Now the Labor is Done, It’s Time for War

Another brief piece, on account of not having many comics to write about.

There were a couple big discussions in comics over the last week: one which blew up from a Comics Journal post, and involved the question of a comic’s use of racist imagery being answered by the comic’s creator (Jason Karns) and various other people with catcalls about censorship and “political correctness.” Because alt comix are edgy. So edgy, any complaints about their edgy content have to require crying on a soap box about how they’re being bullied by people asking questions like “Is this racist?”

On a very similar note: the Penny Arcade guys caused a stir–again over the “dickwolves” thing–at PAX. Apparently, this was their ‘Nam, in that they pulled out and have been feeling guilty ever since. Leonard Pierce weaves it into a larger piece (along with the Chelsea Manning conviction, and the transgender announcement which followed, and controversy over Spike Lee making a list of movies) about how tone deaf people can be when it’s pointed out how their treatment of other races or women or homosexuals or transgenders is not respectful.

In both cases, what’s interesting isn’t the original work itself–Karns’ Fukitor is pale imitation of 80s underground art; Penny Arcade‘s the sperm donor for countless formulaic videogame-based webcomics–but how their creators respond to criticism. Posturing and straw man arguments with a heavy dose of “la la la NOT LISTENING!” This isn’t strange to the comics community: Marvel editor Steve Wacker has built a public persona around being a beleaguered authority figure having to deal with “unreasonable” fans pointing out things like how ridiculous Spider-Man: One More Day is or how double-shipping comics is more harmful in the long term, and Jim Lee over at DC is learning quickly how to do the same. What’s new is this rapid realization: indie comics, self-published comics, whatever form they take, still draw from the same poisoned well as the mainstream publishers. Simply substituting one for the other will not fix the medium’s problems with misogyny and racism, since the culture is still dominated by white guys who benefit from both. Therefore, it’s even more important now to be vocal about these things when they crop up, be it a massive, 20-book superhero crossover or a cheaply produced mini-comic being hawked on the convention circuit. Not to enforce politeness in art, or to make whites feel guilty, or whatever bullshit people who wish to maintain the status quo will say, but because it’s the duty of the audience to constantly reframe and rethink art. Both in a broader, social context, and in a personal one. Denying that power in art may as well be denying art even exists. And if that’s the case, what are we left with? Useless commodities?

Hark! A Vagrant: The Secret Garden
Art and Writing by Kate Beaton
Self-Published

Such a succinct recap of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel, it’s also a cunning yet gentle parody of religion and Romanticism. Kate Beaton shows how English brat Mary and her handicapped cousin Colin are “fixed” by entering the garden–he being able to walk again, she becoming more pleasant (“I used to be horrid, and now I am just relaxed,” with the letters of “relaxed” spaced out as if being exhaled). A common theme in Romantic era literature and that of Christian Science (of which Burnett was an adherent) is the healing power of nature, directly opposed to Industrial Age science, which is complemented by Beaton’s semi-Impressionist backgrounds and crude, whimsical figures. The twist, though, is how Mary and Colin (and Archibald Craven, Colin’s father) ascribe mystical properties to the garden, while the dilated eyes and spontaneous freakout Beaton depicts imply herbal intoxication. Stoner comedy, English Lit style.

secretgardensm

What’s humorous is not so much the characters’ faith in nature–there’s medical marijuana subtext–only the nature of their misinformation. Lacking a full picture, they will cling to Romanticized notions of magic (the gibberish in Colin’s word balloon shown above equivalent to speaking in tongues), rather than understand the reason behind it. And without understanding, their garden is just another opiate of the masses.

Sheltered #2
Art by Johnnie Christmas
Writing by Ed Brisson
Published by Image

“Inconsistent” comes to mind when thinking of this comic. Not in terms of plotting: Ed Brisson’s dialogue favors explicitness over implication, as when teen Victoria outright tells the group of boys who just killed all their parents (and are trying to cover it up) they are lying, which is at least a form. Not in terms of art: Johnnie Christmas captures the youth of these characters–children in a survivalist camp who overthrew their parents last issue–well with their gangly limbs and eyes that are often big and bright (except for ringleader Lucas’ beady gaze). Nah, this comic is inconsistent in tone: Brisson and Christmas seesaw between stark horror (burning bodies) and melodramatic action (Victoria tackling and punching a boy she saw dragging her father’s corpse) with no intervening tension built up. Conversations don’t ensue with these people, just talking. Internal life is non-existent, with hardly a glance at a character thrown before we get uncommitted fistfights. Christmas threatens to become an engaging artist–the cover depicts flaming skeletons in Victoria’s hair–but ends up drawing boilerplate action beats, with inset panels of an ankle breaking or characters entering a room for spice. If Brisson were a stronger writer, this may have been enough, but the art can’t carry this script.

sheltered-2

The whole thing’s not much different from several Image or Boom Studios publications (Shari Chankhamma’s colors here are almost indistinguishable from those of Alex Sollazzo’s on Peter Panzerfaust). Mercenary, High Concept works like these have no consideration for genre history (Jack London’s survival novels or Lord of the Flies don’t seem to inform Brisson’s script despite it swimming in their tropes) or social and political context (the way Brandon Graham confronts sci-fi imperialism in Prophet and Multiple Warheads). They attempt to exist in a vacuum. The result isn’t fresh or new storytelling, just wishy-washy pages which beg readers to imagine how much more enticing the material could be vs. what’s actually there before them. Commitment? Aesthetic? Theme? These comics scoff at such notions.

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