January 2, 2009
CR Holiday Interview #10: Abhay Khosla
I enjoy Abhay Khosla
's take on comic books so much that for a time I was popping onto message boards he frequents just for the chance to to read what was on his mind. I imagine his writing is aggravating to some, as it utilizes a self-absorbed, stream-of-consciousness style that makes frequent leaps between pop culture references and focuses on text and reviewer in equal measure. I very much like it. His essays for Brian Hibbs' The Savage Critic(s)
are some of the best in comics, print or on-line, and are the best thing going on a site that includes comic book review heavy-hitters Graeme McMillan
and Douglas Wolk
. What distinguishes Khosla's essays beyond their idiosyncratic voice is the quality of his insight, the attentive reading of the work at the foundation of each review, and a sort of non-fussy fearlessness that his writing evinces I think as a result of being so powerfully its own thing. I was sort of stunned Khosla agreed to do a short interview, as I believe he mistrusts a lot of the typical comics community interactions. I'm glad he did, though, and after reading the following I think you will be, too. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: I swear I won't ask you too many personal questions, but am I right in thinking that you started to review comics as a student? What led you to start reviewing comics?
Poor social skills? Emotional retardation? Syphilitic dementia? I don't... Is this really the kind of depressing note you want to start this interview on? What kind of sick game are you playing at, Comics Reporter? "I got a heathen to cry during the holidays. You're welcome, Baby Jesus."
When I was a senior in high school, my school opened a time capsule of letters my class had written to ourselves when we were freshmen, that they'd saved for us. And my letter, 3/4ths of it was the usual stuff about friends, family, girls, but the last paragraph was a lengthy, handwritten, carefully worded, dead-serious prediction of what would happen next in the Chris Claremont
-Jim Lee Uncanny X-Men
. Of course, by senior year, Jim Lee had moved onto the WildC.A.T.S (Covert Action Teams)
, so really, it was heartbreaking in more than one way.
So, I don't know how to answer this one honestly. Sure, I'm a guy on the internet with an unhealthy relationship with comic books -- how original!
But who cares? I always skip these parts of interviews. I don't care who Sal Buscema
took to the prom. Heck, I question the necessity of this entire interview. People don't tune into this blog to hear me blather on. They tune into this blog to read about the brutal repression of Iranian cartoonists, or to hear what Bart Beaty
thinks about L'Association
, whatever that is. I wouldn't know what a L'Association was if the Iranians brutally repressed one onto my face. This interview is going to be a disaster.
SPURGEON: You employ a very sprawling, reference-laden, confessional and frequently humorous style in your reviews. I know this may sound stupid but why that style? Is that just the way you write, the way to write you find most pleasurable, maybe? Is it a useful style? I remember a transition you make in your review of
Air #1 to talk about color and it occurred to me that your style really facilitates that kind of serial association.
I went back and looked at your interview with Tim Hodler last year
, the intro to it: "He doesn't rant, or even vent. What he does is carefully analyze each book in a way where it seems as if he's come to every comic he talks about with wide-open eyes and a complete lack of agenda or obvious bias."
That made me laugh because Holy Crap
, am I the opposite of that. I'm all axes-to-grind, irrational biases, unexplained neuroses, hair-triggers, bizarre hissy-fits. I know that makes some blog-o-readers (?) want to avert their eyes, but I find unpacking those dysfunctions, I don't know, just kind of funny, so... Wallah
: clown show.
It would be dishonest to pretend that I have a rational relationship with comics. I've been reading them since the third grade. My relationship with them isn't mathematically sound.
I just start writing and hope I have fun, hope I make myself laugh, hope I make connections. Alan Moore
said something in a Salon review
once: "intelligence does not depend on the amount of neurons we have in our brains, it depends on the amount of connections they can make between them." Chuck Klosterman
had a line: "In and of itself, nothing really matters. What matters is that nothing is ever 'in and of itself.'"
Or of course, best of all, there's the late David Foster Wallace's commencement speech at Kenyon College
, how "the freedom" of an education" is that "you get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't."
So, I try to stay mindful of how with any comic book, however insignificant it might be "aesthetically," there's still so much to discuss; if nothing else, every single comic book is an artifact of the culture that created it.
Comic creators -- sure, there are a few hacks, but most of them are trying their best. Which is really tragic, considering the results, but -- but look: they put their thoughts, feelings, biographies, into those books; they try to be original. That's not a reason to go easy on them, but it's at least a reason to try to put some elbow-grease into it, to try to look beyond the surface details of plot. Or I was walking by a lingerie store earlier this week, and I noticed a "female" mannequin with unusually large breasts. Like, Anita Ekberg breasts
. What was it like for the sculptor of that mannequin? Was that a good day at work where he gave it his all -- "Oh good, today I get to watch Andy Sidaris movies for inspiration"
-- or was that a bad day at work where he half-assed it -- "Oh god, today I have to watch Andy Sidaris movies for inspiration"
? The answer is I'll never know because I haven't walked in his shoes, and I don't know what his job is like, and it really, really depends which Andy Sidaris movie you watch because they're not
all the same, they're not all Savage Beach
. So, I think there's a metaphor there, and that metaphor explains why I spent a half-hour staring obsessively at a mannequin's fiberglass tits, my breath fogging the window.
I fail. All the time. But I guess I have my own personal set of goals.
I guess an argument could be made that as a member of a "model minority" group that places an emphasis on conformity and achievement, my interest in comics (where the "professionals" so often aren't) and my over-emphasis on vulgar humor is all dimestore rebellion. But I just don't think about that sort of thing when I sit down to write about the Mighty Thor
. When I write about the Mighty Thor, I think "If I were engaged in foreplay with the Mighty Thor, would I pull his hair and then tease his nipples with one of his helmet-feathers, or the other way around?"
But that argument could be made, I suppose. By some kind of asshole.
SPURGEON: I was surprised that you committed to writing for
Savage Critic(s) at a point at which I thought you weren't going to take on something like that again. What attracted you to writing for Brian's site? Are you particularly fond of or sympathetic towards any of the other writers? How closely do you pay attention to the feedback you receive there?
