ART FOR ART’S SAKE?: the bitter war between art and craft
VETERAN’S DAY POPPY: Rewriting the origins of the Irag Quagmire, and the new call to war
SAVING TV: what to watch as the ax starts to fall
NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: The Hernandez Brothers, one less printer to go around, forward into the past, adios Eddie, and more
I understand the general argument. It’s the punk rock argument, really, which I wholeheartedly support: you don’t have to be a “master” to express yourself through art, anyone can do it, and should, if they have something to express. Punk rock, of course, rose on twin tides of disgruntlement with an increasingly monolithic and self-referencing music industry, both here and in Britain, and, in Britain, the rise of the repressive Thatcherite government in a period of increasing social stratification and rapidly declining opportunity. In Britain, punk – the original punks never accepted that sobriquet – was a gigantic middle finger raised high in the face of all authority, and its unbridled energy was, and still is, exhilarating. In America, in its early stages, it was never really more than a primitivist art movement, born more of necessity than anger; it was an educated evolution of garage music. On both sides of the Atlantic, prior to punk, Psychedelic rock, itself originally a spinoff of garage music much ignored and derided by the music industry (at least until it started selling noticeable units), begat acid rock, which melded with art rock (again, another spinoff of garage rock, mostly by musicians educated enough in classical and jazz to want to go beyond three chords and three minutes) to beget “progressive” rock (though there was little genuinely progressive about most of it) and fusion and ultimately arena rock, which record and management companies strongly approved it – thousands of consumers packed into single venues, following a select handful of groups and musicians. (I notice Columbia Records has packaged a 30th anniversary edition of Bruce Springsteen’s breakthrough BORN TO RUN, which turned him into “the workingman’s poet” who simultaneously became “the new voice of his generation” – AKA “the new Dylan” – and a major arena rock star, and I realize very few are aware he was specifically groomed and marketed for that from the very beginning. Way back when, before BORN TO RUN, I knew a Columbia rep who specifically told me to jump on the Springsteen bandwagon – I never did, though I like a handful of his songs – because they were going to make him the Next Big Thing. Not that Springsteen would have made it for long without talent, which he certainly has, but it wasn’t any accident of whim of fate either.) Arena rock ultimately became not about music but about ticket sales. (What’s rarely mentioned is that the long, elaborate, often dreamy songs attendant to “progressive” arena rock were mainly made palatable by the copious intake of marijuana.)
Anyway, the punk rock attitude was a reaction against the heavy duty commercialization of music, and, in Britain, against the politics of the day. (Punk in America also became political, but not until the Reagan era.) Patti Smith, in a spoken coda she’d attach to various songs in concert, summed it up most succinctly: “We created it, let’s take it over!” (I heard her finish “Jailhouse Rock” with it as she swayed atop a ten foot speaker.) In one of his novels, author William Burroughs, himself considered a punk antecedent, expressed the general philosophy: Whoever says if something’s worth doing it’s worth doing well is dead wrong. If something’s worth doing it’s worth doing no matter how well you can do it.
Which is true. This is how we learn, by doing. (In the words of philosopher J.G. Bennett, “words are like maps, but one must also travel.”)
What isn’t necessarily true is that it will be worth it to someone else. And there’s the rub.
Though not many would admit it, the punk attitude was a huge influence on comics in the ’80s – the sense that the old ways are all used up and pointless, that it’s necessary to “take it back” from the old men – just as, in a bowdlerized and savagely distorted and commercialized form, it became the standard for pop culture that we’re still suffering under today. (Jon Savage, in his book on British punk, ENGLAND’S DREAMING, critic Jon Savage summarized the central motif of 20th century English youth culture in its many phases including punk as, “My dad’s a boring old fart. I hate my dad. I hate you. I’m going to kick your teeth in.” Which, in distilled form, is also now the principle American pop culture trots out to mask its endlessly nostalgic excesses.)
Anyway, somewhere along the line the punk ethic, which is that you don’t necessarily have to have great technical acuity to create something, devolved into the notion, frequently put forth in comics circles these days, that craft (which is to say, the development of formal technique) is a “sell-out” and that the really important element of comics creation (or any other creative art) is inspiration, the pursuit of one’s muse, the expression of one’s innermost soul. Which is half true. To a point. And a number of presumptions lie behind the equation.
