December 18, 2006
Holiday Interviews #2: Joe McCulloch
"Spider-Man is a Dirty Tease With His Dirty Golden Spats"
An Interview With Comics Critic Joe "Jog" McCulloch
By Tom Spurgeon
Working out of the most basic of blog platforms, Joe McCulloch at Jog the Blog
has fashioned for himself a small but loyal audience eager to read his daily review updates, where he engages a wide variety of comics by lightly stepping through them, pointing out the best parts as he goes, seemingly bemused by it all. He has also written for The Comics Journal
, where he's currently a contributing writer and I believe is also their capes-and-cowls columnist. As you'll see, everything I know about Jog can be put into the first sentence of an interview, but I liked his work enough that I thought it would be fun to bounce some ideas about the year in comics off of him, and get an idea about what makes someone start the day by reviewing comic books. I could have asked him twice as many questions, and had twice as much fun. I thank him for his time.
TOM SPURGEON: Who are you and why on earth do you review comics on-line? I know that you're young, and my understanding is that you're in Central Pennsylvania, and I think I maybe heard you've graduated law school.
JOE MCCULLOCH, AKA JOG:
Everything you know is right. I'm also handsome and glamorous. And I live in a jeweled palace.
I think the main reason I review comics on-line, actually, is that I really don't have any other outlet for yapping about it. Very, very few of my friends read any comics at all, and most of the ones that do only keep up on the very tip-top mainstream stuff, like Chris Ware
or Dan Clowes
. I did get my younger brother hooked on Jim Woodring
, which I think was a valiant accomplishment, but I just don't have a lot of the whole 'comics evangelical' fire in me when I'm going through my daily life. It's just not my disposition. But I do really like to communicate in some form or another about comics, stick paintings and gestures maybe, and my site provides an outlet for that.
Why I'm doing a blog with just me writing things instead of going on a message board or something is a different matter. Like, really, what do I have in terms of attracting people to read what I have to say? Isn't that presumptuous, not having little things like qualifications?
What really ruined me was this job I had as a newspaper correspondent for a very short while. It was a local weekly paper, and I happened to know someone who was writing for them, and one day they just sort of said "Hey, you can probably do this. We need politics coverage for Lavish Springs Twp. (not real name), so come with me and I'll show you how to cover meetings." And so I went off, and learned how to cover meetings, and got a crash course in pertinent acronyms and found out which local citizens hated dogs and speeding, and I started to write. And by god -- the paper didn't fold the next week or collapse under a heap of libel suits, so I guess I did ok!
They started giving me a few extra assignments as they cropped up. The local historical society gathers to discuss history. You know. Someone's cellar vanishes into a lost mine (seriously). One time I got to cover a ribbon cutting ceremony at a local park, which was pretty awesome. Real Jimmy Olsen
stuff, like any minute I'd turn around to get a quote from my congressman and he'd transform me into a turtle. I liked it a lot, but I quit when I went to law school. The experience, though, instilled in me this wacky American dream feeling that if I just put my all into something and got up in front of people then, by gadfry, I'd have myself a show and a barn and a climactic musical number so culturally insensitive that TCM
would only show it at night.
That's the joy of the Internet, putting easy technology in the hands of people who want to get out and try something. I enjoy putting things out there for people to find. I try to write the things I'd have liked to find on-line, making the site the sort of thing I'd like to read. I like sorting out my thoughts into reasonably polished little rocks of stuff to post. Blogging's a weird combination of self-centeredness and outgoing contribution to a huge pool of material. I read a lot of these things before I started my own, so I guess I'm attracted to that.
SPURGEON: Are there instances you can point in your reading lifetime to that significantly helped shape your current outlook on comics?
Huh. Well, I just realized this the other month, but an awful lot of the "tone" of my reviews is pretty heavily influenced by a different popular fandom, horror/exploitation fandom, which casts a pretty wide net of genres once you get down to it. I really liked reading the deep, longish reviews of nasty gore and Euro exploitation stuff that some British writers were putting out for a while. I read lots of books from FAB Press
. This guy named Stephen Thrower
... he was in the band Coil
for a bunch of years, which I suppose was a more visible thing, but I knew him entirely through these neat writings on the intersections of the accepted canonized 'art' cinema and material that'd generally be off-the-cuff dismissed as trash. He ran a fanzine called Eyeball
that got collected into a book, and he also wrote this huge book on Lucio Fulci
, who made all these movies that typically get stacked up with the "turkey" ratings in the fat books of capsule reviews you find in Borders, and he maintains a neatly irreverent, very much aware tone, but he acknowledges the potential for beauty and poetry in things like films that have gone unaccepted by the culture at large save for a few designated safe selections, you know?
Not that any of that was super fresh in the grand scheme of arts criticism, but it was the sort of writing on an attractive, catchy subject that managed a genuine mind-opening for me at the age of whateverteen, and I think the aesthetic and philosophy of it spilled over into my own writings on comics (or movies, really), even though the specifics of it aren't entirely applicable. Comics were already getting more and more visible by 2002, when I started reading them weekly again, and they're probably even bigger at the end of 2006. Just the expansion of Japanese comics was incredible over those four years. So it's not as much the messianic subtext that draws me in anymore, it's the person-to-person exchange of thinking and looking deeply into beautiful (or ugly!) things.
