Too busy actually making comics to turn my ideas into real blog posts anymore, holla! Here's some bubblin' crude for you guys to sip instead. Also: is Greg Irons still the most under-rated "alternative cartoonist" ever?
- SOMETHING IS happening underground. In the arts, that's never not been a true statement, but bear with me here. Considering every mainstream fad and mass stylistic leaning -- in comics, in art, in fashion, in music, whatever -- derives from a more potent underground movement, it's always a fun game to wonder about which one of your favorite Trendy Hip Exclusive stylisms are going to get picked up by the populace for a star turn next. What's cool about this line of wondering is that nobody in comics, at least, really has any more of a clue than anyone else. Who would have guessed in 2004 that one of the Paper Rad dudes would get his own Cartoon Network Show? Or in 1985 that Hollywood would be churning out an Alan Moore movie a year? Now that every other mainstream-indie album cover is drawn in a dead ripoff of CF's style, it's starting to feel like the time's ripe for another underground obsession to get a little notice from the wider culture, and in so doing bleed into greater prominence in comics as well.
If I may hazard a guess, the highly rendered, color-saturated, airbrushy art that shorthands for the mid-'70s, Heavy Metal Magazine era of comics and other commercial art seems a likely suspect. There are a few reasons for this: first off, the wider culture's already living in the right moment. As a citizen of Los Angeles my perspective may be a little skewed, but uptempo cocaine dance music hasn't been as massive as it is now since the glory days of disco (are you as excited about the dubstep Saturday Night Fever remake with Skrillex as the B-52s as I am? Don't worry, it'll exist soon). Day-glo colors and garish accessories come and go with the fashion seasons, but they're at least present when you walk down the street for the first time in years. Synth pads are replacing guitars even in rock and roll, at what must be an alarming rate for stringmen across the nation. The big ups that tastemakers across the board had for "Drive" is probably the most obvious manifestation of a cultural trend that's been building for a while now: grit and realism are out, synthetic neon is in, with the airbrushes and ink replaced by computer programs and pixels.
It makes sense: people, especially the young people and creative types that dictate trends, can only stare the reality of a down economy and repressive governance in the face for so long before they start making art that imagines a prettier world to lift them up out of the dumps. Deco in the Depression, psychedelia in the Vietnam era... the time is ripe once more for art to posit a new world. The day of the austere, minimalist American Apparel/Terry Richardson layout is over, and has been for a while if that company's financial status is anything to go by. The signifiers are changing: the Helvetica-fonted, superclean visual style that dominated the past half-decade have lost their cutting-edge appeal; the Tumblr websites are full of DMT-styled sensory overloads, White Shasta's 1981 webcomic feels like a massively prescient visual statement, and nowadays the cool shit is generally more apt when it comes out looking like this.
Ignore it at your own peril: the kind of glitchy, digitally warped, classically psychedelic imagery that you see on websites like this and this is gonna be the next big force in visual culture, and comics had better import it post-haste if it wants to catch the wave. Hopefully the synth interludes by Robert Beatty and Takeshi Murata in the new Kramers Ergot and the rawdog computer-art flourishes that pop up occasionally in the comics of Kyle Baker and Brendan McCarthy are just the beginning of something a lot bigger and more substantial. Comics helped start this trend with Paper Rad and Nazi Knife, and it can only be a good thing if we keep up with it, continuing to innovate where we can.
PS: that Nazi Knife site is Actually The Best Thing Ever, you should take a second and click around. Here
- BESIDES THE obvious tone of bitchy entitlement and childish whininess that glimmers throughout it, I finally figured out why that Grant Morrison interview in Rolling Stone really bugs the shit out of me (like, enough for me to be writing about it half a year after the fact). Morrison was given a massive cultural platform to speak from in that thing, one that's really only been afforded to three comics creators before: Alan Moore, Art Spiegelman, and Frank Miller. Moore used it to talk about his personal beliefs and agitate against corporate culture's interference in creative work, inadvertently providing the Occupy movement with a killer mascot, so big ups all around. Miller and Spiegelman used it to push comics as a legitimate art form -- Miller in character as an irritating rabble-rouser and Spiegelman as an equally irritating academic, both personas long past their sell-by date -- but credit where credit's due, today's cartoonists are all still standing on the points they scored with the mainstream culture.
