Tuesday, February 13, 2018
BIG ASS LATE INTERVIEW
By Alex Ness
February 13, 2018
(Here it is, my big ass interview about comics with answers from thinkers in the world of comics. When begun a number of publishers and artists said sure to doing this, and after waiting for some they never ended up sending their answers. This is a portion of each person's time to answer, so I understand not doing it, and I appreciate those who did respond, and respond well. I also appreciate that some said yes and but then told me no so I wouldn't wait forever. Sadly I did wait for three respondents who didn't send anything, and that is my fault. I apologize to those who answered and had to wait to wonder if this would ever reach publishing on this blog.)
Comics cover a rather broad genre field. Despite being escapist fantasy or self reflective indy comics, do they actually tell stories from our lives? I've heard art and literary critics say that if art doesn't reflect upon existence it is hollow, perhaps even worthless. Do you agree? What existence can you see in comics?
My name is Michael Frizell, and I am a writer with Tidal Wave Comics. Darren Davis, Publisher and creative force of the company, forward your questions to me. Here are my answers!
Yes, I believe they do tell the stories from our lives, although they tell them metaphorically. Modern comics have stripped away the male power fantasy in favor of more diverse voices and varied storytelling styles. Although comic publishers are experiencing some growing pains – I think the industry is still reeling from the fallout of the speculator-driven market of the 90’s – it will recover because diversification of characters, in storytelling techniques and subject matter, and mainstream acceptance will save it. It’s no longer the bastion of white, straight, teenage males. Look close and you’ll see comics for the LGBTQ community, for women and girls, for adults and children, for underrepresented groups, and much, much more.
Comics often featured an idealized version of the world with clear-cut villains and larger than life heroes. Modern comics blur the line, tell nuanced stories, and explore multiple genres.
I'm not much a philosopher. But any work of fiction needs to reflect actual experiences and emotion felt by the reader. Otherwise they are not honest or easy to relate to.
Ever since I was a critic - I did do it professionally for several years, & still keep my hand in periodically - I've noticed critics of all sorts are prone to rather pompous grandiose statements. One thing I've learned as a professional writer is who really cares what art & literary critics say? Don't get me wrong, I read a lot of criticism because people do have useful insights & there is criticism worth reading, but why would anyone agree they get to decide what art is hollow or worthless & what isn't? I go with Raymond Chandler: there is no good art or bad art. There is only art, & precious little of it.
Art exists to be created. That's its only natural function. Anything else is gravy. Not sure what you mean by the existence I can see in comics? Comics isn't any genre. Comics is a medium. There aren't any natural restrictions on the content. Like any other medium, comics can be anything someone imaginative enough wants to make them. Who's anyone else to tell them they can't, or shouldn't?
For most of their life, comics provided innocent escapism. Comics are the most forgiving of mediums, for they can legitimize virtually any conceit. What are Superman and Batman but the fever dreams of adolescents? But they provide wildly escapist entertainment. A bullied kid reading Spider-Man with a flashlight beneath the blankets. An investment banker curling up with Uncle Scrooge. It wasn’t until the seventies that the medium turned serious, thanks in part to Denny O’Neil’s social consciousness. Some people think that comics should have a social conscience—characters like Superman and Batman have it built in. What are they but champions of the oppressed? As always, it’s a matter of degree. To the point where it no longer entertains but simply bludgeons you with a lecture. Underground comics seldom make this mistake because they reflect the personal views of the creators. Works like Maus, Spain’s My True Story, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, books like these are idiosyncratic and real. You may not agree with the creator’s views, but they entertain, because they are so personal, authentic, and well-written. R. Crumb inspires fierce loyalty and widespread condemnation because he dares to put what he really thinks down on paper. The best comics reflect on existence in an entertaining way. Art’s purpose is to illuminate life, but it is also to enthrall, encapsulate, and entertain. I like the more personal comics. Even whacked-out spacecraft like Little Nemo In Slumberland reflect on the nature of reality. Some of the most powerful comics are autobiographical.
There are a lot of ideas to unpick here, but I guess the broad throughline concerns the value and function of art. I don’t think it’s possible to reduce this to a neat formula. On the whole I subscribe to the uses and gratifications theory. People use comics, just as they use novels, movies, TV shows, paintings, music and every other art form, for lots of different things at different times. Sometimes we can get a handle on what those things are, sometimes they’re personal and ineffable. You can’t ever say “the function of art is to do X, and if you’re not doing X then you’re not doing art.” That seems to me to be a meaningless statement.
