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December 21, 2007


CR Holiday Interview #6: Tim Hodler on the Year in Art Comics

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*****

Despite having worked on some of the initial issues of The Ganzfeld, the writer Tim Hodler didn't show up on my radar until the debut of Comics Comics, kind of an ad-less Comics Buyer's Guide if the Spiegelman/Mouly RAW and the Claremont/Byrne X-Men had switched commercial and cultural places 25-30 years ago. Hodler's writing on comics is smart and to the point. It isn't designed to get himself over with a perceived audience. It's not a wedge to get the author's foot in the door for a career writing comics. 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. I was pleased that he decided to talk to me a bit about himself, his work and the year in art/alt comics now fading. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: Where the heck did you come from? Suddenly I turn around and you're writing and you're married to a prominent alt-cartoonist and you're working with PictureBox. What did I miss? I take it you're an artist, or that you've done art?

TIMOTHY HODLER You didn't miss much, really. I'm not an artist at all, outside of the occasional mindless doodle, though I've taken a few courses in drawing here and there. Besides the handful of short comics stories I did as a child, the only comics I've ever published were two stories I wrote and drew in college for my school's student-run annual comics anthology, Bug. Both of them were pretty awkward and sophomoric, though people seemed to think they were funny at the time. I was going for a Doug Allen type of vibe, and was very proud to have successfully figured out how to use a brush.

I attended Washington University in St. Louis, where I majored in English literature (thesis on Dostoevsky and D.H. Lawrence) and minored in religious and film studies. That's where I first met a lot of the people who I still know very well, including my wife Lauren [Weinstein] and my Comics Comics co-editor Dan [Nadel].

In my senior year, I became the editor of the aforementioned Bug, along with another good friend, Patrick Smith, and we actually published Lauren's very first comic strips. At the time, I was also the editor-in-chief of the school newspaper's weekly entertainment magazine, Cadenza, where I published and edited an early column by Dan called Hey Kids! Comics!, in which the young legendary anthologist- and publisher-to-be regularly and strenuously promoted the idea that comics weren't just for children anymore. (I should dig some of those old articles out and post them on the Comics Comics blog to embarrass him some time.) I also asked a really funny guy named Marc Deckter to draw a comic strip for the magazine which I thought was hilarious, though many people seemed to find it idiotic. This fueled my youthful imagination with the idea that Marc was the George Herriman to my William Randolph Hearst. (Last I heard, Marc's now working for John Kricfalusi, by the way, which is perfect.)

imageAfter I graduated, I moved to New York and worked in the book publishing industry for a couple years as a scouting assistant, which allowed me the opportunity to read literally hundreds of terrible and not-so-terrible not-yet-published novels (one of our clients was Oprah Winfrey, which meant I got to read a lot of empowering stories about recovering from domestic abuse). Dan and Patrick moved to New York the following year, and in 1999, the three of us co-founded and edited The Ganzfeld, which, if you haven't read the first issue, was much different then than it is today. We wrote almost all of the contents ourselves (I did most of the unbylined "humor" pieces), and Patrick drew a really amazing wordless comic -- somewhat reminiscent of a collaboration between Jim Woodring and Richard McGuire -- that I still hear admiring comments about from cartoonists to this day. Patrick's gone on to do some very remarkable work in painting (www.smithpix.net) and on the Web (www.vectorpark.com), but apparently got comics out of his system in one go. His new stuff is so great that it's had to fault him for that, but I'm still sorry I never got to read any more of his comics.

Anyway, we got a surprisingly positive and welcoming response to the first issue of The Ganzfeld, but due to various creative disagreements about the direction of the magazine, the partnership broke up. Patrick left after the first issue came out, and I left shortly before we finished putting the final touches on the second. At the time, it all seemed like a monumental tragedy, but I think it worked out in the end. We were all young and stupid (well, Patrick wasn't). Dan ended up turning The Ganzfeld into a fantastic publication of a much more professional and impressive kind, and it eventually led him to PictureBox and all of his various other endeavors. I left book publishing at around that time, and have since worked as a writer and researcher for New York and Details magazines. Also around that time, Lauren was pitching an animated series to Nickelodeon, and she asked me to help her write it. Nothing ever came of the series (more proof of my Midas touch), but it led to us getting married in 2005, so that was good. Around then, Dan and I patched up our differences, which by that time seemed petty and unimportant, and Dan generously asked me to start contributing to The Ganzfeld again, specifically pushing for a long story on Steve Gerber. That ended up not seeming appropriate for The Ganzfeld, but by that point, Comics Comics had been born.

SPURGEON: Can you describe your comics reading from the point it intensified until now? Did you grow up reading comics and the move into different types of comics like a lot of readers? Is there a comics reading experience that you remember as being particularly important in terms of still having a echo effect today?

HODLER You shouldn't ask that question unless you have a lot of time to kill... I was one of those kids who year after year, when assigned to write a research paper or something like that, would always find an excuse to make it about cartooning. I think I wrote the history of comics five or six years in a row for different classes. (It helped that I moved a lot as a child, which helped me to cover my tracks.) I'd check out every book of and about comics from the library over and over again, which gave me a somewhat skewed sense of the form. Because for some strange reason, despite how much I loved comics in general, I very rarely read actual current comic books. I didn't grow up following X-Men or Bill Sienkiewicz or Kevin Nowlan the way Dan and Frank [Santoro] did. For the most part, the only superhero comics I read were the ones my mother bought me during long trips or when I stayed home sick from school. Most of the superhero comics I read came from the historical reprints at the library, so I've read many more Golden and Silver Age Superman and Batman stories than I have stories from when I actually grew up. (I'm more nostalgic for work by Curt Swan and Dick Sprang than I am for work by John Byrne or someone like that.)

