Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 22, 2010

CR Holiday Interview #3 -- Matt Seneca



I hadn't heard of writer and artist Matt Seneca before this year, and getting to read his critical writing on comics over the course of the last several months has been one of 2010's happy surprises. Seneca's work exhibits a mental agility that takes some writers decades to develop and is always thoroughly engaged with the material at hand. I wish we had a dozen like Seneca, writers out there grappling with great works and new ones with equal, considered passion. On the other hand, I think he may be up to the job all by himself. Seneca supplements his more standard single-work reviews with posts on individual panels, samples of his own comics work, and critical crossover team-ups, two of which we talk about below. I really enjoyed how he answered the following barrage of questions, the vast majority of which were on the state of the art form 2010. I think you will, too. -- Tom Spurgeon


TOM SPURGEON: Matt, you're a 2010 Internet discovery for me, where a reader had to ask "Why aren't you linking to Matt Seneca?" before I went and found you. Can you talk about when you started to write about comics in the way you currently, what drove you to start posting considerable reviews on-line?

MATT SENECA: Let's see, I started writing about comics online almost exactly a year ago, in late December 2009. It was something I'd been thinking about doing for a while -- I almost started a blog at the beginning of that year but decided not to -- and I guess I finally took the plunge because it was the end of what I had found to be a really interesting decade in comics and I wanted to participate in the summing-up that was going on around the comics internet. Of course, the flip side of the end-of-the-decade thing was that this year was also the first of a new decade, and I figured if I was going to be part of the 2010s in comics it couldn't hurt to start at the beginning.

imageIt was also just a really inspiring time for me personally with comics. There was about a month there where it seemed like every week was pulling me way deeper into thinking about the medium than I'd ever been before: first it was reading the 300th issue of The Comics Journal, with all the creator back-and-forths on the brass tacks of making comics, then a few days later it was getting the Collected Doug Wright book and having the life of a comics artist presented to me in the most aesthetically satisfying way I'd ever seen it. That and the Dash Shaw/David Mazzucchelli Journal interview got me drawing my own comics again for the first time since I was a kid, which in turn got me focused much more intensely on what the medium is and what it does than I'd previously had cause to be. Just a bit later I read Flex Mentallo for the first time, which I think is probably all anybody could ever need to convince them of the comics medium's importance, then it was the Unclothed Man collection and Afrodisiac one Wednesday after the next, and after that I couldn't have looked back if I wanted to.

It might not seem like there's much of a common thread to all that, but for me it was all part of one big motion: comics finally proving out as active engagement to me after I'd spent years using them as passive entertainment. Discovering those particular books, all of which I think have a common denominator in the way they offer comics as vital, incredibly fun, and artistically accessible, just set me on fire to be coming at the medium as more than just a reader, to be out there doing something in it. It was like that one Paper Rad story in Kramers Ergot: "Now I must make comics." The blogging started as almost an afterthought -- I wanted a place to show the pages I was drawing to some kind of wider audience, and I figured the best way to get it was to offer the same thing I like looking at on the internet, namely long-form comics criticism. It took me a while to really get into writing-about-comics as a creative act, but as far back as I can remember I've wanted to say things about the stuff I read. Encountering a print copy of Josh Simmons' Batman mini-comic was another big moment for me around that same time; as an artistic inspiration but even more so as my first explicitly critical one. I really wanted to write out what's in that book, so I gave it a shot, and from there it was just scanning in images and posting the articles and deciding not to stop.

SPURGEON: I get the sense from some of your interview introductions that your was a life filled with interactions to comics, that you're not one of the newer breed of people getting into comics at a later age. Is that a fair statement? Can you unpack your relationship to comics a bit, how far back it goes?

SENECA: The volume has varied, but yeah, I've had comics around me for a long time.

imageI learned to read really early, and neither of my parents had any interest in the medium, so it wasn't there quite from the start, which I think might be somewhat unique among comics lifers. I'd been reading prose books for a good two years by the time I remember really encountering comics and the way I read was already quite fully formed, so I didn't come to comics as a step toward "real" reading, but as a totally separate experience. Maybe that explains why I like to focus more on the visual aspect of them than the story part, I don't know. Anyway, yeah, I was maybe five or six when I got the Greatest Superman Stories Ever Told book with all the Curt Swan stories and a Calvin and Hobbes collection one right after the other, and they totally blew my little mind... my strongest memories from that period are all asking whatever adult I happened to be with at the moment questions about comics-specific visual devices. Stuff like why the balloons got all spiky (they were shouting) or why there were lines coming out of the characters' backs (they were moving really fast). Having to figure out that visual language for myself intellectually, rather than in the instinctual way I'd imagine it comes to most young comics readers, really got me focused on the way comics construct what they construct, and that remains as much an aspect of reading the stuff for me as parsing the story is even now.

imageSo I was pretty big into comics all through my childhood, but I was big into a lot of other stuff too, and it wasn't until I was eight or nine that they started to take on a more significance for me than any number of other things had. The public libraries in the Bay Area where I grew up tend to have really strong comics sections, and my parents, to their eternal credit, were never at all interested in overseeing what I was reading, so by the time I was a teenager I'd pretty much absorbed all the classic "grownup genre" stuff that so many adult readers seem to get stuck on, the [Frank] Miller and [Alan] Moore and [Will] Eisner and [Neil] Gaiman mainstream canon. I was making my own comics and selling photocopied issues at school there for a couple years too. I also got hooked into the Diamond-distributed, every-Wednesday swing of things when I was ten or eleven because of the X-Men movie, which drove me into a specialty shop and a waiting copy of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's first X-Men issue. Yes, superhero movies actually do create new comics buyers, folks, even when their allowance is a dollar a week.

When I was 14, I was lucky enough to walk onto the staff of what at the time was easily the Bay Area's best comic shop, Comic Relief, owned by the minor local legend Rory Root (one of the most passionate people about comics you could possibly meet, if a completely impossible man to have as your boss; he died in 2008, long before his time) and managed by now-Image Comics executive Todd Martinez. It was about the best place a teenage comics enthusiast could possibly end up: surrounded by comics, working with people who loved them as much as I did, and I got paid in comics for the first year or two, long before that stopped sounding like a really good deal. I guess that's kind of my origin story: I managed the back room, which was a massive, incredibly dusty, back issue-encrusted archive of goddamn near every comic to have come out in pamphlet form since 1955 or so. I filed new books away, I reorganized when the need arose, but mostly I sat on piles of old Diamond boxes underneath a few tacked-up light bulbs that would totally set your hair on fire if you weren't extra careful, and I read. Took about a year on post-1980 genre comics, another year on the Silver Age and the undergrounds, another year on classic newspaper strips, and I was starting Eurocomics and alt-comix when the girl I was dating decided she was born to be an actress and we ended up flat broke in LA, which is about the worst thing that can possibly happen to you as an American citizen.

I worked a comics-industry job here for a while, realized it wasn't for me after a few months of anxiety attacks and anorexia, and when I quit I finally went back to comics as pure reading, not an outgrowth of my job but just fun and edification. After a while I got into the comics internet -- I'd looked at reviews when I worked retail to keep up with the product, but never blogs -- and I went from Tim Callahan and Chad Nevett to the TCJ site and Comics Comics to Jog and Tucker Stone to deciding yeah, I'm going to do this too. Which is about where we came in, I think.