I guess I was flattered to have my name associated with Jog and Douglas Wolk. Wolk can be entertaining writing about 52
, and then turn around and write about Chris Ware
just as sharply; great eye for talent, too. I really enjoyed the Tomb of Dracula
chapter of his book
; I loved that there was a Tomb of Dracula
chapter, you know? Jog always makes the things he finds in books seem like they were obvious, like they were sitting there waiting for him. His Jademan Wong piece
in particular was tremendous; his review of Josh Simmons's House
was a favorite. He almost persuaded me to like the new issue of Final Crisis
, even. Both guys can just -- they just can explain
shit, you know? I don't think I can do that much at all.
Plus, I liked the site before I started writing for it. I always liked how the site was direct, concise, to-the-point. I guess I ended that. I'd never really written proper "reviews" before so... I guess I wanted to see if I could add something unique to that game. I don't know how it's gone so far. Some lousy pieces, some okay pieces. So-so.
But sure, I had zero interest in writing anything before that e-mail. You think it might be unhealthy, writing criticism? There's been study after study lately how the happiest people are the ones who don't over-think things, the ones who can "get out of their heads." There was an article in The New Yorker
entitled "The Very Bad Review
" about the meanest review ever written in history, John Churton Collins
's 1886 review of an Edmond Gosse
book. The socially popular Gosse ended up living a happy life supported by his celebrity friends in the literary world, none of whom cared that he was a hack; the socially unpopular Collins ended up socially ostracized, ultimately killing himself. What's often called for is surrender, but perhaps the critical impulse can often be antithetical to surrender...? I'm not sure. But I guess I'm a little ambivalent about the whole enterprise, to be honest. So far, it's been okay.
I read all of the feedback. I usually try not to interfere. People got angry at me when I first started, just... for even existing, but that's died down, those people figured out how to avoid me. That part was so much fun, though. That might have been the best part so far.
SPURGEON: You float a notion in one of your
Secret Invasion reviews that you wanted to write about that series in part because of its event status and maybe the enthusiasm that fans seem to feel for that kind of thing would rub off on you in some way. I don't know how serious you were, but is that true? Do you read things differently now?
I didn't want to write about Secret Invasion
because I thought I could create a "ha, ha, look how terrible this is"
series of essays. That it became that is regrettable. I saw a lot of "critics" and fans online complain about Civil War
, which I thought was a crackerjack series. I didn't feel like the specific virtues I saw in Civil War
were being articulated while that series was running. There's so many reasons to hate multi-title crossovers, that it's difficult to look beyond that and ask why they work, why the audience responds to them favorably. So, I was hoping to get to present a "defense" of the mainstream with Secret Invasion
. While still being realistic that Secret Invasion
wasn't, you know, "important to comics" or whatever, without being one of those Newsarama
reviews that make you wonder if the reviewer has ever read, like, an actual book, one without pictures.
None of that worked out. Maybe it wasn't a realistic goal to begin with, given my nature.
There's a critique of mainstream comic fans that can be made, but the word I don't see get thrown around a lot is "envy." Superhero fans always seem like they're having a great time. With art comics, the conversations that I tend to see, it's not as much about actually caring about what happens to the characters who live in the four-corners of the page. It's more about whether "so-and-so is a genius" or not, aesthetic questions I have no interest in, the cult of creators. I've never seen anyone go nuts on the internet over what happened to Crying Asian Man from some Adrian Tomine comic. "I'm going to predict what happens to Crying Asian Man in the next issue of Optic Nerve."
Never seen that. I've never seen a Crying Asian Man fan-site, or anyone dressed as Crying Asian Man at a comic convention, or Crying Asian Man slash-fic.
A review can't effect the sales of something like Secret Invasion
, so I know some people question the point of those reviews. But to me, it's so much fun writing about something people care about so passionately. Part of the fun of those books is that people want to argue about them, that they invite a certain kind of arguing.
I find myself increasingly confused by the contempt people have for mainstream comic fans. There are a few occasions when it's been justified -- the fan reaction to decisions in the Siegel copyright case, say -- but there are also times where it seems as though those fans just get taken for granted. DC published a series called Countdown
, where DC sold their fans 52 issues of a series under the completely false pretenses that reading that series would somehow increase their appreciation of the Final Crisis
crossover. And the Countdown
series didn't do that apparently -- DC failed to keep that promise, which to my mind is unmistakably indefensible. It's an act of naked contempt. But I kept seeing people online turn that around and make the argument that it was the fan's fault for... even caring, that fans were being too continuity-minded, that fans had been foolish for even having wanted Countdown
to begin with. That they'd somehow gotten something they deserved
...? I don't understand it.
Marvel sold a $4 X-Men comic
this year that supposedly contained only 16 pages of comics. To me, that's ghastly. Of course fans can say no, and they don't. But that, it's not enough of an excuse. A fandom is what it is, and it behaves how it behaves. Sure, I don't understand why anyone would tolerate being treated that way, being treated like a sub-human. Especially when there are worthwhile alternatives. But I'm not a part of that fandom -- I like the characters, but I'm not invested like a fan is invested. To say that fans being fans, doing things that fans naturally do, that somehow that justifies anything that's perpetrated on them... I don't know. I'm tired of that argument.
I don't think I read things differently. I just know that I'm increasingly apathetic, which is horrible, which is no way to be. But The Man always encourages us to be apathetic in order to control us (also: so that The Man can get away with inventing herpes).
SPURGEON: Speaking of
Secret Invasion, you wrote a review where you talk in detail about how the book failed on certain fundamental levels for you. In fact, you compared it to the last major Marvel mega-series
Civil War in directly unflattering terms. What do you think happened that caused that particular series to be so different coming on the heels of the more successful outing? I'm willing to agree with you that it's not enough Phoebe Cates, but I was wondering if you had an alternate explanation.
Every great series changes at some point in its run. You think you're reading A, and then it turns out you're reading B. And that's a magic trick I think series writer Brian Michael Bendis
knows as well as anyone; when he's on his game, he's constantly questioning the status quos of his series. But Secret Invasion
, for some reason, didn't do that. From issues #2 to #7 -- nothing happened. They spent, what, eight to nine months telling the story of a single day's events, with nothing happening.
The stakes never got raised. Nothing happened over nine months, nothing at all. Nothing. Nothing at all. At all. Nothing. At all, nothing, at all. Slowly. And the whole time they're telling fans, "Just wait nine months and then the next crossover will be good. This one is just
The Phantom Menace; the next one is the
Attack of the Clones.
