Today I will not comment on the depressing and violent turn of events in the Middle East and North Africa, but instead draw your attention to what I consider to be the the very root of all of these problems: the idea that people can be coerced into doing what we think is right. On this point, my personal hero Milton Friedman hit the nail on the head: the only real way to solve the intractable problems of human society was through voluntarism and peace. There’s a saying that over time, truth only gets truer and lies only get more wrong, and God bless him, Friedman is more right now, five years after his death, than he ever was. I urge you in the strongest possible way to take thirty minutes to watch Friedman at his best: he is common sense, rationality and calm good judgement personified.
in 1848, long-simmering resentments against the European imperial system burst forth in a sudden and very rapid series of republican revolutions, all across the continent. Though buoyed by initial successes in places like France and Austria and inspired by the relative success of the nations of North and Central America in gaining their independence, these revolutions soon fell to infighting. They were finally stamped out my a resurgence of conservative monarchism in the form of the Concert of Europe, an instrument by which the monarchies of Austria, Germany, Russia, France and others asserted absolutism over republicanism in the name of stability.
To anyone watching the situation in North Africa and the Middle East, the parallels are really disturbing. The resentments are there, the monarchs are forming their cabals, and even the supposedly successful popular uprisings are already backsliding towards violence, sectarian infighting and a reassertion of military authority over that of civil government. It’s grimly amusing to me that only a few weeks ago left wing commentators were cooing over the grandeur of the Egyptian military “siding with the people,” but, now that they’re in power, they’re already taking steps to clear the streets. The time for protest is over, I suppose. Not that the alternative is much more promising: the Copts and the Muslims already show signs of what may become terminal distrust in the long run, despite their willingness to work together to oust Mubarak.
Then there’s the whole “Libya thing,” which gave me an extraordinarily rare occasion to actually agree with the French when the Foreign Minister urged NATO, the EU and the United States not to get involved, cautioning that it was essentially a civil war, and that intervention, even with the best of intentions, would mean picking sides as it were arbitrarily, leading to a lot of Westerners killing a lot of Libyans. Don’t do it, was the message. It’s their battle to fight, tragic as that may be. I couldn’t agree more. How would the US have turned out if the Europeans had intervened in our civil war to “end the fighting?” Lots of dead Americans, French and British, and nothing resolved.
Unfortunately, the Arabs themselves do not get the message, as their own “Concert of Arabia” as it were, led by the Saudis, is now attempting to put down uprisings in Bahrain via the Chinese Option. More killing, more repression, more absolutism, and the farther away from it we get, the better.
Ultimately, my predictions are as follows (and I hope to high heaven I’m wrong!):
- US-led coalition enforces a “No-Fly Zone” in Libya, leading to a quagmire which will drag on into the 2020′s
- Arabs suppress this generation’s revolutions, laying the groundwork for resentful and ineffectual European-style parliamentarianism to take shape in the Arab nations sometime around 2070 or so, but only after another half century of terrorism, resentment, confused national wars and civil conflict, and several tens of millions dead
- The EU and China sit back and watch as the US and Russia go down with the ship
- America’s military-industrial complex gets another twenty years of blank checks paid for by ill-affordable tax dollars
Tell me where I’m off base here. In my lifetime, the only war we avoided was the Third World War. Every conflict short of nuclear annihilation has been one we’ve rushed into eagerly, no matter what color state the president came from. I see no more good sense in Obama’s foreign policy than in Bush’s, and a lot more potential for endless strife and conflict to feed the fires under our war economy, and I see very little in the way of promise that the outcome of the confusion in the Arab world will be anything like liberal democracy. My optimism is soured now that the business of eradicating several thousand people is really under way, and it will take quite a change in the news for me to begin to feel otherwise.
Well, being of a political bent, and having several friends who, being Egyptian, have a particular interest in it, I couldn’t help but take a moment to comment on today’s great event: the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Laying aside the sticker questions that distance and my own citizenship interests raise (especially the big one: “NOW who’s going to run the show?”) I can only say this: thank God it is, at least for the moment, over. Whatever comes next, for now at least, for this moment, the people have prevailed.
Above all, I, like de Tocqueville, believe that liberty is an essential longing of the human spirit. I share a pang of shame that the United States bears so much responsibility for propping up the Mubarak dictatorship, and it was really that, whatever the sugar coating we give it. The problem with trying to be a morally consistent believer in the merits of the democratic republic is that I, like everyone else, know that democracy can lead in unexpected directions. That frightens people. It frightens me, sometimes. It was that fear that led to thrity-plus years of dictatorship in a foreign land that we convinced ourselves was for their own good. But in the end, I have faith that freedom is better than dictatorship, and that, whatever the Egyptian people choose now, they at the very least have had the right to choose it – and that is the whole and entire point.
