Saturday, 30 April 2011

"What Is Pop?"

Move on, move on, the blogger's just letting off steam, making indefensible generalisations, expressing a personal opinion as if it were fact, ranting about imaginary issues as if they had any substance in the context of the real world;

       
There's no better place to go to begin to try to explain why so many modern-day superhero comic books seem so pallid, so tame, so uninvolving, than Richard Hamilton's famous 1957 definition of Pop Art, wherein he tried to define those elements which made so many of the mass-produced commercial products of the modern era so exciting and, counter-intuitively to the cultural gatekeepers of the time, vibrantly meaningful. Too often described as an art movement which "turned the commonplace into icons", Pop Art actually reflected the fact that many of the images and products of consumerist society actually already were icons to a great mass of the people, if not to the cultural elites who conspired to quite miss the romance and kineticism of the world they lived in, scorning the commonplaces of populism and commercialism in favour of cultural property which they could largely regulate and thereby control. Beethoven rather than The Beatles, as the appalling Peter Hitchens so famously and fatuously argued, as if it were an intellectual and moral distinction rather than a matter of taste to opt for one or another, as if they couldn't both be considered excellent and life-affirming, as if the primary function of great art was to serve as a marker distinguishing the better sort from the hoi polloi.  


       
In discussing his 1956 "This Is Tomorrow" exhibition with Tate Magazine, for example, Hamilton explained that;

"... there were certain things that were new in our visual environment, such as cinema, the jukebox, Marilyn Monroe and comics. All these images from popular culture contrasted with the way we saw things that could be informed by straight-forward optical experience."

The modern age, and indeed the post-modern era, can't be understood and celebrated through literal, unimaginative thinking informed by the world-views of the past. An era of Pop is a time of often tawdry and yet magnificent spectacle, of repetition and constant stimulation, of the money-grabbing fused quite ludicrously and often brilliantly with the transcendental. And for all that Pop is self-evidently a lie, the grubbiest of hard-sells, it also functions, like any other code of images and meaning, as its own critique, as a means to undermine and fundamentally destabilise  the very worst of itself. More than anything else, Pop was and is, regardless of how Pop Art as a movement and its principles are now regarded as ill-considered, flawed and passe, concerned with the moment, with the reflection of the passion and anxiety of this second right now. Framed in a playful fashion, and yet open to the infiltration of the serious-minded, Pop is the most incandescent and yet purposefully ephemeral of all cultural experiences. (This is something which Grant Morrison and his once close collaborator Mark Millar both grasp better than perhaps anyone else in contemporary comics, regards of what I may or may not think of  one's "Batman" and the other's - oh, that sounds rude - "Clint") That some elements of Pop prove to be saturated with meaning for generations after their creation is, and always should be, irrelevant to those who are producing Pop in the first place. Pop isn't created to last, and "Revolver", for example, wasn't fashioned for the ages, but created for the "now". The fact that it's so obviously one of the treasures of 20th century Western culture is nothing more than the accidental by-product of the craft, naivety and ambition, commercial and artistic, that fuelled its making.

         
The Lee/Ditko Spider-Man stories were Pop too, of course, although the decision by Stan Lee to label them as such rather undercut their innocent power by showing off what's better left for an audience to define, or not. Yet we know that Mr Lee never imagined that there'd be a comics industry with him in it even a few years beyond the moment at which he and his collaborators launched Marvel Comics, and the work is all the better for it. Popular entertainers in any field who, rather like the Martin Amis's of this world, worry about how their work will be perceived in 5, 10 and a 100 years from the now have already started to cut themselves loose from their reason to be. The Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four was Pop, as was the Frank Miller Daredevils and Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, and they still exist as much in the context of the moment in which they were created as they do in the context of timeless classic comics. They've proven to be important because the market and not their creators decided that they are so. Moore's politics in ST are so of the British left in the early-Eighties, Miller's kung-fu ninjas are as Seventies a distillation of the decade's disposable culture as might be found. Land-locked as these creators were in a despised medium propagating a sub-genre held in contempt by all but its largely-youthful audience, they responded by devising monthly comic books which were almost toxic in their intensity, which were as nakedly populist as they were informed by a broad mass of elements far less transitory in themselves than at first might have appeared. These creators may have quite literally churned out the product, and yet the results were so exciting and well-crafted and smart and largely unpretentious, and they were not at all concerned about tomorrow. There were no graphic novels, there was no hardcore adult audience so habitualised and relatively affluent that it could practically keep a dying industry on its feet by itself, there were no Hollywood studios pumping out 3-D movies and supporting the companies which generate their costumed high concepts. All there was was this month's new-stand, and those at the most three or four months down the line.

