Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Wednesday Comics newspaper-comic DC is putting out is not really a value in terms of quality, but it's valuable as a sort of equivalent to buying mainstream comics, in miniature. If you read mainstream comics like you read any other, as an aesthetic experience, for four bucks a week, you have a diverse sampling of approaches, sort of like if you were combing through a fifty-cent box and getting a bunch of different things that came out eight months ago. Maybe three of the strips are actually good, about that many are aggressively terrible, and the rest are sort of dumb, but charming if you're in a charitable mood. If you like superhero comics as an idea, that allows for a certain amount of leeway, if you're fascinated by crap.

Criticism is made easy by how much you see, right next to each other. It's interesting formally, as a collection of giant one-page serialized strips: It's like an early twentieth-century comics section, but filled with superhero comics. There's a different sort of rhythm at work than there is in 22-page comics, but it turns out that the people that know how to work one form know how to work the other. Others fail spectacularly.

Paul Pope's "Strange Adventures" strip pretty much rules. While Pope's done comics to feature extended action sequences when he's had groups of pages to work with, here he does what the other people successfully using the format do: Strips where each page is the length of a single scene, avoiding summary at the outset, and letting whole pages revolve around visual motifs.

I don't want to be so formal as to assign "rules" to follow, since the exciting thing about those early comics was that there were no rules established for what a comic was supposed to be, freeing them up to be both Krazy Kat and Little Nemo In Slumberland. But here, there's certain things that work and certain things that don't: A Kamandi strip uses the Prince Valiant technique of barely being a comic so much as a series of illustrations of lackluster prose. You would think that would be discredited by this point.

For some reason, no one in Wednesday Comics does the thing Jaime Hernandez did in Kramers Ergot 7, or Brian Chippendale does in Ninja and Paper Rodeo: Picking a panel large enough to allow for clear and solid compositions and then using that as the basis of a grid to fill up the page. This seems the best way to cover a lot of territory, in terms of plot forward motion, but maybe because of the nature of serializing a thing in twelve installments, no one wants to go that far. No one's really thinking in terms of "one-pagers."

The worst comics here are those that go from page to page, with each strip containing a single plot beat, functioning as a cliffhanger at the end of one strip and needing to be summarized at the beginning of the next. These strips tend to have other weaknesses: I stared dumbfounded at a Metal Men strip where it's revealed a bomb detonator was replaced by a shape-shifting superhero, because in the immediately preceding panel, the detonator is still clearly drawn, being pressed down: it's a terrible panel to panel transition, because there's no sense of time elapsing where the action could've taken place, no single panel where the detonator is not shown that would allow for unseen events to occur. I'm not mad at the plot mechanics, this is the sort of dumb thing that goes down in comics all the time, but formally it's completely fucked.

That's the odd thing about Wednesday Comics, is that the format doesn't really allow for fuck-ups to go unnoticed, and whenever some poor creative decision is made, a reader just wonders why. "Shouldn't they know better?" When cranking out serialized comics, it's easy to imagine people making bad decisions in the rush to do something else instead. But here, when a comic happens where the narration is peppered with deeply half-assed spanish (chicas, dinero, estupido), that narration is the point of the comic, it's completely in focus, it's all that's there, and it's egregiously terrible. Because it's weekly, the editorial focus just becomes getting it out, with no eye for oversight.

But Paul Pope's comic is good. The strips that are good, that work, seem like they should just be shown to the perpetrators of the failures: "Here is how you do something right." But that's assuming the people who aren't doing well have never seen Kramers Ergot 7, or Paper Rodeo, or a Little Nemo collection, or a newspaper comics section. Which seems like it would be impossible, or hyperbole. But the strips that fail the hardest are those made by people deeply entrenched in corporate comics culture, editors who've worked with the monthly format and aren't necessarily that engaged in history. I keep on harping on the Paul Pope comic as being good, but there are other winners that seem equally engaged in how comics work. The Batman strip by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso is pretty good, by which I mean it's executed well. It tells a story visually, panel to panel, clearly, and the plot keeps moving week to week, scene to scene. A lot of the characters based on already existing designs look kind of shitty, but it doesn't really matter when you look at the three panels of a dude falling over a table and realize that no one else in the comic is handling action that well. No one else is thinking about visuals in terms of comics, that sort of animation-style-emphasis on movement, so much as a display of style. The Flash comic, split into Daniel Clowes-strips and then telling a science-fiction story, also has humans drawn with these radically unappealing faces, but it's the strip with the best formal conceit, that allows for plot movement while also feeling like it's digressing enough to be a full experience.

The Mike Allred and Kyle Baker strips occupy the middle-ground in terms of quality: They're not very good because they're not trying to be, they're just dispensing their styles sort of perfunctorily, but that's still not aggressively terrible because the drawing does have its charm. They're professional enough and engaged in comics enough to not make the glaring mistakes some are making.

But on the whole, the comic has it's heart in the right place, in that it's letting the creators do whatever. It's letting superhero comics be comics, and work on their own as examples of the medium, rather than be put into a position where they're furthering this corporate-universe grand-narrative which is deeply depressing. The four bucks per week that go to the superhero reading experience in miniature is closer to a model of how comics probably should work, a better way of getting readers to buy things they don't care about than some event comic sold to them via hype. The fraction of comics I find appealing in this miniature model is larger than the fraction glimpsed in solicitation hype. Still, I've only bought issues three, five, and six of the series thus far, because buying crappy comics isn't really worth the investment, not when there's so much more to be found in actual bargain bins.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

As I was listening to the Need New Body record Where's Black Ben? just now, the thought occurred to me that it was what Baltimore music has collectively been going for without being aware of it. The trashy collage of the album art, the goofy sense of humor. All the things that the press talks about when talking about Baltimore music through the lens of Dan Deacon is here, in an unaffected way, but there's a vision wide enough to encompass all sorts of weirder music that doesn't get discussed. Where's Black Ben has this tremendous diversity to it, with its dissonant free jazz and its banjo-led songs, that, while neglected at the time as an album, feels close enough to a vision of an entire small city's diverse music scene.