I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and to remember my father telling me “Remember this – you’re witnessing the most important event in history.” I hope and pray that this will prove to be the start of a real wave of democratic revolutions across the middle east and Asia, and that the nations which will rise up from it will be our friends. All people deserve liberty, and the people of many countries in that part of the world have been prevented from enjoying it for long enough.
God bless you all.
Yeah, yeah, I know I don’t update this blog often enough. I get so tied up drawing 6-Commando that, honestly, I often forget. And it takes a certain conjunction of circumstances to get me riled up enough to post an essay of the type I’m sure you’re accustomed to (both of you!)
Today, though, the Great Conjunction was at hand. As you may or may not know, a few years ago, when I was just coming back to comics after a long hiatus, I joined up with the web forum over at flightcomics.com. For anyone not plugged into the scene, Flight is an anthology of comics by various up-and-coming cartoonists, led by cartooning Wunderkind Kazu Kibuishi, and the Flight Forums were once a major salon-téchnologique for people circulating around some of the hottest and most adventurous artists of the first decade of the XXI century. Everyone marvelled at “this thing called FLIGHT,” and everyone in the indie literary arts world wanted in on it.
Now, however, the place is next to deserted, and nearly every thread in the forum begins and ends with posts by the same author, my own included. I still post there, infrequently. I did so a few weeks ago when I was on a high from my most recent run of 6-Commando artwork. But the place just sort of oozed forward at a snail’s pace, pulsed, found its level, and fell back into its Jello-mold stasis.
This transformation represents, to me, the final, saddest, and at the same time, most instructive phase of what was one of the most fascinating Internet Age comics experiments. At the root of its decline into its current state was the fact that, from the outset, Flight was, first, incredibly popular, and second, exceptionally good, and this produced for it an increased expectation that it would go on being this good pretty much indefinitely. That, of course, need not have been the case, as every good thing as its natural beginning, middle and end. But the really critical failing of Flight was its attempt, in spite of everyone’s protestations to to contrary, to cast itself as a participatory experiment, and there the comic really fell down on the job, mainly because it wasn’t that at all.
The essence of the Flight Forums, back in “the old days” was that it was an opportunity for people to, for lack of a better term, show and tell, and hopefully catch the eye of the Flight editorial staff. This was in contrast to the traditional submission-approval dynamic, because it produced a sense around the forums, and around Flight as a project in general, that anyone could be a part of it. That was what made it so popular, of course – who wouldn’t want to get noticed by people doing their thing so successfully, and in full color? It had all the allure of traditional print publishing, and all the openness of the internet age webcomic-democracy movements, wrapped into one. It seemed a perfect marriage. And so naturally, it didn’t last.
The simple fact was that, in the end, Flight was not, for all that, an experiment in artistic democracy, it was really just the same as every other comics anthology. The key turn was that, instead of submitting certain particular pieces to it, as you would a magazine, if you were participating in the Flight forums it became easy to get caught up in the belief that you were always in the midst of a constant submission process, trying to get your work noticed by the controlling minds of the Flight group. Though this was not the stated goal of the Flight project, of course, the members, while not encouraging this, didn’t very actively discourage it either. ”How does one become part of FLIGHT?” wrote Kibuishi, “Just do your own thing… if your stuff looks like something we would like to add to our roster, then we will contact you.” But in that, the real problem emerged: Flight, the Flight Forum, and all the buzz circulating around it came to represent less and less a forum for artistic exchange, and more and more a chance to dump artwork in a sort of continuous open audition. Ultimately, I think this must have dawned on the controlling minds of the Flight project, and they decided that after this year’s release of Flight 8, they would pull the plug.
When that announcement was made, Flight Forum participation went right down the toilet. All at once, the general illusion that “anyone” could be a part of Flight was shattered, because if it was for everyone, then who had the right to say it would stop? It’s always an agonizing decision to bring something to an end, of course, and I’m sure the decision wasn’t taken lightly, but that it seemed to just terminate, and that the decision seemed to have been made in an editorial-directorial way that was not at all in keeping with the general sense many artists had of what Flight supposedly represented, I have the feeling that the whole thing was deeply disillusioning to a lot of hopeful artists, and I, personally, found myself with a slightly bad taste in my mouth over it. I, at one point, had nursed some small hope of acceptance by the Flight community – in the end, my artwork took a slightly more arch and grittier direction that would never have meshed with it. But the essential idea behind it, that there was this big anthology experiment and that, if you were good enough, you could someday be a part of it, was so suddenly made illusory that it came as a real shock, and drastically reduced Flight’s appeal among many of the artists I know.
I think, in the end, Flight’s creators wanted to have it both ways, and ran up against the inevitability that they just couldn’t. If they really opened it to everyone, it would have ceased to be unique. If they handed it over to a new generation, they risked diluting the distinctly whimsical-poignant-nostalgic “feel” that Flight had, or, worse, allowing it to turn into something they might not approve of later. I think they probably had no choice but to end it, but it didn’t make the end of it any less disappointing. Sure there were all the disclaimers, and the warnings that “you probably won’t get in” and all that, but the real sense of Flight was this thing that was bigger than anyone, that was more than the sum of its parts, and in the end it wasn’t – it was just another project, and the people doing it lost interest, or ran out of steam, and then it was over.
