Comics, Comics, Comics

Three panels from “The City in the Sea,” an adaptation by Richard Corben of the poem by Edgar Allan Poe, from Corben’s collection Spirits of the Dead, Dark Horse Comics, 2019.

Hello, patient readers! I thought about writing about… well, any number of things in the political atmosphere at the moment, but they all fill me with despair! The viciousness and hypocrisy of various political factions whose fortunes have been reversed and find themselves on the top or the bottom of a pecking order that usually treats them differently; the acquittal of Donald Trump and his responsive exercise of power; further madness and cruelty at the border; the growing understanding that we’re all required to carry around little surveillance devices that sell our most private secrets to the highest bidder—this is all very depressing!

So I’m writing about comics this week. I hope you enjoy it.

I rarely write about all the comics I read, in part because I don’t have that kind of time and in part because, well, I don’t want to sound like a freak. I read a lot of comics. It’s a thing I do to relax but it also helps me feel like a normal human being, which is hard to square with the habit itself, since it is of course kind of eccentric. Over the course of a few years of therapy and meds to remedy some fairly urgent depression (I’m fine!), I’ve come to terms with the truism that life is stressful and filled with pressure and responsibilities, and a lot of work needs to be done to arrange those stresses and pressures so that they’re not causing harm to you or causing you to harm someone you love. Creative outlets are good, but they, of course, are also work, and so passive outlets are necessary, and while I like television and movies and video games as much as the next guy, I either find them not engaging enough or too engaging. When my brain is turning into mucilage at the end of my day I don’t really like looking at another video screen; I’ve spent too long doing that already.

So I read comics, and I buy comics that I might want to read later, using a horrifying percentage of my disposable income, and I collect and trade them and borrow them from the library and and hunt them down on eBay and steal them off the internet. This isn’t good; I’m kind of ashamed of a lot of it; but it’s better for a person like me than unwinding with drugs or booze or pornography, which are all as readily available and require about as much brain juice to engage with.

There are, of course, gradations of comics. There are some really intellectual ones, like Alan Moore’s Providence or Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges. And there are those that have layers upon layers—Dan Clowes’s stuff, Dame Darcy, Los Bros Hernandez, etc. But a fascinating thing about comics is that they’re neither “hot” media (like TV) nor “cool” media (like novels), exactly. To some extent, you can read them with your lizard brain the way you’d watch a sitcom or play a video game; they’re hugely immersive, once you understand how to read them.

But well-done comics also operate on several different very sophisticated levels, even the cotton-candy ones. There’s a difference between a good comic where the Hulk beats up Wolverine and a bad comic where the Hulk beats up Wolverine; it’s a matter of intention and technical skill on the part of the guy drawing it—whether he knows how to direct your eye from panel to panel and how to emphasize the important beats in the story or not. So I read these things all the time, and I reread them. And I love them. 

This year for whatever reason I thought I’d spend at least a few weeks documenting literally everything I read in comics terms, and telling you about it. This is a partial accounting of what I’ve read since the beginning of the year—probably not even that long ago, honestly—and will get more thorough as it goes on. Let me know if you like it.

Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston: Like, I suspect, absolutely no one else who glommed onto this book, I have no strong opinions about Jeff Lemire, but was all in from the jump as soon as I heard Dean Ormston was doing the art. I adore Ormston; I think he’s one of the most talented people working in superhero comics and I wish he’d draw absolutely everything. I was horrified to see he’d suffered a cerebral hemorrhage before the first issue of this book shipped but gratified to subsequently learn that, unlike quite a few of his contemporaries, Lemire wasn’t going to abandon his partner and move on with someone who could work to his pace; the series has a lot of great work by Ormston, and I look forward to picking up more. It’s an extremely fun Outer Limits-style sci-fi-mystery book, with a slowly unwinding plot and solid characterizations. It looks so unlike any superhero book you’ve read that when it takes a conventional twist or turn, the counterpoint of the art is so strong that it feels fresh and interesting. Anyway, I’ve only read the first volume but I’m sure I’ll pick up more.

Rat God, Richard Corben: A terrific horror story. Just top-tier stuff. It iterates the Lovecraft story, Shadows Over Innsmouth, in which the protagonist visits a town where everybody seems to be slowly turning into a frog, except with rats, and a protagonist who is very clearly drawn to resemble Lovecraft himself.

Edgar Allan Poe’s Shadows on the Grave, Corben: More great work from Corben and occasionally Rich Margopoulos, who lends him a hand with scripting duties. Some of these stories are only a few pages and some are twenty and thirty pages long but they’re all amazingly beautiful and some of them are quite clever; the best is his Masque of the Red Death.

Haunt of Horror: Edgar Allan Poe, Corben and Rich Margopoulos: An earlier Poe collection by Corben, this one in black and white. A spottier collection, with the page count bulked up with reprints of the original text of the Poe stories and poems. Some of these are good and at least one, a resetting of Poe’s poem Israfel in majority-black gangland, that is incredibly cringey. In both collections Conqueror Worm is a real standout. There’s a second Haunt of Horror mini in the same format, all Lovecraft stories, that I’m anxious to track down.

Vic and Blood by Corben and Harlan Ellison: As with the Marvel Poe and Lovecraft collections, this adaptation of what is arguably Ellison’s best-known original work reprints the text of the original stories, in this case with gorgeous black-and-white spot illos by Corben. They’re worth the price of admission; the supposedly main attraction, I have to say, is not. It’s less that the adaptations of the Ellison stories aren’t good—they are, very, in fact—and more that they’re not produced from film but from scans of the old comics pages, and there’s no color correction and in most cases you can see a faint outline of the page border where it’s been printed on the paper. The darks are all way too dark and Corben’s art is shadowy anyway, so it’s just kind of an orangey-brown mush. This is put out by Byron Preiss’s iBooks, a tiny little publisher that did a bunch of Harlan stuff, presumably to his ridiculous standards. If you like Ellison, Borderlands did a complete edition of his stories for these characters—all prose—with a nice Corben cover out shortly after Ellison died.

Invisible Woman by Mark Waid and Mattia de Iulis: A fun spy romp by Waid, very predictable but nicely paced and with pleasant computery art by de Iulis. I really like Waid; I’m surprised this book didn’t get a higher billing when it was solicited and shipped. The Adam Hughes covers are lovely. Waid’s recent Ant-Man and the Wasp mini is a similar experiment, far more successful by every measure. Waid does sci-fi really well; here he has a spy story with extremely silly sci-fi trappings and it feels a little vague.

Hellblazer: Hard Time by Corben and Brian Azzarello: A really nicely done one-off arc announcing Azzarello’s run on Hellblazer, which is well-thought-of. The story mechanics are clever and the plot is interesting, and Corben is a genius. Azzarello’s dialogue tics are kept to a minimum here, but the elephant in the room is the absolutely appalling racism and homophobia throughout the book. The villain is a big-dicked black prisoner who rapes a femmey white boy all day and his motivation is that he wants to rape Constantine. There are jokes about dropping the soap and all kinds of incredibly dumb, dumb, dumb 90’s edgelord comedy. As a Corben completist I guess I liked the cartooning—the way Constantine works magic in the story really is clever and it has some scary moments but it’s such an obvious relic of the period, in the same ways as Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s odious Preacher, that I can’t recommend it unless you can still stomach the worst excesses of that book.

Ultimate Comics: X by Jeph Loeb and Arthur Adams: Jeph Loeb is a solid comic book scripter. It took me years to see this; he does things that really piss me off, like quote punchlines from movies in his dialogue, and there’s a generic quality to many of his plots, with a couple of exceptions. But he knows exactly what artists like to draw, how to tell a complete story legibly and compellingly, and how to use captions without overloading a page. His stuff is never talky and it’s almost *always* beautiful, and for a few years at Marvel, the company just let him have whoever he wanted to work with and they did amazing work. This little X-Book about B-listers forming a new team after the death of the rest of the X-Men is fantastic—cleverly structured, speedily paced, and just eight tons of fun to read, in no small part because Adams is just one of the most accomplished cartoonists alive. I can’t tell you how much I like looking at his work; I wish to goodness his older stuff like his Monkeyman and O’Brien miniseries was back in print. Anyway this is one of those comics that’s going to be easy to find used; I recommend it.

The Ultimates: Thor Reborn by Loeb and Frank Cho: Let’s be honest, The Ultimates, even the “good” years under Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, was an extremely silly book that blatantly ripped off Warren Ellis’s run on The Authority but with more swearing and cleavage. Loeb’s work on the title varies pretty wildly but this book, a cheesecakey romp with artist Frank Cho, is honestly my favorite of his stuff in the Ultiverse. It’s so stupid but its raciness isn’t especially sexist and its nihilism is honestly kind of bracing. I also really enjoy that he makes Cap a hidebound old dork.

The Ultimates 3: Who Killed Scarlet Witch? by Loeb and Joe Madureira: A really nasty little book with a ton of big crowd-pleasing fight sequences, and one (along with Ultimatum, which I read a few days ago; see further down) that Loeb apparently hates so much he won’t even talk about it. Loeb’s son Sam died of cancer at 17 a few years before and you can watch the quality of his work just plummet over time after that happens, I believe in 2004, a few years before this. He seems to have pulled himself out of the doldrums by the time he writes Ultimate Comics: X but this one is really embarrassing. I’m hot and cold on Madureira’s art; on the one hand it’s fucking absurd and the women all have ridiculous-looking spheroid boobs and the men have muscles on their muscles, but it’s so extreme it’s kind of fun, almost a parody of itself. Anyway, aggressively sleazy, a little bit fun in spite of itself for how unapologetic it is about crapping on superhero fans, and kind of unpleasantly sad given how clearly Loeb is working out his personal issues. 

The Ultimates: Omniversal by Al Ewing and Kenneth Rocafort: A reboot-ish of the Ultimates in the “real” Marvel Universe without any of the old team’s sleazeball antics, instead written with an enormous sense of scale. The book does really fun things with Galactus, a character I’ve always loved, and Rocafort’s art is just eye-popping. Absolutely beautiful layouts and rendering, it’s just lush. It suffers a bit from getting too meta without a larger point to make, but the cosmic stuff is so fun it’s hard to resent. In the second volume, Rocafort gets an assist from a much less accomplished artist, which is very annoying—I wish Marvel would just give these guys an extra two weeks to catch up rather than interrupt the story with six pages by a penciler with a totally different style—but it’s mostly A1, especially Christian Ward’s fill-in issues, which are every bit the equal of Rocafort’s art on the main story. A reason I have a soft spot for the old, occasionally nasty years of MAX and Ultimate Universe stuff is that it’s so aggressively off-model; with the Disney acquisition, all those shenanigans are over and everything is squeaky clean and PG-13 at most. In a lot of ways, that’s a bad and kind of sad thing, but in others, it pushes writers and artists to find better ways to tell stories, and this is one of the latter. The Rat is a terrible, malign influence on our culture, but that doesn’t mean everything that comes out of its maw is worthless.

Planet Hulk by Greg Pak and Carlo Pagulayan: A genuinely terrific story I’d never made the time to read until very recently, despite its sitting on my shelf for at least months, possibly years. I have generalized good feelings toward Greg Pak, the writer, but am not a completist the way I am for Warren Ellis or Alan Moore, and I never quite dug Carlo Pagulayan’s art, which is kind of workmanlike. But having buckled down and read the whole thing I can honestly say it’s a wonderful book, self-contained to a laudable degree for a Marvel comic, with great characters and a moving arc and a swords-and-sandals style plot with all the trappings of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. And, of course, because it’s the Hulk, it’s tragic, which is probably why he’s my favorite Marvel superhero. And it has a couple of chapters by Gary Frank, an artist I really love.

The Court of Owls Saga by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo: A profoundly annoying thing about DC’s New 52 line of comics, which in hindsight had a lot going for it, was how stubborn the company was about cross-promotion and crossover stories. The crown jewel of the ill-fated relaunch attempt was the Batman book, but the first story arc was at least two volumes long and one of those volumes was filled with bullshit that no one in the world wanted to read. DC has finally rectified this with a new paperback issued through its Black Label imprint, which reprints the first 11 issues of the New 52 Batman with exactly none of the annoying sideline adventures that clogged up the story. Capullo’s art is just unbelievable. His run on the title is such a gift. I’m going to sit down and read the whole thing soon; it’s so good I’m considering dropping too much money on the enormous omnibus.

Cromwell Stone by Andreas: When I was a little kid with no friends in fourth or fifth grade in Western North Carolina, I basically lived in junk shops, sorry, “antique stores” in Black Mountain and the unincorporated community outside its borders, Swannanoa. My crap emporium for a few years is now a store for skinny happy people who like to go hiking, but once it had a great little corner filled with mildewed sci-fi paperbacks and a couple of short boxes of comics. Among these comics was the first Cromwell Stone story, issued in English as a one-shot from Dark Horse, and it scared the hell out of me. I read it over and over again. I did not know what “Lovecraftian” meant or who Lovecraft was, despite his being quoted on the title page, but it was a kind of horror I’d never read before and I absolutely adored it. The sequels, reprinted in a new edition from Titan Books, are just as good as the original, and legible at the new edition’s absolutely mammoth trim size. Each is done in a slightly different medium: The first is largely pen and ink on paper, the second appears to have a long section on scratchboard, and the third has big passages in charcoal. It’s gorgeous, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Familiar Face by Michael DeForge: I have never liked Michael DeForge; my opinion has always been that you can be a glib miserablist or a lazy minimalist but both at once is a bit too much to take. I’m pleased to report that this book is both very inventive narratively and really beautiful; it’s also a very astute criticism of The Way We Live Now. I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. It’s also really, really funny. Now I have to go make sure I haven’t been misreading the author’s other work.