At the heart of it, and at the heart of what passes for much comics criticism, is a sort of reverse art snobbery, an anti-intellectualism that often pervades American society: the notion that that which is studied is somehow robbed of virtue and made effete. Certainly there are whole schools of thought in comics, particularly in the alt-comics and small press worlds, that any sign of slickness, even of plot, is a sop to the mainstream. (Paralleling that was an attitude prevalent in the “mainstream” when I started writing comics professionally that any art or writing style that didn’t fit specific accepted molds was de facto bad, but those kinds of general standards eroded in the ’80s and ’90s due to a flood of both exceptional and exceptionally awful works that obliterated any concept of “standards,” and when they’re imposed these days they’re automatically understood to be merely the tastes of whoever’s in charge in that particular office and not a natural condition.) While there are really good comics that have been produced with a vehement resistance to the “corruption” of “technique,” there aren’t a ton of them. It’s like playing the lottery; buying a ticket will certainly put you in the running for the big prize, but it won’t really increase your odds any.
Then there’s the urge for instant gratification. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. Recently I was talking with someone about the new American concept of karma, how people keep talking about how they “believe in karma,” the principle (currently being made sport of on NBC’s MY NAME IS EARL) that doing good or bad acts will have immediate consequences in life. Whenever someone talks about how karma will catch up to someone who’s somehow wronged them, I ask, “You do realize that only works for your next life, right?” Karma, if you accept the concept (I don’t), isn’t an instant gratification thing. The world is filled with corrupt bastards sitting on piles of loot and utterly unfazed by how they came by it, and karma means nothing to them; your enemy may return to the world as a cockroach after death, but you’ll never know about it. But that’s not good enough for Americans, we have to have (or feel exists) a bowdlerized, non-scriptural form of karma that Gets Results NOW! This need for instant gratification is ground into the fabric of our society, and success is felt to be so much more impressive if you can be an overnight success. Egos are wrapped up in it. Mastering a craft is a slow, often painful procedure. It takes too long. (I’m saying this as someone who has never been particularly good with craft.) There’s too much ego teetering on the edge of creation. On the one hand, there’s the burning desire to be known, to get whatever passes for “your message” out there. Understandable, particularly among the young, seething with important new ideas. Except what’s new to you isn’t necessarily new, which is why so many budding comics talents (and not only budding ones, but a lot of people you’d think would know better) spend so much time reinventing the wheel, because they either aren’t aware of the other works or they dismiss them as being corrupt or otherwise ignorable; often, they don’t want to be made aware that the ground they’re treading isn’t really wilderness.
The third aspect is the desperate desire for romantic notions about what we do. Art is romantic. Craft isn’t. The Blakean notion of the artist, living in solitude, reshaping the world via the power of his own imagination and vision without putting pay to the whims and fickle tastes of society at large and bringing a new message to the unwashed masses, that’s romantic, not to mention messianic.
But it’s also ego.
The whole discussion is really ego.
There isn’t any sort of Manichean split between craft and art. Craft without art is pretty damn pointless, it’s true (not to mention annoying as hell). But art without craft is as bad. The point of craft isn’t to break the spirit but to facilitate communication, because, really, that’s what we’re trying to do: communicate. An idea, a desire, a feeling, a moral, even some epiphany of the unknowable. With any sort of story, any sort of art, we are trying to communicate us. The object of technique, of craft, isn’t to straitjacket or to commercialize. It’s to give the artist the tools for a more perfect or more complex communication. The thing about ideas is that after awhile yours should start becoming more complex. Most people, once they start thinking creatively, start continually reassessing goals and ambitions, coming up with newer things they want to try. Or they want to approach potential audiences they hadn’t had before. Or they just want to do what they do better.
Craft by itself isn’t art, but art doesn’t really get to be art without craft.
Funny thing is, punk rock had this discussion too. More than one group broke up, the Sex Pistols among them (at least in part), because some member wanted to get more complex with the music and the material and other members accused them of betraying the three chord populism of punk. (Even the most famous punk icon of all, John Lydon AKA Johnny Rotten, got slagged for increasingly wanting to produce more adventurous music, which he eventually did in Public Image Ltd.) But you have to go where you have to go. It isn’t a betrayal for ideas to shift and adapt, or to want more developed or interesting ways to present those ideas. For all the complaints that change (or sophistication) is a sop to commercialism, a sellout, the rigid maintenance of a creative identity is just as much a commercial consideration. It’s how you’re marketing yourself. Markets like artists to stand still and simply be product, but that’s not how it should work. But most of us working in comics market ourselves one way or another. We like to pretend people follow comics for the ideas, but nobody buys ideas. They buy how ideas are expressed: craft. Want to reposition yourself in the market? Improve your craft. Even if you’re only in it for pure art’s sake, most artists want as many people as possible to see and appreciate their art. Again: the road to that is craft.
