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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m back from Iraq. It was a wonderful experience and full of some of the most interesting people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting and I hope to go back there soon. I’m accidentally backing into a niche of consulting on fake news for various people and places and I hope it’s something I’m doing well. It’s a strange world. I’m so tired I can barely see at the moment.
I think I’ll start out with some comics:
Holy shit, Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintstones is fucking magnificent. I haven’t read a work-for-hire comic that good in years. Many years. I have to to read his new Snagglepuss comic immediately. I can’t believe I’m typing any of this. But yeah The Flintstones is an Anatomy Lesson-level reinvention of a classic character, and it’s REALLY funny and quite sad. Five stars out of four.
A Walk Through Hell by Garth Ennis and Goran Szuduka is probably the single most frightening comic book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s so upsetting and disturbing, I just can’t even tell you about it. Holy shit. It’s about a pair of cops on the trail of a child murderer who end up in a warehouse that appears to contain… Hell? It’s hard to tell exactly what’s happening at the moment in it, four issues in, but the parallel narratives of the police case that went down before the cops walked into the warehouse and the story of what they find when they go inside are just riveting. The art is pretty good; there aren’t a lot of visual fireworks in the writing yet though there are some really amazing/horrifying ideas. I’m hoping we’ll get a little more room for the artist to work in coming issues.
Anders Nilsen, whose art is just astoundingly gorgeous, has a new series with a lot of different threads going at once, called Tongues. It remains to be seen whether Nilsen can keep all the balls in the air, though based on past performance I’d say we’re in capable hands, but purely on a visual level the book is just eye-popping. There’s a recent trend toward (I feel) excessive simplicity in contemporary art comics and I have very little use for it; I like Bryan Lee O’Malley’s stuff a lot but in general I find the Hello Kitty-style quasi-anime school of not really doing much rendering in handmade ink on fair-trade artisanal paper to be incredibly lazy-looking and tiresome and weirdly insulting of actual anime which is often rendered to the hilt. It’s nice to see someone moving in the opposite direction as fast as his pen will carry him.
Yes of course I’m reading the final League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, yes I absolutely love it, no I don’t think Alan Moore is a misogynist, yes Kevin O’Neill is one of the all-time great underrated artists and I hope they rename Ruskin after him. If you haven’t read the previous installments you probably won’t get all the in-jokes but the only person who gets all the in-jokes is Jess Nevins, Cruden to the LoEG’s King James Bible, and you can get Jess to explain them to you pretty easily on Twitter and on his website. The League is all women now, interestingly, and, being as it is a series about hardcore status quo changes happening pretty much nonstop, it has to go a long way to surprise me but it has done exactly that in both issues I’ve read so far. I just adore this series. I can’t say enough good about it—it’s one of the great works of literature of the last twenty years and I’ve treasured every page. It has a lot of Moore’s favorite tics in it but honestly, who cares, in many ways it’s the summation of his entire career and he can repeat himself a little if he wants to. (Providence was pretty much wholly original on that score, interestingly. I feel like he still has more good work in him, but on the other hand I’m glad I feel like that at the end of his career rather than silently wishing he would go away).
Warren Ellis and Jason Howard have a new book called Cemetery Beach, which I’m excited about because I was one of the six people on earth who read and loved Ellis’s Trees, a sci-fi series about an earth invaded by completely nonhuman aliens. I wish I understood why people are hot and cold on Ellis; his supposedly “bad” books like Jack Cross have some absolutely thrilling visual stuff in them and his good ones are transcendent. Anyway Aftershock Press, which also publishes A Walk Through Hell, recently put out a trade paperback of his megaweird book Shipwreck, which apparently will have more installments though it feels pretty compact and complete to me. I recommend that, too; it’s in a similar vein with his great Karnak miniseries over at Marvel and his absolutely bizarre meta-retcon of Supreme with Tula Lotay, called Supreme: Blue Rose. For more conventional action stuff by him, I’ve recommended The Wild Storm on here every time a new issue comes out and I regret nothing.
I’m liking Coates-Yu on Captain America though I really did love Mark Waid’s ten-issue run the year previous. Coates has been finding his sea legs on Black Panther and I’m encouraged by the direction he’s taking Cap if not the development of the characters, which is a little lacking, especially by comparison to Waid’s two books, which were so slick. I’ll read absolutely anything Yu draws so it’s fine with me if the story is a bit expositionally clumsy and overreliant on ruminative captions. I want this series to really take off but I’d rather it happened sooner than later; the decompression of comics stories seems to have meant that nothing is really required to happen in the course of a single issue anymore and I find that frustrating as someone who schleps down to the shop every week, rain or shine.
Waid’s Doctor Strange in Space is pretty fun so far although I worry it will suffer the same fate as his Hulk book, which got crossovered into oblivion fairly quickly. At the moment it’s very light and fun and I hope the higher-ups don’t drag the character into too many corporate events so the series has a chance to grow. I am and will continue to be a serious Waid partisan.
I wait with bated breath for the final installment in the ongoing Kurt Busiek Astro City ongoing, and I look forward to the graphic novel next year, too. I love AC and I’ve loved the recent stories a lot; he keeps finding ways to bring in superhero-universe archetypes that surprise and delight me, 19 books into this series. The most recent is a kind of Sandman analogue called the Outsider whose recent adventures have been really fun in a way that is both metanarratively interesting and then meta-metanarratively interesting in the ways it recalls Grant Morrison’s shenanigans on Animal Man and some of the odder Sandman issues. Busiek reminds me of something Alan Moore wrote about Rick Veitch, that he’s such a reliable craftsman that people take for granted work that would be astounding if it came from anyone else; I agree strongly on Veitch and think the same compliment applies to Busiek. Also I want that final Batman: Creature of the Night issue to come out, goddammit.
