Thursday, April 12, 2018

disgruntled comics links

Who doesn't love some serious ass after-school special comics links? Literally everyone, including me, you say? Sounds like we're in my wheelhouse. Let's jump right in.

1. Brandon Graham has been accused of misconduct
If you're reading this, I have to imagine you're aware that cartoonist/critic Carta Monir recently tweeted a warning to women, and especially trans women, about her fellow comics maker Brandon Graham. I'm going to (try to) set aside my own take in the service of some more general observations and questions. Is that the right choice? is one question, and though I've thought on it the answer remains an immutable I don't know.

I think people tend to stop at I don't know, when maybe that's the place you have to begin.

An indisputable fact is that Carta's tweet made some information that had been in a whisper network more explicit. In this the truth or falsity of the whispers' content is beside the point; this is only to say the content existed. (I know because I heard it from people who aren't Carta long before this ever happened.) In this, Brandon Graham is not especially unusual; I've heard whispers about plenty of other people, too, and obviously the ones I've heard represent only a small fraction of all the whispers there are. It's just this thick undercurrent of shit that most people, most of the time, prefer to imagine isn't there. I think a lesson the Aziz Ansari scandal imparted was that, to some degree, a lot of people regard sexual misconduct that's not straight-up nightmare rape as distasteful--a matter that polite society has no place discussing. Like it's something that should be worked out behind closed doors. If Me Too is a reckoning, it's only the tip of the iceberg in that most of these discussions remain underground. Personally? I feel nothing but gratitude any time some piece of information makes its way to me, even if I'm unlikely to need it, but it comes with a heaviness - a sense of responsibility that is neither logical nor actionable, beyond a point. So there's both horror and relief in understanding I'll never hear most of it.

What does it mean, just in general, to make a whisper network public (or at least less private)? That's a whole fraught thing, as the Media Men List made clear. We have imperfect tools in this imperfect world, and there are drawbacks. (Did you see the Comics Men List? It was...not good.) Again, zooming out from the specific content of Carta's tweet, and any consideration of its veracity - that tweet was objectively more responsible than an accusation couched in an anonymous list. It was, explicitly, a warning, even if it was a vague one. Now, you can also choose to view the content of her tweet as some sort of Brandon Graham takedown, but there is a larger sense in which publicizing a whisper network (to whatever degree that's even possible) takes the onus off women to keep each other safe by transfering these difficult and clandestine and sometimes personal conversations that usually happen amongst ourselves as opportunity allows into a more public forum. It is a sad and futile thing, a whisper network--a patch that attempts to address a problem that's on our minds, but largely out of our hands. Going public with a piece of information helps normalize discussions about violated boundaries, about harassment, assault. Rape. These things are happening all the time, yet are very hard to talk about under the best of circumstances. It's that much more difficult when they brush up against your livelihood.

Comics as a "community" is never even going to begin talking about accountability for predators if we can't find some way to broach these conversations. "What is okay, and what is not okay?" is (at least at this point) a more useful question than "What, exactly, did Brandon Graham do?" Comics outlets that gleefully opined on 2dcloud's issues earlier this year aren't going to touch this story with a 10-ft pole, dismissing it as gossip or in-fighting, but of course that's not quite what whisper networks are. At what point would a comics site deign to acknowledge that this semi-public whisper exists, much less take a side? Probably only if Brandon ends up thoroughly disgraced, and maybe not even then. But listen: it shouldn't wait. These conversations are difficult and uncertain and risky, and women have been shouldering all of that, forever. For any man who's been accused, specific consequences--whether they're taken by an employer, a conference, a publisher, a website, whatever--are one thing, but I'm not sure that we'll ever get around to talking about the circumstances under which those consequences are even on the table if we can't first find a space, however uncertain, where we stop regarding this as holding a referendum on one man and start making room for women (for anyone, actually) to air grievances without being treated like pariahs. Discussing consequences doesn't always have to be the end goal, because frankly that's not always appropriate. And even when it is, it is in some ways secondary. Punitive measures can only go so far as a deterrent; a much more effective deterrent, to my mind, is to create a cultural climate in which it's more difficult for predators to quietly do their thing. It's like putting a bell on a cat.