" So, you have to wait for nine months just to get to the "good" crossover, to get to the good stuff. Except Attack of the Clones
stunk, too, so what kind of promise is that? And who has the patience to wait nine months for the "good stuff?"
Nothing came after Civil War
. That was how fans knew how momentous Civil War
was. By following it with nothing, it was like Marvel was saying, "We can't keep pulling crazy shit out of our ass! We have pulled every single tiny bit of shit out of our ass with
Civil War. We are plum out of pullable shit-in-ass.
Civil War broke our minds, too.
" The big fan complaint about Civil War
was that they broke the Marvel Universe; but that's exactly what I want to see. Because those fractures ultimately revealed the parts of those characters and that "universe" that hadn't broken, that weren't easily breakable. Civil War
felt like a mile marker, like a moment of geography and shared history for their characters; Secret Invasion
just feels like one of Oceania's wars with Eurasia
. You're not left with a feeling that you've witnessed a moment of history for the characters, so much as you're watching Marvel decay into a state of permanent hysteria. (Well: that's a little melodramatic
Arguably, the series played against Bendis's strengths. I've loved his work since forever, I continue to be a fan of his, and I root for his continued success. But part of why I've enjoyed his work in the past is that I've always gotten the sense that he's the type of writer who starts with character first, and interrogating character. With Secret Invasion
, it was all plot, and no character. You know, good for him for trying to stretch as a writer, but... Look, if sales numbers are to be believed, it succeeded with its intended audience, and that does matter. I don't want to discount that.
I don't know, though. The biggest comic company in the country's highest profile series of the year was about religious fanatics blowing themselves up because their religion tells them they're entitled to a specific parcel of occupied property, where the heroes tell the religious people that the heroes' white-skinned God will lead them to victory, where the happy ending was that the Marvel heroes kill all of the religious people and that a religious woman has her head blown off mid-prayer. What were they even trying to do?? What did I even read, Comics Reporter? How was that the ending? It's such a weird comic book. And comic fans make it stranger because most of them seem to think a one-panel Obama
cameo is the only politically charged material in the book. People don't think mainstream comics might mean things! People think mainstream comic creators are brainless fanboys just because mainstream comic fans are brainless fanboys. It's a bizarre culture.
But look: does anyone want to hear the opinion of Marvel comic book fans on the Middle East peace process? Me neither times infinity.
SPURGEON: You mention in a couple of your 2008 pieces that you re-read comics in bunches: you read a selection of Silver Age DC books, you read some Steranko-era
SHIELD comics and you re-read Jaime Hernandez's earlier work. How much of your comics reading is comprised of older comics? What is the nature of the curiosity that leads you to re-read books like that?
The majority of my consumption
is old comics. Some are "The Classics." But other things... So many comics have been forgotten. Sure, most with good reason. Wally Wood
's Total War
, say -- it's not going to be part of a Masters of Comic Art gallery show anytime soon. Art Spiegelman
didn't pull out his copies of Total War
after 9/11 to feel better about life. Total War
isn't Art with a capital-a.
But I spend most of my time just looking, not reading. Usually, I just want to look at comics, just appreciate their "formal qualities", for lack of a better term. For that, older comics are a different experience -- not necessarily better or worse, but different. Fashions in comics have changed so much, and comics right now are very self-conscious. With older comics, there's less anxiety. There's more movement on the page, more panels, less of a cinematic influence, more of a comic strip influence. Total War
isn't art, but it's fun to look at. Sometimes that's enough.
I just like seeing where the trail leads. I enjoyed an essay the Mindless Ones blog wrote about Nemesis the Warlock
. That essay lead me to looking at old British comics, finding out about things like Hook Jaw
, a '70s British Jaws
rip-off. Which made me curious to see how other people handled short form comics, which lead me to, say, Creepy
back-issues. Where I found Dave Sim
and Russ Heath
's "Shadow of the Axe", a six-page ax-murder horror comic. Gorgeous comic -- okay script from Sim, lovely work by Heath. And that lead to...
SPURGEON: In your review for
The Alcoholic you criticize DC/Vertigo for the shoddy way they treat Dean Haspiel's credit; you also generally mock some of the serious-literary-comic pretension of the project. That said, you were also complimentary of many of the book's creative aspects. Do you feel your criticisms of
The Alcoholic apply to those kind of prestige books in general? How do you feel about the entrance of New York publishing houses into comics publishing?
Well, Dean Haspiel is probably not minding being part of such a well-received project. But when I was growing up, comic book artists got to be stars. That kind of stopped, outside of art-comics. I'm curious about what changed. I don't know that it's isolated to prestige books, though certainly all of the prestige books I've seen have been focused on hyping the writers rather than the artists. I couldn't tell you who drew Sentences
but I know MF Grimm
was the writer; I only know the name of Pride of Baghdad
's Niko Henrichson
because he did a terrific Machine Man
comic with my friend Ivan Brandon this year. You know: DC hired Jim Rugg
, one of the most energetic and exciting cartoonists around, to draw a book called Plain Janes
, about plain-ness and boring-ness. Do I understand that decision? Hell, I'm just a civilian.
But it's other books, too. I can't say to a certainty, but it sure seem as though new ongoing mainstream series are predominantly built around writers and their visions, instead of being built around the artists. That premise doesn't seem to be questioned very often. Comics, animation, both seems to dis-empower the artists even though they're art-driven media. Does that make sense? Maybe it does. Maybe artists are too crazy. Maybe the real talents are the comic book writers. I don't know -- maybe, it's something to wonder about, though.
The entrance of publishing houses -- I know a few people who are benefiting from that, so perhaps I'm biased. But so far it seems to have lead to new voices, different voices having an outlet in comics? A cartoonist like Lucy Knisley
publishing books? Who else would pay for Kazu Kibuishi
to create all-ages books? I'm certainly a beneficiary of First Second
's efforts. Is there a controversy on that point I've been ignoring? There's a particular expertise that Fantagraphics
and Drawn & Quarterly
seem to have that those houses haven't caught up with yet. But that's to be expected, no? Setting aside the issues of content, I would at least guess that we all benefit with more publishers, in so far as the total amount of money spent promoting comics and opening up marketing channels, getting magazines to write about comics, etc., is more. It's a little troubling when you see cartoonists abandon their former publishers for those houses, but it's not really my place to really opine on that.
