Comics as I knew them growing up are more or less over. This isn’t a particularly bad thing, although it makes me a little sad – there’s a good if in some places very, very wrong entry from Warren Ellis’s gonzo CBR column Come In Alone in which he frustratedly berates the industry for having devoted itself almost entirely to a single genre. “Fuck superheroes, frankly,” he wrote 16 years ago, back when he himself was writing half a dozen superhero books (”I am part of the problem,” he writes further down) and we didn’t yet understand that The Matrix was a terrible film. “The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It’s like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else.”

Good news, 31-year-old Warren: the nurses have been defeated. I can’t remember the last time I was in a comic book store and it was domianated by superheroes; I’m sure they still exist in the same way I’m sure there are still soda fountains somewhere but by and large they’re of roughly the same importance. You’re still writing about them, though.

What’s funny is that no one seems to have noticed that superheroes are dying off, largely because of the movies. Marvel Comics dominates the movie theaters but it sells perhaps a third of the wares at a given comics store and a sizable chunk of even that modest inventory is given over to Star Wars, its next entertainment venture and one that looks like it will probably supplant the Marvel Universe by design as the premier cinema franchise machine. Indeed, Disney (which now owns both properties) appears to be pulling the Marvel properties away from the comics company’s legendarily poisonous intramural politics, a project it may not survive. The company’s executive committee, the one that helped write and coordinate the last dozen Marvel movies, has been dissolved and every time it signs an auteur (Joss Whedon, Edgar Wright) it gets rid of him fairly quickly. Granted, evil cartoon billionaire Isaac Perlmutter was its driving force, but what is Marvel without a villain?

None of that spells disaster for the medium–quite the opposite, to be honest. I’d have gotten exercised about it ten years ago but now I just look at the landscape and it seems to me that movies have been able to do to superhero comics what the comics themselves never quite managed: write an ending and stick to it. I’ve also realized that finale-writing was the primary mode of superhero comics during the period when I was reading and loving them. The British Invasion of the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s was of writers – Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, Garth Ennis – who either developed obscure superheroes like Animal Man and The Sandman into stories they could tell to completion themselves, or went around with the weird mix of iconoclasm and reverence that characterized Moore’s stuff on Superman and Swamp Thing and Morrison’s on the X-Men.

And now, oddly, the aspect of those books that looks a little silly is the reverence, not the mudslinging. I remember being scandalized by the death of Pete Ross in Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow – not Pete! Not Lana Lang! Please, leave Jimmy Olsen be! Who could pick Pete Ross out of a lineup today? Hell, who under 30 could pick out Jimmy Olsen? At least Superman retiring was a story I’d never read before, and it was told cleverly and with a kind of odd sweetness because the writer had so much affection for the character.

One of the effects of public attention on superhero comics has been a hardening of the canon, to the detriment of a number of wonderful artists and writers. People still talk about Jack Kirby and several of the living Marvel pencilers (who are a younger crew by and large) but Curt Swan, Wayne Boring, Gil Kane and anybody who didn’t work primarily on Batman are fading from memory along with, ironically, a number of people from the comics industry’s last attempt to shake off the fights-and-tights set during the counter-superhero pulp explosion at Dark Horse about 25 years ago. Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer demonstrates too much unreconstructed affection for cheesecake and unironic whiteboy heroism for these troubled times, I guess.