            
And just picking up any one of those comics mentioned above remains a rush, carries a sense of immediacy, of incredible ambition and joy and frustration against the perceived limitations of the medium and its commercial niches. All the bemoaning of falling page counts in recent months has often quite missed the point that most of the very best of the superhero sub-genre was produced in monthly installments of very few pages indeed by creators such as those we've mentioned above. The Claremont/Byrne X-Men delivered, month-in and out, one of the most complete and engrossing, if soap-operatic and balefully influential, packages ever in a mere 17 pages. The Lee/Romita Spider-Man tales were often no more than 20 pages long themselves. Pop is rarely about a heavy weight of product, about the director's cut or the extra CD of demos and live tracks, but rather about colour and incident, about this very second and certainly not the next. Pop is cheap and quick and at its best it's unusually intelligent too, and it rarely manifests itself if it's expected to carefully fill out 120 pages of trade paperback collection or occupy a space in a year-long company schedule bridging one line-wide crossover with another, over and over and over again.

Just as the most obviously vital and vitalising form of pop music was the single, so the monthly comic book has always been the most Pop of superhero forms, and it remains the most potentially exhilarating of all the possible packages which the superhero tale can be designed for. It's a form which has, for all its endless disadvantages, produced little miracles of excellence. The intensely crowded monthly marketplace of past days produced a pressure of competition which creators once had to rise to, and that might still be so, if today's competition wasn't diluted by the presence of profit-generating crossovers, book collections, and media-deals. The tendency of the marketplace to inspire excellence, to inspire Pop, can't function in the current climate, where it's influence is moderated by so many other factors. Monthly sales are vital for the industry, but the Big Two don't have to respond to them beyond culling the lowest-selling books and replacing them with franchise titles. Low sales hurt, but they don't of themselves cause bankruptcy, because there's a significant degree of profit being generated elsewhere. Such economic security simply won't of itself stimulate excellence. All it'll do is encourage the companies to continue to pander to an existing and declining audience, because the incentive, the necessity, to change is constantly being moderated.

                        
If only the industry was facing the prospect of catastrophe. Things might start to change, some greater measure of invention and daring might emerge. It's certainly hard not to believe that the emergence of the trade paperback collection has proved as catastrophic for the sub-genre as it's been profitable for publishers and creators alike, because its very nature is anti-Pop. When art and commerce collide, commerce nearly always wins, but what if commerce then fails following such a victory? For to write for the trade can be the very opposite of creating for the moment, and it often, if not always, creates work which feels staid and manipulative. The events of one of today's structured-for-collecting comics can mostly be predicted even down to the details of each issue's beats and pacing simply by noting which chapter out of 4 or 6 parts it is. The grand conflicts will be loaded into later issues, the major reversals usually placed at the end of the penultimate chapters, the first forty to sixty pages saturated with the longueurs of set-up and exposition. And since the very minutiae of structure has become so utterly predictable, so too has the reading experience. Yet decades ago, for example, the first Galactus saga ended after just 11 pages of its third installment, because Lee and Kirby were so eager to move on that they didn't think of padding out their own achievements in order to fill up FF issue 51. In the absence of the collected edition, the very mind-set of the creator was so different that sub-genre transforming accidents could happen simply because there were so few rules and conventions to break with. As such, the Sixties and the first half of the Seventies now appear to have been a time of unimaginable creative affluence, years when talent and drive and aspiration and creative freedom was so much of a commonplace that every book was a statement of immediacy and excitement. Of course, the truth is that much of the product was poor, and the marketplace was collapsing even as the superhero genre rose to dominate it. But there was a greater opportunity for Pop during that period, because the mind-set which doesn't recognise, and which therefore can't recognise, Pop as an option hadn't yet developed.

            
Let's just for a second on this spring Saturday morning stop and ask ourselves a simple question; how much of the product of the Big Two today is Pop? How much of it is even enthralling at the moment it's consumed, regardless of how prospectively fascinating it might be when bound and experienced at some indeterminate future point? It seems to be that we almost take it for granted now that the monthly comic has to be both thin and lacking any measure of completeness, and that that's the way that things must be. To dispute such  assumptions is to be seen as re-heating old and tired arguments, or, far worse, to be a dinosaur-representative of the Luddite tendency, which tiresomely longs to bring the worst of the sub-genre's past back into today's comics, who want to doom us all with childishness and continuity and destroy the medium itself.  But longing for Pop isn't the same as wanting the past returned, because that's surely the complete opposite of what Pop is! Yet, because Pop has won the culture wars, because elite disapproval has been beaten back and our lives now saturated with what was once disdained and forbidden, the need for Pop seems to have disappeared. We've grown up now, we've moved beyond the undignified brashness of snakeoil modernity, or so so many seem to believe. We're adult, as if to be adult is to be strangely less rather than more concerned with emotion and wonder. Better to be complient and sober seems to be the message. How terrible it is that Pop overwhelled the opposition of our betters, because now the very idea of Pop feels so unnecessary and old-hat that the need for it is made almost invisible. Indeed, we can assume we're being  incandescently Pop simply because there's hardly anyone left to care to disapprove of our strange complacency and lack of ambition. Beethoven is now a taste, a market, a demographic, a lifestyle choice, a compliment to the Beatles and, to make a point, Cee-Lo rather than an alternative, and comic books have little but their own shortcomings to push against anymore. They exist not in opposition to the mainstream, and yet they're certainly not as a part of it either, or at least they're not on the printed page. Instead, it's as if the superhero book has won the cultural right to exist without too much scorn, but the absence of conflict that's brought has in part resulted in comics which often smell far more of business than imagination. And how can the sub-genre recognise its own shortcomings if there's no debate which carries any force, if the market is largely ignorable, if the superhero now occupies such a secure cultural niche that there's no immediate need for those well-rewarded creators and editors to engage with anyone but themselves? Why then Pop? How then Pop?

