Wednesday, June 08, 2005

My Favorite Comics Can Beat Up Your Favorite Comics

(Author's note: I'm against comics about comics. It's insular and inaccessible. So, in a move of no hypocrisy at all, here's a blog post in response to a post on this very blog):

In the comment thread for Greg's negative review of James Kochalka'sSuper Fuckers (yeah, I'm not using the asterisk; hopefully I haven't scarred too many young minds), a debate occurred. But it wasn't about the merits of the comic Greg was talking about. Instead, it covered a different topic, one that's had a few permutations; which faction produces more crappy comics, the mainstream/superhero/franchise comic companies or the indie/alternative/small/tiny press.

In the "indie comics are crappily drawn black and white mope fests"* corner, we have Christopher Burton:

I'd go so far as to say that there is a greater proportion of Indie books that suck than there are mainstream books that suck. Don't get me wrong. I don't differentiate between the two by claiming one is better than the other. A good book is a good and a lousy book is a lousy book regardless of the publisher.

Man's got a point.

I think there are more sucky Indie books because Indie publishing is largely the minor leagues of comic publishing. Boot camp. A training ground for creators who are developing their skills. And that's not bad. I'm glad we have it. The cream always rises to the top.

And this is where he loses me, at least partially. Because I don't see indie comics a farm league to the majors of the bigger companies. Unless you're including the likes of Oni, Planet Lar, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, and the like in that list. Some creators careers work that way (Bendis and Brubaker are two that spring to mind), and I have no beef with that. I like seeing creators who cut their teeth on indie work do genre work for Marvel, DC, Image, and Dark Horse. It brings different voices to those comics, and that's definitely something the mainstream needs (that's why I'm in favor of people from other mediums working in comics, too). But I don't consider people who work at indie companies for the majority of their career to be "working in the minors." I wouldn't ever think that of Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Chester Brown or Dave Sim, to name a few.

Greg chimed in with his own thoughts:

Yeah, I agree with that, it just seems like occasionally, people like something just because it's indy - and that phenomenon is NOT limited to comics. Call something lousy if it's lousy, not because "the man" produced it.

I think there's some truth to this. I've never dug people who dismiss all mainstream comics as terrible because there are a lot of bad ones and I find a lot of indie bolsterism as tiresome as somebody trying to convince me that Hulk could totally beat up Superman. I kind of doubt that's why Super Fuckers is popular, though, simply because I'd sooner think that if it's overrated (I haven't read it yet, so I can't say), it's because Kochalka has a pretty rabid fanbase. In fact, here's a member of it now, from Team "mainstream comics are souless, assembly line produced pablum"*, Mr. Eliot Johnson!:

...And for anyone who doesn't understand Kochalka...every bit of Kochalka's work (be it art or music) has the initial intent of being fun. And it almost always is. Which is why I love his work. Then, you have further layers...from thought-provoking (Magic Boy & Robot Elf) to satirical (Peanutbutter & Jeremy) to touching (The Sketchbook Diaries at times) to hilarious (Monkey vs Robot book and album). But, James Kochalka is awesome because his work is fun.

I'm not going to make fun of that last line, because I've professed my love for Astonishing X-Men for no better reason than that it appeals to me on a nostalgic level and has pretty art. But, let it be known that I could, if I really wanted to be a dick. Anyway, here he is on the "indie vs. mainstream" tally of craptasticity:

...And the percentage of DC/Marvel books that suck is much greater than the percentage of indie books that suck. But, yeah, most indie books suck just like most DC/Marvel books suck. I think Dark Horse has the best lack-of-suckiness percentage, though.

I'm tempted to ask for facts and figures on the suck percentage, but then it would turn in to a political debate, and that's more tedious than any combination of indie vs. mainstream showdowns. Even "Who could beat up Modok faster and with more pathos, Craig Thompson or the Thing?"** I do think that he's got a point about Dark Horse, among the "Big 4" companies, but with Usagi Yojimbo, Hellboy and Lone Wolf and Cub in their back catalogue, they're not playing fair.

In order to get the strongest statement on this topic, we need a man with a penchant for bold discourse. A man of action. A man who I don't want to anger, because he could probably make me cry with his withering prose. A man who founded this blog and then got out before he had to share bandwith with me. Joe Rice is a man, or so I've heard, so he'll do:

DC and Marvel put out book after book after book and they're completely terrible, except for maybe one or two. Just utter pandering drek. Most of the other companies are trying to do the same thing, even when they pretend that they're not. Just more genre horseshit designed to appeal to the same old nerds. Now, I'd say most indie books are bad just like most mainstream, but I don't think mainstream will really benefit from a percentage comparison.

Now, that's an assessment that will put hair on your chest. And then rip it off with its bare hands. While I don't entirely agree with his numbers, and have never quite figured out what the difference between pandering and writing for an audience is, I think the man ultimately makes the best point to be made in an indie vs. mainstream tussle, although on the flip side of the coin. As much as I love reading good mainstream (re: adventure) comics, even I have to admit that comparing the output of the best of the indies vs. the best of the mainstream will always tilt toward the latter, just because something like Love and Rockets is aiming higher than New Frontier. I enjoy both immensely, but I can't deny that there's more ambition and cultural relevance in the best of the indies than the best of the mainstream. (Tim O'Neil covered this in more eloquently and... longer, in his essay about critical standards).