SPURGEON: Can you describe in broad terms the relationship of your creative work to your critical art? Does either provide a different viewpoint that's useful in making and/or articulating thoughts about comics? Has there ever been a time when the approaches have been at loggerheads with you?

SENECA: Oh man... well, in a lot of ways it's like they're totally separate, and in a lot of other ways they're really the same thing. Drawing comics is like candy to me, like doing drugs or something. Just pure transportive bliss. Once I've roughed out a sequence and I know what I'm doing with it I get taken over by a part of my brain that never comes into play when I'm writing anything. It's the same part of myself I use in playing music: I've gone past the ideas and concerns involved in the larger "piece" and I'm just swimming in the surrender/control dynamic of my hands moving, producing creative work as soon as they've touched tool to page. There's nothing of that immediacy in comics criticism (I'll very occasionally get it in my fiction writing, but even there hardly ever), where the process is all about developing an idea. It's a lot like the process I go through when I'm reading comics in a foreign language, actually: I look at the book, I digest what it's saying, then I try to translate that from comics-language into text and draw conclusions about the whys and wherefores of what the book is telling me. Both things are based in reading comics -- that's where I get the inspiration -- but with drawing the fully-formed idea is just the beginning whereas with criticism it's the end goal.

imageIn terms of the two things informing each other, oh yeah, happens all the time. As soon as I can define what an artist's doing in words I have the option of telling myself "okay, now in your next comic you should do that." The kind of close, craft-based reading I do when I read a book knowing I'll be reviewing it later on is the place where I engage with whatever items from the comics-making toolbox that are being brought to bear, and studying their use in search of understanding is like artistic research. In that way my comics criticisms are almost like a diary of what I'm learning about the form, the ways I'm comprehending it and filing it for future use. And of course, drawing comics makes you so much more aware of what's going on with the pages of the stuff you read. I never used to notice things like visible brush grain or anatomical distortion until I was making choices about whether or not to use them myself. You read a page, a panel even, way deeper once you're making them too. So they flow in and out of one another, I guess. Both things go into how I see comics, into my interactions with the medium. Both things bring me closer, make me think about it more. Maybe it's because I started doing both right at the same time, but I can't imagine one without the other.

As for the two conflicting with one another, only when I realize I have to go to sleep at some point. Honestly, I would've liked to have drawn a lot more comics this year, and there's also stuff I wanted to write about but couldn't get to. It's always tough when I have a set amount of time in which I know I can lay out a page or write a review but not both. Blogging's so addictive, too -- when I can slam out a finished product that I know I'll have a few hundred people reading by the end of the day in the same time it takes me to make one incremental step forward in drawing something nobody's going to see for a week, the slow path is a tough one to take.

SPURGEON: Because of your limited window as an active blogger, you may be the most qualified person to whom I've ever asked this question. How do you characterize 2010 for comics as an art form? Did we have a good year, a bad one, an indifferent one? When someone asks later on about that first year of you doing this in devoted fashion, what will you tell them about the times in which you landed?

SENECA: I thought this was a great year for comics. We got some individual books that I think are going to stand the test of time and become classics of the medium (ACME #20, Powr Mastrs 3, X'ed Out, Afrodisiac), we got a few up-to-this-point missing gems reprinted (Captain Easy, more Nipper, Art In Time, a solid chunk of the early, and in my opinion the best Krazy Kat), and on a broader level I think a few really appealing trends surfaced. We got "fusion comics," to chalk a term from Frank Santoro, proving that the Diamond-distribution, specialty shop warhorse still has some kick to it. We got Seth and Charles Burns moving to the serialized-book format, which with its mass-market appeal and increased accommodation of design I think is a pretty swell future for mainstream comics (not superhero comics, mainstream comics). We got two gorgeous straight-to-book-form collections of high-end anthology work in the Unclothed Man and Wally Gropius collections, which is really something new and exciting -- like, if I want to read all David Mazzucchelli's anthology shorts from the past 15 years or whatever it is there's no way to do it but to comb the internet, but with Shaw and Hensley it got put right there. And we got a few artists doing little patches of absolutely brilliant work here and there, from Michael DeForge's appearance-by-appearance takeover of the alt-comix scene to Paul Pope's single, beautiful THB pamphlet to Brendan McCarthy's appropriately bizarre return to the medium.

I guess if I had to characterize it as one thing, 2010 felt like a beginning, with a lot of great new talent emerging, the Golden Age of Reprints moving into real esoterica, the pantheon of old dogs putting out books that had some bracing new tricks to them, tons of disparate influences flying this way and that through a lot of the best material, and a good amount of experimentation with new ways of getting the stuff to its market, from AdDistro to Picturebox's presales to (what seemed to me) a rise in essential books that were sold mainly through their creators' websites.

The one thing that I thought was really disappointing this year was superhero comics. There were some definite bright spots, and I think some of the most beautifully drawn hero comics ever came out this year, but by and large I think there was absolutely no feeling of excitement or forward pull at either Marvel or DC in 2010, and honestly that's always been their biggest selling point for me. Much as I hated the big "event" comics that dominated the genre from 2005-2009 or so -- much as I didn't even read a one of them except for Final Crisis -- the illusion of change they fostered kept the stuff from crashing down under its own weight. It seemed like both Marvel and DC were trying to make this year a back to basics thing to some extent, stripping away the massive marketing platforms everyone's gotten so tired of and just telling simple superhero stories again. But the thing is that the culture that produced those event books -- the fragmentary, elliptical storytelling, the de-emphasis of art, the dependence on one vague overarching plot instead of solidly written scenes and characters, the treatment of the comics as pure product and not as creative work or hell, even entertainment, cause it doesn't need to be entertaining if the fans are buying everything on the checklist, it just needs to come out on time -- it's all really, really poorly suited to telling simple superhero stories.

imageA good superhero comic is, in my opinion, mainly an artist who's passionate, who's experimenting, and who's drawing the whole issue, paired with a story that just makes sense, that doesn't have any obvious holes. And for Christ's sake, it's short and satisfying, it doesn't dunder on and wait for the value of the money you paid for it to prove out in six months and a hundred more pages. It's immediate gratification, it's a hit of populist art that gets you back for more. Since the big Miller/Moore/Gaiman boom a lot of ideas about being more and aiming higher have crept into the hero-comics culture -- both in the way they're produced and in what the fans ask from them -- and that's not a bad thing, I mean we wouldn't have gotten Grant Morrison or JH Williams or Frazer Irving or a lot of what's great about the stuff these days without those lofty ideals. But honestly, if I wanted to read smart comics I wouldn't be reading the kind with Batman in them, and if I wanted to read an intricate, finely crafted story I'd pick up, yeah, a "real book." By the very nature of what they are, all-ages corporate-owned superhero comics can never break through to even ground with the rest of the higher-art material, and when they try it's only good if all the hyper-action, done-in-one, Kirby/Ditko basics are already in place. In my opinion, superhero comics that set themselves up to be epic sagas -- which pretty much everything people got excited about in that genre this year did -- are starting from failure, because that's just not what they're supposed to be.

Boy, I didn't mean to get that far off track... yeah, this was a really great year for comics, despite the minor blemish that the hero stuff turned out to be.