I experienced a real immersion therapy in getting back deep into comics (I'd just sort of drifted out around the age of 15, but I kept a toe or two in for much of the subsequent time -- Free Comic Book Day 2002
is what tipped me over, so there's a success story right there). I could recall reading some issues of The Comics Journal
, and this must have been right when Milo [George]
started editing or even slightly before, and it was like learning a new language. I could read that stuff, and come back to it years later and read it in a totally different way, like someone fluent in a tongue can catch nuances a less experienced student could barely hope to detect. And then everything seemed to expand around me. The availability expanded (look at them bookstore shelves go!), the internet expanded, and I'm sure some of it was the illusions inherent to being new in an unfamiliar place, but I wanted to stay submerged, like keep going deeper and let the stuff flow into me. Just drown me and let me sink, man!
So, in conclusion, my current outlook on comics can obviously be traced back to a horrible boating accident I've struck from my memory. Next question!
SPURGEON: What are the nuts and bolts of what you do? Do you get free comics in the mail? How much time do you spend on the reviews, and how do you choose what to review? Is there a certain time of day you do this kind of writing?
It's good that you're asking me this now; back when I was a student, I'd just update whenever I'd have some free time, so long as it was more-or-less once a day. I adhere to the Cerebus
rule of regular output, in that the new issue doesn't have to strictly come out every month -- certainly not at the same time every month -- so long as I eventually get all caught up in time for post 3000 where I break my neck falling off my computer chair. I did try to get things out on a very regular basis, even back then, because I do think it's important for a site to have something of a reliably appearing output, even if one post a week winds up being nonsense or a 'no post today' notice. I'd always get antsy when my favorite sites wouldn't update for a few days.
But these days, through some strange quirk of fate, I seem to have obtained gainful employment, the downside of which means I'm out of the building 10+ hours a day, counting the commute. So I had to set up a schedule just to keep the site rolling. I sometimes fool around with a post the evening before it's due to go up, but much of the real work is done as soon as I wake up every weekday, which is about 5:00-5:30 AM, and I load up the material before I leave for work. It takes roughly two hours for a post, but it can go shorter or longer, depending on how it's going in my head, or how much stuff I have to research. My THIS WEEK IN COMICS ALL CAPS FOREVER!! feature usually winds up taking a while, because I have to look up creative teams, what they've been doing, whether the book is getting cancelled, if there's any previews to link to... it's a bunch of effort for what inevitably winds up being a short read. Reviews can take long too, but often if I don't at least kind of know what the structure's going to look like beforehand I'll just put things off until I've puzzled it out, which is why some books (like Fun Home
for example) wound up taking months and months.
The exception is review copies, and I do get a fair amount of those. Maybe an average of 35% of the stuff I review in a given month is sent in to me. I try to get that stuff out at least a little faster, because I do hate having people waiting for me to get things done already. But I'm never going to just crank out something to get material ready for reading; I basically have to sit myself down and affirmatively think about where I'm going with a certain piece, and there's more of an impetus to do that with a review copy, I think, than with something I just happened to buy. And most of the stuff I review does get reviewed because I just happened to buy it, and I just happened to find it interesting. It's my site, and it's inevitably going to be steered by my personal interests, and my potential predilections, and my favorite creators, though obviously once you stick review copies into that equation it's no longer totally true.
This particular week my car's broken down, and I have to catch a bus into the city, so I'm actually waking up earlier, like 4:30ish in the morning. On the weekends I sleep a lot more because I'm out later at night, so I don't get reviews up until the afternoon, maybe 3:00 PM or 4:00 PM, EST. I'm keeping up with the writing as soon as I'm awake thing. I don't really feel it affects my thinking much. It's just convenient.
SPURGEON: Do you have ambitions to write comics or write more about comics? Do you think that has an effect on your reviews?
I do like having my writings about comics presented in different forums, though, so there's some ambition there. I don't think it really affects my reviewing style, though, since I find myself switching my style around a bit depending on what venue I'm in. I don't think my blog reviews are totally the same as my stuff in The Comics Journal
, because I associate the former with speed and prolificacy and inserting parentheses and random bullet topics, while the latter always has me in thoughts of the page, and the heaviness of ink and all that. It's all me, but it's a different me, half-consciously. It's never as much my ambition for different venues that affects my writing, but my writing that morphs a little in the presence of different venues.
As for writing comics, well, let's just say you'll be surprised with who's writing Marvel
's next big crossover, The War of 1812
. That's the number of tie-ins at the end there.
SPURGEON: Which reviewers do you read? Is there anyone on comics whose writing you would recommend? Why?
I read a lot of reviews; really a whole lot. I'm kind of omnivorous when it comes to reading criticism, enough so that I feel anxious when I discover links to reviewing sites or articles I haven't discovered yet. LiveJournal always trips me up... there's so much stuff out there that you wouldn't have expected to find.
Specifically, Internet-wise, I've really been enjoying Derik Badman
's recent posts. Lots of discussion on things like transitions and shapes; very visual-focused, well illustrated. Jim Roeg
has this beautifully thorough and entirely enthusiastic engagement with superhero comics going on, and I only wish he'd post more often. I always enjoy the big batches of short reviews Brian Hibbs runs at Comix Experience
, him and Jeff Lester and Graeme McMillan. It's a tricky art, writing a good capsule review. I think it's a lot harder than going on and on and on, or at least it is for me.
In terms of print, I think everyone in the comics world should read everything Bob Levin has ever written; Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers and Pirates
is one of my favorite collections of comics criticism and prose essays ever. Levin's gotten some fuzz over his writing style, and I understand how it probably won't appeal to everybody, what with its distinctly dramatic narrative tone and dialogues and things, but that's a lot of the appeal to me. I love how he reconfigures and interweaves interviews and histories and fake-named characters and nonsense into these densely packed nuggets of subject. It's great!