So what do we learn from all this? First and foremost, we learn that if you want to be an editor, you have to learn to say “no.” That’s a hard lesson that I think Kibuishi and the Flight crew didn’t want to have to learn, and so rather than saying “no” to a lot of individuals, they had, in the end, to say it to everybody all at once. In that, I think they were well-intentioned, and they probably sincerely hoped they were creating a forum for a geniune outpouring of talent and artistic interaction. But by creating, however inadvertently, the idea that it was on some level participatory, in the sense that it could lead to people joining up with Flight in the future, they simply became victims of their own illusion, and Flight’s demise was the result.
In the greater scheme of things, the lesson most of the participants learned, or had driven home if they already knew it, was that, in the modern age of comics, if you want your project realized, you had better be ready to see it through yourself, start to finish. That’s a lesson I had already learned a long time before, and though it’s also one that’s profited such artists as Joost Haakman, Jason Brubaker and Chris Wrann. Coincidentally, and perhaps ironically, that very idea was at the root of the first Flight anthology, as well – the desire of a group of artists of a particular turn to get their stuff into print. But somewhere along the way they went from the idealists to the establishment, and that made all the difference in the world: it ruined their Indie Artist “Lets-All-Do-This-Together” credibility, and all the expectations that had grown up around them, fairly or not, had to go unfulfilled. I admit that Flight had, for a moment, seemed to be, possibly, bucking the trend, and to have to come back from that starry-eyed fantasy so unceremoniously was a disappointingly cold shower; I’ll bet the same was, on some level, true for the Flight folks, as well. But reality is reality, and you just can’t escape some facts forever.
Interestingly, all of those I just mentioned are people I consider part of my artistic coterie at the moment, and all are, like me, alumni of the Flight experience. And in somewhat the same way, Flight was not so much an open arts experiment as it was a club, like I kind of have now with the artists I’m in touch with. I have the benefit of my club being small, and relatively unknown, and nobody wanting to get into it, at least not at the moment. But how would I feel if it weren’t like that, if people WERE clamoring for my good opinion, just dying to participate in my projects and gain my approval? Would I have felt as hesitant about disappointing them as Kibuishi and the others seemed to be?
In this light, I have to wonder at the odd trajectory of the Flight phenomenon and its impact on comic art. Was it about the art? Was it about the artists? Was it about the book itself, the thing? I think, in the end, there will be a lot of post-mortems to come on the Flight experience as the final release in the series approaches. And I think a lot of people will feel the same odd mixed feelings that I do about the whole thing – unable to deny its benefits, but still slightly soured by its outcome.
And that, I think, will be the anthology’s final, bittersweet legacy, when it launches, for the last time, into parts unknown.
Every so often, there comes along an artist of such self-righteous and angsty genius that not recognizing him would make the heavens collapse as if supported by pillars of glass. Tim Kreider is one of these, and his comic, The Pain: When Will It End? represents the apex of the underground cartoonist’s profession. If one can call it a profession.
Kreider himself is now drawing only intermittently (his website was last updated six months ago, and I fear it may finally have squawked its last), spending most of his time now positioning himself as a public commentator/literary it-boy/liberal know-it-all. He would surely not mind my referring to him in this fashion. On the contrary, I’m quite sure he does it to himself on a regular basis. But in his Pain opus, he has produced what I consider to be the absolute best cartooning that you aren’t reading, and the result is pure, gut-wrenching joy in every single line. With a style that has obviously influenced my own, as subtle as Steig, as warped as McCall, and as unabashedly brutal as Kliban or Gould, Krieder has, over the decade or so that The Pain was running regularly, produced a body of cartooning that stands as an anthem to the twisted, unlivable mess that is the inner life of every human being, with all of its sweaty (and sometimes bloody) contradictions. Kreider does in his art what the most repressed members of the race fantasize about doing, and reveals the inner truth of the human condition: that there is no such thing as normal.
One can only hope to scratch the surface of The Pain in an essay like this. The directions in which the humor runs are so diverse and so totally inappropriate, and the art so smooth as it oozes with every concievable form of human effluent for the sake of humor, that the result can only be called what it is: a cry for help. But it isn’t the kind of thing that lands a man in the big house – it’s the kind that seeks a race from another star to come and put the world out of her misery; and yet if it were possible to condense The Pain to a laser beam and shoot it into space, it would guarantee that anyone picking up the signal would steer clear of our little hell-planet for good.
In the best tradition of a satirist, Kreider willingly targeted everyone, including, most frequently, himself, and on those occasions when his inclinations tended towards the heavy-handed, as they did in the strip’s declining years, the result was almost invariably more than compensated for by ever-more-brilliant rendering that sometimes, for a moment, made me change my own tune. But only for a moment.
