The Call for a Mainstream

Welcome to another New Comics Day. Sorry about the delay — the Day of Gorging and Celebrating the Massacre of the Natives really saps my energy. Just think, the day of Commercialized Spectacle and Consumer Ecstasy Predicated On the Phony Principles of Love and Slipped In Under the Guise of worshiping of A Misinterpreted Religion is close, too! Why, Cynics’ Day must be right around the corner! Oh, anti-joy! Oh, self-loathing rapture!

Speaking of cynical, goddamn awards are a crock.

I say this, of course, as someone who has lost numerous awards. Tons. If you took off your shoes and socks and pants, you still wouldn’t have enough appendages to count on to figure out the number of awards I’ve lost.

But I’ve won a couple, too (secretly I am indeed Marissa Tomei), and they always leave me feeling hollow. I like cash prizes. Those are fine. But whenever I pop a short story into a contest and win something, it always just reminds me that I’m probably fifth or sixth in line for actually deserving the damn thing. The rule seems to be that your best work never wins you a damn award, it’s always the mid-range stuff. By that logic, somebody else’s good work, certainly work much better than yours, is sitting in the loser pile. How can a person be happy when they’ve just proven themselves invalid by law of averages?

The great part of any art is the creative process. Oh, sure, that latter phase is great, too, where everybody goes on the Internet and says how shitty you are. Let’s not forget those magic moments. But that said, I’m prone to ignoring awards crap in favor of either what I like to write or what pays well.

Stephen King is in the middle of a controversy in the Books Without Pictures world thanks to winning an honorary award from the National Book Award folks. The basic gist of the controversy is that National Book Awards and related honors are reserved for people who write “literature,” not folks hashing out pop fiction.

I know a National Book Award winner and I’ve met a couple more. Nice folks, all of them, but they were all artists who wrote Serious Fiction. Speaking generally, Serious Fiction is short on monsters, shootouts, space travel, dragons and police officers / FBI agents named Jack. It’s just a rule. This controversy breaks down into two camps, one of which claims that King is a barbarian at the gate and is single-handedly attempting to sabotage Western Culture as we know it by lowering the bar of literature, thus sabotaging the criteria for snooty awards; the other says, “Oh, yeah, then why does he sell so well?”

Both parties have decent points.

The fact of the matter is, you need some kind of standard. Nobody may want to hear it, especially in the politically correct age of “if you like it, then it’s valid,” but some writing, art, painting, etc. is shit. Some of it is terrible and would be best locked away in a dark room and guarded by military personnel. If you’re willing to tout anything you like as phenomenal based solely on the fact that it appeals to you on some level, then your opinion becomes immediately suspect and eventually invalidated by inconsistencies.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy some trash.

(Oh, right, this is a comics column. I better talk comics or get to a dick joke pronto.) I like Ultimate Spider-Man. It pleases me. Though I may change my mind at some point, I do not particularly enjoy Love & Rockets. Love & Rockets does not please me. That being said, I could still probably make a pretty good case, without stretching in any way, shape or form that says Love & Rockets is better than Ultimate Spider-Man.

In comics, the rift between the Trash Readers and the Snobs is particularly big. It’s somewhat difficult to break these two demographics into specific and tangible groups — oh, wait, no it’s not. Go to Newsarama. These are trash readers. Now go to The Comics Journal’s message boards. These are snobs.

The comics community, however, is even more bitter, segregated and back-biting than the book world. (Although I thank god every single day we’re not the music industry.) This is decidedly not the way to attract new readers. Average Joe Reader, truth be told, probably isn’t that interested in Jimmy Corrigan. Some Snobs from the other industry might be, but trust me, my brother is a pretty smart guy and he doesn’t want to read Jimmy Corrigan. If the comics industry is every going to take off beyond its teeny, cultish current incarnation, you’re gonna have to sell comics to nice, normal, reasonably intelligent folks like my brother.

Likewise, my brother isn’t going to think X-Treme X-Men is palatable, either. The shit needn’t be so prominently displayed. You don’t keep your toilet in your foyer, do you?

Comics needs a middle ground. Right now, and for some time, the industry feels like a WWI battlefield with two trenches and a barren spot of ground in between. We’re stuck in the trenches bitching at one another and, meanwhile, not moving.

There’s no quick and easy solution to this. Well, there is, but I don’t foresee everyone waking up one day and not being assholes, so we should probably look for a plan B. It’s not all bad news. There are plenty of good middle-range books out there, from Y: The Last Man to Queen and Country to True Story Swear to God that are reasonably intelligent and quite accessible as well. It’s not all Dan Clowes and Peter David.

One thing the industry could use, if only top depolarize the camps a fraction, is a magazine that doesn’t shill to one of the two established groups. As it stands, you either read Wizard or The Comics Journal, or else you bang your head against a concrete wall for an hour or so a month instead. The latter is often less painful. The Journal occasionally features great articles and interviews by guys like Tom Spurgeon, but on its bad days it reads like a pretentious fanzine. No, wait, on its bad days it reads like a shill for Fantagraphics books. On a mediocre day it reads like a pretentious fanzine.

And Wizard… well, if you don’t already know, it’s probably best to stop reading right now and go hang yourself by your mouse cord.

