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Monday, March 02, 2009


Anthony Lane Watches the Watchmen

Hey nerds, remember what it was like before a few better-looking and more talented nerds than you took over key jobs in Hollywood and Entertainment Weekly, and all of a sudden, the things you love became (ironic quote marks) cool? (Forget for now that, just like post-Nirvana alt rock by 1995, the taste of victory immediately turned to ash in your mouth.)

Before comic books gained their current, ephemeral, (definitely more quotes around this one) respect, they were something for anyone over 15 to be embarrassed about, unless they were about tits and getting high, in which case you had until you were 23. The New Yorker's own Rex Reed, Anthony Lane is decidely not part of the Lost-writing-staff, Onion-AV-Club geek pack, and he's here to make you feel like a frustrated fucking loser again. You know that complex, intelligent comic you loved, the one that you thought proved you weren't simply an arrested development case completely wasting all of your free time and money? Lane is here to tell you that normal people can't tell the difference between Watchmen and that orange guy on the sea horse from the cartoon, whatshisname. Flash Gordon or something.

Does that bother you at all? Ah, Nostalgia. How the ghost of you clings.

It's not about Lane's review of the Watchmen movie. Haven't seen it yet, I take his word and that of most other serious critics so far that it blows. But what will make you feel like a misunderstood-and-bitterly-frustrated 15-year-old in 1986 all over again, trying to explain that no, these comics are different to someone impatiently looking at you like you're becoming increasingly retarded before their eyes, is the particular way in which Lane goes after writer Alan Moore. A rundown:
For every masterwork, such as “Persepolis” or “Maus,” there seem to be shelves of cod mythology and rainy dystopias, patrolled by rock-jawed heroes and their melon-breasted sidekicks. Fans of the stuff are masonically loyal, prickling with a defensiveness and an ardor that not even Wagnerians can match. One lord of the genre is a glowering, hairy Englishman named Alan Moore, the coauthor of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “V for Vendetta.”
So: In opposition to the genuinely literary graphic novels a serious person can count on one hand and still have fingers left over for picking through the caviar, Moore is a master of rock-jawed, melon-breasted cod mythology. But, you counter, From Hell, Lost Girls, Promethea, and besides, Watchmen itself is a caustic rebuke to superhero morality! And Lane responds, "Let's give this fucking geek a swirlie!" You see, you're prickling with defensiveness and ardor. A cult member. Think that's unfair? That Lane premptively makes it impossible for you to point out where he might be wrong? I think he's got a dick you can suck. Let's continue:
The problem is that Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon.
And you quite reasonably reply, "Aroused? Mr. Lane, I can't speak to Snyder's film, but you're entirely misreading Moore. One can argue that he's entirely conscious about manipulating and recontextualizing comic book violence. Much of the book is an attempt to deglamorize cartoon brutality by making it ugly and messy--take, for instance, the use of Kitty Genovese's murder, or the way Moore constructs the mutilation scene in Chapter Ten of From He--" but you have to admit it sounds wicked funny with your underwear pulled up to your armpits, and all the laughter in the locker room drowns out your point anyway.
You want to see the attempted rape of a superwoman, her bright latex costume cast aside and her head banged against the baize of a pool table? The assault is there in Moore’s book, one panel of which homes in on the blood that leaps from her punched mouth, but the pool table is Snyder’s own embroidery. You want to hear Moore’s attempt at urban jeremiad? “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard...
And you, starting to get angry by now, say "But Moore intends Rorschach to be a self-important, self-delusional wreck, defensively reinventing himself as a ridiculously hard-boiled fictional character! The purple prose is the character, not the writer!" (Although Swamp Thing and Killing Joke lurk uncomfortably in the back of your head.) "Moore is using Sally Jupiter to make a point about the exploitation of women and their bodies, how that limits womens' choices and forces many to go along with their degredation!"
Amid these pompous grabs at horror, neither author nor director has much grasp of what genuine, unhyped suffering might be like, or what pity should attend it; they are too busy fussing over the fate of the human race—a sure sign of metaphysical vulgarity—to be bothered with lesser plights.
You're sputtering now: "Little Walter Kovacs! Dr. Malcom Long! The news vendor and the kid reading Tales of the Black Frieghter! The lesbian cab driver! Janey Slater! Hollis Mason! Regular people's lives are woven into the entire thing. Those bodies splattered across the opening pages of Chapter 12? They're the individual lives that Ozymandias presumes to destroy with his dicking around. Jesus, Lane, didn't you even read the book?" And he says, "Not like you did, 800 times. I looked at it, enough to know what Moore was getting at: whiny, juvenile liberal doomsday screed mixed with T&A and guys in leather masks. But don't you remember I had to give it back to you because you said you just couldn't sleep right without it under your pillow? And don't you mean comic book?"
Incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny, “Watchmen” marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?
"Yeah," you say, "like that laugh riot Maus you congratulated at the top of the piece." But Lane can't hear you. Your voice is all muffled inside that locker. Although, as you sit stuffed in there sweating with your knees wedged into your neck, you have to give Lane, at the end, credit for accidentally hitting on Moore's intention, one that the superhero side of the industry had to ignore--the final demolition of a certain kind of comic strip.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Two Thoughts on the Possibly Upcoming Watchmen Movie

