Are we done with decompression yet?
As in most pop culture, fashion is unavoidable in comics. Not that it’s a subject that often crops up; as a rule we tend to view fashion as something that exists outside. Graphic novels are fashionable. Comics are unfashionable. That sort of thing.
But fashion is simply tribalism: a tool to enforce allegiance to a group or subculture, and a visible badge of membership. Pop culture — comics aren’t exempt – runs on fashion, a continual cascade of it that in many sectors of pop culture is now very consciously and cynically designed to separate consumers, in a mindless rush to demonstrate how on top of trends they are at all times, from their money. This has been the general approach for some time, and at that level fashion is angled downward; clothes designers, for instance, don’t survey women to learn what kinds of clothes they’d prefer to wear. They decide the styles and types of clothes women will wear (men and children, too, of course, but their styles tend to stay more static than women’s clothes, metrosexuality aside) and fashion moves downward, through varying profit layers, to the general public. Last year, “we” decide women want to be casual but relaxed, both sexy and comfortable in their clothes. This year, women want to feel more formal and glamorous. Next year, women will want to be frivolous and fun, carefree and sassy. It’s all a con, of course. Most women’s — most people‘s — lives don’t change significantly from one year to the next, and most of us can do very nicely with a few shirts, a couple pairs of cheap jeans (none of that designer twaddle), a jacket or sweater or two, a couple pairs of shoes. A decent suit. You could cover all your clothing needs relatively inexpensively. But this would not keep the clothing industry going. So the clothing industry becomes the fashion industry, which declares that staying in fashion is the highest goal of civilization, regardless of cost. Is not the price a small cost to pay to achieve the goal?
As with most things, this tends to work better in times when money is easy to come by. But it’s only commerce, playing on insecurity and novelty.
Of course, comics have no mechanism like this. Hollywood tries it — studios and TV networks are always trying to tell audiences what they’ll want to see, and lose a lot of money doing it though occasionally a winner crops up — and record companies have been trying to exist off it for almost two decades now, telling buyers what they will want. For awhile that maximized profits and gave the major companies near-total control of their output; it worked while it worked. It doesn’t, anymore, leaving the record companies in a fairly helpless frenzy to get their profits back up to their glory days.
That’s a huge problem with fashion: you can fool all of the people some of the time, but novelty is a cornerstone of fashion and when novelty wears off, fashions crash. Hard. When you train people that they’re somehow not complete if they’re not fashionable, suddenly not being fashionable is the road to hell. Because fashion is commerce, it’s sold to the public as a lifestyle necessity, but it’s there to support someone else’s lifestyle. But that’s the funny thing: pretty much only the clothing industry approaches fashion as cyclical, where novelty has to be continually reintroduced to keep the cycle going. Almost everyone else seems to view fashion success the way we prefer to view heroism: as a steady state condition. Despite the thousands of struggling washouts who once had a successful idea and copped the attitude that what succeeds in the moment will always succeed, everyone always believes that their successful idea will be forever.
But the odds are infinitely better that everything fashionable will eventually become a hula hoop, and these days sooner than later. Especially these days, when it’s common practice to not only abandon one fashion for another but to actively backlash against the first, where the continued enjoyment of such signifies a deficiency of taste and invites social stigma. To paraphrase Lou Reed: fashion is “a straight line that finds a wealth in division.”
And some kinds of love are mistaken for vision.
Comics have always been fashion victims, beyond the obvious meaning of the phrase. There’s a definition of censorship that’s an equally good definition of fashion: an opinion enforced by an organization. That’s traditionally how comics publishers have operated, imposing house styles on talent and trying to tell telling audiences what they’ll like. The business lasted for some 40 years doing that, with massive casualties along the way. It was easier in the early days of comics when comics themselves were a novelty, and even then publishers spent much time sniffing out new fashions, what to copy in order to sell books. Like I’ve said before, nothing exceeds like success. Publish Superman, CRIME DOES NOT PAY, TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and suddenly everyone’s got one. Or three. Or twenty. Call it fashion, trends, fads, the rage, it doesn’t matter; hopping on a bandwagon has always been seen as the quickest road to a quick buck.