The main body of The Pain is a weekly-strip, vignette-type comic that, as a whole, forms a continuous narrative of Kreider’s own life among his friends and enemies, in the midst of what I could only refer to as his own bizarrely warped pseudo-fantasy world. In ways that I cannot, even now, fully quantify, The Pain was that greatest of all artistic rarities: a genuinely new thing on the face of the Earth. Kreider’s characters take on fitful realities in his own frame of reference, obeying no rules, dying horribly and then resurfacing later, misbehaving, abusing each other in ways both secret and overt, and circulating around him in ever-widening circles of schizophrenic madness. To call them “characters” even seems an artificial term, as they are so malleable under Kreider’s pen that they fail to coalesce into cohesive personalities. It is perhaps better to think of them as aspects of the artist’s own psyche, and the entire strip an exercise in exploring Kreider’s inner space. In fact, this strip is as close as I can imagine to being on the inside of a person’s brain, and a very disturbed person at that, albeit only internally. But that is the point – that everyone has these kinds of wild, dreamy insecurities floating around inside them – The Pain simply gives them form in a way most people are frightened to do.
In this, though, there is always the danger that one can go too far. If I were to quibble with Kreider’s work it would be in the textbook bourgeois-leftist leanings that permeated it, occasionally bubbling to the surface in the earlier strips, and leading into nearly five years of uninterrupted, and undeniably shrill, anti-Republican panic, to say nothing of a laundry list of other pamphleteers’ points, from a very self-righetous Liberal atheism to a personal “enemies list” that spoke of a rather vicious character underlying the artistic genius. One can often forgive this kind of thing for that latter point’s sake, but the rather odd way in which he seemed repeatedly to express surprise and hurt that nobody else could see it his way, when he seemed so unwilling to do the reverse, was part and parcel, I think, of the strip’s eventual decline and fall. These strips, by and large, carry the lower weight of personal truth in them. They are expressive of thoughts and opinions that are too heavily filtered and too carefully constructed, to say nothing of their hesitant nature, in spite of their outward and very outspoken attempts to be revolutionary and rebellious. When the intolerant preach tolerance it becomes a very sticky thing, and artists often get caught in that quagmire where their own constructed idea of how the world “ought” to be meets the inevitable reality that not everyone thinks like you. I have the sense, albeit unconfirmed, that this was at the root of the social-political-moral tensions in Kreider’s work, and the reason why it died with a whimper, when it seemed to be reaching ever higher peaks of artistic achievement.
And yet, Kreider never failed in his work to express himself articulately and rationally, to the extent that one could have the sense of actually engaging on an intellectual level with the artist and his art. His responses to current events and the “ways of the world” always seemed to me well-considered and thoughtful, in a way sadly lacking on all sides in present social climates. And though I feel many, if not most, of the positions he takes on world affairs to be woefully wrongheaded, nevertheless the art always shone through with a keenness and subtle beauty that framed the most horrible things in a way that you could not help but understand, whatever you thought of their motivations.
In this, then, I find the real intellect behind Kreider’s artwork – that he could express so many things that were (and are) so horrible and make them funny, that he could construct his own artistic reality that still rings so vitally true, and that he could, in the end, abandon it like a ruin in a desert, a monument to generations left to crumble at its very peak. The Pain is just that: a fallen civilization in the world of comics, but one that even the Cartooning Ancients would envy, and which will, I am sure, influence in ever more subtle ways, everything that comes after.
STRIKE: The artwork in The Pain is incredible, even when depicting the unflinchingly disgusting. Kreider, in his willingness to take on any subject, no matter how awful, made his mark very strongly on the comics community. Yet he never chose these subjects simply to be shocking (or at least, never seemed to); this is no comic book “Jackass” where the audience is subjected to the disgusting as a means of ignorant exploitation. It is one of those rare occasions where being over the top is completely and wholly normal, and forms a critical part of the work as a whole.
GUTTER: I don’t so much care about Kreider’s hatred of George W. Bush one way or the other, and it was his comic to do with as he pleased, but the political cartoons seemed somehow forced and ingenuine, as though he had to go to great lengths to prove to himself and others that he was doing the right thing by devoting himself so fully to his confused hatred of Republican-style authoritarianism. I thought the Bush years were stupid and destructive as well, but in his art Kreider seemed to devote every waking moment to contemplation of this fact, and there was just no spontaneity left on the other side. That, and the listless way in which he allowed his strip to just collapse under its own weight, are the places where his otherwise enviable cartooning career faltered.