Ultimatum by Loeb and Michael Finch: Hahahahaha this book is DISGUSTING. It caused quite a stir when it came out but basically, the plot is that Magneto brings about a 9/11-ish terrorist disaster because he’s mad at humanity over the death of his son and daughter, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Then the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants go on a rampage and kill a bunch of superheroes, and the body count eventually includes Thor and The Wasp and Wolverine and so on. It’s just way, way, way over the top in terms of violence, so extreme that it’s very hard to take seriously. That didn’t stop people from taking it seriously, of course—lots of folks got super mad about, for example, The Blob eating The Wasp’s intestines and saying that she “tastes like chicken” (on a splash page, no less). Anyway, the exaggerated, theatrical violence is ridiculous and stupid—Dormammu squeezes Doctor Strange until his eyes bug out and his head pops—but the way the women characters are handled is indescribable without using the word “misogyny” and they get tortured and ripped up and almost-raped so much that it’s really hard to take and the book just ends up seeming loathsome on balance even if you don’t take the desecration of corporate superheroes terriby seriously. This was a big crossover event—highly publicized with an artist assigned to it who does a lot of fancy rendering, and with so many tie-ins there’s two big deluxe editions compiling them all. It’s kind of still worth reading just because Finch is a surprisingly good cartoonist on top of being a crowd-pleasing Image Comics-style over-enthusiastic hatch-shader (also just a crazily nice dude. Stacked bald guy with sleeve tattoos; I’ve seen him sign and sketch for literally hours as the line to meet him stretches down Artist’s Alley for table after table. He did a Dark Phoenix for me like ten years ago that I really love). Loeb has written very few comics since this; there’s an Avengers/X-Men miniseries a few years later and he finished up a Captain America story with Tim Sale to go with the rest of his absolutely lovely “Colors” books, neither of which I have read. I hope he found peace; this is the work of a guy in a lot of pain.

World War Hulk by Pak and John Romita, Jr.: The sequel to Planet Hulk, which I wasn’t sure I wanted to read since I’d enjoyed the previous volume so much and this one looked like it would not be much more than a book-long fight, with art by a guy I’ve loved since childhood who has been phoning it in a bit recently. Anyway all that was true, although I would put this just barely on the right side of the JRjr-is-tired divide (his Superman book with Frank MIller is firmly on the wrong side, FWIW. The best thing he’s done in his late career is his Eternals miniseries with Neil Gaiman), but the writing is terrific, mega-fight or no mega-fight, and a plot point I’d thought was a little clumsy at the end of Planet Hulk turned out to be a plot thread, and pays off really beautifully in this book. To some extent it reminds me a lot of Scott McCloud’s tabloid-sized Jack Kirby parody Destroy!, one of my favorite comics, about the ridiculous extent of the property damage inflicted by superhero battles, but I gotta be honest, I loved it.

Starr The Slayer MAX by Corben and Daniel Way: This one I’ll cop to special-ordering through eBay. Way is a very gifted writer; I don’t know if they just inserted dick jokes and sexism by editorial fiat when they greenlit the MAX books but this one veers between the same kind of juvenile dipshittery that plagues so much of the MAX line and a couple of legitimately funny jokes and a very clever storyline with, of course, brilliant cartooning. It’s so performative about its stupidity that it’s hard to recommend but it’s great work from Corben.

And my pull list:

The Green Lantern

Darkstars

Far Sector

Daphne Byrne 

X-Men

X-Men/Fantastic Four

New Mutants (Hickman scripts)

Hellboy and the BRPD (Mignola scripts)

Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen

Wonder Twins

Red Sonja

Injection

Sex Criminals

Doctor Strange, Surgeon Supreme

Punisher: Soviet

Star Wars: Darth Vader

Shazam!

The Batman’s Grave

Dark Knight Returns: The Golden Child

Don’t Talk to Me or My Son Ever Again

This is a newsletter about parenthood, specifically fatherhood, specifically fatherhood of a boy, which is the only kind of fatherhood with which I have any salient experience. The internet is one of the worst things to happen to nervous parents (which is to say: parents), because it is filled with the musings of malicious strangers who are insecure or mean or just stupid, and these people live to tell other parents that their precious darlings are going to die of an obscure illness because they went without a bib at dinner one evening.

As a result of this ambient terrorization, one of my least charming habits is that I now aggressively poll fellow parents for gory childrearing stories, the more blood and broken bones, the better, because their kids have turned out fine, and I want to be able to say to myself and other concerned friends, “Well, Mark’s little boy had a seizure at the park when he was eleven months old and he’s FINE.” So in the interest of fairness, I have included some of my own here, mostly the scary ones but also a couple that are funny.

So: Here is a list of the helpful things I can think of to say to dads of boys. Moms and parents of daughters, things are different for you both because of biology and because girls and women are socialized differently from boys and men, but feel free to read along, since some of these may be universal.

  • Mine does that, too.
  • That’s normal.
  • Did he cry immediately? Then he’s okay.
  • Was it the same kind of cry you hear from him usually? Then he’s okay.
  • Does he have a bump on his head? Then he’s okay.
  • Oh yeah, the whole daycare had that and the three of us all got it one after another. For about two days I thought I was going to be the only one who didn’t get sick, but I was changing a diaper on the morning of the third day, and I had to run into the bathroom and choose between barfing on the floor or trying not to shit my pants. I pulled my pants down, sat on the toilet, changed my mind, got on my knees and then barfed in the toilet so hard I burst a blood vessel in my eye and, simultaneously, pooped so hard I had to clean if off the bathroom door, and managed to shit my pants despite the pants in question being several feet away from me, which I hope you’ll all agree is impressive.
  • Feel free to just go to the ER, he’s totally fine but I’m sure you’ll feel better. We did it once for what turned out to be no reason and once when he turned out to need some albuterol for a bad cold.
  • He was fine.
  • He’s great.
  • I cut his finger with a pair of nail clippers when he was just a few days old and made him cry and wanted nothing more than for someone to send me to prison.
  • Here’s the address of a good ER in Brooklyn:
    Address: 83 Amity St, Brooklyn, NY 11201
    Phone: +1 646 754 7900
  • In New York, get a pediatrician within walking distance of your home.
  • Get a dentist within walking distance of your home.
  • Go to the park as often as you possibly can. Get up early to do this. Become an expert on the weather.
  • Plan around naps.
  • Make your peace with $20 an hour for a good babysitter. Don’t bargain-hunt.
  • For some reason the loveliest people I know have suffered prenatally from the intense fear that they will not feel a deep enough love for their children. This is a completely understandable fear and the reason no one ever addresses it is that it vanishes in a puff of smoke as soon as the baby comes out. You forget you were ever worried about it. So if this is you, relax, this will not happen.
  • If you accidentally get water on the umbilical stump, it starts to bleed, which is scary. Dry it off and the bleeding will stop quickly and it will be fine.
  • This woman, Freda Rosenfeld, is a lactation consultant in Brooklyn. She is wonderful and kind and makes house calls and is worth every penny.
  • My son did not say anything at all until he was 18 months old. Don’t know why. Don’t care now. Scared the hell out of me.
  • If you think his runny nose has gone on for too long, take him to the pediatrician and don’t try to ride it out, they have tiny little airways because of their adorable noses, which they have so they can nurse and breathe simultaneously, and they get ear infections like *snaps fingers* that.
  • Use the Fridababy snotsucker thing liberally, even if they hate it. Get the doctor to give you a nebulizer and a prescription for vials of saline and just do it a couple of times a day every single time they get a runny nose until it goes away, it’s easier than trying to rearrange schedules around the pediatrician and better for them than round after round of antibiotics. The pediatrician will just hand you a nebulizer from a closet full of them if you so much as mention it in passing. I promise. They give them away like candy.
  • Kids don’t ever do what you tell them to. They just don’t. Sorry.
  • They *do* listen to absolutely everything you say and sometimes you’ll hear them imitating you and be embarrassed and sometimes you’ll hear them imitating your spouse and it will be hilarious and you’ll learn a ton about yourselves and each other.
  • They’re not short, defective adults. They’re their own people, and they know even less about themselves than you do about yourself. You are teaching them about themselves.
  • I didn’t smile once between moving into the hospital room from the delivery room and getting home, I was so scared I couldn’t think straight. There were other dads at the hospital who were laughing and slapping their relatives on the back and I was happy but I was also completely terrified. For weeks I was nearly catatonic thinking “what have I done? what have I done? I have no idea how to do this and this little person is totally dependent on me for everything and can’t communicate at all beyond crying.”
  • Fatherhood is not actually fun for several weeks. You don’t sleep and you can’t talk to the kid and your wife has undergone an enormous hormonal change equivalent to puberty in the moment of childbirth, and you are in charge of them both. He’ll eventually start to smile and it’ll all be fine. I obsessively texted an ad hoc network of dad buds who’d had kids recently and they were so kind and generous and decent at all hours of the night and morning that my heart gets full thinking about it.
  • When my son was a few months old, we had a lazy plumber cut open a lead pipe in our apartment with no remediation and the place was filled with metal dust while my son was still crawling. He tested positive for high lead levels at the pediatrician—high enough to get a letter from the city—and we bought a $700 vacuum cleaner and the lead levels went down almost immediately. He is fine, the lead is gone, he has no cognitive impairment at all and could name every letter of the alphabet by 30 months. I hope that plumber dies.
  • They love you *so* much. Holy shit, do they love you. It’s like they’ve never loved a person before in their lives, which they have not. This is the horrible and fucked-up thing about parenthood: You are teaching them how to love someone, and who is worthy of love. They start from the null proposition that you are right about everything, even if they disobey you. They are watching you very carefully to see if you love them back, if they can make you love them more, if they can make you stop loving them, if being angry at them or frustrated with them or made to cry by them is a sign that you don’t love them any more. They will say things like “I don’t love you” to see how you react. They are conducting a gigantic, years-long experiment to understand how best to love and be loved, and once they have the results of said experiment, they will go out and start loving other people you have nothing to do with. It will be hard for them even if you do everything right, which you won’t, and all you’ll be able to do is watch and remind them that you really do love them.
  • Our society is not set up to care for kids and a lot of the oases for parents who need help with childcare are traps for either the parents or the kids—efforts to recruit them into one organization or another, or to get them to perform some kind of work.
  • The supposedly “low bar for dads” is not real. The reality this phrase inaccurately describes is depressing as shit. What it actually means is that you are being actively discouraged from fathering a child beyond your biological contribution and monetary investment, that the only thing you should do with him, from the point of view of a society that, again, does not particularly like your child, is play sports or video games. It means that every stroller will be six inches too short for you and there will be a society-wide effort to emasculate you for hanging out with your baby or toddler, taking paternity leave, working from home, changing diapers, picking out clothes, wiping his bottom, feeding him, and anything else to do with his actual well-being. All of that has been feminized and is socially off-limits to you. There are mommy blogs, but not daddy blogs. You’re expected to provide conduits for his aggression, and work all the time, and when your heart breaks into a thousand pieces because you missed the most important thing in life, you’re expected to have a cheap affair or buy a sports car or get hair plugs and it’s all played as comedy. This is called “patriarchy.”
  • Don’t fall for any of that shit. Let him help you remember what it was like being a little boy when everything was too big and at just the right level to whang your head painfully and people talked for hours about stupid stuff that had nothing to do with Bugs Bunny or cars or dogs and you always had to leave the bouncy castle before you even got started having fun. Then act accordingly. Do not pay attention to anyone but him. Do funny voices in public. Chase him on the playground. Buy him a dollhouse and play with it. When he winds up to throw a fork at your head and throws it on the floor instead, tell him how good that was and how glad you are that he didn’t throw the fork at your head. It’s not about any of those other people, who just want your son to contribute to state oppression or capitalist overreach or institutional misogyny or something else that will immiserate women and brown people and burn down the planet.
  • Men get things I call “manhood points.” They’re allotted based on physique and attitude and accent and earning power and talent and a bunch of other factors that are inborn or otherwise hard to alter, and you can get more of them by doing “manly” things. The most popular of these are: being a shithead to women, starting physical fights, using slurs, mocking gay and trans people, mocking disabled people, shooting a gun, shooting a gun at an animal, shooting a gun at a person, going to church, taking a job like police officer, firefighter, soldier, or construction worker, and being funny. You spend them when you give someone a hug, call someone down for using a slur, back down from a physical fight, defer to someone of lower status at the office or in the classroom, enjoy fine art, clean up after someone else, go out in public with an older woman or multiple women and no men. You run out of them really fast; they’re like skee ball tickets, and you may find that you don’t have any left when you need them at work or church or school. They are not only redeemable among men; men can also spend them on some women, especially women who think they can run a con on institutional patriarchy for their own benefit. Teaching your son how to spend his manhood points and how to resist the temptation to earn them in easy ways is incredibly hard. I have no advice on this, except to take hard, regular looks at your own behavior.
  • The subjects of contemporary media for little boys are: sports competitions and fantasy versions of military campaigns or police work. Beyond that, it’s explicitly for girls in a way that will cost your son some of the above manhood points if he wants to enjoy it. Progressive culture has been vigorously corporatized and one of its corruptors’ most important projects is sliming over everything that might challenge capitalism about feminism and calling themselves feminists for depicting all scientists and mathematicians and explorers as women. Because this is almost exclusively a project of men, and women who would rather exploit than abolish patriarchy, it leaves no progressive space at all for little boys, preferring to shunt them into regressive spaces or subordinate roles, which of course no one likes. Little boys can have old things, or they can have reactionary new things, but they can’t have new progressive things. This fucking sucks, obviously. We watch Looney Tunes (although I occasionally have to quickly stop them because there’s some awful racism shockingly late in the filmography) and Pee-Wee Herman, and we read old Carl Barks Donald Duck comics. He likes Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, too, which is contemporary. I’m trying him on Adventure Time, which I think is a bit too old for him yet.
  • Little boys and little girls are different. I don’t mean that trans people aren’t real or that you should freak out if your boy wants to wear a skirt or tells everybody he’s a girl, or any of that bigoted shit. If he does any of that stuff, for god’s sake be nice about it. What I mean is that little boys get hits of testosterone randomly throughout the day, and little girls do not. They acquire language more slowly, and they get bizarre little erections for no reason and want to talk about them, and when they have a lot of energy they want to run around and throw things and push things over and be tickled and chased. Trying to stop them from doing this stuff is a fool’s errand and will just make everyone feel bad. Just babyproof everything within an inch of your lives and when he wants to throw shit because that’s how he feels, have little soft things he can throw. Ours used to turn into the Incredible Hulk and flip over his pack-n-play like a pro wrestler, which was kind of awesome to watch. It’s normal. Treat it like it’s normal. Treat it all like it’s normal.
  • They don’t have sympathy for you. They develop empathy, meaning they understand your feelings, but they don’t feel those feelings by osmosis for a long time. They love you so much but when you are at the end of your rope and about to snap and any reasonable person would know not to mess with you and to let you cool down, they will keep on pushing, because they don’t know any better, and they want to know what will happen. What will happen is up to you.
  • Don’t spank your kids, for heaven’s sake. Just don’t. It doesn’t stop the misbehavior and it makes them feel terrible and you’ll regret it.
  • Bear in mind that you can always leave a situation in which your kid is making you crazy. You can put them in their crib or their bedroom or behind the baby gate and go sit in the other room and calm down.
  • Don’t terrorize them, either. This was a hard thing for me—I didn’t want to spank my kid but I also didn’t want him to hurt himself so at first I yelled at him when he did dangerous things and it just made him cry. The honest truth is that there’s stuff that works in general like time-outs but it’s not a panacea by any means and most disciplinary measures are ad hoc and designed to get the kid away from the mess/fire/knife.
  • There is no discipline. There is only behavior modeling. This becomes obvious long, long after it comes into effect.
  • It’s wise to treat the whole thing as an improv game, where, unless the stakes become too high, you should always respond to your kid with “Yes! AND,” as in, “Yes, you are a dinosaur! AND it’s time for the dinosaur to take a bath.” If you don’t contradict them all the time, they will ideally get the idea that contradiction ought to be a last resort and their best hope for having fun is to play along with you.
  • It’s fine to lose face in front of a toddler. They will not think less of you.
  • It’s fine to compromise with a toddler. Compromise all the time. Give them five more minutes to play. Let them eat french fries again. Take the bus and then the train and then the bus again.
  • They will learn what kinds of behavior are messy and annoying, what kinds of behavior are cruel and unkind, and what kinds of behavior are dangerous and terrifying, and your reaction to each kind of behavior, and they will use the difference to fuck with you.
  • If you’re “not a scheduling person” or “just disorganized, lol” or have a shirt with that Marilyn Monroe quote about how if I can’t handle you at your worst I don’t deserve me at your best, or “always late, sorry” or whateverthefuck, grow your ass up and get a therapist or some exercise or whatever it is that you need—and I recommend starting with the therapist because often you don’t know what you need—and take care of that shit because if you don’t, your halfassery will put pressure on your spouse which will wreck your marriage which will wreck your relationship with your child which will wreck your life.
  • If you don’t do this before becoming a dad—which I, for example, did not—you will be forced to. And that’s okay! Sometimes people are absolutely certain they’re the exception to the rule until it’s proven to them in harsh terms that they’re not. I am like that. You might be, too. It’s okay. Just know that it’s going to happen and make your peace with it as quickly as you can when it does.
  • Nothing else is important. Nothing. It’s all bullshit. Kids are the only real thing.
  • Work culture is a huge scam run on millennials and zoomers by Xers and Boomers to trick them into thinking that their abusive relationships with their supervisors are familial, but they’re not. No one is your friend based on what happens in the office; you can *make* friends there, but you can’t build friendships. The good ones know this. The bad ones will try to trade on it to make their own lives easier.
  • Leave the office when you need to.
  • Work for people who also have kids if you possibly can.
  • Take all the time anyone will give you. Be incredibly greedy with your PTO, leave the office at 5:00 every single day, do not get to work before your first meeting, work from home as often as you possibly can, stay up until 2 a.m. drinking water or seltzer to keep awake and do the shit that absolutely has to be done, and spend every other waking hour with your kid, even when it’s boring, even when you’re exhausted. He will eventually be a teenager who doesn’t like anything or want to talk to you. Get in as much time as you can before then.
  • Get your spouse to spell you and take breaks. Take the breaks for yourself and do not use them to do work. Go to the movies or read Batman or Stephen King over a cup of coffee or something. See a friend.
  • Taking your kid to see another friend’s kid is really fun.
  • I have also known people whose kids were not fine, who came down with vicious disease and obscure cancers. Those people, too, love their children and long to be the one with the blastoma or the vestigial heart valve. There is a feeling, I think, among people whose kids are hale and hearty, that if a neighbor or family member’s child is dying, dead, or imperiled, it is in bad taste to remark on how cute or clever or funny they are—that it’s poking at a sore spot. Not so. The sore spot will be an open wound until time stops. The most generous thing you can do for these people is spend time with them and their own children, listening to remembrances of them if they are gone or patiently participating in the perverted routine of caring for the endangered child and observing how big he’s getting, how smart he is, how much his eyes look like his daddy’s. All any parent wants, including you, is for their child to be okay. Failing that, all that remains is for everyone else to know how special and perfect that child was.
  • I think that the reason parenthood is fun, which is separate from the reasons people have kids—who knows why that is, probably none of us—is that you have that automatic, endocrinal love for your child so suddenly. It makes everything they experience amazingly vivid, and of those experiences, people talk and write about the dramatic and the horrible most regularly. But the lapidary, mundane things are far, far more important; they are the water and air of parenthood. For years, you are constantly watching a little person exactly as complex as yourself take a bite of a first strawberry, find an acorn and decide it is the most valuable thing in the world, swing on the swings for the first time, laugh until he hiccups at a funny face, go down a slide, squish a handful of peas, get a haircut, splash in the bath, name his toys. So… look forward to that. I still do.
  • for the love of god get them their vaccinations or I’ll come to your house in the dead of night and attack your whole family with a syringe full of Tresivac.