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After the library, probably the most important source of comic-book reading for me was a big metal bucket of old comics I found in the basement of my grandparents' farm in Kansas. The bucket was filled to the brim with great 1960s comics owned by my father and his sisters as children, and I used to read them over and over again every summer when we visited. There was lots of Spider-Man (which I loved), Harvey Comics (eh), romance comics (not my thing then), and best of all at the time, Superboy. It was pretty great to read those incredibly bizarre stories about time travel, UFOs, flying dogs, and monsters all converging on a farm in small-town Kansas, all while staying up late at night with a flashlight in a spooky basement bedroom on a farm in small-town Kansas.

Other than that, I was a huge fan of newspaper strips, particularly enjoying Dennis the Menace, Garfield (for a while, I used to clip out and paste the strips into a scrapbook), Bloom County (I collected all of the books and read and reread them unendingly), The Far Side (ditto), and Calvin & Hobbes (ditto). I got a subscription to Mad at 12 or so, and read every issue to pieces for years. I also used to love Cracked, which gave me my first exposure to people like Daniel Clowes and Peter Bagge. It's funny the stuff you can get exposed to as a child through comics. Because no one back then thought of comics as anything other than kids' stuff, the cartoon books I checked out from the library introduced me to things like Little Annie Fanny and Harvey Pekar's American Splendor long before I had any way to understand them.

In high school, I finally started checking out current superhero comics, starting with the X-Men Classic reprints of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's run, and soon branching out into The Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, etc. Once I started buying things like Arkham Asylum and Bernie Wrighton's The Cult, I began feeling disillusioned with superhero comics, and moved on to more sophisticated stuff like Neil Gaiman's Sandman. I think I read Maus for the first time around then, too.

It's hard to remember if I've got the chronology exactly right, but I was a huge fan of The Simpsons back then (I'm one of the few people in the world who prefers the very early, very raw seasons to what came later -- it felt closer in spirit to Life in Hell to me), and I remember buying a stand-alone promotional magazine for the show that included a "top 100" list by Matt Groening. [You can find a typo-ridden reproduction of the list on the sidebar of this Web page] I'm the type of person who will take a list like that and try to track down everything on it, and this was the motherlode. Groening introduced me to many amazing artists and things here, not just cartoonists like Lynda Barry, Peter Bagge, and Jim Woodring, but many oddball movies, books, and music it might have taken me years to learn about otherwise. It didn't take me long to track down every issue I could find of Hate and Eightball (my local comic-shop owner kindly neglected to ask for proof of age), and it was all downhill from there.

Actually, I could easily keep going from there -- I haven't mentioned tons of stuff that had a major impact on me, from The Comics Journal, Crumb, and Bill Blackbeard's anthologies to Schizo and Paper Rodeo -- but your readers' eyes were probably glazing over a few paragraphs ago, so I'll cut it off now before I really wear out my welcome.

SPURGEON: You talked a bit in one Comics Comics post about learning a lot from letters page of alternative comics. How specifically was that experience valuable to you? Was it just in their recommending other comics?

HODLER I might have used a little bit of hyperbole in that post, but the letters pages in Hate, Eightball, and Love & Rockets did have a huge effect on me. When I first started reading those comics, I hadn't even heard of The Comics Journal (and Wizard looked irredeemably stupid to me even as a child), and as I'd never been to a really good, well-stocked comics store, I was barely aware that the alternative comics scene even existed. I certainly had no idea of the extent of it. Most of the books I'd checked out from the library made no more than passing mentions of the underground comics world, and I had only a vague awareness of RAW. Bagge, Clowes, and the Hernandez brothers all ran really great letters pages and supplemental material, leading me to discover everyone from Chester Brown and Julie Doucet to I don't even remember. Everyone, it seems like.

So it was mostly the recommendations, I guess, but also the way they seemed to open up a secret world, full of weird, interesting people who knew all about weird, interesting (and important) bits of culture that no one else around me had ever heard of. For whatever reason, I've always been attracted to the esoteric, and the letters pages and editorial material in those comics gave me a passkey to a world I'd never realized even existed. I was also amazed at the way these cartoonists responded to their readers -- these were regular, funny, smart guys, people like me and my friends. I'd always thought artists were some kind of alien creature before. It was a really appealing concept to a nerdy teenager who didn't feel like he was really a nerd.

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SPURGEON: How did Comics Comics start, exactly?

HODLER According to Dan, it had its earliest origins during a long, semi-intoxicated conversation he and Frank had at Dan's apartment after a long comics-buying spree around Christmas of 2005. Apparently, in Dan's words, they started talking about how no one ever wrote about the "retarded" comics they liked, and half-seriously decided to start a fanzine about them. A few months later, Dan, Frank, and I went to one of those sort-of-depressing Big Apple comics conventions in Manhattan, and it was really amazingly fun. I'd never met Frank before, or anyone like him, really, and it was a complete trip watching as he and Dan sought out the best tables full of old obscure comics, most of which were incredibly cheap because the vast bulk of convention attendees had no interest in them. (The most popular table there allowed attendees to get their picture taken with two half-naked non-celebrity young Asian women. Very creepy.) Anyway, it was a great time. Dan and Frank have forgotten more about comics history than I'll ever know, and they're really inspiring to listen to. They don't think about comics in the same way most people do. I think maybe a week or two after that, Dan asked me to come on board to help edit Comics Comics. It all came together really quickly at that point.