OVER THE LINE: The entirety of The Pain: When Will It End? is so far on the other side of “over the line” that it’s impossible to miss it. This is not in any way a cartoon for the young or the squeamish, as Kreider had no qualms about presenting the most awful, painful, embarrassing and self-destructive things in the proverbial full-frontal. I do not recommend this comic to anyone who is not prepared to lay aside all potential preconceptions beforehand, as the vast majority of the population will find it disgusting. But it is also worth the effort, and is so hilariously funny as well, to those who “get it,” that the comics still read well after more than ten years.
Overall Rank: ACHIEVER
The Pain: When Will It End? is a truly unique comics achievement. It is so completely funny in a warped and disjointed, and at the same time, genuine way, that it is a comic I cannot help but find endlessly compelling. Even years later I can go back to read old strips and they have not lost their singular combination of horror, poignance and genuine emotion. Though clearly a comic for “grown-ups,” The Pain is a rewardingly uproarious read, and though Kreider’s own internal contradictions, boredoms, insecurities and self-doubts may have led to its petering out in a disappointing way, this is also the root of its greatest strengths as comic art, and fine art, in the truest possible sense.
The Pain: When Will It End? is not a complete work per se, but it has stopped being updated. The artist has left open the matter of its continuation, but it seems, as of the time of this publication, extremely unlikely. The Pain: When Will It End? contains explicit content that is not suitable for children or for work.
With the New York Comic Con, 2010 safely under my belt, and with a day’s proper time to consider its aftereffects, I’m now prepared to render my judgement, I think. Was it a good experience? I think the answer has to be a resounding “Kind Of.”
Why the half-measure, you ask? Well, to be honest, it was just such a total sensory overload that I have trouble processing the whole thing. My interactions with people, professionally and personally, are almost never that intense. I go to baseball games, sure (go Phillies!) and hockey games (go Flyers!), and even the odd game of football (real football, not ‘futbol’ – sorry to all non-Americans, but that’s just how we see it). But even then, the enormity of NYCC was such that it is almost beyond description.
On the initial perception, “liminal” level, there was the fact that, among the attendees, there were a surprising number of people dressed as World War II Japanese soldiers (I guess that’s okay, now – at least they weren’t trying to behead Allied airmen), enough Starfleet crewmen to operate a fairly sizable starship, a hefty contingent of Imperial Stormtroopers, to keep the locals in line, several Space Marines in full battle array, and about three hundred versions of the superhero “Deadpool.” The remainder seemed to be various stripes of vampire, swanning about with the velveteen touch of a dandy fop. And all of them, to a one, seemed to be very heavily armed. So as far as slices of life go, this one was the whole pie, and then some.
To my mind, the most interesting part was Artist’s Alley, and I can see why it was that I didn’t get space there this year – I’d never have been prepared. The whole thing was like an arts flea market, with cartoonists and writers hocking their wares, which mainly were books, magazines, prints, commissioned sketches (some of which carried a hefty price-tag), and even original artwork. With barely the makings of 6-Commando and some ideas for the future, I was not by any means up to scratch materiel-wise.
I basically hit every table in Artist’s Alley, and overall the experience was exceptionally positive. Highlights include meeting Peter Kuper (a class act) and Ben Costa (whose Pang The Wandering Shaolin Monk is a favorite of mine). New to me but also very cool to meet were George Kihara (producing a series of comics based on traditional African themes and mythology), Steve Uy (who had the unenviable burden of being seated next to Geof Darrow), Dwight Jon Zimmerman (a military historian whose book on Vietnam War special operations is currently fascinating the heck out of me) and J.C. Padilla (whose comic Fastfood Arcadia struck an odd but pleasant chord).
So there was that. A lot of really interesting interactions to be had. Unfortunately, there were also a lot of hopeless introverts, as comic artists tend to be, who seemed to fall into three general categories. First, there were the Big-Timers, who were aware that they were too famous to waste a whole lot of time on the rest of us, and made a big show of being irritated about having to come to a convention at all. Oddly, these were mostly Europeans. No slight intended against my friends in the Old World, it’s just how it was. Then there were the Hard-Sellers, who were really driving pretty hard to the hoop, to the point where one of them failed to even realize that I was saying the total opposite of what she thought I was saying. And finally were the Wallflowers, so hopelessly shy and introverted that they spoke in monosyllables into their chests, and seemed very unprepared for someone to try to engage them in conversation.
So there was that, as well. And to be honest, my approach probably has a lot to do with it. I am a very big person (I’m six feet four inches and weigh 250 pounds – I don’t know what that is in Metric, but it’s big). I also have wide shoulders, a shaved head and a goatee that has in the past caused people to confuse me for a police officer. So when this guy comes charging at you and tells you how much he likes your work, kind of out of nowhere, I, myself, would be a little bit taken aback. So to be fair, the smaller, thinner, less-adjusted people may simply have been put off by my typically open and direct approach.