1) Rumors abound that WB and Zack Snyder have altered the ending of the Watchmen film adaptation to replace the "giant squid" of the original book with a frame-job making it look as if Dr. Manhattan attacked his namesake.

While I really do understand a studio wanting to shy away from something as ridiculous-seeming as "giant squid", this substitution completely undermines Moore's ending. The Squid that Ate New York is designed to evoke a human vagina and anus, thereby triggering misogynistic terror of the female "other" in the phallocentric, patriarchal world that serves as Watchmen's backdrop.

The squid also serves as a sly meta-commentary on the primal power of girls to get boys to put away their superhero comics and toys--and, Ozymandias hopes, their nuclear missles. Replacing the giant vagina with the giant blue penis of Dr. Manhattan at the story's climax flips the thematic point on its head. Of course, so much of Watchmen beyond its plot is criticism about what comics are and how they function, that much Moore's work was fated to be ignored. This one seems particularly egregious, though. I can only think Snyder a) didn't understand the story he was adapting, or b) didn't give a shit.

2) It's entertaining to see the stupidest man in the universe, Jonah Goldberg, working so hard to make Watchmen seem as stupid and small as he is. Goldberg's agenda is to use Watchmen as a negative example in the continuing campaign to sanctify Ronald Reagan--as an avatar for the pure, wholesome wonderfullness of conservative ideas. Yes, some of Watchmen is a critique of the shittiest aspects of the Thatcher/Reagan 1980s in which the book was written. But more than 20 years later, and the possibly temporary collapse of the Soviet empire aside, *those aspects continue to be shitty*. But if Goldberg and his fellow conservatives think the way back to power is to keep arguing decades-old disagreements, and deifying long-dead politicians via comic-book criticism, by all means, knock yourselves out.

Beyond Goldberg, the less said about whom the better--but really, if he were rocketed to Bizarro World, he'd be the stupidest man there by a mile, including Bizarro Beppo the Supermonkey--it's sad to see in the comments, actual, bona-fide comic book writers like Bill Willingham and James Hudnall so wildly misinterpret aspects of Moore's work.

To start with Hudnall, there is a reason why the English language contains the words "hero" and "protagonist". Just because Rorshcach moves the (seeming) plot along does not make him the story's hero.

Willingham bizarrely (by warping the story through his political filter) seems to think that Moore, against all evidence, has a favored viewpoint--of Ozymandias. He writes:

... I have to disagree that the leftist character Ozymandias was the villain of Watchmen. I believe he was the (tragic) hero of the story. I won’t try to argue Alan Moore’s original intent, but that’s the way I read the book. Ozymandias’ plot succeeded, even if he didn’t survive the execution of it. At the end, the surviving superheroes decide to let the scheme go forth, with the one exception of Rorschach, who Moore has gone on record as describing as a villainous and despicable character, even if he stopped short of calling him the outright villain of the piece.

I see the book as a chronicle of the wonderful but tragic genius hero who saw the way to save the world, and was the only one willing to do all of the horrible things needed to bring that about — just like all of those poor souls who had and will have to die horribly in order to bring about the glorious communist utopia that will come, if only the superior geniuses of the left are willing to break enough eggs to accomplish it.

