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The Conversation: Part One
Chris Allen: Thank you for joining The Conversation. What this is, is a loosely structured series of exchanges between Alan and myself on a number of comics-related topics. It struck me long ago that some of our best, most pointed writing came from us emailing each other with no thought of public consumption, just off-the-cuff stuff. So I wanted to carry that across here, with a little more thought and expanse. Kind of in-between just a done-in-one essay or column and weeks-long exchanges among bloggers. It's just a couple guys who like and respect each other's opinion but are often in enough disagreement to keep things lively.
Alan David Doane: Over and above respecting Chris's opinion, it's really sickening how much I respect his writing and his approach to what we do here online. I've been saying this for years now, but it's really true: I want to be Chris Allen when I grow up.
CA: Wow, who knew that was coming? Thanks, Alan. Alan was the first guy who "hired" me to do online reviews anywhere, so while I have nothing but good things to say about Movie Poop Shoot, it is nice to be home again, even though all the other folks I started with at CBG have died such tragic deaths, or something. It's hard to keep track. Oh, I guess Marshall is still alive, so there's that.
ADD: Chris and I have been working together on and off for nigh on four years now, and although we've never met in person, he's one of the few people I regularly encounter online that I consider a friend as well as a colleague and a gifted writer. If you're new to Comic Book Galaxy and want to get a feel for how either Chris's or my mind works, you'd do well to explore the extensive archives we've built up over the years. Chris's Breakdowns archive at Movie Poop Shoot is here, while my review archive is maintained by the fine folks at Simply Comics right here. And of course we've both been writing columns and reviews here at Comic Book Galaxy, so check those out as well.
CA: A little personal background before get get into the topic. I've only really been reading Grant Morrison comics for about four years, at least with some measure of mature critical faculties, and some would argue that I haven't even read "the good ones." That is, I've now read the first and last arc of his JLA, JLA: Earth 2, Marvel Boy, New X-Men, the three Animal Man trades, The Filth, Seaguy and Sebastian O. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good chunk, but of course it excludes The Invisibles, which I read the first year of as a monthly and didn't like that much at the time, and Arkham Asylum, which I also read when it came out but haven't read since. Also, no Kill Your Boyfriend, St. Swithin's Day, Zenith, etc. What has struck me about Morrison's work is that it never ceases to be entertaining, and even the most conventional superhero narratives contain some surprising twists and ideas, some very funny bits of dialogue, and more often than not, some sort of emotional core or inner conflict amid all the psychedelic details.
ADD: I read a good deal of Grant Morrison's work before really becoming convinced of his more sublime gifts. I read his JLA pretty much from the beginning, but saw most of it as entertaining but impenetrable eye-candy; as is the case with Warren Ellis, I believe Morrison shines best when he is matched with quality artists long enough to establish a groove. JLA was crippled in some ways by the awkward, freakish but occasionally appealing art of Howard Porter, but for true excellence, Morrison's JLA: Earth 2 with artist Frank Quitely was many, many levels above anything else Morrison did on JLA. It is, very nearly, the perfect superhero comic: Inventive, witty, violent and unpredictable. Mediocre hacks like Geoff Johns, who really ought to be thrown out of comics by any means necessary, usually only utilize one of those elements. A recent read of The Flash: Blitz is a perfect case in point; Johns's story is violent, with no real imagination and absolutely no sense of wonder, joy or excitement at all. The more lifeless drek I read by industry leeches like Johns, the more I appreciate the truly imaginative creators who still choose to bless the corporate comics marketplace with their wares; Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, occasionally Bendis and Ellis, and man, after that, it's slim fucking pickings. Some writers like David Hine and Robert Kirkman have proven themselves on creator-owned projects, but haven't been working in corporate comics long enough for us to judge if they'll be chewed up and spit out like virtually every other quality writer ever to sign away all rights to his work.
CA: And now let me introduce our surprise guest...Geoff Johns!
ADD: Wrong website. So, it took me a while to truly appreciate the more subtle joys of Morrison's writing; it was a one-two punch this year, re-reading the entirety of Morrison's New X-Men and finally seeing how meticulously he plotted out the entire three years' worth of issues, seamlessly melding his interests in science and metaphysics and societies and cliques and mindfucks with the classic feel of Claremont and Byrne's X-Men, and even more importantly, The Filth, which is one of the most amazing graphic novels ever created for a corporate comics imprint.