Frank Miller’s Xerxes is over; it was a lot of fun to read if significantly lighter than 300. The real pleasure in it was watching Miller get his mojo back over the five issues. By the end he’s at the height of his kinetic powers and it’s a relief to see his colorist, Alex Sinclair, learning to work with him. Miller is a genius for emphasis and sometimes he just gives up on a page after putting the few things it needs on it in black ink; by the end of the series, Sinclair has figured this out and stopped trying to draw in backgrounds with gradations of green and orange.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg wrote a Rick & Morty comic; a one-shot about Krombopoulos Michael, the cheerfully amoral hitman played by Andy Daly in a very funny episode of the show. I love Daniel; he published an essay of mine I’m really proud of a few years ago but I also just admire his writing—his jokes at the Toast were some of the funniest humor prose I’d ever read and he communicated a brilliant, tactile understanding of online culture while also being more deeply literate, something digital culture has a lot of trouble with. Anyway his Krombopoulos Michael comic is funny and good and I hope he writes more.
Batman #50, the wedding issue, was fun; it reminded me a lot of the old special issues that got filled out with pin-ups after an extra-long story, except in this case the little mini-posters I used to cut out and tape up on the inside of my locker are actually part of the story. There’s a fantastic Frank Miller page, a Neal Adams page, pretty much everybody you could want who’s still alive and capable of drawing.
If you like, you can see the emergence of a united trolldom in the comics fanbase, now apparently called Comicsgate [retching noise] as laterally related to Gamergate (which it apes), and to the Sad Puppies dickheads who tried to get eighth-tier hack sci-fi writer Ted Beale a Hugo Award because he was a white guy (Beale has founded a publishing imprint actually called Comicsgate).
And it’s understandable to want to dismiss these dudes as fake geek boys, who don’t get the most basic tenets of superhero comicdom, namely diversity, inclusion, selfless heroism, and sacrifice. What else are Superman and the X-Men supposed to stand for? They’re the original social justice warriors.
But doing the former ignores the actual comics, and doing the latter commits one of the more annoying fallacies of contemporary mainstream comics criticism, which is certainly not above reproach though it is at least non-Nazi, which is apparently the subterranean state of the bar these days: It resists marrying the work performed on comics to the actual people who perform it and instead weds it to the characters themselves, who are not much more than corporate glyphs at this point. Roughly the same amount of moral goodness suffuses Batman as does the Pepsi logo. Perhaps this wasn’t always this way but it certainly is now.
With each new act in this regrettable bullshit circus I hope more and more fervently that some kind of intelligent analysis of the actual people who help create comics will get written by someone capable of writing it: Chuck Dixon, for example, is one of the most prolific comics writers ever to pick up a pen, having made his mark particularly on wildly popular characters like The Punisher and Batman. Dixon has never been shy about his right-wing politics and now, predictably, he’s thrown in with Beale, writing a comic called “Alt-Hero.” Mike Baron, writer of beloved superhero series Nexus was for a while slated to write a comic about the heroic exploits of Kyle Chapman, the fascist activist who attended rallies calling himself Based Stickman, wearing a mask and wielding a club that the criminal complaint sworn out against him refers to as a “leaded stick.” (Baron dropped out, which is nice to hear. I like a lot of his work.) Obviously, it’s not hard to see the connection between Chapman and the mask-wearing, batarang-wielding four-color heroes who thump thugs every week in the comics.
There are more besides these examples, less egregious but just as noteworthy: Bill Willingham, who devoted most of an issue of his wildly popular book Fables to explicitly comparing the Palestinian people to the subhuman goblin villains of his series, which kind of ruined it for me; and who can forget Dave Sim, the prodigiously gifted writer-artist whose 300-issue long self-published epic Cerebus devolves into a misogynist screed written mostly in tiny serial-killer-font captions and lengthy back-and-forth letter-column discussions with more progressive writers like Alan Moore.
I’m going to take the odd position of declining to insult the workmanship of these guys’ comics; a lot of them are very good. Failing to take into account the world as it is, whether by misrepresenting women or refusing to understand gay people or deploring entire races, is a serious error of imagination and impedes the basic aesthetic goal of communing more deeply with people who aren’t you. But that error, particularly in fantasy fiction where quality depends so much on constructing an entire world as thoroughly as you can (and where a lot of the legacy audience is white and conservative), is not always fatal to the larger project. And these mistakes are very easy for artists who aren’t hooked in to political culture to make, because if they’re any good, they’re thinking about what kind of brush to use or whether the gesso is drying correctly, rather than the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s an essential conservatism to quite a bit of art, probably because you simply have to accept the status quo, however shitty, for long enough to competently produce it: A lot happens to art between conception and publication. That’s probably why artists get so frustrated with criticism that neglects the actual process of creation in favor of some moralistic superstructure that best serves the critic’s list of political grievances. Criticism is political, sure, but if it’s exclusively political and not at least partly an examination of how art works, it gets hard to call it “criticism” with a straight face.