(Fans, too, obsess on fashion, usually without recognizing it as that; they have always collectivized around their particular tastes and scorned those who don’t share them. In fandom, there is rarely “just different”; it’s us and them. Like pop music fans who believe listening to the Jam makes you innately better than those who listen to Duffy. That’s to be expected, it’s the tribalism thing I spoke of. The trouble comes when fan viewpoints don’t mature as those fans enter the business, when they cling to their badges of identity and trying to serve the tribe they still identify with rather than broaden their horizons. Unfortunately, these are things many in the business fail to recognize, since many now rose from fandom.)
I’m not complaining, just noting; this is how publishers have always operated, and it’ll continue. If some character gets successful shooting guns or waving claws, the number of gun-toting or claw-waving characters will proliferate. Before roughly 1988, characters dressed in quasi-bondage outfits were anathema, too suggestive, and when they occasionally showed up the effect was startling, where it wasn’t ridiculous. By the mid-90s, it was the fashion in comics to deck female characters out in the sluttiest outfits possible short of outright porn, and male characters in leathers, chains, spikes and other rough trade accoutrements. That was on one end of the market. On the other end, comics had been rediscovered, for the umpteenth time, by “the outside world,” with college students in particular seen as a target audience, and various journalists writing up touting a small range of pivotal work that always seemed to be the exact same thing, as if that was all the journalistic community was allowed to read: WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, SANDMAN. (I know there were a couple other things that always made the list, but they’re not leaping to mind right now.)
Which made it, um, fashionable not only to jump someone else’s train, as always, but to market yourself that way: we are of the fashion you love! Not that there haven’t been alternatives, but those have been commonly marketed as counter fashion or “protest” fashion, defined, at least in their launch days, by what they’re not, not what they are: don’t like that fashion, like this fashion! More often than not, this kind of self-promotion is accompanied by scorn for those who choose a different direction.
The trap, as always, is that while it takes only one element — a specific type of character, a new narrative style, an unusual or otherwise notable art style – to launch a fashion, fashion reduces that element to only its easily reproducible aspects. The core of Neil Gaiman’s work, for instance, is Neil Gaiman’s perspective, and his ear for language. Which are the two things those inspired by Neil Gaiman’s work are most unlikely to duplicate. This is the difference between fashion and style, in our world: fashion is a commercial consideration you’re trying to tap into, style is your worldview revealed in your work.
That doesn’t give anyone’s worldview any special validity, it only means that’s what separates their work from everyone else’s.
So fashion presents a special challenge for comics talent. I was talking to a comics editor last week who expressed the — correct, in my opinion, with caveats — that comics talent shouldn’t be concerned with what else is being done in the business, they should do their work to please themselves. In a perfect world, that would be the perfect approach. But we live in a world of intermediaries between us and the reader – publishers, editors, retailers, distributors — and assorted tastemakers who see their function as determining who should be successful (i.e. fashionable) and who shouldn’t. Virtually all of them pay lip service to the concept of the artist following his muse… but, in practice, only when that muse comes to the same conclusion they do. (There are exceptions, the editor I spoke with being one, but even he’s forced to deal with commercial considerations.)
Leaving talent in a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to figure out what’s fashionable in storytelling and art; you only have to look at what’s being published. If your muse, your worldview, takes you in directions officially scorned, do you continue in those directions and toil in obscurity and poverty, or do you shift to more desirable paths and earn a living?
It’s not like there’s a proper answer to that. Everyone decides for themselves. But one of the most disheartening experiences of my career was having a good artist tell me, c. 1995, the only way he could get work was to mimic the Rob Liefeld style, and then, barely 18 months later, watching him virtually barred from mainstream comics because Image was in market decline and the Liefeld style was no longer desirable.