         
Perhaps Pop's victory explains something of the diminution of intensity and the prevailing sense of ennui about so much of the superhero sub-genre today. Ambition almost inevitably declines when resentment no longer fuels it, though levels of basic craft and competency may stay high and even increase regardless. Thor is in the cinemas, every book store, it seems, has a graphic novel section, everyone knows who Hal Jordan and Tony Stark are. Isn't this what victory is, haven't we got the mainstream books that we always dreamed of? And it's undeniable that there are fine books out there which can almost support a claim that the industry is in rude health; I've written about a great number of them on this very blog. But as a general principle; there is very little Pop! If we may apply a grossly over-simplified take on Hamilton's categories, themselves later debated, refined and nullified by so many theorists that the original definition seems almost heretical to itself, what do we find of today's books? (*1) The comic book itself, as considered as a separate object from its spin-offs of Summer popcorn 3-D extravaganzas and hyper-active video-games, is certainly no longer particularly popular. It's rarely written entirely for the transient joy of the moment, and such an expensive product is hardly expendable. It's not low cost, and though it's mass produced, it's for a niche audience. It would certainly be hard to describe most of today's books as young, or even young at heart. And how many of 2011's product might we honestly define as witty and sexy and glamorous, especially given the tawdry sexism and the absence of well-observed human relations so prevalent in so many of them? Indeed, of all of the components of Hamilton's definition, all that I can identify as being particularly relevant to today are the categories of "gimmicky" and "big business". (Perhaps we add to the list the quality of "sincerity" which Hamilton mentions in his letter to the Smithsons. Creators today are rarely, it appears and to their credit, insincere and their work reflects this. The shame is what that sincerity actually relates to where so many of them are concerned.) And even though I'm sure we'd agree that elements of Hamilton's ideal type aren't essential for great Pop - glamorous is hardly a given, sexy can be a impossible thing to define indeed - I strongly believe that the general sense of his first definition is extremely useful as an opening gambit in an argument.

         
Comics today are produced by more generally competent professionals, at least where the creative side of things are concerned, than ever. The average degree of adequacy in most every area of craft bar editorship, for all that there are estimable exceptions to the rule, is higher than ever, but the soul of the sub-genre is so often missing, and ironically, it's missing in part because so much of the immediate demands of the marketplace have been removed from creators. Pop is as much a creature of the need to generate cash-flow in the now, or at the very least the near future, as it is a creative endeavour, and the Big Two operate economically in a far less intensely short-term basis now. The superhero is now a hugely profitable business, even as the superhero comic isn't, and though creators have to work extremely hard to keep second and third-tier books going, the bulk of Marvel and DC's cost and profit isn't reliant as it once was upon the monthly book anymore. Given that the moment is no longer so economically central to the superhero book, for all that it's still vital, there's no surprise that a culture which looks at aspects other than right now has developed. Delayed gratification matched with moments of the meaninglessly spectacular is now the name of the game in the superhero business, and how can the constant deferring of satisfaction be Pop, or inspire it?(*2)

        
I read far too few individual issues which carry any sense that their creators were driven by a fearsome desire to be absolutely brilliant matched with a rabid determination to maintain and increase a foothold in the marketplace. Competency and caution is the name of the game in 2011, with occasional brilliant exceptions and pathetic collapses of craft serving to make the sub-genre at times seem more dynamic than it is. Mostly, I read unambitiously well-structured and utterly predictable stories written for the trade. Often this means that I'm paying for complacent rubbish churned out by folks who surely should know better, but who apparently don't, although they do produce a story in the requisite number of pages. I read stories written by folks with no apparent concept of the genre's long history and the skills developed by generation upon generation of comic book professionals, but who know how to tell a four issue arc perfectly adequately, as if creating comics was a mechanical rather than a creative endeavour.  I experience page after page of shoddily designed and executed storytelling, packed with money-shots of be-muscled costumes and porn-actress "super-heroines" parading as if their function is as masturbationary aids for young prospective metrosexuals prevented by their parents from using a search engine and the "start private browsing" button on the family computer. I see not Pop, but aspects of exploitation and complacency which could be fascinating if they were part of a brilliant creation rather than lazy unquestioned examples of shallow thinking and practise.