SPURGEON: When we talked briefly about comics that were interesting to you this year, you paired Batman: Odyssey and Deadpool: MAX together. Why? Because I think conventional wisdom would be that the former is representative of a way of doing comics that's lost and the latter may be best seen as a way of doing comics that's never caught on. Is it just their being out of step that unites them in your mind?

SENECA: Ah, some good superhero comics! Those two books being out of step with an incredibly tepid mainstream definitely does make me put them together to a certain extent, but I think there's more to it than that. I guess it's that both seem so aggressively different from what's selling right now, so not part of the multi-issue tapestry approach, and are done in styles that come off really differently from the prevailing mode of over-naturalistic, TV-sitcom-meets-TV-drama superhero comics. They exist as property-driven moneymaking schemes, yeah, but they also seem like legitimate vehicles for artistic expression, places where the artist or artists involved can say the things they want to say in the way they want to say them. That may or may not actually be true, but the impression I get when I read those books is one of joyous freedom -- this unhinged, dangerous feeling that only happens when you read a comic that stars characters that you know are huge corporate moneymakers but you really couldn't say what's going to happen to them next. It's rare as hell, and I think it might be the common thread that unites all truly successful post-Watchmen superhero material, all the stuff that gets over as actual comics and not just comics art. Those two were the books this year that I got that roller-coaster feel out of, the adrenal smack that hero comics do better than anything else. I guess that's why I paired them up: company-owned comics that are also truly unique reads.

imageIn some ways you're right, and Batman Odyssey is just a daffy Bob Haney Brave and the Bold issue transposed in time, all shined up with ridiculously garish digital coloring and an (ostensible) epic thirteen-part mega-plot. But I think there's way more to it than that. First off, Neal Adams is definitely into... maybe not pushing the limits of what you can show in a modern hero comic, but certainly living on the edges of them. Just the juxtaposition of the Silver Age silliness with the ridiculous amounts of gore and gunsmoke in that comic make it something really unique, more extreme in both the light and dark directions than all but maybe two percent of Marvel/DC comics go in either. But not even the weirdest Silver Age stuff ever went this far into straight-up nonsense, into the ridiculously diffuse, impossible-to-follow, not-even-grammatical plotting and narration and dialogue that's such an integral part of that book. Honestly, the only comparison I can see for it at all is in the very furthest reaches of art-comix, the Brian Chippendale/Gary Panter type of stuff, where characters spout off mangled stock phrases because they look kinda cool in the word balloons, but here it's shoehorned into something that's actually trying its damnedest to be an engrossing, long-form Brian Bendis super-serial. I doubt Neal Adams has ever even heard of Brian Chippendale, let alone internalized the guy's aesthetic, and all appearances seem to indicate that this is how he thinks superhero comics go, that this is what you do in them.

If that's true, then Odyssey is some of the most frenetic, crazed outsider art hero comics have seen in a really long time. But there's some stuff that makes me wonder... like, a while ago Eric Reynolds did a post about it on the Fantagraphics blog where he was basically asking "is he serious?" It was a few panels with the most ridiculously charged sexual subtext, like Bruce Wayne staring directly into a cleavage shot in the next panel over while Alfred does that hand motion little kids do to mean sex, that thing with one finger poking in and out of a fist. After that I've really been wondering: is he serious? Or is this some kind of Benjamin Marra thing, some kind of absurdist take on genre comics that knows exactly how ridiculous these tropes are and glories in them anyway? It's impossible to tell, and seeing it all drawn in various states of disrepair by the guy who basically started the modern mode of superhero art (he's dissipated since then, but still) only makes it that much weirder, that much more confusing. That comic is like stepping into an attack of vertigo, which is way better for me than what the rest of superhero comics were like this year -- namely stepping into a room where somebody's watching Lost five minutes before the episode ends.

imageDeadpool MAX, to me, is actually very much superhero-comics-of-the-moment. It's got some definite strains of Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jack Davis satire to it, both in writing and art, and there's a little turn-of-the-millennium Garth Ennis/Warren Ellis fire in there too, but to me it's mostly amplifying the worst tendencies of the most popular writers working in superhero comics these days. It's got lots of Mark Millar's bombastic not-really-transgression and Geoff Johns' splatterpunk immaturity, plus a pretty good amount of the bizarre "gritty" Tarantino/Kevin Smith tone Brian Bendis uses in his comics. And first off, it makes those things work. Seeing gallons of blood and intestines everywhere isn't a problem when it's a character called Deadpool and not Carmine Infantino's instant father figure Barry Allen. Being asked to laugh at rape jokes is fine when the rape isn't also at the center of some kind of stunted "emotional arc" that we're supposed to actually invest in. The Bendis world that fits so poorly with the established Marvel Universe fits in great with a silly context-free, mature-readers-only story environment. But! The fact that it makes you laugh at all this stuff is really powerful, because those are the exact things that are supposed to make the average modern superhero comic really cool and awesome and totally okay for a grownup to read. And David Lapham and Kyle Baker are pointing them up as completely ludicrous.

That comic sells itself to Marvel fans as a funny story set in a superhero universe, but it's really the most vicious parody of superheroes -- modern superheroes, specifically -- that we've gotten in a very long time. And the fact that it also works way better as honest to god snappy, action-packed, done-in-one serialized hero storytelling just increases the fuck-you aspect of it. David Lapham obviously knows what superhero comics can and should be, because he's doing it, but he also knows what they shouldn't be, or at least what's wrong with a lot of them these days, and he spends just as much time showing up the unfortunates as he does vindicating his own use of the genre. And Kyle Baker is doing what I think could end up as career-best work if the book lasts long enough without getting canned. The guy's drawing never ceases to amaze me -- he's melded the pure-cartooning stuff he did on Plastic Man with the most illustrative work he's done since King David, or maybe even his Shadow stuff from back when -- and the way he's coloring the book is just not of this earth, it's like a good decade ahead of the curve. I think if enough people see it Baker on Deadpool MAX could have the same impact Frank Miller on Dark Knight 2 had at the beginning of last decade. It's a real step forward, and since I always focus a lot more on the art than the story anyway, I'd probably be championing the comic if it was as poorly conceived as all the ones it's making fun of.

So I guess my two favorite corporate hero books from 2010 have their similarity in the way they point up how ridiculous the stuff can be while still retaining as much individuality as possible. This year in superheroes had way too much of the former and way too little of the latter, but I think the ways that Adams and the Lapham/Baker team dealt them out was unique and worthy of special notice.


SPURGEON: Is there a difference, you think, in parsing the work from someone who works on-line or in serial comics and someone whose work is devoted solely to the book publishing model? It seems to me that someone like Kate Beaton, or someone like Brendan McCarthy, is more of the moment than someone like Dan Clowes even though they all had work out this year. Is there something intrinsically appealing about engaging with these cartoonists who are constantly offering up work to be processed?

SENECA: Well, comics that come in smaller doses are definitely more of-the-moment than longer works just because they were drawn in greater proximity to their release date, they're closer to what's in the air now. I think that's important. And yeah, there's definitely more immediacy to shorter works. The reading experience is so different from webcomics to issues to books... like, using the three examples you gave, I read a Beaton comic in about one minute, usually while I'm having breakfast. I read a McCarthy comic in maybe 20 minutes or half an hour, so it's something I need to take a little time out of my day to do. I read a Clowes comic over the space of a few days, putting it down and coming back to it again in between doing other stuff. So the Beaton is routine, the McCarthy is a special occasion, and the Clowes is something I live with for a couple days. Of all those methods of delivery, content aside, I think I enjoy the McCarthy way, the little dose of immersion, most. It just works best for me. I can always get the whole thing in one go, but I really get swept away and put somewhere else by the story too. There are definite advantages to short strips and long novels, too: I can read Kate Beaton's comics more regularly than just about anyone who works in print, and there's the opportunity to say more, do more with one work the longer it is.