We all have to deal, creatively, with the fashions of the day in one way or another, but selling yourself to a fashion, to something that doesn’t flow from within you, is a terrible idea. Fashions die. That’s the bottom line. They die and are replaced. Publishers can try to sell fashions to the audience but ultimately only the audience decides what they buy. Talent and publishers alike, there are those who stay ahead of fashion, or outside it, and those who don’t and cling doggedly to a fashion, and those are the ones who end up in trouble.
I was kidding about decompressed storytelling. Sort of. Spoke with a writer for one of the mainstream companies a couple months back, who flat out said the value of decompression was that he didn’t have to come up with as much plot. Decompression is a storytelling technique cribbed from the Japanese, who developed it in a completely different cultural context; it has a contemplative element foreign to American comics, and that was what gave it impact here. When Warren Ellis popularized it in THE AUTHORITY, one of the very few superhero comics to find creative and commercial success in the late ’90s (especially surprising since it launched out of the floundering STORMWATCH), he adapted deconstruction as a means of building negative space into narrative and using it as a highlighter, the way negative space is used in art; not a vacuum, in his stories it delivered implied information. It generated emotional impact, and a sensation of weight and density.
It’s a great technique when used properly.
But it’s not used properly now. It’s mostly used because it’s fashionable, among talent and publishers who don’t sense the fashion crumbling, through overuse and misuse and growing audience ennui. It’s not the only fashionable storytelling tool/gimmick that’s getting that reaction. But fashion is not what we do, it’s at best only a byproduct of what we do. Fixating on it consciously is bad enough, but applying it unconsciously as a limiter on what we should do is disaster in the making because, as the music industry has discovered, limiting options to the fashions we approve of may keep an audience from discovering other options, but they leave anyway.
It’s not that we’re approaching a danger zone, it’s that we’re always in a danger zone. As long as the business makes decisions based on what’s fashionable, and fashion’s not going away anytime soon. The nature of fashion is transient, and operating as though a particular fashion is a permanent fixture is suicide. So the question isn’t when the abyss will open up, it’s how long it’ll take anyone to admit they’re plummeting.
This week I read:
From IDW Publishing:
BARACK OBAMA by Jeff Mariotte & Tom Morgan; JOHN McCAIN by Andy Helfer & Stephen Thompson ($3.99@)
Pretty good comics designed to encourage voting in the November election, presenting respective biographies of the candidates, and humanizing both in a way the political process and mainstream media have so far botched completely. McCain fans might suspect a bit of bias; while the travails Obama’s bio focuses on involve mostly abuse from fellow schoolchildren for his name and heritage, and launches with his darkest moment — Hillary Clinton’s apparent delegate sweep toward the White House — McCain’s covers territory like him breaking under torture as a prisoner of war and signing off on anti-American propaganda, learning that his Civil War hero great-great grandfather was a slaveowner, his bad habit of crashing planes while a fighter pilot in the Navy, and his wife’s drug addiction. But both stick closely to the public record. I’m not sure why Don Rickles is on the cover of the McCain comic, but otherwise very solid, interestingly done bio-comics that may give you perspective not many other sources have bothered with.
From Red Twilight Press:
DEATH OF THE SWEETHEART #3 by Frank Verano & Nick Klinger ($3.50)
One of the more interesting independent comics out there. The creators specialize in high contrast art and rapidfire cut-up storytelling — and lettering in obvious mimicry of Eddie Campbell, now that I think about it — in a jagged tale of a fledgling rock band trying to cope with rivalries, internal struggles, random violence and the heightening commercialization of their dreams. The writing gets a bit too elliptical for its own good, and the ending’s something of a Rorschach test, but it’s clever, ambitious and inventive, and no comics that name-checks Arthur Machen can be all bad. Not exactly recommended — I suspect most readers will have trouble with it —but worth a look. (For those who wonder, a vignette documentary on Brian Wilson’s abortive SMILE lp proves, yes, Verano & Klinger can be quite linear and coherent when it suits them.)
