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January 9, 2012

My New Year's Comics Resolutions For 2012

For a half dozen years now, my new year hasn't really begun until the conclusion of the CR Holiday Interview Series. I've come to see the few weeks between my mid-December birthday and the last interview as a sort of non-time, filled with Christmas, and friends, and touching base with loved ones, and celebration, and reflection. It's a great time.

Last night as a final act of reflection I made a list of goals for the year 2012 -- or resolutions, I guess, as the term goes. Some of them had to do with comics. Here are five of them, in the hopes that maybe they'll spur an idea or two of your own.

image1. Gain More Control Over My Comics Collection

I thought that I had solved this problem years ago. In 1991, as a grad student, I realized I spent too much money on my weekly comics with too little enjoyment in return. I took three months off from buying comics, started depositing 2/3 of the average amount of money I was spending each week into a dedicated, no-fee checking account, and then returned to regular comics buying with the idea of maximizing the amount of money spent every time out. It worked. When I moved to Seattle, the twin realities of free comics and general, young-creative-person poverty took care of this problem for me.

I have to confess: the problem never went all the way away. I took a look at my collection this last month. I am not a very good collector; I don't have that gene. Just about any of my comics-reading friends would be Gallant to my Goofus when it comes to picking up and keeping funnybooks on hand. But I do have a lot of comics, if mostly by accident, which means that with some work and some time devoted I should be able to pull from their midst a comics library to get me through my final years on the planet without anyone subsequently cursing me about having to dispose of them once I'm gone.

I bought an edition of a comics-related software sorting system to get a handle on what I have. That was helpful just in terms of getting everything into one place, but it was also super-interesting in terms of showing me what I actually had, what I had lost in years of moving around the country, and what formats in which I had stuff available. I pulled doubles -- way too many doubles -- to sell off at a modest price (and then give away). I made some lists and generally separated, at least in my mind, the four-color wheat from the Baxter paper chaff. From now on when I buy comics it will be to fill holes in worthwhile runs and series and to have one copy of all the comics I love in the format I like those comics best. Because seriously, my having The Next Nexus #2-3, four copies of Captain America #201 and six random issues of Neil The Horse wasn't doing anyone any good at all.

2. Write At Least A Dozen Fan Letters

I regret not writing a letter or otherwise reaching out to Jerry Robinson before his passing. I admired a lot of what Robinson did and how he did it, and there would have been no harm and some pleasure (for me and hopefully for him) in my saying so. It sounds silly, but I hope to make time to write a few people I enjoy, respect and admire this year -- not like homework, or on a schedule, but as I encounter something of theirs that makes me want to say so. I'm hoping this might happen a dozen or so times. It's great to say nice things on the Internet about someone, and it's fun to write for publication, and I have a professional platform for public praise that I also hope to use. I think this can be its own thing, though. It's worth a try.

3. Resist Participating In Any And All Comments Threads And Message Boards

This has been a goal most years, and if I were keeping track of these kinds of thoughts in terms of resolutions, I would have had to have crossed this particular one off of my list every year by about January 15. Hell, if I had made today's list on December 31, 2010 like most people do I'd have failed to keep this promise already. I enjoy arguing with people, and I do think there's something to be said for not leaving a spin/interpretation on an industry or historical or aesthetic matter to the people with the most time to burn, the most vitriol to splash around and the nicknames that provide the most insulation from backlash.

That being said, I think it's time to stop indulging myself this way, even if it's a much tinier percentage of my work week than when public boards at TCJ and were in full effect. It struck me the other month -- I said something like this in the CR holiday interview with Laura Hudson, who can testify in convincing fashion as to the downside of this aspect of comics culture -- that a big chunk of comics people have been on-line for something like 15 years now. Some have been having these kinds of discussions for far longer via the Internet, and there are antecedents in letter-writing circles and in fanzine/comic letters pages for sure (someone once told me that Joshua Quagmire was a message board star before message boards), but I really think talking about comics a certain way reached something of a critical mass for the first time in the mid-'90s with the CompuServe forums and the growing attraction of various Usenet groups.

And like I said: I get the arguing thing. I really do. These things can actually be about important issues (if only to you), in many comics circumstances the feeling of being right is the only reward one has, engaging with other comics fans after years of having a very limited interaction with other people that even know what you're talking about can be an awesome thing to experience, and having people get in your face about opinions that you hadn't had challenged before can be a thrilling opportunity to put on a stern expression and heroically dig your heels in. It's even very democratic. But seriously: 15 years now. That's been more than enough time to argue and say mean things and pick the strategy that you know will make you look best to those reading. It's way past time to put the energies elsewhere -- even if it's just a tiny bit of energy now -- and to isolate by example some of the cruel nonsense perpetrated by those brave warriors of rhetoric Wolverine356 and BrowncoatSam. If you're a latecomer to on-line that still finds that kind of thing intoxicating, maybe it's best if you just get to feel left out on this one.

image4. Learn At Least A Little Bit More About Comics I Don't Know That Much About