This isn't Pop, this is far too often Dad-Rock.

            
I read comic after comic with no apparent concern for or understanding of issues of social justice, as if the real world and the superhero world should not be equated, as if the obvious excesses of "relevancy" in the late Sixties and early Seventies provides a perfect excuse for not caring. Pop was once a tool for changing consciousness, even if it didn't of itself change the world, but you'd never guess that that was so by reading 99% of today's books, where the social agenda is so regressive that issues of race, disability, ethnicity and sexuality are dealt with hardly at all, with the most notable of exceptions. Debate and difference can be transgressive and Pop in themselves, they can create conflict and therefore light and heat and distraction and interest. For all that a comic-book social agenda can produce pathetically thin arguments, it can also inspire while doing so entertainingly too. 

          
The key question is, I believe, this; how many professionals set out to write the very best, the most Pop, comic ever, and aspire fiercely to do so every time? An impossible aspiration, of course, but how many folks approach their work with such single-mindedness? Well, of course, all of them, but the problem isn't the good and honourable intentions and work, but rather what the definition of a fine comic book now so often seems to be. How many creators want their work to matter as well as entertain, how many aspire not to be good professionals, but good professionals who are quite brilliant too? Again, all of them, quite obviously, but if we're not thinking Pop, then the work isn't going to consistently reflect the best that the sub-genre can acheive.. By this I mean that the measure of ambition and achievement shouldn't be the production of the very best script and art possible for this particular chapter in this cycle's five part epic. Setting up the most competent delivery of vital informing detail at one moment in a company's schedule in order to set up an upcoming crossover shouldn't be a source of satisfaction for anyone unless the story itself is excellent too. Neatly tying up the b and c plots just before the conclusion of a story matters not a jot if the tale isn't inspiring in itself. We need Pop comic books which are, issue by issue, month by month, energetically packed with craft and excellence and off-the-wall ambition, which are so dense with ideas and emotions, so packed with events, so passionately informed, that flashbulb memories are created while experiencing them. That's just not possible as a rule, of course, but it must be the ambition, and either damn the pacing of the collected edition or master the art of being Pop in such a way as the TPB shines regardless of its fiercely individual chapters. How many professionals can, hand-on-heart, look at their script or their art for chapter two of their latest trade-in-progress and believe, really believe, that this is going to be a considerable number of reader's favourite issue ever? Is it politely fit for purpose, or is it Pop?

I know many do strive so, and achieve their ends too. In fact, I can think of several folks I've exchanged words with who undoubtedly do drive themselves that hard and who dare to fail harder every time. But I wonder how many don't, and I wonder how much of that is because they don't think to do so, because it's just not how the culture encourages folks to go about the business of producing their work.

          
This sub-genre seems to me to have lost much of its ambition, its heart, its joy. It's produced by often able and highly competent and caring individuals. Some of the folks producing work today rank with many of the best of the sub-genres's past, and again, back pieces on this blog will show the reader who perceives this piece to be a blanket assault on contemporary creators per se that that's not what I'm arguing. But after more of 80 years of this medium, the time has surely come to both learn from the past and to be inspired in order to match it exceed it.

Am I so very wrong? Have I missed the wall of Pop before my eyes? Are the books that we're being given the equivalent of a fantastic 2.05 minute, 7-inch single, with no more than 12 bars of guitar solo and a groove-locked rhythm section all playing in the same room at the same time, with unexpectedly smart/dumb and knowingly unpretentious lyrics? Has the flab all been cut from the product, is every page and every panel being made to count? Will the next book change somebody's life rather than competently matching up with the progress of this line-leading crossover and that prospective collection, and if not, why not? There's a quote

        
from Pasternak which, for all it's concerned with far, far weightier matters, seems to me to be relevant here, to the effect that people are born to live life, and not to prepare for the living of it. Now,  I bought a small pile of superhero books this month and nearly all of them are setting up something else rather than existing as discrete and individual experiences in themselves. This has been true for years, but that doesn't mean that those who bemoan the fact are stubbornly running against the tide of history. Perhaps the folks who weary of such thin and openly exploitative fare being offered up with very little Pop compensation are resistant not to change, but to the prevalence of mediocrity. If the audience for superhero books is at best not growing, and in truth slowly diminishing, then it's surely in part the result of a slow and suicidally stupid act of self-abuse on the industry's part. Just like folks who under-exercise and over-eat and drink because they're used to it and because the alternative seems unthinkable, so the producers of the comic book mainstream product are addicted to the short-term grand crossover, to the immersive universe and the ubiquitous collected edition. They'll tell us it's not their fault, that they have to do it, that the short-term pain of changing can't possibly be compensated for by the possibility of medium and long-term gains from doing so, that they audience won't put up with anything else, that there are still great books being produced, that the overall quality is very good indeed. They are, after all, the folks who know.