But yeah, there's definitely a strong, immediate appeal to work that's coming out all the time. You feel like you're a part of something when you're reading it in multiple installments, like you're there as the process is occurring, whereas even if you could read a single-volume graphic novel on the day it was printed, there the process has most definitely already occurred. Getting to ruminate on the ideas as they progress from installment to installment is more satisfying to me than just having them presented as fully-formed as they'll ever be. With Clowes, and with everybody who put out one big book this year, from Chris Ware to Jim Rugg, there's kind of only one thing you can do as a reader and as a critic. You just look at it and go "well, that's the comic," like, "that's Wilson" or whatever, and then make of it what you will. But with serialized comics there are all kinds of other elements at play. You can speculate on how a continued story might play out, or if like Beaton and McCarthy the artist works in quick hits, on where their craft or inspiration might go next. There's even an element of real hope that often comes into it, of wanting a particular progression or more of something you saw last time. I also think the serial format invites a lot more rethinking, and often rereading, than big single works do: wondering about "what's next" so often leads back into what's already there, and before you know it you're firing up the computer or getting out the back issue boxes.

Probably least importantly, but most interestingly to me, I think that serial comics issues in particular engage with the medium's history and its dominant paradigm in a way that webcomics and graphic novels don't and honestly can't. The single issue in comics is like the three-minute pop song in music -- no more or less valid than anything else, but when you interact with works of that particular type you're interacting with a more vital format than, say, an opera or a thirty-second noise track. The mere fact that such an overwhelming majority of American comics material has been and is still published in these weird little pamphlets that nothing else done in any medium quite looks like makes me more eager to go into it than webcomics, which honestly are still pretty marginal in comparison, or graphic novels, which often don't go for the same populist "comics" audience as direct-market issues do.

I think there's an incredible romance to the career narratives that pamphlets end up constructing. Like, what did Clowes do this year? One word: Wilson. What did Beaton do? Her webcomic (well, plus that one Strange Tales story, but just roll with my point here). What did McCarthy do? He scattered gems -- a couple of brilliant little shards in random Marvel anthologies that you'd never guess hid beauty by their covers, a Ditko homage unceremoniously jammed into the middle of an ongoing Vertigo series, a big hyped Spider-Man miniseries that got nowhere with the sales charts, and a feature in the most popular English-language comic nobody who lives in this country can see, 2000AD. There's a real sense of adventure to that, a story about the artist and how he's faring in the market. And I love experiencing that story, I love trying to figure out the logic behind Brendan McCarthy's near-farcical return to comics as it plays out. I even love the apocryphal stories of the ones that don't get published -- everything promised by the concept art for the Spider-Man: Fever 2 pitch that got turned down, the strange hiccup of that "Fubar" comic he drew but isn't going to publish because he wants to get paid up front for it -- I'd love to read the actual comics more, but it certainly adds to the weight whatever the next McCarthy story I end up reading is going to carry. There's just more to be a part of with serial comics, with creators who work in short-form bursts rather than long-form opuses, and even though the work itself can be limited by the format, I find enough enjoyment in the stuff happening outside the pages to more than make up that deficit.


SPURGEON: What exactly made this year's Krazy Kat the best Krazy Kat?

SENECA: I just think it's the best stuff Herriman ever did. Much as I love the later Krazy Kat Fantagraphics has been reprinting for the last decade or so (especially the color strips), there's so much more going on in the earliest ones. Those strips do more with single pages than any other comics I've ever seen -- they're frequently 15 or 20 panels long, the layouts are immaculately designed without ever doing anything but enhancing the reading experience, and they tell full, engaging, immersive stories in a way no other single-page comic has since. It's all the elements of comics fit into a tiny amount of space and laid bare; there's a definite beginning, middle, and end to pretty much all of those strips, with rising action and character moments and jokes and asides, and it almost always manages to interact with the formal properties of the medium in interesting ways. Herriman at his most wildly, ostentatiously virtuosic, not resting until every installment had expanded what a comics page could be.

Plus, the stories are more immediately interesting than the single zen-mantra brick gag it all boiled down to in the comic's later years. I love that stuff, don't get me wrong, but reading a book full of the '30s and '40s Krazy Kat is kind of like knocking back a bunch of Ezra Pound's Cantos in one go. It's beautiful, it's challenging, it expands your mind beyond a doubt, but it's exhausting and you just can't do it too often. But the earlier strips are like Mark Twain stories or something, fast-paced, energetic, full of populist character and warm, immediate wit while remaining devastatingly literary. And the plots are way more variable and novelistic, with a lot more that happens and a lot more that going on in between. Some of the pages don't even have the brick! The early strips are almost shockingly approachable if you're only familiar with the later ones. While the color years of Krazy Kat were pure stylism, dada language and self-referential non sequitur gags, the early stuff is a master raconteur at work, spinning the tallest of tall tales around this fascinating cast of anthropomorphic creatures. It's so easy to get lost in. I've read that book through twice now and both times I've had to actively force myself away from it when the time came to do something else -- it's almost impossible to stop yourself from reading "just one more". I had a party at my house the other week and I had left that book out, and sure enough -- one of the artistic types I'd invited over opened it up, and pretty soon half the people there were crowded around as she read strip after strip out loud. Not one of them was a comics reader. That's just magic.

Once Herriman narrowed his focus to one thing alone he gained clarity and power, but seeing him full of more stories and ideas about the form than anyone to have ever done comics (except maybe Eisner on The Spirit), spraying them around like crazy while making it all fit into these tiny little units, is just jaw-dropping.

SPURGEON: Can you dive into what specific qualities about Afrodisiac excited you? Because I think that's a book that people enjoyed, just without quite knowing wht they enjoyed about it. I remember your review, and what I found convincing about it is the notion you put forward is that it was more about creating a believable reality for the comic book than the characters within it. I was less convinced by the notion that the comics that were recalled in its pages had the power you ascribe to them, that being sent back to those comics through its pages was a trip worth making.

SENECA: Well, I also thought that the world-building was a more interesting, and probably a more attractive part of that comic than the stories themselves. That said, I read Afrodisiac before I'd seen either Night Business or Real Deal, so my only point of comparison was something like Brian Azzarello and Richard Corben's Cage, which wasn't nearly as hard, as funny, as anything. Having now read a fair amount of more intense "urban terror" comics (or whatever you want to call them) than I had when that book first came out, it's not quite as shockingly weird to me, but I appreciate the way it stands up as rock-solid superhero comics a lot better. Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca nailed the plain old "action story" time after time in that book, and that's always something I'm going to be interested in reading. Plus, Rugg is a really incredible cartoonist, and the way the context he created allowed him to work in different styles, experiment with color and page formatting in some very cutting-edge ways, and do more straight art/design work than most comics have room for was a joy in itself. It's not Chris Ware or Alan Moore, but it isn't trying to be. It's trying to be, like, Steve Gerber and Paul Gulacy, and it delivers the same skanky punch as those guys' best while also succeeding as formalist comics.