Morrison, for his part, used that platform to bitch about The Comics Journal (a publication perhaps one percent of Rolling Stone's audience has heard of, and that's a really generous estimate) for holding comics to an aesthetic standard that differs from his own, and Chris Ware, for making comics he doesn't particularly like. For all his work's universalist strains and his bluster about disliking "nerd culture", in that interview Morrison revealed himself as the perfect stereotype of a comics geek, the exact person the medium's defenders have been trying to bury for decades now: a vindictive superhero chauvinist too beset by his own grudges to articulate what makes comics special, or indeed to realize that the form itself holds any unique artistic potential. Fuck that guy, for real.
- YOU KNOW what comics-derived TV show is fucking baller, and in a way that never actually made it back to the medium itself? Batman Beyond. I loved it when I was seven and I love it even more now, which in itself says something. Aside from the stellar artistic contributions of former top-line cartoonist Darwyn Cooke, it represents a way forward for superhero storytelling, one that feels more in step with the modern age with every passing day, and as such one that constantly gets more depressing to consider as a road not taken for comics. For those who weren't kids in the '90s, the show's chronicling of a teenage kid's taking up the mantle of Batman in a dark future timeline operates on a wonderfully simple formula: it's the neurotic but fun teen-hero hi jinx Steve Ditko's Spider-Man introduced to the apocalyptic tone and monumentalist aesthetic of Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns. Probably the two most influential superhero comics of all time, and yet the fusion is so novel!
Aside from the incredibly cool neon purple-green-and-red color palette it uses, Batman Beyond succeeds as superhero storytelling because it manages to avoid the "grim and gritty" trap post-Miller hero stories so frequently fall into. By simply focusing on the youth culture of its dystopian setting, and portraying it not with Miller's get-off-my-lawn dismay but as a vibrant, creative, positive place with as much light to it as darkness, the show bypasses all the cyberpunk "bad future" nonsense so beloved of its contemporary Warren Ellis, derivations of whose aesthetic still more or less dominate the superhero genre in comics. Using a youthful protagonist whose civilian life is fully entrenched in the new and modern (we see Batman dance to gothy industrial jams at the club! we see his friends getting mad into the latest designer drugs! and none of this is used as grounds for moralizing!), Batman Beyond counteracts the fundamentally reactionary nature of the superhero concept, creating a statement that features an anonymous policeman beating up poor people but still somehow comes off as genuinely progressive.
- COMICS AND prose writing are basically the two options available for narrative storytellers who want to create work without interference (or, ha ha, "contributions") from anybody else. Whether it's the singularity of the creator's vision or said creator's misanthropy doing the driving, I think the availability of both forms to individuals who want to make narratives is a more common reason the forms are utilized than people might realize. Here's why comics win out over prose for me every time, both as a creator and a reader, though. There might be thousands upon thousands of words available in every language for prose writers to utilize (and that's not even going into the possibilities for multi-lingual storytelling, check out some Chicano literature instead of the internet next time you're bored), but with the tiniest few exceptions, they've all been said before. Shakespeare, the king of English-language neologism, gave our tongue a few hundred new words at best, and sure, we can add in the couple dozen stock phrases he cooked up too. Either way, it all pales in insignificance next to comics, which belong solely to the hands behind them the second the first line is drawn.
I think this is the truth behind the idea that the true, pure, perfect comic is wordless: in silent comics everything the eye beholds is coming from the artist, and nowhere else. It's also a great argument against computer lettering (which, do we even need to make those arguments anymore?). Besides its aesthetic ugliness, replacing hand-drawn lettering with typescripted fonts only brings the crushing sameness of words back to the fore, and in a medium so refreshingly free of them. I don't really know what the takeaway here is, except that if you've got something really unique to say, you should probably be doing it in comics.