My politics differ a hundred percent from that nonsense, but this is how I read the Watchmen story — an impressive but deeply flawed work by an incredible talent.

No. One of the most radical things about Watchmen as a superhero text is how it refuses to settle on any character or philosophy as the right, "heroic" one--like the raft of dead men, the entire world is adrift, cut loose from its moorings. Everyone is improvising and everyone is compromised, whether they recognize it or not. They're all alone in casting themselves as the heroes of the story, whether by sacrificing their morals for the greater good, or sticking to their ethics despite the consequences. Speculation about who's the intended hero, or Goldberg alleging that the West is cast as "the real villain" is flat-out foolish. Ozymandias and Rorschach are both moral monsters, in a world filled with and inured to them. Goldberg calls Moore's alleged nilhistic ambiguity "the left's ill-advised, ahistoric, and self-indulgent response to Reaganism" but he's the same guy who's spent the past couple of years pimping a book that claims liberals are the real fascists, with the primary evidence being the ease with which he repeatedly puts "liberal" and fascist" next to each other in sentences.

Willingham also falls down the rabbit hole of trying to debunk the mechanics of the final page's oblique homage to Kind Hearts and Coronets by speculating "what would happen next", which is pretty much the definition of something like "retardation" if that word were okay to use. It's possible to spin out any number of plausible scenarios for what happens to Rorschach's journal, but it's fruitless--Moore tells us what to expect with the "nothing ever ends" line. Whether by the journal or otherwise, eventually all of man's schemes will unravel, statues (even of Ronald Reagan!) will crumble and be swallowed by the lone and level sands ...

Someone ought to write a poem about that.

Thursday, October 23, 2008



For my own selfish reasons, I was apprehensive about what Grant Morrison might say concerning Leo Quintum in his new Newsarama interview--as it happens, he's about exactly as cagey on Leo as the comic itself (italics mine):

Grant Morrison: Yeah, he was exactly as you say, my attempt to create an updated take on the character of “Superman’s scientist friend” – in the vein of Emil Hamilton from the animated show and the ‘90s stories. Science so often goes wrong in Superman stories, and I thought it was important to show the potential for science to go right or to be elevated by contact with Superman’s shining positive spirit.

I was thinking of Quintum as a kind of “Man Who Fell To Earth” character with a mysterious unearthly background. For a while I toyed with the notion that he was some kind of avatar of Lightray of the New Gods, but as All Star developed, that didn’t fit the tone, and he was allowed to simply be himself.

Eventually it just came down to simplicity. Leo Quintum represents the “good” scientific spirit – the rational, enlightened, progressive, utopian kind of scientist I figured Superman might inspire to greatness. It was interesting to me how so many people expected Quintum to turn out bad at the end. It shows how conditioned we are in our miserable, self–loathing, suspicious society to expect the worst of everyone, rather than hope for the best. Or maybe it’s just what we expect from stories.

Having said that, there is indeed a necessary whiff of Lucifer about Quintum. His name, Leo Quintum, conjures images of solar force, lions and lightbringers and he has elements of the classic Trickster figure about him. He even refers to himself as “The Devil Himself” in issue #10.

What he’s doing at the end of the story should, for all its gee–whiz futurity, feel slightly ambiguous, slightly fake, slightly “Hollywood.” Yes, he’s fulfilling Superman’s wishes by cloning an heir to Superman and Lois and inaugurating a Superman dynasty that will last until the end of time – but he’s also commodifying Superman, figuring out how it’s done, turning him into a brand, a franchise, a bigger–and–better “revamp,” the ultimate coming attraction, fresher than fresh, newer than new but familiar too. Quintum has figured out the “formula” for Superman and improved upon it.

And then you can go back to the start of All Star Superman issue #1 and read the “formula” for yourself, condensed into eight words on the first page and then expanded upon throughout the story! The solar journey is an endless circle naturally. A perfect puzzle that is its own solution.

That more or less clinches it for me.

Friday, October 10, 2008


Die Hardstrodamus

Fox Poll: Nearly Two-Thirds Say Ayers Makes No Difference to Their Vote

White FBI Agent Johnson: Just like fuckin' Saigon, eh slick?

Black FBI Agent Johnson: I was in junior high, dickhead.