Meanwhile, people will whisper, whether it's about Brandon or someone else, because that's what they've got. Also, they will watch. Carta's tweet is a canary in the coal mine for whisperers of all stripes. Whisperers are watching Brandon Graham, who at one point said he would invite more specific accusations. That's certainly possible, though it might be easier said than done; he has reacted with some hostility to light criticism of his work in the past, which was a far less personal matter. The whisperers are watching Brandon's circle--the people he knows and the fans who are speaking up for him--who, thus far, have been more outspoken and defensive and, in some cases, aggressive than he himself has been. (That's how comics works, as a rule; cf. Chris Sims.) And maybe most of all they're watching Carta, who (so far as I can tell) has received way more blowback and harassment with regard to this than Brandon has, or will. These are real individuals in a specific situation, and I don't want to minimize that - but they are also emblematic. You could sub in other actors for Brandon or for Carta and I think events would unfold in a similar (if not precisely the same) manner.

All to say that I'll wager that, in watching all this, the whisperers are feeling somewhat discouraged. Reader...consider the possibility they're watching you.

2. A digression
This isn't a link, but indulge me for a minute:

It was my birthday last week, one of the weird ones. One of my oldest friends had their own weird bday exactly one week prior, so we decided to go somewhere to commiserate. Much of our time involved sitting or floating in warm water and not looking at phones, which was predictably good. (This level of activity is about all I'm capable of now, as an Old.) There was a pool, I guess it had a lot of salt in it or something, so it gave you this uncanny buoyancy. I honestly can't think of anything I'd rather do than float around like a corpse all day. That's the sort of mood I've been in this year.

Anyway my friend and I would corpse-float for these long periods of time, and when we'd reconvene, they'd always been thinking these really deep thoughts about the future, reflecting on this milestone, whereas I was just like...I really thought that by this age I'd be better at putting on eyeshadow. Frankly I just pictured myself as being better at makeup by now; that had seemed to me a thing that would come with time. I have a natural shallowness that I try not to worry about too much, or maybe I just don't always care about the same things that other people tend to care about. I don't know. But anyway what with the world being the way it is lately, this shitty birthday, and just a difficult year, personally, even I have had to give some level of thought to the limited time we have in this life, and whether or not the things I'm doing make me happy. Which is a very roundabout way of saying that I'm increasingly unsure that comics is one of those things. This isn't my 'fuck it, I quit' moment. Just like...I don't feel too good about it lately.

Part of that's discussing things like in item #1 (bit of a downer), but some of it's more personal. I like reading about comics, I like talking about comics, writing about comics, all of it. But a part I don't enjoy so much is some of the baggage that comes with it, some of the people we keep around, and how bad we are at sticking up for each other. Sometimes I hesitate to talk about small things anywhere near a conversation about bigger things because that's not a shift in gears that people seem to understand, but to me these problems have always felt to some degree related. I think some folks have trouble trusting that anyone has a sense of proportionality, and so they conclude we can't discuss anything or anyone without sending them to comics jail or throwing books on the comics bonfire. They worry these discussions can't have nuance, which might be because they themselves are incapable of nuance. This is a working theory.

Anyway I don't have some explosive story, or any one anecdote that encapsulates this feeling. Just a vague wish that I could put whatever I'm going to put out into the world without getting back something weird and upsetting, such as (for ex) a long public "debate" on my thoughts on Crumb fuckability run by an industry professional who looks like this:

Whatever. I got a lot of shit for implying that Jeffrey Dahmer was ugly that one time so I should really shut my cruel bitch bullying mouth. But I don't need to solicit anyone else's feedback to conclude from this man's facial hair alone that he's a loser, a nitwit, and a probable virgin who at some point in his life has studied the art of magic. I guess my rule is sort of like that thing they say about jobs, relationships, and apartments in New York--pick two, but you're not getting three. I ain't even counting that shirt.

I'm trying out a new policy: if you see something, say something. I'm done with these pieces of shit. If an industry person treats you in this manner, however petty it may be, I urge you to call them out on it, meanly. And if you can't - I'm your Huckleberry.

3. Juliet Kahn on Cathy comics 
I'm behind on my comics reading lately, but someone linked to Juliet's piece at the Comics Journal(!) and it's awfully good. Juliet's so sharp. While I was reading I kept thinking about this quote from Lynda Barry, who is not a fan of Cathy comics:

Sort of a throwaway comment but there's a lot going on. So many levels of "bad feminism" (on both sides, Lynda and Cathy), plus some stuff about sincerity and autobio and how we relate to comics, as readers. You know, does real-Cathy have the right to draw zaftig-Cathy is a boring topic. But there's something that rang true to me about Lynda implying that comic is hollow and even opportunistic.