STRANGE EMBRACE & OTHER NIGHTMARES by David Hine & Rob Steen ($34.99)
One of the better horror comics of the last couple decades, in a really nice hardcover edition. Hines’ lengthy epic evokes a sexual dread that conjures up both Charles Burns & Junji Ito, though his work resembles neither’s. There’s a bit of Neil Gaiman in the story and of Kevin O’Neill in the art as an immigrant British boy falls under the influence of a mysterious stranger who reads minds and collects stories, and delights in the mad, lethal secrets of others. It’s cleverly plotted, veering into a lengthy tale of Edwardian infidelity and madness before returning to the original story in a crescendo of murder and manipulation. Hine’s art hits just the right balance of reality and monstrosity. Includes additional artwork, the original covers, an interview and earlier short works done for various British comics. Quite impressive. Why haven’t we seen more from him?
From Arcana Comics:
THE CLOCKWORK GIRL by Sean O’Reilly & Kevin Hanna ($14.95)
Arcana’s one of those companies that doesn’t seem to get much attention, and a cursory glance at their books — mostly fantasy material drawn in children’s book style — might suggest it’s the usual trivial junk many tiny comics companies put out, but that isn’t the case with this imaginative fantasy, a Pinocchio-and-Juliet riff with a robot girl and a monster boy struggling for love as their fathers pit them against each other. It’s surprisingly sweet little story, confidently written and charmingly drawn, and anyone complaining there are no “all ages” comics available aren’t looking this direction.
Interesting debate strategy the McCain-Palin team came up with last week: spend several days outing Palin as a jolly imbecile to sink expectations of her debate performance so rock bottom that when she managed to get “aw, shucks” out thirty or forty times without screwing it up it could be touted as evidence she can “hold her own.”
It occurred to me, in the midst of all this, not that these “debates” are pointless (everyone already knows that) but they exist mainly for the news media, to suggest it’s still somehow relevant. Their value as dog-and-pony show is minimal (candidates are so rehearsed now; does anyone really think, with Palin in captivity for a week undergoing debate training at the McCain compound, that McCain’s sole debate advice was really “be yourself and have fun”? Thinking about it, maybe his was; his full staff of image managers probably provided the good advice.) and it’s been decades since they provided any actual information except by inference (we’re supposed to judge their character by how they comport themselves, but that, too, is ridiculously rehearsed). But they give the network and journalists — the “moderators” — a continued air of authority and gravitas, an illusion that they still play a role in presidential politics.
While trying to adhere to the ludicrous new journalistic “standard” of “objectivity” that replaced a duty to the facts with a total vacuum of perspective. The candidates themselves don’t “debate”: they just spit out talking points, also without much context or perspective. Aren’t debates where candidates are supposed to challenge each other’s views and their underlying premises? The Obama-McCain debate was little more than sniping, with McCain repeating “Senator Obama doesn’t get it” over and over until it became a running, immediately dismissible gag (the McCain/Palin camp doesn’t seem to get how much we’re now trained by decades of bad TV and drinking games to treat endlessly repeated catch phrases not as viral memes, though that’s clearly the idea, but as stupid jokes) and Palin’s repetition of the phrases “maverick/s” (frankly, every time I hear that word, “Who is the tall dark stranger there/Maverick is the name/riding the range to who knows where” etc., starts running through my head) and “Washington insiders) became just as silly. Both were certainly more amusing than their Democratic counterparts — the impression Obama and Biden left from the debates was undeniably less memorable, at least in the specifics, and notably less clownlike, which as probably not the result the Republicans were going for — but if the only point of the debates now is to demonstrate mannerisms, it’s no wonder polls have the Democrats winning both hands down.
But wouldn’t debates be far more interesting if run by well-educated, well-informed moderators with fact-checkers right at hand, who, rather than preside over the whole thing like a third grade teacher directing a class pageant where everyone’s supposed to feel good about themselves at the end, stepped back where possible to let candidates “take the gloves off” (as the McCain camp says the senator will do now) and confront each other directly, and step in to enforce the rules and correct (or at least force an explanation of) factual errors candidates – any candidates – spew to justify their positions, and, especially, to keep asking a question until a candidate answers it instead of allowing candidates to ignore whatever’s asked and answer a question of their own choosing that gets them back to their – this campaign’s big catch phrase — “talking points.” Instead, as “journalists” now prefer to give equal weight to all statements and leave it to others, like bloggers and late night comedians, to fact check and contradict, well after the fact, presidential debate commentators seem content to be there just for show, and the credit on their resumes.