Friday, September 26, 2008



I love Krypto, I really, really, really love Krypto. And I'll admit, James Robinson does right by the modern version of the character in the new issue of Superman. But everybody? The rest of the comic is a pile of dogshit. It took me less than four minutes to read, was filled with bad dialogue, and Robinson can't write the character of Superman to save his life. Look at the scene with Teen Zatara. Superman, with his hat in his hand, is a sarcastic, dismissive douchebag to the person he's begging for help. Superman. Then look at the whacked-out scene that ends the book, as Superman bascially uses the population of Metropolis as a proxy to lecture his wife that's she's a horrid bitch for trying to separate him from his dog.

Yes, the fight between Krypto and Atlas was well-staged, and yes, it's a clever idea to introduce a Zatara into the supporting cast, given the original's place in Action Comics. But so far, Robinson's run on Superman is only confirming for me that his writerly quirks (tangential conversations; drawn-out, shapeless plotting; random focus on otherwise meaningless background characters; etc.) which could be charmingly idiosynchratic in Starman when used on his own creations and forgotten third-stringers, just seems like bad, lazy writing under the glare of the spotlight.

Scipio says anyone who didn't cry at the end of the issue has his pity. Even as a huge Krypto fan, I say anyone who cried at the end of this issue has lead poisoning. I just wish I had video footage of the Absorbascon commenter who claims he gave the book a standing ovation in the aisle of his comic shop. Then I could die happy.

Monday, September 22, 2008


All-Star Luthor: Xs and Os

Thanks to David Uzumeri at Funnybook Babylon for inspiring this post:

So All-Star Superman #12 is out. Superman is in the sun, evil is vanquished, humanity is ready to step into the future, and unspoken on the page but near the heart of the series, Lex Luthor and Leo Quintum are the same guy.

Throughout the series Leo has been presented as an obvious opposite number for Luthor, a scientific genius who actually uses his abilities to shape a better future instead of merely talking about it. But A-SS #12 puts the final puzzle pieces together, and makes it clear that Leo isn't merely a mirror for Luthor. He literally is Luthor--older, wiser, humane. And that's not just clever, elliptical plotting from Morrison. It gets straight to the thematic center of the story, to Morrison's idea of who Superman is, what he's capable of, what superhero comics mean now to those who read them.

Morrison has said that The Invisibles is optimally designed for its second reading--that you can only really start to understand the experience if you've already experienced it. To me this means that perceiving time in one direction limits your frame of reference too much to understand what's happening until it has already happened, and you're able to reflect. You can only discern a structure from outside the structure. So here's how I see the structure as it pertains to Luthor:

Throughout A-SS, Superman has maintained a belief that even Luthor can be redeemed. For all the labors Superman undertakes, proving his faith in Luthor is perhaps his toughest challenge, and the one task he seemingly fails, given only the evidence on the page. But we've seen over and over that Morrison's Superman, the perfect man, is never wrong, and always wins in the end. So what are the chances he fails to save Luthor?

Think about the events of A-SS #12--Luthor, juiced up on Superman's powers, finally understands the simple, harmonious structure of the universe. He touches the mind of god. Seemingly, it doesn't last, as Superman proceeds to deck him at his moment of enlightenment. Luthor's evil, petty nature reasserts itself, aghast that Superman has beaten him yet again. Then Superman lays him flat, and ends with a stinging rebuke: "You could have saved the world years ago if it really mattered to you, Luthor." But is this a disappointed write-off or a challenge?

After Superman leaves to reignite the sun, Luthor has a year to think about it--a year in which, according to the epilogue, even he is moved by Superman's memorial service, and, as Quintum himself says, the villain diminishes in the absence of his rival. So, let's say you're Luthor. Superman's finally gone, the world looks different to you now, and his final statement is ringing in your ears. Maybe you give up and let yourself be executed, as the overt text seems to suggest.