I don't remember having any strong feelings about Cathy growing up. To me it didn't feel relatable at all, just sort of more what the world was selling? Even as a child I understood that Cathy wasn't a person you wanted to be, and that wasn't just what the world was telling me; it was what Cathy was telling me. I feel like the argument that people hate Cathy because sexism speaks to me more than, like, the idea that Cathy is somehow a feminist comic. But here's a thing I know: nothing ever seems sadder and more repulsive than a brand of feminism that isn't close enough to your own. probably is a feminist comic? Ack!

4. The NYT has hired some comics critics 
Some personal news: the New York Times doesn't seem to be hiring people who write "suck my dick" in their comic book reviews, so I didn't make the cut for America's Top Comics Critic. I just assume I was being considered? Odds are at least one of the 20 people who read my hobby blog was part of the Gray Lady's hiring team, but of course you never know. In any case the people who've been hired are Hillary Chute, who is mostly an academic, and Ed Park, whose work I don't know at all.

Is Hillary Chute a critic? I don't know. She's a first-class academic--truly interesting and innovative. My knowledge of her work for lay people is mostly her interviews with cartoonists (a different skill) and a couple pages of that new book of hers (which honestly looked sort of bad to me). I think whether or not she'll be good at this kind of writing could go either way, and I sort of don't care. I'm not really the person that kind of review is written for. What I *do* care about is how much say that Chute has in what's becoming comics canon. This is a thing I talked to her about, oh, maybe five years ago when I interviewed her about her work for a mainstream outlet. (She dodged the question, if you're wondering.) I think...I think no one should have that much say in the comics that people are reading now, and also 100 years from now. I think that's a responsibility she doesn't take very seriously, or at least didn't when I talked to her about it. I think her tastes are too narrow - but that is to some degree an academic thing more than a Hillary Chute thing.

Ed Park...from his bio he sounds to me like more of an actual critic. I know he's been associated with The Believer, so I assume (perhaps incorrectly) (...but I really don't think so) that his sensibility will be very similar to Hillary's. I saw someone praising the NYT for hiring a woman and a person of color, and you know, that's swell, but diversity of perspectives isn't only about the identity of the people who have them. I think it's also about what they're looking at.

5. COPRA Round 5 is here
Ending on a high: COPRA Round 5. I spent some time yesterday flipping through the collections just to appreciate some of the things that comic does best, an activity I'd recommend. I've fallen down on the job for my Chris Ware roundtables, which I organized and then promptly got too busy to actually run. (If you were one of the participants, please know how sorry I am about this!) I think at this point I'll just do the Ware posts myself, but maybe a COPRA roundtable someday? Dare to dream.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

slasher, a comic by charles forsman

Last weekend I gave myself over to an unwholesome taste I rarely indulge and can’t quite recommend: I read a comic I thought I’d hate because I knew I’d take pleasure in trashing it. I guess some gals—well, at least the protagonist of Charles Forsman’s Slasher—are pedophiliac serial killers who get their rocks off at the sight of “knife play,” while girls like me are content to sit on a couch and quietly explore the depths of their contempt. One difference to note is that I was born this way, whereas Slasher’s Christine Sobotka, in her latex suit and gimp mask, is the product of one man’s imagination.

“Jesus, why?” is one question that might be asked of a comic book that consists of a 25-year-old woman masturbating her way through a murder spree. Over at the Comics Journal, Leonard Pierce entertained it with less than half a heart. “She [Slasher’s protagonist] can only get off sexually at the sight of blood,” he writes. “Why? It’s not really important.”

Oh, okay! He continues:

“The quest for an irreducible meaning behind mass violence is, in life, largely futile and easily confused effort, and in art, almost never more than a narrative crutch. Forsman wisely doesn’t spend more than a token line or two on the origin of her mania, instead plunging us directly into its expanding consequences.”

Pierce imbues the cartoonist’s dubious narrative choices with the sort of sweeping philosophical import one might find in the work of Cormac McCarthy; failing to find fault with the idea of a woman who takes sexual pleasure in her own evisceration, Pierce concludes that here’s a comic that really makes u think. Mmm, does it, though? Because when I ask why this young woman finds sexual satisfaction in a 14-year-old boy drawing a knife across his concave chest, say, or why she doesn’t mind when some other pervert saws off her hand, my spirit isn’t quite so equivocal. In fact, I can say with some confidence that the answer to Why is Charles Forsman’s protagonist turned on by these unspeakable things? is: because the cartoonist decided to make her that way.