SPURGEON: You're a very catholic reviewer; can you talk about why you choose to review such a broad range of comic? Do you think there are any dangers in reviewing a wide array in comics like assuming, say, a greater significance for some really crass product -- or a crappily crafted mini-comic -- than they might otherwise have earned?
Well, that goes back to what I said about my reviewing things I just happen to buy. I don't often choose to review things for the sake of propagating a wide view of the art form, I'm just naturally interested in a wide range of comics, and so my site winds up reflecting that on its own.
There is a hazard to that; coming off as a dabbler and wandering into misunderstandings about a work's context due to lack of experience or familiarity. Or just praising the new for the sake of being fresh. I should temper that by saying that I sometimes find it valuable to read the impressions of someone coming in to a certain species of comic with inexperienced eyes, but there's a great element of trust to that. So I try my hardest to remain open about what I know about a certain genre or a certain property when I find myself reviewing a particular example of the type. All I can really offer is what I know and what I'm thinking about a work, and the temptation to put on airs will only spoil the connection with whoever's reading.
SPURGEON: To better understand your approach to American mainstream comics, can you rattle off a few works of that type from years past that you think have value? In other words, do you come at
52 with a love for
Flex Mentallo or do you come at it as a longtime fan of Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers on
Batman? Or both? Or neither?
I came to 52
out of my love for Donna Troy
and weeping. I stayed for the remarkably large number of disembodied heads or pieces of headgear. It's really freaky.
is extra strange, and manages to overcome a lot of the shared universe superhero problems I tend to have, because it's mostly closed-off and self-sufficient and the writers don't jump ship, and I think that helps me appreciate the sprawl and potentially lovely mess of a comics 'universe' as big as DC's without the turbulence that knocks me off those things. It's practically a victory of theory!
If we're talking mainstream Marvel/DC superheroes, it's always a bit odd with me. Superhero comics weren't the earliest comics I read -- those would be the great old Gladstone reprints of Floyd Gottfredson
's Mickey Mouse
and other assorted Disney things -- and I never developed any sort of attachment to any one set of characters, or even the notion of universal coherency. I mostly follow creators around on superhero comics, and I can be a completist when it comes to writers or artists; my loyalty to particular characters above particular talents is pretty much nil, and I usually don't find myself drawn toward the heavy continuity-driven shared-universe stuff, except when there's a particularly potent and singular creative force behind the wheel (Alan Moore
's ABC line
, for instance). I probably find the implications of a shared universe more interesting than actually diving around in one, since I just don't have the impulse to wade through very much sludge to experience certain character beats or important moments in superhero history. Frankly, I have Wikipedia for that. But a lot of readers find that to be part of the fun, or at least part of the process.
Random valuable mainstream superhero works to me:
(and pretty much all of the ABC line, especially when [Alan] Moore is writing, though his spirit hangs heavy over all)
* Challengers of the Unknown
(Howard Chaykin version)
* Seven Soldiers
(all of it), Seaguy
' evil opposite, and 27 issues shorter)
* that one issue of Ultimate Fantastic Four that Jae Lee drew mostly in silhouettes (#20)
* Automatic Kafka
, The Intimates
(almost as much for what they say about each other)
* the varied excursions into and out of the territory in Solo
(Brendan McCarthy's #12
was the best)
* Garth Ennis' MAX issues of The Punisher
(the current poster child for a corporate character being surrendered entirely to his own private, controlled world)
Off the top of my head, your mileage may vary.
SPURGEON: Halfway through, what's your appraisal of
52 as a comics series? How would you describe it as an achievement in art to an interested outsider?
The first thing I'd point out is how 52
is a pretty odd duck in the current superhero industry, in terms of form. And then I'd point out how you probably have to be game for a big sprawl of stuff that's synced to appeal to those who're ready to get acclimated to the DC Universe as a big mess of a thing. But it's still entirely functional as its own story; that's absolutely vital to know.
It's not particularly interested in being collected into trade paperbacks. It's not all that big on the visual consistency one expects from reading something as a whole. It's very much a comic book type of comic book, something built for the pamphlet format and bound to hit the shelves every week, quick and rough. It's sort of disposable; there'd be no psychic backlash to rolling up an issue in your back pocket. Yet at the same time, it's uniquely positioned as a keystone for DC continuity, it's designated an Important! story even though you sometimes wonder what exactly the story is. It's a little bit like a weekly television series, but way more obsessive with cataloging, hyper-comprehensive in the way that only a sprawling shared-universe superhero comic can be.
I don't like every issue. Actually, I don't think there's been all that many issues where I didn't roll my eyes or grimace at something. It does have four writers transparently yanking the tone from place to place, often page-by-page, so forget about consistency there. But that's fitting. First, because there's always going to be clash in a shared universe of many architects and renovators.
And also, 52
is basically about mapping out DC's newly-revised digs, and it functions pretty well as a cook's tour of settings and characters through the eyes of a bunch of low-key protagonists, but it's just as much about DC wrestling with itself about where to go in 2006-07. Should we embrace the silliness of the company's catalog of properties? Go insane and shed lots of blood? Sit around and cry? It doesn't just embody things superhero comics can be written about, but it oscillates between the ways these things can be written, which makes all the more comprehensive, to my mind. That guarantees that some of it will be stupid and awful, yes, but it really does capture the attention as a very sincere effort to peel around the new universe and gather the company's collective thoughts with 100,000+ readers along. That's compelling to me, along with the fun parts that entertain me with talking animals.