I wish there'd been a little more of the explicitly avant garde to it, like the way they used the art fragments and ads and design pieces to actually create a story at the very end was my favorite part, but in a year with precious little solid, well-drawn action material to choose from, the fact that Afrodisiac laid down a big book full of it, and in such a sublime package and novel context, really made it stand out for me. Yeah, the characters weren't as engaging as the setting (or the, uh, "meta-setting" of sleazy '70s back issues), but I think that's probably true of most action comics. Powr Mastrs is the same deal, and so is all Frank Miller's stuff and Darwyn Cooke's stuff and Brendan McCarthy's stuff and the best of Eisner and Steranko. So few things can happen in comics about fighting that the style it gets laid down in usually ends up dictating the vast majority of my enjoyment.

This was the one thing I didn't mention in my Afrodisiac review, but I also found the book's racial component pretty interesting. First of all because it was so directly jacked into blaxploitation, which isn't really something I've ever directly experienced. I've never bothered to watch Super Fly or any of those movies, and I haven't made it a priority to track down any Power Man back issues either. I think that's true of a lot of people my age, where blaxploitation is something they know about but don't feel the need to go back and actually engage with. If I can make what might be a dubious comparison, what Rugg and Maruca were doing reminded me of what a lot of modern pop bands, your Glass Candy and Corpse Thing and Health and whatnot, do with disco -- paring down all the substance and just making it a caricature of itself, but in the process shining it up to work for a generation that's never experienced the original thing. That's one aspect of it. But then there was also a real tension to the more outre moments, where Afrodisiac is like, pimping out young and vulnerable white girls or surviving falls from skyscraper rooftops by bouncing off his afro. I mean, I'm from Berkeley so I might be overly conscious of the politically-incorrect, but there's an added layer of nail-biting, "is-this-okay" interest to the stuff for me when I know it's coming from two young, sarcastic white guys. As another young, sarcastic white guy I feel pretty ill equipped to unpack the deeper racial dynamics at play in Afrodisiac, but just knowing they were there gave the stories something extra.


SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you a few questions about ACME #20. I thought you were onto something fascinating when you talked about how the space between the pages had more to do in this work than in maybe any other I've ever read. Can you talk about the way the move between the individual pages worked for Ware in this work?

SENECA: I was really struck by the way Ware used the individual page as a unit. Just the fact that it was a book made up of one-page strips that formed an overarching narrative was novel and interesting, but what that did to the interactions between the pages was, I thought, well worth studying. You really flip through most comics, whether you're reading Green Lantern or Charles Burns. The story's one continuous process that starts at the beginning and ends at the end. Whereas this Ware book (a collection of previously published newspaper strips, as far as I'm aware) works on a different level. The gaps between the pages -- in graphic style, in subject matter, in tone, in story time -- are almost always considerable, and only the smooth progression of certain ideas that weave through them holds it all together as being the same story. Most comics' action mirrors life as it's occurring, an uninterrupted flow of movement, but Ware mirrored memory instead, with little bursts of sensation and image and dialogue fading out as quickly as they pop up.

For an epic story -- and ACME #20 definitely is that -- such a compressed, elliptical approach is a pretty avant garde tack to take. I can't imagine it working in any medium but comics. What Ware did was to really reduce each page to a subdivided "panel" of its own, one complete idea inside a rectangle, and told a story with, what, seventy-two complete ideas and none of the between-action linkage we're used to seeing in the medium. I'm almost tempted to compare it to that one all-splash page issue of Walt Simonson's Thor, but I'm not that ridiculous. There's a similar concern at play though, telling a story by focusing only on the most iconic, memorable snatches of content and letting the reader stitch it together. In pretty much any other comic you care to name, the move between pages isn't something that affects the story much at all, but here there are massive gulfs between all of them. I felt a lot more deeply engaged in the comic due to that, because it's the same way of approaching the medium that I use when I draw my own comics. One page is the project, and I go into it as deep into it as possible, then I surface and bring a new idea to the next one. Which is what Ware was doing. Now, I'm not saying all comics work that way, or that they should -- like, superhero comics done in that mode would just be impossible -- but there's something pretty powerful to making every page work that well on its own and then starting all over again on the next one. The way it got me to look at the comic was very different, very satisfying.

SPURGEON: One thing I thought thrilling about ACME #20 was that it may have a deep case of the unreliable narrator -- the fact that Lint switches his mother in for his step-mom completely threw me for a loop, and had me scrambling for other instances where we may be getting Lint's rewrite on a matter rather than the objective reality. It also seemed to me to underline the fact that Lint's selective memory, what he chose to carry with him and what he chose to leave out, were choices more horrible than any of the more explicit ones made in print. Did you detect a similar strain of subjectivity throughout, and if so, what did you make of it in terms of the overall work?

SENECA: Oh yeah, definitely -- I mean, what's the main character's name again? I've gone through that book like four times trying to figure out whether there's a logic to the Jason/Jordan switch-ups, what it's all in aid of. Of course, if I had cracked it I'd be spouting off about it here, but no. I think it might just be there to reinforce the narrative's total subjectivity. There's a definite sense of being inside the mind of a character in the book, rather than looking down onto the book itself. I thought it was really interesting that for all the immense amount of visual metaphor and counterpoint and contradiction in that comic -- for every drawing that isn't "what's actually going on", and there are a ton of them -- it's all sprung from the mind of one character, it's all how Jason/Jordan (I'm a just call him Lint) is filtering the world around him through his thought process and past experiences. It's a deep, deep psychological portrait that needs to expose us to that subjective, intra-personal view of Lint to work the way it does.

As for the things Lint's rewriting/reimagining for the audience's benefit, yeah, I was going back to find more of them too. I think that'll probably be a big aspect of the remaining installments of Rusty Brown -- like, how's the invincible guitar god teenage Lint sees himself as going to look to his first girlfriend? How's that awkward half-page supermarket encounter going to look when we experience it through Rusty's eyes? There was a really jarring aspect to finding out we'd essentially been lied to about certain things once the book was well over half finished, because even though I think Lint is presented as an essentially human, good person who tries and often fails to do the right thing, we get a lot of the bad in him laid right out for us to see. The revelation that he was hiding much more horrible, painful memories than were actually presented was a really effective moment. And yeah, you've hit the nail on the head: the fact that he chooses to hide those worst moments from us is the story's contradiction, the ebb tide that makes us think he might be a truly bad person after all. We've all got that negative conviction inside us, second-guessing even our noblest actions as selfish or ugly in some way, truly believing that the person we are is not good, and seeing it here really enhanced the personal, "felt" quality of the narrative for me. I think that quality is what makes this comic Ware's most accomplished work to date. He's been emotionally devastating before, but he's always put his characters flat on the page for us to look into, never rounded them out so fully that we're thrust inside to look out of them. It's a riveting, unforgettable experience.


SPURGEON: Two things about the quality of the art in ACME #20. I couldn't quite tell from your piece how explicitly you thought Ware was building new storytelling strategies out of these existing vocabularies. Was it always conscious, do you think? Does that matter? And can you give me an example of an area you thought the borrowing went beyond appropriation and actually into the creation of a new way of storytelling, as you discussed?

