Armagideon Time

Burn, baby, burn

December 17th, 2010

I don’t pay much attention for what passes for comics journalism these days, price mostly because I don’t pay much attention to what passes for comics these days. Despite the protestations of the heavily invested, viagra approved comics have become a niche medium — a currently fashionable niche medium, but still one of limited reach and scope. Writing for comics publication — print or online — is a matter of preaching to the choir, with each venue offering minor variations on the same copy and pasted press release sermon.

Combine a rather thin stream of bona fide “news” with the pressures of a regular schedule, and you’ve got an environment where industry gossip, tangential novelty pieces, and facile yet overlong “Top XX” lists assume an unhealthy importance and percentage of column space.

Granted there are some diamonds to be found amidst the piles of dross. Young Master Sims’s exploration of the racial politics of nostalgia was one of the finest pieces of comics commentary in recent memory. On the other hand, there’s Andy Khouri’s recent piece about white supremacists getting into a tizzy over Idris Elba playing Heimdall in the upcoming Thor movie, in which Khouri takes a meaty topic and reduces it into canned taco filling.

The article has the feel of a product commissioned around  the strength of a handful of modestly clever jokes, which it delivers reasonably well (despite falling back on the “it’s all imaginary” cop-out used to sidestep the underlying and enduring appeal of “fantasy” genre material and the issues it entails).

When it comes to the wind-up, however, Khouri whips out this masterpiece of internet-based journalism:

The reason Kenneth Branagh cast Stringer Bell as Heimdall in Thor is because that is awesome. Did you see the Thor trailer? Heimdall is awesome!

Way to strike a blow, kid.

It’s not just symptomatic of the state of comics journalism, but of the state of geekdom in general — the insidious influence of the cult of “awesome” (or “fuck yeah” or “WOO!”).  It’s the flip side to camp’s patronizing elitism, where fandom takes on the aura of a sensation craving fratboy and high concept becomes an end it itself.  The end result is an empty pursuit of raw spectacle fueled by puerile ideas hailed as moments of genius.

One of my favorite books about the comic business is The Comics Journal Library 6: The Writers, an anthology of interviews conducted in the days before TCJ retreated to its lonely ivory tower. It features “mainstream” creators like Denny O’Neil, Gerry Conway, and Marv Wolfman taking some challenging questions about creative vision and the realities of laboring on corporate-owned properties under a more-or-less work for hire system while pining for more personally fulfilling avenues within the medium.

Fast forward to the present time, and we’re gone from questions like “How can you reconcile your work on Nova with your advocacy for more sophisticated material?” to “What’s your favorite Dukes of Hazzard episode?” asked by a fan-slash-drinking buddy during the course of a podcast that is equal parts “morning zoo” and every Sci-Fi Club conversation I was forced to suffer through in college.  Creator-owned properties do abound, but exist mostly to serve as tickets in the Hollywood optioning lottery or to prove one’s worthiness to take the reins of an upcoming JLA or X-Men relaunch.

(I understand there’s a powerful financial incentive — not starving to death — involved in these decisions, but it doesn’t change the fact that the comics industry is a place where top chefs aspire — out of need or blind fanboyism —  to work the french fry machine at Burger King.)

That’s the current state of comics and comics “journalism” today, a self-perpetuating feedback loop of inbred fandom which masks its entropy with the pursuit of hollow spectacle and infantile antics.

By the way, did you see that latest Thor trailer?  I have it on good word that IT WAS AWESOME! LULZ!

23 Responses to “Burn, baby, burn”

  1. JD

    This is an odd setting for praising a piece by Sims, considering that he regularly produces literally every sort of piece herein criticized. His output of serious pieces is overwhelmingly outmatched by his output of “Top XX lists,” “morning zoo” style podcasts, humor articles built around “modestly clever jokes,” and essays wherein the thesis is “That is awesome!”

    Are you here to praise Caesar or to bury him?

  2. bitterandrew

    I’ve been a pal of the kid for five years. Discounting the occasional stresses of being a working writer, his formula pieces tend to be on par with or superior to most other folks’ best work.

    AWESOME HOSPITAL could have gone wrong in so many ways, and yet it became one of my favorite webcomics.

    He does indulge in high concept bluster, but he also has incredible talent as a writer…and i’m not saying that because I feel guilty about psychologically torturing him on a regular basis.

  3. Patrick Rennie

    Okay, comic journalism on the net: some highlights.

    Comic Book Resources and Newsrama – They reprint the press releases, give handjobs to industry insider, and actually manage to have some insightful commentary columns. These are the big two front line news sources. Think Wizard, only more so. Big enough they contain some islands of sanity, but most of the forum commentary is comic shop crowd crossed with the internet, i.e. ugly.

    The Beat – Business analysis and industry commentary. It has a high percentage of comments on posts come from people in the floppy side of the business.

    Bleeding Cool – Muckraking and yellow journalism for comics and movies. Tacky, more often than not, but when you really want to set the pit bulls on someone, Bleeding Cool is where you go. Has burned the big companies for their bad behavior, and happily goes after the small time scammers, too.

    Fleen – well, someone has to cover the webcomics, now didn’t they?