The Best Comics of the Decade

A detail from Declan Shalvey and Warren Ellis’s beautiful sci-fi series Injection. Line art by Shalvey, colors by Jordie Bellaire.

Hello, patient readers! For the new year I wanted to write something of undeniable utility to you, and if you agree with me and like this sort of thing, please tell me so and I will do more of it (for a future edition, if folks want: the 99 best children’s picture books, as chosen by me with input from our three-year-old). This edition started as my annoyance at a number of lists of similar size that I won’t name and shame here. They felt both overly dutiful and still somehow undercooked, as though they’d been written by people who felt a responsibility to everything and everyone except the reader, and that they had been compiled by people who read widely but not deeply. And I wanted to read a similar something that was both passionate and well-informed. So I’ve written the former, at least.

My rules for the composition of this list, since ten years is a long time to survey, were as follows:

  1. No artist or writer may appear more than once with the exception of anthology or jam books. This started to feel a little arbitrary by the end of the compilation, but it helped out with rule #2:
  2. As many different kinds of comics as possible must be included.
  3. No including things I didn’t like just because I read them. (this was harder than it sounds!)
  4. Actually read the things on the list and don’t just add them because I’d heard they were good. (also hard!)
  5. Work that began before the decade started but ended during its duration is eligible; so is work that is not yet complete as of this writing (I did not let myself list work that fits the latter category in my piece for The Guardian along similar lines).
  6. The work here appears in alphabetical order. See the above Guardian piece for a shorter list of books I absolutely adored and some longer explanations of why

This involved a lot of reading of new work on my part, which is something I really enjoy, doubly so when it’s for a project that I will eventually publish. I hope you enjoy this list, too, and consult it when you want to read things that are good or buy Christmas or birthday presents or just for fun. I realized fairly early on in making this that I would run out of superlatives very quickly if I tried to tell you what I liked most about these books, so I have opted in most cases to simply tell you what they’re about; sometimes that sounds especially appetizing and sometimes it just doesn’t, but if it’s on this list, I think most people who like my writing here should read it.

My final caveat is that this is me shooting from the hip, extra reading and long gestation period aside. I’m just one guy. I know this list is very male, and very white. It is, in many ways, a picture of the inside of my head, for good and for ill, and as much as I would like to be someone to whom work by women and marginalized creators is marketed and promoted, I am not. I try to seek it out, but I also read a lot of comics, so the proportions are off. Compiling this helped me to change that a little bit! 

I’ve put an asterisk next to the books I think my kid, who is three, might enjoy some time between now and his tenth birthday, and a dagger next to those that I would not read while he was looking over my shoulder. So make of that what you will; I’m not here to tell you how to parent but if you want to know more about any single entry, please email me and we can chat about it.

All entries are single codexes unless otherwise noted. Where books are published in multiple editions, I have listed the easiest to find, i.e., Last Look is one paperback volume, not three big hardcovers. Where books are ongoing, I have noted that as well.

I hope you enjoy it, and that you find something new and cool to read by doing so.