But, whatever the facts and their interpretation, it isn't an industry that's very Pop, is it? There's been more than enough comic books created to keep me reading for the rest of my life, but I shouldn't even be considering living off the past. It's not a thought that I'm comfortable with at all. For although the world doesn't need more comics, let alone more superhero books, it always needs more excellence, more brilliance, more Pop, and where better to produce Pop than in a sub-genre that was developed to deliver nothing but?

Don't you love Pop? Yes, most of anything that can be labelled Pop is undoubtedly rubbish, because most of everything is, but the excellence of craft matched with the artistic and economic ambition found in the very best of Pop produces wonders. Is the mainstream comic book which you last held in your hands, or even the one you've just written, drawn or edited, the greatest superhero book that there's ever been, and if not, why not?

For it's not the comic books themselves that worry me so. Rather, it's what appears to be the mind-set that informs so many aspects of their creation that scares and frustrates me.



Tomorrow, Sam Cooke, Bobby Womack, the photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and comic books too. Oh, yes! You can't tell me anything of Pop, especially where 1947 and 1959 are concerned!

*1 A grossly over-simplified take on Hamilton's definition to fuel an argument about superhero comic books? Is that a reflection of Pop or its very opposite? I suspect the latter, and so I shame myself.
*2:- Of course, at the same time, the superhero comic can also be an endless parade of meaningless spectacular moments too, with the Wasp being eaten over here and Arsenal and that damn cat thrashing around over there. But even with those high-intensity moments, there's always a sense that the audience is being strung along until a belated climax eventually arrives, and that that conclusion is merely the set-up yet another epic, for which satisfied must be deferred again.
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14 comments:

  1. This isn't Pop, this is far too often Dad-Rock.

    Brilliant line, spot on. The superhero comics of today have codified the formula of the superhero comics of the past to the point where they are seldom anything other than ersatz; just as Weller and Noel Gallagher did to the music of The Beatles, the Small Faces, The Kinks, etc.

    I'd say it'd be hard for any comic to have the cultural impact large enough to become iconic as long as the current distributive model holds out. Better to have a good product out in the mass market printed on crap paper, or distributed cheaply digitally, than THE fucking RISE OF ARSENAL printed in garish Photoshopped hues on thick shiny paper pandering to the bizarre tastes of "the Wednesday Crowd".

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  2. Hello Mark:- Poor Arsenal. One cat, one dose, man, of China White, ah-hem, and that's him and all who sailed in him labelled forever. It's not fair.

    Well, actually it is.

    Good product on crap paper for me every time too, Mark. I know from your blog and your music that you are a man of Pop, and I am too. More so, I still retain every faith that the superhero and those who create the adventures of the hyper-people could take their competency and tomorrow real off one fine slab'o'Pop after another. I remain convinced that it's a problem of cultural norms and not talent.

    The fault, dear sir, lies not in the stars and so on, etc, yours sincerly ...

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  3. Sooo... "pop will eat itself?"

    I agree with a great deal of what you're saying here. I'm one of those savages with very little compassion for bad comics made by awful creators or good creators employed by terrible companies. The counter argument to my frequent rampages has to do with the talented (competent) artists who are thankfully employed by this aggressively terrible comic book system. My counter-counter argument is that the fewer comics, the better. Kill them all slowly and maximize one's sales by making each comic book series count.

    Why the companies want fractured, mediocre sales of ten X-Men comics or seventeen Batman comics when they can have one, definitive and confident version of each, respectively, is beyond me.


    As for "writing for the trade." After about ten years, I really understand what this means. I also largely agree with you. The contemporary comic book collection is an abomination, a mutant; born of the unholy marriage of convenience and desperation for acceptance.

    I would love to read a superhero comic that was engaging and totally insane issue to issue that when collected into books doesn't attempt to mimic the beats and tics of mainstream film/television. "Collecting issues 10-17" needn't neccesitate that those issues tell a single, simple story. And it shouldn't.

    If one wants to tell a 120-page superhero story, it should be published as such. If one wants to publish 20-page superhero magazines, each issue of the magazine should be meaningful on its own.

    BUT: that's nothing new and it's not like DC and Marvel have any incentive whatsoever to work in such ways. SO: "things were better in the olden days." ALSO: "GET OFF MY LAWN!"

