So it’s Thanksgiving time here on the nerd farm. A time to relax with our dork family, and reflect on the geeky things we have to be thankful for this year. That gets harder for funnybook fans as we get older, I think. Not the act of being thankful, per se, but being mindful that everything doesn’t suck just because it’s different than it used to be. But it’s important to stay flexible, I think, and to appreciate the good stuff happening in the now. It might be different than the stuff we liked when we were 12, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.
Here, then, are Five Things to be Thankful For in the Comics Scene of 2019. There’s no particular order to the list, nor any real attempt at being all that rigorous in our thought process (we’re relaxing here, remember?). It’s just stuff we’re glad is a part of the funnybook world….
The Cantankerousness of Alan Moore
This may seem like a contradiction to my “appreciate the good stuff happening in the now” idea, considering how much the guy’s crapped on modern super hero culture this year. But you don’t have to agree with everything someone says to appreciate them, and I appreciate the hell out of Alan Moore. Not because of his take on modern culture (about which I do think he has a point, but perhaps a point he takes too far out of anger and frustration with the comics industry itself). No, I appreciate him because he’s willing to speak truth to power in a way that not many people do.
And holy crap, but the comics industry needs that.
Because, in spite of the gains made in the last 25 years, comics is still an industry that treats its creative people like crap. Not the big names, so much. The big names are generally paid well and kept happy, specifically because Alan Moore wasn’t. After the Watchmen and V for Vendetta debacles made DC Comics an enemy of its biggest and most lucrative creator, they wised up. That’s why Neil Gaiman has some degree of creative control over Sandman, even though it was built on a foundation of DC Comics trademarks. But down amongst the rank and file, you’re just as likely to find your ideas being used royalty-free due to the labyrinthine rules of “derivative copyright.”
And that’s not as bad as the bullying and extortion Jack Kirby faced, or even the broken promises that soured Moore on the comics industry. It’s more like the kind of creative screw-job Hollywood is famous for. But people don’t publicly talk about those screw-jobs much, because they’re either benefiting from the system, or they want to keep getting work in that system. Alan Moore, on the other hand, doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the system. He’s gotten his Hollywood blood money off the mediocre-to-execrable film adaptations of From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and is in the rather nice position of NOT ACTUALLY NEEDING ANY MORE MONEY. At this point, his magic cave is paid for, he can buy all the weed he wants, and his reputation as a Writer of Some Note is set in stone. He literally could not give a single solitary fuck what Hollywood (or anyone else) thinks of him, and he uses that rare and lofty position to say whatever the hell he wants about whatever the hell he wants. So when people ask him what he thinks of the comics industry, or the movie industry, or the Funnybook-Industrial Complex… He actually tells them.
That is refreshing.
And I am thankful for it.
An Aside: If you’d like to read a bit about Moore’s own take on his reputation, here’s a recent piece concerning that very thing:
A Second Aside: And if you’d like yet still more insight into Why Alan Moore Is The Way He Is, here’s his daughter’s take on the subject:
But, moving right along to an even more cantankerous and controversial figure…
The Rediscovery of Dave Sim
I’ve seen quite a few “Best Comics Ever” lists recently (those tend to proliferate at the end of a decade), and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how often Dave Sim and Cerebus are mentioned. Sim became something of a pariah in the comics industry about 20 years ago, due to a messy divorce / nervous breakdown / religious awakening that lead him to hold some very old-fashioned and rather unpopular ideas about the proper roles of men and women in society. Or, to put it in comedic terms that wouldn’t be out of place in Cerebus itself, he went from being a card-carrying feminist to founding his own weird chapter of the He-Man Woman Haters Club.
None of that, however, made him any less great a cartoonist, nor did it make the first 150 issues of Cerebus any less a masterpiece. It remains one of the towering achievements in the field, a work of singular vision that grew from a funny animal Conan parody into an often-brilliant social satire dealing with politics, religion, power, art, and gender. It features strong artwork that gets better over time, and what may very well be the best lettering in comics history.
It is very much worth reading, in spite of its creator’s later spiral into crackpottery, and of late it seems to be regaining some of its tarnished reputation.
And for that, I am thankful.
