Mar 23, 2017

The Hobgoblin and the False Equivalence

Comic Book False Equivalences
The Hobgoblin
Ben Smith

Dan Slott has been the target of online “fan” anger several times since taking over as the ongoing writer on The Amazing Spider-Man. One of the first such incidents coming after Slott finally brought back the original Hobgoblin only to have him seemingly killed and replaced by Phil Urich.

The character of the Hobgoblin has a long and convoluted history. Roger Stern created the character to carry on the legacy of the Green Goblin during his legendary run in the ‘80s. The real identity of the Hobgoblin was a mystery, but after much behind-the-scenes turmoil, he was eventually revealed to be Ned Leeds (just in time to be killed off and replaced by a new Hobgoblin). This never sat well with Stern, who eventually got a chance to return and reveal the first Hobgoblin to be Roderick Kingsley like he had originally intended (in the Hobgoblin Lives mini-series). Unfortunately, this happened at about the same time that Norman Osborn was resurrected as part of the grand finale to the Clone Saga. For many years, much to the chagrin of long-time fans like myself, the Hobgoblin was considered redundant by Marvel now that the Green Goblin was back.

So you can understand how disappointing it was to have the original Hobgoblin’s big return teased at the end of Slott’s first issue, only to see him murdered in the very next. I have to admit, I was pretty damn disappointed myself, since the Hobgoblin happened to be the premiere villain of my childhood Spider-Man fandom. (For a long time, being the overly fast and careless reader that I am, I thought his name was Hobogoblin. So I called him Hob-o-goblin. Eventually I realized my mistake and had to learn how to say it correctly, and also relearn how to live happily again. That was a tough transition. In a related story, I was not the smartest kid.) The Green Goblin had been long gone, and really only had 3 stretches as a Spider-Man villain to begin with. The Hobgoblin was far and away the coolest looking and the most dangerous Spider-Man villain of the mid to late ‘80s. But, I sat back and began to think about this death rationally (something most online “fans” are incapable of doing) and I came to the following conclusion: Roderick Kingsley isn’t that essential to what made the Hobgoblin good. (I also didn’t totally believe that Roderick Kingsley was really dead.)

Many fans considered Roger Stern’s Hobgoblin the only good version of the character (I happen to think Tom DeFalco did a good job also, but I digress) and considering most of what was done with the character after him, it’s difficult to disagree. However, Roger Stern never got a chance to reveal who the Hobgoblin really was, so as far as what’s actually on the page, the Hobgoblin and only the Hobgoblin is all that mattered. Who he really was under the mask had never become a factor. The Hobgoblin unquestionably declined in quality following Stern’s departure. This difference is made even more distinct after it’s later revealed that Roderick Kingsley had been the Hobgoblin all along, but retired after Ned Leeds was framed and killed. This created a clear block of time where the character was a) good and b) definitively Roderick Kingsley (in retrospect). Therefore, it’s easy for many fans to make the false equivalency that Hobgoblin can only be good if he’s Roderick Kingsley. Yet, one does not actually rely on the other. (Especially since Roderick Kingsley had only barely been shown as a supporting cast member before Stern left. This point is highlighted by the fact that when Stern revealed Kingsley as the Hobgoblin ten years later I, a lifelong Spider-Man fan, had no idea who he was.)

Side note: I remember an online fan complaining about the new Phil Urich Hobgoblin, saying that Roderick Kingsley’s version of the character had always been distinguished by his sane, rational mind. My reply was that he only believed the Hobgoblin to be sane because the character kept saying he was, but that anyone riding around on a flying bat throwing exploding pumpkins may not be as rational as they claim.

Phil Urich ended up having a decent run as a new version of the Hobgoblin. (Unfortunately, his creepy relationship with Norah Winters ended up ruining her as a character. That was a complete misstep by Slott, because I felt she had a lot of potential. Hopefully she can come back from it.) Of course, Slott later revealed that Roderick Kingsley was not in the costume when Phil killed the Hobgoblin, but that it had been his twin brother all along. (Color me unsurprised.) Phil later joined Norman Osborn’s army of goblins for the big finale to Slott’s Superior Spider-Man (which was another case when “fans” lost their minds). In a nice touch of characterization, Norman tried to have Roderick taken out, since he knew he was the one goblin that would refuse to work for him. The Roderick Hobgoblin has since found a nice niche in the current Marvel universe franchising out D-list villain identities to anyone with enough money to pay for it.