Or maybe you disappear, travel back in time, don a pair of glasses as a foolproof disguise, (plus some hair plugs, switching the X in your name to an O, and adding some colors to your old coat) and you become the man Superman always knew you could be. You devote yourself to scientific pursuits meant to expand human knowledge and create a better world. You place yourself near the sun where Superman must come to your rescue in issue #1 so that in #12, he may rescue the sun itself, and every creature that lives in its light. And eventually, because you earned Superman's total trust, you are given the chance to continue your former enemy's legacy for thousands of years, through the P.R.O.J.E.C.T. Remember, Superman is always right, and Superman always wins in the end. And if even Luthor can be saved by Superman, every single one of us is saved. What's more, Superman must know who Quintum is. That's why he's willing to entrust Leo with his and Lois's DNA--because he knows the man Luthor was, and the man Quintum has become. He has the confidence of seeing his beliefs proven true before his eyes.

Assuming that Leo is Lex, the next question is why? That is, why does Morrison, in nearly all his significant superhero comics, keep returning to the idea of the future reaching back to the past, so that they may save each other? The trope is present in Animal Man, New X-Men, DC 1 Million and The Invisibles, to name a few.

I think it might have something to do with the essential nature of superhero comics as they are created and experienced now, read primarily by adults, pale reflections of an idealized aspect of many readers' childhoods. There's the wish fulfillment aspect; hindsight as the ultimate superpower--the chance to do it all over again, but better. Leo is Lex's chance to be the man he always bragged about being, if only Superman weren't there to impede him. Again, Leo/Lex is the stand-in for all of humanity, in that regard.

All-Star Superman, the comic, is like a meta version of Leo Quintum. It's the Superman concept's chance to actually be what DC has puffed its chest about for decades--Superman as role model, Christ figure, avatar of morality and decency, etc. Except instead of telling us that in endless mediocre stories where Superman actually acts like a fool, dithering and crying, All-Star Superman shows us that role model in action, what it means to portray the best of our natures in a cape with a propensity for punching the fuck out of things.

The book itself recalls the past--not only of Superman, but for the people reading the comic, their own pasts. But it does so only in order to prepare the way for a brighter (Superman not only is in, but *is* the sun now) future. Grant Morrison strikes me as a nostalgic futurist, continually hopeful that by sifting the sands of our former selves, we can filter out all but utopia.

Ultimately, Luthor/Quintum is the lynch-pin character in the book, because 1) he initiates the plot, 2) he displays real (albeit off-panel) character growth in moving from the Luthor at the end of #12 to the Quintum at the beginning of #1, and 3) by doing so he symbolizes Morrison's hope for humanity. Superman himself is a beautiful cipher--by design, he's an avatar for perfection, always there for everyone else--for Leo and his crew, for the goth girl on the ledge, for Luthor, eventually for every living thing on Earth--to help them evolve, to become better. That's how Morrison ends so many of his stories--with humanity soaring into the sky to face Maggedon in JLA, or stepping beyond their physical forms to expanded consciousness in The Invisibles. All-Star Superman may be the most graceful version of the standard Morrison ending yet.

UPDATE: Finally had a chance to look through all the issues. In addition to Superman's line in #12 "You could have saved the world years ago if it really mattered to you, Luthor," a commenter below points out that in #1, Quintum tells Superman that he too is trying to escape a "doomed world--called the past." Further, in A-SS #10, when Superman gives Quintum his genome, the scientist questions the decision, saying "I could be the devil himself for all you know." Superman replies "Oh, I think I'm a better judge of character than that, Professor," then hands him the vials containing his and Lois' DNA, saying "This is how much I trust you, Leo." The scene takes on a completely new meaning, assuming Quintum is Luthor.

LATER UPDATE: Be sure to check the comments for the discussion, kicked off by RAB, of the derivation of the name "Quintum."

Sunday, August 17, 2008


My Favorite Blog Comment Ever

"The success of Batman is all about Heath Ledgers untimely death. The movie itself is morally simplistic, stylistically confusing and the women are 2d. Hollywood can bend itself backwards working out the formula of it's success but it is about Heath's death. The film itself is no Star Wars."

Friday, May 30, 2008


Other Titles Oddly Missing Question Marks

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
When Smokey Sings
Where the Boys Aren't Vol. 6
Why We Fight
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini

Jonah Goldberg, fucking idiot:
In McClellan’s book, What Happened (oddly missing a question mark), the author purports to explain how the Bush White House launched a “propaganda machine” to push the country into a war of choice.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


On Radio Silence

I have had no notable opinions about anything since January 14th. This is for the best, considering the crushing oversupply of opinions.