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  4. Hello Darryl:- it DOES eat itself, doesn't it, but of course that's what it does. What's remarkable about Pop is that that process doesn't have to end in banality or post-modern posing. Pop regenerates itself if craftsfolk stay alive and ambitious, and yet, every era, whichever it is, with very few exceptions, seem quite lacking the level of debate necessary to get Pop not just eating itself, but reframing itself too. Perhaps the best time for debate was the first half of the seventies, when there was both still strict commercial pressures and a formula but also a great deal of creative freedom and ambition.

    Less comics, better art? It's a brutal solution, but I can't logically fault the premise. That really IS competition. Yet if I can be somewhat starry-eyed, I do believe that there's more than enough talent out there to produce a host of quite enthralling books if only this straight-jacket of procedure was abandoned. That sounds terribly Age of Aquarius, and I don't mean it to do. But I see no reason why there can't be a dozen great Batman books a month, although a dozen different titles would go down far, far better of course.

    "Collecting issues 10-17" needn't neccesitate that those issues tell a single, simple story. And it shouldn't."

    No, you're right, and that's especially so if creators were allowed a few pages to contextualise their work when it's collected. Wouldn't it be fantastic to pick up a six issue collection and find the kind of fusion of craft and wha?/Huh? that, say Steve Gerber's Defenders provided? I know I sound like a 70s throwback, but in truth I read little from that period. Indeed, in many ways, today's books are more competent. But they're often less brilliant.

    And yet, while I agree with what you say about the Big Two and their incentive to change, perhaps I might suggest that falling sales and a-perhaps growing awareness that one formula has been replaced with another might just kick up a few good things. In many ways, the least promising times can provide the most interesting reactions. And there are so many able creators out there.

    Or so I keep telling myself ....

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  5. Mark's Bad Librarianship remind me of something I stumbled across a while back (because of the Brett Ewins connection) - comics as graffiti. How much more quick and throwaway does it get? I'd love to see that pushed as far as it'd go - not just comic art used for graffiti but actual sequential graffiti that told a story, that added an extra layer on the urban experience, that subverted the building itself and so on.

    "This is something which Grant Morrison and his once close collaborator Mark Millar both grasp better than perhaps anyone else in contemporary comics"

    Interesting you say that, as I was told Mark Millar's secret the other day (which would break the Internet if revealed here ;) ) which does tend to mean it is essentially disposable and very much "for the moment" (perhaps why no one seems eager to finish War Heroes, as its time seems passed now).

    Morrison also tried to capture that pop (and explicitly Pop Art) feel in Marvel Boy, it is a pity no one ever picked up that ball and ran with it.

    "It's certainly hard not to believe that the emergence of the trade paperback collection has proved as catastrophic for the sub-genre as it's been profitable for publishers and creators alike, because its very nature is anti-Pop."

    Welllll the trade isn't the problem, it is writing for the trade that really derails things. After all, you only recently looked at Nemesis the Warlock, which now comes in a great slab of a collection but its format is clearly a weekly 4 page installment - get in, get it done and get out again (as Pat always had his eye on the Continent and albums it may have been in his mind when writing these stories but they make no concession for such things, see Grobbendonk's gibberish getting explain in each issue. Compare that with something like Slaine or ABC Warriors which does seem crafted with the finished book in mind, and often with the Continent in mind, with the art style).

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  6. Hello Emperor:- I enjoyed very much that article on Bad Libraianship. I'm always torn by the business of graffiti, especially having taught - and therefore studied, of course - a great of the psychology of environmental crime - and yet I'd also have to be an idiot not to note how vibrant grafitti can be too. Astonishing to note how even the work of the first great wave of graffiti artists in NYC still doesn't seem have registered on the mainstream comic in the USA. It can't be that the creators of the period didn't see it. I was in NYC in 1982, The Message literally howling out of every radio and even on MTV in the bars, and so much of the city was under the occupation of spray-paint. Superhero comic books existing in a vacuum uninformed by popular culture? Say it isn't so. I guess the fact that Milligan, Ewins & McCarthy did have a sense of pop culture isa just one of the reasons which explains what makes the likes of Shockwave and Paradox feel so comparitively fresh and fascinating today, 25 years or so after publication.

