Long Live the New Flesh: Why Comics Needs More Shittalkers

Nick Hanover: About a week ago, Ulises Farinas, artist behind Gamma and Judge Dredd: Mega-City Two posted this update on his Facebook feed:

 

 

 


As one of the most visible and prolific shittalkers in what is turning into perhaps the frankest, boldest generation of comic creators, Farinas knows what he’s talking about and it goes beyond just the stark economic benefits Farinas outlines. Which is exactly why creators like him, Ales Kot and Brandon Graham continue to rack up enemies, creators who aren’t just opposed to their bluntness but who also argue that their fans are indicative of a “problem” in the industry. So what do you think, David, are these shittalkers a positive change in the industry or are their enemies correct in their belief that they’re problematic for comics on the whole?

David Fairbanks: I cannot think of a situation where I would believe that dissent in opposition to a long-dominant power structure would be something I would ever call a “problem.” I cannot say whether or not creators speaking their mind on the works of others is a positive change for the industry, but it is certainly a positive change for the medium, as long as the shittalking is of a constructive nature. This is not just something that you’ll see in hip hop but in most established art forms and even in academic settings.

While peer-reviewed journals can result in gatekeeping issues, the fact is that they also reject papers from professionals that simply are not up to snuff. They are rejected with notes for revision and improvement, ideally making things better for the field. And as far as more creative endeavors go, I have been in my fair share of poetry and fiction workshops, and let me tell you, it is expected to receive feedback from your peers to bring your work up to a new level. When I saw Farinas, Kot, Graham, and others refusing to pull punches for the sake of politeness, I was shocked at the backlash.

These are guys who, by and large, are telling creators that they need to up their game and rather than listen, people just get upset. It’s not just the more traditionally literary or academic scenes that do this; you see it in hip hop as you mentioned, and you also see it in the arena of slam poetry. At the core of slam is this idea of putting your work out there and seeing if it connects. Yes, it is a competition, but more than that, it is a set of instructions from a captive audience on whether or not you need improvement.

There is no way that this kind of quasi-competitive workshop aesthetic finding its way into comics is bad for the medium. As to the industry, that really depends on the quality of the comics being produced. If more readers become more critical, and more creators become more vocally critical of less than adequate work, that could hurt the ability of a publisher to, say, churn out a fixed yet arbitrary number of comics every month. Good for the medium, but the industry? I can’t be sure.

But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that James Stokoe, Corey Lewis, Brandon Graham, and many other cartoonists all lived together and gave each other feedback, only to now have their stars rising, you know? Or that a small collective of Chicagoland indie cartoonists in the late 90s/early 00s featured Anders Nilsen, Paul Honschemeier, and Jeffrey Brown, among others.

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Nick: I’m glad you bring up the workshop angle because I think that’s an especially apt comparison. Even if you’ve never been through the hell that is any creative writing class, you’ve probably seen relatively accurate depictions of it in books or movies, like Wonder Boys. But I think that comparison also points towards one of the chief issues opponents of these creators’ bluntness have, which is that they’re doing it out in the open instead of behind closed doors amongst peers. Because the other half of this is that creators who dislike Kot and Farinas and so on are happy to shittalk them in private.

In fact, Loser City co-founder Danny Djeljosevic even shared an anecdote on this subject:

“At ECCC the topic of Ales Kot came up, because he’s a point of contention for a lot of people in the biz, for being interesting and getting for-hire work almost immediately.

I said that the dude comes off as how I imagined Grant Morrison would come off when I was 16, and a veteran creator at the table just goes ‘You’re part of the problem! Change is the worst piece of shit I’ve ever read!'”

Without naming names, I’ve heard (or directly experienced) some variation on that anecdote from any number of industry people. Sometimes it’s Ales, sometimes it’s Ulises, sometimes it’s someone else. The unifying factor seems to be a jealousy that these newer creators are not just mouthing off, they’re getting work, and not just regular work, big work. The creator Danny dealt with isn’t exactly hurting for jobs, but nothing he’s working on is as high profile as any of Ales Kot’s recent work. To me, it seems like this is an issue rooted in part in jealousy and a bitterness that after years of playing nice and keeping their mouths shut, these veteran creators are watching a bunch of kids publicly challenge their bosses and peers and get rewarded for it (though it’s extremely important to point out that for the most part, it’s still unfortunately mostly only male creators who feel comfortable enough to do this). It kind of makes you wonder if the reason why comics has struggled to treat its creators better is partially because until recently, creators weren’t willing to test the limits of the unwritten laws governing the way creators behave in public.