One in particular stands out in my mind (I won’t name names to protect the innocent) who seemed so incredibly surprised that I would like, let alone follow his comic, that he regarded me with what seemed a bit of distrust and slight curious disdain. His work is very different from mine, to be sure: perhaps a Cold War battlefield drama is supposed to disqualify me from liking certain kinds of comics. But then, I think it no less unusual that I should like his comic than that he should draw it in the first place. So I just bought the book, shook his hand, gave him my card, and invited him to be in touch. Best I could do. He murmured a few uncertain words, but still gratefully signed my copy of his book.
But therein lies the crux of the experience. Where actually drawing a comic is like living in your own small town, going to a convention like this is like, well, moving to New York City. Where previously there might have been one of each of a couple different things, there, there were thousands of everything. And it seemed to me that, no matter how much people there may have wanted to pretend otherwise, they were all just as overwhelmed by the whole hot, sweaty, noisy crush of it all as I was. It was like every crazy holiday mashed into one and crammed into a single space. And it all circulated with such enormous, barely-controlled chaos, so many different people willing to be so incredibly strange in their own ways, that in the end it would do the entire experience an injustice to call it “good” or “bad.” In the end, all I could say about it was to repeat a refrain we use in my family when presented with this kind of situation:
“So, that happened.”
Optimism is really at a dreadful premium these days. The past few weeks have been unbearably uneasy ones for me on all fronts, and seem to have been much the same for many other people, in this time where “uncertainty” is the watchword. But to focus more clearly on proximate events, the upcoming New York Comic Convention is rising up to meet me, filling me with a weird combination of dread, anticipation, and a strange desire to just forget this whole comic nonsense and drop the manuscript into the Housatonic River, thereby sparing everyone involved a great deal of trouble.
But I’m not doing that. As a matter of fact, I’ve done the opposite – I had a printer make up some neat-o little business cards for me to hand out, and, swallowing all my multitude of misgivings, I’m setting my teeth and trying to make it the most positive experience I can manage. As the saying goes in my family “It is always better to do than not to do.”
To be honest, it was the cards that did it for me, really. Though only a few inches of cardboard, they are the first tangible comic-related item I have ever had printed up properly, and seeing them there, offset-printed, in color, with my little “drawrings” on them, kind of gave me a little boost. Maybe there’s something to this after all.
Cartoonists, in general (and I am no exception) spend an awful lot of mental effort on self-doubt and the pursuit of recognition. I know many who pretend that this is not the case, but they lie, possibly to themselves even. Cartooning is the most introverted of the literary activities, because it requires not only that you write, edit and revise, as a novelist would, but also that you then sit down and illustrate the whole thing, never knowing if the whole effort is anything worthwhile, or whether it’s simply another drop in the artistic bucket. And though I have never been to a convention like this before, it has always struck me as a kind of a celebration of the introvert – perhaps more even than the infamous Star Trek Convention. Which I have also never been to.
Hey, I never said I was talking from experience, just impression.
At any rate, I’m going to take this for what it’s worth, and just see where the whole experience ends up. Will I come out of this being able to make a living from comic books? Absolutely not. But myabe I’ll find some interesting people and their work, and if I do, that much will be worth it.
By the way, Jason Brubaker of reMIND fame has this week devoted his blog to the “and fortune” part of the comics trade. There’s a lot of very interesting material there for the online comics aspirant to make their work pay. For now, I’m subsidizing my comics habit with my career, but the day is fast approaching… at which point I’ll be shamelessly aping all his ideas. So with thanks to Jason, I recommend you read this Thursday’s post on reMINDblog.com. He puts this inveterate capitalist to shame! And after all, one simply never knows.
Politics are something of a passion of mine, in particular the more obscure and bizarre forms of government that have been posited from time to time by people who think they know what’s best for mankind. Though traditionally I’ve had a great interest in total government theories (the Corporate State, Fascism and Communism), recently I happened to come upon a couple of books dealing with the subject of Technocracy.
Now, the word “Technocrat” is kind of a common-usage term, normally applied to the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, people at the cutting edge of computers and science. But you may not be aware of the fact that Technocracy was actually proposed, in a very serious way, as a system of total social reorganization for the whole of North America, and at its peak, was very nearly popular enough to get itself off the ground, albeit in a limited way.
The basic idea was that the Technocrats saw human society as a kind of an engineering problem, which could be solved by the application of scientific study and technique. Rather than permitting society to be run by the lowest common denominator, as they believed democracy was doing, the entire population and its future would be placed in the hands of the technical élite, namely scientists, engineers, architects, mechanics, efficency experts, academics, and technical intellectuals generally. The economy would be centrally planned on the basis of an energy-input theory of value, and all citizens compelled to perform labor for the state based upon a government assessment of their aptitudes and capabilites. There was also an unusal obsession with hydrology that I still don’t fully understand, with plans for massive networks of hydroelectric dams and canal systems for continental transport.