The trouble is in some ways the medium of comics itself, just as Gamergate was, at least partly, about the culture of games. Media don’t exist independently of their histories: Comics and indeed most figural art are built in significant part on a foundation of straight men’s lurid fantasies. Some of those fantasies are beautiful and moving and even aspire to revelation, but they are still the products of cultures that denigrate women, that enslave black people, that persecute gay people and shun nonchristians. Comics are most interesting when they transgress those norms and because of their disreputability, transgression is comics’ stock in trade, more often than not. Transgression isn’t *necessarily* good but it is *often* good or can be made good: Tijuana bibles are gross little porn comics but perhaps they’re also liberating for people constrained by the public hypocrisies about sex during the thirties and forties when they were published. Robert Crumb’s vision of the world is horrifyingly bleak and corrupted but maybe it’s some part of an antidote to smothering capitalism. I don’t know. Defending the morality of art is a trap; that’s something the Comicsgate chuds instinctually understand and that’s why they’re so eager to talk in completely invented terms about the comics economy and the numbers of books sold, or which series were canceled early and how those metrics prove that this or that book was a grievous business error by people who rose to positions of authority by being diversity hires or something.
The truth is, I hope obviously, none of these things. Art is valuable neither for its didactic lessons nor for its impressive quarterly margins. The best art has no simple moral message by definition and very often leaves its creator no better off financially than she was when she started drawing or painting or writing.
There are big problems of professionalism and cliquishness in comics long before we get to Comicsgate. When big tranches of verified Twitter tell an untried writer that their new book looks amaaaaaaazing despite astonishingly ugly promo art, it smacks of a kind of clubby boosterism that feels designed to pick readers’ pockets from the outside. On the inside, there is a feeling among progressive artists that they must have each other’s backs in uncertain times and if so-and-so’s debut is a little rough and overpraised, it’s just three dollars they’re asking readers to spend, so what’s the harm? Much of the comics-critic world either has one foot in professional comics-making or wants to, and so they tend to be obsequious and ingratiating about this tendency when it suits them and to gin up immaculate political objections to the work of people they dislike when it doesn’t; the notion that criticism might possibly be a form intended to serve a general public readership seems to have vanished almost entirely.
It’s also true that the unwashed hordes who bought every issue of every X-Men book from puberty onwards are a powerful, consistent, and not especially progressive market force. Richard Meyer, an occasional comics writer who runs a hilariously underinformed and horrifyingly popular Youtube vlog called Diversity & Comix*, launched a crowdfunding campaign for a new comic called Jawbreakers; he made half a million dollars. Ethan Van Sciver, a very gifted right-wing artist who contributed work to hit stories starring the X-Men, Green Lantern, and any number of others, made hundreds of thousands from his own Kickstarter for his comic Cyberfrog. I saw someone on Twitter proclaim that these campaigns were successful because they attracted a few wealthy donors; that is absolutely untrue. The donor pages for both projects are almost entirely small-dollar donations from happy fans.
The problem is not that Jawbreakers is a monetary failure or even an expression of moral turpitude. It’s that it’s shit. It’s fucking awful. The dialogue in Jawbreakers is such painful tough-guy bullshit that it’s funny, except when it’s trying to be. The art looks like it went to the colorist before the inker had finished. Cyberfrog is at least nicely drawn.
There are terrible comics from progressive writers, too; Marguerite Bennett, a very popular writer, once gave one of the X-Men a bromide-filled monologue about why racist jokes are bad that’s so long it takes up an entire page so that there’s only room for a little drawing of the characters in the lower right-hand corner. I can feel myself needing to qualify this by saying Bennett is actually an okay writer because I like her politics but I don’t really think she is. She’s fine for superhero books, and there has always been a subcategory of superhero comics that feel like reading a benefit book from which the proceeds go to orphanages for especially nice children.
This is a thing Comicsgate has always gotten wrong, and in a particularly annoying way: The Denny O’Neill Green Lantern-Green Arrow comics, classics though they may be on the strength of Neal Adams’s art, are terribly written in exactly this way. Lame, socially aware superhero comics are as old as the genre; they’re just misremembered as good by people who haven’t read them because, to quote John Huston’s villain in Chinatown, politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respect if they last long enough. There are also *good* socially aware comics: Sex Criminals, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, My Favorite Thing Is Monsters, the Lee-Kirby FF, any number of others.
Radiating like a bad smell off the other kind of work, which is to say, comics writing that engages directly with the culture wars, is a kind of panic, a sense that we have to sacrifice aesthetics in order to give necessary voice to the ideals that have driven us to create art because time is running out. And I think on the right, too, there is a similar animating force, a desire to define oneself in opposition to the misperceived status quo of insincere, clannish progressives who are eroding the very fabric of our society. It’s absolutely not true that these positions are morally equivalent—the people on the left are correct and the people on the right are incorrect—but it is true that both are using art to demonstrate the application contemporary political ethics. And that project is doomed to failure, because that is not what art does.
“It is disgraceful for a philosopher to say: the good and the beautiful are one; if he adds ‘also the true’, one ought to beat him,” Nietzsche reminds us. “Truth is ugly. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.”
*Disclosure: Meyer did an episode about my Guardian profile of Frank Miller earlier this year, in which he said he hated the article because I had obviously never read Holy Terror (Richard: My Holy Terror, which I’ve read several times, is signed by Frank) and that it had moved him to tears.