Or maybe the best format wouldn’t be debates at all. Give each candidate two hours in a room with “opposition” journalists, and a small set of rules: the candidate gets three uninterrupted minutes to answer any question, and questions must be serious, relating to serious issues, and not of the “when did you stop beating your wife?” category concocted to promote the opposition candidate, and follow-up questions are allowed. Don’t we really want to see how these candidates can hold their own in contentious situations? Don’t we really want to see them answer hard questions that force them to explain the thinking behind their positions? Do we really want campaigns composed of nothing more than crowd-managed photo ops, where asking difficult questions is denounced as sabotage, partisanship and, in Palin’s case, sexism?
Of course, it’s Tuesday for me, so I haven’t seen tonight’s debate, so I don’t know whether McCain will go whole-hog on character assassination like his campaign is now threatening. (I hope that if McCain trots out “William Ayers” Obama trots out “Charles Keating,” which is likely the more devastating name in the current economic crisis, especially since Obama, eight at the time, did nothing to aid the Weather Underground but McCain snooped around a congressional investigation into Keating’s financial double-dealings on request from the eventually convicted financier.) Given how even Newsweek is outlining how McCain’s health care plan would suck for many Americans and not do anything to improve the situation, and Republicans are still being widely blamed for the current Wall St. fiasco, McCain’s quickly losing ground on issues, so he may have no choice other than abandoning them, though since this time around a lot of Americans feel personally invested in many issues, esp. economic ones, a shift to personal politics may be widely viewed as desperation. (Even Republipundits are already calling them that.) Not that there’s not still a month until the election; that’s an eon in presidential campaign time. Obama doesn’t have it in the bag by any stretch, and his team would be idiots to think they do.
Especially since the Democrats keep missing great opportunities. During the Biden-Palin debates (Biden was fortunate that the press had become so keyed to await a Palin pratfall they paid little attention to the various factual conflations he blurted out, as is his wont) Palin castigated the Senator for once having supported the Iraq War but now opposing it, and used this to paint him as a doggone typical flip-floppin’ Washin’ton insider who’s not a real maverick, y’know hey. (Who is the tall dark stranger there…) Biden got a touch huffy at the accusation, but too bad he didn’t have the sense of humor to just hang his head in shame and reply, “I know, I know, that’s my Bridge To Nowhere.”
Notes from under the floorboards:
Don’t forget that my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic drawn by Scott Bieser is currently running at Big Head Press, while Boom! Studios continues to run TWO GUNS online. Both are free, so you’re out of excuses. Go! And Image still has the action-adventure graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE available, with maybe Tom Mandrake’s best art ever, so pester your retailer for it if you haven’t got it already.
Hmm. I was wondering, on reading a couple weeks back of newly-rediscovered early quasi-SUPERMAN strips written by Jerry Siegel but drawn by cartoonist Russell Keaton in 1936, whether that might present a pretext to strip Joe Shuster’s heirs of any claim to the property. (But didn’t Siegel & Shuster do their Superman version years earlier?) Its main legal effect so far, though, seems to be to bolster the Siegel family’s legal claim. DC’s lawyers, of course, are contesting the value of the discovery in every way imaginable, since it theoretically punches holes in any claims they have that Superman was a work-for-hire creation. We’ll see…
Australia has become the latest country to introduce resale payments to artists, meaning that if you bought an original Alex Ross painting for $10,000 and sold it for $50,000, Alex would be entitled to a cut of that $50,000. If this were Australia. Interesting concept to apply to comics, not that I’d imagine a similar law being passed in the USA anytime soon.