SENECA: Well, I think any time an artist puts Roy Lichtenstein in comics they're going beyond what that guy did, because he didn't tell stories. Ware definitely went the furthest with it that I've read, though -- he did stuff with the pure red-and-white benday, the Lichtenstein shorthand, that I've never seen before. I thought the place the borrowing seemed most transparent, least innovative, was on the pages where he used Richard McGuire's style -- maybe just because it's so recognizable, maybe because it's so straightforwardly a Ware Comic that uses the McGuire Look. He doesn't really switch up his usual layouts or anything, he just kind of sticks that art into them. Which is fine, it's an unqualified joy to read, and hey: I wish Richard McGuire would actually draw some comics sometimes, so seeing pages that aped him so convincingly was excellent. Also, McGuire's definitely the least known of the artists Ware quoted in the issue, so I'd imagine not everybody had the immediate "oh, it's that guy" reaction I did to that part.

The place I think Ware really, really outdid himself in taking his influences to a new plane was in the Gary Panter/art-comix passage. First off, there was just a fusion of so many different avant garde comics makers' styles in there -- I call it the "Panter part" because Panter's who Ware thanks in the acknowledgments, but there's some CF to the figures and faces, the "scroller" format from Dash Shaw's printed BodyWorld, a good bit of Yuichi Yokoyama in the shapes and some of the lines, some Brinkman in the picture where Lint is all made out of bricks, even the red linework from that one Joe Grillo section in Kramers #4. The fact that Ware is able to come in, being who he is, and just "do art-comix" in the way guys like JH Williams and Frank Quitely "do superheroes", mixing and matching all the best from an entire idiom, is just astounding. And the way he laid out those pages, the verve and impact and dynamic force he brought to those stylistic affectations, was really incredible. If I looked at those pages out of context, without knowing they were Ware pages I would just be blown away by this masterful new voice, but knowing they are Ware pages I can really appreciate how he melds his layout tricks with Panter's, especially, to make them tell their story in a really intense, hysterical, but perfectly clear way.

As far as whether or not all the borrowing was a conscious choice, given everything I've read from the guy, I'd say yeah. He's obviously a voracious collector of influence and style -- have you seen those sketchbook pages where he'll just draw like Herriman or Schulz or Frank King to absorb what they do? I can imagine him creating a page with, like, a similar storytelling scheme to something Caniff did once by accident or something, but the fact that the artists echoed in the book are some of the ones Ware's most enthusiastic about -- well, I dunno about Lichtenstein, but McGuire and Panter anyway -- can't be a coincidence. I kept waiting for a Jerry Moriarty section. The one thing I do really wonder about is whether it looked that much like Quitely on purpose or by accident. I have trouble imagining Chris Ware sitting down with his We3 back issues to learn some drawing lessons, but if he was going to absorb anybody working in the mainstream, I think that'd be the guy.

SPURGEON: You seemed to have a pretty strong personal reaction to seeing the scope of this character's life; you seemed to find solace in the length of it and how that might soften but not destroy certain more painful present realities. Is that a fair take? Can you talk a little bit about how Ware's comic hit you emotionally? Because that's not something that's generally said of Ware's work.

SENECA: Well, first off I think the whole "cold, emotionless" thing that gets ascribed to Ware so often is not only wrong but unfathomable. Like, did they read the comics? I discovered Ware just as the hardcover ACME started coming out, around the same time the big red compendium book from all the previous issues was released, as I recall. And not knowing anything about Chris Ware, I was thunderstruck by the emotional pull of even the simplest gag strips in that book. The "Big Tex" and "Rocket Sam" comics are some of the most deeply felt, heartbreaking work I've ever seen in the medium. People say that stuff's sarcastic because of the typically comedic formula and the genre tropes it uses, but I think that says way more about those critics' lack of imagination than the material itself. I mean, when I'm lonely the feeling is a lot more like I'm marooned on a beautiful alien planet shooting out the light of the moon than it is like a Wes Anderson movie. The other knock on Ware is that his stuff is just "depressing", which at least has basis in the actual comics, but how can something that beautiful only be sad, even if the characters in it are? Every time a new issue of ACME came out between #16 and #19 -- and I don't want to sound totally cheesy or anything, but here goes -- it would really remind me to appreciate what I had, to believe in the power of love. All Ware's sad people are presented as having the potential for great joy if only they can find someone to share themselves with, and when they do, well, they live in such a beautiful world.

ACME #20 was pretty different for a few reasons though. It follows a fairly unhappy life from cradle to grave, showing us a lot of the best but ending on a bitter, perhaps even cruel man who's been estranged from his family, dying alone. I mean, fuck! Ware goes through and makes love and happiness more than just potentialities, he puts them in the story and shows them really happening as they play out, fade, and end. This one doesn't invite hope through pain, it shows us everything and then it stops. There is no more. You turn from that last blank page to the back cover and it's the final "I am" of the text flipped around backwards, like a decal on the wrong side of a window, telling you that if you want some affirmation or hope you better just go back in and look at what you've already seen, because the one life is all there is, it's all you get.

Now I'm going to try not to totally spill my guts here, but outside of uh, comics, 2010 was easily the worst year of my life. I went through a really messy broken engagement, and after that a lot of other really horrible aftereffects I'll refrain from mentioning because I'm not a rock star, and the upshot is that for the first time I've been dealing with not wanting to remember my past, not wanting to have lived big chunks of the past five years or so. That this comic presents exactly that, a life so full that huge sections of it have drifted off and only the little gems we see are remembered, was heartening in kind of a rock hard way. And then that the best memory and the worst memory from Lint's teenage years -- the years I'm having trouble living with my own memories of -- are with him in his final moment, and that he's glad to see them, glad they happened if only at the moment of his death, well, I'd rather wait that long and have that than regret them forever. On the one hand I plan to live at least to the age of 120, since I can't bear the thought of my life already being more than 1/6th over as of now, but on the other hand, if I do I really hope the memories flatten out like Lint's did, that it all reduces down to one idea or one feeling per year and I get left with only the grit and substance of who I was now rather than endless replays of poisoned moments.

imageThe idea of waiting until the end for the final vindication of everything that's led up to it was also strikingly similar to the thing I had kind of pinned my hopes to: I've been studying something called "red shift", which takes as its starting point that the universe is constantly expanding. The idea is that at some point, like all things, it will cease to expand and begin to contract, and when that happens the arrow of time will reverse, and everything that has ever happened will play itself out once more, in perfect backward progression. If ignorance is bliss, red shift is the kingdom of heaven: we will live again, we will spring up from our graves, and knowledge and ideas and memories will disappear one by one from our minds with the lines from our faces -- and these words will disappear all at once from the screen you are reading them on, and then from my screen one by one as my fingers begin typing them -- and then, finally, once everything that's come and is still to come has vanished, the woman who once loved me will love me again. If something better wants to come along in the mean time that would be very nice, but right now that's what I'm set on waiting for. I saw the final two pages of ACME #20 as a strikingly eloquent version of the red shift process in comics form, and if that's how life ends up, it will have been worth it completely. This one doesn't tell you to hope, it assures you that everything comes right in the end. Which really hit home with me as I read it.


SPURGEON: You did a couple of long discussion pieces with near same-age peers Jog and Sean Witzke, mostly about Jim Steranko. Can you talk about what you learned in each dialogue? How valuable has it been for you to reach out to other younger comics critics and be able to discuss comics with them? How much do you see your work as initiating discussion and how much do you see it as a summary statement linked to a particularly place and time?