Are comics art? Yes. What else could they be? If you try to create a definition that excludes them, I guarantee it will be a bullshit definition.
Do comics tell stories from our lives? Sometimes. But readers will APPLY stories to their lives in ways you can’t foresee.
The comic industry has some conservative voices, and some oddball other voices, but for the most part it is composed of people left of center. Is the reason for that education, inclination, cultural stereotyped roles? And, can work without any discernable bias work in the arts?
I don't see the industry as being "for the most part... composed of people left of center." To be fair, I think there are people from all parts of the political spectrum, and suspect that you may be correct in your assertion, but how do we know for certain? In this political climate, announcing a slavish devotion to either side would not serve your audience. That's like deciding one day that you'll "only date blondes" or some such nonsense and therefore limiting your choice, right? Perhaps that's a clumsy analogy, but it flows that, as a creator, if you know my political stance and disagree with it, you wouldn't read me.
I hope my bias doesn’t bleed through. It’s inevitable that some bias will creep into the work, of course, but I do make an attempt to weed it out in order to provide as balanced an account of the lives of the people I am chronicling as possible.
There are creators openly conservative, oddball, and left-of-center, sure. Rather famous ones, too. Tidal Wave makes a valiant effort to craft stories in its Political Power line that offer a balanced account of the subject. As a writer, I choose to focus on the subject’s life separate from the politics as much as possible as I find it more interesting to figure out what makes a person think they way he or she does rather than portray what you can read on their Wikipedia page.
The tricks is to work without a conscious bias. A writer's life informs their work. There has to be something of you in the story. It's unavoidable. But, if they want a wide audience, they need to keep their political opinions out of escapist works of fiction. It's all about story and nothing about message
I don't know that the underlying premise is true. Very few people in superhero comics, certainly, lean anywhere near what I'd call Left, though many view themselves as liberals. Many view themselves as conservatives. I do suspect most people don't end up in comics because they were popular kids in high school, & you generally don't end up in comics if you're willing to settle for a day job. All that probably has something to do with any leanings in material. I wouldn't be entirely sure that many people in comics even recognize their own biases, or that they'd feel any compulsion to keep them out of their work if they do. It's possible to keep bias out of your work, or tone it down to near- invisibility, if you're especially self-perceptive & really want to, but unless there's a particular creative reason for it, why would you want to?
Leftists graduate to communications arts because that’s where they excel. Conservatives are more likely to make things with their hands. The left’s takeover of academia, journalism, and the arts reflects their world view. Are there any conservative equivalents to The American President or Dave? Bias certainly does work in the arts. The American President and Dave are highly entertaining. They reflect an idealized view of Democrat politicians. Little Orphan Annie reflected an idealized view of capitalists. But few conservatives go into the arts. This used to not be the case. In the forties, fifties, and sixties, the arts were openly patriotic. This leftist takeover of the communications industries is the fruit of the sixties. It’s a pendulum. Eventually it will swing back. Some of the most powerful movies are didactic: The Grapes of Wrath. I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. To Kill a Mockingbird. Conservative equivalents? Ninety per cent of all Westerns. Some folks just need killin’. But there have been seminal conservative works as well. Atlas Shrugged. Rules Of Engagement. The Edge. And anyone wanting conservatism explained should read David Mamet’s The Secret Knowledge. Mamet wrote The Edge as well as The Untouchables, Glengarry Glenn Ross, and American Buffalo.
I don’t think comics are at all unusual in this respect. People who have careers in the arts will often be people who for whatever reason have pushed against conformity. It’s a marked choice, and taking it often requires both courage and a maverick mind-set. Not always, just often. As a side effect of this, rigidly conservative voices in the arts are few.
I suspect there is no such thing as an artistic work without any discernible bias. If there was, it might also be without much value. You write, compose, act, draw from your own engaged perspective. At the risk of sounding doctrinaire, that’s part of the point of what you’re doing.
What is the best thing to happen to comics in the last 20 years? I am not asking for what brought comics revenue or anything that is about popularity.