It helps that it shows up every week; those rough edges might seem a lot more ugly if the book acted like a normal comic in terms of release. Who knows how it'll read once it's over? More than anything else DC or Marvel is publishing, it's got an immediacy to it, like all this stuff just has to get out into the world right now. That's not going to go a long way toward answering criticisms of self-absorption; I've heard from a number of people this notion that 52
never tries to be about anything other than itself, while at least Marvel's Civil War
is making an effort to address the world outside of the comics rack. But that argument never quite flies with me, since even many people who enjoy Civil War
as a superhero comic tend to concede that the political allegory component is pretty shit. Yeah, 52
is never about much of anything more than DC superhero comics -- even when it's dealing in metaphors, they're metaphors for DC superhero comics -- but why not actually do something like that for your universe-sorting event series? Why not actually jump in and be reckless and ephemeral and everything DC superhero comics all at once? Body and soul, pamphlet and story? It's got the space! Big! Big!
But I'll warn the prospective reader again: not all of it is good or interesting in terms of plot, the art looks rushed half the time, if you really don't think you'll ever be interested in DC superhero comics it probably won't appeal much, and it's cumulative effect might turn out to be fused to its means of serialization. But if it sounds interesting to you, it might be worth it, even if you're on the fence. It certainly isn't difficult to get into; there's no high walls of continuity to scale before you're in, trust me.
SPURGEON: Marvel's Dan Buckley recently gave an interview where he talked about his company's comics in terms of business development, that the superhero areas were so much further developed for his company than other areas of pursuit. I wonder if there isn't a parallel you can draw to superhero comics' value as art, where for 45 years now you've had talent after talent working this odd sub-genre for everything it's worth. Do you feel that the focus on superhero comics by the American industry for almost five decades has had an effect on the art?
I think a lot of superhero comics today can't help but be hyper-aware of their own history, and how they can go about pursuing their immediate future as based on that history. Especially today, where the genre has been wrung through so thorough a series of deconstructions and evaluations and stories-about-stories-about-stories, and certain creative runs and defining moments have become essentially codified as THE best parts of certain titles -- you can't escape being keenly aware of how everything's been handled in the genre before, and what's struck the majority as most effective.
And right now, superhero comics are inclined toward focusing on the most faithful, because they have the financial leeway to do so, and an assurance that the money won't stop flowing in the short term if they cater to the most devout. Experimentation always exists in some small part -- I'm sure glad DC was willing to publish things like the final issues of Solo
-- but experimentation among the major properties is often the product of financial difficulty, of flailing around to find a new hook. There's enough money being thrown around right now that Marvel and DC can afford to reap the quick benefits of servicing their base, and that base has become highly sensitive to the most favored portions of the histories of continuing characters. So have the writers and artists. Canny manipulation is thus possible.
I mean, elements of this date way back; the [Stan] Lee
and [Jack] Kirby
and [Steve] Ditko
books always drew a little bit of strength from their contrast with 'traditional' superhero books, but now we've spent years and years funneling Marvel/DC superhero comics through a distribution channel that's largely settled into servicing them as the big guns, and there's a very significant audience that's highly attuned to the history and canon (so to speak) of enduring properties, so there's a real sense of regality about all the universe-shattering events that'll knock my socks off and insure that Batman will never polish his pointy ears the same way again. The kings are being moved to speak. There's been enough work done with Marvel and DC superheroes (and when I say that, I mean a core group of A-list characters that have proven themselves enduringly popular) by now that it's really quite easy to settle into an epic complacency about what's big, what minor, what pushes the audience's buttons, what needs to be done to energize the base and how to go about that.
As a result, I think it's practically inevitable that the current Marvel/DC superhero scene is dominated by sprawling event series that strive to effect anything and everything, because there's a keen awareness of what expectations can be tweaked to garner enough attention, and how positioning those tweakings on a grand scale can hook readers into buying so much more than they normally would. This won't just affect one character; it'll affect most! It'll affect the very makeup of the universe! And that universe is appreciated an awful lot by the audience; it's given an identity, and it's enduring enough a thing that identities are capable of being affixed. A lot of the appeal of Marvel/DC superhero comics to many readers is the sustainability of their shared serial nature, something that not every genre can manage. They'll stick around. There's a very real sense of endurance to the most key properties. The Direct Market can be a harsh landscape, and many pamphlet-format books die rather quickly. For readers invested in properties, in shared universes, there's a genuine value to things that last, that have been around for twenty, thirty, sixty years.
You couple that with knowing that a lot of readers will be stunned-yet-intrigued by the atrocious death of some innocent character, or fixated on upheaval between superhero forces over at Marvel, you can quickly turn "buying five titles" to "buying fifteen," by keeping a sense of change in the air, change coming to a secure thing, a thing of age and story. Naturally, this makeup all but insures that change won't actually be permanent; you risk alienating readers if you actually stray too far from what's been set out as the bedrock characterizations of certain characters. The gravity's always gonna pull stuff back down. That's why I use the word "tweak."