Human beings often try to make correlations or create explanations to establish some order to what is a life of disorder and chaos. This is never more evident than in the world of comics, where thousands of writers and artists have all weaved a small portion of the massively large and unruly tapestry that is the Marvel universe. As Jim Shooter once said (paraphrasing) it’s a puzzle with millions of pieces that will never fit exactly perfect. Therefore, it’s easy to make correlations like only Roderick Kingsley can be an entertaining Hobgoblin. When that fact was retroactively added later, and the only real determining factor (as is usually the case) was a writer doing wonders with a character he felt inspired by and invested in. At the end of the day, good writing combined with good art is what makes for good comics. That’s an equivalency I stand behind.

Mar 22, 2017

Diversity Isn't Your Problem with Marvel

Diversity Isn't Your Problem with Marvel
by Duy Tano

I hate talking about comic book sales. I hate it. Most people, when talking about comic book sales, refuse to take in the context. I explained all that here some years back, when some hack writer decided to use sales as evidence that he was the right guy for a book, but the long and short of it is this: one book or company being down in sales compared to a previous period doesn't matter if the entire industry is down in sales.

You know what matters? Market share. And not "unit share," which is the number of units sold by a particular company sells divided by the total number of units sold by the industry. What matter is dollar share, which is how much money a company or book makes divided by the total amount of money the industry brings in.

Why dollars? Because this is a business, and like all businesses, the money is the bottom line. You need money to make more, and whoever's making more money leads the market. Pepsi could sell out and sell everything at 50% off, and it won't matter because Coke will still make more money. (Or the other way around. Whatever.)

Why value revenue and not profit? Because in most businesses, you have a revenue-generating department and a cost-cutting department. Revenue generation is what the writers, artists, editors, and the like are brought in for. Cost-cutting falls to the people who decide what type of paper to use, how many issues to print, and whatnot. Both jobs are important, but we as fans measure the first guys.

I say this now because I see people saying that the reason Marvel is down in sales is because of its "leftist agenda" and "forced diversity". But look. Marvel's dollar share in February 2017 was 37% compared to DC at 30%. This is, in fact, down from February 2016, when Marvel's dollar share was 41% compared to DC's 26%. So you'd think Marvel was doing something wrong. And then you remember, hey wait, DC just did a reboot. So what was it like the last February when DC did a reboot, meaning February 2012?

Oh look, Marvel led that with 36%, compared to DC's 29%. That is statistically the same thing as February 2017.

But some people, who could use a basic course in Economics, see that the volume is decreasing in absolute value, and proceed to look for what's wrong. They see the thing that is different from when they were collecting comics and sales were "higher." (Newsflash: comics sales have been declining since the late 50s.) So they latch on to that thing, in this case, the fact that Marvel has a line of characters featuring minorities and women. All of the possible reasons to discuss why comics sales are flagging, and that's what they latch onto. That's the thing they have a problem with.

I'm not saying that flagging comic sales aren't a problem, because they absolutely are. But when Marvel and DC combine for 67% of the market share, as they have for at least the last five years, their individual content isn't the issue. If other comics companies were making more business, then Marvel and DC would have less share, because another company would have increased its share by now. The problem with the industry is built into its infrastructure: the pricing, the format, the materials used, the capex. It's not the content when their market share remains the same as ever.

To illustrate, let's say there are only 100 dollars to go around each month. Marvel makes 35 (35%), DC makes 30 (30%), everything else makes 35 dollars (35%).

Now, if fans really had a problem with Marvel and quit comics because of it, then Marvel sales would decline. Let's say they lose 5 dollars. But everyone buying DC and everything else is still the same, so now there are only 95 dollars to go around. Marvel makes 30 dollars (31.5%), DC makes the same (31.5%), and everything else splits the remaining 35 dollars (37%).