I'm suspicious of memoirs but we live in the decade of the fake memoir, let alone blogs, reality television, twitter-ing. I think a certain healthy suspicion is called for by that particular genre.
Do you think those publishers will have much of an impact going forward, though? With the other news in the economy, with the state of the big chain bookstores, with the state of any New York City business at this point, I'm not eager to find out what happens next in that arena -- I doubt it will be good news. I don't know how familiar you were with the track record of the people let go in that last wave of lay-offs, but comics have already been negatively impacted, have already lost people it couldn't afford to lose. There are certainly times when it's fortunate to be talking about comics from the sidelines.
SPURGEON: What made you want to do an interview with Ed Laroche as opposed to simply writing about the book? One thing that struck me about that piece is that it had been a decade to two decades since I'd thought of small press, independent comics as a kind of creative correction to mainstream fare. Is there something missing in comics do you think that there are no longer these strong distinctions, that Ed Brubaker is writing
Captain America now? Do you feel there's still an alternative or independent element to art comics and small press books?
I don't see self-published comics often anymore, let alone self-published action comics, let alone self-published action comics executed at that level of competence. With Laroche, in particular, I had a greater curiosity that the book existed in the state it existed, than questions invoked by the content itself. Plus: small-press people are the only people who say yes to my interview requests. A couple Big Two creators have said yes this last year, but it's not surprising when they think on it and withdraw. That's just good common sense.
As for alternative elements... This is a difficult question to answer because -- because I don't see an "alternative" element to much of the culture right now, even beyond comics. Despite all of the travesties of the last eight years, aside from some interesting bits of culture, here and there, have you seen anything resembling a "bohemia"? Well, I suppose I probably wouldn't know if a "bohemia" existed; I'm the very definition of a square for any bohemia that's ever existed.
But the art comics I hear talked about the most right now aren't alternative in the sense that they're "questioning the dominant culture." They're noise rock things like Powr Mastrs
. Or if they're addressed at the culture, it's through the prism of identity politics, which... I have a certain, perhaps undeserved disdain for comics that trade on the creator's minority status.
This isn't something I'm angry about, though. Editorial cartoons aside, I tend to hate "political" comics -- those dopey Vertigo comics
But I still think that "independent comics" (and God only knows what that terms means) serve a function that a mainstream comic can't, even if the mainstream companies hire people that come from independent comics. Perhaps that belief is delusional. The output of several comic publishers certainly suggests that belief is delusional.
You're right that the Brubaker-
paradigm presents tougher competition for independent comics. It's a reason for independent comics to come correct, to be more formally daring, to take advantages of the freedom of independent comics more. But: that's not the direction things have been going in, is it? I knee-jerk blame the influence of Hollywood, but probably the real reason is something stranger and sadder than that. Who knows?
But... But: yes, Marvel employs more creators from the small press. Mainstream comics used to not be able to go to a certain level of violence or thematic material, on account of the Comics Code
, and independent comics used to be where you turned to for those things. Now mainstream comics routinely have heavy-duty violence, dark themes, etc. Mainstream comics are more vulgar now, and independent comics are not only tamer than they used to be, but tamer than mainstream comics.
But I just suspect there's a difference between vulgarity and provocation. Captain America
might be vulgar, but it's not provocative. It's not built to be. It's safe; it's genetically safe, regardless of the resume of whoever they hire. There are inherent rules to those books. I know when I'm reading American Flagg
, and I know when I'm reading Captain America
, regardless of who they hire to make Captain America
And, look: there are still creators out there that do material that -- that you can tell the difference. Joe Sacco
, say, or Kyle Baker
. Kyle Baker's Iraq War comic Special Forces
is political, current, angry, funny, action-packed. It's not "literary" or "mature" which... What did Kurt Vonnegut say? "Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter could be said to remedy anything."
SPURGEON: I liked your comparison of the comics of Manu Larcenet and the Dupuy/Berberian books from a couple years back. I share your high regard for the Dupuy/Berberian material. Why do you think the Monsieur Jean books didn't hit harder with American audiences. Is it the humor? The tone? Just not enough intersection between comics readers and fans of this kind of material?
Was that an apt comparison?! I don't know enough about European comics. I didn't even know about the Marcinelle school
and Brussels school
of cartooning until October. Why don't people mention that more? There used to be rival schools of Belgian cartooning. I love
that. I haven't found out yet if they ever fought to find out whose cartooning was deadlier, but surely that must have happened, right? Is there some way we can ask Bart Beaty if the Marcinelle School and the Brussels School ever battled in a First-to-Bleed Tournament of Belgian Cartooning?
It's not surprising that the Monsieur Jean books weren't embraced more. They're just really, really French. The dominant emotional tone is, what, "grouchy resignation"? The US audience might be a little too adolescent to appreciate that, even fans of art-comics. Or to phrase it another way, maybe US fans demand "bigger" emotions or issues be at stake. Gentle French situational comedies that find humor in the messiness of life? That's a very specific type of comedy. Character-driven comedies are rare in comics, at least outside of web-based comic-strips. Comic book fans/creators seem to prefer gag comedy.
I simply like how those guys draw, though. You know, guys who can draw funny have a rough road in America, sometimes. Consider how many comic artists are only really embraced when they move on to animation. Jay Stephens
, say. Or have you ever read an interview with Jhonen Vasquez
? From his Suicide Girls interview
: "But even now, with the thing that I have done sort of well for myself in, comics, I'm not exactly held in the highest regard. It's not a conscious effort on my part either, it's just the way it is... [The Comics Journal] would never come near me. They'd come near me if I was unknown, doing terribly and writing a very matter of fact series about my true life experiences making a sandwich."
Jhonen Vasquez was a success in comics. But, you know, he's not going to be in photos riding-dirty on a rooftop with Art Spiegelman anytime soon. People don't respect funny.
SPURGEON: What is it that you found interesting in the video game description in
Ganges #2? I thought that was a very good comic that was little discussed. I also feel that Kevin Huizenga is the most important cartoonist to come along since Ware. I don't expect you to agree with me, but what do you think of his work?