One of the comforting illusions that the Internet shattered is that we're all Comics Experts of the First Order. At least I know I can no longer think this way. The on-line world and our continued exposure there to writing about comics and the comics themselves has been one long, first week in the college dorms for a lot of us that fancied ourselves gatekeepers for a world that only we truly understood. Fact is, I get to think about comics a lot, and one of the few things I've concluded is that I'm in no shape to make many conclusions. There are fields within fields within fields when it comes to comics. Take something as well known as the underground era: our knowledge of their general contribution to culture may stand, but for a lot of us the individual cartoonists and their unique contributions can still be pretty slippery outside of Robert Crumb and maybe Gilbert Shelton. It seems like every year someone pulls someone from the vast avalanche of pulpy nonsense that was mainstream comics production and makes us look at certain work in a way that allows for a low whistle of appreciation to push past our lips. There are enough handmade comics and SPX-era comics makers that have slipped from view to fill a dozen afternoons of dream-soaked, lie-around-the-house reading. There are more intriguing comics done by young people in Latvia than as a 17-year-old angling to write an article for my local newspaper to lecture Middletown USA about Cerebus and American Splendor I was certain existed in the entire medium.

This year I hope to unearth more about those comics about which I presently know next to nothing. I hope this includes some of the newer ones -- I was a little lost at BCGF, to be honest with you -- but I hope it will also include the new British comics, editorial cartooning from the second half of the 20th Century, those aforementioned undergrounds past the usual suspects, and webcomics that aren't Achewood or by Kate Beaton. The great thing is I know that meeting this goal will be rewarding and pleasurable, in almost direct relation to what extent I'm able to commit. Comics is good like that.

5. Be A More Respectful Industry Member

I'm not all the way sure that I should be considered "in comics," but let's face it: the way comics is currently constructed, I'm kind of in there by many of the standard ways of measuring one's involvement. Working with comics and in their proximity is definitely a part of my professional and personal life. You're probably involved, too, like it or not. Something that the cartoonist Colleen Coover said in her interview the other day struck me, about how her relationships with other Periscope Studio members were valuable in part because they got past the hierarchical divisions that comics like to put up. They all like each other, and they all like each other's work, and they all socialize together -- I have to imagine that's a very fun, good thing.

I'm not sure I agree with it as a desirable goal for everyone, though. That's not a criticism of what they have going on at Periscope, or the way Colleen sees things. That sounds wonderful. It's my hope, however, that there might be a chance for comics-makers, comics-facilitators, comics fans and comics commentators to have a positive relationship with one another based on a mutual respect for all that we share above and beyond those personal ties, so that even if you strongly dislike someone or someone's work -- or they dislike you and yours -- there are certain things we can agree on as being important and worth having in common above and beyond our personal likes and dislikes. I think the reason people sometimes say that comics is like high school isn't because that our high schools provided such a strong model of social organization that people naturally replicate that everywhere. In fact, a lot of comics people sucked at being in high school and have no natural inclination towards that model at all. I think the way comics feels like high school is that a lot of our relationships are based on liking and being liked. That's not necessarily a bad thing, either, but I think it's limiting to the individual and to the wider community.

imageI like Stan Sakai's work. He probably wouldn't make my short list of top all-time comics creators, but I genuinely think much of and enjoy his Usagi Yojimbo. Much more importantly, Stan Sakai seems to conduct himself with admirable, outright class: he values his craft, he's solicitous and kind, and he's found a way to do exactly what he wants to do with his creative energies. What monster wouldn't want a Stan Sakai to have every success and bit of good fortune that might come to him? In contrast, I actively dislike some of Brian Bendis' superhero comics (I do like some of them very much), but from what I know about his background he's a terrific story of hard work and perseverance. There are people you can say you remember when they were a lone presence behind a mostly lonely convention table, and Bendis fits that bill, but from what I know about Brian he used to be the guy that got left at the comics shop while everyone else went to the convention and becoming the guy with a few comics behind his own table was step two or three on his professional journey. Why would I begrudge a Brian Bendis any success he's enjoyed? I may disagree with Paul Levitz on just about everything comics-related, but I can respect the work he's done with the CBLDF and with certain older comics-makers. And so on.

I know that this sounds dangerously close to self-congratulation on my seeing comics people in a certain way. That's not how I intend it. At least I hope not. The bigger point is that I do a terrible job at participating in the industry -- even if there is no real industry now, or even if there's just a made-up one -- in a way that would afford me the same kind of respect I hope to afford others, that I think they deserve. I hope this year to do a better job at the job I've been given to do -- to really do the job, and not just settle for sort of doing the job well enough I can feel I belong and then making myself feel better by finessing a comparison between myself and someone I feel doesn't do exactly what I do. I also hope to show outward respect towards the field I'm in. I'm going to try to vote in everything I can. I'm going to try and save enough money to donate to industry organizations at year's end. I'm going to try and return phone calls and e-mails promptly, and speak my mind in honest, forthright, and considered fashion when asked. I hope to better advocate for positive outcomes in several comics arenas. I further hope to conduct myself in comics' public settings in a way that would not make a 14-year-old embarrassed by my dress or behavior. And eventually, I hope this all becomes second nature.
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