It’s not selling out. This is no longer a medium where a handful of specific tastes are enforced as the standard. There are all kinds of techniques, all kinds of levels of craft, all kinds of styles considered acceptable depending on the specific project. There’s so much that’s possible now, and so much left to be done, that it’s ridiculous to limit horizons for philosophical reasons. I’m not saying primitive or simplistic is bad. Whatever works for you, whatever you’re happy with in your work, that’s fine. Go with it, and be aware you might not be happy with it tomorrow, but dissatisfaction is the mother of growth.
I saying the “issue” of art vs. craft isn’t an issue at all. It’s not even a dichotomy. Should people who want to create comics try it regardless of their level of craft? Sure, why not? But to argue that newcomers shouldn’t be concerned with their level of craft, that there’s something intrinsically noble and pure in working strictly from the gut and not actively trying to develop your talents, that’s virtually criminal. It doesn’t do them any favors, it doesn’t do the medium any favors. Because bad work is bad work regardless of noble aspirations, and self-satisfaction won’t make it any better. The fact is: their comics will never be “good enough” because none of us do work that’s “good enough.” All of us can get better, and we need to. There’s always some way to do it better, and finding it is our job.
Stop inventing schisms where they don’t exist, and just do the work.
NIGHT STALKER: BANG! MARTHA STEWART APPRENTICE: BANG! The only reason JOEY sticks around is the show (not to mention Matt LeBlanc) has NBC on a play-or-pay deal, so as long as it airs at least the network gets a little money back. Various other shows are tenuous, and only a couple, like NBC’s MY NAME IS EARL are genuine breakouts.
So if you’ve got a favorite show, it’s probably time to drop its network a line telling them how much you appreciate it. Or, better, get people (preferably those with Neilson boxes) to watch. The two I strongly recommend watching these days are: 1) VERONICA MARS (UPN, Wed 9P), the cleverest written, most entertainingly acted hour on any broadcast network these days. The first season had a lengthy mystery tying the season together, but this year they’ve outdone themselves with at least three so far unsolved mysteries that will most likely turn out to be the same mystery in the end, an ambitious, perilous gambit that’s so far really paying off. Never a dull moment. 2) THE OFFICE (NBC, Tues 9:30). I thought the first season of this show was pretty nothing, but somehow this season the characters suddenly clicked as the show both strayed willfully from the mold of its BBC progenitor and started incorporating more aspects of it, particularly regarding plot points. The results have been genuinely funny, and surprising, as when boss from hell Michael Scott apparently blows a tremendously important business meeting with a potential new client, then in the blink of an eye and out of nowhere turns it completely around, as if his idiot prattle had a method after all. If you haven’t been watching it, catch it.
With nothing else to kill an hour on last Friday, I watched another episode of NUMBERS, guest-starring Tom Hanks’ kid Colin as a math genius with a grudge. It was strangely entertaining. (What the hell happened to Colin Hanks, anyway? A couple years ago he’s supposed to be the next big thing, he stars in a movie ORANGE COUNTY, that sits in the #1 spot for a couple weeks, he guest-hosts SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, cameos on the then-steaming-hot O.C. – does anyone still watch THE O.C.? – and then… Bam! Nothing! And now he’s doing barely announced guest shots on mid-level TV shows? Huh?) But I can’t help but laugh at the show. If you don’t know the premise, a math genius uses his advanced math skills to help his FBI agent older brother solve crimes. Everyone’s very personable, the mysteries are marginally sub-CSI interesting with the now requisite clever camera work re-enactments of events as they puzzle them out, but the real thrill of the show is just how many gyrations they go through to make it sound like math is actually involved. Characters constantly scribble official-looking formulae on blackboards, but how much of it is gibberish? (Perhaps a better question would be how much of it isn’t?) In this episode, they can’t figure out what a host of home invasion/murder victims have in common – until Hanks puts forth the proposition that there’s something that links together the things the victims don’t seem to have in common! Which, gee, no detective writer ever thought of that one before. What a clever twist! Thing was, Hanks presented his theorem by couching it in theoretical mathematics. Har. I did enjoy the show fine, honest, but that bit really cracked me up. Speaking of second chances, those who encouraged me to give Ricky Gervais’ EXTRAS another try will be happy to know I did, and I enjoyed that too. At least the final episode, which seemed to wrap up the series as Ricky’s character visited the BBC to successfully sell them THE OFFICE. A highlight was guest Patrick Stewart, who was truly hysterical as he very seriously described his dream movie, which he was writing the screenplay for, a “serious drama” which, on description, turns out to be an elaborate Benny Hill sketch. I’ve never been all that impressed with Stewart before, but that did it for me. Too bad the show seems to be over now; there really doesn’t seem anywhere else for it to go.