Comics needs a mainstream magazine for intelligent people. A few of these people exist, and a couple of them read comics. I’ve seen them. They buy brightly colored comics and Charles Burns and they liked Blankets but didn’t think it was the holy grail of sequential art. This theoretically mainstream magazine could feature interviews and commentary about comics across the spectrum, comics ranging in styles and genres. The magazine could neither act like superhero books are the only viable genre of the art form, nor pretend they haven’t existed since Jack Kirby died.

If the comics industry is going to be more than an ever-diminishing niche market, its going to have to stop looking like a parody drawn by Evan Dorkin. The real money isn’t on either lunatic fringe, it’s the center. A retailer will go broke trying to live on revenue from Optic Nerve and be worthless trying to live on Batman sales. A mainstream magazine someone could pick up and thumb through and enjoy without being disgusted by childish blather or repulsed elitist back-patting, one with intelligent commentary that doesn’t lean toward the snobbish and exclusive, might begin to fool the public into thinking we’re a legitimate industry. Who knows, it might even rub off on us.

And now, my dears, I offer some centrist reviews for your reading pleasure.

Catwoman #25

So much for reading Catwoman.

I didn’t start picking the book up until five or six months ago, but I liked what I saw and bought a full run of back issues cheap. I’d almost caught up with Brubaker when this latest issue came out. It’s been billed as a new direction for the book and a new jumping on point, so I figured I’d skip ahead and read this one to see where the new creative team was going.

Unfortunately, the answer is “nowhere good.”

I’m a big Brubaker fan, and none of his books surprised me more than Catwoman. I never cared much for the character, at least not until Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred drew her. Brubaker turned the book on its ear by crafting a sharp noir story filled with interesting supporting characters. The book blended superheroics and noir every bit as well as Sleeper. Unlike the Wildstorm book, though, it was a little lighter and more whimsical. Even when the stories became shockingly violent (Selina’s poor sister had a rough time a few issues back that I’m not likely to forget any time soon), the cartoony art kept from feeling too gritty and lurid.

Now Paul Gulacy and Jimmy Palmiotti have taken over the art chores, and in the process they’ve made the book a chore to read. Palmiotti is still a fine inker, but Gulacy’s layouts are pedestrian and his storytelling is competent at best. Perhaps its partly just the switch from a more iconographic style to a more realistic style, but suddenly it feels as though Selina’s ass is a major character. Gulacy likes to watch her leap from behind, it seems. His action scenes look like a long series of boring, standard poses — Catwoman kicking toward the camera, Catwoman ready to lash out with her whip, a random thug flying through the window. Boring, boring, boring.

The previous Catwoman artists have all drawn Selina in various stages of undress, but while before these scenes felt harmless even if a little unnecessary, they now come off as a failed attempt at salaciousness.

Gulacy isn’t all to blame, though. This is the weakest script from Brubaker in the whole run of the book. The drug-running story was already done a few issues back, and sticking the Penguin into a standard-issue story doesn’t do it any favors. The Penguin doesn’t even seem like the Penguin here, just a random mob boss, and his dialogue is out of place, too. Hearing the Penguin say “don’t just whack Catwoman” doesn’t ring correctly in one’s ear anyway, let alone suffering through the line “Don’t go all Jake Lamotta on some old man.” Is this a Catwoman story or an episode of Friends? Since when does the Penguin, an old dapper guy with a big nose, turn nouns into verbs like TV cretins?

I point this out not because I’m a purist, but because it seems as though the Penguin is thrown in only as a half-assed attempt to attract Batman readers rather than because the story required his presence. It’s one more step into the commonplace for a book that, until now, was just unique enough to be consistently good fun.

Gotham Central #12 and #13

He might be slipping in Catwoman, but Brubaker hasn’t lost the magic elsewhere. Sleeper is still one of the most entertaining books month-in and month-out, and Gotham Central rounds out a full year without a dull issue.

Rucka and Brubaker team up for this four-part arc about a sniper terrorizing Gotham City. All hell breaks loose when the mayor is shot in the head while talking to the police commissioner, and the situation goes from bad to worse when the school superintendent is gunned down on the same day, seemingly by the same killer. Crispus Allen and the rest of the Gotham City PD hit the streets to solve the case before another city official goes down, but they soon discover the killer may be one of Gotham’s deadliest denizens.

The book has two problems right now, though. For starters, Michael Lark, talented though he may be, doesn’t draw the world’s most distinctive characters. He’s a talented storyteller but, like Steve Dillon, his faces tend to look fairly similar. Dillon usually negates the issue by giving characters a wide range of hair and clothing styles, and it works well enough even if it is a bit of a cheat. Lark is faced with a greater challenge, though, in that most of his characters wear the same outfits and are sarcastic middle-aged white guys. The book is a little overburdened with characters anyway and could probably use a roll call sheet like the one in the back of Queen and Country. It needs something. I can pick out Allen and Josie Mac in any given issue. I thought I could find Montoya easily enough, too, but then it looked like she got shot at the end of issue #12 for a couple of pages before realizing it was somebody else.

The book’s other drawback: fucking Batman. It’d be fantastic to read three or four issues of this thing in a row without seeing Batman. If I want to see Batman, I’ll actually read Batman. The appeal of the book is the police procedural aspect of it, and it seems cheap to drag a cape into the mix every time the action heats up. I’d much rather see the cops handle the situation themselves.

That said, Gotham Central is probably still the best DC universe book out there. It’s fun stuff, like reading an Ed McBain novel, a little inconsequential but a worthwhile diversion nonetheless.

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