  1. Achewood by Chris Onstad (webcomic, also in hard copy)Every annoying Twitter comedian loves this longrunning webcomic. It really is brilliant. 
  2. Age of Ultron by Brian Michael Bendis and Bryan HitchMarvel Comics’s event miniseries get a bad rap; this mammoth time-travel story, about evil robot Ultron taking over the world, has a punchy script by Bendis and perfect superhero art by Hitch, one of the all-time greats.
  3. Amnesia: The Lost Films of Francis D. Longfellow by Al Columbia†Columbia’s appallingly perverse paintings are always hard to put a narrative frame around, but it’s impossible to look away from this collection of fake one-sheets for the work of an imaginary cartoons director whose work recalls the Fleischer Brothers’ most psychoactive ideas.
  4. The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf (three volumes, two forthcoming)Sattouf’s memoir about growing up in Libya is drawn in an engaging, funny, ironic style that belies the complexity of its subject matter; one of the few really original and interesting entries in the graphic memoir genre in recent years.
  5. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye by Sonny LiewA meticulous history of American comics that is also a history of Malaysia, told as an unlikely art book about a failing cartoonist who copies dozens of twentieth century omics artists’ styles in an effort to document the seismic changes to his country.
  6. Athos in America by JasonDour Dutch cartoonist Jason’s funniest book may be this story of musketeer Athos, confident and out of place on US soil.
  7. Bad Gateway by Simon Hanselmann†Hanselmann’s poisonous comedy is maturing into something more heartfelt in this lovely graphic novel, a kind of raw counterpoint to Matt Furie’s Boys’ Club.
  8. Batman: Noel by Lee BermejoBermejo’s bibliography has far too many humorless Brian Azzarello scripts in it, so it’s a relief to read this lighthearted Christmas tale with Batman himself cast as Scrooge. He draws fantastically beautiful pages and his layouts are always inventive; this is easily his best work.
  9. Batman: The Kings of Fear by Kelley Jones and Scott PetersonJones just gets better with age; this fantastically beautiful Batman story looks a little dim in synopsis—The Scarecrow messes with Batman—but in execution it’s largely a collection of wonderfully demented things for Jones to draw.
  10. Battling Boy by Paul Pope*A YA graphic novel that cross-pollinates Jack Kirby, Dune, and John Carter of Mars, all to charming effect with Pope’s beautiful inks on full display. His Adam Strange strip in DC’s Wednesday Comics anthology is similarly beautiful.
  11. Berlin by Jason LutesA massive opus twenty years in the making about the decline of Weimar Berlin and the ascent of the Nazi Party, its every background drawing a dozen pages’ worth of historical, artistic, and architectural research, its foreground Dickensian and thrilling.
  12. Beverly by Nick DrnasoDrnaso’s Sabrina won the Booker; I prefer the more elliptical collection of linked Rick Moody-style short stories that preceded it. It’s as incisive a book about life in suburbia as has been written in twenty years.
  13. Billie the Bee by Mary Fleener*Fleener’s cubistic, strange, and informative book about bees does nothing any other comic ever has.
  14. The Black Beetle by Francesco FrancavillaFrancavilla’s high-contrast pulp comic is the artist’s best work and a treat for fans of vintage pulp writing.
  15. The Black Monday Murders by Jonathan Hickman and Tomm Coker (two volumes, more forthcoming)An inventive mystery book with a stew of conspiracy theories and high finance as its lore.
  16. Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang (two volumes, sold together)*An inventive retelling of the Boxer Rebellion from both sides, one for each book.
  17. Boys Club by Matt FurieFor all the consternation that Pepe the Frog caused, his origins as a harmless stoner icon are very much worth checking out.
  18. Building Stories by Chris WareWare gets dinged–justifiably–for being gloomier than necessary in much of his other work; here, his absolute joy in the craft of comics and his love of his strange, sad characters shines through, in this collection of disparate little volumes, strips, and doodles in the margins of his margins.
  19. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz ChastChast’s uproarious comedic memoir of her beloved parents’ decline and death is wittier and more poignant than any book on this subject has a right to be.
  20. Captain America: White by Jeph Loeb and Tim SaleAnother long-delayed release—a hugely stylish Captain America tale by Loeb, whose collaborations with Sale (Spider-Man: Blue, Daredevil: Yellow, Hulk: Gray) have a solid, Norman Rockwell-esque vibe perfectly fitting the character.
  21. Castle Waiting Linda Medley (two volumes)*Medley’s life’s work, about a castle where the fairy tale royalty are out on adventures and the staff are left to their own devices, remains essential.
  22. Cosplayers by Dash ShawA kind of Ghost World for millennials, Shaw’s adolescent drama is more tightly focused than his larger work and, as a consequence, a bit more satisfying, too.
  23. Coyote Doggirl by Lisa HanawaltHanawalt, of Bojack Horseman fame, draws a comedy Western about a half-dog, half-coyote protagonist. The jokes go off like whoopee cushions every few pages and the watercolors are unlike anything anyone else is doing.
  24. Daredevil by Mark Waid, Chris Samnee, et al (11 volumes)Exactly what you’d like a superhero comic to be: Gripping but light, fun with high stakes, drawn so adroitly the panels seem to flow into each other. 
  25. Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel BáMoon and Bá, brothers, write and draw this ten-part story of a man who dies at the end of every chapter, only to return when the narrative picks back up in the next installment as though nothing had happened.
  26. Everything Together by Sammy HarkhamA lovely volume of deeply felt short stories by Harkham, whose spare drawings elicit rare and surprising emotional connections and seem drawn directly from memory.
  27. The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean PhillipsThe strongest collaboration yet between the comics noir team, The Fade Out has no storytelling gimmicks, no supernatural twist, and resolves as confidently as a Billy Wilder movie.
  28. The Flintstones by Mark Russell and Steve Pugh (two volumes)An absolute treasure of a comedy book with scabrous commentary on capitalism and its discontents, framed as the misadventures of the stars from the 1970s stone-age animated sitcom.
  29. Fury: My War Gone By by Garth Ennis and Goran ParlovSome of Ennis’s strongest work in years, if not his best ever, the author reunites with Punisher artist Parlov to draw an operatic war story about Marvel Comics’s second-favorite soldier and his disturbing decline.
  30. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins*A willful, strange, charcoal-drawn graphic novel about a gigantic beard that may or may not be malicious.
  31. Glenn Ganges in The River at Night by Kevin HuizengaA bizarre, beautiful, impossible book about the depths of memory and imagination.
  32. Goliath by Tom GauldAnother Bible story, this one a lovely retelling of the story of David and Goliath, rendered sympathetically from Goliath’s perspective.
  33. Grandville by Bryan TalbotI have no excuses for Grandville, Bryan Talbot’s five-volume series of self-contained mystery comics about a badger detective in a world filled with anthropomorphic animals, where humans who look like Herge drawings are a subaltern class and 9/11 was an inside job. But I do recommend it.
  34. Groo: Friends and Foes by Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier*After a few heavy-handed miniseries in which Groo experiences contemporary problems like the financial crisis, Aragones and Evanier return to form in a big story revisiting all the old supporting characters from the delightful series’s salad days.
  35. Hand-Drying in America and Other Stories by Ben KatchorKatchor’s gorgeous comics are in color in this terrific collection of short pieces; his eye for humor in the absurd and lapidary has never been sharper and the generous proportions of this collection make it, I would argue, his best.
  36. The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor DavisAn impossibly adroit consolidation of everything urgent in American life, told in a dazzling variance of styles by one of the preeminent cartoonists working.
  37. Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton (webcomic, also in hard copy)Beaton’s sidesplitting webcomic remains some of the funniest literary humor ever written and her historical gags will have you racing to look up obscure Canadians.
  38. Head Lopper by Andrew MacLean (three volumes, ongoing)A swords-and-sandals fantasy comic with stylish monsters and a simple, kinetic visual sense that carries the reader through edge-of-your-seat swordfights and creeping through its strange dungeons.
  39. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola (two volumes)Mignola’s wry hero finds himself where he was always going to end up: Back home in The Bad Place. The art is filled with cavernous blacks and stylized reds and Mignola’s love of folklore comes to the forefront in the best possible way.
  40. Here by Richard McGuireMcGuire expands his strip for Raw, which is just several drawings of the same living room throughout history, into a genuine art object. Don’t expect a narrative, but do keep it around to flip through it for happy surprises.
  41. High Soft Lisp by Gilbert Hernandez†Hernandez’s lovely collection of stories about his brilliant ingenue actress, Fritz, is the best reduction of his gifts in a single volume so far; it has meta-stories from Fritz’s B-movie adventures, tales of her childhood in Palomar, comedy, tragedy… the works.
  42. Homestuck by Andrew Hussie (webcomic)Hussie’s vast webcomic is less a story at this point and more a way of life, or maybe a minor religion. Worth a try, and possibly a declaration of undying fealty, depending on your tastes.
  43. The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (five volumes, ongoing)Ewing writes and Bennett draws a story of Bruce Banner on the lam and his alter ego a genuine horror fiction creation—conflicted, powerful, and terrifying. 
  44. Injection by Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey (five volumes planned, two forthcoming)A dour, funny, very British sci-fi story about ghosts, bad decisions, class, and bureaucracy, with kinetic art by Shalvey that often blossoms into wonderful, mushroomy strangeness.
  45. Is This How You See Me? by Jaime HernandezHernandez draws sentimental tale of middle-aged women attending a punk reunion concert and coming to grips with who they are and who they were.
  46. Journalism by Joe SaccoSacco’s best collection of short work so far, a series of journalistic essays dealing with everything from the upsurge in immigration to his native Malta to the torture of detainees in George W. Bush’s War on Terror.
  47. Killing and Dying by Adrian TomineTomine’s collection of stylistically variant short pieces is the best work of literary fiction on the market this decade in any form.
  48. Kirby: Genesis by Kurt Busiek, Alex Ross, and Jackson HerbertA new “universe” of Jack Kirby-created characters that don’t reside in either the DC or Marvel IP hives, the adroit eight-issue miniseries was probably supposed to be a big franchise start for publisher Dynamite. They didn’t get Kirby Cinematic Universe out of the effort but they *did* get a beautiful book with terrific interiors laid out and occasionally painted by Ross.
  49. Ladykiller by Joelle Jones (two volumes)Jones writes and draws a kinetic miniseries about housewife/hitwoman; it’s a book with something close to an ideal ratio of rendering to panel progression for an action comic.
  50. Last Look by Charles Burns†A lovely look at regret and the high price some people unexpectedly have to pay for adolescent foolishness, rendered with the incredibly precise hand for which Burns has long been known, and, for the first time in his career, in color.
  51. Le Major by MoebiusThe final comic about Major Grubert, the hapless hero of Moebius’s mischievous Man from the Ciguri and Airtight Garage comics, is only a sketchbook. It’s still perfect.
  52. The Lie and How We Told It by Tommi Parish†A beautifully painted comic about identity and loss with a surprising digression and vast depth of character, especially for something so short.
  53. Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland by Eric Shanower and Gabriel Rodriguez*Winsor McCay’s opulent Sunday strip is such a foundational text to the history of comics that it seems ridiculous to write a modern version, but Shanower and Rodriguez escape the problems of influence by making their work a longer narrative, filled with visual trickery that pays homage to the original work without drawing unflattering comparison—a difficult task indeed.
  54. Madame Xanadu: Exodus Noir by Matt Wagner and Michael Wm. KalutaWagner’s Madame Xanadu series was the perfect bone to throw fans of his late, lamented 1920’s crime comic, Sandman Mystery Theater. It didn’t last, but its second arc features astounding interiors by Arthur Rackham-esque artist Kaluta, and a supernatural mystery plot with plenty of tension.
  55. March by John Lewis and Nate Powell (three volumes)Lewis’s autobio, drawn by Powell, needs little introduction. It is a masterpiece both of the memoir form and of historical nonfiction.
  56. Mark Twain’s Autobiography, 1910-2010 by Michael KuppermanKupperman’s genius for comic absurdity is at its apex in this book, a half-novel, half-cartoon masterpiece of light fiction.
  57. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus by Chester Brown†Brown has drawn quite a bit in recent years—this, his follow-up to his memoir Paying for It, about his experiences hiring sex workers and finally becoming partners with one, is the best of the lot. It’s a collection of Bible stories, some of them a bit tendentious (he insists on seeing Ruth as Boaz’s seducer) but all conceived with Brown’s breathtaking gift for simplicity. An angel is realized as feet dangling into the frame from above; God is a giant; Jesus is never pictured. It’s a lovely, surprisingly respectful book.
  58. Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt (six volumes)An exceedingly dense and fun story of mind control and spycraft by writer-artist Matt Kindt, with subplots, palimpsests, and clues hidden in the gutters and the margins.
  59. Ms Marvel by G Willow Wilson and Adrian AlphonaA clever and fun superhero book about a young Muslim woman who gets super powers; the art is just lovely and Wilson is as charming a writer as you could want.
  60. The Multiversity by Grant Morrison, et alMorrison’s unified field theory of superheroes takes the form of nine one-shots set in eight wildly different universes, illustrated by a pantheon of gifted artists including Morrison’s best collaborator, Frank Quitely.
  61. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (two volumes planned, one forthcoming)A gobsmackingly beautiful murder mystery/bildungsroman/love letter to 1960’s Chicago/treatise on painting, done almost entirely in multicolored ballpoint pen.
  62. My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf†A true crime comic with an ace up its sleeve: The author really did go to school with serial murderer Jeffrey Dahmer. You go in expecting a gruesome horror story and you go out wanting to give a hug to every weird kid who got beat up in high school.
  63. The Nib by Matt Bors, et al (5 volumes, ongoing)A comics newsmagazine that went from endangered to essential in little more than moments.
  64. Notes on a Case of Melancholia, or, A Little Death by Nicholas GurewitchGurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship webcomic was always wonderfully tasteless, and his graphic novel is both funny and a work of prodigious artistic achievement in a new style for Gurewitch, reminiscent of Edward Gorey.
  65. Nursery Rhyme Comics by various*An absolutely gorgeous collection of fairy tales by artists from Craig Thompson to Kate Beaton, some traditional, some cleverly bent.
  66. Orc Stain by James StokoeStokoe’s higher-profile work is probably his Godzilla and Aliens comics, but his best is absolutely this bizarre fantasy series, his gorgeously busy renderings a total delight.
  67. Pachyderme by Frederik PeetersPeeters draws the dreamlike story of a young woman wandering the halls of a hospital where either she or her husband lies unconscious during the aftermath of the second world war.
  68. Richard Stark’s Parker by Darwyn Cooke, from the novels by Donald E Westlake (four volumes)An obvious labor of love for the late, lamented Cooke, a worthy successor to midcentury greats like Alex Toth and Bernard Krigstein. They’re back-pocket roman noir novels with Cooke’s gorgeous blacks soaking every page.
  69. Patience by Daniel ClowesDan Clowes’s marvelous sci-fi opus departs from his usual realism and muted pastels, but it’s still filled with weird characters who seem like people you’d run into (or away from) at the grocery.
  70. Picture This by Lynda Barry*Of Barry’s instructional comics, this is my favorite; it also contains Marlys, her little-girl alter ego, and is almost a workbook for making yourself happy. Unconventional, and lovely.
  71. The Playwright by Darren White and Eddie CampbellA Julian Barnes-esque unsentimental love story, with Campbell’s frank gouache art a deadpan counterpoint to the quiet pomposity of White’s self-regarding hero.
  72. Poochytown by Jim WoodringThe culmination of twenty years of fantastically strange stories by Jim Woodring, set in his sentient world of the Unifactor and starring his little generically anthropomorphic creation, Frank. A beauty.
  73. Prince of Cats by Ronald WimberlyWimberly’s book is part Frank Miller ninja comic, part blaxploitation flick, part Romeo and Juliet. That it exists is a small miracle; that it works is a big one.
  74. Prison Pit by Johnny Ryan (six volumes)†A perverted and disgusting romp through hell, starring a vile murderer named Cannibal Fuckface, who must dismember his way out of a space prison. Loads of fun.
  75. Providence by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows (three volumes)†Alan Moore’s goodbye to the comics world is also an ode to HP Lovecraft and a skeptical assessment of the human race’s ability to pull itself out of its slump; it is both frank about Lovecraft’s faults and unfailingly progressive in its use of them, suggesting that true horror comes from the way we fail to honor people weaker than we are.
  76. Puma Blues by Stephen Murphy and Michael ZulliA laid-back environmentalist sci-fi comic that went offline for more than twenty-five years and finally saw completion in 2015, Zulli’s Audobon-level renderings of animals make this book Beatrix Potter for the climate change generation.
  77. Saga by Bryan K Vaughn and Fiona Staples (nine volumes, ongoing, on haitus)†Sure, it’s overpraised, but the gonzo sci-fi series is so briskly paced it’s hard to find time to complain about its thin characters and overwrought dialogue while you’re reading the book, and Fiona Staples’ vibrant art is beyond reproach.
  78. The Sandman: Overture by Neil Gaiman and J. H. Williams IIIGaiman’s beautiful return to his landmark superhero series is a total delight for the eyes thanks to his unbeatably weird imagination and the lush artwork of JH Williams III, a cartoonist who can apparently do anything.
  79. Scott Pilgrim by Bryan Lee O’Malley (six volumes)O’Malley’s six-volume faux-anime comic about Canadian hipsters living in a video game-ish version of Toronto has tons of heart and a wry sense of humor. 
  80. The Secret Service by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons (three volumes)Arguably the best of Mark Millar’s sneery sci-fi titles, The Secret Service boasts wish-fulfillment fantasy of the highest order, given a little more humor than it might otherwise have by Gibbons deadpan artwork.
  81. Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky (five volumes, one forthcoming)†An earthy, hilariously funny, reliably surprising book about a couple who start fucking and find that when they come together, they stop time for everyone but themselves. They use this power to rob banks.
  82. Shadows on the Grave by Richard Corben†Corben remains one of the most important cartoonists ever to pick up a pen; his most recent collection of original short horror stories is among his best work.
  83. Shaolin Cowboy: Shemp Buffet by Geof Darrow†Darrow sheds his penchant for comic monologues and absurdity in this volume, which is a single huge sequence of our hero, the Shaolin Cowboy, carving his way through hundreds, maybe thousands of zombies. 
  84. Shazam! Vol. 1 by Geoff Johns and Gary FrankJohns is a smart writer whose aspirations have taken him some dumb places, but when he manages to connect, he often hits a home run. With Shazam!, serialized in the back of Johns and Jim Lee’s Justice League series, Johns and the marvelous superhero artist Gary Frank give the kid-friendly hero a clever, not-too-dark upgrade. DC’s New 52 experiment got a lot of grief for its worst missteps (which, to be fair, were around high-profile titles like Batman/Superman and and its giant profusion of multi-title sublines devoted to characters who could handle one monthly book, tops), but some of its reinventions were good, and this was one of the better ones.
  85. Silver Surfer by Dan Slott and Michael Allred (five volumes)*Allred’s pop-art style was never better suited to a writer’s scripts than with Slott’s aggressively kid-friendly Doctor Who homage version of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s morose demigod.
  86. Songy of Paradise by Gary PanterGary Panter’s exploration of epic poetry mashes up Dante and Milton in a messily beautiful book that jams arcane and silly symbolism together with medieval iconography.
  87. Teen Titans: Games by Marv Wolfman and George PerezA lost gem from the golden years of DC’s attempt to best the X-Men, this graphic novel finally saw print in 2013. It’s Perez at the height of his powers and a solid Wolfman script from the glory days.
  88. This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki*The Tamaki sisters’ young adult novel about a family on the cusp of huge changes is rendered entirely in shades of blue, its inking a constant delight.
  89. To Have and to Hold by Graham ChafeeTattoo artist Chafee’s adroit graphic novel is the purest possible form of James M Cain short of digging the late novelist up and snorting him. It’s a remarkably assured piece of cartooning and characterization.
  90. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl by Ryan North, Erica Henderson, and Derek Charm (12 volumes)*North’s adroit, funny scripts and Henderson’s hilarious art (no slight on Charm that she defines the book’s cartoony, deadpan style) make for a kind of lighthearted fun that ought to be the standard at Marvel Comics.
  91. Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan DanielsAn extraordinarily weird story about immortality and family; really like nothing else I’ve read.
  92. Usagi Yojimbo: Sensō by Stan Sakai*Everything Usagi Yojimbo is worth reading but this tale of samurai fighting aliens is particularly fun. As always, his work is good for young readers.
  93. The Vision by Tom King and Gabriel Hernandez Walta (two volumes)King’s moment of high-profile showbiz success may be more or less over, but his best work is still this Ice Storm-style take on life as an android with an android wife and kids in a very normal, non-android suburb.
  94. When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll†Carroll’s painterly, generous graphic novel succeeds her lovely short story collection. It, too, has shades of Angela Carter, but the new work is more assured and the use of color especially daring. 
  95. Woman Rebel by Peter BaggeBagge’s scabrous Hate is a fondly remembered alt-comics fixture and his cartoons at Reason magazine are one of the few reasons to read that publication, but he’s recently focused on biographies of famous women. This is his meticulous narrative of Margaret Sanger’s life, and its controversies.
  96. Wonder Woman: The True Amazon by Jill Thompson*A portrait of the superhero as a young amazon with much to learn about patience and humility, told in Thompson’s assured watercolors, with special attention paid to the needs of younger readers.
  97. Wondermark by David Malki (webcomic)Malki’s cultural landmark of a webcomic has the master comedian’s ear for quirks of modern life that don’t yet have names (see “The Terrible Sea Lion,” which has an entire form of internet trolling—sealioning—named after it).
  98. Wytches by Scott Snyder and JockA Stephen King-style horror book with expressionistic art and deep characters.
  99. xkcd by Randall Munroe (webcomic)Munroe’s silly, computer-nerdy webcomic is proof that you don’t need to be Wally Wood to make interesting narrative comics. There are plenty of great one-off gags, but Munroe’s masterwork is inarguably the cartoon linked above, a 3100-panel masterpiece called Time.