David: I would hesitate to ascribe bitterness or jealousy to any of the creators without having been there, but I could definitely see how someone who thinks they have “done their time” behaving as expected in the industry would feel that way seeing their adequate books languish while someone like Ales Kot is becoming a huge name despite only being in the business a couple years. And I would definitely say that this is like the guy who’s had an office job for a decade getting passed up on a promotion by the new guy who’s actually willing to risk making waves. I can guarantee you that people like these have burned bridges with people in the business, but they aren’t generally bridges they would have wanted to cross in the first place. And at the core of it, all it takes is one look at the arguments being made against boring or inadequate comics or creators to see that the people throwing those barbs are doing so because they think comics can and should be better.

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I think what we’re seeing is the push for sincerity and integrity as the very first Millennials (and I suppose a few late Gen Xers) are getting a foothold in the industry. Sincerity and integrity are two of the worst things for the survival of any kind of regime, especially one that perpetuates the idea of keeping your head down and your mouth shut as contemporaries are starving or struggling for medical care as they reach old age. I don’t think comics, as an industry, is struggling to treat its creators better so much as the creators are refusing to settle for less than they deserve, and the best of them are selling books at Image with a potentially far greater return than anything they would do for Marvel/DC.

Nick: Those are all good points but I especially want to build off of your remark that these mouthier creators are legitimately trying to make comics better.

I think there is a definite difference between the kind of talk these creators dish out and the kind that, say, Alan Moore does. Many of these Young Turks don’t hold punches, but I never feel like their blunt statements and shit talk come from a place of being needlessly destructive, I always feel like they ultimately want to improve the medium, and don’t feel the need to hold back on their expectations as a result. A lot of veteran comic pros who make the news rounds for things they say seem like they’re either coming from a place of straight up hate or don’t actually want any kind of dialogue whatsoever, and maybe that’s why there is a hesitance to embrace the behavior of the new crowd.

It’s worth pointing out that the last time we really saw this kind of frank talk was the Image era, when even folks who weren’t part of the initial Image group notably sounded off constantly, including creators who are taken for granted these days, like Peter David.

Which brings up another question: is this frankness going to last?

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Ulises Farinas deals with his critics.

 

David: I hope so! I think you’re right in acknowledging that this kind of criticism isn’t just the reverse of the old man/wizard yelling at those young kids to get off of his lawn. It’s not the literary crowd bristling at the idea of genre encroaching on their capital-A “Art.” It’s other creators down in the trenches telling people to get their act together and produce nothing less than their best work.

There is this wonderful Jaime Hernandez quote that came up in conversation the first time I had a chance to talk with Brandon Graham: “If this scene sucks, it’s because you suck.” It puts the responsibility square on the shoulders of the creators if the scene they are a part of isn’t up to their liking. Maybe Graham, Kot, Farinas, et. al. have too high of standards for the medium, but it’s hard for me to take that viewpoint when they hold themselves to those same standards. I don’t think they’re about to shut up anytime soon, but will it carry on into the next generation of comics professionals or will we see it vanish like much of the back and forth during the birthing of Image? I can’t tell for certain, but I think a good place to look for some kind of foreshadowing would be the current comics journalism scene.

Without the online presence that exists now, you had magazines like Wizard as the dominant force, which did little more than perpetuate the status quo, by and large. Try as they might to distance themselves from Wizard, sites like CBR, Newsarama, and even Comics Alliance at times feel like they lob softballs and are unwilling to risk offending creators or publishers for fear of losing not just their access to said creators or publishers but also their readership, many of whom have a devotion to some comics companies or characters that borders on the religious. It is in the best interest of the biggest names in the business, whether they’re in the production or consumption of comics, to maintain the status quo.

In order for the frankness to last, everyone needs to be more open to criticism, which means they need to be more secure in themselves and their creative talents. I don’t want to be a cynic about it, but I don’t know that I would call the comics crowd—fans, journalists, or professionals—the most secure bunch.