All of this would eventually lead to the establishment of a superstate extending from Venezuela to the Arctic Circle, called the North American Technate, wherein all citizens would work for the good of the self-perpetuating scientific-engineering government-society-complex. Beyond that, the plans became distinctly vague. For example, no extensive mention was made of how the Technate would cope with international issues such as defense, trade, population growth and movement, diplomatic relations, and so on, though the implication was that the Technocrats’ emphasis on isolation and self-sufficiency would somehow resolve those issues automatically.
The key point in Technocratic theory was that, probably because of the times (the movement reached its peak in the 1930′s) the price system of Capitalist economics seemed extremely fragile, and the movement’s directing minds predicted the collapse of Capitalism by 1941. When this failed to happen on schedule, even when the date was pushed back to 1948, and then later to “sometime in the 1950′s,” the group’s adherents began to drift away. It also did them no good that they staged numerous marches in their distinctive grey-and-red uniforms during the war years, drawing the inevitable comparison to Fascism and leading to the group’s being banned by the Canadian and American governments between 1941 and 1943. The core directing group of the Technocracy movement still exists, as “Technocracy, Incorporated,” with its headquarters somewhere in Washington State, but the whole thing is kind of a political relic, now, and a particularly wierd one at that.
And yet, I find it to be representative of a particular trend in Western thought that is still alive and well, namely that human beings cannot be left to their own devices, and need to be “consciously controlled,” (a Technocratic term, borrowed from Socialism) in order to force society into a particular shape. It’s representative also of the fact that people’s faith in each other is distinctly limited, and that there is a secret longing in the collective unconscious of the West to have the difficult tasks of the world done for us, even if it means sacrificing our liberty to get it done. And in the 1930′s, when the world seemed so very fragile, and Europe and Russia seemed to be getting so far ahead of us, a group like this, a kinder, gentler form of total government that made itself seem so logical, is hardly surprising to see.
One thing that, of course, is never really meantioned is how the Technocrats would deal with people who didn’t want to go along with their plans, nor how they would go about incorporating 34 sovereign countries into a single continental state. But if history is any guide, camps would be involved, and central Canada is a pretty big place – almost as big as Siberia.
Maybe it’s the insomnia talking, but it seems to me, lately, that a lot of the comics I cut my teeth on back in the proverbial “Old Days” are allowing themselves to go the way of The Hollow Men (if you’ll forgive the cliché), succumbing to the inevitable, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Almost to a one, the cause of this seems to be lack of support (whether real or perceived) from their readers, combined with a general frustration that seems to be a commonplace of all those of truly creative inclinations. And in this, I cannot help but wonder whether I see my own looming destiny.
Though not the first to go, Tim Krieder’s The Pain: When Will It End? was the first one I really noticed. For some time prior to placing the comic more or less on hiatus, Kreider had been leaving sad little messages woven into his weekly posts, to the extent that the decline of his comics career, at least that phase of it, was not truly a surprise. It was still something a shock, however, seeing it in black and white. Kreider is something of an artistic inspiration for me the link between his style and my own is pretty clear, to me at least, and I had corresponded with him at various times (which is to say I wrote him several emails to which he responded politely but with a vague annoyance that made me decide to drop it). But to see him hang up his pen, more or less, as he has done, was really a loss to the cartoonist’s profession.
Then came Alpha Shade, which I so vigorously critiqued some months back. In one of the Brudlos Brothers’ most recent (and most tendentious) posts, they detailed the long, frustrating decline in their readership, the rise in expenses, the difficulty of “making it” as cartoonists, and the general horror of the literary life. Then came the little hints here and there at the edges of Sluggy Freelance. Not to mention nearly a year’s hiatus. And from there, the list went on. And on.
One has to wonder at this. Have these artists simply bitten off more than they can chew? After all, Alpha Shade’s intended total length was stated to be somewhere near 1600 pages, a length that would make Ayn Rand sweat bullets. And Sluggy and The Pain, being open-ended, had little hope of ever ending without the deliberate intentions of the artist. But to have them wind down like this, with a sad little burp at the bottom of the Web, seems so, well, unworthy, to me.
All good stories, like all lives well lived, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And even when you may not be telling a single story, I think that there’s something to be said for treating your artistic career as though you are. Take my current comic, 6-Commando, for example. I have a very specific story that I’ve outlined, and it is finite. Now it will take quite a while to complete, but I think it’s a manageable goal (10 chapters at 32 pages each). But knowing this ahead of time gives me the luxury of knowing when and how the story will begin, rise, fall, and ultimately end. For me, that’s enough to get me through the next page. And I tend to think that, were my fellow cartoonists to look at it in a similar way, even if only as an exercise, these precipitous abandonments would not be happening.
Now to be fair, Alpha Shade is still onging, albeit very irregularly. And Sluggy is back to the dailies, for now at least. And even Krieder is updating his site every couple of months or so, while pursuing a career as an essayist and progressive know-it-all for the New York Times (his editorials are an excellent read, even though I think his politics are totally batshit). But to have such great artists sell themselves so short on the medium of their birth is a very sad thing, to me. Sure, everything changes, and the dust evetually settles on all of us alike. But it seems a shame to just allow one’s efforts to cut off or fade away, like those essays we all wrote in third grade that ended with “I’m running out of paper now so this is the end.” If you’re going to end, do so in a way worthy of the work you’ve done. Either that, or do what I plan to do – die with your boots on.