Superhero Movies as Moral Obligation

For what I’m sure is now years—possibly decades—a debate has raged between the proletarian defenders of $400 million-budget megablockbuster superhero films and the bourgeois hipster film buff crowd, who seem to irrationally believe that it might be nice to see something else this weekend for a change.

Recently, Martin Scorsese, director of such cult obscura as Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street, took to the pages of the New York Times to observe that he’d had a lot of trouble securing financing to make his latest three-hour-plus gangster opus, The Irishman, while the Ant-Man flicks continue emerging from Hollywood’s bowels at an astonishing pace. He was defending himself after being widely and derisively quoted from a long an interesting interview about The Irishman saying that the Marvel Cinematic Universe series of interconnected action flicks are “not cinema,” a statement with the virtue of being obviously true.

“Cinema” is the kind of vaunted term a guy like Marty would probably apply to the work of Ingmar Bergman or Andrei Tarkovsky; I doubt you could even argue persuasively that he believes all of his own movies are cinema—The Age of Innocence and The Last Temptation of Christ, perhaps, but not Shutter Island or Hugo. Because it is what interests Scorsese, even those films are about cinema—disorienting nuthouse flicks like Shock Corridor in the first case and the hand-colored special-effects extravaganzas of George Milies in the second—but they are purer entertainments.

The Marvel movies are soap operas, which is not a cinematic form. They are episodic storytelling about thin characters, starring beautiful actors and actresses, and, due to economic constraints, a vast meta-series of films that will not end until the stories’ Lovecraftian parent company, Disney, has squeezed every last cent from them. Then they will enter Valhalla, which is to say syndication.

There’s nothing wrong with them, per se—I’ve seen them all, in fact I think I’ve seen them all a couple of times—but the entries that are as good as a real movie are the exceptions, not the rules. Thor: Ragnarok is probably the best of the lot, though there are some good bits in Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and The Avengers, too. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, a children’s movie adapted from the same suite of intellectual property, which exists outside the MCU’s shared world, is actually goddamn delightful. Even the Ant-Man and Captain Marvel flicks, which are obviously made on the cheap—almost insultingly so—are perfectly fine. 

But they are a fundamentally different kind of work than Scorsese’s, in which the director is the primary voice. In all but the most extraordinary Marvel movies, the real invention and creation is on the part of the producer, Kevin Feige, who has designed these movies’ most interesting feature, namely that they interlock with, continue, and expand on one another in entertaining ways.

Feige’s response to Scorsese was to defend the films as art qua art, though, which he did not do with much success. “We did Civil War. We had our two most popular characters get into a very serious theological and physical altercation [Did I miss this? did it happen out of the frame?]. We killed half of our characters at the end of a movie [Right, but nobody believed they would stay dead for even a minute, marketing antics notwithstanding]. I think it’s fun for us to take our success and use it to take risks [What risks? There are no risks at all being taken in these films with the exception of Thor: Ragnarok thumbing its nose at racist fanboys!] and go in different places [Where, for god’s sake?].”

Recently Ben Schwartz, a film writer with bylines in Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, more eloquently made the argument in favor of Feige’s project in Neal Pollack’s Book and Film Globe: “The [Marvel Cinematic Universe] MCU is impossible to assess as auteurism, it has to be assessed in macro terms, not micro,” he declared. Schwartz writes:

In 2008, MCU began making post-9/11 movies about America in Iron Man, when billionaire arms designer Tony Stark has his own anti-terrorist weapons turned on him in Afghanistan and comes back questioning his (i.e., our) presence there. That was followed by The Avengers’ Bin Laden moment, and then Ragnarok and Black Panther, moving the conversation to colonialism and why anyone would ever want to visit violence and vengeance on a western power.  You know, Why They Hate Us?

If I told you a Jewish Maori filmmaker from a commonwealth nation, New Zealand, had made a movie about the exploitation of indigenous people by a Caucasian superpower (and a member of that superpower’s royal family spent most of the movie experiencing life as a slave) – would you guess that’s Ragnarok, or a movie from Scorsese’s world cinema project?  Taika Waititi, of course, directed Ragnarok, and just used his and Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel franchise clout to make his Jojo Rabbit.

As well-put as this is, it is a very annoying argument from my perspective, for two reasons. First and most obvious, it is of course possible to make a movie on important themes with the best of intentions toward history and politics that sucks, and is contemptible and stupid. In fact not only is it theoretically possible for a person do this, it has been done often—more often, I would say, than it has been done skillfully. Narrative filmmaking and Nietzsche’s The Will to Power are trying to accomplish different things, for which Nietzsche, anyway, was grateful. For anyone “to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy,” the German nihilist observed in that text. “[I]f he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.”

The second quality that makes this argument annoying is that it tempts the respondent to address the various moral positions adopted for the sake of expediency by the Walt Disney Corporation, and they are hardly above reproach. Note for example Disney’s protracted obeisance before the Chinese government, for which it produces entirely different cuts of its films in exchange for financing support, even as Chinese rulers enslave millions of ethnic Muslims in camps where infanticide and forced sterlization have been reported. Observe CEO Bob Iger’s initial presence on Donald Trump’s business council. Take a look at the company’s rancid history of theft from artists it claims to venerate, from Osamu Tezuka to Wally Wood, and its shameless exploitation of antiblack racism in films like Dumbo and The Song of the South. Perhaps hiring an extremely gifted Jewish Maori filmmaker to make a movie that earned four times the gross domestic product of the Marshall Islands is not all that significant an act of selflessness when stacked up against the company’s sins, past and present. Perhaps there are even other ways to make profitable popcorn movies to fund your pet projects, though in truth goal of the Disney project—which is to say the meta-meta project of which the Marvel films are but a single universe in its multiverse—seems to be to close those avenues. 

Disney currently owns The Muppets, the Pixar animation studio, the rights to distribute English-language dubs of most of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the Marvel Entertainment combine, the Star Wars franchise, and sundry other smaller former competitors, and after a few years, they all start to resemble each other, like a dog starts to look like its owner.

Why is it so important that I not just enjoy these movies occasionally, in the way I might an amusement-park ride or one of the old Lethal Weapon of Die Hard flicks, but ceremonially affirm their heavy-handed symbology’s profound value to the world’s oppressed? Has anyone asked the world’s oppressed what they think of these movies, or for that matter of Wesley Snipes’s singlehanded expansion of black agency in his landmark role as Eric Brooks in Latino director Guillermo del Toro’s seminal Blade II? I kid, sort of, but Blade II is just as good as the best MCU movies and black audiences loved and still love that film and its predecessor, and Snipes in them. I don’t remember New Line telling them they were morally obliged to do so in the same way these audiences were urged to shell out for Black Panther so that more films like it would be made. This sort of cynicism about representational starvation among minority moviegoers hardly feels like a progressive statement.

More to the point, Scorsese has certainly never made this argument about his own films, or indeed any films, even those he has personally helped to preserve, renew, and screen through his nonprofit organization the World Cinema Project. Which I daresay advances the goal of minority enfranchisement a fucking sight better than the sight of the ethnically diverse millionaires of Avengers: Infinity War.

Scorsese is practically amoral in his mission statement on the company website. The World Cinema Project is interested in “representing the rich diversity of world cinema” and teaching “young people—over 10 million to date—about film language and history,” he says, not in presenting a particular depiction of any of these people.

Perhaps that is because a genuine diversity of cinema—that is, of kinds of films and ways of understanding the peculiar grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of a young and exciting art form—cannot possibly be the purview of a single megacorporation, no matter how devoted that megacorporation may be to hoovering up the legal rights to distribute the world’s great art and then bowdlerizing it to suit the current political climate in whatever region seems most profitable this weekend.

Nor can it be the purview of a single race, nationality, or class. Scorsese’s curation of films that emerged from completely different cultural circumstances, however obviously more enlightened than Disney’s, also expresses a perspective. All institutional efforts to expand the arts do—that is why a healthy art form needs as broad a plurality of institutions as possible. Scorsese embraces that. The shareholders of the Disney corporation do not.

Unpublished Correspondence With Ursula K. Le Guin

The Watch

This week’s big story


In March of 2017 I wrote to the now-dead author Ursula K. Le Guin to request an interview for a story about the Trump administration’s proposal, since rejected, to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts.

The email was one of a few—I cast a wide net, heard back from a couple of them, took an interview from a famous playwright instead, and moved on.

Working at speed for a daily newspaper as I was then, I found that time dilated for me, especially in the early days of the Trump administration. Journalists, always prone to self-aggrandizement, behaved during that period like people told that the building they’re in is on fire: frantically choosing what to save, where to go when home is gone, making sure everyone who can be rescued is accounted for. At that time yesterday was years ago as far as I was concerned, but, two days after publication, I was surprised — and delighted, her books have been with me since childhood — to receive a response from Le Guin.

Knowing that she had written angrily on her blog about the way Trump had turned national politics into an offensive circus, I had asked her if she would comment on what the NEA meant to American life, in keeping with her own exhortation to her blog readers to keep focus on the people Trump hurts, rather than on the vain, self-regarding president himself.

It’s a measure of her skill that even with the horrified brevity of my attention during those early months, when annihilation felt like a near-certainty and journalism felt like a sword with which to fight it, the email below stuck in my head, as her writing so reliably does.

On Sat, Mar 18, 2017 at 8:29 PM Ursula Le Guin <redacted> wrote:

Dear Sam Thielman,

Thank you for your generous invitation.   

I wonder if “what NEA means to American life” is quite the question that needs asking.  People conscious of the importance of art in daily life don’t need to read the answer; people uninterested in the arts or who hold them in contempt won’t read it.   

Perhaps the real problem is that people to whom the arts are extremely important — who listen to  popular music, watch movies on screen or tv, or take their kids to the public library — often don’t think of them as arts.   American culture encourages “art” to present itself as necessarily irreverent, revolutionary, distressing, formidable, esoteric, etc.  People whose art is country music or Zits* see NEA as elitist money going to elitist projects — nothing to do with them.  They’re the ones who need to hear that the songs and pictures and stories they value are indeed art, and will indeed be damaged by the malevolence of the Republican leadership toward public support of education and toward independent creativity.  

But I’m a product of the elite side of culture myself, and I don’t know how to reach them.

And frankly, at  87 I’m kind of tired of hitting my head against the wall.