Tough question. I’m tempted to say something about the plethora of movies, but for the most part, those movies tend to eschew the crazy inventiveness of the source material and focus on formulas that sometimes work (The Avengers) and sometimes don’t (The Avengers: Age of Ultron – but that’s just my opinion).
I’ve been reading comics since 1976. Back then, science fiction, fantasy, and horror comics dominated the small market. The X-Men became a comics phenomenon, and back then, when one of the “Big Two” (Marvel and DC) thrived, the industry thrived. That’s not true anymore. Casual comic readers get lost in overlong storylines and endless crossovers from the Big Two. I think the best thing to happen to comics in the last 20 years is the rise of the independents. They offer stories that hearken back to the 70’s and early 80’s when stories were inventive, felt risky, and publishers took chances. Companies like Image, Boom, IDW, and yes, TidalWave, are starting to influence the decisions made by the Big Two (but not fast enough in my opinion, but that’s a different discussion). Look no further than DC’s latest revamp for proof. They’ve taken a back-to-basics approach that has worked. Marvel is attempting the same thing.
Many “fans” complain about the rampant diversity and replacement heroes (a female Iron Man, a female Thor, a Muslim Ms. Marvel) and claim that it’s hurting sales. Traditionally, comics have been slow to respond to social and societal changes. I think anything that can bring younger, more diverse readers to the table, the better off the industry will be in the future. But I digress. I’ll get off my soap
Nothing good has happened to comics in 20 years.
For various reasons comics have finally achieved a cultural acceptability they didn't previously have. Mention comics & no one bats an eye anymore. There's a certain cool factor with the general public if they learn you can get into the San Diego Comic Con. Graphic novels are recognized as worthwhile, at least in principle. We've finally been mainstreamed. Whether that'll ultimately be harmful or beneficial it's too early to say, but it's the biggest change. We're still something of an outlaw medium but we're an outlaw medium people keep their eye on now, whether directly or via movies, TV shows, books, etc. adapted from the works. Now if we can only get the general public to stop thinking the only comics company is Marvel we might get somewhere. Not that it ultimately really matters.
Probably Image, because of the wide range of voices.
I don’t feel competent to answer this one. Imagine replacing comics here with film or prose fiction. It’s such a big field you’re talking about, any answer is going to be sort of silly and self-limiting.
If you were talking about American comics, commercially produced, then I’d say the best thing is the emergence of strong second-tier publishers, commanding a viable share of the market and challenging the previously unassailable duopoly of DC and Marvel.
Has the election of Trump and his campaign prior to election been captured with any grace anywhere in the comic book world? Why or why not? I wrote about Trump and the voices on the left being so outspoken against him being perhaps more trouble than good. Do you think creatives have an obligation to address politics and our particular culture and cultural values?
“Captured with any grace” is a bit loaded and open to interpretation. I have yet to see someone focus purely on the positive – and that includes myself in this, despite my grandest efforts – when it comes to President Trump’s rise to power.
When Darren approached me to write a sequel to the Political Power: Donald Trump comic book first published several years ago, I froze. I wasn’t sure how I could write the story in a way that made sense because the story was unfolding. The comic had to be about the campaign as Tidal Wave had already created a story about his dabbling in politics before announcing his run. That left me about an eighteen month period to explore.
I crafted the script during the campaign and I went out on a limb and predicted his win.
When I research political subjects, I use news stories, watch hours of interviews, and sometime attempt to reach out to the person (he never responded, but it was worth a shot). There was so much vitriol on social media and wild speculation in the mainstream press because we haven’t seen a campaign like his in modern times. Instead of focusing on Donald Trump as the narrator, I chose to explore the thought process of a typical white, Midwestern voter struggling with the tenets of the Republican party to justify his choice in Trump. It allowed me some latitude as a writer to comment more on the negative mainstream press and the craziness of some of his rallies and afforded me the room to get into a character’s thought process. I think Trump’s public persona defies that sort of analysis. You’d have to know the man to truly understand him. While some of who he is he proudly displays publicly, I didn’t want to assume too much about how he thinks because he’s been unpredictable so far. I think that frustrates pundits and writers.
I think creatives have an obligation to speak up and comment on our political, social, and societal climate and challenge the norms. I think there are artful ways to do it without bluntly stating your opinion as fact. I know I am not comfortable with liberally sprinkling my writing with political leanings. In the case of the Political Power series of comics, I think it’s best to present the facts and let your reader decide. I fear we are losing the idea of “trust, but verify” and that scares me some.