Prison Pit, Johnny Ryan’s absolutely revolting sci-fi monsters-fighting comic, which makes me laugh until I wheeze like a banshee, is finished; I think most of the people who pass it in the store do not realize that the cover is an image of our hero with a monster’s head impaled on his penis. This is the sixth book in the series and I loved them all; Ryan’s Instagram is a personal favorite of mine although as always I feel terrible recommending it to anyone. It’s a really amazing feed of extremely offensive gag comics and, to my delight, he tags the New Yorker in all of the worst ones. The joke is that much funnier for the fact that he draws exactly like Syd Hoff when he wants to.
Some things I’ve kept reading: Doomsday Clock, by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, largely against my better judgment; Frank, at least, is a terrific artist. I’ve finally realized what the damn thing is actually supposed to be: It’s Watchmen 2, the book DC could never get Alan Moore to write. It’s really astonishing to witness the precision with which Johns has managed to trap in amber the exact tics of a 33-year-old Alan Moore gloomily working through his depression over Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Of course, things trapped in amber are dead, it ought to be remembered. Sex Criminals, Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s truly excellent I guess I should call it a sci-fi series? It’s a really wonderful book, totally enamored of the inherent plasticity of the comics form and seemingly at ease with using and misusing every one of its possibilities. It’s a wonderful, willful book and I hope it makes its creators a godzillion dollars. Mister Miracle, by Tom King and Mitch Gerads, one of the better superhero books I can remember reading. King has learned a lot of ironic tricks and flourishes from Neil Gaiman and his work is consistently surprising for it; in a corporate universe where pretty much everybody is trying to be a version of Alan Moore that even Alan Moore thinks is boring, it’s a very fresh and interesting take. I was not as enamored of King’s The Vision book as were many others, so that’s probably on me; it left me with a gnawing worry that he has trouble sticking the landing, and for a book as portentous as Mister Miracle, I hope he works that problem out. He’s had some good plot twists, especially recently; I suspect he’ll pull it off. Jimmy’s Bastards, an extremely silly Garth Ennis comedy book that manages to be “un-PC” (ugh) without going full reactionary. It’s mean about the right people, mostly. The Wild Storm, for which I just don’t have enough superlatives. It is so much fun. Jon-Davis Hunt is a treasure, and Ellis is firing on all cylinders here. It’s not merely enjoyable to speculate about where it’s going, it’s a blast to read as it progresses. There’s never a missed opportunity to impress or entertain the reader, which, as someone frustrated with the growing emphasis on byzantine imaginary-world politics in ostensibly kid-friendly superhero comics, I am very grateful to read.
Frank Miller’s Xerxes, I think I can say with some certainty, is quite good and will be better still by the time it finishes. I wrote a long feature for the Guardian on Frank earlier this year; he’s a towering figure in comics and it was obviously a thrill to get to speak to him though I think the reporting turned over more rocks than he wished it had. He’s been in rough physical shape for a long time, a thing that, I suspect, explains why people seemed to feel that he’d lost his mojo or something. Whatever it was, it seems to be going away; Xerxes #3 is as cool-looking as anything he’s drawn since 300 and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read. Alex Sinclair, his colorist, has also kind of figured out what to do with him—that’s a kick to witness, too. I’m really happy about this; I love Miller and always have. I hope he keeps going, as he promised he would, into a third volume, though I sorely miss Lynn Varley, who never quite got her due as a masterly painter.
Speaking of writers I love whose politics are probably quite a ways from mine, Ennis has another book out from Aftershock and I can be relied upon to pick up his work pretty much every time. This one, with serviceable art by Goran Sudžuka, is called A Walk Through Hell and two issues in, it really does appear that our protagonists are in Hell. I’m curious to see where it goes. It’s very strange and Ennis seems to have set himself the task of truly and intensely horrifying the reader, which I’m always up for.
A specter is haunting America–the specter of incivility. All the powers of legacy media have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise it, never mind the broader state of the world.
Noting that President Donald Trump’s habitual slurs on black and brown people have been received, quite correctly, as government permission to express racism in bald terms in public with far fewer consequences of public censure than they might have two years ago, two prominent New York Times political reporters, Peter Baker and Katie Rogers, diagnose the president’s detractors with the same malaise of rudeness, explaining that Kathy Griffin joked about his death, for which she was fired. The two go on to compare a Trump supporter’s complaining about imagined murders by Hillary Clinton to a Trump protester’s suggestion that when governments move to concentrate classes of people in camps of some sort, historical resonances with 1940’s Germany present themselves.
In their laudable quest for elevated discourse Baker and Rogers have managed to avoid not merely good manners, which is not at all the same thing as civility and requires genuine grace to deploy, but the basic meaning of the words coming out of people’s mouths. Good manners demonstrates welcome and anyone can do it, while civility proclaims class status and is thus circumscribed more closely. The two are sometimes consonant, but they are hardly the same thing.
Donald Trump, since his arrival on the public scene in the 1980’s, has not been consistently uncivil, exactly, but he has always used his public position to solicit violence done to black and brown people. He asked for the five innocent black children falsely accused of rape to be executed in an ad adorning the pages of Baker and Rogers’s own paper in 1989, he launched his presidential campaign with a series of rallies where, by implication and by direct instruction, he encouraged supporters to beat Hispanic and black people, which they did, and now that his pronouncements have the force of law, the language he uses must be carried down the chain of command in the form of policy, forcing small children into lice-infested internment camps where they are held for months without being bathed.