Even if Mark Millar
pisses people off with the Reed Richards
he's writing, the very fact that Reed is acting so different has a way of catching enough attention, negative or otherwise, that keeps Civil War
grounded as what's really worth talking about with Marvel. If everyone's talking about how much they hate it, it remains the center of attention, and its importance in its fictional universe is reinforced. Yet I think most readers are aware that Reed isn't going to be that way forever, that he'll be back to what's been defined over 40 years of hammering as his "true" nature. He was actually kind of an asshole in the early issues. Today's big time superhero comics have the bigness to create a gravitational pull on characters. But struggling against gravity is exciting, and it's proven right now to be what people are willing to buy on a large scale, as far as superheroes go. It's the tease of shooting into orbit.
So, in conclusion, Spider-Man is a dirty tease with his dirty golden spats. I would like that to be the title of this article, and also inscribed on my headstone.
SPURGEON: If I paid you $100,000 on the condition you make the case for
Civil War as legitimate political commentary, how would you make that case?
Well, my reading of Civil War
consisted entirely of flipping through issues on the rack, so I never got much deeper than giggling at the seeds that got all over the Punisher's leg when he shot Jack O'Lantern, but I'll try.
Actually, let's (fortuitously) forget the story.
Let's look at Civil War
itself. As a big, slothful, gelatinous thing, its oozing green ichor plopping its way across however many dozens of books.
On that level alone it's like contemporary politics! Infesting every corner! You can't be apolitical anymore, you've got to fight the Civil War! The red state blue state war! The war for freedom! Frequently frustrating formidability frolicking for fastidious fraternity! They don't even need the Civil War banner anymore, just like political queasiness lurks everywhere in today's American life.
Thus Tom, THUS AND THEREFORE, the proliferation of Civil War
tie-ins is ACTUALLY IN ALL CAPS representative of an awful focusing event slithering outward to unsuspecting environs of the nation, upsetting life and storyline alike, and forcing both Luke Cage and your grandma to take a position. You can't get away in the comics store. You can't get away in life!
Think about it. You're just sitting there, placidly reading Eternals
, Neil Gaiman dishing out page after scrumptious page of backstory, and OH SHIT - it's Iron Man. It's 24 hour news. Face front to culture war invention and saturation, True Believers. Marvel comics is your office and Tony Stark is every discomforting aside about foreign affairs from the cubical across, Captain America each indelicate comment and nervous pause between polite colleagues. You can't escape it anymore, Tom. Whose side are you on? Stilt-Man W. Bush, Hillary Rodham Journey Into Mystery.
Now where's my money, honey?
SPURGEON: I just pay-palled you in Latverian currency. To follow up on an earlier point, one thing that's odd to me about comics right now is that audiences seem to be engaging comics for their stories -- both in terms of literary values or simple plot progression -- almost to the exclusion of, say, their pleasing qualities of decorative or representational art done well, or story moments or scenework, even. Do you agree?
I do think there's kind of a downplaying currently of the purely visual element of comics. Or at least an extra emphasis on the "literary" values of comics, that inevitably finds them grouped in with prose novels or short prose stories. Comics can now stand up in competition for major book prizes, but that invites a environment-attuned criticism that's naturally going to be inclined away from the visual element, often away from the interplay of text and image that's the core of the comics form, at least beyond a superficial level. There's trouble, I think, in reducing comics to a more speedy form of prose reading; I've heard comments from some very intelligent individuals about how they don't particularly care about the visuals of comics. How the differences in art styles are largely illusory to the overall reading experience and as long as the pictures are comprehensible and not outright amateurish. Who cares about how Artist X lays out the panels and how Artist Y draws the faces?
But comics are a visual medium, and art has its own pleasures. And its own power that affects storytelling, even if only in subtle ways. I really do think the pleasing quality of good visuals can, at the very least, color one's emotions about a story, and add to the overall effect, yet some of that is maybe getting lost under the influence of the prose comparison.
Even the most straightforward representational art has to be laid out in a manner that's intuitive for reading; I find I take a lot more pleasure from visuals that compliment the tone of a plot than I would otherwise with the same story. Especially in superhero comics, there also seems to be a disinclination in criticism toward focusing too much on the visuals. Maybe it's still fallout from the early-'90s, where rippling bad-ass art often took precedence over story, and there developed a kind of sense that the smart reader, the sensitive and sophisticated and canny reader, would naturally value story over visuals. But the problem with a lot of those books was that the art was pretty awful too.
SPURGEON: I want to ask you about a couple of the more prominent groupings of books. What have been your impressions of the First Second line in their first year?
I've read four of the First Second
books. Uniformly they've all been nice objects to hold, crisply designed and all. I think Eddie Campbell's The Fate of the Artist
is the best I've read by a longshot, because nobody has Campbell's willingness to hide in the panel gutters and force the reader into following him out of what a "graphic novel" ought to be. It's got prose and fumetti and mock newspaper strips and literary adaptation, and it's all very funny and bright but to a rather dark end, since it's often about the futility of art and its millions of variations in the face of a chaotic, unclassifiable universe, and the toll conveying it all takes on the artist that needs to exist in that world. It's probably best read by longtime Campbell fans, since they'll be able to catch the myriad references to other projects, but that doesn't mean it isn't still great for anyone interested in gleeful formal play and fiction-as-ecstatic-truth. All of life's good things.
The weakest... I'd say that's American Born Chinese
. The other two [I've read] are Klezmer
and Kampung Boy
, and I've been told there's others that are a good deal weaker, but that's the least of the ones I've read. I'd agree that it's the sort of book First Second ought to be taking chances on, a big fat ambitious swing of a story about huge topics and all that, and it has its virtues in its use of racial iconography and its carefully detailed setting, but it's a flawed work. I think it trips over itself in the end trying to make a sweeping, all-inclusive statement, I think the symbols get jumbled and ultimately escape the author's grasp, I think the overarching theme is just too sprawling to support the message being delivered, to the point where there's thematic loose ends more nagging than intriguing. It's a noble thing, but I absolutely can't sign on to the frankly gushing praise it's been getting.
