[This column originally appeared on comiXology in December of 2009 and I was recently reminded of it by Abhay Khosla in his must-read conversation with Tim O'Neil that recently appeared at When Will The Hurting Stop.]
If you're looking at the world from a macro level, this decade hasn't been an extraordinarily good one for the USA. It started amidst the terrors of your personal computer exploding, and then it burrowed its head back inside an electoral fight that served as the rest-of-world's introduction to how much two specific groups of American people had grown to hate each other, and then some religious nuts who actually lived in caves knocked down some buildings and killed a whole lot of people.
In short order, America got into a couple of wars that they're still fighting, took some breaks to remind anybody who was still paying attention how much the crewcuts hated the goatees in a fashion that grew more and more humiliating as it went along, and then, right around the time that half the country split its seams praising the election of America's first black president, the long-range game of jacked up musical chairs that the world's economy had become collapsed on its ears.
In between all that, Britney Spears shaved her head and attacked an SUV with an umbrella while the music industry blew its collective brains out, everybody got a blog to write about how they'd lost their virginity and their job, television became the domain of fertility-drug-addicted sociopaths, and we all bought DVD sets of the television shows that we watched when Aqua Net was popular in preparation for the 200 million dollar remake version of the same.
Oh, and comics got cool.
Although it would be hard to look at the last ten years of comics and see much of the decade's woes frankly expressed, it's not hard to see the seams of conflict that float beneath them. Marvel spent its time messing around with the same sort of surface-y relevance that used to be the purview of the 70's clunky DC Comics about race relations and drug abuse comics, with stories like Civil War that could be seen as an exaggerated version of Red Staters versus Blue Staters. (Or Secret Invasion's religious nuts are a-coming. Or Dark Reign, which was probably planned by a group who assumed America wasn't gonna Choose Hopefully.)
DC went in a different direction, embracing the public's love for nostalgia mixed with Will Ferrell's adult man-child films, and started telling various kids' Crisis stories with hard R plot twists. Manga publishers underestimated their audience, then overestimated it, and are now currently in the throes of figuring out how big, exactly, it is. Companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly kept their toes in the new, but found that the market for high-priced reprints of classic comics was strong enough to make a Comics Criterion Collection viable.
And down at the bottom, abandoned by a distribution center that didn't care, tiny publishing houses carved out a business carrying unedited works of self-expression, depending on the Ignored Masterpiece rating doled out by the blogosphere to sell off their 200-count print-run. Webcomics became an actual opportunity for creators to make a living outside of the direct market. The internet forced comic stores to look for a living outside of the direct market. Arrogant loudmouths got an opportunity to pay for the comics they hated by writing about why they hated them.
And none of these things were unique to comics, and the tininess of the industry makes it impossible to make sweeping judgments on the actual culture surrounding them, but they happened.
Thing is, you know all that, or at least, you know some different version of some of those things, because hey, you got it all figured out, because we all got it all figured out. (Except for those that follow the old Socratic maxim of not knowing anything, but that's just another version of knowing everything--it's an attitude that translates to end-all-be-all.) Pithy garbage talk is the product of most comic book conversation, when you boil it down to the food/air/shelter level.
Comics spent five decades bouncing off the world around them, they just spent another one doing the same, and they'll keep doing the same from now on. They're just too small an artform to have an impact on the overall culture--take them en masse, you're still not nailing an audience of large enough import to effect any major result. You can't look at the world and see what the comics did to it, and the only way to see what the world did to the comics is to either spit out surface-y maxims or to create fantastic nimrod academic-speak and rely on the fact that nobody wants to (or will) read you long enough to call you on it.
Because this decade, if anything, was the year that readers told everybody to go right to hell. Not just on message boards--actually, most of them didn't go to message boards at all. None of them read Wizard, none of them read the Comics Journal, they didn't waste their time on dinky blogs (like mine, yours, That Guy's) and while they should've read some of the stuff that certain people with glasses write, they didn't read those either. They didn't go to comic shops. They didn't have pull lists. Some of them didn't even have penises.