SPURGEON: How do you see the magazine's mission as distinct from everything else that's out there? I'm particularly interested in why you felt a new magazine was necessary instead of your guys offering your voices through other outlets, blogs or a column in an existing magazine?

HODLER I don't know if we really care so much about being distinct as a specific goal, except in as far as we want the magazine to honestly reflect our tastes and interests, rather than just cover whatever comics are the toasts du jour. For the most part, we've tried to avoid covering the big names that already garner most of the coverage in the wider world these days, the Cloweses and Wares and Crumbs and Spiegelmans (though we've written about all of them at least tangentially on either the blog or in the magazine, so it's not a hard-and-fast rule), not because they aren't deserving, but because so much has already been written. They certainly aren't our primary focus, anyway, and when we do write about them, we try to do it from new angles. We also try not to restrict ourselves to comics that are published during a certain period, as most magazines are more or less forced to do by the market -- we don't need a "hook" to write about Frank Miller's Ronin or Alex Raymond's Secret Agent X-9 or Wally Wood's Cannon if we feel like it. Finally, we try as hard as possible to include as many pieces and articles by actual, working cartoonists as we can. That's a really important one for us.

As far as being a magazine instead of a Website goes, we never really even considered it. I mean, all three of us have been influenced and inspired by zine culture, and making money wasn't really a priority. Originally, we were being published by Laris Kreslins, formerly of Arthur magazine, and Comics Comics was intended to work in a similar way to Arthur: as a free advertiser-driven magazine given away in record stores and coffee shops and clubs and places. Surprisingly, advertisers didn't seem to think articles about Ogden Whitney and Dick Ayers were going to appeal to the hip young people with money to spend, which led to some problems, and then Laris ran into some difficulties with his partners at Arthur and had to bow out, so after the first issue, Dan decided to publish CC himself.

I think we all really like having something down on paper in any case; it feels more real than a web site, even though far fewer people probably actually read it. It's also makes it easier to include new comics and art, and publish it on a large scale. We would probably never have gotten to see Justin Green's Perpetual Calendar if we'd been online-only -- that alone is a good enough reason to my mind. We started the blog solely as a way to promote the print version of the magazine, and possibly drum up some more advertiser interest back when that was still a concern. The blog's turned out to be a lot of fun in the meantime, though, and ironically, is now probably better known than the magazine itself. That's okay.

I'm not sure how long we'll be able to continue with this format in the current market (though sales have been very good, all things considered), and we've had some very tentative discussions about eventually moving to a more book-like perfect-bound format that could get us into more standard bookstores, but for now we're going to keep doing it for as long as we can. That we've gotten such a positive response so far has been extremely gratifying.

Oh, and I just realized I didn't answer the part of the question you're particularly interested: why we felt like we had to start a magazine of our own instead of working within existing publications. I can't speak for Dan and Frank, but I don't think it was for any grand kind of reason other than being able to do whatever we wanted without feeling like we had to answer to anybody else. That's why we didn't make any major changes after the first issue made it clear that advertisers weren't going to be interested. I wish I had a nobler answer, but I think that's it -- we just didn't want to be practical about it. And other than distribution issues, there's nothing stopping anyone from doing it this way.

SPURGEON: If Rich Kreiner's recent review of Comics Comics in the Comics Journal was too kind, what would you say he was too kind about? Where do you see the publication improving?

HODLER Oh, plenty of things, starting with my writing, which isn't nearly as incisive as I'd like it to be. I think our line-to-line editing has improved with each issue, but we haven't been as consistent with that as we should've been, which is especially apparent in the first issue. We've gotten better each time out, but we still have a ways to go before every story is at the same level of quality. I've also been amazed that no one has criticized the number of typos and production errors in the second issue, which I almost can't look at without feeling ashamed.

Commentators have generally been far kinder about our ideas and supposed originality than I think we deserve, too, which may say more about the low bar in comics criticism these days than it does about CC's actual quality. In general, I think it all needs to be a lot tighter than it is right now. It would also be great if we could attract a few more regular contributors with interesting voices (we've been very lucky so far, but we still need more). I think it might be fun to have some angry, controversial columnist (one that's actually smart and on point, I should clarify) who gets the whole comics world talking and arguing with every issue. In the meantime, I'm glad that it's improved with every issue, but it's important that we don't stop trying to improve. I'd also love to hear more from our readers about what they'd like to see. We'll probably ignore any suggestions we don't like, but it couldn't hurt.

This makes it all sound like I'm down on our magazine, but I'm really not. I think the combination of our three sensibilities makes for an interesting mix -- we have similar but not identical tastes and bases of knowledge, and three very different ways of thinking about comics. Being a cartoonist, Frank obviously has a firm grasp on the actual mechanics of making comics, and very strong opinions on artistic methods that are rarely widely discussed. Dan's got an encyclopedic knowledge of comics and design history, and is never afraid to take provocative, controversial opinions. Sometimes he can seem a little flippant, and it gets in people's noses, but there's almost always a very smart, well-considered basis to what he's saying. What I mean to say is that Dan's not only knows what he's talking about, but he's almost always right, too. And it's been wonderful working with so many accomplished, talented artists. Writing in the same pages as Kim Deitch or Peter Bagge or Gary Panter is really a great thrill.

