. The idea that there is one kind of reader or the other kind is such a nonsensical illusion and it does no good to allow discussions to continue to be framed in that way. There is simply too much content, too many creators who want to create in multiple ways, and too many readers who want to read whatever they want to read in whatever ways they want to read it for such tidy packaging of types to have any meaning. And it leads to all sorts of meaningless value assessments like "transcendence of genre" and such. What that kind of packaging amounts to is allowing the terms used to market a product to set the tone for critical discussion of an artwork.

I hope that I'm not just making something out of nothing here, but I'm still mulling things over from yesterday's Parker article and the reactions to it that I have seen. Upon thinking about it, I realized that if I were to say that I prefer (X) type of comic, I would have to attach such an extended list of qualifiers to it that the (X) would lose its meaning and become unnecessary. So I might as well abandon it altogether. What good has it done me? Even if I deign to evaluate a specific comic in terms of work that has come before, it will still be work of my choosing, and may not even be of the same type. That also goes for the critical lens through which I am evaluating it as well, and even then I may use multiple critical lenses simultaneously. What I'm saying is that the work at hand is related to all of the things that I relate it to simply by virtue of the fact that I am able to make a convincing case that it is so. That is my prerogative and yours, as a reader.

In truth, even now as I evaluate weblog discussions of comics, I am doing so from one of my preferred critical lenses, feminism, though I am replacing gender essentialism with generic essentialism. After all, as most folks point out, the similarities between superhero and autobiographical comics far exceed the differences. And they are also, as I said, far from the only options. In fact, by way of example, I'll list the best comics I've read recently: Louis Riel, The Fixer, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Blackhawk, Wigwam Bam... none of those books fits particularly tidily into a nicely packaged description. But even if they did, what good would it do to limit them thusly? I find that if I allow myself to unpack various different meanings from each of them, they come to remind me more of each other, and then play off of each other, inform and enhance my understanding of each other.

Now, as you may have guessed, I am not a casual reader. These sorts of intellectual/academic exercises are my idea of a good time (I can hear you weeping for me now). What I'm getting at is that I'd think that a casual reader would care even less than I do about these boundaries of generic identity. But the comments that I read on blogs and messboards suggest otherwise. I find that odd. Ah well, these are the things I think about at 4am I guess...

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Realism, Respectability, Whatnot

What a time to be blogging! Any number of topics from around the comics blogging world are swirling around in my head, and I will attempt to bring some of them together here in this post and see what I come up with. I anticipate that this will be a rambling, meandering post, and it would be more succinct and would make more sense if I had the time to go back into it when I'm finsished. But I don't, so here we go.

John Parker, fellow Kansas City area guy and friend of mine, has a new Ninth Art article up (incidentally, these are occurring more frequently lately and I say well done, John) giving voice to the idea that comics with realistic plots are most often just as average as those with fantastic plots. Fair enough. I would argue that there is no such thing as a realistic plot, because a plot is an artificial construction, but that would be meaningless here as John wasn't the one who used that language, I was. Anyway, John refers to them as realistic-slash-autobiographical, which is distinct from simply saying "indy" (lest we inadvertantly turn this into a company vs. indy thing) inasmuch as a good many indy books are also fantastic, absurd, surreal, or really anything they want to be.

John's point in the piece is that the ambassadors-in-comics-form to the large mass of people who don't have a history of reading comics tend to be middle-of-the-road in content and quality. I guess what I would ask is: why wouldn't they be? That's the type of culture product that most people consume. Film, television, music, novels and even restaurants tend to be exactly that. We would do well to remember that hype, even in the form of those "comics are actually worthy of your time, whodathunk" articles, is primarily about marketing. It stands to reason that the comics that most resemble the other cultural artifacts people consume are the ones that will receive the biggest push. John makes a lamenting remark to the effect that more interesting work is ignored in favor of the mediocre stuff, but doesn't say what the more interesting work is, so I can't say whether I agree or not.