I have no obligations as a creator. Comics is such a small, niche market now that trying to promote a political agenda through comics is like shouting on the corner of an empty street. Most of this posturing is just that. There's a lot of "me too" going on as a form of assuring job security.
No obligation whatsoever, for anything. If your creative inclinations run that way, great, have at it. But nobody's obligated to do anything except talk about whatever they want to talk about, in whatever way they feel is the best way to talk about it. Who, in a perfect world, has the right to tell them otherwise? If someone want comics that discuss their particular political causes, they can create their own damn comics. Of course, we don't live in a perfect world, so many creators are saddled with the semi-necessary evils of publishers & editors already telling them at least the "acceptable limits" of what they can & can't do, but we don't need more people sticking their noses into it. Talent should use what's important to them as their material. That might mean politics, it might mean gangsters or aliens, it might mean elves, it might mean sex gags. The audience then gets to choose what of it they want. Anyone who wants to impose more rules needs to recognize that all rules are arbitrary, & they don't have the authority, no matter how good they think their message is.
As far as our president goes, no one's really tackled the subject much yet aside from a few off-handed jokes, mainly due to the production timelag in comics. I couldn't deal with specific things about the Administration because they shotgun out new craziness so quickly; I'd forever be miles behind the curve. Probably the best a cartoonist has come at tackling the situation is Gerry Trudeau, who's been merciless both in the Doonesbury Sunday strip & in his "Roland Hedley" fake news tweets. But the lag time of comic strips is much shorter than that of comic books. If I pitched a new comic tomorrow & got it accepted for publication by Thursday, it could be anywhere between 8 months to a year & a half before the first issue would come out. Hard to be topical under those conditions.
The creative’s first job is to ENTERTAIN. The second job is to SHOW DON’T TELL. The third job is to BE ORIGINAL. As for Trump, the left’s reaction has been too irrational to do any of those things. Creatives have no obligation to address politics. If that’s their shtick, more power to them. Erik Larsen makes no bones about his sympathies, and readers love Savage Dragon.
I think your obligations as a creator are for you to define, not for others to impose on you. That seems self-evident. You can’t tell me what to create, and I can’t tell you. You speak what’s in you to speak. I don’t mean that to sound precious or arrogant. It’s just that your voice is something you figure out for yourself, and you learn by doing. There’s no point in telling someone they have an obligation to do things in a different way. It’s usually not possible for them to bend into another shape without breaking.
I read somewhere that when Jane Austen achieved a measure of fame and success during her own lifetime, she was invited to write a history of the House of Habsburg. She refused, explaining that that wasn’t a story she could imagine herself telling.
There has been eloquent commentary on Donald Trump in comic form, but he’s a better subject for editorial cartooning than for comic books. Gary Trudeau nailed Trump to the floor a long time before Trump ever ran for president.
Do comics that feature global warming, air pollution, over population or abortion rights have a hurdle, because of the escapist nature of most comics? What would be a great example of it working, and what is a comic that felt like pure propaganda?
Good question, and one we struggle with at TidalWave. Darren’s mandate has always been to stay positive and stay focused on the person rather than the message when writing nonfiction. In fiction comics, I think almost every company as dipped their toes in hot-button social issues. I believe the rise of the nonfiction graphic novel (Maus, for instance, depicts the plight of the Jews in Nazi Germany, Fun Home explores the nature of a woman’s sexuality, etc.) and their success has made the exploration of social issues a bit more commonplace in comics. But yeah… there’s a hurdle.
When I choose titles to follow month after month, I choose them because they offer escapism. I don’t want to read about the real world. I want the idealized, black and white world of the superhero. The line blurs on occasion, and can have a profound effect on the reader. Spider-Man had to deal with his friend, Harry Osborn’s drug use in the 70’s. So did Green Arrow. Frank Miller’s politics bled into his writing of Batman in The Dark Knight Returns and Elektra: Assassin with the depiction of Ronald Reagan as obsessed with “pushing the button” and starting a nuclear war. Miller also explored rampant destruction of the rain forests by fast food companies in the excellent, and overlooked in my opinion, Martha Washington series of stories (those stories also focused on the gulf between the rich and poor and racism in America). These stories found a mainstream audience despite being blatant in their commentary.