SPURGEON: There's also this year been something of a second flowering of the Fort Thunder aesthetic, with books out featuring Paper Rad and Brian Chippendale? How would you define what's valuable about that school of comics?
This reminds me of some comments Chippendale himself made with Dan Nadel
at their SPX
panel, basically referencing the lack of exposure a lot of the Fort Thunder (and related folk) got, and how some of the work is genuinely difficult to reproduce into easily replicable form, like books. You had to go up to Chippendale's bedroom to view a lot of his most prodigious output (insert joke here).
So I think for many people, the second flowering of Fort Thunder
may well be the advancement of the first flowering into a new zone of exposure, through different means of conveyance that, while understandably mutating the work away from its first skin, brings maybe the soul of it to new readers like me. I just haven't experienced enough of it, but I like a lot of what I've seen. It really has mind-opening capabilities, the potential to blast away preconceptions of what comics ought to be, or how the art can flower apart from the established mores of storytelling. If it's not new to fine art, it can be new to an awful lot of comics, and maybe prompt a little savoring of movement on the page or searing color, or visual mind stew. Mmmmm.
SPURGEON: As far as individual books go, what did you end up thinking of
Fun Home? It read like you had problems figuring it out to your satisfaction.
I liked Fun Home
a lot. It wasn't as much my opinions on the book itself were conflicting -- I was certain I liked it right up front -- it was trying to find the right way to actually approach it in a review that was the tricky part. There's a lot of different ways of talking about a book like that; it can hold up to a lot of different angles of scrutiny.
I eventually settled on taking one chapter and breaking it apart
to show how Alison Bechdel has this really impressive series of cross-references and interrelations going. I wasn't much surprised when I read in an interview that Bechdel had all sorts of bits and pieces of her childhood literally filed away, as if she was keeping records, and she used a lot of that miscellany for reference material, because to me the book is this grand organization of events and notions and items. Things don't proceed in chronological order; they're grouped around happenings and themes. It's like she's taking an inventory of her life with her father, trying to sort through how these disparate bits of history fit together (not as a perfectly coherent puzzle, but in the manner of recurring concerns and emotions), and publishing the results as a fast-reading, disarmingly well-paced comic. In that way, it's extremely well suited to the comics form, what with the easy use of icons and the particular visual beauty of structure. I wanted to convey how elegant a work it is.
SPURGEON: Other than elegance, what about
Fun Home do you think has struck a chord with people?
I think it's worked for so many people because it can be read in a lot of different ways. It's part of what's still a popular subgenre of autobiography among mainstream prose books, the eccentric upbringing saga. It's mysterious when it needs to be. There's suspense to it. It works very well as a simple illustrated monologue-type read, kind of a one-woman show. That's maybe the best way to think of it no matter how you approach it; I do believe Bechdel "played" all the characters in her photo reference, and that's really interesting considering how rigorously individual a work it is.
I haven't even finished reading it. I find myself moving pretty slowly through it; that uniform eight-pages-per-chapter thing really invites me to jump off whenever something else is happening, like I spot a dime on the dresser or a branch rustles across the street. That's not so much a weakness of the work, just a byproduct of the modular structure. I didn't buy it until recently.
SPURGON: The reaction to the book in some circles surprised me; a few people went straight after Alan Moore.
The reaction online, at least as far as I've seen of comics-heavy websites, has been pretty negative. I think the non comics-focused outlets are a bit kinder to the book on the whole. One of the problems with a big, expensive, here-I-am project like that is word of mouth weighs heavily on it. I'd have probably been more enthusiastic to drop $29.95 on it as a softcover right off the bat rather than a (heavily discounted) $48 for a slipcased set of books that I've been hearing negative things about. But I understand that part of the book's deal is that it's a hulking deluxe package of resplendent good taste and outgoing quality. It's never seemed as much to me from the outside as "comics porn as art" but "comics porn as respectable coffee table item from the graphic novel scene of today."
It's broken though quite nicely. I'm seeing copies all over Borders and Barnes & Noble locations, just in time for your holiday purchases. They didn't carry it at first (I think at least one of them may have outright declined it), but nothing succeeds like success. It looks most at home up there on the top shelves, all proper and purple. I'll finish reading it eventually. It's not bad so far.
SPURGEON: Did you read
Yes, I did.
SPURGEON: I thought it was Renee French's best work, largely because she sublimated her ability to do horror imagery into something more interesting than repeated attempts to startle or upset the reader.
I read it in pretty close proximity to French's Marbles in My Underpants
collection, which was a trip because the latter book collects all these wild, truly disturbing flights of grotesquery, yet The Ticking
is so sleek and elegant a thing. It doesn't take a long time to read, and it's a very simple story, but you're absolutely right with the sublimation thought. It's like French has taken all the overt visual horror of her prior works and internalized it into the subjective, kind of first-person world of the lead character. It's softly creepy... even less creepy than uncomfortable, which is how the lead character feels in his skin anyway. But he takes the potential nastiness of the world and turns it into art; he doesn't hide like his father did, he embraces the strangeness of living. Very subtle, visually integrated piece.
SPURGEON: Have you read
Ode to Kirihito yet?