    Comic Alliance – Comedy and commentary about the comic industry. It’s weighted toward the comedy. I’m sorry you didn’t find that particular post funny enough, but if you’re looking for breaking, hard-hitting news, you were in the wrong place. Also, Khouri’s link is broken, so you might want to fix that.

    There are others, but they tend to be respectable commentary sites, not news breakers. I’m sure there’s a manga one I’m missing, but I don’t follow that side of the business much. I also can’t say I’ve run across anything using the Comic Journal’s style – long, sometimes boring, sometimes obscure.

  4. JD

    The second paragraph seemed to indicate that it was the volume, rather than the quality, of soft pieces at issue.

  5. bitterandrew

    It’s a matter of comparative value. I don’t mind hearing a Smashmouth song now and again (unless it is “All-Star,” in which case summary executions are in order), but when every station is airing nothing but inferior (okay, even more inferior) covers of Smashmouth songs?

  6. Momus

    I enjoy your blog, and most of what I enjoy is your intelligent commentary. As a result, I’m baffled as to how you could have missed one very obvious point:

    Comics are entertainment.

    You seem to be taking them way too seriously. Thor, for instance, is about an individual who is immortal and capable of creating storms by swinging his hammer, which always returns to his hand when thrown. This is the main, overarching narrative. Any thing written about his life, how he relates to mortals, how he deals with his responsibility, is ultimately trivial, because no such being exists. Stories featuring Thor can comment on important social issues, or can illuminate the human condition, and perhaps help us understand why we continue to enjoy stories about a character our ancestors conceived thousands of years ago. But so could a good textbook, or a even a fictional story that doesn’t feature a literal god swinging a hammer. But that wouldn’t be as “awesome”. Idris Elba was cast as Heimdall because his portrayal of the character will be entertaining, which should be your primary concern when casting the guardian of a rainbow bridge to the abode of the gods. These things should not be afforded more gravity than they deserve. Your decision not to read “what passes for comics” anymore makes you sound more like an average fanboy than you realize.

  7. bitterandrew

    Did I state somewhere that I wasn’t okay with Elba as Heimdall rather than a writer taking a weak cheese approach that concluded with a hackneyed and tired psuedo-punchline?

    I don’t think I’ve ever hidden the fact that I don’t care for the current state of comics. The fact that I hold Jack of Hearts in such high esteem should suggest I don’t take them too seriously, either.

  8. JD

    I would argue that that roughly the same number of quality pieces are currently being published as were being produced in the Comics Journal golden era that you cite. With the affordability and ease of web publishing, there’s simply a much greater volume of comics coverage. The number of serious pieces has remained constant while the number of soft pieces has expanded exponentially, so the percentages have shifted to favor the latter.

    I’m not slamming the quality of Chris’s work, I’m saying that his published output is a perfect microcosm of the phenomenon you’re describing, even if it’s a slightly classier than average microcosm.

  9. bitterandrew

    Agreed. The supply-side impetus (ad revenue/hitscounts/pandering sells) inherent in soft pieces has skewed the signal to noise ratio. Soft can be fine, but shouldn’t equal “lazy” or “an insult to a pre-schooler’s intelligence.”

  10. Prankster

    Much here I agree with, or can sympathize with, but claiming that creator-owned, indie and small-press comics “exist mostly to serve as tickets in the Hollywood optioning lottery or to prove one’s worthiness to take the reins of an upcoming JLA or X-Men relaunch” is too sweepingly dismissive for me. I think you’re confusing the fact that a lot of these indie guys have to (and admittedly are probably quite eager to) write for the Big Two just to put food on the table with the idea that their prior work was just a stepping stone. But I really can’t imagine, say, Jonathan Hickman thinking of The Nightly News as a ticket to writing Fantastic Four, or Kieron Gillen putting out Phonogram just so he could land that gig on Thor. There’s way too much of these creators invested in those comics. I’ve seen what comics written and drawn by fanboys eager to be hired by Marvel look like; they don’t look like that.

    Granted, I’m not much of a superhero reader, so when I hear about Marvel snatching up another indie writer it tends to register as a blip. I think “Oh, good for him, now he can eat for a few years”, not “Oh no, the machine claims another artiste!”. But then I think we’re at a slightly odd period right now where Marvel, and to an extent DC, is snapping up formidable talents from the indie and small-press spheres, thereby keeping them busy for a few years. Whether these guys will eventually return to non-superhero work will remain to be seen, but if they don’t it’s probably got more to do with the rough market for non-big Two books, which is a separate issue. At any rate, it doesn’t impact the quality of the original work.

    All of which is a long-winded way of saying, yes, I think there’s a lot of good stuff going on in non-DC and Marvel comics right now.

  11. bitterandrew

    I’m not saying the works are necessarily cyinical or shoddy (quite the contrary), but it does say a lot that the options available to most creators who want to make a living in comics are:

    1. get optioned
    2. get work doing some (maybe good, usually forgettble) work at the Big Two
    3. get a second job outside the field

    And the truth is that outside projects tend to fall by the wayside because of entirely understandable priorities.