SENECA: Those two collaborations were really different... with the Jog one, which came first, it was mostly about trying to level up a little. I was starting to see my name around more, starting to get a little bit more traffic on my site, and it was kind of about me asking myself "well, how good am I really?" Like, how much of whatever good I'm doing can I actually measure up against the work of other comics critics? And Jog is, in my opinion, at the top of the heap. I'd easily put that guy on a list of five best comics critics of all time, probably top three. So if I'm going to measure myself against anyone, he's a pretty good choice. I wanted to see if I could share a playing field with him. Plus I'd been having a lot of trouble getting that Kirby/Steranko article going by myself, and he brought more than enough inspiration and knowledge to make it everything it possibly could have been. The thrill of just working with one of my heroes was also a part of it, watching the words appear on the screen as he typed them... pretty cool. I guess if I learned anything from that one it was just that I needed to be working harder, writing better, coming at what I do with the same level of clarity and focus Jog does with his work.

With the Witzke one, he approached me after we'd been emailing and talking on twitter for a while, basically asking if I wanted to do with him what I'd done with Jog. So for me at least that one felt more organic, it wasn't as much making the conscious decision to test myself as having fun with a piece of work I'd kind of fallen into. I think Sean Witzke, while he isn't as versatile a critic as Jog (I'm not sure anyone is), is an incredibly interesting, pretty individual voice in comics criticism. He's not only interested in comics, and he lets his experiences with other forms of pop culture spill over into the way he approaches this particular medium. Given that I share a lot of his outside-comics interests, I really enjoy seeing the way he makes like, Scott Walker albums and Bond movies and Enki Bilal books interact. If writing something with Jog got me to really focus, working with Sean got me spreading out again, thinking about ways that as wide a range of topics as possible could be pulled into a discussion on a pretty narrow subject, namely 20 pages of Steranko comics. Both were great exercises that I thought really made me better at doing this, and I'm really happy with how they both turned out as articles too.

The little community of comics bloggers that I've become kind of a tangential part of is really cool, something I'm glad to have experienced. There are a lot of terrifically smart people writing about comics on the internet, and swapping ideas and tidbits and gossip with some of the smartest has made me not only a better writer, but a better thinker about comics in general. The sense of writing into a total void that I dealt with for the first half of this year's been replaced by the knowledge that once I finish something, people I respect and in a lot of cases look up to will be reading it. That's a way nicer place to be working from. It's also pretty neat to have made what feel like friends, even if I'll never see or talk to any of them in person -- I don't have anybody to talk comics with in my day-to-day life, and it's cool knowing that if I just gotta say something about that new Bulletproof Coffin issue there are people out there who'll hold up the other side of the conversation. I think on some level we do everything for validation, and getting validated this year by so many people I whose work I really like felt pretty good.

In some ways I think my writings-about-comics are very definitely linked to their time, anyway (place I'm not so sure about, though I know I wouldn't have easy access to half the stuff I do if I lived in a small town), because I'm mostly talking about current releases, and even when I'm not they're often reprints or stuff I'm comparing to newer books. I try to keep my writing up as much as possible with the prevailing tones and themes of the medium, the stuff that's making it interesting today. So I guess it's very of-its-time in that way, but I hope that the broader scope of what I've done this year lays out some kind of blueprint for aesthetic appreciation of comics that'll last after New Year's hits. I try to lay down threads between my articles or reference back to concepts I've already laid out as much as possible without getting too self-referential, and I'd like it if in a decade somebody comes to look at my comics criticism and follows all those links and article tags, they'll be able to understand how I feel about comics, how I see them, what beauty they hold, what I think they are and can be.

As for any discussion my work initiates, if it isn't in the comments section on my blog there's no way for me to know. Which might be a good thing! I guess everyone's less privy to what's being said about them than what's being said about everyone else. I certainly hope people talk about the stuff I write, and if anything I've done gets even one person thinking deeper or seeing in a new way then I'd be glad to have done a thousand times the work.

SPURGEON: Have you thought about your own participation interacting with comics one, three, five years from now. I hesitate to ask you this because it seems like you're in the midst of that first big, passionate surge of interest that most writers about comics have, but do you ever think about the comics-writing part of your life in vocational terms, what role it's going to play in your life as you move forward? How long should we expect to have you around?

SENECA: As long as I stay interested, I guess. I think in a year or two I will have read most all of the canonical works I'm interested in, and a year or two after that I will have written about all the ones I want to write about. After that I suppose it'll be more about keeping up with what's new and what's being reintroduced or translated. Though the nice thing about comics is that every quarter bin has something in it that's just waiting to knock somebody over. There are always the unexpected discoveries, but I make less of them as I go on. I'm okay with that.

What role this is going to play in my life -- I really couldn't say. I love the community that writing about comics online has brought me into, I love having people who are as passionate as I am reading my stuff, and quite often I love the act itself, feeling ideas come to fruition, defining what exactly I saw or experienced in a comic. But the fact of it is that I could never do this alone. I can only justify criticism to myself if I'm also creating work at the same time, whereas I could be quite happy only writing novels or only drawing comics. If it ever comes to that decision, I'd choose creating works from thin air in a heartbeat. I have a great time sharing my ideas about other people's comics with the world, but I have other ideas that are more important to me than anything that ends up on my blog. Maybe people will see some of them when I start serializing the book I just finished writing online.

But on the other hand, I don't feel any more or less interested in comics these days than I ever was. I'm closer to them now, I guess, and writing about them and drawing them has definitely given me a new appreciation of just how deep the medium can run -- but almost as far back as I can remember, one of my favorite feelings was opening up a comic and getting lost. Still is. If I ever lose that, I'm gone; on to something else that can make me feel with the same weight and power comics do now. But I don't think I ever will. And as long as I can get this swept away by comics, there will always be something I find the time to say about them. Whether I'll always do it to the tune of 15 articles a month or not is another question, but as long as the medium stays beautiful -- and how could it not? -- I'll be around.


SPURGEON: You spoke earlier about comics in 2010 as a beginning. If this is the beginning, where does comics take us in the next few years? Are you going to be there to meet that future? What excites you most about comics' future right now, and what might be something you think will be a factor -- a cartoonist, a format, a technological innovation -- that isn't on everyone's lips?

SENECA: Boy, hard question! Honestly, I think the future of comics is going to be way more fragmented than anybody's really planning for. Already the days when the Dan Clowes reader and the X-Men reader went to the same place for their fix is gone, and I think as the big chain bookstores die and "curated retail," both in the bigger cities and on the internet becomes a more and more viable option, we're going to stop seeing any connection at all between the people who read superheroes and the people who read manga and the people who read alt-comix. The idea of an overarching "comics community," I think, has been passe for a while. What does Dan Slott have to do with Taiyo Matsumoto have to do with Olivier Schrauwen? Not much, not even the places they're sold in.