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SPURGEON: How would you describe your general critical outlook when it comes to comics? What generally interests you, what makes a good work a great work, or do you even have standards that work that way? If it helps, is there a cartoonist or work or a few cartoonists and works that you champion that you feel maybe not a lot of others support with your passion?

HODLER I'm generally not the type of person who has a single over-arching theory or definition that I use to judge different kinds of comics. A Johnny Craig crime comic works in a different way than a Harvey Kurtzman/Will Elder humor story does, and the humor story works differently than a science fiction story by Wood, and it seems to me that any successful example of any of these three types would work for some very different reasons -- and that's all without leaving the realm of EC Comics!

Generally, though, I think I look for a few things: (1) writing that doesn't insult my intelligence as a reader, (2) art that serves the story's purposes (this obviously works differently with wordless and primarily art-driven comics than it does in other cases, but it's still a general principle for me – the art and the writing should not be working at cross-purposes), (3) work which reflects the personality of the creator(s). There's probably also a (4), (5), and (6) that I can't think of now, but basically I like comics that can make me laugh, feel, or understand something I hadn't thought of before. Or that simply marvel at the skill it took to make me laugh at, feel, or understand something I have thought of before. Those are good comics. A great comic is one you can read and re-read and continue to re-read and always find something new in it. I feel like this is an unsatisfying answer, but a satisfying answer would be different for every comic.

As far as the last part of your question goes, the aforementioned Will Elder gets plenty of lip service, but I wish more modern-day cartoonists followed his example in terms or how he actually worked. I count his stories as among the best of all time, so incredibly dense with detail and life and exuberance. There's so much in every panel, and he utilized the comics medium to its fullest extent, telling stories in a way that could never be told in any other form. His sense of timing alone is marvelous. But it's really the density that I love. There are a few contemporary cartoonists who seem to have really gotten what Elder was doing and have adopted some of his techniques (Clowes, Crumb, etc.), but not nearly as many as I personally would like to see. Of course, there's more than one way to tell a comics story, and I wouldn't want everyone to go down this road, but I still wish it wasn't quite so untraveled.

SPURGEON: Do you really look like Walter Becker from Steely Dan?

HODLER Sean T. Collins is the first person who has ever said so, at least to my knowledge, though I guess I can sort of see it. Becker's got at least twenty-five years on me, for what that's worth. Anyway, you can judge for yourself -- here's a photograph taken recently by a stranger on the subway.

(By the way, despite Lauren's comment to that post, Gene Wolfe is only one of my favorite writers, not my absolute top pick, which varies from day to day -- today, I'd probably go with Stanley Elkin. Also, and this is not really important, but I don't recommend the particular novel I'm reading in that picture, which is Wolfe's first and weakest. The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories (not a typo) is great, though.)

SPURGEON: What are a few of the best comics that you read this year? Why?

HODLER I've made it a general unwritten policy not to talk too much about PictureBox books on the blog or in the magazine, but Dan's had such an amazing year that it's more or less unavoidable this time around. Storeyville, Cold Heat, Maggots, New Engineering, Powr Mastrs: these would all be book-of-the-year candidates for me if I was the type to pick a book of the year. Powr Mastrs especially struck me as maybe my favorite full-length debut in an extremely long time. I haven't been that enthralled by sheer storytelling talent and invention in years. There were some great comics in the latest Ganzfeld as well, and I love Matthew Thurber. Jon Vermilyea's Cold Heat Special was terrific, too, and I can't wait to read future stuff by him. I liked his Princes of Time as well, though I think that might be too old.

imageI think both Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez have been doing incredible work in the past few years, and 2007 was no exception. Love & Rockets #20 was one of the series' strongest issues ever, in my opinion, and Gilbert's output in particular this year has been simply amazing -- I can't really understand how he can maintain such a high level of quality in so many different titles (Chance in Hell, Speak of the Devil). I think people have unfairly overlooked Peter Bagge's Apocalypse Nerd, which got better and deeper with every issue, and eventually turned into something unique and darkly funny -- it's the best thing he's done since the regular Hate series ended. I'm also a big fan of Richard Sala, and am really following Delphine in its serialized form. Gabrielle Bell's new issue of Lucky was terrific -- it's great to see her stretching out and telling different kinds of stories. Mome is starting to come into its own -- I'm still not a fan of everything in it, but it's gone from a maybe-if-I'm-flush purchase to a regular one. The free comic book day giveaway from Lynda Barry was a must-read, for certain. And after a somewhat slow start, I've found myself pretty caught up in Clowes's Mr. Wonderful serial in the Times.

What else? I'm sure I'm forgetting at least half-a-dozen things, even without mentioning all the amazing reprints (Popeye, Fletcher Hanks, Krazy Kat, Dick Tracy, New Gods, Devil Dinosaur, Little Lulu, et cetera) we're blessed with these days. There are many more of those I could name. (I would like to get the Amazing Fantasy Omnibus for Christmas.) I haven't read a lot of the comics that came out this year that I might have wanted to cite if I had (I haven't had a chance to read Elvis Road, for example, or the new Chris Ware books that just came out, or most of the First Second line, among many other things.) Guilty pleasure-wise, I don't think it came out this year, but I really enjoyed the first paperback collection of Godland, which is kind of totally stupid, but also manages to capture the kind of goofy rapture I remember from old superhero comics better than anything I've seen from the Big Two in a long time. I'm not sure if later issues keep delivering the goods, but if they do, and this interview was taking place a month or two in our future, I'd probably list it, too.