With all good wishes,

Ursula Le Guin

That was the only time I ever had the opportunity to communicate with her; there are other writers I wanted very badly to meet and never had the chance—Gene Wolfe, author of The Book of the New Sun, who died last week, Lloyd Alexander, author of The Prydain Chronicles, who passed not long ago—and an email is, I’ll freely admit to you, an odd thing to treasure. But I do treasure it, and not just in the way I treasure a signed book, but because Le Guin was correct, and in a way that I have not thought enough about.

Her most famous novel, A Wizard of Earthsea, is about humility. It is, at first, an absolutely normal if beautifully phrased and perfectly economical wizard-school story, predating the first Harry Potter novel by nearly 30 years. But unlike Harry, its hero, Ged, discovers his power too early; he misuses it, causes tremendous harm, and is sent away from the campus to learn how better to master himself. It’s something Le Guin’s writing often examines—the way hubris can be harmful, even fatal.

Le Guin had an astonishing knack for keeping the main thing the main thing; she was, in that regard, the anti-Trump. “He is a true, great master of the great game of this age, the Celebrity Game,” Le Guin wrote of the president a few months before her death. “Attention is what he lives on. Celebrity without substance. His “reality” is “virtual” — i.e. non-existent — but he used this almost-reality to disguise a successful bid for real power. Every witty parody, hateful gibe, clever takeoff, etc., merely plays his game, and therefore plays into his hands.”

That strikes me as true. There are good reasons to avoid the kind of stigmatization that Trump’s self-appointment as The Subject We Must Always Be Arguing About creates. It’s very easy to hate Trump’s supporters for his actions, but that’s not the same as seeking to determine who carries out the president’s hideously inhumane policies like child separation at the border, who writes his policies and briefs, and who is hurt by those policies, and how to help them.

There is a swath of America that just doesn’t care very much about politics and is waiting for everything to get back to normal. Art is a way to demonstrate the limits of normalcy, to show that actually, even politically disengaged people have skin in the game—they just don’t know it or have forgotten. Country music, newspaper cartoons, and Clint Eastwood movies are at risk here, too. For better or for worse, Trump’s celebritized presidency has proven that those are the things people care about. They can be used as leverage.

*Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s newspaper comic strip about an adolescent boy, a kind of unofficial sequel to Calvin and Hobbes, less Hobbes. It’s pretty good.—Sam


Marking Time

Odds, ends, and observations


  • Things I am reading/playing/watching/listening to:
    1. Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. It is my first experience reading something by her and it’s good so far.
    2. Just finished Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals, a masterly history of white evangelical America. I recommend it highly, though the last few chapters are almost exclusively about the political organ the evangelical community became and less prominently about the theology. Still, can’t recommend highly enough; it made me less angry with conservative Christians, oddly, and I recommend being less angry.
    3. Hidetaka Miyazaki’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, a video game by FromSoftware, notorious for their difficult titles. If you’re playing it like an Uncharted game it is absolutely incredibly difficult and the story is elliptical and hard to uncover, but if you want the video game equivalent of Nabokov, which is to say leisurely, difficult, and witty, I can’t recommend it enough. I don’t know that I’ll buy a better game this year. I may not buy another game this year.
    4. Barry on HBO. Bill Hader, surprise, is a terrific director, and the idea for the show is very funny—a hitman decides to become an actor—and played so straight-facedly it’s all the more ridiculous. Stephen Root is improbably magnetic as Barry’s handler.
  • This Week in Parenting
    1. We took my kid to an auto parts swap meet because his granddad is restoring an old roadster and wanted to hunt for exactly the right distributor cap. He—the two-year-old—had an amazing time. We’ve learned that the best way to deal with the wiggles is to just let him roam a little. Often he wants to walk from table to table in whatever restaurant where the food has lost his attention and greet people like a chef with his name on the marquee making sure the meals are good. Generally speaking people dig it, or at least are nice about it.
    2. I am not a spanker. I was spanked, I know and admire many spankers, but it ain’t my thing. The question, if you were disciplined that way, becomes how to make sure you’re not just duplicating the experience of being spanked by terrorizing your child when he does something wrong. Getting down on his eye level, speaking softly and low to him, and asking him to repeat back what he shouldn’t do next time (“no throw car;” “no run street”) has yielded good results for us so far.

This post is free! Please consider supporting my work with a paid subscription.

Conservatism Unlimited

I consume far too much conservative media. Any is too much, but I have a mild obsession with learning what the right thinks and why, especially the Christian right, and so I trawl the home pages of The National Review, The Federalist, Christianity Today and The Daily Caller for information—not the information imparted in the articles, but the information omitted from them, and from any sort of coverage, and I carefully keep track of the stories that remain important to the regular readers of these—and darker, more obscure—outlets.

Something has departed from American civil discourse in the last few months; a kind of pretense that, however contemptible and offensive, saved a number of us from annihilation. I’m working to name the thing. It’s a confounding task.

Here’s an example: In 2012 there were 15 bias-related murders according to the FBI’s hate crimes division, which is not exactly known for its liberal standards on the topic. This is pretty good, all things considered—not a lot of race-related murders. 

Also in 2012, The National Review, the magazine begun by William F. Buckley to protest Brown v. Board, fired writer John Derbyshire for racism in a column denouncing his post for reactionary website Taki’s Magazine, though editor Rich Lowry did take pains to name him “a deeply literate, funny, and incisive writer” in the same post. Another Review bulletin dubbed the piece unworthy of its author, who “always gave me the impression of an Oxford don” but ultimately “had more courage than sense.”

Indeed, Derbyshire’s cultivated courageous donnishness was always delivered with a skillfully naughty, slightly hectoring friendliness that never quite masked his profound distaste for people other than white whose religions were other than Christian. “It is good to be reminded, too, with forceful supporting data, that the 1924 restrictions on immigration to the U.S. were not driven by any belief on the part of the restrictionists in their own racial superiority but by a desire to stabilize the nation’s ethnic balance, which is by no means the same thing,” he asserted in Pat Buchanan’s The American Conservative in 2003, in a wry and respectful semi-dismissal of Kevin MacDonald’s Culture of Critique, the ur-text of contemporary American anti-Semitism. 

MacDonald, Derbyshire explains, was removed from polite society because “he got the Jew thing,” as someone said to him at a party. Though he personally does not have the Jew thing and resolved to do his best not to get it “so far as personal integrity allowed,” “if, however, you have got the Jew thing, or if, for reasons unfathomable to me, you would like to get it, Kevin MacDonald is your man.” MacDonald had not yet been declared persona non grata by his university, but he would be five years later.

It’s worth examining what Derbyshire represented within the complicated framework of conservative intellectualism during this period of detente between its factions of crabby paleoconservatives, pre-Vatican II Catholics, born-agains, libertarians, Bushie neocons, and all combinations of the above. Like Buchanan, he would have described himself in the moment as a paleoconservative; someone concerned primarily with preserving social mores, public respect for religion, and not afflicted with the same concerns about deficit spending or socialized medicine that bedeviled his frenemies elsewhere in the Review, beyond his concern about the propensity of the latter to encourage laziness in the lower orders.


Factions and Fictions

There is a lot to be said here about the interpretations of German-American philosopher Leo Strauss, whose affinity for deception plays a central role in both strains of contemporary conservatism. I’d rather not say it; it’s tedious and Strauss’s work, whether it intends to or not, functions as a theory of elitism and leaves its two factions at war over only the worthless question of which one ought to be considered elite. Suffice it to say that Buchanan, Derbyshire, MacDonald, Steve Sailer, Joe Sobran and the rest of the comfortably stodgy old Catholics and their allies and protégés defined themselves during the Bush administration in opposition to what they rightly understood to be the fad of neoconservatism.

The neocon movement, especially Andrew Sullivan at The New Republic and David Brooks and ultrahawk Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard, preached Strauss’s gospel of lies. Lies were necessary to the concept of nation-building, they wrote, and told each other, and themselves. The Great Deceptions must not merely be believed by the masses in order to have an idea of nationhood, they must be aggressively practiced by the elite (which is to say, writers at The New Republic, The National Review, and The Weekly Standard and any politicians who knew what was good for them) on those masses if the nations in question are going to be built. Imagine The Secret, except armed to the teeth.

This is how we ended up with absurd pronouncements that of like “an aide” (almost certainly Karl Rove) to the Bush administration memorably waving off New York Times reporter Ron Suskind with the novel insult that Suskind was a part of “the reality-based community.”

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (full article here)

Rove, or whoever he was, was right about that last bit, at least. Having failed to create a democratic Iraq using the power of positive thinking, Iraq’s ostensibly well-meaning architects gave up the ear of the last president and moved on to the next one, having received the requisite career boost for their participation in the activities of the Oval Office, never mind that those activities killed half a million people. They didn’t mind the occasional R-rated movie, after all, and some of their best friends were gay, or black, or women.

In hindsight, it was easy to see happening if you were interested in conservative media as an observer rather than a consumer. A Bush-unaligned part of the intricately linked world of conservative publications was engaged in a very different project from the self-appointed great actors of history: It had appointed itself the filtering mechanism for the rest of the press and the parts of culture that its viewers found suspicious or alien. “Politics is downstream of culture,” Andrew Breitbart, progenitor of Trumpworld’s most effective mouthpiece, famously said. 

This part of conservatism was engaged not with problems of democracy in faraway lands, but with degeneracy in our own. “Lots of Christians have the false idea that The Benedict Option foresees the greatest challenges to the faith coming from state persecution,” wrote Rod Dreher in The American Conservative, referring to his own project of supposedly Benedictine withdrawal from American public life. “Though I do believe that is coming, by far the greater threats to the churches come from the culture in general, and from internal collapse.” The targets here are familiar: In the piece quoted, Dreher was writing about the scandal of widespread child abuse in the Catholic church, which he blamed on homosexuality.

The Taki post that got Derbyshire fired began as a sort of Modest Proposal making light of the African-American fear of cops who murder them, or at least it pretended to be that for a few lines before it, too, descended into a purer and more earnest expression of Derbyshire’s concerns about degeneracy. Like most bullies, Derbyshire was less kidding than maintaining a veneer of kidding so he could say, “I’m just kidding,” which he did when he was criticized for the article’s ugliness. But the veneer had cracked open wide enough for the squirming putrefaction animating it to be visible, and it got him tossed into the outer darkness: the same stagnant toilets of the internet to which MacDonald, Sobran, and others like them had been banished. And, in that still, lightless excrescence, something was growing.


“Which race of smiley face do you use when your employer texts you on the weekend?”

Jump forward a few years. A symptom of that growing thing, but probably not the thing itself, seems to be neoreactionism, nauseatingly abbreviated NRx by its adherents, among whom Trump advisor Steve Bannon and many other ascendant political movers are numbered. It is a political philosophy embraced by conservatives across the social and religious spectra but especially by conservative Catholics, such as Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule and Sohrab Amhari, who both write for right-wing religious journal First Things, which briefly hosted political disinformation blog The Gateway Pundit. The various strands of right-wing media often come together like that.

James Duesterberg wrote a sympathetic and informative 2017 pocket history of the movement for University of Chicago literary magazine The Point, “Final Fantasy.” The author points out that, though the antics of neoreactionary thought leaders like Curtis Yarvin, who blogs as Mencius Moldbug, and Nick Land are often risible and their policy ideas absurd, it has “a more savage bite” than its ludicrous social prescriptions suggest. 

“[W]hy are we required to believe in political correctness, rather than simply being forced to accept progressive policy as the rules of the game for our time?” Duesterberg asks. “And why, after all, are liberals so threatened by dissent?”

Throughout his Point article, Duesterberg maintains the same just-asking-questions posture as Derbyshire in his review of The Culture of Critique, but his agreement with, at least, the premise of neoreaction—that social-justice warriors run society and have made it into a wasteland—seems clear. “Want to earn enough money to support your family? You’ll need a college degree, so you’d better learn how to write a paper on epistemic violence for your required Grievance Studies 101 class,” Duesterberg writes. “Want to keep your job? You’d better brush up on climate-change talking points, so you can shift into regulatory compliance, the only growth industry left. Want to relax with your friends after work? It’s probably easiest if you like movies about gay people, pop music that celebrates infidelity and drug use, and books about non-Christian boy wizards. Want to communicate with other people? Better figure out how to use emoticons. Which race of smiley face do you use when your employer texts you on the weekend?”

This was, essentially, Donald Trump’s campaign platform. Not his vacuous ramblings or his personal dishonesty, criminality, and cruelty, but his proposal to voters: The world you live in is worthless and has been overrun by self-righteous scolds who want to pick your pocket and invade everything that gives you the slightest pleasure in the name of an obviously irreligious “morality” that you quite rightly resist; they’re the same people who depress your wages, change your health insurance plan twice a year, and send your job to Mexico when you turn fifty. You’ve been terrorized by the invasion of the diversity officers, Obama chief among them.

It’s the basis of Trumpworld’s rallying cry every time someone shares a story about kids teaching each other to change the smallest children’s diapers in our new immigrant baby jails, a video of a toddler who doesn’t recognize his horrified mother at the airport after months of captivity, an interview with schoolchildren weeping in uncomprehending despair having returned from the first day of elementary school to find that their parents have been rounded up by the secret police. Now, in your misery, they tell us, you know how WE feel, we who spent the Obama administration in fear for our precious, notional liberties. The stakes, for conservatives, are entirely imaginary, but they are a matter of bone-deep belief.


Equal and Opposite Reaction

While Yarvin and Land are its founders, reaction’s champion du jour writes under the nom de guerre Bronze Age Pervert; his work has leapt into the White House via Michael Anton, “the brilliant, bespoke Straussian who went to work for Trump’s National Security Council for a while,” according to Andrew Sullivan, now of New York Magazine in a piece called “The Limits of My Conservatism.” 