In its twilight, we still have some very fun books by the masters of the medium’s rapidly concluding preoccupation with superheroes. Neil Gaiman is something of a literary jack of all trades, but he might never write anything better than The Sandman, and its coda, THE SANDMAN: OVERTURE, has finally come to a satisfying close. Overture is very good; perhaps it’s not as sweeping and awesome as The Kindly Ones or as adroit as A Game of You or Brief Lives, but it has several excellent tricks up its sleeve – Gaiman remains practiced at misdirection – and one of the least-remarked virtues of the original series, namely the author’s ability to write to the strength of any artist, is better here than it’s ever been. Much of that is credit due that artist, J. H. Williams III, arguably the single most interesting penciler working in action comics and a perfect example of why I’ll miss them: Gaiman is good at intuiting what an artist illustrating one of his scripts will do well, and Williams can render nearly anything. The florid, art-nouveau-inspired style is terrifically over the top and totally foreign to the industrially-minded design wonks who populate the non-superhero sector of the industry. There’s something incredibly generous about Williams’ work; it’s literal and colorful, like all action comics, but there’s a lingering sense of the surreal underneath it and it serves the dream-world of The Sandman spectacularly well. One of the frustrating things about contemporary lit-comics artists is that they’re all so fucking careful about who influences them and who they pay homage to – God forbid they betray an affection for Toulouse-Lautrec and Gustave Moreau and Dali over, I don’t know, Herge and David Hockney.

The other guy who’s doing now basically what I spent my entire childhood reading over and over again is Alan Moore, who has at this very late date returned to horror, if not quite to form. His second year on Saga of the Swamp Thing, Moore wrote a 12-issue-long arc about the title character’s journey across the United States, over the course of which he met ‘eighties takes on all the Universal Movies monsters (Frankenstein, The Mummy, the Wolfman, etc.) It was really silly and took itself extremely seriously but it was also a lot of fun; his new book, PROVIDENCE is thus far just flat-out good in a way nothing he’s written for years has been and it takes roughly the same premise, except instead of Swamp Thing exploring the South meeting movie monsters, a troubled, closeted Jewish reporter is exploring the rural Northeast meeting horrors out of H.P. Lovecraft, and instead of being occasionally a little silly and not caring that it comes off as mildly pretentious, it’s just relentlessly grim. I love Moore and I particularly love him in this mode, despite his obviously having never visited rural America in any wise. I’ll read pretty much anything he writes just to see what he’s able to do with it and this is a narrative experiment on a level with Watchmen – part of each issue is a brief diary entry by our hero who has usually convinced himself that he can’t be seeing the impossible things we know he’s just seen… but it also contains reminiscences on events that predate the beginning of the story and descriptions of encounters that take place off the page. Gaiman has become a little squishy with age; I still really enjoy his work but he’s lost most of that undercurrent of menace he was so good at writing into The Sandman and American Gods and some of his short stories (Feeders and Eaters, Keepsakes & Treasures: A Love Story, Bitter Grounds). Moore, by contrast, has lost nearly all the warmth from his writing. It’s one of the reasons Crossed +100 was such a pleasant surprise; he really wrote interesting, layered characters with deep and fulfilling relationships. Providence is more schematic, though its protagonist has a lot to him. Interestingly, both this and Overture are Prequels, Overture to the main sequence of The Sandman and Providence to Moore’s very nasty miniseries Neonomicon, which is set in a fascinating version of the present day that he never quite gets around to explaining. Here, he begins to to do that. The artist is the same guy from Neonomicon, Jacen Burrows; like everybody who works with Moore you can actually see his work improving from issue to issue as he works his way up from simply getting the perspective right to developing his own quasi-ligne claire style. I dearly wish the coloring wasn’t so awful.

There’s also ARCHIE, which I’m throwing in here purely because it’s great and came out this week and is scripted by a guy who has almost exclusively written superhero comics. Mark Waid is a wonderful writer and Fiona Staples deserves all the awards; the series is now a teen dramedy of the kind I don’t think I’ve read since I was twelve years old and in Mark Pauly’s guest bedroom reading, yes, bullet-stopper-thick Archie digest omnibuses. Chip Zdarsky, one of the funniest writers out there, is doing a Jughead comic and Archie Comics’ creative director, the playwright and comics writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is writing THE CHILLING ADVENTURES OF SABRINA very firmly in a Moore-on-Swamp-Thing style. The art in Sabrina is really reminiscent of Alfredo Alcala or Bruce Jones in the old Harris and Warren sexy horror comics and sometimes Archie will put out issues of Sabrina or Aguirre-Sacasa’s other contribution (he’s the Chief Creative Officer at Archie, and long may he reign), AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE in the form of a big ‘seventies-style horror mag with Jones et al among the contributors. It’s wonderful. In many ways it’s a window on the post-superhero world, and I have to say I like it.