    Ah, well of course I accept that collections per se aren't evil, and did at least say so in far clearer way in yesterday's re-mix of this material. (Re-mix. Gosh. We'll that's me hip with the latter years of the 70s at least!) But sometimes in order to challenge an idea, and in order for me to get my head completely straight, an act of artistic reductionism has to be indulged in. (And given how unimportant and irrelevant my blog is, 'indulgence' is the word.) There's no point shilly-shallying, as Edwyn Collins might well tell us - (80's hip!) - because the culture of the collection is now so ubiquituous that the only way to challenge it is to seperate the comic book from the concepts associated with the trade. We're in a situation analagous to 1976-ish and punk in the UK and 1979-ish and rap - as was then known - in NYC, Emperor, because relatively few people now seem to remember what pop and its immedicacy is. Everyone writes for the collection now, or nearly everyone, Mr Wagner having refreshingly said he doesn't think of it. Even PM structures his tales, which may explain all those dead chapters.

    Mark Millar's secret should surely be shared with the bloke who's writing a book about the bloke :) (I am willing to beg.) But I meant what I said about he and GM. They're both wedded to the idea of popular, transgressive, colourful ideas and moments. Whether its always to my taste is irrelevant. I'll take any trace of Pop I can get. Mark Millar has a clear idea of what Pop comics are. In that, he stands out as quite distinct from the general consensus that it's a career based in 4-part stories and continuity team-work.

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  7. "I guess the fact that Milligan, Ewins & McCarthy did have a sense of pop culture isa just one of the reasons which explains what makes the likes of Shockwave and Paradox feel so comparitively fresh and fascinating today, 25 years or so after publication."

    Definitely. I believe McCarthy B, Ewins and Milligan were all at art school together (so McCarthy J got hooked up with Bret Ewins as an art team through his brother), so they were clearly absorbing a lot of that late 70s and early 80s art and culture, which they'd later use as fuel for their rather weird excursions. What is interesting is that it is not only still pretty much out there but no one in mainstream comics has managed to come close to matching that.

    "We're in a situation analagous to 1976-ish and punk in the UK and 1979-ish and rap - as was then known - in NYC, Emperor, because relatively few people now seem to remember what pop and its immedicacy is."

    I'd also argue that it is similar because people are realising they have the means of production at hand and they can do it themselves without being a slave to the old business models. This is happening in books thanks largely to the Kindle (rather than me go on about this, see here) and the iPad and the forthcoming wave of tablets will do this for comics too. Webcomics have been doing this for a while now, with an eventual trade just icing on the cake rather than an aim in itself. So it should be possible to do it yourself and hammer out comics and have them available almost instantly reacting rapidly to events and staying well ahead of the curve (comics are the perfect medium for this), making them timely and ultimately disposable (although you could still collect them in a trade at some point). I'm sure we'll see new approaches to comics because of this - how about something like Joe Sacco's journalistic comics but reacting more rapidly to events?

    "Mark Millar's secret should surely be shared with the bloke who's writing a book about the bloke :) (I am willing to beg.)"

    I'll mail it to you - the world isn't quite ready for this. Plus you can make it an exclusive and slap a sticker on the front of the book saying "contains Mark Millar's secret (which is not the preserved brain of Jack Kirby that he keeps pickled and eats a slice of each year at Christmas time)"

    "Mark Millar has a clear idea of what Pop comics are."

    Indeed - it was spooky that hearing the secret and reading your piece came so close together, as it does make sense.

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  8. Hello Emperor:- well, if even the likes of myself are writing and cack-handedly experimenting with web-comics, I suspect that just about everyone will be. I hasten to say I'm doing it for fun, I have no pretensions beyond extending myself, having been a graphic designer and done conspiciously poorly at it. But I mean to say that the idea of comics becoming almost a guerilla process is charming and exciting, just as long as the best still gets collected and published on paper out here in the real world, and not cheaply on-demand either. A book is a book is a book.

    Joe Sacco. Can't help but admire him, can't but struggle to try to read him. Must try again. Certainly the idea of responding to events in a speedy way appeals. My favourite cartoonist/artist of all-time is the splendid Low, and he operated in such a way, a grand and often marvellously complex panel a day and hot off the presses the content often was. Why not use tech to do that using all the modern oppurtunities?

    Mark Millar's secret? How he managed to write The Grudge Father without his head exploding would the one I'm currently musing on ...

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  9. I wonder where I might find LOW now?

    Is Blue Oyster Cult "DAd Rock" or saved by the cloak of its obscurity?

    I agree, writing for the trade is one more way of demolishing the beautiful spontaneity. Kirby would've blown a gasket!

    I hope you get to see my comic DNA sometime. It's like nothing else out there. I am organizing the next issue in my mind, but I'm writing another series, PORTAL IMMORTAL, that can't possibly be drawn, especially by me, any time too soon. But it has one thing going for it: I like to get a complete story of some sort, with each issue. I hope it turns out as POP and crazy as possible!

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  10. Hello Cease Ill:- well, of course I'm using POP playfully, since one woman's Pop is another woman's Pap. But as a starting point for a barny, Pop is a useful idea. I believe that Jack Kirby was very interested in the idea of graphic novels, though of course he only ever got the chance to produce a few. (Certainly his last New Gods story. I believe the Silver Star tale was produced for that form, though I may well be wrong.) But you can bet that JK's graphic novels wouldn't be soporific beasts in anyway!