To catfish is to pretend to be something you’re not to lure people in - a lie told to another person in service of your own satisfaction. Catfishing is central to the plot of Slasher, but it is also, if you think about it, part of the packaging of Post-Dumb comics, the genre to which this comic book belongs. The Post-Dumbs, you may recall, are artists like Johnny Ryan and Benjamin Marra whose shtick is to take loaded, politically incorrect imagery and empty it of meaning. These artists play with plausible deniability, mostly through the haphazard deployment of irony, a recognizable aesthetic, and a modern point of view, but at the end of the day they’re trafficking in old stereotypes. Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find there’s nothing there.

Forsman is a millennial who has been to comics college, so Slasher is the Post-Dumb genre with a socially aware twist: he casts the gender of his serial killer against expectation. James Sturm is proud, I’m sure, but much like “The Sponsor,” the problem here is that Slasher’s gender commentary can’t quite obscure its misogynistic attitude. The feminist swell I’m meant to feel when Forsman shows me Christine’s sleazy boss hitting on her isn’t enough to make me overlook the cartoonist’s stereotypical representations of (just for instance) mothers as overbearing and mentally unstable. Some images, like an unhinged woman giving herself an empowering haircut in a bathroom mirror, will be familiar to readers from the language of cinema. Others, like a lady in a gimp mask chowing down on a fistful of raw ground beef in the supermarket, are newer, if somehow more tired. The effect, either way, is the same. 

Roughly a thousand years ago I read a book of writing advice by Stephen King. One of the exercises he recommended (at least as I remember it) was to write a short story about a cat burglar who was...wait for it...a woman. Wild and crazy stuff. That’s basically the plot of Slasher, except with violent perverts. Christine Sobotka is a seemingly mild-mannered data entry clerk who’s secretly in love with Chester Brown’s grandchild, who she met via fax on the Internet.

Her father dies, so she decides to start doing sex murder? Then a road trip to see Chester Brown Jr. Jr. doesn’t quite go as planned. Gosh, I really don’t want to spoil things for you, but hopefully you’re getting the sense that this is not so much a story that hangs together as an undercooked thought experiment.

As with all Dumbs and Post-Dumbs, Forsman exhibits a certain level of craft and competence. He can draw a hell of a cover. 

He’s more or less proficient at the level of the sentence, of the panel, of the page. Where he struggles in Slasher is in fleshing out the idea of a nightmare person necrophilia comic beyond a shallow elevator pitch. (Hey, does Bret Easton Ellis meets Juno sound good to you? I guess it sounded good to Netflix.) There is often something quite commercial about “edgy” work, is there not? I believe the line between offensive and appealing is more porous than these men care to admit.

Post-Dumb comics are part of the legacy of Robert Crumb (the ur-Dumb, if you will), who’s celebrated for his use of politically incorrect imagery. The key difference between Dumb and Post-Dumb is that with Crumb, that imagery meant something, even if it meant different things to different eyes. Now we have post-race racism instead of regular racism, post-gender sexism instead of plain misogyny, so on/so forth. I was pondering this lineage a few nights ago as I was writing a thread venting about old Crumb, when I noticed something interesting: One of the authors of an old AV Club piece that named a panel in which Crumb raped a woman as its #1 “unflattering moment from autobiographical comics” was Leonard Pierce, the same critic who gave Slasher that glowing review.

Which comics artists do we - the “comics community” - interrogate, and which ones get a pass? I found myself thinking about Pierce’s praise for how Slasher challenges its audience to “look at a lot of our assumptions about the nature of violence in both life and art” (lol), and also Tucker Stone’s more compelling, if somewhat antagonistic, interview with Aleš Kot, which hit on many of the same topics in a different register. I don’t wish to say those pieces fail to attend to the issues at hand so much as that, taken together, they express a larger cultural force, a skewed perspective we might endeavor to correct. The ur-Dumb set a double standard in which a provocative indie comic, no matter how incoherent or appalling an expression of the id, is presumed to have worth and intellectual integrity, whereas anything with mass market spit-and-shine is automatically an object of suspicion. Too often there's something fundamentally dishonest about the way in which violence against women in indie comics is drawn and discussed. 