(You want this to be about manga, but it's not about manga. It's not about Peanuts reprints, and it's not about price guides.)
Readers. That's what made comics cool again, or if you've ever stopped for a second and really looked at how resolutely uncool Little Lulu was, that's what made it cool for the first time. They were people who tried it after 300, who had a kid who loved that Tobey Maguire movie, because Buffy was cancelled, because a whole new row of Japanese stuff in Barnes & Noble exploded, because Amazon kept them from an hour long drive just to be told that Diamond farts/box/backorder, because...skateboards!, because...Geoff Johns!, because....making a baby!
As precious and cornball as it was when Time magazine put a mirror on the cover for Bestest Person, and as copout and Cry Foul as it was when Spin magazine said the album of the year was "Your Hard Drive", comics caught up with the rest of the world faster than they ever have before, because we actually hit a point when a whole bunch of different kinds of comics became available, and unlike the previous periods when that happened, nobody cared about the distinctions anymore. Instead of having a bunch of shoppers and readers who felt the need to draw a line between Green Lantern and Maus, you had people who just bought the damn things, took them home, and then they bought some more.
They didn't hang around and talk about their favorite Bleach storyline with the clerk at Barnes & Noble, they didn't read the Amazon user reviews for Batman RIP, they didn't talk about Alt versus Art versus Super-hero versus manga versus find a new hobby. They killed that, because they didn't care about that, because those conversations existed only because comics shop employees, cartoonists and fanzines needed something to talk about after Who Would Beat Hulk In A Fight got old, and because Which Company Screws Artists Over The Most made everybody depressed and whiny.
People bought comics because they wanted to buy them, they read webcomics because they wanted to and they could, people did that, you, did that. You figured out that the 90's crazy bag and board mentality was bullshit. You figured out that you're better off chasing a writer than a character, or you figured out that you only really cared about a couple of characters anyway. You waited for the trade to keep up space in your house. You did that, not comics. They tried to keep up, as best they could, and while this year has been rife with big comics that were unavailable because the companies didn't know what they had, didn't have the initial cash to print enough, or just didn't know how to get it to you, the internet and some smart retailers started to close the gap between you and what you wanted better than they ever had before.
You can do this all day, make up reasons why comics just started showing up in places that they didn't show up in before. Sometimes you'll hear that you should wait for professionals to explain it, but...really, just finish that one in your head. That's what we do now, anyway. We're talking about comics, remember? Unless you're poor, you're making up your own info/entertaining train all the time. Maybe you're downloading massive zip files illegally of the A-Team, maybe it's that 27 gig file of the first 1800 issues of 2000 AD, maybe it's youtube videos and a slingbox, maybe it's this, maybe it's that, I can't keep up with what you think is cool or what you like anymore. I had a card catalog in elementary school. (You seen those? It was a bunch of cards. In a bunch of drawers.) I just keep up with what I think is cool. You're doing the same, it's all good. And while all of this can't last--somebody will go down eventually--this ten years proved one thing, and that was that there were enough of you to keep Batman going.
And Scott Pilgrim. And Naruto. And Joe Sacco. And Grant Morrison. And Matt Fraction. And Get Your War On. And Powers. And Daredevil. And John Romita Jr. And Nana. And the Acme Novelty Library. And Emma. And Evan Dorkin. And 100 Bullets. And Captain America. And MOME. And Krazy Kat reprints. And Judge Dredd. And David B. And Urasawa. And Ganges. And Winter Men. And Tatsumi. And Walking Dead. And WildCATS. And Automatic Kafka. And Cromartie High School. And Achewood. And Perry Bible Fellowship. And Ninja Baseball. And Ghost Rider. And Punisher MAX. And Love and Rockets. And Drifting Classroom. And Black Hole. And The Blot. And Sleeper. And B.P.R.D. And Bodyworld. And Frank Quitely.
And you can keep going.
And you will.