Anton cuts an interesting figure and has been profiled several times, the best one probably Rosie Gray’s, from March, 2017. A financial services goon, Anton published punishingly lengthy blog posts in support of Trump at the Unz Review, a project of former American Conservative publisher and Republican politician Ron Unz. Anton’s most influential post was certainly “The Flight 93 Election,” in the Claremont Review of Books, in which he argued that Americans had to “rush the cockpit” despite—in fact, because of—the possibility of destruction if they did not.

The nesting dolls go like this: the Review of Books is an enterprise of the Claremont Institute, founded by Henry Jaffa, patron saint of the West Coast school of Straussian thought, bankrolled by billionaire Carnegie heiress Sarah Scaife, whose extreme hatred of immigrants and virulent racism aligns perfectly with the Institute’s mission and its subsequent embrace through the Review of Books of Trump, who also hates black people and immigrants.

It’s easy to get lost in warring philosophical schools and old grudges between conservatives, but the cheat code, always, is bigotry—racism, antisemitism, and, always, misogyny.

Here’s some of Bronze Age Pervert’s philosophizing, glowingly reviewed by Anton and pushed enthusiastically to the White House: 

[A]ncient “public-spiritedness” [is] free men accepting the rigors of training together so they can preserve their freedom by force against equally haughty and hostile outsiders and against racial subordinates at home. Any “racial” unity of the Greeks was therefore only the organic unity of culture or language, but never became political: such people would never tolerate losing the sovereignty in the states they and their recent ancestors had established to protect their freedom and space to move. But to draw any parallels to our time is absurd: these men would have never submitted to abstractions like “human rights,” or “equality,” or “the people” as some kind of amorphous entity encompassing the inhabitants of the territory or city in general. They would have rightly seen this as pure slavery, which is our condition today: no real man would ever accept the legitimacy of such an entity, which for all practical purposes means you must, for entirely imaginary reasons, defer to the opinion of slaves, aliens, fat childless women, and others who have no share in the actual physical power.

A perhaps overremarked facet of the Trump administration is that its ideologues don’t come through the usual channels—no columnists left tony positions at the Times or the Washington Post or even the National Review to work as speechwriters for Trump, to their frustration, I’m sure. Instead, Trump staffed his advisory ranks from the anti-news sycophants at Fox News, where the intellectual life, such as it is, has little to do with policy or reportage and more to do with broad theories completely divorced from measured data like those of Mr. Age Pervert. 

The tone of Trump-era conservative intellectual life trends toward self-help and whites-only feel-goodism, with a tonal spectrum that ranges from the spittle-flecked stemwinders about dirty immigrants from Tucker Carlson to professorial disquisitions on women’s place in the home from the most popular of these intellectuals, Jordan Peterson.

Much of this is to do with Trump’s own bottomless intellectual laziness, but it is also a product of his preferences, namely the aforementioned racism, and the ressentiment, as M. Duesterberg would have it, of a paleoconservative class expelled from movement conservatism in favor of witless neocons for what it believes was simply its realism about race, gender, and the inferiority of Islam. With their unexpectedly successful rushing of the cockpit, as Anton would have it, they were suddenly given the opportunity to exercise real political power. 

Yarvin, Derbyshire, Carlson, Bronze Age Pervert: These are the thinkers of the contemporary right. Some may have access to the halls of power and most may not, but the fact is they are read by the few in the Trump administration who at least pretend to literacy, and even the old neocon guard, rather than seek approval among authority-weidling women, black people, and gay people, have chosen like Sullivan to re-investigate racism to see if there isn’t something interesting they can salvage. And they have found conservatism’s old wounds rich with a festering, suppurating intellectual life.

So it would be fair to call reaction’s politics ascendant in the years between Derbyshire’s dismissal and Duesterberg’s essay.


Conservatism Unlimited

As the Trump administration shifted into gear in 2017, it made no bones about its distaste for immigrants, and neither did the reactionary outlets that shared its ideology. That year Breitbart was aswarm with articles about Ebba Åkerlund, an 11-year-old killed by an Islamic State militant in Sweden. The administration itself opened a hotline for Victims Of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) through the Bush-era Department of Homeland Security’s Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. This is not an emergency helpline; rather, it is a hotline through which people can inquire about whether or not people convicted of crimes have been deported. Trump also ordered the Department of Justice to establish an “Alien Incarceration Report” showcasing crimes by immigrants, who offend at a much lower rate than citizens and whose neighborhoods are generally safer than neighborhoods without them, according to the government’s own National Criminal Justice Reference Service.

On the third of this month, a right-wing gunman in El Paso killed 22 people, most of them over 55, and shot 24 others who survived, including a four-month-old baby. In April, a right-wing gunman killed an elderly woman at worship in a synagogue and wounded three others, including the rabbi. In July, a right-wing gunman opened fire on the Gilroy Garlic Festival in Gilroy, California, killing three and wounding 13 before he was shot to death. The Proud Boys, a far-right gang whose leader, Enrique Tarrio, is chair of Florida Latinos for Trump, started two riots in Portland this summer, one on June 29 and one on August 18. 

Since the El Paso murders, the police have arrested “dozens” of young men, teenagers, and one woman threatening or credibly believed to be planning mass attacks—not just shootings but also bombings. Conor Climo, a 23-year-old Nevada man, was arrested for communicating with neonazi group Atomwaffen division about bombing a synagogue and killing patrons at a gay bar. James Reardon, a 19-year-old man who attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where neo-Nazi James Fields ran over Heather Heyer with her car, was arrested for threatening to attack a synagogue. Police found a long gun, body armor, a gas mask, and antisemitic literature in Reardon’s home. After his arrest, researcher Emily Gorcenski found a photo of Reardon with Fields at the Charlottesville rally.

These are unusual crimes: They are committed against strangers, based on those strangers’ status or perceived status as a member of an outgroup, and all are coming from the right, often with the explicit stated purpose of starting a race war.

In their manifestos, some of these killers have parroted what we in our capacity as a nation of boiled frogs have come to regard as anodyne, if distasteful, conservative talking points: that immigrants are an invasion, that demographic diminution is “genocide,” that morality derives from strength and that strength derives from eugenic theories of heritable positive traits and that these traits include intelligence. None of this is true; Stephen Jay Gould spent much of his late career debunking scientific racism.

But in this iteration of conservatism as in the previous one, thank Strauss, its truth or falsity is not of much consequence; those qualities are a product of the enlightenment, which, the intellectuals of the right inform us, is a lacuna in the true history of humanity, which is darkness extending eternally on both sides of it. The days of the reality-based community are once again numbered.

To people like Brenton Tarrant, the act of slaking his bloodlust on dozens of worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, including, among the dead, a three-year-old, is politics. He says as much in his manifesto, claiming that the birth rates of non-natives are so high that the people themselves must be culled. Christchurch may be in New Zealand, but the memes and and imageboard culture he jokingly cites in his manifesto are pure Americana; Patrick Crusius recognizes them as such in his own manifesto before his murder of 22 people in El Paso, which cites Tarrant. John Earnest, in his own document describing his reasons for carrying out the murder and assaults at the synagogue in Poway, also approvingly cites Tarrant.

Tarrant’s seventy-odd-page screed, which he called “The Great Replacement,” has surpassed even The Culture of Critique (which codifies many of the same claims about the coming subordination of the white race as Tarrant’s document) as literature of political influence. It is contemporary conservatism’s purest distillation.

The killings are consistent with paleoconservatism, reactionism, or fascism, as it is most properly called. Pat Buchanan, himself a paleoconservative, agrees with me on this point: “Now, there are no excuses, or defenses, for what happened in Christchurch. But there is an explanation,” he wrote on the blog The Unz Review after Christchurch. “All peoples to some degree resent and resist the movement of outsiders into their space. Some migrants are more difficult than others to assimilate into Western societies. European nations that had not known mass migrations for centuries were especially susceptible to a virulent reaction, a backlash.”

Paul Nehlen, an avowed fan of The Culture of Critique, is a former Republican candidate for Congress, whose primary candidacy against Paul Ryan received fawning coverage from Breitbart News and an endorsement from Fox News’s Laura Ingraham and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. If Tarrant’s writing is the literary framework for present-day conservative thought, Nehlen is its avatar. He was less equivocal than Buchanan in his analysis of the spate of white nationalist shootings in an interview on White Nationalist podcast The Gas Station. 

“We’re gonna find ourselves in a situation where we’re the ones who tear it down,” Nehlen said. “We aren’t necessarily going to be the ones who are going to build it back up, be great if we are. Be great if we could do it in that timeframe, but it’s gotta be torn down. This whole neoliberal façade that we’re all walking around in has got to be torn down, has got to be destroyed. So that’s where I stand on things. I’m not backing away from this kid [John Earnest, the Poway shooter]. I’m heralding his arrival. And I will look forward to his eventual release. Maybe some folks will show up there and he’ll be sprung [from prison]. So peace be upon him.”

It may be true that our current prosperity is simply an all-too-brief respite between dark ages. But it is not true that white people are superior to other races, or that there is no truth. Nor is it true that there is some kind of especially worthy cultural product, or indeed, any cultural product at all, that is generated by contemporary conservatives and their sympathizers; there is nothing to conserve. Rather, their project is a soulless, aching void, an irrational perception of slights and wrongs so great that they act as plenary indulgences for any monstrosity, no matter how great, any murder, any incarceration, any rending apart of mother and child, of body and soul, and all of the movement’s intellectual force is now directed at arguing its case in favor of this infinite license.

It is not a complicated evil, but it is a forceful one, and the force of civilization and dignity ought to prepare to meet it with refusal, silence, and, so far as it is still possible, the merciless application of the law, because if we do not, we will have to meet it with violence, and that is one of the only two things it wants. 

The other is a platform to argue for the inhumanity of the great mass of us who deplore its wickedness, and, in the presidency, it already has that.

This post is free. If you enjoyed it, please consider supporting Graphomania.

Another National Anthem

There’s another national anthem playing
Not the one you cheer
At the ball park.
“Where’s my prize?”
It’s the other national anthem, saying—
If you want to hear—
It says “Bullshit!”
It says “Never!”
It says “Sorry!”
Loud and clear
It says: Listen
To the tune that keeps sounding
In the distance, on the outside
Coming through the ground
To the hearts that go on pounding
To the sound
Getting louder every year

—Stephen Sondheim, Assassins

§

I went to Boston on Labor Day Weekend for the “Straight Pride” parade, a far-right rally organized by the hate group Resist Marxism, now operating as Super Happy Fun America. Straight Pride rallies have existed since the 1970s as pushback on the encroaching freedoms of gay people. This one was not much more than a neo-Nazi rally, where a knife-toting man—one of several with prominent Nazi tattoos, his including SS bolts and a swastika—gave interviews to the press, and far-right huckster Milo Yiannopoulos called the enormous crowd of protesters beyond the police barriers ugly lesbians. The police themselves beat the protesters viciously and without provocation.

The “rally” was a miserable affair populated by people who did not appear to have recently enjoyed any form of human interaction for more than about ten consecutive minutes. They had their slogans, costumes, jokes, and slurs ready to go; they tricked a number of reporters into incrementing their numbers by following them down the parade route, which was blocked off from the genpop by not one layer of police barriers but two, forming a wide and empty lane separating angry antifascists from Nazis, idiots in Pepe outfits, and one man smelling of alcohol who had dressed as Santa.

At the center of the parade was a huge float that said “TRUMP 2020” and “BUILD THE WALL.” The black bloc kids and assorted allies, many from the local DSA organization, were a less motley and more energetic crew, mostly young, often smiling, some dressed as storybook witches or in band t-shirts. One gigantically tall person arrived in a costume that devoted to their genderqueer identity; they looked a bit like Magneto with maroon dreads. The activist Vermin Supreme showed up with a crown on his head in place of his usual boot.

The protest was, with intent, a joyful affair. The Black Lives Matter chapter organized a bake “sale,” though sale may be the wrong word since there was no price on anything, just a pay-what-you-can jar of bills and change next to paper plates of muffins and cookies and bagels. There was a “non-confrontational” rally beforehand where pacifists could affirm their LGBT pals, and a dance party afterward, which I intended to attend but missed because, frankly, I was too depressed to leave my hotel room.

Inside the fences, snickering, unhappy memelords in clown wigs and a pathetic assembly of right-wing newsmen trawled for clicks and views on their YouTube feeds or Facebook Live streams. Traditional newspeople tried to interview clowns and Santa Claus. Ford Fischer, a man who wears a GoPro camera on his bicycle helmet and acquires good footage of street-level events that he tweets and sells to news outlets, was there; so were CBS and Vice.

One of the speakers, Enrique Tarrio, a Republican operative who leads a violent militia called the Proud Boys, was a no-show. A small woman in a red “socialism is for fags” shirt screamed “faggot” at protesters.

The parade eventually reached City Hall, where a stage, a microphone, and a perimeter of police were waiting. Everyone who wanted to attend the festivities had to be wanded and present their bags for inspection. Proud Boys arrived incognito as a “security” detail for Yiannopoulos, among them a frowning long-haired man wearing what looked like a band shirt bearing, on the back, a paraphrased verse from Leviticus (misattributed) about cannibalism. He and the armed Nazi stood at the back. He told me the Proud Boys had been instructed not to wear their trademark Fred Perry shirts today, though some of them had disobeyed and he was clearly unhappy about it, and about talking to me, so he walked away. I googled the shirt and found that it was from a doomy “lifestyle” clothing brand called BlackCraft Cult (caps theirs).

