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December 11, 2008

A Dreary Response To Steven Grant


The writer Steven Grant has posted a response to general criticism, including mine, of his "Permanent Damage" column last week where he declared that "2008 was one dreary year for comics" and that his best-of list was "two items long, and both were reprints."

I'm not certain I should post a response because 1) back-and-forth Internet arguments tend to be really boring, and 2) Grant kicks off the column by asserting that his column "ruffled feathers" as opposed to people just disagreeing with it. He then surprisingly just sort of mocks something I said, which makes me think he's not really engaging with the arguments but assuming a defensive crouch.

But I'm going to write this anyway, because I respect Grant, and his opinions are usually interesting. And the notion of really good comics is always worth talking about.

A lot of what gets argued by Grant is sort of beside the point. I can't find anyone that accuses him of not liking a lot of comics that came out in 2008, as he seems to assert. If they did, they were wrong. He openly states that in the original article. Even if there were a few people that misspoke, I think most people were pretty clearly engaging his call-out on the particular dreariness of 2008 and his inability in making a best-of list for the year.

Grant's digression into whether or not reprints should be something with which critics should engage in coming to terms with 2008 is compelling, but seems to me beside the point because Grant himself said he was including reprints. That doesn't make it right -- and we can all write long essays over whether or not you should include new comics, new and old comics, or some standard in between (like Tucker Stone's readily available standard) when making these lists -- but you can't really blame people responding to an article to adopt the standards of that article!

imageGrant's also I think right in saying that some of the choices on best-of lists are dubious and wouldn't be on mine or what I think of as a Best-Of. I even agree with him on the promising but not great example he selects. You can have all sorts of disagreements about all sorts of lists, even on the best books. Grant declares that Alice In Sunderland was last year's clear best work. I don't agree. Neither did Dirk Deppey, for example -- his choice was The Arrival. So what? It's another side issue. The issue brought up in the original article isn't whether some people make bad choices, or whether people properly back what you feel is the best choice. We're talking about whether 2008 was dominated by dreariness and what to make of Grant's proclamation that he only thought two works -- including reprints -- could be on a best-of list.

As for the celebrity argument, the notion that part of this dreariness is that more cartoonists and comics authors should be celebrities -- or have the force and perks of their public personae -- with Mark Millar being the example selected, well, I just disagree with that argument. Strongly. To suggest that I'm retreating to the old saw of wanting comics to remain obscure because I like it that way, or that I somehow don't think cartoonists deserve to be famous is cheap emotionalism. I think cartoonists should be the most famous people of all -- B. Kliban rules, that's what I'd like. I would be perfectly happy if Mark Millar were on every single day for punching people out in bars. But he isn't. I don't see this as a shortcoming, and I don't see it not happening as specific to comics.

imageAt one point many cartoonists were quite relatively famous. But comics doesn't fill that role now. Most playwrights and authors of similar cultural saturation enjoy the same level of semi-obscurity. So do most radio personalities. So do the vast majority of actors and filmmakers, especially if you leave the coasts, including most of the best ones. Those that do have a public image of some sort, say John Hodgman, are less well-known than we think and almost certainly not known for their published work. Sure, it would be terrific if more people recognized cartoonists as the giant walking piles of awesomeness many of them are, if Matt Groening were better known than Tom Hanks instead of making a rare appearance here and there on The Daily Show. But I don't think it's realistic. I don't think it matters. People loving Groening's work to the point they crap their pants upon being introduced to him seems to me more important than the fact he probably requires an introduction. The one makes me happier than the other makes me feel dreary. That Matt Groening is known and rewarded for Homer Simpson makes me happier than his not being equally rewarded and known for Akbar & Jeff makes me feel dreary. Mark Millar getting to see his projects made into movies and be rewarded for them makes me happier than his not being a bigger name makes me feel dreary. Seeing Jerry Scott's lovely home (a long time ago) made me happier than going to lunch and not having people say "Holy shit! It's Jerry Scott!" made me feel dreary.

I'm tickled when I see Frank Miller's name being used as a selling point -- good for him -- and I'd take 1000 more, but I don't think this is going to happen to a ton of people, and I don't think that it hasn't happened is anything to worry about. Besides, no cartoonist deserves to be famous in 2008 because none of them made list-worthy work this year. Right? The whole thing seems sort of silly.