-Tucker Stone, 2009-14
[This column originally appeared on comiXology in April, 2012]
Backing up personal experience with years of dedicated research, Derf Backderf's recently published biography of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer--his high school classmate--makes one of the most satisfying non-fiction comics I've ever read. Focusing on the dawn of Dahmer's brutal transformation, Backderf's emotional responses to that time period in his life are never far from the page, and yet the sober, honest eye he casts on the decisions made back then is intimidating and unflinching, even more so as the pages fly by and the grisly moments guaranteed by the subject matter begin to approach. The timeline of the book overlaps the first of Dahmer's murders, however, Derf wisely chooses not to depict the crime--or any of the later ones to come--on the page. Even without them, the book is as grueling a portrayal of horror as one can imagine. In no small part, that's because it's founded in the uncomfortable truth that Dahmer was, at one point in his life, just another weird little boy.
As a field of literature, true crime is a category whose sights seem rarely set much higher than the bestseller shelf in an airport bookstore. Often buried at the tail end of the mystery section in larger bookstores, true crime is a genre populated, for the most part, by ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation books pumped out as close to overnight as possible. Few of these books survive on the stands for long; yesterday's Lacy Peterson book is tomorrow's sale item. And yet, it isn't so difficult to suss out what sees some works become long term perennials in the field. Works like In Cold Blood, Homicide, or Helter Skelter stand the test of time, either because of the skill of the writer (In Cold Blood), a depth of research that necessitates serious, long-term commitment (Homicide) or, likeHelter Skelter, a subject matter of such depraved magnitude that historical importance arrives guaranteed. My Friend Dahmer has all three.
It wasn't until after reading My Friend Dahmer that something else clicked with me: American comics doesn't seem to have true crime classics. There have been attempts, certainly, and there's definitely a hungry enough audience for them that these lesser installments (books like Image's Torso, or last year'sGreen River Killer from Dark Horse) are often welcomed with the greedy acclaim of the starving. Theories abound as to why, but the most obvious ones are repurposed versions of the remarks used to explain why Joe Sacco's work in the field of comics journalism remains so unique: there's a lot more opportunities for failure in non-fiction there are in fiction, the audience for comics is historically tilted towards the "escapist" side of the divide, and the amount of money made available for this kind of work renders its creation the province of the few--either the rich, or the crazy. You can make this stuff off of dimes earned doing something else (invariably, that sort of subsidization is an immediate indicator of lesser work), or you make it on spec because you have to, always operating beneath the understanding that most comics readers don't come to this medium looking for journalism--an investment with little popular or financial regard to hope for.
It wouldn't be fair to speak for what motivated Derf Backderf throughout the twenty year creation of My Friend Dahmer, but this being a comics column on the Internet, fairness is a loose and malleable term. Beginning as an eight page short story in 1991, then as a story in a 1997 issue of Zero Zero, and then in 2002 as a 24 page Eisner nominated one-shot immortalized by Chuck Klosterman in his Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs essay collection, the lengthy gestation period ofMy Friend Dahmer carries with it the implication that Backderf hasn't just been haunted by the story, he's been obsessed with it. For those used to the way comics creators bend over backwards to compliment and excuse the most shallow work, Derf's description of that one-shot--which was not only critically acclaimed but also well received by the general public, a rare feat--is so cruel as to be almost brutal. ("Stinks", and "a mess" are part of his own broadside.)
And while self-criticism is so often designed merely so that a creator can then luxuriate amongst their fans' rejoinders that "you're being too hard on yourself", Derf actually followed up his own self-immolation with the exact opposite: he busted his ass. Years of research followed, then rewriting, then--and if you've met comics people, you'll know how tough this next part is--redrawing. The 200 page result is a testament to hard work, and amongst comics, it's the first of its kind--a detailed biography that works as journalism, psychological profile, and exacting social criticism. It's compelling, heartrending work, riding a razor thin line of describing the disturbing circumstances that victimized Dahmer while never descending into acceptance of the ultimate direction the boy eventually took. It's a dark, horrible world that he ended up in. For delving into it so extensively--and for presenting the portion of it glazed with his own culpability--Derf's earned a shot at your attention more than anyone in recent memory. This, they should say, is what journalism feels like.
[This column originally appeared on comiXology in June, 2011]