    I admire your ambitions with PORTAL IMMORTAL, Mr C. There's lots of projects which have benefited from a considerable wait while the creator develops the skills to complete them. Good luck to you!

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  11. Colin: brilliant and incisive and maybe even melancholy without being doomstruck. I said the same thing about comics, though perhaps not so eloquently, when I summed comic up and talked about the death of disposability. We're treated to mini-masterpieces with full orchestration and careful planning and not the fervent, desperate need to get a book out there every month and damn the consequences if the universe burnt down because of what you wrote last month.

    Reading and nodding, wishing for more.

    I'm wondering if we need fewer writer's retreats and more madhouse bullpens filled with artists constantly trying to one-up each other. I have to think about the early days of rock and hip-hop when it comes to that, with topping and boasting, call-outs and putdowns.

    Now, I realize this to be a controversial (to say the least) point. Can we pin when this mindset began? Allow me to offer forth WATCHMEN for that honor (though the seeds were sown with "The Anatomy Lesson.") And more importantly can it be salvaged? Or do we need our pop comics to come from elsewhere?

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  12. Matt, I've just noted my response to your comment has been dumped by Blogger here. I'll go find my original response and re-post.

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  13. Matt, I noted on the statcounter that you popped back, and I can't say how sorry I am that it's appeared I've not responded to your words. I hate to give that impression, and I did publish a response this morning. Things are constantly dropping off the blog at the moment, and it's profoundly irrittating; I don't like to seem rude to folks who've been kind enough to pop over in this direction. Anyway, for what it's worth, the fact I did read your words is reflected in the post I put up this morning on the blog, which referred to your words.

    Right. What did I say this morning?

    Firstly, I liked your phrase 'fervent, desperate need', because it does capture for me the kind of intensity and immediacy which the creation of POP demands. In the absence of a marketplace which promotes intense competition between creators, I can't but wish that the companies were working to promote more of a sense of difference rather than similarity. If the market won't push competition and innovation, then internal strategies need to do so. Yet the Big Two would no doubt point to the fact that the different and the unfamiliar doesn't sell, or at least, it doesn't until it does; the Quesada revolution at Marvel at the beginning was based on new ideas, new forms and a trust in creators rather than the brand and a uniform product. We need something other than the current norm, but unfortunately the current status quo is more stable and less threatened. The hiring of JQ in 2000 was in part possible because Marvel was doing badly. Where is the incentive for radical change now?

    I think your analogy with previous moments in music history is a fine one. That interaction between a mass market, a mass of gifted and inventive individuals, and a common store of craft marked out certain moments in musical history as important. There were large numbers of folks consuming and large numbers of folks who could and wanted to produce. But those factors aren't so anymore. The market has collapsed, for one thing, while the big two publishers can rely on money generated by product other than the comics themselves.

    In such a situation, it's going to take some editorial daring to add some POP into the mix. I wouldn't deny that the companies have to use their retreats and common schedules to create product that'll work in the common marketplace. But within that, there must surely be opportunity for more innovation and a greater measure of individuality? Organisation can be used to promote diversity and craft too.

    But perhaps that's being done and I'm just not grasping the situation. It would be nice to be to interview a few key players in the biz and off the record find out what the constraints are they're working under, and how they're striving to overcome them!

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  14. Complacency kills. And I hate to drag it all back to freshman Humanities courses, but once the Antithesis eats the Thesis and then gets transformed into the Synthesis (at least that was my reading of Papa Karl's overarching theory, well, one of them), well, you're back at being the boring old Thesis again. Dadrock.

    All of the examples we're pulling up, whether they're in music or comics, all of those were sparks squeezed out of the friction of the time/environment. They don't have to be big movements, though they sometimes become such. But they have to be bred out of urgency out of the belief that THE UNIVERSE WILL DIE AT MIDNIGHT unless the spell is incanted successfully.

    Can I say I do such in my own comics work? Probably not. But I've allowed myself to be driven by story rather than thrill (though I do get a tingle from a well-constructed story). All the same, I wonder if today's creators feel like they're reaching for manic pop thrills (was that the term?) or something else entirely, something more respectable.

    I suspect that talking to creators about this sort of thing will be much harder than it used to be, in this day and age of everything being on someone's record. I'm not sure that I can rightly blame anyone for being cautious when it comes to their livelihoods or perceptions of such.

    Though I must admit that I'm repeatedly confounded as to how something as intrinsically exciting as superheroes can be ground to dullness month in, month out.

    EDIT - no worries as to any delays in your reply, Colin. We all have lives that exert demands upon us.

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