But here I’ll admit to one of my own limitations: sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between finally seeing into the matrix and viewing everything through the lens of my own irritation. It was the possibility that I was mistaken about Slasher - maybe even more so than the prospect of a delicious hate read - that convinced me to give it a shot. After all, Forsman’s Revenger series is published by Bergen Street Comics Press, home to Michel Fiffe’s Copra trade paperbacks, one of this world’s few perfect things. Plus, of course, Forsman recently became a mainstream success, with The End of the Fucking World having broken the salon barrier (meaning the woman who cuts my hair enthusiastically recommended it). I was curious.

Alas, there was no need to look past my assumptions, which were met and exceeded; Slasher is just another exercise in empty titillation from a bad boy with a brand (albeit a brand that’s more capacious and flexible than most). Like its Post-Dumb brethren, Forsman’s comic falls somewhere between aimless, listless satire and absolutely thoughtless entertainment, a combination doomed to fail. If we’re digging for meaning—that pesky why—the Post-Dumb genre is like a joke that’s not a joke in that it expresses something true without the courage of conviction. I find it lazy, despicable, and bloodless. Writing this post, I’m reminded of the time I taught a writing class, where sometimes I wondered if I spent more time commenting on papers than the students had spent writing the papers themselves. In my fantasy, in lieu of this review, I’m handing Charles Forsman a copy of Slasher with a single comment scrawled in red pen: Suck my dick.

No offense, gentle reader. “No offense.”

Thursday, March 8, 2018

now trending: rapscallions' sad fantasies

Here's a thing I truly believe: it's not cool to make fun of other people's sex stuff. Like... of all the losers on the internet, is there any sadder demographic than would-be Chapo middle school alphas whose bon mots are always about how Arthur Chu isn't doing it correctly, or enough? This type of teasing is transparently insecure and deeply unattractive. We're all just out here trying to live.

That being said, Tim Kreider writing a New York Times column on roleplaying after being in a romantic relationship for three weeks has got to be the saddest shit I've ever seen:

My, how quickly things can change. For example, in the space of just two paragraphs, I found that nigh on a decade's worth of creepy stranger crushing on Tim Kreider had transformed into a sort of uncomfortable pity. (He's devastated, I'm sure.) Immediately, it got worse:  

Oh no. Somehow Tim Kreider's role-playing scenario involving Nabokov is more horrifying than every sad horny detail that preceded it. But, hey, I don't want to leave you hanging. I know what you're wondering. Did Kreider fuck?

Sigh. Do you know how hard it is to find a male writer even marginally attractive in your imagination these days? This piece came out almost simultaneously with Kreider's new book, which I pre-ordered, but now I'm holding onto it till I'm in a better frame of mind. Anyway I was reminded of all this upon seeing this headline at Slate, which suggests to me a trend:

Nothing against Ted Scheinman, I guess, but his new book (of which this is an excerpt) is so clearly "Urban Outfitters novelty book about Jane Austen, about a decade too late, and by a man" that it sort of grates in the first place. And in the second place, there's how the piece begins:

You see, this intrepid reporter has discovered that people at cosplay conventions have sex with each other. But also they read? Worlds colliding!! Old people have sex! Wow. adorable.

Ugh, this piece has so many levels of condescension I can't even keep track. I guess to me the joke of it isn't old people's sex lives, but the writer's attitude towards the subject as though it's even remotely interesting or scandalous. Humorists often take the central question of essay writing to be Am I punching up or down? when sometimes the question is more Why am I sitting here, punching myself in the face? You know, what do you think is funny, who do you imagine to be the object of your joke, and is that the same as the actual joke to your readers? I found myself thinking about this as I encountered a weird degree of antipathy towards that post I wrote on promotional headshots - like, lots of people who felt compelled to say, out loud, some version of "oh, you think this is a good use of your time?" (as though that even ranks among all the many ways in which I waste time, haha, please), plus a number of comments about "bullying," including someone who berated me for not being as good of a person as Simon Hanselmann? Sometimes comics really makes u think. Like, what if it's time to recalibrate my moral compass and STOP bullying Jeffrey Dahmer and that warlock from Game of Thrones and START finding a way to commodify trickle-down gossip and/or using all my sacred comics hobby time to write plot summaries of new episodes of Jessica Jones? Mmm, I'll pray on it.

Two pieces of writing advice. Try to be kind - but when you're not, try to mean it. Also your writing is always going to be bad when you're trying to be cool, and that's especially true if your jokey piece about sex has any whiff of a boast. Take it to the bank. 