I found the second half's description of the first-person shooter more interesting than the formal exercises of the first half (which Kevin Huzienga later reprised in Fight or Run
). Video games, especially those from the era of gaming he's discussing, they work because the viewer projects their imagination onto the textures and simulations of reality presented by the game. Game designers often talk about how the viewer's imagination fills in the details that they don't have the rendering power to generate.
Well, shit: that's sort-of how comics work too. Comics work because your mind fills in the details. So, what Huzienga's done is to use the suggestive power of comics to describe the suggestive power of video games. And you don't really need to have played games to understand that quality of video games, because you read comics, because you're experiencing the exact same sensation in a different way at that very moment. He's using the limits of what comics can do to capture the limits of what video games can do. So, I think that's something, maybe.
Visually, with that sequence, I like how he has the game characters cast shadows. I wonder if it was an intentional choice. Because if I play a videogame, and maybe this is something the current generation of gamers can't appreciate, but I know it's never -- it's never the giant spaceship that makes me catch my breath. It's the way headlights look in the rain in a Grand Theft Auto
game. It's the precise, oddly beautiful rendering of something totally mundane. Is there a word for that? I hope there's a word for that.
Plus: I just liked the prose of his descriptions of the game. Have you ever read any of Kelly Link
's short stories? She's a magical realist / fantasy author, and what Huzienga does in Ganges
#2 reminds me of how her story "Magic for Beginners" made me feel. By making the game description so fantastic, he makes the reader want to play the game, he makes us want to be in the room with those people -- and once readers are vulnerable like that, he has us where he wants us to tell the real story he's telling in that comic, which is not a fantasy story at all, which is about a specific experience, specific emotions, a specific time & place.
But do I think Huzienga is important? I don't know how to answer that. I'm not sure what that word means in this context. I don't think that sort of thinking leads anywhere interesting. I know I've been -- I know my experience with Huzienga's work, from Kramers Ergot
5 on, has been the same: I start out just sort of weirdly suspicious of his intentions, and then I grow more and more excited until by the end of the story, I'm wildly enthused. Well, not true of Fight Or Run
, but... I don't know: I always start out suspicious. His primary character's name is Glenn Ganges
, you know...? Glenn Ganges?! It always looks like it'll be one of those comic where nothing happens, but for me, it's never that. So much happens in his comics. And it's hardly a novel observation, but: I'm caught off-guard by the decency of his comics. It's so easy for someone use their intellect to rip things apart, but with Huzienga, there's a sense of, ahm... synthesis instead? Is that the right word?
But do I think he's important? That's just a weird question. What did you even mean by that? Is it important to you that the cartoonists you read aren't just pleasurable, but that they're also important? Huh? How do you like that? The tables have turned, Comics Reporter! Now, the interview-ee
has become the interviewer
SPURGEON: I think it's different. Most of what I read is for pleasure, I read Kevin's comics for pleasure. I just happen to think his work is also of a surpassing quality and comes from such a unique place in terms of how it uses the form and to what purposes and its potential to influence other cartoonists that I think he should be paid attention to above and beyond the ability his comics have to give me pleasure.
I agree with much that's in your recent essays on the cancellation of
Blue Beetle, particularly your close reading of the material in terms of the near-inscrutability of some of its plot elements. I know that people read a variety of things into that essay; what would you have them take away if you could narrow it down to one or two ideas? I think I know the answer but I'm not sure. Also, are you sympathetic at all to the notion that was floated by some of those responding that superhero comics being obtuse and weird and completely difficult to understand is something that's appealing about them?
I should dodge this question. If people are getting more out of something I wrote than I intended, that's not something I'm eager to interfere with. I'm pretty darn okay with seeming smarter than I actually am. I wouldn't be gainfully employed if I wasn't okay with that.
Let me try this: A common reaction to what I was saying was for fans to defend how much they liked the Blue Beetle character. Which: that's wonderful. But the series frequently diverged from the book's core narrative, and there are consequences to that decision. The thinking seems to remain short-term. Temporarily spiking sales with a one-issue crossover with a multi-title crossover is great in the short-term, but how does that play in the long-term? How does it play after a series is canceled, but the character is in a new cartoon and you want to sell trades to the cartoon's audience? Given DC's track record with launching new titles, should they be thinking short-term or long-term? And the creators often seem to be as much victims of DC's "conventional wisdom" as anyone else.
But there are counter-arguments to all of what I just said. For example: DC has attempted stand-alone superhero pieces in the past and had similar failures. That's the thing, and one reason I tend to ramble on is because I can see those counter-arguments. I hate anything that pretends a situation isn't nuanced. Politics, relationships, even comics, there are always nuances. One way I've disappointed myself this year is I've over-emphasized writing about mainstream comics; I haven't kept a good balance. But mainstream comics to me are fun to write about because... Because even a book like Blue Beetle, there are so many competing desires and goals, so many different masters that book had to serve. It's tangled.
As for the sympathy question, I'm sympathetic, but I think people making that argument are down-playing the difference in fashions between the comics that we grew up with and comics now. There are profound differences in pacing, in terms of the number of panels on the page, in terms of how pages are laid out, in terms of how flashbacks are presented or expository information is conveyed. Again, not better or worse, but different. I think the absence of editorial footnotes is especially significant. I'm sympathetic but I don't think they're comparing apples to apples. "Weird is okay, though. "Weird" will always be in short supply.
SPURGEON: Do you ever hear back from authors like you did from Blue Beetle writer -- and generally successful Hollywood TV show maker and scriptwriter -- John Rogers after your reviews and essays? Has anyone ever made contact with you in a way that's memorable? For that matter, how much do you write with an audience in mind?
I've heard back, sure, but there's no way to answer this question that isn't either self-aggrandizing or deeply, deeply pathetic. "I made some no-name notice my meager existence, using only my rapier-like crapulence. I'm like the D'artagnan of shitheads."
Look: the idea of me debating John Rogers about narrative is, on its face, fucking ludicrous
. I laugh to think about it. He's as ridiculously successful as writers get, pretty much. I'm some dope on a blog. On the other hand: you know what? I still kind of stubbornly think I was right about certain things. So any answer to this one will just be even more ridiculous.