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SPURGEON: I want to draw you out a bit further on some of the following.

First up:
Maggots.

HODLER Dark, confounding, exhilarating, intense, inspirational. I think it's one of the most strikingly intimate autobiographical comics ever I've ever read, and it's going to be copied a lot in every way but the ones that count. Readers new to Chippendale are probably better off starting with the more immediately accessible Ninja, but they definitely shouldn't skip this one. And when they do read it, they shouldn't worry about getting everything right away -- it doesn't take long to get past the learning curve, but there's no real way to avoid it, either.

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SPURGEON: Exit Wounds?

HODLER I was really surprised how much I liked this, as it seems like so much art about politically charged subjects like this one potentially is bog down in polemics. The actual book couldn't be further from what I expected. It's really well done. I love [Rutu] Modan's drawings and her use of color, and all of the subtle background details. She has a great sense of character, and the dialog never felt false to me. I did think her narrative control faltered just a bit in the final chapter, as evidenced by the sudden intrusion of a lot of unnecessary first-person narration that felt out of place after the graceful storytelling that preceded it. All the same, this was a really impressive, compelling, funny, and humane book. I will read it again, and buy her next book for sure.

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SPURGEON: What about League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier?

HODLER I think nearly all of the criticisms people have made of this book are true (though not always relevant), but I still really liked it. It's not a perfect book by any means, and it won't convert anyone who doesn't already like Alan Moore, but it might convert someone who doesn't already like the League. Not all of Moore's literary pastiches work (the Fanny Hill chapter in particular felt forced to me), but it reads like Moore was more engaged with the writing of it than in anything I've seen by him in a long, long time (I should admit that I couldn't make it through Promethea, and couldn't bring myself to spend $75 for Lost Girls), and he finally follows up here on the multimedia innovations I've been waiting for ever since Watchmen. The first two volumes of the League are brisk, impressive thrillers, but they're not much more than an uncomplicated comics version of what writers have been doing in prose for a long time (see Philip Jose Farmer's Tarzan Alive and Kim Newman's Anno Dracula for two recent and prominent examples). In this book, for the first time, it felt like Moore was trying to dig deeper (bringing in inspirations like Virginia Woolf was a good idea), and exploring the subtextual implications of his project that he'd previously more or less ignored. I think a lot of people criticizing this book have misunderstood it. If it was meant to be a self-contained epic, they'd be right--the ending would be unsatisfying and self-congratulatory. But it isn't self-contained; it's a source-book, a summing up, and an intermission before the real story starts. It made me want to read the next chapter.

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SPURGEON: Shaun Tan's The Arrival.

HODLER This is a very well-executed book that explores the immigration experience through such a simple and powerful metaphor that makes it very easy to understand why it's struck such a chord with readers and reviewers. At the same time, the fantastic art elements used to depict the alien society are a little off-putting to me in their Myst- and Griffin & Sabine-like whimsy. (It's interesting to compare this book to the sequence from Maggots where Hot Potato goes to Japan -- it's strangely similar in some ways there, though Chippendale's imagery is far less comforting.) The photo-referenced art also feels a little too on-the-nose to me (thought that might be Frank's influence talking), and in general, it feels just a little less complicated in its conception than it should be. At the same time, I think there's a very plausible argument to be made that these were appropriate choices considering the audience Tan was writing for, and on a panel-to-panel level, it's really expertly done. This isn't the kind of book I would buy for myself, but it's the kind of book a lot of other people will love, and they won't be wrong to do so.

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SPURGEON: Storeyville?

HODLER I should probably recuse myself from discussing this, what with Frank being my colleague and all, but since you asked, it's hard not to take the opportunity to plug this book, because it may be the one that made the biggest impression on me all year. I missed it 12 years ago in its original newsprint form, but don't mind so much, because I might not have been ready for it then. I might not have been ready for it this year either, for that matter, if I hadn't forced myself to read it just because Frank's such a great guy (and because I liked Cold Heat so much on re-readings). As Chris Ware recounts about his own experience with the book in his introduction, I found myself similarly disappointed when I first started going through this book. The drawings seemed sloppy, the characters indistinguishable, and it felt like nothing was happening. However, this is one of those cases where you have to let the book teach you how to read it (see Maggots, above). By the time I'd raced through the first half, I was surprised to find myself really caught up in it, and with the intensely emotional experience of the protagonist. My reading pace slowed down considerably throughout the second half, and I decided to start all over again at the beginning before I finished, because I didn't want to get to the end. It's kind of astonishing to me how guys like Frank and Brian C., who have really absorbed the methods of mainstream comics down to the marrow of their bones, can seem so capable of ignoring all the standard rules of comics storytelling and build up entirely new ways of making comics -- and still make it work. This book in particular should put the nail in the coffin of people who talk about "cold" formalism in today's comics.

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SPURGEON: Speak of the Devil.