On the other hand, give me five years and I’m sure I’ll be eating my own words. So what do I know?
I have been thinking a lot recently about the subject of language and writing, mainly because I’m working on the second chapter of my graphic novel 6-Commando. At the root of it (and I’m aware of the irony here) is my own love-hate relationship with the internet, and on a larger scale, with the digital age as a whole. I, like others of my generation, am an internet junkie, but the development of the Information Age has happened during my lifetime, on a measurable timeline, and this gives me an interesting perspective on the issue. My life spans the whole age of the personal computer, which had not truly been invented when I was born, but now, three decades on, has become so ubiquitous that we carry them on our wrists and in our pockets. However, far from being the dream of Star Trek realized, I have come to believe that the digitization of literature is doing serious and continuing damage to the intellectual culture of the West, and is probably doing just as much violence to the East, as well, if not more.
Profound and pervasive paradoxes exist at the very core of our current civilization, but are not questioned by the current generation, who have been trained, by and large, either to be bored by or to ridicule the introspective frame of mind that pondering these questions entails. Take literature, for example. The rise of the internet has led as it were inevitably to the expansion of access to information, while at the same time eroding the process of critical thinking that was once associated with the gathering and assimilation of knowledge. Where previously, the primary source of the body of human knowledge was the book, or by corollary, the library, one can find anything online these days with only a few clicks. However, using a library or opening a book required that one make some kind of preliminary mental effort. Physically moving to the place where the desired information was stored, selecting the proper book, and then further the proper page, required the individual to place themselves in a preparatory state of mind, where they interacted consciously with the physical objects that contained the knowledge that they sought.
The internet, however, has drastically telescoped this entire process. The advent of search engines has largely replaced the actual selection of information by the individual, reducing the ordered intellectual process with summarized info-junk, without requiring that the computer user conjure up more than a few selected words. This act of condensing the thought process has devalued it, and has led, I am convinced, to a profound degradation of the English language, allowing what one could once have considered “Standard” English to be replaced by slang and nonsense words, with the guiding principle being that language is fluid and therefore can change according to need, even at a moment’s notice. Even worse is the enormous speed with which junk words and phrases, and the predigested ideas attached to them, make their way into common culture. Take a phrase like “It is what it is,” for example, with its connotations of resigned acceptance and implied disinterest in making any attempt to change a given state of affairs. Or even nonsense words like “proactive,” whose added syllable means nothing but extends the ability of the speaker to make sound issue from his larynx. These linguistic tricks add nothing to the substance of the language; rather, they diminish it by breaking down the boundaries of meaning. Their true purpose is not to advance any kind of understanding, but rather simply to prevent someone else from speaking for an extra fraction of a second.
The fundamental basis of knowledge, in the Western, Greco-Roman sense, is that things mean things, and that there is an essential truth to the world that is, therefore, knowable. However, in order to have any kind of meaningful discussion about the ideas underlying our culture, there have to be common terms with which we can discuss them. A professor and mentor of mine once made the point very forcefully in class, when he took off his shoe and shook it at a reticent student. “If I call this a shoe, and you call it a woman, and we’re both somehow supposed to be correct, then how can we have any kind of discussion about anything?” he said. “Unless we can agree on some kind of meaning, about what something is and what it isn’t, then nothing has any meaning, and there’s no point in even talking at all!”
In a world in which anything can mean anything, or, worse, in which nobody cares about meaning, except insofar as they can bend it to their own needs, culture cannot long survive. The development of a valid and authentic connexion of representations about the truths and realities of the world as we experience it depends entirely upon our ability to express ourselves to each other. A word can have many meanings, but adding or removing them capriciously or for some temporary purpose damages the word’s substance. Why say “proactive” when you mean “active?” That is, why not just say what you mean?
This kind of intellectual sloppiness is at the root of the degradation of intellect in our society. Elevating slang to the same level of propriety and usage as Standard English is immoral – it implies a level of sameness that does not exist. It encourages, in fact, a level of connexion that makes real, properly constructed language the same as verbal garbage, and in so doing, diminishes the value of valid, educated discourse. It’s the same as claiming that a dime novel is just as valid a literary expression as Rousseau or Shakespeare. It’s intellectual sloth in its most decadent form, and like any kind of laziness, it leads only to more of the same. Ordered speech is a sign of ordered thoughts; and only ordered thoughts can produce literature.
I can only wonder at what will become of our culture in another two millennia, when we are the Ancients – will we be the Athenians of our age, or the Visigoths? I would prefer the former, but I fear we are choosing the latter.