Do you see? If this were an isolated incident — Marvel, and only Marvel, losing sales — everything else goes up in share. And if Marvel and DC both lost sales, then everything not them goes up in share. But share is steady, meaning the decline is steady throughout the industry.

So there you are. With market share basically being the same as it was five years ago, the issue is industrywide and is built into the infrastructure. It's not about the individual content of each book or company. So if you're complaining about Marvel declining in sales and the first thing you do is blame a "social justice agenda" or a "push for diversity," just think about that for a second and consider the possibility that diversity isn't your problem with Marvel. Maybe, just maybe, diversity is your problem with life.

Outside of Superheroes at DC and Marvel

Outside of Superheroes at DC and Marvel
Travis Hedge Coke

Most of what we go to DC or Marvel for are superhero comics. And, largely, DC and Marvel are, basically, the same thing when it comes to superhero stories and have been since, at least, the mid-80s. One publisher has Spider-Man, the other Supergirl. Individual characters are different, one publisher may have this writer or artist at the time, and the big marketing theme might be this at DC and that at Marvel during any given year, but otherwise, it’s pretty much the same product.

Outside of superheroes, they do still feel often different, though, at least to me, and a lot of that is because those characters, titles, and genres simply don’t get as much play. The beauty of this, is that it is increasingly easy for us to read older comics, either in print or digitally, and that the respective publisher still, generally, owns the rights to these properties and could resurrect them for new material any time they feel there’s a buck in it for them.

Some of you savvy cats may notice I’m excluding creator-owned or licensed comics from this. And, yeah, I am. While I don’t believe DC has it over Marvel on creator-owned comics, or that Marvel had better licensed books, I do think that they each have cultivated a much better reputation for them. No matter how many great comics came out under the Epic imprint or how things looked in DC-published toy comics or their occasional dip into The Spirit, Marvel’s ROM or Star Wars tend to be more beloved by their fans, and Vertigo just sounds like something that only ever happened that once. Power of marketing. And, these properties can shift to other publishers, the characters and narratives cannot often be utilized to new stories just because the publisher’s heads decide it should be so.

(I’m also not going to get into Watchmen spinoffs and guest-starring roles here. That’s a whole article and one someone else should write.)


I think DC has better horror.

Were you expecting me to objectively describe a few books or classic stories and then give you a winner at the end?

Nah. DC has better horror comics. And, it has more of them. In the 1970s, especially, DC published roughly three entire imprints of horror comics, alone, mostly anthology books that ran the cross-genre gamut from horror-romance to the high concept The Witching Hour, which would have stories by three sister-witches who competed, in-story, for best creepy tale.

I love Gene Colan, but no issue of Tomb of Dracula ever scared me. I like Son of Satan, I like Nightstalkers, a lot of Ghost Rider comics, but none of them creep me out. Early Marvel Chillers creeped me out a little. Hellstorm was quality all the way through, but it made me sad more than it scared me. Sister Nil is a messed up character and Dr Strange keeping her like some weird too-sexualized slave is unnerving. The recent Dead of Night Featuring Man-Thing by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and four artists was smart, cool, endearing and not very frightening.

Early Sandman is frightening. There are House of Mystery comics that put me on edge if I reread them today. Hellblazer #4, "Waiting for the Man," scares me silly. Jamie Delano, John Ridgway, and Digital Chameleon cofounder Lovern Kindzierski did something deeply weird and painful comic that, in full disclosure, my mom bought for me when I was probably too young and too chicken to be reading it.

Marvel's licensed horror always seemed leagues above what it did with characters it owned. DC, when it came to little shivers or serious gut-twisting meanness would just plain commit. Neil Gaiman could turn a diner into Hell. Alex Toth could unsettle you with line width alone. Jack Kirby, in the early 70s on The Demon, had a Frankenstein’s monster mistaken for a hippie anti-war protestor by a police officer who immediate opens fire on him, and who, later, is forced out of hiding by a mob including two guys who just grab an innocent girl and begin threatening her to coerce him into letting them get on with their lynching.