HODLER I enjoyed the first two issues of this, but wasn't quite as enthusiastic about it as Frank was in his review of the series. After the third issue, though, I was completely on board. That didn't really surprise me, because it's been my experience with many of Gilbert's serial efforts -- each installment builds expertly on the ones before it, and the almost subliminal plot threads (often astonishingly visible in retrospect) build up in a way that allows for shocking (and yet inevitable) climactic scenes. It's too early to pass final judgment on this yet, of course, but there aren't many cartoonists I trust more in terms of delivering the perfect ending.

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SPURGEON: Shortcomings?

HODLER I think this is the best comic story that Adrian Tomine's done to date -- it works really well in both its serialized and collected form, features characters who are often jerks but who are also believable and interesting, and shows just how much a cartoonist can do with the most basic tools of the comic book form (regular grid, the perfectly placed panel image, simple recurring motifs, subtle facial expressions). As with Exit Wounds, I felt like the final chapter suffered a little bit, this time from a romantic rival who seemed to have stepped right out of High Fidelity and an ending that didn't quite feel earned. But there was too much good in this for me to write it off. Tomine's so understated and subtle that he's easy to underrate -- his storytelling skills are formidable, but he rarely if ever draws attention to them. This is a book that repays rereading, so even though it's flawed it counts as a big success for me.

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SPURGEON: What is your take on on-line comic strips in general, and specifically Time's #1 graphic novel of the year, Achewood?

HODLER I don't follow very many online comic strips, which is probably my loss, though most of the ones I have seen are either terrible or are devoted to subject matter I'm not really interested in (a comic strip about purchasing and playing video games would have to be incredibly good to keep me focused). The only two I currently read on a regular basis are Achewood and xkcd, both of which I've only been following for a few months. On a good day, Achewood is tremendously funny, though to call it the best "graphic novel" of the year is pathetic, considering what a strong year it's been. I don't love Onstad's art, but it does the job, and he has a great gift for characterization and dialog, probably the two most important elements in a serialized humor strip. It's not all awesome, though, and I thought the strip he did that apparently made every blogger on the internet have an orgasm was one of the most obvious and lame jokes I've ever read.

Still, Achewood makes me laugh at least once a week, and I have a feeling that as I become more familiar with it, I'll be laughing more often than that. I don't know xkcd that well yet, though I've been ignoring links to it from bloggers for quite a while now. The stick figures put me off for a long time, but it can be pretty clever. Some of the computer-based humor flies right past me, so it's currently still on probation in my Google Reader feeds. I also used to enjoy Perry Bible Fellowship when it ran in the New York Press, but I stopped reading that paper years ago, and always forget to bookmark the online strip. I think I'll do that now.

I'm sure there are other good online strips worth following (especially if I was a hardcore gamer), but I'm kind of happier not knowing about them for now, for no other reason than that I'm not exactly wanting for reading material these days.

SPURGEON: Can you talk about any experiences you've had with manga, how much of it you read, and what you like? Was there anything in 2007 that stood out? Why?

HODLER I do like manga a lot, though I've probably read less this year than I have in years past, for some reason. I loved Yokoyama's New Engineering (which Dan published), Tezuka's Apollo's Song and Ode to Kirohito (I also own MW, but haven't read it yet), and liked Monster. I can't remember if the second volume of Barefoot Gen was reprinted this year or last, but I loved that, too. Dragon Head and The Drifting Classroom are okay, but didn't do it for me to the point where I wanted to keep going with them.

imageYokoyama's like nothing I've read in comics before -- almost clinical in its humor and conception. As I posted on the blog a while back, I think Tom Kaczynski nailed it when he compared it to the appeal of J.G. Ballard's early science fiction. What can I say about Tezuka? I've enjoyed his comics for years, but only started to really get his work on a more than superficial level once Vertical started publishing Buddha. I also bought and read Astro Boy 2 this year, because I heard that it was the inspiration for Urasawa's not-yet-published-in-English Pluto -- and found it tremendously fun. If I had more money and was 20 years younger, I would start at the beginning and plow right through all the volumes. Maybe I'll buy it for my future kids. Monster has so far been compelling enough for me to stick with, but I've gotten to the point where I'm not into serial-killer thrillers unless they offer more than clever genre mechanics anymore. Monster shows hints of being more than that, so I plan on keeping up with it for now. I've also read many volumes of the incredibly violent quasi-medieval fantasy Berserk this year, but I plan on writing about it for Comics Comics 4, so I'll save my thoughts on that one.

Basically, I have nothing but respect for manga, but I don't feel any sense of personal duty about keeping up with it, either. I can easily imagine feeling otherwise if I was 12 years old and had just discovered it, though.

SPURGEON: Is there anything your found disappointing this year, or completely ignored? What about completely misunderstood?