Jonathan Hickman’s X-Men
Jonathan Hickman’s relaunch of the X-Men was a genuine tour de force, a full 12 weeks filled with mystery, surprise, and revelation. It captured my imagination and kept me guessing and was so damned exciting. I loved it, and looked forward to getting that new issue every week in a way I haven’t looked forward to a corporate spandex comic in a very long time.
And that, right there, is what I’m thankful for. Hickman’s X-Men relaunch reminded me how much I used to care about this kind of crap, and revisiting that feeling was an awful lot of fun.
The Expanding Popularity of Comics
This is a controversial one in some circles. Comic specialty shops are shutting down around the country, and multiple websites obsessively track every dip in direct market sales, which (after a promising spike in the first half of the current decade) are trending down. And yet… When you look outside the direct market… Comics are increasingly popular. Webcomics are booming, traditional publishing houses are releasing comics in book form (or “graphic novels,” if you must), and digital comics sales are high enough that Amazon bought Comixology.
There’s a huge variety in the books being released, too, more than at any other point in my lifetime. In addition to the usual sci-fi, horror, and super hero comics, there’s straight drama, literary fiction, historical, biographical, crime, LGBTQ… You name it, there’s probably a comic dealing with it. There’s comics for kids, comics for women, comics for jocks, comics for people who don’t like comics… Comics for everybody!
Of course, as I said at the outset, the mainstream success largely isn’t finding its way into the actual comic shop culture that I love. The Nerd Clubhouse can be a strange and uninviting place to civilians, especially women and parents. And I’m not even talking about real ugliness like the ComicsGate nonsense. The comics shop has a strange and insular culture that can be exclusionary without even meaning to be. Most of us are life-long dorks with a shared reference base, and breaking into the group can be daunting. And yet, people are still trying.
Their attention means that comics as a medium will continue, and (hard as it might be for many fanboys to admit) become stronger, as well.
And for that, I am thankful.
The brainchild of cartoonists Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg, Cartoonist Kayfabe is a YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCU0v4IGzj2wK-PmjASkK2Rg) that’s all about those two dudes’ love of comics. They’ve done episodes on all manner of books, always championing the strange, the indie, and the idiosyncratic.
But the real meat and potatoes of the show is their coverage of Wizard Magazine. Each issue gets its own separate video, often over an hour long, with Piskor and Rugg just sitting there flipping through its pages and commenting on what they find inside. That sounds like the last thing on Earth I’d enjoy, but that’s the real magic of Cartoonist Kayfabe:
Somehow, they make me care.
In part, it’s because they don’t try to make Wizard sound better than it was. They’re willing to call bullshit on the bullshit, satisfying my innate cynicism toward the magazine. And that makes me more willing to listen when they point out something good. Even when that “something good” is early Image Comics. When that stuff came out, I was a jaded twentysomething, devoted largely to the work of guys like Miller, Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman. I hated Image art, and thought the stories were pure drivel (and for the most part, they were). But Piskor and Rugg were kids when that stuff was coming out, and their love for those books AS kids’ comics is infectious.
And as I’ve listened to them rhapsodize over Todd McFarlane’s layouts or Erik Larson’s panel composition, I’ve actually gained an appreciation for that stuff myself. Both of those guys had a singular vision, at the very least, and it’s that creative spirit Piskor and Rugg champion as much as anything else. Of course, that Kayfabe aesthetic also makes them big fans of Alan Moore, Dan Clowes, Katsuhiro Otomo, Robert Crumb, Frank Miller, the Hernandez Brothers, and dozens of other incredibly talented people.
They know the good stuff when they see it, in other words. But they also love the outsiders and the weirdos, and that open love of all things comics is damned refreshing. I mean… Who would have thought that watching two guys open a random box of comics would be so entertaining?
It’s rekindled my love for the stranger nooks and crannies of the funnybook business, leading me to buy cheap copies of all kinds of cool old comics that I’d forgotten or never fully appreciated before. Granted, having cut my teeth on the comics of the late 70s and early 80s, my aesthetic for that stuff’s a bit different. I’m far more likely to dig out old Pacific Comics horror and sci-fi anthologies for the great illustrative work than I am to track down the bloody vigilante stuff they’re sometimes drawn to.
But watching Cartoonist Kayfabe has still broadened my funnybook horizons, and for that I am extremely thankful.
And I suppose that’s all. Hope all you Nerd Wranglers out there have a great holiday, and I’ll see you back here next week with more of my usual new funnybook ramblings.