No, I haven't. Actually, speaking of manga and distribution, I've never actually physically seen a copy, which is really weird since Vertical's Osamu Tezuka works tend to have really nice bookstore distribution. I don't think I've ever missed seeing a volume of Buddha
sitting around in Borders at some point in time, hardcover or softcover. So it's kind of disconcerting that out of the six or so comics stores and five chain bookstore locations I've been inside since the book's release date, I've never ever come into contact with the book. Central Pennsylvania comic-buying anecdotal evidence is worth its weight in sterling silver, I know, but it's still weird.
Now I think I'm getting it for Christmas, so that's good.
SPURGEON: In general, what manga do you read and recommend?
Narrowing it down, the very first thing I need to draw extra attention to is Kazuo Umezu's The Drifting Classroom
, which VIZ is putting out under their VIZ Signature banner. Volume 3 just came very recently, and it's just the damnedest comic on the shelves right now. Like, Umezu has always had this buzz behind him among manga people who know their stuff. He's one of the big horror guys in manga. He's got an award named after him, a series of dvds that just came out in the US, his own haunted house in a theme park. But, up until now there's been almost nothing from among his major works released in English. VIZ put out something called Orochi: Blood
a while ago, which was actually the last volume of a series of horror stories. Dark Horse has a few volumes of this omnibus thing called Scary Book
that throws together all sorts of odds and ends from the guy's career with zero context or guidance, and it's just not very satisfying to an audience unequipped to appreciate the works' place in the man's career, I don't think. It doesn't provide a good introduction at all.
But The Drifting Classroom
is one of the classics. And it reads like a classic, like "why the hell has it taken so long to get this over here?!" It ran in the early to mid '70s, so I guess the style might come across as old-fashioned to readers that are used to sleek anime-influenced character designs or lightning-quick action or whatnot, but for my dollar this thing has some of the most furious pure cartooning I've seen in a long time. I just love the way Umezu draws things, like kids running. Just floating in the air, hustling to and fro. His use of splash pages is top-notch. So are his letters and sound effects (and, by extension, VIZ's English lettering). Everyone screams every line of dialogue. All the time. Which is great, because the plot is nuts and cranked up as loud as possible as fast as possible, and I'm forced to conclude that Umezu is actually a very special genius simply for not having the shambling affair become numbing after 50 pages.
It's this archetypal "survival horror" plot about a schoolhouse of assorted classes warped away to a deadly hellscape, and everyone goes completely insane while they try to survive. In horror. The big theme of the first few volumes is pretty much "Kids, never trust adults because they're idiots and psychopaths and they'll get you killed." Somehow, Umezu manages a really good grasp of the total chaos and loss of individual power that occurs in immediate crisis situations. He's really great at conveying the panic that comes from realizing everything you depended on for security was just lousy cardboard. Little children are shot to death, run over by vehicles, they go savage, most of the adults die quick... there's this one double-page splash where the mad cafeteria guy sets a bunch of teachers on fire, and it's right up there in my double-page splash pantheon. It's going to double-page splash heaven. I have no clue where Umezu is going with it all. I don't know how he'll keep it up. The preview for Volume 3 has a bloodied little boy crucified on a burning cross with a gigantic "!?" over his left shoulder... that's comics, man! It's the kind of book that makes you instantly grasp the appeal of a certain artist. Umezu! Yeah!
I like all the new VIZ Signature books. Naoki Urasawa's Monster
is fun pulp suspense thrills. Golgo 13
is truly unlike anything else being released in English today, these deeply studied, yet often deeply odd self-contained sagas of an unbeatable hitman who strolls through history and shoots his way through major cultural events and little melodramas alike. Dark Horse has this one-volume deal called Ohikkoshi
, and its centerpiece is this really warm, lived-in romantic comedy among college students that actually romantic and comical and reminiscent of college, which is a fun trick. I'm enjoying TokyoPop's release of Welcome to the N.H.K.
, this acid satire of hardcore geeks and shut-ins that doesn't even attempt likable characters on its way to comedy. Thank god. Plenty more I'll be screaming to the plants about tomorrow morning after I realize I've forgotten them. Everything Tezuka. Lots of older used manga at blowout prices online, like Bakune Young
(VIZ, 3 volumes, maybe the best action manga ever) and Hotel Harbour View
(VIZ, 1 volume, rhapsodic assassin noir
bliss) and Ashen Victor
(VIZ, 1 volume, the guy who does Battle Angel Alita
indulging in a book-length Sin City
-era Frank Miller homage with an ultra-violent robot hero visually patterned after Morpheus from The Sandman
, and it's just as great as it sounds). All of D&Q's Tatsumi books
SPURGEON: Will there ever be a point where the majority of folks treat manga as comics without having to qualify or segregate them in discussion? For that matter,
should there be a point when this happens?
Not any time soon. It's not just a question of comics. It's a question of format, of distribution, of price. Manga, for better or worse, is now joined at the hip with the digest format. It's a creature of bookstores. It's inexpensive. Western comics don't have to necessarily be pamphlets, nor do they only have to be sold in Direct Market stores, but Japanese comics have so dominated the conversation concerning bookstores and the digest format that they're sometimes treated as one and the same. It's the "manga" format. Oni puts out a digest, Marvel puts out a digest, the reaction is not "digest." It's "manga."