Monday, February 12, 2018


An Airing of Grievances: Last week I had a piece at Slate talking about tokenism and Françoise Mouly's hiring practices at the New Yorker, which I've been complaining about now for, oh let's see, two years? Three? Feels like forever. Now you know.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

let's fix your promotional photos: a special guide for men in comics

Yes, I know you could care less about self-promotion. You are an artist! An artist, and moreover a man (a white man) (a straight white man) who imagines that not caring about your appearance is a virtue rather than the inevitable product of the way in which you were socialized. You bristle at the very notion that anyone expects you to put any effort or thought whatsoever into selling this thing that you spent an absolutely obscene amount of your time putting together. When no one buys into your new project, why point fingers at your "promotions" (one broken link in a tweet and an instagram stacked with actual pictures of someone's puke) when you could blame "the system," like a real artist. Like a man

Probably the idea of taking more than one terrible selfie in the deadening glare of your computer’s camera for the profile that website will be running next week strikes you as absurd. Insulting, even. (Let me guess: you're fundamentally opposed to the very idea of selfies anyway.) You're incapable of comprehending why anyone wouldn't just repurpose some random photo of himself at a con, seated behind a table, staring like a glassy-eyed criminal awaiting his sentence in a courtroom, as his promotional photograph. Well, I'm not here to change your mind. Nor am I here to teach you photography. I'm just here to tell you how bad you look, and give you a few tips on looking better.

First I suggest you take a look around. Have you ever noticed how the women of comics look incredible in their promotional photos? Their most tossed-off selfies on twitter are old skool mall-grade glamour shots, and you would do well to study them. (Every time I see Katie Skelly’s perfectly manicured nails I wonder where it all went wrong for me.) Honestly, most of the time, you can do whatever you want with your twitter—but when you’re promoting a new comic, doing a Kickstarter, inviting the public to visit your table or your panel at a show, or sending an author photo to a website, you really owe it to yourself and to your work to put in a little bit of effort.

OK. So generally speaking, the men of comics favor promotional photos that fall into five or six main categories. Your first task is to assess your type, which should be very easy.  

Type 1: The Serial Killer

There’s a real epidemic of men in comics whose photos give the distinct impression that, if the opportunity arose, they would choose to eat human flesh. I assume you guys are just trying too hard to look serious? But I can’t discount the possibility that at least some of you are actual murderers. Either way, it would behoove you to try to look more normal. Here are some things you can try:

           Smize. To smize is to smile with your eyes, and you're probably going to have to practice. Look, I'm not sure exactly what's wrong with you, but I do know your regular eyes are cold and dead and weird. One strategy you might try is to talk to whoever’s taking the photo so you appear a little more animated. Think about something exciting (e.g., cookies). Look alive, son.
           Do not gaze into the middle distance. Unfocused staring is not attractive, and it definitely doesn’t make you look smart. It is creepy or, perhaps worse, ridiculous. Try looking into the camera, or just a little bit off to the side.
           Ask at least two human women who care about you to vet your photo. This is good advice for everyone, but it is particularly important if you choose not to smile. 

Type 2: The Cool Dude

When my nephew was a baby, he didn’t know the word for sunglasses. To compensate, whenever he wanted to wear them, he said he “want[ed] to be a cool dude.” It was so stinking cute! But the thing you have to understand is that he was under two years old. You’re a grown-ass man so it should go without saying: You are not a cool dude. Take your sunglasses off. You look fucking stupid.

           Pretending not to care is not a personality. You do care about this thing you’re promoting, right? 
           Are you making a little joke? OK, we can work with this, but you are probably overconfident. Tread carefully. Workshop this photo.
           Do not stand in front of some dumb building or sign. You look like an amateur. In a wedding photo. On a road trip. From a 10-year-old Facebook post.
           Try harder. I can see that you’re already trying very hard! You’re just doing it wrong. Redirect that energy into making an actual effort.

Type 3: The Comics Bro

A Comics Bro is a sentient energy drink with a hair situation who insists on some variation on jazz hands or double guns in all photos. 

These people cannot be helped. I’m very sorry.

Type 4: Mr. Tough Guy
This is complicated, because Tough Guys are really a subtype, and they can skew Serial Killer, Cool Dude, or even Comics Bro. Serial killer-type tough guys, let me reiterate that no one’s saying you have to smile.  But you really must try not to glower, even if you’re doing the irony. Literally the only person in comics who can pull off glowering in his promotional materials is Alan Moore. You are not Alan Moore.