And now that I've come out in favor of a side in this argument, or at least the indie v. mainstream kerfuffle, I'll call bullshit on the whole affair. Who cares which "faction" of comics has more crap to its name? Why in the hell do we have to split comics effectively in half between "this side" and "that side," or "my side" and "your side." Who cares if indie comics can beat up mainstream comics, or vice versa? It's no different than arguing about superhero fights, politics, or any other "my team is better than your team" situation. Do you really want to be in the same category as the staff of Wizard Magazine and the Fox News Channel? The only side a comic falls on that really matter is good comics vs. bad comics.*** It doesn't matter who publishes them.

*- A gross oversimplification of Mr. Burton's position. He did reccomned Brian read Rodger Langridge, after all, so I think he's got at least a valid indie cred card.
**- Like there's any question that it's Ben Grimm. Thompson's got pathos, but he's not a hideous orange monster who longs to be his old self. And Modok would totally kill Craig Thompson. Unless he became a cyborg in Carnet de Voyage. I haven't read that yet.
***- Well, I do think another worthy category to consider a comic by is buoyancy, but it fucks up my symmetry.

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Blogger Joe Rice said...

Bravo, Brad, Bravo. Even though I was involved in the discussion, I agree with your assessment that it's pointless. I just got my feathers ruffled when I saw guys talkin' smack.

6/09/2005 08:33:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Cunard said...

While I [...] have never quite figured out what the difference between pandering and writing for an audience is...

In my opinion, the difference is:

When you're pandering, you're giving an audience exactly what it wants or, more directly, what it thinks it wants.

When you're writing for an audience, you're giving them something they want or need, even though they might not realize it until they see it on the page.

6/09/2005 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Godwin's Law: 90% of everything is shit.

As to the indies being the minor leagues, the majors are certainly content to use them for that function, but you're right about it also being a place for long-term careers.

6/09/2005 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger Christopher Burton said...

First of all, Brad, kudos! This was a great piece. In responding to Greg’s review, I was shooting from the hip and, when you do that, sometimes you hit your target and sometimes you don’t. It's not until you're quoted that you unmistakably realize what you did and didn't say.

Perhaps I made a poor choice of analogy. In employing the baseball analogy, I didn’t intend to imply that I think comic creators who have traditionally toiled in the indie market should aspire to writing Batman or The X-Men, both of which bore the hell out of me. In baseball, most Minor Leaguers are probably working towards the majors. In comics, some indie creators are working towards Marvel/DC superhero work and, in this respect, indie comics are a kind of a Minor League. The analogy breaks down when we consider, as you’ve pointed out, creators like Dave Sim and Chris Ware who probably don’t have any desire to do a Superman comic (although that would rock).

Personally, I would prefer that comic creators hone their skills and create something of their own and then devote themselves to it until the high quality of their work is indisputable. Over time, presumably, they would gain greater and greater recognition. This is what I meant when I said that the cream always rises to the top. I didn’t mean “the top” to equal Marvel/DC superhero comics.

This doesn’t void the fact that a lot of indie comics suck because the people creating them haven’t fully developed their craft, nor does it mean that mainstream comics possess integral quality.

Do you really want to be in the same category as the staff of Wizard Magazine and the Fox News Channel? The only side a comic falls on that really matter is good comics vs. bad comics.*** It doesn't matter who publishes them.

No. No, I don’t, dammit. And you’re right. We’re totally mooting our points, but it’s probably a pointless line of thought.

6/09/2005 10:36:00 AM  
Blogger Eliot Johnson said...

If that wasn't funny and/or right, I'd be angry. But, it's both, so everything's cool.

And I think you missed following up on an asterisk with calling "a member of Team 'mainstream comics are souless, assembly line produced pablum'*"

But, hey, i'd join any team with pablum in the name, so the asterisk isn't really necessary (even though I do enjoy many a mainstream comic).

6/09/2005 12:47:00 PM  
Blogger layne said...

That's Sturgeon's Revelation, Michael. Godwin's Law states the inevitability of a Hitler/Nazi comparison being used in a flame war. And then there's Layne's Law, which states that I will completely ignore the point of a conversation in the unholy name of pedantry.

Layne's Law: Coming This Fall On NBC!

6/09/2005 05:51:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Lewis said...

I really enjoyed this piece, Brad. Let me also add how odd I found it that SuperFuckers had the asterisk to begin with. Given how free-spirited and uninhibited Kochalka's work is supposed to be -- after all, the man's done a book about a frog with a boner -- doesn't this censoring really go against the whole nature of the thing (as well as his niche market)?

6/09/2005 09:56:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Pheley said...

I kinda took the "censoring" as a joke, particularly given there's plenty of cursing within the book itself.

Although I guess there's also a need to keep it out of Diamond's "adult supplement" -- though Diamond's listing for the comic had more of the letters replaced by asterisks anyway.

6/09/2005 10:20:00 PM  
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