It was on a DC book that the Comics Code Authority reportedly refused to approve any potential artwork by Kevin O’Neill. When you’re so disturbing the prude board won’t even consider that you can produce work that’s acceptable for grocery store sales, you’ve succeeded at something huge.


So, what about romance comics? Maybe Marvel is better with the love.

And, yeah. It’s pretty even.

When you take into consideration what’s available to you, now, without paying an arm for original issues, it’s really even.

Patsy Walker and related titles are amazing. Millie the Model is really good. And we can’t read them without paying for the original issues (or… um… pirating). Waaaah! Marvel. Waaaah! like Penguin disappointed at not being reelected as Mayor after his first term was cut short by Batman punching him in his cigarette holder. Put these in circulation. Now.

At least Fantagraphics collected Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics.

The comics in Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love are still beautifully readable. The more glib Secret Hearts is full of gushy stories that weren’t meant to be taken all that seriously by anyone over twelve even back then.

Look at the cover of Secret Hearts #149. That “Oh, shit, I’m caught!” look will never age out.

The only reason I can give DC the win over Marvel, is my not at all secret dream of writing a series where Jimmy Olsen hooks up with different characters issue after issue, called Jimmy Olsen Slash… Edited by Alisa Kwitney, drawn by Alex Toth and a rotation of goest artists and colored by Tatjana Wood, I even have guest-writers picked out. Because it’s my dream and I’ll make it as impossible as I can.

Costume Drama

Another clear win for DC, though Marvel has some glories. What kills Marvel, here, is that most of their historical or future-set comics are also superhero comics. So, I can’t seriously count them for the sake of this article. Marvel 2099 is cool, but they’re all superheroes outside for a couple short comics about wizards or cowboys. Marvel’s cowboys and brigands all wear masks and have cool superhero names. They mostly fight crime. Jonah Hex, by comparison, has a lot more straight western oomph, even when he’s in the far future or in a horror story. The Golden Gladiator, Kamandi, Anthro. I suppose Brother Power and the band, The Maniaks play like period pieces now. DC may have some pirate superheroes, but even Captain Fear is more straight pirate than anything.

And Captain Fear is everything.

Ignore the inane Azzarello version. Everything else is fantastic. Captain Fear is brilliant.

Marvel has Modred the Mystic, the Black Knight, and probably someone else.


Ah, but how does the really important subgenre of the costume drama stack up?

I hate to keep giving these to DC. I want to be a Marvel guy, if I’m either. But, Marvel westerns don’t do much for me. Apache Skies is beautiful and fun. Leonardo Manco is a genius. John Ostrander ain’t too shabby, either, but Ostrander has done westerns for DC, too, that are just as good.

And, DC has Joe R Lansdale comics! Joe R Lansdale wrote westerns for DC! Be excited with me!

DC has Bat Lash. Bat Lash is hilarious and darling. The original Nick Cardy, Sergio Aragones, Sheldon Mayer comics. The later stuff by John Severin, Walt Simonson, Peter Brandvoid, among others, it’s all more than readable. I’ve never read a Bat Lash comic I did not mostly love.

Not “mostly like.” Mostly love.

The Job

But, Marvel does have the better focus-on-the-job comics. Night Nurse is the ultimate nurse/hospital comic between the two publishers. Cops is the best police book that doesn’t have superheroes or villains in it, though Gotham Central beats it by miles if you make allowances for the occasional Batman in the background.

Marvel and DC have excellent comics about journalists. Some have some superheroes, mostly kept at a minimum, some have even less than that. The Daily Bugle, The Pulse, Lois Lane: When It’s Raining, God is Crying are all more than worth reading.

There's a Whole World Out There

Mostly, we got to DC and to Marvel looking for superheroes, or content with superheroes. But, there is a plethora of worthwhile, moving, exciting, gorgeous comics from both publishers that are not that. If you want a thriller, DC can set you up. You want a cowboy comedy, Marvel can have your back.

Comics about babies having silly adventures. Comics with nurses in haunted mansions. Beautiful girls and their dopey, but handsome boyfriends. The world’s first murderer telling you stories. Mod witches and their annoying big sisters. Soldiers deep in the war. There’s something for you.