As such, I don't think there's much of a chance of any sweeping integration of the camps. There's arguments to be made for keeping them separate; I read an article somewhere (can't recall just where) suggesting that by grouping manga in under the broad heading of comics, we inevitably exercise a paternalistic domination of language over a vital culture's output, forcing a breathing alternate art to conform to the constrictions of a grammar designed for Western understanding, hence positing the Western way as the correct way. Same goes for seeing the aesthetic approach of manga as uniform 'comics,' as it's supposedly an inevitable prodding of the non-English art into the English mold of critique. I don't know if I sign on to that, but I can pick up whispers of it in online conversations among artcomics folk hoping that all these manga-lovin' kids one day mature into the type of adult that'll read [INSERT PERSONAL ENGLISH-ORIGINAL FAVORITE HERE].
But if I was prodded, I'd say I try to think of all the world of sequential art as one wide body. I doubt the realities of publication will make it easy any time soon.
SPURGEON: What did you think of the Dupuy/Berberian books?
Never got to obtaining them. I will sometime. I've enjoyed all the stuff they've had translated into English so far, and I'm always impressed with how the two of them maintain a balance of light comedy and authentic pathos. Good, sophisticated fun.
SPURGEON: Since Bob Levin doesn't have a book out this year, are there any 2006 books
on comics you'd care to recommend? Do you even read books on comics?
Oh sure, when I have time. Most recently I enjoyed Todd Hignite's In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists
, which I'm presuming everyone who's read this far down the page has already heard of, but it's excellent. Nine artists are sat down, and each writes up a series of paragraphs and miniature essays, describing in their own words their approaches to art, their influences, their thinking, their procedures, all of it copiously illustrated. Very simple, very effective.
Does Dan Nadel's Art Out of Time
count? It's a lot more of a classic comics anthology than a book 'about' comics, but it's an education regardless just seeing some of this rare material. God, I'm still thinking about The Wiggle Much
SPURGEON: Is there a book that impressed you this year that you think may have been little talked about or under-discussed?
Oh, definitely Japan As Viewed By 17 Creators
. I don't think it's much of a surprise that it hasn't been talked about very much, because all anecdotal evidence I've come across indicates that people have had a pretty hard time even finding copies. I really like a lot of what Fanfare/Ponent Mon has released in English, but there's little denying that their distribution is very spotty and their advertising presence is dim; I've never once seen a copy of this book in any comics shop or bookstore, save for the single copy I personally bought the day of its release through Diamond, and it wasn't available at any of the big online booksellers for a good while after its release. You couldn't buy it direct, or at least I never figured out a way to pull it off. You were basically forced to special order it from somewhere for a couple months, though I notice Amazon has it now, so at least there's that. I know Fanfare/Ponent Mon secured some bookstore distribution deal a while ago, but from my first-hand experience it's only gotten their back catalog onto the shelves.
So, it's not really all that strange that there's little chat about the book, but it's absolutely one of the best things I've read all year. It's a themed anthology of Asian and European artists, edited by Frederic Boilet
and Masanao Amano
, in which all of the stories are somehow inspired by specific areas of Japan. Eight of the contributors live in Japan, and nine were invited to different areas of the country as visitors. Themed anthologies naturally run the risk of sameness among the contributions, or superficiality in the artists' engagement with what's presented to them, but this one avoids nearly every pitfall I can think of, and maybe that's because the book's premise is both really broad and super-specific at the same time. You wind up getting fantasy and historical fiction and autobiography, and surrealism and fable and all kinds of stuff, but it's all very connected to the land, a specific portion of the land, so there's also a real grounding in specificity that keeps everything from just floating away.
It's very cannily constructed, very much a singular work; apparently there was a typhoon while a bunch of the European artists were visiting, so that inescapably winds up serving as a specific connecting fiber for a number of the stories, but beyond that there's a tangible sense of frailty before the might of land and time and wind and shit that crisscrosses a lot of the contributions. Fits right in with the title itself. JAPAN in big words. Lots of tiny plot connections between some of the stories, contributors visiting other contributors, and a lot of focus on cross-cultural influence. The best thing in the book is probably Nicolas de Crecy
's story, which is literally narrated by the manifestation of an abstract idea, which sounds so pretentious that you want to die, but it's a great, funny, lacerating combination of self-effacement and genuine appreciation for the hold a foreign atmosphere can have on even a bad-faith soul's capacity for creativity. Emmanuel Guibert
has this illustrated prose story that's supposedly about artists in early '20s Kyoto, but is actually about the Atelier des Vosges
workshop in the mid-'90s, and this fascinating sense of cross-cultural, cross-temporal human kinship emerges.
There's still a real difference in approach between the cultures. The European artists seem much more comfortable playing with the formal properties of the medium, mixing up narratives and switching storytelling styles around on the fly. There's lots of formalism at work; it's pretty self-conscious. The Japanese artists, manga-bred, on the whole seem much more interested in the surface aspects of direct storytelling, like the immediate impact of images and speed of information. There's a bunch of stories that delve into some pretty dense iconography, but it's generally presented to instantly strike the reader with information in the execution of sleek stories, rather than pull them into the depths of how icons and text coalesce on the page. I think a lot of it is differences in comics traditions between cultures, and it's a strong, largely wordless counterpoint to the kinship before influence and rain that runs through the rest of the book.
I really liked it. I haven't heard a lot about it, but wow I really enjoyed that book.
SPURGEON: Finally, what are you doing for the holidays?
Taking a week and a half off work. Heading up north to see my family. Sitting around yule log, burning the tree, and kissing reindeer under the mistletoe. Updating my site. The usual.
Jog The Blog
posted 11:38 pm PST
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