Thursday, September 15, 2005

Dashed Off

I am behind on deadline, and writing a column without any idea of what I’m going to write next. I am entirely free associating here, which is never a good idea. This could be an interesting disaster, or worse, a boring disaster. You have been warned, dear reader.

There are times where I start to wonder if I’m one of the bad comic readers. You know, the ones that are Killing The Industry and not doing enough to push things forward, to paraphrase Mike Skinner. I mean, oh sure, I worship at the altar of Eddie Campbell and Nick Abadzis like any good person should (and therefore worship First Second Books, who launch next year with new works by both creators. They also have new Jessica Abel work. It’s as if they looked at my bookshelf and thought about how best to get money out of me. If they announce an Aimee Bender/James Jean collaboration any time soon, then I’ll know for sure that that’s what they’re doing), but is that enough? That’s what I keep having to ask myself. Are those just painfully small parts of a comic whole that is still predominately owned by the superhero genre?

What brought this to mind most recently was my reading, a couple of weeks ago, of both volumes (so far) of Flight, the critically-acclaimed anthology of mostly-new creators that - if you believe the hype - are going to be the Next Important Talents in the industry. Or, rather, what brought this to mind was the fact that I was left kind of cold by both books. It’s not that I hated them, or even really disliked them. It’s more that I didn’t have any strong reaction to them at all; they were pretty, and some of the stories - Derek Kirk Kim’s in the first volume in particular - were great, but the majority of the writing felt flat and undeveloped. It felt as if the praise for the books had come from people who were far too eager for there to be a Next Important Talent to actually wait until said talents had sufficiently honed their skills.

The problem, of course, isn’t that the books left me cold in isolation. No, the problem becomes more clear when I tell you that Street Angel also was something that I just liked, instead of loved. And when I tell you that I thought that, while technically excellent, Ice Haven felt sterile, as if it was the work of someone who had read lots of interesting things but never really experienced anything themselves. Not to mention that my manga reading has consisted, at this point in my life, of under ten books.

Meanwhile, I find myself buying at least two superhero books every single week, and am kind of looking forward to Infinite Crisis, despite myself. But, you know, shhhh. Keep that to yourself.

It’s weird that I genuinely feel slightly embarrassed at admitting all of that, as if I’m somehow failing the medium, the industry and probably this very website. I keep on wondering if it’s something to do with the medium itself; in terms of prose, I tend to entirely stay away from the strong genre works in favor of self-consciously quirky fiction or non-fiction books of every stripe and color. Maybe, I think to myself in my darkest moments, it’s not my failing, but the failing of the entire history of comic books.

You see, superhero comics have this entirely different background in my life that gives them an "in" that the other comics that I read don’t have; I literally grew up with these characters, and so have some sick nostalgic bond to them, in some way. It doesn’t matter when the writing on, say, JLA falls short in some way because my long history with the characters in one form or another allows me to subconsciously fill-in-the-blanks. Long-running superhero books with devoted fan bases can afford to be underwritten for the majority of the time - in fact, it may even be a plus - because the reader can bring whatever ideas they have in their head about the characters to the book. The devotion leads to a readership all-too-forgiving of lazy or bad writing, and so the writers can afford to get lazier, and the readership becomes less discerning because they get more and more used to bad storytelling, and before you know it, you have House of M and me looking forward to Infinite Crisis.

New books, on the other hand, don’t have any nostalgic leeway before I start reading them; they’re judged cold, and inevitably found wanting (Another reason that I think I find a lot of non-genre books lackluster, and one that is entirely down to my lizard brain, is that the ones that I read are generally in genres that I’m already interested in in other media, and for some reason I find myself judging them by the criteria of that other media. No, I don’t really know why I do that. Yes, when I think about it, I think it’s dumb, too) unless they meet some other emotional touchstone hidden somewhere inside my head or heart. This may be why books like Local or Flytrap made more of an impression on me, because I could connect with the emotional core of the story much easier than I could the more abstract Flight tales.

(I had a theory once that the average comic length - 22 pages, give or take - wasn’t long enough for the writing to have the complexity of even a well-written short story; I wasn’t suggesting that this was a fault of comic writers, but of the comic format, which had to give weight to other concerns, such as keeping things visually interesting by having a stronger external narrative than interior. But then I discovered Kevin Huizenga’s work, and realized that I was just talking nonsense to myself.)

The sad thing, I guess, is that I’m aware that I judge the comics that I’m interested in unevenly, giving more credit to the superhero books than they deserve, and less to the books that - well, probably deserve it, and yet I still do it without making any effort to change. There's probably some witty rejoinder I should be writing here about how I represent the majority of the direct market in that manner, if I stopped to think about it. Alternatively, the sad thing might just be that I’m looking forward to Infinite Crisis.