Anyway, I think once you get past what is mostly clever, reasonable argumentation on side issues, Grant's original opinion that 2008 was dreary and that there are only two items he could put on a best-of list remains uninformed, and as a general position from which to argue about the state of things, untenable.

It's uninformed because Grant doesn't seem to have read enough comics to have made such a sweeping statement. No one has to read all of the comics, but if you're going to make sweeping statements, it might help to read a significant number of the comics involved and bring them up in your analysis. If you can't, you might want to excuse yourself from making such an argument or do us all the favor of qualifying it. It boggles the mind that Grant seems to be encountering for the first time two staggering archival works from 2008 -- Bill Mauldin's and Jules Feiffer's -- after feeling confident enough to throw 2008 under the bus. Personally, I feel the two reprints he put on his TCJ list must be stupendous if discovering those works didn't double the number of things he puts on that list. (We don't know; he doesn't say.) But even if they don't, I can't imagine any reasonable standard by which they shouldn't have at least been considered.

imageGrant at one point asks for this year's Alice In Sunderland as if it's some sort of trump card. Now, I don't agree with the choice, but to use his standards, "literate, ambitious, gorgeous, fascinating" I think a few works fit. But if I were to say one of those works was Tony Fitzpatrick's The Wonder: Portraits Of A Remembered City -- a major, major series finally completed that mixes imagery with poetry rather than prose and is organized by memory rather than a more simple plot progression, all in service of a walk through the Chicago experienced by the author's dead father -- I'm guessing there's a good chance Grant hasn't read it and maybe hasn't heard of it. If you think it's unfair to bring up Fitzpatrick, one of Grant's pantheon-level works is "Joe Sacco's books on Palestine and the Balkans," but I don't get any sense he's read Sacco's work from this year. That's a problem with making sweeping statements; you're judged by the ambition of the sweep.

That's not to say that Grant will celebrate The Wonder or "Chechen War, Chechen Women" on their artistic merits, or agree that The Wonder is comics at all -- heck, Fitzpatrick doesn't think it's comics, either. Maybe Grant really would not think much of anything that came out if it were presented to him. Again, I suspect that Steven Grant really isn't a Domingos Isabelinho or even a Gary Groth when it comes to the severity of the strictures they place on greatness, but I could be wrong. If I am, good for him. People with super-high standards are a treasure. But it's about process: the ability to defend a position doesn't mean the position is justified; it just means you can defend a position. Once you're playing defense, you're in a different mind-set. That may be okay with one or two examples that hadn't occurred, but I don't think it works when dozens of arguable points are involved. I just don't think Grant made the good-faith effort that should have been required to give thumbs down to an entire year.

imageHis general argument is also untenable, in two basic ways. The first is that just because Grant believes a "Best-of" list is a proclamation declaring work that makes it into the pantheon doesn't mean that everyone else sees those exercises the same way, or should, or that people are going to find convincing conclusions based on that belief. The second is that Grant introduces standards that don't make 2008 dreary, they make every year dreary! I would have a hard time selecting any year with multiple new works better or even on the same playing field as Krazy Kat, Kurtzman's EC war comics and Palomar, for pity's sake. I challenge Grant -- I'll run it here if he doesn't want to waste the column inches -- to give us five recent years in which making a Best-Of according to his standards was achievable. If he can do this, and I have my doubts, then we can see if a 2008 list compared to those lists is so lacking as to make its dreariness evident.

I apologize for arguing this out in tedious fashion. I tend towards over-talking when I'm writing quickly. I just think Grant's very wrong, and I think he didn't bring the goods for me or anyone else to consider the substance of his arguments seriously, and that's wrong, too. To see 2008 as dreary seems to me as dangerous as seeing it as the best year ever. With comics headed into tough times economically and into difficult waters as an art form, it might be good for those of us paying close attention to trade less frequently in sweeping statements and try to engage the art form and industry with greater clarity, more sustained scrutiny and an eye towards all the ways it's big enough to hold different truths than the ones we latch onto in snap-to fashion. It's not that comics isn't dreary, it is! It's that comics is never just dreary. And it certainly wasn't more so this year.
posted 7:10 am PST | Permalink

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