Outside the rally, the mood was much brighter, but it was colored by a different fear. Inside, the rallygoers were afraid of cultural Marxism, of the things the protesters represented. Outside, the protesters were afraid of being physically hurt or humiliated by ralliers and the cops. At one point, chatting with a couple on the street, a white kid with long blond hair came up to us and said with a badly feigned sincerity that flirted with sarcasm, “Hey, did you see those awful, bigoted straight pride marchers anywhere? Do you know where that homophobic straight pride rally is?” We shrugged him off and he went away, but the experience was unsettling, the clumsy pretense in his voice clinging to our own conversation like a spiderweb as we wondered, half to ourselves, whether he had tried to hustle us into engaging with him for a hidden camera or a group of friends who meant us harm. I didn’t know the man and woman, both very young and animated, but in that moment we were all, suddenly, on one side, and he and the police were on the other.


Police pepper-spray protesters standing on the sidewalk


The cops beat the shit out of everyone. Police departments from all over the state at a cost of more than half a million dollars earned overtime zooming through the streets on bicycles in riot helmets, shorts, neon yellow-and-black uniform shirts, wraparound shades, and clenched scowls. Some carried weapons for a melee and had zipties velcroed to the front of their armor for easy access; one had an enormous truncheon as long as his leg tucked into a ringed scabbard behind him on his belt. When the rally ended, the cops left the barriers between the rallygoers and the protesters up; then they drove motorcycles through the crowd to break it up.

A second wave of cops, these on bicycles, worked their way into the crowd to chants of “Good cops quit” and “shame, shame, shame.” The cop closest to me put the shield on his helmet down over his face.

Then they forced the protesters down the street, pushing ahead with their bikes, chanting, call-and-response style, “move,” “BACK,” “move,” “back,” the cantor calling “move” and his fellow soldiers yelling “BACK.” Everyone complied as best they could, but the crowding was far too dense for anyone more than a few people deep in the throng to simply disperse. The bottleneck into which police had forced the protesters was blocked on the one side closest to city hall by the barriers the police had erected themselves and refused to open after the parade’s permit ran out. On the other, a fence between the two lanes of the street prevented the protesters from leaving across the grassy expanse outside Boston’s Holocaust memorial. The police began hurling the protesters, especially the women, to the ground; one stick-thin twentysomething girl was led away with huge abrasions on her shoulders from being dragged across the pavement by the enormous cop, who had forearms like Popeye, restraining her. Cops blasted pepper spray at protesters standing on the sidewalk, where they had been directing people. Plainclothes police planted in the crowd led away more people in handcuffs from outside the scrum, why, I couldn’t tell.

As the crowd backed up, the bike officers formed a neon yellow phalanx across the street from fence to fence and bludgeoned with their bicycles anyone who tried to move through it or who didn’t move away quickly enough. Everyone moved back. Finally, when the remaining protesters had dwindled to two, the police charged them, threw them to the ground, beat them, and handcuffed them in front of a crowd who videotaped and took photos. It’s easy and tempting to dismiss the men who did this as violent bullies who like to hurt people, but this was not bullying. Bullying is impulsive. This was preplanned tactical movement against an unarmed, nonviolent adversary, many if not most of whom were young women, to protect armed neo-Nazis from confrontation because the city had given them a permit to shout slurs and provocations at women, gay people, and immigrants. And the police didn’t care, and there was no reason, beyond decency, for them to care. And we were well beyond decency.

Reports after the parade said that the police had stolen a cane from an elderly woman and had broken one protester’s arm. I texted a source who had been closer to the violence than I was to ask if they were all right. “Skin is spicy, I needed an eyeflush,” they replied, adding that they’d been hit with a bike but were otherwise okay.

I like America. I like being from here. I like my memories of childhood in the infinite woods setting off bottle rockets and swinging like Tarzan on vines over creeks and building dams in those creeks and learning to pick up crawdads just behind their claws. And as a grownup I like living in a big insane city stuffed with weirdos who have to cram daily onto a network of awful trains that pretzel into each other in such an inconvenient configuration that it must be, on some level, intentional, and take their kids to the zoo, and boo the mayor, and complain about the theater, and go see their friends’ awful bands and stand-up routines, and eat sandwiches as big as a man’s shoe. I like that we have a ridiculous law here that declares your right to say absolutely anything you want, anything at all that doesn’t directly ask another person to commit a crime, and if somebody else doesn’t like it, why, it’s their right and their duty to scream at you and tell everyone who will listen that you’re an asshole. I like the Me Too movement. I like comic books, and movies that cost more than the GDP of Denmark, and musical theater, and awful rock music that is so sincere it makes your teeth hurt to listen to it. And I like that so many of us, me included, hoped that we would be able to surmount the problems we all knew were coming when we made our president a fascist game-show host who hates black people and women. That he wouldn’t be able to burrow deep into our structures and institutions; that those things were flawed but still, somehow, basically sound.

That hope was foolish, and I repent of it after seeing what happened in Boston with my own eyes. It is too late.

§

Noah Carl is a young academic who was drummed out of Cambridge last year for participating in a conference of race scientists and contributing to Mankind Quarterly, a magazine devoted to advancing theories of intelligence and its correlation with race. Carl became a cause celèbre among conservative media creatures, taking bylines in Quillette, The Economist (yes, The Economist grants bylines to guest contributors), and receiving sympathetic coverage from many conservative pundits, among them Bloomberg writer Cass Sunstein and libertarian Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle, who is personally famous for such theories as “children should be trained to charge into the line of fire during school shootings” and “the fire at the Grenfell Towers public housing project was normal attrition.” The Times of London published a leader—Britspeak for an unbylined editorial, one that states the institutional position of the organization, rather than that of a specific columnist or contributor—entitled “The Times view on the sacking of Noah Carl: Monoversities.”

“Mr Carl does not stand accused of writing anything unlawful or liable to incite hatred. His main offence seems to have been to challenge the ‘woke’ left-wing orthodoxy now starting to grip British universities as it does many American ones,” write the authors of the Times leader, who may be relieved to hear that the Koch petrochemical dynasty has endowed several chairs in prominent universities run by their American cousins.

Other pundits such as Michelle Malkin shared Carl’s crowdfunding campaign, with which he hoped to sue Cambridge in retaliation for his dismissal. Outlets like UnHerd and The Federalist ran ringing tributes to this fallen thought warrior, as they often do.

I know it cannot be true in every case but I hope so much that these writers are merely extraordinarily stupid. That would make me think better of them. McArdle, at least, is profoundly lazy and entitled, so perhaps she can plead her usual ignorance.

Noah Carl is a Nazi. He is a prolific contributor to OpenPsych, a racist pseudojournal of non-peer-reviewed work, much of it on eugenics, that overlaps significantly with the authorship of Mankind Quarterly. He has published with Emil Kirkegaard, the lay-researcher founder of OpenPsych, who is both an apologist for pedophilia and a white nationalist.

Mankind Quarterly was founded by a number of fascists but the most important name on the list is Otmar von Verschuer, who trained Josef Mengele, convinced the German Research Society to fund Mengele’s experiments on the population of concentration camps, and worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute on human remains Mengele provided him from Auschwitz. As early as 1935, he had advocated passionately for experiments on twins, which Mengele carried out. Other founders of the journal include Italian fascist Corrado Gini and neo-Nazi Henry Garrett, the latter of whom helped to found the “Liberty Lobby,” a political activist group dedicated various forms of antisemitism including denying the Holocaust in which his professional colleague had personally participated. Current editors at Mankind Quarterly now review for OpenPsych, as does Kevin MacDonald, author of the ur-text of contemporary American antisemitism, The Culture of Critique.

The editor-in-chief of Christianity Today regularly sends his readers links to The Federalist and UnHerd. In my opinion, there should be more steps between Christianity Today and “eyes from murdered gypsies, internal organs, skeletons and blood samples … likely … of twins, one of them deliberately infected with typhus or tuberculosis by Mengele,” to quote the section of the Nature article on scientific racism devoted to Verschuer.

§

I read the collected Kevin Huizenga Ganges comics, called Glenn Ganges in The River at Night. It’s absolutely delightful. As good as anything Chris Ware has done, and I love Chris Ware. I’m also in the middle of Eleanor Davis’s The Hard Tomorrow, which I can’t recommend highly enough. It’s extraordinarily moving. I’ve got Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, and a bunch of old New Mutants comics to read, as well. Transmetropolitan is being reprinted; it’s still one of my very favorite comics. In single issues:

•JJ Abrams’ first issue of Spider-Man, with his brother Henry and art by the wonderful Sara Pichelli, is very promising.

•Mark Russell and Richard Pace’s Second Coming is just terrific. I’m reading all the Russell books at the moment—that’s Second Coming, Wonder Twins, and Red Sonja, I believe, and Second Coming is the best, though they’re all good.

•Jonathan Hickman’s vast X-Men reimagining, House of X and Powers of X, with Pepe Larraz and RB Silva, respectively, is remarkable. Some of the best X-Men comics I’ve ever read and a very clear vision for what the stories ought to be doing. Hickman’s enormous metanarrative experiment with the Marvel Universe in the early ‘teens didn’t quite get the fanfare it deserved, in part because it was so long and only a few people realized he was doing it. There’s plenty of fanfare around this one, so I think more folks will be on board from the jump, which is essential.

My little boy is super into Carl Barks at the moment. WEAD DONGLE DUCK AN THE BEAGO BOYS, he instructs. WEAD THE BEAGO BOYS. So we do. It’s good. Life is good. Life itself, always, is good.

§

My Work This Year

Officially New Year’s Eve! Here are the ten best things I wrote in 2018. I hope you enjoy at least one of them.

That’s it! It wasn’t a particularly glamorous year but I’m surprised by how proud I am of my work, which I think mostly holds up pretty well. I’m also *incredibly* proud of the work of my colleagues at the Tow Center and the wonderful people at CJR who let me hang out in their office and yell story ideas in the morning meeting.

In general I spent a lot more time parenting and husbanding and drawing and reading and walking than I did last year. I’m glad I did, and I think it made my writing better, too.

Stray thoughts: “bad art” edition

  1. I would rather eat glass than directly engage with people who think it’s necessary or at all useful to police the content of artistic work for political respectability as determined by the least generous contextual interpretation of that work and a similarly magnanimous assessment of the intentions of the people who created it.
  2. I shit from a very great height indeed on the notion that craft-based criticism is worth much when it comes from people who call themselves artists but whose main contribution to comics as a medium takes the form of horny Twitter selfies.
  3. Sex comics are a really odd form of art that has mostly fallen out of vogue but a lot of astonishing artists, notably Robert Crumb, did them on their way to creating some of the most beautiful visual art of the 20th and 21st centuries. Straight American and European men illustrating their most depraved sexual fantasies make for queasy reading for a lot of people; that’s fine. Nobody has to like anything, just as nobody has to make art anyone else likes. These comics really help other people, believe it or not! Whatever you may think about them, the act of making a drawing from memory is not an act of violence, as I keep seeing it described. You can call it violence, but you will be completely wrong and incapable of having a discussion about art with anyone because you don’t know what words mean.
  4. It’s really telling how many people who have a problem with Crumb, with Manara, and with their American and European contemporaries, luuurve manga and preach it generally as gospel to everyone who will listen without for an instant considering manga’s regressive and sexist qualities. Crumb drew a lot of gross stuff but he never drew tentacle rape. Either it’s okay or immoral to depict the extremely weird sex stuff that bugs you or turns you on or whatever in your work. I’m going with the former, thanks.
  5. People can be tarred as sexual predators when there is an accuser and not before. If all you have as evidence are interviews featuring a bunch of old guys hee-hawing about their almost certainly embroidered sexual exploits, please jam a sock in it.
  6. I keep seeing comics twitter types say some variation on “I know five people who are just as talented as R Crumb and they’re not personally shitty!” Actually, you do not know five people who are as talented as Robert Crumb. There are probably not five people alive who are as talented as Robert Crumb. An entire industry of confessional alt-comix came into being ex nihilo because of Crumb and multiple successive generations of artists have learned from him, in good ways and bad. You may like your friend Saffron’s stippling or whateverthefuck better than Crumb’s but Crumb’s influence on comics is not simply that the guy is good at crosshatching. This is one of those weird cases where an artist’s obvious technical supercompetence obscures his actual contribution to art and I sort of sympathize but seriously, when you say this shit you sound like one of those boors in the 20th century wing of an art museum who looks at a Joan Miro painting and says “I coulda done that!” No, you could not have, because then you would have done so.
  7. As the nauseating spectacle of #comicsgate winds down due to a number of its partisans realizing that they’ve been hilariously grifted out of roughly a million dollars–no kidding–collectively, I was very annoyed to see a bunch of people tweeting incredulously that they were surprised Frank Cho wasn’t a part of the comicsgate bandwagon and had in fact gone out of his way to dump on the whole clownshow. This is what happens when you are so incredibly invested in seeing people who disagree with you as irreducibly evil and corrupt that you pay no attention at all to what they’re saying. If you deliberately misunderstand people, you will find them hard to predict! Frank Cho is a person of color rose to prominence by writing a humor strip about a pretty woman constantly disappointed by lunkheaded men. He likes drawing cheesecakey pinups and doesn’t like being picked on by silly prudes on social media, which is different from being a frothing misogynist.
  8. Guys, a lot of comics are extremely grim and unpleasant, in terms of the material they explore and originate. That is their nature, largely because of the way they evolved over the 20th century and as a response to that period’s excesses. I find that response to those excesses to be energizing and encouraging and even somewhat optimistic because of the way it resists sanitization and exportation into the larger monoculture, a gelatinous mass of contract law and 1950’s cultural mores mostly owned by the Disney and Warner Bros corporations that I personally consider hugely offensive and disturbing in a way that I absolutely do not find Crumb’s sex fantasies or Alan Moore’s horror comics. If you prefer to carefully dictate the terms on which you consider works of art acceptable for publication and distribution to the artists and publishers by means of boycotts and public pressure campaigns, congratulations on being an evangelical Christian, I guess.
  9. So there you go. I can’t stop people from saying really ignorant and foolish things and of course I wouldn’t if I could but my god, it makes me tired and discouraged about the future to see it in such an unending flood.