If you’re in Los Angeles tonight (Thursday, November 17, 2005), check out the 6PM reception for The Hernandez Brothers (LOVE AND ROCKETS) at their Pasadena City College Art Gallery exhibit, 1570 Colorado Blvd, Pasadena. The reception runs until 8PM, the exhibit through December 3. If I had a choice, I wouldn’t miss it.
Interesting business with Lamp Post Publishing, low budget printer for many small comics operations, declaring themselves out of the comics printing business as of last Monday. Sort of. Lamp Post’s owner is also the publisher of Alias Comics, the recent startup which early on demonstrated a rare talent for shooting itself in the foot by missing shipping on its launch titles then issuing a mound of them on the same day, to the amusement of virtually no one, certainly not retailers or readers. According to reports, Alias’ fortunes haven’t been good in either the comics or the Christian bookstore market, which makes the announcement a bit puzzling. The home of relatively inexpensive color printing, Lamp Post announced they would still be printing the Alias titles – and any publisher who wanted to continue printing through them should submit books for publication via Alias. (The books have to pass muster with Alias’ strict code of goodness, of course.) Maybe I’m missing some big picture thing, but it strikes me as nuts both to think any publisher’s going to rush to hitch its wagon to that particular falling star and, if “printing comics isn’t profitable,” to continue printing them at all. Seems to me there’s some piece missing there.
The hills are alive with my past coming back to haunt me. As IDW releases (just in time for Christmas!) the trade collection of my recent CSI mini-series, SECRET IDENTITY (you can read a review of it here, and if anyone stumbles across any others, please email me the site address), Marvel has unearthed for their ESSENTIAL OMEGA and ESSENTIAL MOON KNIGHT volumes two of my oldest stories, the MARVEL TWO-IN-ONE with Moon Knight that was my first Marvel work (a rapidly produced tongue-in-cheek story done when I was still under the delusion that my association with comics would be fleeting, which is to say before the check came in) and the two-issue wrap-up to Steve Gerber’s OMEGA series in THE DEFENDERS, which I ended up doing mainly because Marvel was being constantly deluged with letters demanding the storyline be concluded (Steve’s series, written with Mary Skrenes, was cancelled on a cliffhanger with the eponymous hero apparently dead (I left him dead)) and THE DEFENDERS then-regular writer wanting nothing to do with what he considered a huge booby trap. Which it pretty much turned out to be, but, hey, I was fearless in those days. The reader reaction seemed pretty evenly split between those who wanted to lynch me, those who wondered if I was Gerber’s pen name, and those who just went “huh?”, though probably it skewed more toward the last group. Take my word for it: it’s always unnerving to look at work from that far back in your career, at the point where you really didn’t know what you were doing, though at the time you thought you did.
A sad farewell to wrestler Eddy Guerrero, the greatest of the famous Guerrero family of wrestlers and, until Sunday, one of the best pro wrestlers in the world. A natural talker and comedian as well, Eddy overcame size bias (he was fairly normally proportioned in an age of steroid behemoths) and racial stereotyping (in American pro wrestling, Latino wrestlers are generally downplayed, though Eddy was born and raised in Texas) to become a world champion popular across the board, and referred to in wrestling fan circles as “the Latino Steve Austin.” He was also the only guy I ever saw who looked like he was drawn by Steve Ditko c. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9. Eddy was found dead of a heart attack in his Minneapolis hotel room this past Sunday, prior to a show taping. He was 38 years old, apparently the victim of the rough wrestling lifestyle as well as a history of addictions to alcohol and painkillers, though in recent years he had reportedly been scrupulously clean. It’s a horrible loss for his family and for wrestling, and only the latest of an apparently endless flood of early deaths among pro wrestlers over the last decade. For some reason, no one figures it’s worth figuring out why. So long, Eddy. I wish you could’ve stayed longer.
On a different note, there’s now another mini-interview with me up at PopThought.
Once again, no Comics Cover Challenge this week. I was going to run one, but I’ve gotten so many e-mails from people enjoying the Toth crime story I ran in place of the column yesterday that I’ve decided to leave it up for the rest of the week. Next week, though. I’ve already got the covers picked out.
And don’t forget my two books are available in pdf e-book form at The Paper Movies Store: TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life; and IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, a running commentary on American life and politics in the first half of the Terror Decade. 250+ pages each, $5.95@ or both for $10.95. What are you waiting for?
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
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