Mar 21, 2017

Batman and the Storm

Batman vs Storm
The Many Balancing Acts of Functional Art
Travis Hedge Coke

One of the most important - often invisible - differences between professional and immature art of any kind, in any media, is that the rougher art frequently lacks internal balances necessary to keep an audience and maintain interest. A seven year old's family portrait in marker, the sonnets written in Introduction to Poetry, the casual pitch for a surefire hit movie the guy at the coffee shop, with no screenwriting experience, will rattle off any time he has an opportunity, all tend to a similar, limited condition. One Punch Art feels like "the real thing" but often cannot sustain an audience, leaving the artist to wonder why.

When we nutshell art, we generalize into a one punch description. "It's about... BAM!" That's standard summary, professional or casual. But, if that was art, if that was entertainment, we would read summaries, we wouldn't watch movies or read whole comics.

This is not a low art/high art issue. Coffee shop guy's one line surefire hit pitch is okeh as something thrown out in conversation, not because we want to see that alone as a movie, but because we know it won't be a movie. It's grist for conversation.

There is nothing inherently high or low, commercial or museum in a family portrait. For-museum art is as commercial as anything designed for retail, festival, for newspapers or website distribution. This is about audience, the hooking and sustaining of audience.

One note, one punch art rarely, probably never sustains an audience. Audiences are kept at attendance by delaying their arrival at an exit point. By contrasting characters, by making sure the elements ricochet and contradict within the senses and intellect, refracted inside the parameters of the work, an audience can be driven to continue speculating and ruminating even after they have left the physical media that makes up the work.

Imagine a beam of light being bounced around a chamber, refracted and reflected, magnified, muted, always mutable, but never lost and never let out. That's as close to perfect art as you get but instead of light, a universe of elements. A successful song, novel, single panel comic, they are all and each a universe, bounded but seemingly quasi-infinite and at constant interplay within those bounds. Conflict and convergence inspire a seeming multiplicity beyond what variegation explicitly exists. An explicit duality implies middles and other dualities. A mirror implies both a mirrored and the unseen back of the mirror. And, most trickily, that which is not reflected in the mirror can also be inferred and either consciously discounted or deliberately considered.

A single image is not required to illustrate, but must always at least imply conflicting directives. A longer work must have multiple, interwoven conflicts and confluence. A single character can be in contrast to their setting, a setting, itself, can be conflicted in its elements even without a human or conscious presence. The flora in a field do not have the same innate direction as the storm roaring down upon them. But, too, trees and grass cannot have the same scale and do not share the same density as brick, glass, or dirt.

"There is a storm," is One Punch. Write it, draw it, a storm alone can be intriguing , but you spend to seconds, then you are gone. In and out in two seconds, because there is nothing to derail you. You need something to take you one way, then drive you in another, spill you in another. If it can turn land into debris, you have something. Get a person into it, dealing with the ground, acting against and acting on the storm; that's a story people might remember. Even if their actions against the storm are futile, the audience won't remember that. It does its work and the audience, worked upon, will forget it happened. The same immediate amnesia experienced when we see every detail of slight of hand tricks, yet only recall the magic, not the finger hiding a card or the slight glint of light off a concealed wire extending from the prestidigitator's sleeve.

Batman v Superman is an attractive enough nutshell to capture the imagination of people who've never experienced such a story. But comics, from Brave and the Bold to The Dark Knight Returns, cannot only illustrate one blow or even a unilateral fight and call it a day. Even if it is retold, remembered as one blow, it is recalled in that manner of a magic trick. There has to be more steps than the audience thinks they are privy to. We all see the movement, evidence of the setup, the distraction.

Notice, in The Dark Knight Returns, specifically, Superman is often infuriatingly right and ultimately Batman does everything that Superman asks of him. The "win" that people remember is a futile win. Batman, this old guy, hits Superman and Superman feels it. That is the sum total of the "win." Everything else is Superman getting what he wants, even though, and because, simultaneously, his position in the narrative is antagonistic.

