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Enter, Stage Left, on Coattails: Jeff Ponders Our Great Decade

Jeff Lester

One of the things I do that I don’t like very much, is I get inspired by something someone’s written here and jump on with my own comments, thus potentially obscuring the original point made. I did this with Abhay once and it kinda bugged me, so here I am doing it again–with Abhay, again–and therefore I think I should start this whole thing off with an apology to him. I do this only, I think, because his writing inspires me into dialogue. (Or to try and ride his coattails, if you want to be less charitable about it.)

At the end of his really superb essay, Abhay writes:


I wasn’t very happy in 2009 anyways. 

Apparently, I’m not completely alone: Messrs. Tim Callahan (“something’s missing“), Chad Nevett (“I think people are just tired… I can’t really defend things.“), David Brothers (“I’m bored to death”), Dr. Geoff Klock(“It’s diminishing returns… it is time to stop showing up on Wednesdays…“), Alan David Doane (“I have to admit that I have not been reading a lot of comic books lately“), and well… me in my last essay, according to some of you (“I’m pretty sure whoever wrote this comic is the Green River Killer, guys. I’ve been spending time in the crime lab, and I think I just cracked this mother wide open.“).

Steven Grant tried writing about this a year ago: “Dreariness. 2008 was one dreary year for comics.” Internet kind of yelled at him; you know: internet. Internet is welcome to yell at me, too. I don’t dispute that I’ve read great books this year. I have a very long list of books I want to write more about; should have written more about. I don’t dispute that this decade has been unbelievable in terms of how much has changed, how much has improved. There are many, many great books I still haven’t read yet.

But something bummed me out anyways. 2009 was a colossal fucking bummer, for my comic nerdery at least.

***

I think I might be able to shed some light on this, since I burnt out a few years back and have been pondering the situation, on and off, since then. My take on it is simply: we just put the wraps on the greatest decade the medium has ever had here in the USA. For readers and fans of the medium, it’s the first time in memory our reach may have exceeded our grasp. Is it any wonder the people following the medium may be a little exhausted and fatigued?

To put it another way: if you were a fan of candy, and you ended up locked in the biggest candy store in the world, and were able to eat as much as you wanted, would you then turn around later, and blame the candy for not tasting as good as when you were first locked in? Would you suggest something had clearly gone wrong later in the candy production process since the stuff you were eating now was making you feel ill but the earlier candy hadn’t? Obviously, aesthetic experience doesn’t map to sensual experience in such an easy one-to-one way but aesthetic oversaturation is possible as anyone who’s been to Burning Man or the Louvre will tell you.

Good ol’ North American comics used to be the kind of thing you could totally track–soup to nuts, crap to genius: a dedicated fan, retailer, and/or reviewer could cover it all and still have time to look at, say, self-published comics ordered through the mail *and* keep up on all the reviews in The Comics Journal. (Obviously, this was, I dunno, 1988 or so?)

And as things began to move along, it became simple enough to still feel like you were keeping an eye on things–you just cut down on the amount of crap you read. So you read everything that you knew or heard was great, your sentimental favorites, the occasional ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ book…and still you had time to get to the occasional self-published comic and the occasional classic reprint while following the eight or nine comics reviewers writing on Usenet whose opinions matched yours.

Now? Seriously? Just the number of like-minded comics folk I follow on Twitter tips over a hundred. My RSS feed is jammed with webcomics and comics reviewers. I have a pile of books from APE sitting on a shelf still unread. And for a guy who’s a self-proclaimed burnout, I still walk home with bags and bags of comics from my visits to Comix Experience. But the point at which I was able to fool myself into thinking I was on the bleeding edge of tracking what’s new and excellent passed long ago–I’m behind, behind, behind.

For myself, there’s some degree of joy-killing in the transition from ‘want to’ to ‘should,’ and once a medium grows beyond the reach of the dedicated, ‘should’ begins creeping into the picture more and more. It has to. Maybe some of the books I read this year would’ve delighted me more if I hadn’t picked them up believing my facade as a well-read comics fan would crack if I didn’t.

Remember Hicksville (from Dylan Horrocks’ brilliant graphic novel of the same name), that tiny New Zealand town where everyone is a fan and expert of comics? Hicksville has already hopped whatever zoning regulations might’ve been holding it in place, moved through its Hicksburg phase, and is well on its way to becoming Hicksopolis, the city of the future. That is absolutely wonderful news for long-time residents–electricity and plumbing for everyone! Take-out delivery! Comics on your iPod! Naoki Urasawa!–but it comes at a bit of a cost: you don’t automatically know who the people on the next block are, and they’re not going to automatically know you. That major thoroughfare just a block away from your house is no longer the center of town–it’s no longer *a* center, in fact. Now it’s just some too-large street where only you and some doddering geezers go and talk about how Starlin Avenue used to be the most exciting corner in town. Your transition from bon vivant man-about-town to pathetic Clowesian bore is just about complete.

Part of this is nothing new–have you ever read a comic by some guy whose name you see here and there, once or twice, and then never again?–but the context has changed. It’s one thing if it’s someone like Scott Edelman (no offense), someone who cranks out a few comics before moving on to another field, and it’s another if it’s someone who’s doing sustained work in the medium and you’ve just never stumbled across them. (I’m not sure who, exactly, to use as an example here, which admittedly is kind of the point, but let’s say ‘Carol Swain,’ okay?)

Before, I think there used to be the feeling that you would eventually stumble across them. Now? Now, it can take a bit of work just to find the damn stuff, never mind picking it up and actually experiencing it. (And when you do, sometimes there’s a “Really? This is great? This just tastes like candy to me…” reaction.)

Ugh, I’ve once again mixed up all my metaphors–”it’s like being trapped in a candy factory that’s become a big city!”–and I didn’t even have a chance to work the one I had about boats (that boat one was actually pretty good) and I didn’t even give Hicksville the proper shout-out it deserves. (Really a terrific book.)

I don’t know. I feel a little bit more hopeful…about myself, anyway. After not picking up a comic for close to three months, over the last four or five days, I made my way through Marian Churchland’s Beast, and two issues of Blackest Night and two issues of Criminal, and Sugar Shock, and also some stuff that was okay, and some stuff that sucked. I want to write about some of it here, in some small way, and some of it really isn’t worth going on about.

I’d like to think I’ll come back from my little sabbatical all fired up and ready to be an active participant in our growing metropolis again…do my little piece of activism, and keep an eye on what effluent the DC and Marvel factories are flushing through our water supply…but even if that’s just a momentary optimism–the joy of waking up, looking out the window, and to once again feel ‘turangawaewae’ (and, again, thanks to Dylan Horrocks)–well, I’ll take it.

And to the extent any of this may be of aid to you, too–you’re welcome to take as much as you need.

 

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