I loved Matt Kindt's SuperSpy, but I haven't thought about it hard enough to articulate why. I'm supporting Obama for all of the same reasons as everyone else I know. I agree with everything I've read about the new R.E.M. album, both positive and negative. In the past few months I have finally caught up with, to my delight, the TV series Arrested Development, Jaime Hernandez's Maggie & Hopey stories, Scott Pilgrim and the Sly & the Family Stone CD reissues.

But mostly, I'm insanely impatient for the glacier currently covering Vermont to recede. I'm pretty sure there are a bunch of frozen blog posts buried in my backyard.


Why I Love The Wedding Present

"I suppose the themes are lust, jealousy, betrayal, regret, obsession, super-heroes. The usual."

El Rey out in the U.S. on Manifesto Records, May 20.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Six Days Of Hoe-etry. One Night Of Poetry.

as above, so below-etry
it must be hell reading my heavenly poetry

you've been bad so I spank your po-po-etry
give you a time-out for writing oh-no-etry

your rhymes are john doe-etry, I just tagged your toe-etry
dumped in an unmarked grave by my poetry

you ate the yellow snow-etry
Major Tetley in the incident at Ox-Bow-etry

I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello-etry
I'm John, Paul and George, you're just Ringo-etry

check your pants, you've got camel-toe-etry
plus they're stained bright red from your heavy flow-etry

your gun won't shoot, you're out of ammo-etry
your ass got capped by my poetry

you're stuck in reverse; I've got the Big Mo'-etry
your rhymes die on the vine; I eat Miracle-Gro-etry

Got no proof your rhyme balance is sufficient; now you’re in escrow-etry*
your lines are so straight; I pick my afro-etry
I’ve read your work, it don’t suck, it blow-etry
You can't keep up; I think you might be slow-etry
I win; this is my place; you don’t even show-etry
how 'bout a little fire, scarecrow-etry?

I’m smooth like butter; you spread cheap oleo-etry
people love my lines, they say “wherefore art thou, Romeo-etry?”

I’m afraid I drifted off reading your clichéd old status-quo-etry
did my couplets burn you badly? Rub on some fresh aloe-etry

you guzzle Welch’s grape juice while I’m sipping Moet-try
Moe fingers in the eyes of your sub-Shemp Curly Joe-etry

try some Irish Spring, you stink, I think you’ve got severe B.O.-etry
I read you then throw up, just like when I drink cocoa-etry

I climb a tree and take a pee on your so-so-etry
jiggle the handle; you just got flushed by my poetry

you're amateur hour; make way for some pro-etry
I’ll put you in the doghouse with my Hi-Pro Glow-etry

I'm storming the beach at Anzio-etry
while you eat whale blubber in Oslo-etry

you plead "Don't tase me, bro-etry!"
too late--you got shocked--by my poetry!

*thanks to Dave for the clarification


Skeptical About Comics?

A couple of years ago, a friend teaching a high school class on comics filled with resistant kids asked me to write an apologia for the form. Hence the references to incredibly past-sell-date pop culture toward the end--not to mention a sense that we're well past the time when comics would need to be explained. Anyway, here goes, insufferable tone, stereotyping and all:

Skeptical about comics? You’re part of a very select club…basically 99% of the U.S. population.

For some comic book readers, part of being a fan is having a complex about it. Some of us feel compelled to “prove” that our hobby/habit/whatever isn’t pathetic, isn’t a sign of arrested development or a way to get grade school kids into the back of the van. We blanket our non-comics reading friends with examples of comics we adore. “You have to read Watchmen!” “You’ve just got to check out Love & Rockets!” When they arch their eyebrows, when TV shows treat comics as shorthand for illiteracy, when people we love flip lazily through our favorite comic only to shrug and say “I don’t get it,” we take it personally. We passionately insist that comics can be as valid as art on one hand (poetry, serious novels, painting) and popular entertainment on the other (summer blockbuster movies, hit songs, etc.) Our love for something so unpopular makes us outcasts and we get defensive about it—even as we tell ourselves that comics’ very unpopularity proves our refined tastes. If you love a musician or a writer or a movie that the mainstream ignores, you might know the feeling. You want everybody to know about them, love them, give them the respect they deserve—but you also want to keep them to yourself.