Batman's win is to strike at something monstrously large. Even if a person's actions against the storm are futile, the audience won't remember that. Get a person into it, dealing with the ground, acting against and acting on the storm; that's a story people might remember. Refraction. Diffusion and magnification.

The one panel political cartoon, like the one act play, the pop single, is not about getting to the point, but establishing a point that is definitely wrong. The first thing someone says in a political cartoon has to be, by the end, wrong. As a protagonist traverses a one act, they should fail to get what they reach for. A thousand-page romantic thriller cannot begin with true lovers come together and never parted, who can handle all possible threats. Their love needs to be threatened, their survival must be put in doubt. Without those many maneuvers and that counterbalancing, the audience will not carry the one punch they all remember any further than the end of the work itself.

When things seem to be breaking in art, all the pieces are suspended in determined, purposeful trajectories. What in reality might be a fracturing is, in art, flowering expansion. And, flowering embracing. The petals and leaves, a caterpillar dissolving within a cocoon and reconfiguring into a butterfly, nothing is lost once it is in the art. Discarding is an illusion of art, as is all dissolution of transience.

The result is the trick, but the suspension is the actual work, the efforts and skills that leave them wondering, leave them feeling touched by magic so they cam clearly tell you what was achieved while being uncertain as to how, and in most cases no longer caring.

Mar 20, 2017

Warren Ellis and the Counter-X

Accountability: Warren Ellis and the Counter-X
Travis Hedge Coke

X-Man was so fluff, the lead was sleeping with a genetic duplicate of his mother and it wasn't even something they had to deal with. Generation X had gone from a children's comic for nostalgic adults to a children's comic steadfastly never marketed to children.  X-Force was a toothless introspection reminiscent of the era when MTV stopped regularly showing music videos in favor of showing us beach parties and  people in living rooms.

Marvel commissioned Warren Ellis to redirect and curate the three titles — X-Man, X-Force, and Generation X —  into something, if nothing else, punchier.

Spring on us in media res, the opening storylines encouraged questions and speculation. A sense that characters had responsibilities was hammered down. Accountability, which had been largely absent of a-comics for years, was a hammer, too, but the hammer on a gun, drawn back and ready to slam and launch a bullet. Ethics were pragmatically unmuddied.

The X-Man's girlfriend wasn't an alternate reality clone of his mother so it didn't really count, but was an alternate and entirely valid form of his mother, and they had to deal with it. X-Force were still young and violent, but the violence has consequences and communicated back and forth not as tete a tete, but as part of an architecture of society and politics. A title wherein an entire people were once wiped out with hardly even a single tear and no followthrough, giving way to a world where every bomb and soldier affected the score, every battle reorganized the frontlines and the home efforts.

Ultimately this failed to garner any new audience, and possibly lost the old. But, X-Force became, as a spy comic, unpredictable. X-Man suddenly had stories about something, and a backbone of ethics. Generation X even gained a bit of bite, tackling politics from smooth perspective, or at least trying to talk to that perspective using mutants who tear off their skin and murdered young men.

They stand, today, as intriguing, sometimes clumsy but always articulate commercial failures that have aged into something even more readable than they were as published. Each title had an agenda and it's own flavor, each story had a point, the heroes had actual superheroing to do. That last may seem de rigeur, but in 2000, an X-Men comic, as these were, could get by quite fine without its superheroes being superheroes. Counter-X, broadly, stopped calling them superheroes, and put them in less traditionalist kit, from the black leathers of X-Force to the barefoot and barechested linen suit worn by Nate Grey, the protagonist of X-Man, who they started calling Earth's shaman.

Here is an open secret: So many superheroes are called Doctor such and such because doctors are superheroes and superheroes are doctors. Medics. Engineers. Academics. Journalists. Learned fixers.

Calling a superhero a shaman or a superhero team a tactical first strike squad, it's all ways to get out of the expectation traps and let the characters be superheroes, so superheroing.

Rather than hero and villain, we had damage and repair, we had crime and investigation, agent and reagent. And, the protagonists could be withdrawn or reagent given the circumstances.