HODLER I completely ignored almost all of the DC crossover nonsense, most especially 52 and whatever its follow-up was called (Countdown?), except for the first three issues of this new Ra's Al Ghul crossover, which I picked up because I thought I'd check in and see how Batman was doing. I don't get the appeal of these books at all, and I think Batman and Ra's Al Ghul are completely workable characters as far as pulp serial figures go. Most of DC's current output seems like stilted nonsense to me, like … what's that television show about the beautiful blonde medical coroner who's psychic and investigates crimes committed by rich people who lead hidden double lives at the S&M dungeon (which the camera lovingly lingers on far past the point where it makes dramatic sense)? That's what DC seems like to me right now, only all the characters are wearing funny tight clothing and masks. I'm sure I'm missing a few good books they are publishing, but I can't find them. Oh, I do like All Star Superman (the only Grant Morrison book I've really liked all the way, though even that isn't much more than good escapist fun), and I've been enjoying the train-wreck qualities of All Star Batman & Robin despite my better judgment. I have ignored Vertigo in general for years. In 2007, I've ignored almost all of Marvel's current output as well, though I think they do have a few decent books. I also ignored all news of comic-book-related toys, sculpture controversies, posters, "lifestyle" magazines, and speculation about movie casting.

imageI was disappointed by the Wally Wood biography, Wally's World, which was written in a very pedestrian style, and featured the most lackluster Chip Kidd cover design ever. I kind of don't believe he actually designed it, but that's what the book says. Wood deserves better. I was also, not disappointed exactly, but underwhelmed by Thierry Groenstein's System of Comics. It's a fairly interesting piece of semiotic theory, if that floats your boat, but it had been hyped for so long as the greatest piece of comics criticism ever that I couldn't help feeling a little let down when it didn't change the way I think about comics forever. I also felt a little disappointed by Rick Veitch's Army@Love, simply because it didn't make me laugh, though it may have improved since I dropped it after the first few issues. I may try and catch up with that when it's collected.

SPURGEON: I don't know how much you follow industry matters, but is there anything about the changing publishing landscape that interests you as a critic? For one, the Hernandez Brothers said goodbye to the serial comics form, which seems hugely symbolic. Do you think comics are healthy? Does it matter how they're published?

HODLER Well, the Hernandez brothers will still be telling serialized stories, right? Just with larger chunks in bound volumes? That was my understanding, but it wouldn't be the first time I got something like that wrong. Still, I get your point, and as a lot of people have noted, it seems pretty huge. Canaries have been dying in the direct-market mineshaft for years now, but when Love & Rockets goes, it does start to feel like there's probably not many more safe areas in the mine at that point. It's definitely the end of an era. It seems pretty obvious that for a variety of reasons that you're more knowledgeable about than I am Diamond's market dominance and policies being a major one), this is a far from healthy time for pamphlet-sized comics from small publishers. Gemstone seems to be another apposite example.

I'm not well enough informed to do more than parrot the conventional wisdom on how DC and Marvel are doing in terms of serial-comic publishing, let alone Dark Horse and Image, but it's obvious that nearly everyone smaller than that is getting crushed. Dan's had to cancel the serialized versions of Cold Heat and 1-800-Mice, and it doesn't seem like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly are doing very much in this form any more either (excepting the Ignatz line and a few stray titles). I don't know -- the signs in general look bad. I wish I had something smarter to say about it, but I don't.

Does it matter? I don't know. The pamphlet-style comic book is a pretty amazing thing, perfectly priced and sized for casual reading. I will personally be very sorry to see it go, and I hope that artists will find some way to continue making them. Even if the format disappears completely, I don't think that will mean the end of comics in general by any means, though (not that anyone's suggesting that), any more than the end of serialized prose literature meant the end of written fiction. It just means there will be a different market, which will encourage different kinds of comics. In fact, in the end, I imagine it will probably lead to more interesting and different new kinds of comics, just as it did with written fiction a century ago. There weren't that many novelists like Charles Dickens who really knew how to utilize the serialized form to its fullest extent, just as there aren't many cartoonists like the Hernandez brothers who can do it that well with comics. This is the optimistic way of looking at it.

On the negative side, longer books mean longer periods without pay for cartoonists, since making comics is so much more work-intensive than writing prose. (I bet we're going to start seeing a lot more "graphic novellas," comics around 100 pages or so.) The cost of publishing is also a lot higher for comics, and it doesn't look like there's really going to be an equivalent to the cheaply priced mass-market paperback (outside of manga at least), which probably doesn't bode well for attracting casual readers. Other than hard-core fans, most people, if they buy a graphic novel, probably won't buy more than one or two a year, and it's possible that the market for graphic novels is going to shrink a little at the same time that it becomes more firmly established in the regular bookstore world. This is pretty far afield from my area of expertise, so please feel free to slap me down if I'm being moronic.

SPURGEON: How do you set about writing about a comic? A lot of your pieces seem very analytical, step by step almost through a comic where you try to see it with fresh eyes. Is that fair?

HODLER I don't know if it's fair or not, but it's definitely a nice thing to say! It's also certainly what I try to do. It's definitely a constant struggle to try and rid myself as much as possible of built-up preconceptions, and write what I really think about the comic, and as simple as that task sounds, I find it an incredibly difficult thing to do. I know I don't always succeed. A lot of people seem to have a tendency to don critical opinions like they're costumes, and there's nothing I hate more when reading criticism than when I read what appear to be parroted, put-on opinions, especially when they're delivered with an air of unchallengeable authority or look like empty posturing. I'm much more interested in intelligent, original thinking about a book or piece of art than I am in a bunch of tired jokes or out-of-all-proportion rants.

Being married to a cartoonist and seeing the incredible amount of hard work that goes into the creation of comics really makes it hard for me to be the kind of person who enjoys trashing art without a moment's thought. There's a Kurt Vonnegut quote that gets pulled out a lot, but I think there's a lot of truth to it: "Any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae." Substitute "comic book" for "novel" and that's still right on. Of course, there's still a lot of room for criticism short of rage and loathing, but I think it's important (to me) to keep the whole enterprise in perspective. (And also, when a comic is created in such a manner that it's closer to a corporate product than a personal work of art, I feel a lot less conscience about criticizing it.)