Fake Alan Moore

Let me put it another way. An old friend of mine from high school had this amazing family portrait where his mom, dad, and sister were all smiling and happy and wholesome and he was wearing a metal tee and the most profound scowl you’ve ever seen in your life. It is possibly the best picture I’ve ever seen, and it perfectly captures the exact flavor of ridiculousness that is roughly 30-40% of men’s promotional photographs at Fantagraphics. The main difference is that my friend was like 15.

A more difficult subset to address is the Cool Dude type tough guy. (These are basically all the other guys at Fantagraphics.) To be clear, these are not actually tough guys. These are men who wear hoodies and have read Fight Club four times. They insist upon black and white photographs, and they’ve been working on a comic about William Burroughs and/or sex murder for a minimum of six years. 

Here's a few things you can try:

           Ask yourself if your photo could be mistaken for a mug shot. Be really, really honest with yourself. If the answer is yes, start over.
           Try flexing that face you're pulling into an actual smile. You don't have to smile in the photo itself. But hopefully this will help relax your facial muscles into a more becoming expression.
           You're probably dressing about 10 years too young. I'm not asking you to wear a costume. Simple adjustments can be effective. Launder your t-shirt, for instance.

Type 5: Literally a Bunch of Paint Splatters

Does your promotional photo vaguely resemble a screensaver? Unfortunately, I can only draw one conclusion, and that is that you are catastrophically ugly. Here’s the good news: there's no way you look as bad as I'm thinking. Quit being so hard on yourself! There’s a decent chance you’re “comics hot.” Suck it up and do the photo.

           Or…consider using a portrait. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to draw yourself, or even use someone else’s drawing of you (though in certain situations the latter might be awkward or misleading). The portrait doesn’t have to be realistic, but it should be human-ish and recognizably you.

Ivan Brunetti drew Hillary Chute's "author photo" for Outside the Box.

  • Create a distraction. Do you have a puppy, or a shirt with a crazy pattern? Are your surroundings super interesting? You might feel more comfortable if you feel like you’re sharing the attention with (but not completely shifting the focus to) something else. Please note, however, that your photograph should not feature any other people.
  • People are not shallow for wanting to put a face with a name. Unless you feel that it compromises your safety or something like that, it’s just best practice to honor this basic facet of human nature. Show your face, particularly if the photo is for a festival type situation. 
  •  Know that your art, however awesome it looks in real life, will look like dentist office art as a thumbnail. If you want to use something you've made, again, consider a self-portrait. Or, bare minimum, something with a face.

Special Challenges: You Are Bald

Are you a bald guy? Cool, nothing wrong with that. It’s just that sometimes bald guys - and especially pale 50+ bald guys - need to take special care to avoid looking terminally ill in their promotional photographs. You have one job, and that’s to convince people that you’re not a warlock.
  • Pay special attention to lighting. This is good advice for everyone, but it’s especially important for you. Consider going outside, maybe near some plants. Good vibes! Warm tones. That’s what we’re going for. Avoid black and white at all costs.
  • Do not indulge in the temptation to wear a hat, particularly any sort of period hat. Please take my word on this.
  • Try to look 20% more put together than usual. You know who always looks nice? Daniel Clowes. His shirts look pressed; he has interesting glasses. His pants fit. We aren’t talking about his style, which is sort of nondescript. We’re talking about a feeling: Daniel Clowes is ready. He's just a really sharp version of his somewhat boring personal style. Whatever your thing is, up your game by 20%.

Clowes can get it

  • Engage with the camera. Bald people need to be extra careful about gazing into the distance, for nerd reasons. Work the camera. Patrick Stewart is the absolute master of this. (Just look at that smize, my god.) Compare and contrast:

In conclusion, staging a decent promotional photo is not rocket science. Your photo doesn't even have to be that good, is the thing. It just shouldn't be off-putting.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

ware week

I wrote about Monograph, Chris Ware's strange and fascinating new memoir, for a UK magazine, Prospect. It was a weird commission in that I was asked to more or less triangulate it with two other recent titles, Dave Gibbons' latest how-to book (dumb, but still a little cool) and The Cambridge Companion to the Graphic Novel (for clowns, by clowns - mostly). The editor originally wanted something about the whole comics vs. graphic novels terminology debate, but very kindly let me steer the argument in a different direction because I literally can't even imagine caring about that. Even if you find that debate fascinating (??), Ware and Gibbons aren't figures who readily map onto it for reasons that I think you must already understand given that you've read this far. You beautiful fucking genius, you.