The first storyline in this new X-Man culminated in Nate Grey saying this world must become a better place. The first pages of the new X-Force featured The mentor and new boss of the team blowing up government buildings. Superheroes, the moment they had the name, conjured too many foiled bank heists by themed lackeys or novelty mutation ray assaults on the superhero out of villainous jealousy. Reality or not, the term brought with it that sense of an unimportant scale in those years.

But, locking up kids for having ideas, the quiet detainment and torture of undesirables, harvesting babies and drugging the populace to sleep, that all felt like it needed tackling. Superheroes couldn't. But students could. A medicine man could. A revolutionary cell, pre-9/11 but post-Y2K, had a vibrancy of initiative.

While much of Marvel was near-term in nostalgia and the comics actually titles X-Men were engaged in the worst and most inexplicably unfriendly of runs by Chris Claremont (who would again shine on Uncanny X-Men half a decade later, with Alan Davis), and too much was just moving set pieces around familiar territory, these three titles seemed to be setting up a wonderful new playground, full of earthy politics, business ventures, heady cosmologies and vigorous cosmogonies.

A spiral of realities degrading or sublimed in gradations of human comfort. Warring clans of cold war intelligence and manipulators of the human stuff. Police and politicians and corporate invaders and butchers. Doctors healing the world from the edge of society. Retired assassins teaching violent youth lessons in agenda by dying. Children saving children.

Was there a significant regressing of ideas earlier fleshed and bones in Ellis' WildStorm comics? Was Nate being a fish out of water or X-Force exploding things really do new? Immaterial in the face of the feeling that it was fresh and different.

Maybe it was because both the stories and the characters had purpose? This wasn't about cute quirks or stapling a cool jacket into a mundane character, but seemed genuinely about agency and exploration.

At least, it did to me.

Emma Frost, that sometime White Queen of the Hellfire Club, returned to her white leather domme roots, and Banshee to his grizzled policeman ethos, but other comics would receive the credit. Every step forward for Counter-X was a step too far or a step to be instantly forgotten and attributed to the next, or next after that iteration.

X-Force was quickly and more radically reinvented as a post-irony commercial enterprise that pitted itself against what an audience who wasn't reading the comic assumed it had been for years. It couldn't have done so well, if people had been more aware of what the Edginton/Portacio/Ellis/Lucas run was like. Nobody gave a damn for a Nate Grey who cares about us, any more than they had for the previous version. And, Gen X was built on those coddling pseudo-nostalgia school stories; taking that a way, at all, was like putting real boarding school assaults into Harry Potter. You can child it up more, but you can't de-nostalgia without doing your total readership a disservice.

A year and a half that was and went away. A year and a half of forced vibrancy and commerce in ideas. If Marvel hadn't canned the whole barrelful, 9/11 would have run a stake through its vampire heart and cut off its weird werewolf head. But, we are left with the comics, and with what they have: the world, the systems, and hope.

Mar 19, 2017

Jack Davis and How Complexity Looks Simple

Reading the Lines: Jack Davis and How Complexity Looks Simple
Travis Hedge Coke

A comic is made up of signs, visual and textual. Signs break down, primarily, into three categories - icons, symbols, and indices - and all three of those have a plentitude of crossover and double-duty.

An icon is a thing that looks like what it stands in for. Most comics art is outline art, and the outlines are one-to-one representations of a woman, a fish, a rocking chair, mountain, or planet with a face floating in front of another outline representing Thor, God of Thunder.

Symbols, on the other hand, are representations that are visual signals (or auditory, but not so much in comics, then), that really exist, then, inside our minds. They’re a kind of noun-action process. “Spider-Man” is a symbol, and so is “spider-sense,” but the wavy lines that we perceive as a visualization of his non-visual (or at least, non-radiant) spider-sense? Not a symbol, but an index.

An index — How many of you are getting a narrator voice in your head? — is a stimulus or representation of a sensory feature, which correlates with and implies a second thing. An index relies on the correlation being statistically common. Wavy lines are not a symbol of spider-sense, because they cannot be removed from Spider-Man’s head and still be statistically likely to mean spider-sense. Wavy lines radiating from Spidey’s hand or his buttocks would imply radically different things. The same lines, haloing a monk or a Christmas tree would not likely be spider-sense or whatever they meant around Spidey-bum.