Like, in person -- creators who recognize my name? I've never handled that well once, even (or especially) when it's a creators whose work I love. You know: I have a certain amount of... embarrassment? About the whole internet thing...? Plus the whole comics thing...? You know, I spend most of my day having to be serious about serious things, so... So: embarrassment.
As for the audience: I put in Easter eggs once into a review, where in the empty space between every word in one particular sentence of this particular review, there were invisible links to a YouTube video of Smokey & The Bandit 2
outtakes. I thought I could go three to four reviews doing that before someone noticed, but it got caught right away. Another review, there was just a photo of Fred Williamson randomly inserted into one of the reviews. Handsome blaxploitation actor Fred Williamson
. No one mentioned that, I guess because maybe they thought I was making a point about Fred Williamson...? I wasn't. I just like Black Caesar
. But I think about the audience, sure. Except I think a lot about the audience who watched Andy Kaufman wrestle women
SPURGEON:A few times this year you pulled out some old comics I think to deflate the notion that some sort of conventional wisdom that comics people have just isn't supported by the material. Like you pointed to a
Mighty Samson story as an example of nonsensical idiocy written for folks with short attention spans, and a
Combat Kelly story as an example of eye-opening post-Code cruelty. Do you feel that comics readers have a bizarre take on the way comics used to be that warps the way they read the ones made now?
Online? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But do you think the vast majority of comic fans have any sense of the way comics used to be, at all, whatsoever? I don't know that's true. For a lot of fans, Marvel Comics's heyday was the "Age of Apocalypse
." Do you even know what that is?
What's that saying? "The Golden Age of science fiction is 12 years old."
SPURGEON: One of the best pieces you wrote last year was on
Octopus Pie and
Conan. You specifically mention some of the more subtle points of comedic execution. What do you find funny? Who? What do you find funny in Johnny Ryan's comics, for example, that you think other people might not appreciate or might not value?
Do you really think there's something subtle and delicate going on with Johnny Ryan's comics that the hoi polloi
isn't picking up on? Boss Twat
doesn't really call for a dissertation. But... okay, fine
, here is my dissertation on Boss Twat
: I tend to love the chain of airtight logic that leads to the absurd conclusion. So, Boss Twat
begins with the Duke boys from Dukes Of Hazzard
having tied a giant dick to the front of the General Lee, and it ends with the Dukes throwing their own severed penises at a taint on a sassafras tree. But for me, what makes it funny is that there's a sort of weirdly logical progression between point A and point B. If the Duke Boys tied a giant penis to the hood of their car, then it does obey a sort of mathematics that at some point, sure, they would invariably drive their car penis-first into Boss Twat's ass. And it is extremely logical that the impact of that would kill Boss Twat, thereby send his severed taint flying onto the limb of a nearby sassafras tree. The premise is bizarre but it's the intellectual rigor that is applied to that bizarre premise, to me, that makes it funny.
With respect to comedy, what's been interesting for me these last couple years was realizing how much the comedy I loved owed a debt to comics. For me, the three guys I think the most highly of, of recent times at least, are Albert Brooks
, Larry David
, and Garry Shandling
. Albert Brooks is the godfather of alternative comedy; Larry David arguably perfected the traditional sitcom between Seinfeld
and Curb Your Enthusiasm
; and to me, Shandling is just a giant, one of the all-time best TV comedy creators, a pivotal figure in the history of HBO and thus television, a direct influence on the very best people making comedy right now, a solid stand-up, just a giant.
The first time I saw the Jules Feiffer movie Little Murders
, I was immediately convinced that all three of those people had been inspired by Feiffer, owed a debt to Feiffer, to what Feiffer did with that movie and otherwise in a very long and storied career.
Which began with comics. Little Murders
is especially reminiscent of the Sick Sick Sick
work that was reprinted this year in The Explainers
in that its showcase moments are these inspired monologues. People hone in on Donald Sutherland
's monologue, especially, and with good reason, but Vincent Gardenia
and Elizabeth Wilson
were, for me, jaw-dropping.
Jules Feiffer got his start in comics, found his voice in comics, made a name for himself in comics. Comics can do that.
Comics can do that, they can be that place, and that's worth celebrating.
I think you're seeing that happening again with Chris Onstad and Achewood
. He's doing some of the best comedy anyone's doing anywhere, and how else could he have done it but as a webcomic? Who else would have created a stage for a voice as singular as his? Where else could he have done it on his own? His success, to me, is tremendously exciting. See also, Mike Le's Don't Forget To Validate Your Parking
or John Campbell's comics, most of all Stevie Might Be A Bear, Maybe
As for comedy, generally... I pretty much like all of it. You know, I think very, very highly of Kyle Baker's early comedies, The Cowboy Wally Show
and Why I Hate Saturn
. Will Pfeifer and Jill Thompson's Finals
. Michael Kupperman
, of course, and Evan Dorkin's Dork #11
. I live in the best city in the world for live comedy; I like The Tomorrow Show
, especially. The Thick Of It
and Nathan Barley
. East Bound And Down
, and Flight of the Conchords
. 30 Rock
and The Daily Show
. Judd Apatow
and Adam McKay
and Steve Coogan
. Conan O'Brien
and Craig Ferguson
. Charlyne Yi
and Jen Kirkman
. David Letterman
and Andy Kindler
. Uptown Saturday Night
and Dave Chappelle
. Doug Stanhope
and Andy Kindler
. Role Models
and Clark & Michael
. Remastering The Sting
and The Big Lebowski
. Take The Money And Run
and Annie Hall
and "The Whore of Mensa
." Melvin Goes To Dinner
and A Fish Called Wanda
. Strange Brew
and My Blue Heaven
and Wonder Boys
and Young Ones
. Bill Murray
and Groucho Marx
. Dr. Strangelove
and Burn After Reading
. I love "smart" comedies like Broadcast News
, and I love "dumb" comedy like Chris Farley dancing in SNL's Chippendales sketch
. Slap Shot
and, more than anything else, Caddyshack
I like comedies more than dramas, more than any genre, more than anything, so the fact there are so few good comedies in comics diminishes my interest in them single-handedly more than anything else has ever managed to do.