Also, because comics aren’t that easy to find, they tend to attract devoted fans who care to make the effort to seek them out, while repelling casual readers who might pick up a comic now or then but can’t be bothered to drive to a special store populated by geeks, where it smells like a sandwich from Subway—even though nobody there has eaten one. That’s the stereotype, anyway. And it’s one that the big superhero publishers have catered to, producing comics expressly for the obsessed fans, with backstories so complex that it’s nearly impossible for a new reader to pick up a random issue of X-Men and know what’s going on without a decoder ring.

Because of this tendency, the problem comics fans face is that many comics really are junk—not worth wasting your time on even if your precise goal is to waste your time. There are many reasons why comics are no longer mass culture, no longer sold by the millions at every corner store and newsstand like they were in the 1940s and 1950s—some reasons include limited distribution, competition from TV and video games, CGI action movies that outdo any special effect a comic artist might draw. But one of the biggest reasons is that so many comics suck. It’s hard to see through the clutter. And the clutter exists at both ends of the spectrum: stupid yet obscure comics about steroid junkies in capes pounding each other into paste, as well as pretentious “art’ comics written by skinny white guys who never got over their anger about being shoved into lockers while the cute girls laughed.

Statistics show that if you don’t start smoking as a kid or teenager, you probably won’t as an adult. It’s not much different with comics, aside from the lung cancer. If you haven’t enjoyed comics or even read them by the time you’re through puberty, it’s a hard sell to convince you that you should try them afterward. Even after decades of serious comics for adults about sex, drug use, the Holocaust, growing old, getting sick, everything under the sun--most people still associate comics and cartooning with stupid little kids. That’s just how it is.

But I’m supposed to tell you why you ought to read comics. Because despite everything I just said, you absolutely should read comics—for the same reason you should check out MF Doom albums or see The Life Aquatic, watch Gilmore Girls or listen to Little Steven’s Underground Garage on the radio. Because you should always make an effort to seek out the best, smartest stuff in any medium. Because there are comics out there that will make you think, make you nervous, make you laugh, get you all excited, make you cry. And I mean YOU. You specifically. There are comics being published right now that address your particular interests. Comics can be about anything. All the manga from Japan proves that—giant robots, cowboys, high school romances, demons, pop music, ninjas, gay ninjas inside giant robots in a battle of the bands against cowboy demons at the high school dance. Comics can be silly or subversive, tragic or optimistic. Sometimes all at once. And as Scott McCloud explains, there are things comics can do that no other kind of artistic expression can duplicate.

For instance: the cartoonist Chris Ware has a comic strip called “Big Tex,” about a dimwitted cowboy whose father openly hates him. Takes him for rides and leaves him alone in the woods. Calls him stupid and worthless. One particular “Big Tex” comic strip is broken into a dozen panels, each showing a part of Tex’s house and yard. You don’t see any people, just the house, a tree, and the word balloons of Tex meekly absorbing verbal abuse from his father. Taken all together, the individual pictures add up to a bigger picture of the whole house. But each separate panel takes place at a different point in time—so as you read the strip from left to right, top to bottom, the panels also add up to a life, as you get the story of Tex’s entire miserable existence from childhood to adulthood. All within one unmoving picture of a house, broken into fragments, just as Tex’s life has been broken into fragments. My description can’t do it justice, can’t really explain the impact. In this case, you really do have to see it. But that’s the power of comics, what makes them special. They’re a separate language, visual and verbal elements intertwined into something different than either. Because comics creators can shape panels any way they want, and because you can read at your own pace, comics are free to speed up and slow down time in ways that movies can’t duplicate. They can show details that books are forced to explain.

I love comics because…well, I’ve never known how not to. They’ve been part of my life since I was three years old. I loved them then for their absurd invention—flying dogs from outer space, magic rings, heroes throwing monsters into the sun. I love comics now for some of the same escapist reasons, but also because many of the independent comics I follow these days offer the most personal expression you’ll find in the popular arts. There are far fewer layers of producers, directors, editors, management people telling a comic book artist what to say or how to say it in order to make more money. It’s straight from the artist’s head to the page to the reader—or at least closer to that ideal than anything else I can think of.

Skeptical about comics? Good. It pays to be skeptical about everything. But don’t let that stop you from trying a few. You might even like them.

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