You can see, easily, the way that Trump’s language becomes violence as his public influence grows, because words have meanings, and comedian Samantha Bee’s description of White House advisor Ivanka Trump as a “feckless cunt,” though it is perhaps not a very nice thing to call her, is perfectly accurate, even if the word “cunt” can be investigated for nuance—as, of course, can Bee’s subsequent apology.
In fact, the word “cunt” has a rich and interesting history of usage and reclamation and in its most literal sense describes something for which many people, myself included, have great admiration, while the history of the euphemisms and strongman bullying employed by Trump and Sessions is almost exclusively one of atrocity. The rhetoric comprising both men’s statements, I would humbly suggest, is used exclusively by cunts, in the cuntiest cunting way possible, and the use of obscenity to describe them seems not merely permissible but compelled by the lodestar of good manners.
And when New York Times reporters, some of the most powerful people on earth, draw equivalence between the public act of declaring the internment of babies suckling at the breast by legal decree on the one hand and the admittedly graphic suggestion by a private citizen that anyone who would do such a thing ought to be beheaded on the other, there is, I would suggest further, an obligation of the highest possible propriety to remind those reporters that they are asslicking pantsloads whose time spent not fucking themselves is sadly wasted.
To do less would perhaps be classier but it would be unwelcoming.
Jeff Sessions is a vile, despicable racist, who famously only objects to the Klan because they smoke weed, but he’s being cited, as is Sarah Huckabee Sanders, whose job it is simply to lie extravagantly, quoting Romans 13, the most important bulwark of fascism and irrational cruelty under the law against the compassion of Jesus Christ. Here’s the relevant passage:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended.4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.
(Corporatist right-wingers typically leave out the next two verses, which are about the duty as children of God to pay taxes, for reasons that hardly need explaining.)
It’s always amazing to see conservative white Christians pull this dodge. They, after all, make all the laws, just as they have for the last fifty years. Terrorizing immigrant workers and asylum-seekers and imprisoning their children by what will soon be the tens of thousands isn’t the Prime Directive. It’s selective enforcement of a misdemeanor under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which was itself a reworking of the much crueler immigration law that had national and racial quotas, the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 (the rewritten version, the Hart-Celler Act, perhaps unsurprisingly, was championed, written, introduced and cosponsored by Emanuel Celler, a Jewish man of German extraction who bravely but unsuccessfully spoke out against restrictions on countries affected by the Holocaust during World War II).
Barack Obama, whose administration laid the groundwork for our current nightmare, oversaw the creation of many of the facilities now filled so far beyond capacity that the US government is now building tent cities for children. (Here’s a good account by a former colleague of mine, Oliver Laughland, noting the way the people who ran the facilities restricted access to crayons.) But the exceptions to even Obama’s awful cruelty—not separating families as a matter of course, not detaining pregnant women—have now ended, as, in hindsight, they were probably always going to.
Legally speaking, all this is not too much different from pulling over everyone who drives 60 miles per hour in a 55 zone, taking away the children who are in the car, putting those children in prison for three weeks where the older ones must teach each other how to change the younger children’s diapers, and shrugging off the subsequent well-documtented physical and psychiatric harm as the necessary collateral damage in order to prevent people from speeding slightly. Never mind whether those people were on their way to the hospital with a broken limb or in labor; never mind whether they were being chased by someone with a gun—you can’t make an omelet, we are told, without breaking a few babies.
In all of this, o my coreligionists, where are you? Cat got your tongues, you pusillanimous suck-ups to power, you lovers of serpents, you cheap pimps? Having sold the body of Christ on the streetcorner to be used by anyone who would persecute your gay children for you or outlaw the removal of a septic fetus, perhaps you could favor us by explaining how you’ve found the price worthwhile? Have you managed to install a glorious new Christendom, a city on a hill where the church solves homelessness and the opioid epidemic and converts flood your sanctuaries in gratitude? Seen a lot of new faces in the pews recently, have you?
What needs to happen before you decide that the project of defending zygotes as though they were toddlers and imprisoning toddlers as though they were hardened murderers might, in hindsight, seem a little dodgy, morally? Will they actually turn the ovens on before you speak out, or will you stay silent and, in the future, entertain yourselves with folklore of the few dozen people you now deride for their liberalism who hid their neighbors from ICE or led prison breaks in the years to come, the way you do with the Nazis? Do you ever ask yourself whether your grandchildren will change their names when they are old enough to know what you’ve done?
This is particularly noteworthy given that Trump’s most significant Christian apologist, Franklin Graham, has condemned the tactic of separating families at the border, something that seems like it ought to merit more than a one-paragraph mention in a news roundup and a mealymouthed no-time-to-panic op-ed. (First Things, I’ve observed before, is the magazine of choice for racist Catholic integralists and thus loves Nazis and wants to marry them. First Things and Adolf, sitting in a tree, etc.) Graham’s statement is shamefully weak tea (a sample: “I blame the politicians for the last 20, 30 years that have allowed this to escalate to the point where it is today.”) but it’s instructive that significant Christian conservative outlets are treating even that tiny rebellion like a blip on the radar screen.