SPURGEON: One of the odder milestones this year is the 250th issue of
Hellblazer, which brings into relief the way that Vertigo-style books have since their inception both become their own thing and dominated the publishing ground between art books and superhero books. How do you look at the state of the current non-super mainstream? I know that you read
Scalped, are there other books in that general neighborhood that you find edifying, worth reading?
The more important milestone for me personally is the approaching end of 100 Bullets
. As a fan, I'll be in mourning, obviously. But also: the loss of 100 Bullets
isn't coming at the best time for Vertigo. They lost one of their key titles in January with Y The Last Man
; the finale of 100 Bullets
doesn't leave a line I have much interest in, otherwise, past Scalped
Basically, I look at the state of the "current non-super mainstream" with my hands over my eyes, peeking through my fingers. With comics reaching $4 a comic -- I don't know how much space is in the average fans' budget to take a chance on new Vertigo books. To the extent people even stick around in the face of $4 comics, and evaluate $4 comics in a cold, analytical way; assuming they don't see it as a deal-breaker psychologically, emotionally, assuming they don't consider it a betrayal
. Then again, I don't know how much Vertigo ever relied on the "average fan." It sure seems like Vertigo's trying to reposition themselves as a graphic novel company, especially with their upcoming crime-comic sub-imprint. But I can't guess how lucrative that business is going to be for comic companies if unemployment goes into double-digits. And there's more competition now, with Image
, whoever, all of whom are unquestionably more daring visually while reaching for the same readers. And-And-And --
There's just a lot of crazy shit going on at once. Can you keep your head around it all? I sure can't.
I'm encouraged, too. I'm encouraged by the creators themselves. Comics are really brimming with a lot of interesting, dedicated young people. Do you watch Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
's movies off YouTube? They had a two-part, three-minute "documentary" called Why Comics
this year, asking creators "Why comics?" Most of the answers were shallow (again, the movie only lasted three minutes), but... regardless of comics' faults, people still seem dedicated to finding a way to navigate through all this craziness. That's something, at least. Probably every single last one of them will get ground up completely by life, end up a bunch of bitter wrecks, waving knives around, exposing themselves to children -- the good Lord knows that's where I'm headed. But win, lose or draw, shit, it'll be fun to watch. It's about the journey, you know? It's like Kurt Vonnegut
said, "Life is a highway which can be ridden all night long."
It'd be nice if more people were dedicated to making the "Great American Comic" than a "good gangster comic." I think a lot of dudes out there have underestimated their talent, if anything. Despite all the new publishers, despite the movie deals, some of the most exciting comics in that world are online comics like Sin Titulo
, Anders Loves Maria
, or what have you. The impact of Hollywood in particular... It's hard to know what to say about the effect Hollywood's had, what's polite to say.
As for other books in the general vicinity of Scalped
? A favorite book of the last few years was Brett Lewis
and John Paul Leon
's Winter Men
. The book makes references to superheros and science fiction elements on its fringes, but it's as much a crime-comic / action-thriller set predominantly in modern Russia. Amazing dialogue; dense pacing; John Paul Leon's best work; right-on colors from Dave Stewart
. It's always an easy recommend for me because DC/Wildstorm
didn't really seem to understand it, and as a result, I don't know if it found the audience it deserved.
SPURGEON: Are you familiar at all with the whole post-Fort Thunder school of cartooning, the kind of stuff that PictureBox, Buenaventura and some other alt-comics publishers release? How do you regard that group of comics; do you have favorite works or cartoonists that work in those areas of cartooning?
I like PictureBox, though my favorite art comic this year was Drawn & Quarterly's publication of the art-manga Red Colored Elegy
. Which is unfair because I was partially excited by how that comic fit its time period, historically. Specifically, how it seemed similar to French New Wave cinema, particularly in the latter half of the book. I liked how the story it told was incredibly specific, even as the style of presentation so purposefully avoided the specific detail.
From PictureBox, I enjoyed the first volume of Powr Mastrs
, and the last two issues of Cold Heat
. I didn't have much of an experience with Chimera
, though -- I enjoyed Derik Badman's piece about it
, more than I had my own honest experience of anything when I looked at it. Similarly, I didn't get the same experience from C.F.'s Core of Caligula
as with Powr Mastrs
, though I've never been too much a mini-comic fan. I think with Powr Mastrs
, it wasn't so much specific moments, characters, drawings, so much as the amount of material allowed me to enjoy the, what, the metamorphoses...? The panel-to-panel transitions. Which Core of Caligula
had less of, just by virtue of being shorter. Does that make any sense whatsoever? Probably not.
Everyone told me to avoid the Michel Gondry comic
, though. But I really liked the heck out of that last issue of Comics Comics
-- though that's more comics criticism than comics. Or wait: did you see the Cold Heat Special that Frank Santoro did with Jim Rugg
? I liked everything about that, just... First off, getting to see Jim Rugg draw something that felt really new. Rugg's short pieces often refer to the iconographies of prior eras, but with the Cold Heat Special
, he was without those filters. I found that exciting. Then, just the tactile presentation (?) of the material was a pleasure. It's presented in that newspaper format of theirs, so the art is bigger than a traditional comic without being some "how much do you have in your bank account?" situation like with that fancy-boy Kramers Ergot book
I don't really know the taxonomy of that world, though. Is Jordan Crane
pre-Fort-Thunder or post-Fort-Thunder? Beats me -- he's one of my favorite all-around guys; a major talent; he's doing this terrific old-school alternative comic called Uptight
. He had a gallery show at Los Angeles's Giant Robot
art gallery a few years back that really blew me away. His all-ages comic a couple years back was great. Obviously, this is Dash Shaw's year. I'm curious how many people will agree with me that Bodyworld
is better than Bottomless Belly Button
in the year-end Top 10 lists. I'm guessing not many due to the prejudices people have with webcomics. Or I tried Cryptic Wit
's recommendations. I still haven't finished either -- those books are exhausting because of that suffocating structure that it employs. Fascinating, but tiring to read. But I don't know how the creator is "classified" vis-a-vis
I enjoyed that back-and-forth about Dave Heatley, at their website
. I'd read Heatley's fuck-comic in Kramers Ergot
back when. I thought it was a cute novelty comic, but a whole book in that style, with that art? That volume of Kramers
had Jordan Crane, Kevin Huizenga, Chris Ware -- I know some people, their favorite piece was that Heatley piece, but... And I thought it was okay, but it wasn't an artistic journey I particularly wanted to continue with, say.