The other comics genre–form, you could even argue–that has gone almost completely extinct was even more popular than superheroes: newspaper strips, which are in the midst of a mini-boom thanks to a huge preponderance of gag strips online that now include a few of the form’s dead-tree-era practitioners. Scott Dunbier’s magnificent IDW book KING OF THE COMICS: 100 YEARS OF KING FEATURES is, perhaps of inadvertently, a chronicle of its subject’s decline from the glory days of Krazy Kat and Flash Gordon to the embarrassment of Baby Blues and Curtis, but it’s probably the single most enjoyable way to take in art history. And King’s standouts really did stand out: Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead, Prince Valiant, Popeye – it’s an incredible CV for any company. It’s too bad the form is dead.

Wait, it’s not dead. Berkeley Breathed puts BLOOM COUNTY on Facebook three times a week and it’s as funny and necessary as it ever was during the Reagan administration. That much is right with the world, at least.

Thanks to Dave Hughes for helping me with some of the intricacies of the Marvel/Disney tangle.


I’m sitting next to a pile of hilariously impractical issues of Raw, the greatest comics anthology ever produced, as mad as a hornet and scanning tables of contents for creators whose names now attract movie deals and MacArthur “genius” grants and Pulitzer prizes and sundry other accolades. The magazines are mostly of a gigantic trim size, as big as The New York Review of Books, and they have odd things bound into them, like little ashcan insert chapters of Maus and a packet of trading cards illustrated by Mark Beyer with broken chunks of glass-hard pink bubble gum floating around inside the still-unopened packet. One issue has a long strip by the late French cartoonist Pascal Doury with a big two-page spread that goes through the center of the magazine, practically daring you to unpick the staples and tease out the page and tape it to your wall. My apartment, because of these magazines, is actually one of the few places you can find Doury’s work.

I’m just furious.

The great Art Spiegelman was censored by the editorial board of The New Statesman this past week, which I call a crime against art about on a level with, to pick a salient example, Isis blowing up archaeological treasures in Nineveh. The reason they decided to do this stupid thing was that Spiegelman had asked them to run a little one-page op-ed comic talking about how much he hated censorship, and of course in that op-ed comic is a smiley face wearing a turban with an arrow pointing to him and text under the arrow reading “MOHAMMED.”

No explanation has been given thus far by the NS save that the guest editors who selected Spiegelman for the cover and agreed to run his comic, Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer, have written a long joint post on Gaiman’s website. Their hands were tied, they said; NS refused to run the comic in any form, online or in the magazine. So that’s a pretty poor way to treat your guest editors, too, especially when one editor has spent his whole career speaking out against censorship and publicly supporting organizations like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and attended the PEN Awards honoring Charlie Hebdo in kevlar because his pregnant wife (the other editor) begged him to, and when the ostensible subject of the entire issue of the magazine he’s guest editing is censorship.

We stand at a crossroads not as a thinking class, not as a civilization, but as a species. Much is made of the tendency toward censorship or at least censure on the left that has suddenly become en vogue among shallow thinkers who think using artists’ economic precarity against them is somehow a statement in favor of liberal values. I’ve written about this and it pisses me off, but it sure isn’t the same as shooting somebody because they draw a picture of someone your religion holds sacred. Censoring something because you honestly believe you might hurt feelings or retraumatize someone is not the same as censoring something out of fear.

And disguising the latter as the former is utterly cowardly, and far, far worse than just admitting you’re afraid.

What bothers me most about the capitulation across all sorts of cultural borders to people with guns is that it’s never honest, these days–the stated reason is always that it would be so terrible to give offense, to blaspheme unnecessarily, to make people upset. Times editor Dean Baquet, bless his little blue nose, said in his own newspaper that “We do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities,” which is an odd statement, to say the least, from the newspaper that is more than happy to publish pictures of controversial art. “Many Muslims consider publishing images of their prophet innately offensive and we have refrained from doing so.”