It's got this energy, that starts with goofs, moves on to songs with a variety of strengths, and then into more abstract territory. There are a million bands each trying to do a fraction of what's on display here, and many more people whose overall personality would be better represented by making music like this than what they're currently trying to accomplish. It all coheres thanks to arrangement, of the record as a whole and as songs with complexity and dynamic movement.

The album is far from perfect, with all its annoyances, but it's great, lovable in how much personality is display, and what that personality conveys as being "about." I feel like it should be on a list of the best records of the decade, just somewhere at the bottom.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Oh, that's interesting: The 33rd issue of McSweeney's is set to be a newspaper- with journalism, fiction, and a comics section. Called "The San Francisco Panorama." Putting up a fight for the format. It's interesting in part because comics have fought the same battle in recent years, but now print is in decline so much that the rest will catch up. I wonder if they can price it cheaply enough for it to be effective. Before that, issue 32 is set to have a story set in the future by Salvador Plascencia, last published in issue 22, with the first chapter of his novel appearing in 12.

While I'm linking to things: This is hysterical/infuriating. (Not the piece I am linking to so much as what it discusses.)
Big Blood, a band I've talked up multiple times in the past, have made their entire catalog available online for free. The "Already Gone" albums are their latest as of this writing, and I think they're great. The "Sew Your Wild Days" volumes are also a good place to start.

This has been a year, like the last few, where I've felt disappointed in most music released. Soon there will come the retrospectives of the past decade, which will reaffirm that the music most instilled in my head as "good" - 1990s indie rock- is out of fashion, and what is viewed as the heir to that tradition is largely boring. (This includes the work done by many of the highlights of that movement, a few years past their prime.) The things that I find interesting, particularly in the last few years of this decade, are usually coming from a background of electronic music, folk, or noise. Much of it will not be mentioned in these write-ups, and much of it was underrated at the time of its initial release. I've had my share of top ten list entries matching up with other people, but a few months later I've made late additions. Big Blood put out a ton of CD-Rs in 2007, which I think was the same year the Lazy Magnet album "Is Music Even Good" came out to the attention of no one. Get ready by hearing such records, so when the lists attempting canons come out with no mention of such people you can hold them in disdain.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Whenever I read the novels of Steve Erickson, I'm struck by a feeling of "guilty pleasure," thought to be outmoded by those with my general tastes. The books are acclaimed, blurbed by various writers held in high esteem, but there's still something embarrassing and corny about it. Luckily, the books are books, read intimately, by one person at a time, because if I were to read them with someone looking over my shoulder, or in something like a movie theater, I could not enjoy them for the constant cringing.

First, there are the sex scenes, or the way sex is discussed in general, in this half-pretentious manner. Words like "sensuality" and "eroticism" are used- It's not offensive or crass, but reads like a backrub from someone using scented oils, which to my mind is worse. He frequently writes these scenes from the perspective of female characters, and I feel a sort of displaced embarrassment for him, writing these things, which don't read as glaringly false in terms of ringing untrue so much as it feels, necessarily, like a pretense. When he writes the scenes from a male perspective, there's just this sort of goofiness at work. Maybe any writer lingering on such scenes is running these risks, and taking these chances, but he does it a lot (one book features a pornographer as a main character, another a dominatrix), and by making sex such a presence cheesiness lingers. In an interview where Erickson listed favorite authors, Henry Miller was mentioned, and maybe it's that influence of something I find really stupid shining through.

There's also this comfort-food aspect to the talk of film and music, as in Jonathan Lethem's writing: Yes, the writer is talking about these common signifiers that I, and many others, recognize and know about. His last book, Zeroville, is about movies and is filled with descriptions of scenes and figures not always named. I read these sections with a certain pleasure. Erickson is also a film critic, and I enjoy reading criticism, and when I find it in a novel I feel like I am being indulged, pandered to.

It's all very pleasant and comforting to think about- so are the sex scenes- but it's not really the central pleasure of why I read the books: There are magazines that place stories of people fucking pages away from record reviews and I don't read them because it's not going to culminate in something moving and transcendent. It's a collection of elements pleasurable in small doses, placed on top of each other and turned into something you don't really want. Nerds are great, but imagine the sort of person that dresses up in costume hitting on you while in costume. Even if they are attractive, my response would be "I'm sorry, I'm not that corny, I don't enjoy this. This is awful, actually, why is this happening? My brain is short-circuiting."

But there is the possibility that this is Erickson's desired effect, the brain short-circuiting. The plots are these apocalyptic dream-imagery things, moved forward by free-association and dream logic. Sort of like a David Lynch film, but it needs a different sort of immediacy, being a book. And so it's written in this revealing tone, to move you into their space, like you're naked with the author's finger touching your asshole, and he's staring into your eye. Moving into weird territory, rewarding at the end of it, and until then it's just heightened sensation.

The books are kind of great, actually, and there's no way to excise the flaws and have them work as well. I recommend them to all who are corny and retarded and embarrassing. That's most people, at least occasionally: either making bad jokes or laughing too loud or wearing unflattering facial hair or hats. What I view as "flaws" in Erickson's writing are really just mannerisms, a part of a personality that shouldn't obscure his intellect and skill.