I would love it if I were a better stylist and could write with as much elegance and multi-layered meaning as someone like Guy Davenport, but I don't really have the chops to write the kind of criticism that rises to that level of art. I do, however, think that criticism that simply and honestly depicts a reader's thoughts about a given piece of writing or art can be fruitful and interesting, too, and that's a more immediately achievable goal. I don't know how much any criticism really matters in the grand scheme of things, but thinking and arguing about stories comes naturally to me, and I enjoy it. I try to take criticism seriously enough to not do a disservice to readers or to the artists I write about, but not so seriously that I worry about doing a disservice to my self-image.

SPURGEON: When I read stuff you've written on older comics, it seems like there's a kindness to them considering their roles as historical objects than there might be for similar comics now. Is that a fair assessment? What do you feel about today's mainstream American comics?

HODLER I think that is probably more of a fair assessment than I'd like it to be. I don't find a lot of pleasure in holding up a forgotten old piece of trash and pointing out its flaws -- anybody can do that. It's a lot more fun (and potentially profitable) to point out qualities that might have been missed the first time around -- forgotten nuances of artistry or technique that still contain power. On the other hand, regarding comics work that is still fresh and contemporary, I sometimes find it difficult to distance myself enough from all of the corporate marketing to objectively respond to it. That's partly why I don't review a lot of contemporary superhero comics very often. Another, more important reason is that most of that material is already dissected a million times over by a hundred thousand bloggers who care a lot more about the latest incarnation of Black Panther than I do.

imageBut I do still like some mainstream American comics. I already mentioned All Star Superman, and (if Dark Horse and Image count) Speak of the Devil, Apocalypse Nerd, and Godland. I've also enjoyed the two issues of Casanova I've read, as well as stray issues of Ed Brubaker's Daredevil and Captain America. Brubaker's an interesting case, as he really seems to have figured out how to deliver the plotting goods, and works well with interesting artists to craft strong, compelling action stories. Sometimes they suffer a little from Hollywood-itis (over-slick plot reversals, under-motivated characterization, etc.), but for the most part I can read his comics without feeling overly stupid. I still don't care much who really killed Captain America, but on the occasions where I find myself idly wondering about it, I know I can pick up an issue and enjoy it. And as I already said, he works with good artists who know how to serve the story. The art and writing go hand in hand, which is unfortunately rare enough now to be remarkable. I haven't read enough of Matt Fraction's work to really comment, but he seems like an interesting, smart guy, and I'll probably pick up more of his comics when I see them around.

I'll probably keep giving Grant Morrison a chance, too, though I'm not entirely sure why at this point. He's a great example of a writer who does not work smoothly with most of his artist collaborators, which absolutely kills his books for me when he's not working with an artist like Frank Quitely or J.H. Williams III, who can pick up the narrative slack. And as I've written before, Morrison may or may not be a great idea man, but he often doesn't strike me as being so great at actually executing the ideas once he comes up with them. Pick up something like the latest Showcase volume of Metal Men for comparison and you'll not only find incredibly bizarre ideas, but you'll also be able to follow the stories and have a lot of fun at the same time. There's no puzzling over, he said what now? That doesn't make any sense! The characters aren't even talking to each other! (Plus, I never get tired of looking at Ross Andru's drawings from that period.)

I'm also liking Lethem, Rusnak, & Dalrymple's version of Omega the Unknown a lot more than I thought I would. There's still plenty of room for it all to fall apart in future issues, but it doesn't have the queasy, slumming quality I usually associate with novelists deigning to write comic books. It's probably not a major work, but it could be the real deal. Paul Hornschemeier's been doing a fantastic job with the color. And I can't wait for Gary Panter's art to start showing up in it.

SPURGEON: In the end, what do you think keeps you reading comics, keeps you coming back to them?

HODLER I don't know if I could put it into words, any more than I could tell you why I keep reading novels, or watching movies, or listening to music, all of which I enjoy doing just as much as I enjoy reading comics. There's a part of me that feels like art of all kinds doesn't really have any kind of practical justification, that it's simply a way for people to escape "reality" and put off tackling the more earthly problems they face. I don't really buy that art can make you into a better person, or that it will improve anyone's life. I think that I go back to art again and again for at least two contradictory reasons: it does offer an escape from reality, and at the same time it allows me the most direct route possible to help me understand the realities that other people experience. There's no better way I know of into someone else's head. As I said, comics is just one of the arts that I find rewarding, but like painting or music or film, it offers its own nuances and formal advantages that I can't find in any other medium. As long as I'm interested in art in general, I can't see why I'd ever want to give up the particular window offered by comics.

*****

* cover to Comics Comics #3 by Sammy Harkham and Guy Davis
* first issue of The Ganzfeld
* a 1960s-era Superboy cover
* cover to first issue of Comics Comics
* a Johnny Craig crime comic cover
* cover to Love and Rockets Vol. 2 #20
* from Maggots
* from Exit Wounds
* from LOEG: The Black Dossier
* from The Arrival
* from Storeyille
* from Speak of the Devil
* from Shortcomings
* from Achewood
* from New Engineering
* cover to Wally's World
* from a Brubaker-written Captain America
* cover to Comics Comics #2 by P. Shaw!

*****

Comics Comics

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