Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Bits 'n' Pieces

A couple of things. First off, anyone going to the Toronto Fan Expo this weekend, swing on by the Durham Comics Guild booth! I'll be there all weekend, hawking the colour print edition of Freak U. book one, plus the special, one-time-only black and white Lemuria comic, 32 pages long and with a backup story not available online.

For those of you who "can't make it" because you "live miles away", and other such lame excuses in scare quotes, you can always buy the Freak U. book in print right here.

I'll be posting pics and so on; keep your eyes peeled.

In completely unrelated news, this is cool. So is this (click here for that second one in a variety of formats).

Monday, August 10, 2009

A Response to That Response to That Response

One of my favourite blogs is Christopher Bird's MightyGodKing, which happens to be a terrific overlap with my interests: he's a politically left-wing law student and comics enthusiast from Toronto. And he reviews movies sometimes. That's not to say I agree with him all the time (or even a lot of the time), but it's almost creepy how perfectly he suits my blogging needs.

Anyway, Chris has recently invited a bunch of co-bloggers on board his site, and one of them, Justin Zyduck, just posted this list of top 21 most influential mainstream comics writers, in response to a list of artists posted at the Onion AV Club a while back. This is great because a) it gives me an excuse to link to MGK, b) it gives me a chance to whip up some content for this blog, and c) it gives me a chance to argue.

Not that Justin's picks are particularly far off (though as he admits in comments, Will Eisner should be on there, and probably Dave Sim as well...some people are arguing Kurt Busiek, but much as I love the guy I don't think he's "influential" per se. But then, I'd say the same about some of his other picks as well.) Mostly I wanted to discuss his editorial comments. So onward!

1. Stan Lee

That the man was a huge influence on comics is undeniable. But--and bear with me here--I don't think it was as a writer for the most part. OK, the idea of superheroes who the audience could actually relate to was a major development. But everything else Lee did was more along the lines of editorial suggestion; as we all know, their working style was extremely loose and didn't involve scripts, and Kirby apparently felt free to ignore a lot of what Stan was saying when doing the breakdowns. Lee's input on the Galactus trilogy, for instance, seems to boil down to "What if the Fantastic Four fought God?" Even Lee admits that he didn't have anything to do with the creation of the Silver Surfer, and if a plot point that large can slip by him, you have to wonder just how involved he was in the "writing" in the first place.

Don't get me wrong: editors can be at least as important to stories as writers, so this isn't to disparage Lee per se. But I think his real contribution was in the comics culture he created--the rabid fanbase, the chummy, scrappy, underdog mentality, the due credit he gave to his artists (something most comic companies, let's remember, didn't bother with at the time) and of course, the hype.

2. Alan Moore
I disagree with Zyduck's contention that Alan Moore’s influence has been mostly destructive. I think most of the things you can point to as being directly influenced by Moore aren’t very good (though Astro City owes him a big debt, I think) but in a sense Watchmen represented a refinement of the Marvel Comics style of the 60s, bringing personalities and humanity to superheroes. Anytime a superhero is written naturalistically, for good or for ill, you have Moore to thank. And for all his grim ‘n’ grittiness in the 80s, Moore also played a big role in the opposite “Neo-Silver Age” trend in the 90s–his Supreme is, with Astro City, the defining comic for that era.

3. Chris Claremont
I'm not a big 70s guy, and haven't read much of Claremont. His influence seems pretty inarguable to me, though.

4. Neil Gaiman
I absolutely love Sandman--it played a major role in turning me into a comics fan--but Zyduck has him as someone of equal influence as the previous three. I really can't agree with that, even if you're willing to grant him the credit for helping to build Vertigo. After all, most Vertigo books aren't very Sandman-like; even the superficially similar Fables has a much more standard narrative structure. In the comments there's some mention of Ennis, Preacher in particular, and I'd argue that had a much stronger influence on the Vertigo style, inasmuch as there is one.

5. Jerry Siegel
Hard to argue with this. It is interesting, though, just how many aspects of superhero-dom were lying around pre-Superman, waiting to be fused together by Siegel.

6. Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson
It warms my heart to see these guys get their due over Bob "douchebag" Kane. Hopefully in another few decades they'll be getting the credit on DC comics and movies, not Kane.