    Yeah, there’s plenty of good stuff going on, but the de facto business model of “doing The Godfather to earn the honor of directing Dementia 13” is pretty damn depressing.

  12. Prankster

    OK, well, sure, I was just taking issue with your seeming statement that all the indie or “indie” stuff was being generated as nothing more than a show reel and that there wasn’t anything going on in non-Big Two comics.

    That said, there’s also the idea of movie adaptations, which again you take a swipe at. And while I couldn’t agree more in the case of the many lame books out there that are clearly intended as illustrated screenplays, I certainly don’t have a problem with a great comic paying for itself via a movie option. Yes, it’d be nice if Harvey Pekar had been able to retire simply on the money he made from his comics, rather than his dividends from the movie version, but if that’s what it takes, then hey. In most of the indie-comics-to-screen stories, the creator gets a boatload of money and exposure, and a suprisingly high number of the adaptations are decent-to-great. (The only real horror story being Alan Moore.)

    Askew as this may seem, it’s still an pathway to success that actually involves making a good, creator-owned (or at least not corporate-owned) comic. That’s one more pathway than a struggling creator might have had a decade ago.

  13. Momus

    I wasn’t insinuating that you had a problem with Elba being cast. What I’m saying is that entertainment is of primary concern in the super-hero genre, and I think that’s what Andy Khouri trying to say.

    Additionally, I’d like to ask; what’s wrong with being honored to work at the big two?

    In my earlier comment I referred to the gods of our ancestors, but I think that Superman or Batman are just as influential and great examples of archetypes as any ancient thunderer. I, for one, would be honored to write those characters, to take my place in their 70-plus year history. If an indie writer’s work on superhero comics is inferior to his creator owned work, it is depressing…that the scope of his potential is so narrow. Your comments seem similar to those of any number of fans who enjoy superhero comics, but cite independent comics as the only things of real artistic merit. Despite your love of Jack of Hearts, that smacks of embarrassment to me.

  14. bitterandrew


    There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with comics as source material for other media. The problem arises — as it did a few years back — when comics are created solely as end-runs around Hollywood’s pitch process, leading to a flood of high concept crapola which doesn’t do anyone (except maybe the recycling business) any good.

    As we learned from TMNT, one legit hit spawns countless godawful wannabes.

  15. Luke


    I think the issue isn’t that the primary goal of casting (in this context) isn’t entertainment, but rather that Khouri was presenting that in a very immature way. In one paragraph, he claims to explain why a response is racist; the next is a stream of pop culture references and “awesome.” The fact is, you’ve made a much better argument than he has, simply because you’re actually justifying your statements rather than spouting buzzwords. Frankly, I’m glad that Andrew called him on it–I find racial politics across media to be incredibly fascinating, but the article left me feeling rather embarrassed after reading it.

    Although, it doesn’t help that Khouri ends by writing off legitimate Norse mythology as “ridiculous ancient gods” that are implicitly inferior to “one of the great American superheroes.”

  16. Momus

    Alright, I’ll concede that at least.

  17. Prankster

    Of course, you could argue that Khouri was treating the complaints with the depth and sophistication they deserve.

  18. bitterandrew

    …and all the artistry of a Dane Cook performance.

  19. Luke

    Yeah. I mean, I wouldn’t have known about this if it weren’t for Khouri, and I appreciate his decision to share this ridiculous site, but even the best arguments can be presented poorly.

  20. Jordan

    This article is something a whole lot of people need to read. I’m all for not questioning things too much, but when “awesome” (used as a noun these days, alongside “win”) becomes the only end goal at the expense of real analysis this stuff loses its legitimacy and starts sounding more like the screeched repartee of grade-school hellions.

    And you hit it right out of the park with the Burger King Fry Machine analogy. That just crystalizes everything.

  21. Joe S. Walker

    An article about poor writing really ought not to end with images of writers starving or flipping burgers. Not only are they wince-inducing verbal cliches (and I see that the even worse “food on the table” has appeared in the comments), but they misrepresent the situation. Comics people don’t do superhero hack-work because the alternative is some sort of peasant subsistence; they do it for the contacts, the sense of being somebody in the business, the certainty of working on something that will be published and draw a certain amount of attention. In doing your own thing, the biggest discouragement is the feeling that nobody wants to know.

    Re the Comics Alliance, the suggestion that Stan Lee is “a notorious left-winger” is quite bizarre. Did these people never read all those great old Marvel stories with commie villains?

  22. bitterandrew

    I don’t fault writers for doing they the have to do — professionally, creatively, or financially. As I mentioned to Chris Sims the other night, 2000 eyes on a self/small publisher project versus 100,000 on a top selling DC/Marvel book is a powerful incentive.

    Folks like Warren Ellis and (to a lesser extent the indie folks who’ve been doing occasional projects for Marvel in recent years) may be able to strike a balance, but there are even more instances where landing a plum gig on a licensed property ends up becoming — by choice or by circumstance — an end in itself.

    It’s a structural flaw in the industry, not an issue with individual writers, and it’s root causes are a tangled mess of issues — some of which date back to the dawn of the industry.

  23. bitterandrew

    A little advice. If you’re going to confess to being a dick about something, do it elsewhere. Like your own blog.

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