This is such a halfhearted lie that aggrieved conservatives from several other belief systems have begun carping about how they want everyone in publishing to act as though they were all practicing members of their religions, too, and perhaps it’s here that the Daily Callers and the Pamela Gellers of the world can, through no fault of their own, teach us a valuable lesson: if you give prudes and scold an inch, they will take a mile.

But we already knew that, and we will do our best not to care any more about those people tomorrow than we did yesterday, much to their annoyance, because this is not about controversial art, this is about publishing, and people who run in and murder everybody in the 9 a.m. edit meeting.

No one comes out and says, “We don’t want to publish images of Mohammed because we don’t think they’re worth risking our lives for.” Which would actually be a completely reasonable thing to say–I like my life! I assume Dean Baquet and the editors of the New Statesman enjoy their lives, too! They could have the common decency to admit it and move on!

But the refrain among these extremely dishonest people is that there is no need to offend people unnecessarily, to which I would humbly submit a counterpoint: oh yes there fucking, fucking, fucking is.

Humor is the surprise reflex. It’s the thing that makes us laugh. Offense is perhaps unpleasant (although not always) but it is the only way to get at laughter. Anyone who’s seen a comedian die on stage with a sexist one-liner knows that he won’t make that joke again any time soon; he has to go home and come up with a better one, and if he’s any kind of a writer, he’ll stick to the same subject matter, because he knows there’s something funny there.

Moreover, shock is the only thing that makes narrative fiction worth reading; why would we keep going if we knew what was going to happen, in the plot or in the writer’s style or in the evolution of a character? If we had perfect recall, we’d never look at anything twice.

Wait, offense is the very basis of whole schools of art–didn’t Roy Lichtenstein glory in Time Magazine’s designation of him as The Worst Artist in America? Isn’t Fauvism just a middle finger to the impressionists? Actually, aren’t artistic movements for hundreds of years at a stretch complicated objections to other artistic movements? Isn’t a truly huge amount of great art born of simple spite?

To a lot of people, Art Spiegelman is simply the creator of a truly great Holocaust memoir called Maus, and I guess that’s fine for those people, but they’re missing out, because he’s responsible for a lot more than one superlative body of work. In fact he’s responsible for great art by more people than just himself. Comics are a form that has exploded in a nova of creativity over the course of Spiegelman’s career and I am here to tell you that this is not coincidence. Gary Panter, Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Ben Katchor – all of these guys cut their teeth in Raw and everybody who was any kind of a cartoonist wanted to be in it. He is not just a great artist, he is the father of great artists, and if he has something to say, I would suggest that everybody including the editors of the New Statesman could stand to listen.

I am very proud of my newspaper. We published the Charlie Hebdo cover, and we did not do it lightly. I think–I hope–we would have published Spiegelman’s clever cartoon.

Art is a thing that separates us from animals. A cat does not enjoy being shocked or upset; a dog does not like surprises. Human beings have the capacity to glory in the new, the weird, the uncanny, the surprising. Next to me, on my cluttered desk, there is a stack of new, surprising, clever work, stuff that’s still unusual and yes, offensive in places, by people who are trying to figure out how to talk about today, not yesterday. It is completely unnecessary, this kind of offense: it doesn’t help us get food or get laid or find a safe place to sleep. It’s just there for its own smirking, irritating, unpredictable sake. 

And yet it is also wholly necessary, because only when we see something we’ve never seen before can we judge what we already know. Is a smiley face with a turban an image of the prophet Mohammed? Is the word “Mohammed” a representation, like the tetragrammaton in the Bible? If I make a little emoticon of Mohammed with my keyboard, like this: @:-), is that blasphemy? Or is it only blasphemy when I turn my laptop on its side? Perhaps I should redact one of the symbols, to be respectful: @-). Is that better? Who is offended? Will those people talk with me and try to change my mind?