Seems some on Wall Street are considering not accepting the bailout package Washington recanted and passed last week. Partly because they’re bristling at the scant restrictions on CEO compensation and other limitations rammed into the bill to mollify a vehement public, but also because some on the Street are now thinking maybe the situation’s not all that desperate after all…
Not as desperate as Fed chairman Ben Bernanke, now scrambling to be seen as pro-active on the situation by — wait for it — cutting interest rates. We’re edging closer and closer to the day when banks will have to pay us when we borrow money…
All you evolution doubters out there may be interested to know naturalists seem to have found in Africa a species of fish in the process of splitting into two separate species as they cope with environmental variations. Read the other day, NEW SCIENTIST, I think it was, that a species of beetle as well looks like it’s evolving into several different species based on location.
Nothing special on TV lately — I’m enjoying the new AMAZING RACE, featuring a contestant connected to the San Diego Comic-Con which is about as close as I’ve come to knowing someone in the race so I’m rooting for “the home team,” which nearly landed first in the last leg, and the quirky cop show LIFE (NBC Mondays & Fridays 10P) is holding up nicely, while I still haven’t made up my mind on FRINGE (Tuesdays 9P) but I wish they’d light it a little less like THE X-FILES — but a couple possible debuts of note this week, both Thursdays 10P: LIFE ON MARS (ABC) & THE ELEVENTH HOUR (CBS). I’m not expecting much of either, but the casts are reason to give them a try. You may recall I saw the original pilot for LIFE ON MARS, a laughably awful remake of the British series (I didn’t like it either, though John Simm was good) with lantern-jawed Jason O’Mara as an L.A. cop inexplicably tossed back into 1973. It was apparently dumped and recast, retaining O’Mara, relocating to New York City and recasting with – what? – Harvey Keitel, Gretchen Mol, and THE SOPRANOS‘ Michael Imperioli. So I guess they’ll be imitating KOJAK instead of STARSKY & HUTCH now, but anything’d be better than how they started. The acting pedigree alone makes it worth at least one look. The very underrated and almost always interesting Rufus Sewell becomes the latest Brit actor (along with Hugh Laurie in HOUSE, Damian Lewis in LIFE, and I forget who else off the top of my head) to fake an American accent in the Bruckheimer factory’s ELEVENTH HOUR, as apparently as one of those generic, jack of all trades scientists that populated ’60s comics, who helps the FBI on “sciency” cases, in sort of a cross between NUMB3RS and BILL NYE, THE SCIENCE GUY. (Who has guested on NUMB3RS! The couple plotlines I’ve heard tread lightly into FRINGE territory, so the timing might be all wrong, but Sewell’s worth a look in anything.
It’s beginning to look like the last season for HEROES (NBC Mondays 9P), though, which is so far slipping disastrously. Which is too bad. I started watching again just to check out what familiar comics plotlines they’re nicking this year (they started out with X-MEN‘s “Days Of Future Past”… bet you didn’t see that coming) and it has been fairly entertaining as they monkey with various roles (both Sylar and Peter have bumped from villain and hero, respectively, to anti-hero, while the scientist Suresh has finally unraveled the biology of superpowers and is now reliving AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #100 after spending an episode climbing walls, hurling muggers around with spider-strength, and wondering what he’s turning into; he should’ve asked who instead) and introduce a quirky new crop of characters. But I can see why it’s diving. At this point they’re operating in “you already know who the characters are and what they do” mode. While it’s not impossible to figure out, it’s not interesting enough if you’re not already familiar with the show to make you want to spend the time to do it. Not when there’s TWO AND A HALF MEN (CBS) waiting in the wings to tax nothing but your patience.
By the way, NO HEROICS is no longer the worst Britcom in recent memory. That would now be the hideously unfunny LITTLE BRITAIN USA.
Congratulations to David Oakes, the first of many to spot last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “ripped-off characters.” And just in time, too; David wishes to spotlight next January’s Phoenix Comic Con. It’s three days long this year, they’re still adding guests from comics, media and animation, and it’s not too soon to start working out your travel plans. (Believe me, you could do worse than vacation in Phoenix in January.) Check it out.
For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme — it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there’s a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but I can’t do a thing about it, sorry. Good luck.
TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.
IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
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