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Nick: The insecurity is definitely an issue, but conveniently, Howard Chaykin (who is an OG of comics shittalking if ever there was one) recently used a panel he was on as an opportunity to confront that issue head on. Amongst other equally brilliant things, Chaykin remarked that “If you’re willing to put your ego aside and reinvent yourself every five, six, seven years, you can survive and thrive,” adding that “The only man of my generation that’s still producing work that’s not a parody of itself is Walter Simonson.”

Chaykin also asserted that he “believe[s] in contempt with investigation,” which wasn’t meant as a defense of his aggressive statement about the quality of his peers but a mantra of sorts for anyone who wants to not only make great comics, but continue to evolve with the form and achieve the kind of longevity he has. Chaykin’s defiant refusal to settle for mediocrity or sacrifice development for politeness is right in line with the attitude of the newer creators we’ve mentioned and symbolic of the worth that bluntness can have. A confident swagger doesn’t necessarily mean a stubborn refusal to grow, and Chaykin’s remarks show that any artist hoping to truly evolve has to be willing to question themselves and the industry at large if they really want to make an impact.

Of course, I should also mention that the only part of Chaykin’s panel that caught the attention of the media and fans was this:

“I believe that superhero comics are by nature children’s fiction. The idea of a man or woman dressing up in these goofy outfits and going out and fighting crime is absurd.”

David: While it may be a bit generous to stretch Walt Whitman’s “I am large, I contain multitudes” to the entirety of humanity, there is little denying that we are a complex species at even the individual level. It’s entirely possible to like someone’s body of work, even agree with some of their opinions, and then also think other things they might say are full of shit. The discussion on the merits of genre fiction and how Chaykin’s myopic viewpoint on superheroes does no one any good is something for another time, but it provides an excellent springboard for discussion.

I think Chaykin said something idiotic. I also think he said something rather brilliant. And finally, I like the majority of his comics work that I’ve had the pleasure of reading. On occasion, we will be fortunate enough to run into people who make work we love and whose opinions we agree with 100%, but the vast majority represent some kind of compromise, and it takes a level of maturity to accept that. Danny’s anecdote about Kot shows just how much someone’s character bleeds into whether or not professionals give their art credibility (or vice versa), and how it seems as though few fans or creators are willing to accept that we are complex people and respond to criticism of the work as criticism of the work instead of feeling like it’s all ad hominem all the time. All that kind of attitude does is stagnate the discussion. Which stagnates a medium that feels like it is in desperate need of growth.

People talk a lot about the Great Man Theory of history, and I think comics history gets talked about much in the same way, that great creators like Lee/Kirby/Ditko or Moore/Miller or Morrison/Gaiman/Ellis or Kot/Farinas/Graham usher in a new age of some kind. But while they may do some incredibly noteworthy work, the new age actually comes about because the masses are ready for it. The catch here is that rather than try and wait for the medium to catch up to what they’re doing, the current generation is trying to push them along, showing them a way to change not just by example but by providing feedback.

While this kind of interaction was certainly possible back in the days of letters pages, the internet clearly makes it much easier. Of course, it also puts everything on display for many more people to see. I’d say that’s for the better, but I don’t know that everyone feels that way

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Nick:  I’m more of a “you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs” kind of guy, so for me, it boils down to these figures as comic book egg breakers. There’s a lot of stupid shit in the comics status quo and I’m glad there are more creators willing to break it to make a better comic book omelette. It’s not at all coincidental that Kot and Farinas are also known for speaking out about various social injustices in comics, from sexism to racism to classism, and every time I see a pro or fan write them or their likeminded peers off as “popular with the Tumblr crowd,” I get happy because that means the disruption is working—the chief argument these opponents have is simply that these creators are clicking with new, nontraditional readers.

I don’t know if this group will be the generation that succeeds at forcing comics out of some of its worst habits, but even if they don’t I’m confident that their shittalking ways are emboldening new creators and fans alike and minor disagreements about their tone or specific comments aside, I think that’s a very good thing for the entire medium.

Addendum: We chose the phrase shittalking/shittalkers because that’s what both of us have seen get thrown around to describe a creator who is publicly critical of another creator. Rather than back away from it, the idea was to embrace it as a label for creators who have the courage to speak up when keeping your head down and being a part of Team Comics seems to be what is expected. 


David Fairbanks is a freelance writer, poet, and artist. You can find him on Twitter at @bairfanx.


Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands.  You can also flip through his archives at  Comics Bulletinwhich he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culturewhere he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover 

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