Will they try to surprise me with words and images, or will they just shoot me one day when I’m walking down the street?

I don’t know. I think it will probably be the former. I have more faith in people–in Muslims, in fact–than that.

Perhaps I will be surprised.

A Moment for False Nerds


One of the weirdest, most angry-making discussions in comics fandom, an admittedly angry fraternity, is the outrageous flag-planting on the whiteness of beloved heroes when it comes to casting the movie versions of those characters. There are lots of reasons to be upset about this kind of absurd I’m-not-racist-but tantrum-pitching, so I think I’ll list a few of them here, working my way up to my favorite.

1. Readers and viewers of color are underrepresented in both production and depiction in a lot of media. I’d go so far as to say that most artistic media are so exclusive of black voices as to be de facto hostile—tokenism, flat-out racism and appalling stereotypes are the norm on television and in film. It would be nice if that wasn’t true, but it is. The little corners of those worlds accorded to people of color are hermetic, low-rent and regarded with suspicion and condescension, and the voices they tend to champion are frequently unworthy of the platform (looking at you, Flava Flav). This is changing, especially on television with shows like Scandal, Black-ish and Empire, but we’re still a long way off.

2. Heroes and creators of color are certainly not everywhere in comics, but they are somewhere, and that place is not in a kind of regrettable artistic ghetto. Gene Ha is one of the most in-demand artists in the industry thanks to his work with Alan Moore on Top 10; it is very rare, by the way, that in an interview he is asked what it was like to be a comics artist of Asian descent. The president of DC Comics is Jim LeeKyle Baker’s work is universally acclaimed, particularly his graphic novels Why I Hate Saturn and The Cowboy Wally Show; his race goes more or less unremarked unless he produces work addressing it (he may see fit to correct me on this, but I think I’m right about that) and he is widely praised for his work on mainstream superhero books like Plastic Man. Among the hundreds of heroes and villains in the Marvel Universe, the many Black and Asian characters are sources of incredible popularity—it would be really dumb to assume that the reliably high sales of X-Men comics and movies has nothing to do with the fact that Jubilee, Storm, Psylocke, Bishop, and probably a dozen others are much more representative of the readership than, say, the Justice League, where the only skin color variant is green. Some of these creators had the balls to name their Black characters Power Man, Black Panther and Blade.

3. Black superheroes work on screen. This is proven. There’s the Blade franchise, of course. And the popular Warner Bros. Justice League cartoon, produced during a period of time when the two white characters named Green Lantern were being fought over in boardrooms, just quietly gave the mantle to a character named John Stewart (no relation), subject of a series of heavy-handed stories written in the 70’s by Dennis O’Neill and illustrated by Neal Adams. The network has had for seven seasons a Black hero on its Teen Titans cartoon named Cyborg. His defining characteristic is not that he’s Black. It’s that he’s a cyborg.

4. Here is my favorite point: These people, these nasty little trolls having conniptions over the idea of a Black Spider-Man or a Black Human Torch or a Black Superman are comics ahistorical, which is the worst kind of ahistorical. Race-bending is like the very first gimmick used on any superhero, dudes. There’s a great Captain America story in which a black man takes up a the mantle of Cap; the current Spider-Man is Black and hugely popular, there’s a cringey Black version of Wonder Woman named Nubia  and a much more interesting parallel universe in which the whole fucking Justice League is Black; that version of Superman is prominently featured in both the terrific Grant Morrison run on Action Comics (art by Gene Ha, by the way) and the same author’s universe-defining miniseries Multiversity.

Shorter: there are infinity superhero universes in the imaginations of the writers and artists who create and recreate these characters every week. Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native reworkings of them are not merely established so well that they should raise no eyebrows, raised eyebrows are a dead giveaway that the eyebrow-raiser is a Fake Geek Boy and only goes to the movies or reads maybe one book a month. True Nerds should out them by shaming them with arcane trivia or something.

Rant over.