7. Bill Gaines and Al Feldstein
Zyduck's bang on that these guys laid the groundwork for Marvel. I would kill to see what EC would have evolved into had they survived into the 60s; I can't help but think they would have been very similar to The House of Ideas, though they probably wouldn't have been superhero-centric. But then, I'm positing a world without the Comics Code, which is impossible to speculate about. May as well argue what comics would look like if Hitler won WWII. (Actually, probably not that different.)

8. Harvey Pekar
Like a lot of people, I find Pekar a little self-absorbed and boring, but his influence is certainly significant (Zyduck correctly identifies him as an ancestor of certain styles of webcomics). Semi-related observation: in the extras to the "American Splendour" movie, Pekar snarks about how much better-looking all the actors playing him and his friends are. Pekar is played by Paul Giamatti. Just saying.

9. Warren Ellis
Zyduck gives Ellis credit for "widescreen comics" and the general style of modern mainstream superhero event comics, which I'd generally agree with. I think he also deserves a nod, though, for Transmetropolitan, which is THE defining cyberpunk comic.

10. Gardner Fox
Zyduck mentions Earth-1 and Earth-2 as Fox's major lasting contribution to comics. I guess that's true, although he's also pretty much the author of the Silver Age, along with...

11. Mort Weisinger
The thing I love about comics by Weisinger and Fox and the rest is that, as stupid as they might frequently be, they're like an undiluted fount of imagination, a bedrock of pure dreamstuff for the superhero medium. Later, more sophisticated writers can play around with these stories and ideas, deconstructing them, getting at the psychological subtext, but first they had to be introduced in their pure, innocent form. You can't get this kind of golden raw material anymore--everyone's too self-aware. Maybe if you took a lot of drugs and sat down at the keyboard you might come close, or got six-year-olds to write comics...

12. Len Wein
Another 70s guy whose work I haven't actually read a lot of, but the guy who created Wolverine obviously had a major impact.

13. Grant Morrison
I agree with some of the commentators that Morrison isn't hugely influential just YET, but I guarantee he will be in another decade or so. Already, some new young turks like Jeff Parker, Matt Fraction and Tom Casey are all clearly influenced by Morrison, along with Gerard Way’s “Umbrella Academy”.

14. Brian Michael Bendis
Don't know much about this guy's superhero work, honestly, but he seems way too recent to be on a list of major influences.

15. J.M. DeMatteis and Keith Giffen
A breath of fresh air at a time when comics were getting tiresomely "edgy" and self-important. I wish they were MORE influential, honestly.

16. Roy Thomas
I feel like Thomas started the rather annoying trend of tying characters together in unnecessary ways, not to mention molesting the corpses of Golden Age characters who were better left alone (Oh, Patsy Walker...) This is the kind of stuff that makes Bronze Age comics so hard for me to read.

17. Steve Gerber
...And this guy is the big exception to that rule. The "satire" was sometimes more bizarre than pointed, but hey, what's wrong with being bizarre? Married the underground and the mainstream, and they're still together today, though I guess it hasn't always been the happiest of unions...

18. Denny O’Neil
Those laughable "issue" comics were clearly influential, but I prefer his take on Batman, which I think was the last time the Dark Knight managed to be gritty and realistic and dark without being tiresome. O'Neil kept enough comic-bookiness about the character that he, perversely, managed to remain grounded. If only the balance hadn't been upset by...

19. Frank Miller
Monumentally influential, but he's one of those guys who frankly had good ideas in the context of bad stories. Of course, that's true of a lot of people on this list, but a little of Miller's brand of juvenile pulpiness goes a long way, and he's been milking it for 20 years.

20. Carl Barks
Absolutely. The guy was writing hilarious, affecting, and human adventure stories (which were, ironically, about ducks) at least a decade before most of the people on this list had done anything of note. If he wasn't a "funny animal" cartoonist he'd be considered in much higher esteem than pretty much anyone except Kirby, Eisner and Moore.

21. Geoff Johns
I've been unimpressed with his work, and he's too recent to be on this list. Boot him for Eisner. And boot Bendis for Howard Chaykin.

Another pointless list resolved! Whoot!