I really enjoy seeing how fans react to PictureBox's comics on the Internet more than anything, though. You know, all of these people on the Internet, talking about comics -- who do we remind you of exactly? You know, growing up, I'd hear fans talk about Dark Horse and Concrete
. Then, Vertigo books and Sandman
. Then, Top Shelf
books, and From Hell
. Then, Fantagraphics and Chris Ware. Then, Drawn & Quarterly and Chester Brown. Now, PictureBox.
What does that remind you of? Is it just me, or does it remind you of people who are really, really into eating food? Does it remind you of foodies? "I started out eating hot dogs. Now, I eat raw oysters directly out of a porcupine's ass."
One of my favorite things this year was Jog's con-report for this year's MoCCA? I loved that piece; it was like some Anthony Bourdain
Skuldengaat was fed to pigs along with a diet of potatos and leeks, then the pig was disembowled and the partially-digested
Skuldengaat was enjoyed directly from the pig's large intestines."
"Holy shit, is that a Swedish recipe or is he reviewing the new book by Paper Rad??"
SPURGEON: Steven Grant mentioned in one of his columns that he could only think of two comics from 2008 to recommend, both reprints. Conventional wisdom says this is an astounding era for comics, but as Steven's column makes clear, not everyone agrees. Do you feel that comics is in a publishing Golden Age? If not, why do so many think it is?
I don't think that's a conversation I want to be a part of. Grant's essay seemed odd to me, but a great many of the other responses -- not yours, but those of other people -- seemed engaged in an even greater amount of reductio ad absurdum
arguments. I didn't pay much attention to any of it, frankly, thanks to my day job, but it seemed like a lot of people judging whether it was a good year or not for comics just by counting how many "objectively great" comics they read. "2008: 2 or 10" isn't my kind of debate. Did I misread what was being argued?
To me, this has seemed like a severely good decade for comics. Certainly the ready availability of reprint material, of classic comic strips in particular, is kind-of staggering. But a Golden Age? I certainly hope not. I hope these are the Dark Ages, and what's coming next is even better. I hope the next decade of comics makes this one look paltry by comparison. The talent's out there. The audience seems game. Because there's a lot of work left to be done. There's a lot of room for improvement. If this is where progress stops, that would be enormously disappointing.
SPURGEON: Abhay, I ask this of most the writers about comics. What was the last great comic you read? What was the last very good one?
The last good comic I read ... I'm not sure: it was either the "Flower" arc of Jack Kirby's Kamandi
or the last issue of Fear Agent
is post-Fourth World Kirby, of course. Kirby created the type of series I always have the hardest time reading: the "Cursed Man" series, where the series concerns a man cursed to be unbearably miserable the entire time you read about them by virtue of the premise of the series. The most effective plots in those series (like the Flower arc) are those that dangle happiness in front of the main character before whisking it away. That sort of thing really bothers me. It's silly, but I get really worked up, even though none of the people are real. I get worked up by fake unfairness...? What is that? See also, Charlie Brown trying to kick the goddamn football
, the Saturday morning cartoon Dungeons and Dragons
, Naoki Urasawa's Happy
, the Incredible Hulk television show
, the 1927 comic strip Bobby Thatcher
(available at the Thrillmer website
), and so forth.
is a series by Rick Remender
, Tony Moore
and Jerome Opena
, published by Image
and Dark Horse
. (Remender, Moore and Kieron Dwyer
also put out a fantastic, completely my-kind-of-thing R-rated zombie comedy called XXXombies
this year). Fear Agent
is in (I think it's called) the Raygun Gothic Genre of bubble-helmet spacesuits, rayguns, rocketships. I think the Swedes call it Atompunk possibly, but: Swedes
. When Ikea can sell a proper bed, I'll listen to the Swedes with their Atompunk. I didn't care for Fear Agent
at first, but the last few arcs have really landed with me. I like how the series has unfolded as it progressed. The aesthetic of the book draws a lot of inspiration from other artists I enjoy, like Wally Wood, John Severin
, Harvey Kurtzman
, artists of an earlier period. It's a nice enough book.
Great book? Huhm. Well: my favorite comic this year was probably The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard
. Not "Best" of the year -- I don't want to get in trouble with the "Steven Grant Hurt My Feelings"
crowd, the people who take the Best of the Year
denotation way too seriously. But my favorite, sure. The book was a fictional biography of an almost-real French adventurer and his friends, lovers, acquaintances, etc. It was formally playful, but I suppose what I responded to was... With Monsieur
, I liked how the adventures arose from a guy trying to be someone cooler than himself, and the big failures and small triumphs of that. Or maybe not even trying to be someone cooler than himself, maybe trying to be the idea of a guy cooler than himself. I just know that. I know that story. I understand that. Plus: many comics have a very inhumane definition of adventure, a definition that focuses more on action than adventure, on good guys, bad guys, conflict, violence. Monsieur
's sense of adventure seemed more like the real definition of adventure
to me. Or comics can go the other way to a place of misery. Sad comics by famous cartoonists just seem increasingly dishonest to me. Look: I'm no great or successful artist or "personality" -- I'm absolutely not someone you should be interviewing. I'm a quiet guy with an office job. But I've traveled, lived in different cities, met interesting people. My life in its own small, pathetic way has been an adventure so far, and so I guess Monsieur Leotard
seemed closer to me to the real truth of things.
* Jack Kirby's Kamandi, in a panel recently posted by Khosla to a message board
* Jim Lee draws the X-Men
* a Secret Invasion
* Countdown to Final Crisis
* Marvel's $4, 16-page comic book
* Wally Wood's Total War
* from Hook Jaw
* Jim Rugg draws Plain Janes
* from Lucy Knisley
* from Ed Laroche
* M. Jean
* Bottomless Belly Button
* a Blue Beetle
* prime Jules Feiffer
* 100 Bullets
* a John Paul Leon Winter Men
* the Santoro/Rugg Cold Heat
* from Jack Kirby's "Flower" saga
* a Fear Agent
* [below] from The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard
posted 9:00 am PST
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