But that said, I think the loss of creative/fan community ties will break down any and all borders between the various strands of comics for readers who want an entry point into the medium. It seems like as the markets that actually sell the stuff pull away from one another, there are more and more readers and critics who see it all sans genre, sans context, without any of the divisions and the petty infighting that everything being so close to everything else made a part of comics for so long. If somebody wants to "get into comics" these days, odds are they'll use the internet, and it seems to me pretty likely that they'll find a website like Comics Comics or The Factual Opinion or 4thLetter! discussing the entire scope of the medium as one big thing, and they won't see any reason not to start their experience with Jamie Hewlett, Katsuhiro Otomo, and CF all at once. Or Tezuka, Hergé, and Eisner. Or Miller, Moriarty, and Moebius. With the big hubs like eBay and Amazon the possibilities are endless. I just hope more critics can shake the "I liked this but I don't want to write about it because _____" mentality. I'd like to think that everyone who's writing about comics on the internet is a potential tastemaker, not in the tacky Top 40 sense of the word but in the very real sense that somebody may see what we have to say and decide to check something out based on it. I write about plenty of comics I know no one reading my site's going to have read, or that I know a lot of them are going to hate, in the hopes that some of those people will go see what I'm blathering on about and get what I got out of it. It's worth a shot! And as the direct market dies and the internet becomes people's main point of access to the world of comics, I, at least, want to be telling them about what I think is the best the medium has to offer. No matter what it looks like, no matter the context, no matter what it may be.

So I guess I'm certainly trying to be there to meet the future. If it wants to meet me, anyway, it knows where to find me (just google my name, ha ha), and I'll be doing my damnedest to stay in step with it. I'd also quite like to be a part of the medium's creative future, but I'm honestly not really sure how to make that happen other than to keep doing what I'm doing, drawing the pages and posting them up. I'd really like to be publishing on a wider scale than that, but I don't have the money to do mini-comics of the kind of stuff I'm drawing (big and in color), the kind of comics I like to see and read. And I don't guess the work I'm making is stuff that anyone publishing other people's comics would be much interested in. In the end as long as I'm getting better, that's what matters most to me. If people want to see the pages, again, they know where to come.

imageI guess I'm most excited about what's going on in the cracks between the two mainstreams of American comics, right where I like to hang out. I think superhero comics are pretty much creatively dead as a serious story medium now that Grant Morrison's gone off the rails, and the only reason the great artists are still working on them is for money and recognition that's slowly drying up. All the energy in genre comics is with the smaller publishers, the Images and Onis and AdHouses who are taking chances on new visions of what that material can be. And while the lifetime achievers of the alt crowd made some great work this year -- Ware, of course, but Clowes had a great book, I thought X'ed Out might have been the best Charles Burns yet, Seth did an awesome comic, the Bros were strong as ever -- they, to a man, have left the trenches that make alternative comics so dynamic and exciting to me, the newspapers and minis and anthologies I buy because I know there's a strong possibility that I can see something there I've never seen before. And the stuff being done in those places now often doesn't mind showing off a Kirby (or hell, a Steve Bissette) influence. It's come to terms with a mainstream history that it avoided being a part of for years.

I think the comics that are going to grow from that seam, the junction where the bottom-rung Diamond-distro books meet the professional-caliber minis and small press releases, will be really incredible. We're going to see a lot more Michael DeForges and a lot more Brandon Grahams, and not just that but a lot of guys who bring new flavors we haven't seen yet into the mix, because the prevailing climate is something like "the more outre the influence the better". What happens when somebody adds a Rory Hayes inflection to the Moebius/Tezuka mashup that's hip right now? What happens when somebody decides the obligatory Kirby gestures work better if they're Steranko swipes? The culture around the best comics right now is incredibly permissive of the new, and I think it's going to expand and expand, encompassing a lot it doesn't now and a lot we haven't even seen yet. As long as Frank Santoro's getting hired to do Silver Surfer comics somebody's going to track it back to his interview with Brecht Evens. As long as DeForge's Spider-Man mini gets noticed by the mainstream, somebody else is going to follow him into a StudyGroup or Monster anthology. The danger with that is that what's cool now will breed its own culture with its own rules and orthodoxies, but as long as what stays cool is the element of newness, I think we're moving in the right direction. Whether it's a new influence or a new technique or a new tool (the pencil! what a novel thing to draw your comics with, CF and Gaze Books guys!), it the medium is expanding to recognize things it hasn't before -- even if those things are older works that were denied a place in the canon -- and that's a really good thing. I just hope the Golden Age keeps bearing it out and reprinting new influences for people to bring to the table. We need some available Moebius bad, and it's way past due for somebody to step up and translate what I think is the best comic of all time, Guido Crepax's Valentina. I just hope things keep going the way they have gone, I guess.

imageAs far as things people aren't talking about yet, I've been getting really into Robin Barnard lately. He's an artist who was featured in a few issues of Dave Sim's Glamourpuss (for my money the best ongoing pamphlet series out there these days), and now he's working on a webcomic adaptation of Jim Steranko's adaptation (!) of the Outland movie. The guy's a really idiosyncratic, funny blogger and I like his drawing a lot, but what's really interesting to me is the way he's treating comics as pure conceptual art, just re-inking Steranko pages to work his way into his Steranko influence rather than like, doing fake Nick Fury stories. It's amazing the amount of personal expression he's bringing into exact copies of old comics, especially when you watch his page-by-page process on the blog. It's the truest, purest facet of cutting-edge comics' current grapple with influence that I've seen. I mean, so many guys are still doing action stories, Kirbyist or Tezukaesque action stories even, and making it work for them. Why not just leave your marks all over one of your heroes' most flawed work and call it your own? There's a directness to it that I find really exciting, and I also like the way the elements we typically think of as "comics" -- the plotting, the layouts, the pacing, the panel compositions and even large amounts of the drawing itself -- have been removed. Somehow, though, it's still so much a part of the medium.

I hope more people start taking that this-is-just-a-piece-of-art approach and worrying less about the stories they're telling. We've got stories for centuries, but how many pages really go as far as they possibly could with color? Or white gutterspace? Or word balloons? Not enough. The folks over at the Abstract Comics blog are really inspiring to me just because of how interested they seem in the way their comics look. So many great artists -- probably all of our great artists -- stopped servicing that at a certain point and let the content dictate what the pages did. With Barnard, with artists like Jason Overby, Derik Badman, Blaise Larmee, what's actually on the page, not what it does inside your head, is most important. "Light blue" or "stippled lines" become as important to what's going on in the comic as, say, "The Hulk" or even "bravery" or "justice" or "sadness" is to a lot of more conventional works. I'd like to see way more of that. I had a dream last night where I was coloring superhero pages by shining klieg bulbs through colored transparencies onto the line art and taking photos of it, and I wish somebody would do something like that in real life. The more we can bring into comics from outside, from fine art, from experimental art, from new technologies, from old technologies, from music, from poetry, yeah, even from literature, even from movies, the better, and the more we can force it to interact with our world, our history, what we've got now, the more beautiful and strange and comics it will be. 2010 took the medium places I'd never seen it go before, and I really hope we can go even further. Because I don't ever want to stop.


* Death To The Universe


* photo of Matt Seneca supplied by Seneca
* Doug Wright image
* Calvin & Hobbes image
* that first Morrison/Quitely X-Men
* example of Seneca's art
* another example of Seneca's Art (the painting only)
* Art In Time
* Frazer Irving example art
* from Batman: Odyssey
* Kyle Baker draws Deadpool
* Brendan McCarthy
* the best Krazy Kat
* Afrodisiac
* four from ACME #20
* Steranko being Steranker
* art from Olivier Schrauwen
* a panel from X'ed Out
* Robin Bernard art
* blog logo for Seneca (below)



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