Due to the nature of that piece I didn't really get to talk about Monograph or Ware as much as I would've liked. Some stuff was abbreviated, some was cut, and some stuff I never got around to in the first place because it didn't fit the contours of my argument, which is about identity and authority and various parties' weird proprietary comics ~feelings~. To make up for it, and to just generally cheer myself up, I've decided I'm doing a Ware Week here on the blog. Nothing fancy: just a week of talking about Chris Ware (who I love to make fun of - and whose work I really enjoy, if you can even believe it) in what I imagine will be posts of wildly varying length and quality. Unless they are uniformly short and terrible, which is also a real possibility.

If you like talking about Ware and you're interested in joining in for a dialogue or roundtable or something like that, let me know and maybe we can work something out. (I haven't really seen that much out there around Monograph, which seems odd?) On one hand, I feel like a whole week of me spouting my personal Ware takes might be a bit much? But on the other I reckon most people love themselves enough that sitting around and talking into the void about Chris Ware isn't their idea of "fun," so I'm prepared to do it on my own. In any case below is a list of some of the topics I'm likely to touch on at some point. For most of them you probably need to have at least read part of Monograph? A couple maybe not. Whatever, I don't actually care. This is an open call, though I reserve the right to flake out. Hit me up if there's anything here that catches your eye:
  • Chris Ware's Charlie Brown Misery Persona (and the weird way in which he controls his public image)
  • Ware's riffs on autobio
  • The many ways in which Ware plays with scale
  • Ware as a historian (of himself, and of comics more generally)
  • How bad was that intro by Art Spiegelman?
  • The Chris Ware ~Conversation~ (how he gets talked about in different circles)
  • Did no one care about Monograph? What's that about?
  • Does Ware need an editor (yes or yes)
  • Fussy formal qualities and sheer volume of ephemera/variation in the Ware archives: charming? overrated? insane??
  • The Worst Chris Ware New Yorker Cover of All Time 
Other suggestions are also welcome. Ware week will be in two weeks, depending on how this goes. Three weeks? Seven hundred weeks. In my lifetime, hopefully. Start practicing your frowny face.

Amended to add that I forgot to include an email for anyone who doesn't know where to find me: 


Wednesday, January 24, 2018

three good things

Ursula K. Le Guin has died. (Not one of the three good things, to be clear.) Famous people dying always makes me ponderous and annoying like a teenager who's smoked too much pot, but for the last few years I've had this slow-building realization that what has felt like an epidemic--these titans of culture dropping like flies--is in fact just me getting older. When you're younger there's this bright line between dusty gray history and the realness of the vibrant present, and aging is in some ways watching the color drain from the world around you as pieces of it recede into the past.

For a while there I was doing a "one good thing" series, where I just talked about one good thing that had happened, but I deleted it back when someone gave me the creeps. (Comics, man!) But I thought I'd try again, make it less personal, and up the ante. So now there's three. The first good thing is Paddington 2, which I saw on Sunday. I'd heard it's good, of course, but I had no intention of seeing it because...I don't know. I thought the way they'd drawn the bear was sort of ugly. But a friend wanted to see it, and I got a MoviePass, so why not. And it was perfect? Hugh Grant is Tim Curry-level bananas and it looks like Wes Anderson without all the...Wes Anderson baggage. I love Wes Anderson, but you know what I mean. Seriously, go see Paddington 2.

The second thing is this little story about Celine Dion taking Elliott Smith under her wing before his performance at the 1998 Oscars. You know those little children's books about unlikely animal friends? I want a book like that about Celine Dion and Elliott Smith.

I'm old enough to have seen that performance in real time, and it's something I'll never forget. That suit, oh my god. Comparisons have been flying fast and furious between Smith and Sufjan Stevens (who's up for Best Song this year), and that is just so fundamentally incorrect. I mean, I get it, sonically. But Elliott Smith came up from punk, and he was one of the rawest performers I've ever seen, for both better and worse. Sufjan has a similar awkwardness I guess, but he's a very polished performer who does very stylized shows. Very, very different. Anyway I guess I could link to that Oscar performance, but I don't think watching it now begins to convey how surreal it was at the time. It was just...really something.

The third thing is this recipe for garlic rice, which is my new favorite thing.

The recipe is from Melissa Clark's new cookbook (which is for Instant Pots, in case that's not obvious), but you could adapt it to regular rice cooking pretty easily. The trick is drape a clean dishtowel over the top of the pot after you fluff the rice, replace the lid loosely, and wait for 10 mins before you eat it. That cookbook has some nice tricks.