Anyway, that's really all tangential to what his article really got me to thinking about (so I guess technically, I'm the one who's going off on a tangent here), namely realism. Now, trying to identify realism in artifice is a rather dicey proposition. What is it that makes one work realistic while another is not, and what makes one work more realistic than another? In order to determine those things, we'd have to first determine what the works are about, in every sense of about-ness that can possibly be gleaned--including perhaps the ones we ourselves might miss but that someone else can kindly point out. And even supposing that was possible, we'd still have to then connect what we find out to some sort of greater truth about life or whatever, and then do some kind of audit between the works to determine which one has more of that. Whew, what a lot of trouble! An unread work of art is like an incomplete circuit; it does nothing at all until connected to something that it can output to. That's the reader, who also has an effect on the content. There are things that readers will see that authors may not know they put there, and yet there they are. Yeah, so what is realism? Did we perhaps mean to say genuineness, or maybe honesty? Or do we mean simulacrum (I would bring in Baudrillard, wouldn't I)? All things considered we could just be talking about drawings of cars that look like cars (except they don't look like cars, they look like drawings of cars), or conversations written the way people talk (except that they're not conversations, they're carefully chosen written words), or situations that mimic situations that might happen in real life (except with discernable beginnings, middles, and ends). So yeah, it seems to me that striving for realism is a useless endeavor.

With that in mind I can see why Dave has so much difficulty with respectability. Now I'm admittedly making a leap here that might not necessarily be able to be made. I'm assuming that there is some link in the imaginations of a large number of folks between perceived realism and respectability. This might in some way explain the ruinously stifling influence that striving for respectablity has on a work. And I'm not talking about genuinely good works here; I'm more talking about work that over thinks and over extends itself, where the author creates with the audience too much in mind. In my experience the best creators are the ones who allow the work to function as a buffer between themselves and the readers, who focus on the work itself and allow the reader to do the same. In other words, creators who realize that that's all they can do, and so they don't try to manipulate/control the audience so much. Yes, of course this gets back to power. For what is respectability if not a relationship of power and approval? Do you remember all of your embarrassing attempts to write essays that impressed your professors? How did that work out? Did you over-reach? See how the art gets lost in all the manipulation? Writer tries to assert power by controlling the reader to receive the reader's approval. The reader asserts power by setting the conditions by which approval is given to the author. The work itself is, in this case, not what really matters. I wish that I could come up with specific examples in comics, but I try not to presume that that's what's going on in most of what I read. I really don't know and am in no position to judge. I assume that if I find something interesting to chew on, then the work itself was, on at least some level, of primary importance during its creation.

Okay, so I'm tired and really starting to ramble. I'll probably have to come back to this subject later, so enjoy this and let me know if anyone has anything to add.

Friday, October 01, 2004

I Still Exist

Sorry, folks. I know that the blogging has been light, but it's because my son has been sick. So just a couple of short points.

1. To men: please, please, please, if you are out walking around and see a woman walking toward you or sitting on a bench somewhere and she's looking a bit forlorn, down, preoccupied, whatever, do not tell her to smile. In fact, don't say or do anything. It's creepy. I know you probably want to be a nice and friendly guy, but trust me, the nicest thing you can do is to just keep walking. Women only get swept off their feet by that kind of thing in fictional fantasies written by men. In real life, unsolicited flirtations ('cause let's be honest here) freak people out. Well, how would you feel?

I apologize to all the men who didn't need to be told this, by the way.

2. You must all now go to The Hurting and read Tim's story about Tupac vs. the Kitties.

3. Can anyone tell me about the new Adam Strange series? Is it any good? I'd like to buy it, but I usually won't buy anything without a recommendation.

4. I'm adding some new links because I've found some neat stuff. There's RebelDad, about a stay-at-home father doing his thing and being critical of so-called "parenting" media that is so obviously slanted toward women. That's an issue that is naturally going to interest me (as you can probably tell by the feminist sites on my sidebar there), and he always has some interesting posts.

Also, I'm putting up a link to Rob Schamberger's new blog, 22, Three Sixty-Five, in which he uses Wally Woods "22 Panels that Always Work" and recontextualizes them using his own writing. Updated daily, so I'll want a link to check it out.

That should be it until this weekend.