To be wholly fair to CT, the magazine has reported in some depth on Christians speaking out broadly against the Trump administration’s immigration policies, but the tone in which these statements are made is, pardon me, fucking astonishing. None of these people campaigned for Hillary Clinton. Those who were “never Trump” were still broadly supportive of every other Republican candidate and politician, and yet they still see fit to behave as though these policies of vicious racism materialized out of thin air. The posture, forever and always, is one of shocked disbelief. How, they ask, could this secularist government be so cruel? The answer is that the government is not secularist, it is operated and controlled by conservative Christians, and the horrifying thing you see when you look at it is your reflection.
Christian, consider, if you will, that it might not have been enough to denounce Trump sotto voce so as not to break faith with the racists in your community on whom the benefit of the doubt is eternally conferred. Perhaps you should have voted for Hillary Clinton. Perhaps you should have told your family and friends to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Fascism does not brook dissent, but one of the central tenets of Christianity is that both the general revelation of the world and the specific revelation of scripture must be interpreted by fallible, sinful, soiled human beings. So dissent is not simply normal, it is sanctified. Conservative Christians have seen fit to live and let live when it comes to a whole host of controversies: Whether or not to fly the American flag in the sanctuary; the use of texts by racist thinkers and scholars who deplore their black and brown brothers and sisters; the baroque philandering of untold preachers and influential laity, including, of course, our president, whom four out of five of them actively voted to install.
So the silencing of dissenting voices within their ranks and the pose of eternal surprise at atrocities they have worked tirelessly to commit seem to conflict with one another. Having established a militant and impenetrable authority backed by force of arms and upheld by the bulwark of the beshitted law, far above the reach of little people like me, they are finally invincible. And for them I have neither reprimand they can hear nor penalty I can enforce, but a simple question, as befitting my station: Are you Christians, or are you fascists?
It has been a banner year for critics of liberalism, and with good reason. Deracinated liberal pluralism has given us many of our worst problems, it seems: an open hearing for a thieving, lying xenophobe in a presidential campaign that he unexpectedly won; a huge number of credulous fora for his ardent supporters in places as queasily august as the opinion section of the New York Times; a megastate labor market that lets the wealthy easily duck labor protections and dictate the lives of the poor in humiliating detail; “diversity of opinion” on matters including whether gay people deserve to be treated like all the other humans and whether oil companies ought to stop dumping carbon into the atmosphere or not.
Of course the case for liberal broadmindedness is that without a certain measure of it we’d all be in a constant state of violent conflict with each other, ready to kill or die in order to subjugate our neighbor in one way or another. Liberalism is depressingly bad at stopping people who would like very much to round up and kill whole groups of other people, but it is a surprisingly good weak deterrent, which is to say, good at stopping people who would on the whole rather not round up and kill one another but feel like they probably ought to. It appeals to benign laziness: Yes, our cherished beliefs about what is best for other people are morally superior to what they foolishly believe to be best for themselves. But the couch is very comfortable and besides, doesn’t my right to swing my fist end where your nose begins? Who cares about how we define “fist” and “nose” in the metaphor, I’m tired.
This is also an belief system, many wise people have observed, and a horrible, patrician one. It is a snobby orthodoxy that arrogates itself to the position of referee between solider and realer things like religion and philosophy — you can see why people don’t like it.
Worse, it is a plastic, ad hoc orthodoxy, and if you can get inside it you wreak all sorts of havoc. It’s blackly amusing that the people who complain most bitterly about liberalism, which is to say social conservatives opposed to what they see as the libertine excesses of American culture, have benefitted most clearly from it. Not only have they demanded equal time for themselves, they have given it profligately, first as a sort of ironic pose demonstrating — rightly — how silly it is to try to split the difference between “yes” and “no,” but then with more and more sincerity, indulging in a plague of open-mindedness that has, in large measure, brought us to our current situation.
During questions of whether or not the persecutors of the poor are doing the right thing in the church, Jesus himself is largely absent from the discussion, occupied as he is with turning over the tables of money-changers, pouring out their coins, and driving the animals from God’s house with a scourge.
Christians, on the other hand, are giggling over accounts of Hillary Clinton murdering people. Perhaps they don’t believe these accounts, but they are happy to listen to them, for the sake of fairness.
The problem seems to be that there’s actually no such thing as a philosophy of “liberalism” any more than there’s such thing as a meal of salt. You can’t simply be “a liberal.” A liberal what? “Liberal” is often a slur suggesting that people don’t have the strength of their convictions — growing up in a conservative Christian church and school I remember few nastier epithets than “liberal Christian.” Within that construction was a planetoid’s worth of spite: A liberal Christian was a shallow hedonist who simply did what she wanted instead of what God wanted her to do — sex, drugs, going to R-rated movies with someone who wasn’t her husband, you name it — and beyond the awfulness of opposing the will of God, this person was also indulging herself while the rest of us had to hang around celibate, trying to wring some joy out of ritual.
It’s easy to respond with reflexive contempt to these people, since it seems so clear that they wanted to be out enjoying themselves, too, but enjoyed passing judgment and gossip more than the frisson of less acceptable, more bodily apostasies. But to do so misses the point. In the article about the kidnapping of six-year-old Edgardo Mortara, linked above, the priest writing the article use the phrase “putative civil liberties” to describe what he perceives as the weak opposition to the iron rod of the Church. I am not a Catholic but I know this line of reasoning fairly well: God has given his orders and we are to follow them however unpleasant they may be. In the case of Edgardo Mortara, they demanded the Pope kidnap a Jewish child and remove him from his family to be raised Catholic because a Catholic nurse had secretly baptized him when he was ill and near death, and the baptism made its way to the Pope after the child recovered.