Text signs can be broken down into universally agreed upon base elements, which for the English language are our basic alphabet and typographical symbols. A, z, m, #, @, *, ! and so forth are our base. However, visual signs cannot be so concretely broken down, and the breakdown we may choose is likely not to be considered universal. The drawing of a head may be broken down into mouth, nose, eyes, and the eye may be broken down into parts illustrates or one continual line, or even where the line was begun. But, the line that makes up the lower lid of an eye, without context, is not the lower lid of an eye except, at most, in the case of intent of the artist.

We can break it down to the smallest whole image, but wtf is a “whole image”? What’s the smallest whole image of spidey-sense? Of hair?

There is a large percentage of the public who feel that more detail is always better art, or indicative of a more quality artist. And, most of us believe we see more detail and specificity reproduced in art than we do. On a simple level, we believe in some way that we have seen a face in art, when we have only seen lines or colors or specks and dots. More deceptively, we often miscalculate how much detail has gone into hair, even when there is quite a lot of detail work in the drawing of hair. Inexperienced artists often try to delineate far too many specific strands or locks, to almost trace out each individual hair, the way many inexperienced writers will write each successive step of an action, presenting their character walking, step by step, across the room to open a door and go outside and close it again and get into their car. An experienced writer just puts them in the car. An experienced artist can imply a lot, make our brains fill in all sorts of blanks.

This is the recently departed Jack Davis’ Jack Davis Meets the Mets from the seventh issue of Help vol 2, dated Oct 1963.

The top four (borderless) panels are meant to be read successively, clearly. Beyond that, do you read left to right? Left, then top/middle right, bottom right? Do you spiral the page like some mutant Fibonacci constant? There is no prescribed reading path. The remaining four panels are, narratively and contextually isolated incidents probably intended to be taken one at a time, on their own terms. I doubt they were even necessarily drawn as a single page; it’s probably a paste up job from the assorted gag strips and single-panel cartoons.

The hatching behind the icons of baseball players, in the strip up top is nonspecific, but from it we can infer motion and we can infer a contextual sense of space. There is no detail to the space, but clearly one must exist, as we have depth, distinguishing differentiation between the dark made by the hatching and the white space left framing the figures.

Similarly, in the tier below, dark is used to push figures to the foreground, while background figures, such as the ticket-taker, are made up largely of white space.

And, while the text of the captions is definitely text, with its own symbols and indices, the text above the turnstile, GATE 2, is an icon and an index. It is a visual representation of a sign that has text on it, but most significantly, it implies to the reader that this is the entry gate for a baseball game because of visual and narrative context.

Perspective is eyeballed. It is not perfect. A layperson or an inexperienced artist may have trouble with this, but perfect perspective is rarely a bonus in actual art. It is generally better that the art seems right or true, than to be measure for measure replicated.

The faces and limbs are not anatomically perfect. Characters are caricatured while seeming, also, pure and true people. Cheeks are cartoonishly distended. A face is shown in in time lapse slices with motion-lines indicated the arc of his head's swing.

It seems, at a glance, to be simple, direct artwork, but there are layers of iconography and implications at play to make it seem simple and act directly.

You probably don’t even have to know a lick about baseball to make sense of any one of the comics on the page, or all of them, together. The indices here are clear, they’re strong. The linework that make up the icons is deft, the icons themselves are both universal and idiosyncratic. These aren’t generic ballplayer, over and over, or generic guy in place. They’re specific people, but they are specific people who reinforce the basic job-person or type they represent.

Nothing on this page requires a specialist knowledge or particular training beyond basic literacy. Maybe, classically, not even that. Child or adult, in 1963 or now, in 2017, everything is identifiable and clear to us almost at a glance. Nothing looks challenging or feels out of place, but the deeper you look, the more effort went into this. The more it feels like Davis was actively conscious of precisely what he was committing.
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