As for examples of comics that didn’t work, I’d rather focus on the positive and not malign another creator’s work. Howard Chaykin’s recent The Divided States of Hysteria has garnered intense controversy because it featured a graphic and sexualized depiction of trans panic violence, violent hate crimes against people of color, genital mutilation, and racial slurs. He’s holding up a dark mirror to our society and people don’t like what they see.
The hurdle is that when you combine pictures with words. I’ll give you an example from my own work outside of TidalWave. I am publishing a comic with a publisher known for western stories called Bender, about a serial killer family from Southeast Kansas who were active after the Civil War. In the first issue, she main character, Kate, is topless, uses a few four-letter words, and gets splattered with blood. The publisher received complaints because the scenes purposefully left little to the imagination. However, the publisher, Oghma Creative Media, has featured scenes much more graphic in their prose novels. The complaints stemmed from the pictures. The readers saw what I wanted them to see, not what their imagination conjured. I can only conclude that comics featuring depictions of controversial subject matter will always shock us because we think of comics as “for kids” and idealized, homogenized products designed to sell action figures or cartoons.
Classic war comics (EC in the 50s and DC in the 70s) are great examples of comics dealing with serious issues in a mature way that seeks to engage rather than indoctrinate readers. And there are too many propaganda comics in current publication to list here and all of them fail as entertainment from every subjective and objective measure.
The best example I can remember of pure propaganda was Alan Moore & Bill Sienkiewicz's Brought To Light, exposing alleged right wing criminality of the Reagan-Bush era. I was VERY familiar with the material - I used a lot of the same source material in Whisper - & I sided with their intent, I generally love their work, & I absolutely hated that book. Between Alan's feverish writing & Bill's wild art, the general impression when you read it was that anyone who would believe this stuff had to be raving mad. And it was a fairly serious subject. But it was pure propaganda & played that way, & the worst thing you can do with propaganda is put a big neon sign on it saying THIS IS PROPAGANDA.
Whether there has ever been one that worked or not, I couldn't say. Most "propaganda" comics are used to teach kids not to litter & things like that, superheroes cleaning up the environment, or warning kids not to start forest fires or whatever. Low level stuff. DC in the '50s had some great Superman insert pages that ran across their line telling everyone racism was stupid & unAmerican, a straightforward simple message given weight by Superman. Really quite impressive for the time. But did anyone ever read it & think "Superman's right! That black kid I threatened to beat up yesterday, he's just like me, I should be nice to him instead"? I don't know. How do you measure it?
Issue-oriented stories often have problems if you're trying to do them at the major superhero houses; as with all other media, the publishers can be a little leery of stirring up their buying public "unnecessarily." But in most cases things like global warming or overpopulation, they probably wouldn't bat an eye; it would depend on what you wanted Hawkman or Thor or whoever to do about it. Hell, Marvel's got its own storyline oil company, Roxxon, that's fairly openly intent on destroying the environment as a primary goal. Something like abortion, I'd be very surprised if they were willing to publish a story involving that, because that's a real hot button issue; having, say, Mary Jane Watson pregnant & deciding to terminate could stir up whirlwinds they'd likely not want anything to do with. But maybe they would. It's hard to say.
Rule #2: SHOW, DON’T TELL. Comics about air pollution and global warming can be very effective if they entertain, and show don’t tell. A reader can smell a lecture a mile off. I see snippets of comics on the internet that are obviously pure propaganda, but I don’t read many comics these days, and those that I do come without a grudge. I enjoy Stray Bullets—it’s tougher than most crime fiction. And Dave Berry’s and Val Mayerik’s A Tale of Dust and Blood, about the battle of the Little Bighorn, does a wonderful job bringing history alive without beating you over the head with a message.
I’d question the assumption that most comics are escapist in nature. Certainly there are hugely successful and important comics that deal with real social issues. Look at Joe Sacco’s work, for example. But in a broader sense it’s possible for things that look like escapism to be meditations on the real world under a light disguise. Ursula LeGuin said that “The future, in fiction, is a metaphor”. I agree. It usually is.
A comic that felt like pure propaganda: Shadowplay, by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, in the Brought to Light book that Eclipse put out in the 80s. I agreed with everything that was being said but found it laborious and unsubtle.