Something that hasn’t quite made its way into the public discourse is the conservative ideological fit you can find between the article defending the Mortara kidnapping, by the priest Romanus Cesario, and the benighted Adrian Vermuele article rehabilitating Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, and I daresay any number of other articles in First Things or World Magazine: “The problem is the relentless aggression of liberalism, driven by an internal mechanism that causes ever more radical demands for political conformism, particularly targeting the Church,” Vermuele observes, warming up to Schmitt. “The solution is an equally radical form of strategic flexibility on the part of the Church, which must stand detached from all subsidiary political commitments, willing to enter into flexible alliances of convenience with any of the parties, institutions, and groups that jostle under the canopy of the liberal imperium.”
So: Make a deal with a devil — any devil will do, except the devil of liberalism. Compromise with any force, except the forces of inchoate compromise; the Christian fundament must be protected, no matter the cost.
Vermuele vanishes up his own fundament fairly early on in the piece but he has teased out something fairly important by inference here, and it’s the same thing Cesario points to in his sneering at the phrase “human rights:” There is, of course, no such thing as formless liberalism. Our society is barely pluralist, as any Muslim, atheist or practicing Jew will tell you. But even that piddling measure of reasonableness, that stingily fulfilled duty to at least sit and sigh loudly while the other fellow has his say; that is a mortal threat to fascism and requires it to stack the deck and rewrite the rules so that it may be perceived to have won the fight fairly, because it knows it cannot. That is a tiresome, fey, hedonistic sort of virtue but it is virtue nevertheless.
I published a story today I’ve been working on for a long time, one of the cool ones you pitch that turns out the way you hope it will, about Frank Miller’s sudden comeback. He’s writing a Superman miniseries with John Romita of Daredevil: The Man Without Fear fame, he’s got a couple of YA projects in the works, one of which has already been optioned for a Netflix series, and he’s writing and drawing Xerxes, the prequel to 300, which is really weird and eccentric and cool.
As always I love writing about comics, I love talking to artists and writers who work in the form, which I think is vastly important, and I find the publication process very difficult because the various comics fan communities online that find it interesting are so contentious and underinformed. But in this case a guy who’s been around the industry for a while and does some very good journalism of his own, Jay Edidin, tweeted something friendly about the article and when I mentioned in reply that I had more from the Neal Adams section, said he would like to see it. And a few other people concurred, and comics folks were generally baffled by the non-Neal parts of the feature and didn’t understand why anyone would need Frank Miller explained to them and wished mightily for an all-Neal extravaganza. So here it is, lightly edited for readability. Thanks for asking and double thanks for being nice about it, Jay.
Neal on Frank
Me: I interviewed Frank yesterday, who was wonderful, and one of the things he told me was that as a young artist he’d cold-called you out of the phone book.
Neal Adams: He did. I think he talked to my daughter. He came up to the studio. My daughter who was out front said, ‘There’s this Frank Miller here.’
And I said, ‘Ugh, oh boy. Okay.’ I said, ‘Kris, is there any way to avoid this?’
And she said ‘Daaaaaaaad c’mon, c’mon daaaaaad, c’mon. Be a good guy.’
And I said ‘Oh, god.’
When my daughter leans on me it’s very, very rare. Obviously she felt sorry for him because he was a skinny kid who looked like Ichabod Crane from some backwoods New Hampshire piss-townlet. And so he opened his stuff and I don’t remember exactly what was it was drawn on. It seemed to be page-sized. But it was awful. It was so bad. My heart sunk, and I was like, ‘Oh my god, one of these guys. He can’t draw, he doesn’t know how to tell a story, he doesn’t know anything.’
So I talked to him and I said, ‘Look, you don’t really wanna do this, do ya?’
And he said, ‘Yeah, I really wanna do this!’
I said, ‘This doesn’t even look like comic books.’
He says, ‘Yeah, but can you tell me what’s wrong?’
I said, ‘Frank, if I started now and I talked for 24 hours, it still wouldn’t be enough. I still wouldn’t be able to cover everything.’
And he said, ‘Well, can you give me an hour?’
I said, [sighs heavily].
And I could see my daughter lurking in the doorway. ‘Daaaaaad.’
So I said ‘[sighs again] Okay. All right. So we’ll do an hour.’
And I did. I went over the pages and I pointed things out, and I spent time, and I spent about an hour. I figured that was it. He was gonna go, it was too much. Obviously, I had beaten him up so bad he was gonna go and cry. Which he probably did. [chuckles.] That’s terrible. I think my daughter said that he cried.
The problem is that if I’m gonna spend time with somebody, I have a responsibility. Basically, if young artists go to talk to artists at conventions or wherever they talk to them and show their work, the artists, being human beings, lie to them. They just lie. It’s not because they’re bad—they don’t want to hurt somebody! They don’t want to offend. They want to encourage. They’re all nice guys. They’re all really nice.
But the truth is that being nice doesn’t help anybody. It’s gonna just put off the disappointment. Because people come to me later and they’ll say things like, ‘I dunno! So-and-so told me that if I just worked on this and I worked on this, [they’d work with me] but they still don’t like my stuff!’
And I say, ‘Well, what if they lied to you? I mean… because they’re nice, they don’t want to offend you, they don’t want to make you cry. But have you considered that?’
And they look at me in surprise like I’m telling them this terrible secret.
It’s like a dad. He cares, so he doesn’t want to hurt you, but the truth is that they’re not telling you the truth! The truth is that you don’t know anything, and you have to learn stuff and it’s a long, hard, evil process! And if you want to learn you have to do it.
Well, Frank went away. A week later, he came back. And my daughter comes in and she says ‘Dad. Frank Miller’s back.’
‘Frank…? Oh, Jesus. Kris! Can’t you tell him I’m out or something?’
‘Dad. He came back. You went over [his work], you said you’d see him.’
‘Maybe I did. Fine.’ So I went out, and I looked at is stuff again, and it was awful. Awful. Oh, god, why am I doing this!
But then I looked at it a little more carefully and I realized that he’d actually paid attention to the things I’d said. He’d tried to fix those things and worked on them. It wasn’t a successful fixing but he did work on ’em. He paid attention, he thought about it, and he worked on ’em.
And I said, ‘Okay, Frank, you should go back and try again, but what do you want?’
And he said, ‘Can I have another hour?’
And I said, ‘Oh, okay.’ That went on for, I dunno, a couple of months. Seems like forever.
Every week. Well, I dunno, sometimes it would take him two weeks [to fix the drawing the way I told him to]. And it was heartrending, but he did pay attention. I mean, I hadn’t really seen that from anybody before. The things we talked about, he paid attention and he did them. He wasn’t becoming a better artist, but he was becoming a better comic-book person.
He was learning to tell a story, he was learning to focus on things, he was learning to get a focus on an area of a face that was important for the story. He created a focus and he understood what he was driving at. But still it was so rough and so bad.
So anyway one day he came in and he had six pages and I said ‘What’s this?’ And he’d gone to [Gold Key] and somebody had given him a test script you give to artists to see what they can do.
He said, ‘They gave me a test script.’
And I said, ‘Oh, really?’
And he said, ‘Can you go over it?’
And I said, ‘You want me to read it and go over it? [sighs] Okay.’
So I read the script, and I went over the story, and of course there was were of things wrong, there were no miracles, it was just hard work, and I went over the things that should be done, and had to be done, to make the thing right.
And he said, ‘So I should go home, and I should do the thing over again?’
And I said, ‘Well, if you want to hand it in and have it right, or at least close to right, sure, that’s what you should do.’
And he said, well, that’s a little bit of a problem, because I handed it in actually, and they accepted it.’
I said, ‘What, they accepted it?!’
And he said, ‘What should I do?’
I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’re done! That’s it! It’s accepted! That job is done, move on to the next thing, whatever you do, do not go back and do this over! Move on!’
And so he did, and pretty soon he was working at Marvel and I think within a year he was working on Daredevil. He just kicked a blazing trail and moved forward. It’s not as if he suddenly became a tremendously better drawer, he became a tremendous storyteller. People say, ‘Neal, are you responsible for Frank Miller?’ I constantly say, ‘No. No.’ Whatever you do, don’t say that I’m responsible for Frank Miller. Frank Miller did it himself.
I may have been there as a teacher or somebody who could open a book and show it to him, but it was Frank. Because I’ve done the same thing for a hundred guys and nobody responded the way Frank did. Nobody advanced that quickly. And I made it hard for him. If you’d gone through it, you’d have gone home crying. And I never would have thought that he’d turn out to be what he is. He’s become like a son to me. I didn’t teach him other of life’s lessons, unfortunately, and I should have. That was the bad part. But by golly, he certainly learned these lessons.
What life lessons?
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, and don’t fuck up. I mean… lookit, a life to me is family, is health, and is hard work. Family, health, and hard work: It’s a very simple triumvirate. I never sat and had that conversation with Frank. We just talked about work. And if you don’t teach family, if you don’t teach health, good health to somebody, then suddenly you turn around and go, ‘Oh, my God. We didn’t have that conversation.’ And you feel like shit, because Frank didn’t. And now he’s having to learn it.
Frank on Neal
How did you get to New York?
Frank Miller: I don’t remember that first visit well because I was just a nervous kid. It was many years later when I actually moved there that things became serious. What I did was I woke up, I called each company, and they said to come by and show them a portfolio, and I made a third call, the most important one: I looked up the name Neal Adams in the phone book and he was listed. It said, “Neal Adams, Continuity Associates,” which was a company he had, and I called them up and a woman’s voice answered. I gave her my name and said I was a comic book artist and wondered if I could meet Neal Adams, and she said, “Just a minute. DAD!”
And I got to meet Neal Adams for the first time and got my first professional rejection, which he repeated a number of times until one day he got me my first job. He’s a wonderful man. A lot of people owe their careers to him. As a beginning artist, he didn’t just tell you you were terrible and no good and never had a chance, he did put a piece of tracing paper over your page to show you how you should do it, and you’d come home with the tracing paper, so you’d have a Neal Adams original showing you how you could do it better.
That must have been horribly humbling.
Anything but! It was exhilarating that my idol was that generous with his time!
So in my book he’s a hero, but he was also on the record in our interview, and on the record is on the record, though I do try to quote people in context and give leeway when they tell me they’re worried about blowback or hurting someone with something they’ve already said, which, I want to be clear, did not happen when he and I talked. I wish him well and I hope the interview he so generously gave me doesn’t ultimately hurt his relationship with Frank.