CA: The Filth, admittedly, was a bit tough to take in the monthly pamphlet format, and I often felt like I was trying to listen to a really interesting piece of music on a badly tuned radio, but once collected, it all comes together as something not just bold and violent and funny, it really has a heart to it in the character/parapersona of Greg Feely.
The thing that I find disconcerting is how guys like Morrison or Alan Moore -- of a very select few working comics writers who have, I feel, pushed the medium forward and outward -- somehow seem to be almost punished for not always delivering another mind-blowing adventure, or producing something that works with themes they've visited before. Moore is criticized for the relatively low yield of fun and wit in his Tomorrow Stories/Tom Strong's Terrific Tales shorts, but why should this take any of the shine off Promethea or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen? Even the Moore collaboration with Peter Hogan, the congenial Terra Obscura, is a better-than-average superhero story, largely succeeding in giving a set of uninspired, defunct old '60s superheroes some personality and purpose. Morrison, for his part, has spent his entire career investing both his own and company properties with fresh ideas. His New X-Men was both sexy and cerebral and rather than merely offering the expected, Morrison added a number of new characters and concepts from which succeeding writers could have mined years of stories. Anyway, before I just run away with this show, Alan, let me throw out my thesis and put the ball in your court, and the genesis is this. A comics-writing friend of mine who was heavily influenced by Morrison as a youth, feels that Morrison is basically treading water at this point, despite The Filth and Seaguy and Vimanarama and the promise of fresh narrative strategies with Seven Soldiers -- all dat. My point/complaint is: Why isn't it enough that Morrison (and feel free to include Moore, though since he's retiring from comics soon, the mean-spirited griping seems to have subsided a bit, replaced a little by mean-spirited griping that this titan of comics had too many tributes published about him) just be interesting and entertaining with every project? When others are content to work within established formulas and are rewarded handsomely for it, why is a Morrison expected to raise his own bar ever higher?
ADD: I think simply because he is Grant Morrison, and the same with Alan Moore. Because they so often have provided entertainment which is light-years more mind-expanding, thoughtful, clever, witty and charming than the nearest competition, the expectations are that much higher. I find both Moore and Morrison addictive, genuinely addictive -- I've more than once blown the rent money on their work because I just had to have it -- and like any drug (and I do believe their best works are drugs, impacting themselves on my cerebral cortex in quite delightful ways), I want the high to be bigger and better every time.
Like many, I've been disappointed by some of their works -- like much of Moore's mid-'90s Image work or Morrison's Arkham Asylum, which I think is a bit overrated -- but I have learned to trust them. If a new work by one of these transcendent talents fails for me upon first reading, my first instinct is to guess it's me and not them. And often -- like The Filth -- a second, later read will prove my theory right. I just wasn't ready for it the first time, my mind wasn't open enough.
Now place this discontent on the average comics "fan" who actually has somehow managed to deceive himself into thinking people like Geoff Johns or Frank Tieri are "writers," (ha! ha!), and I imagine the effect is magnified enormously. Because so much time is spent justifying a love for utter shit, as long as you get to see the Alan Scott Zombie shamble through yet another moribund "adventure" in JSA, that you also have to build up a real resistence and resentment of talent that genuinely dares to shine. So when a Moore or a Morrison fails for the typical comics "fan," man, they start throwing the feces around their cages with their righteous indig-nerd-ation.
CA: Hey, I'm the wordplay guy! Seriously, I think you're right that there's a genuine mental, emotional resistance to comics that challenge and surprise. I don't mean that in an elitist way, really. When Warren Ellis throws his hand up and says that superheroes are the only thing the readers want, I tend to think he just should have tried harder on Red and Tokyo Storm Warning and the rest. But really, I feel it, too, sometimes: it just feels comfortable reading the same ol' shit. I read JSA for about a year before I realized it just wasn't very good. Not offensive, just blah. It's de rigueur now to spend six issues just getting the team together, so that the new writer basically has an easy time of it for the first year. Look at Morrison's JLA, which is now almost a throwback, oddly enough: the team is already in place, and they beat the bad guys in four issues, with no subplots and soap operatics. I don't mean to keep bringing this back to Geoff Johns, as there are worse writers (Austen, Tieri), but so often he can stretch himself over so many books because he's accomplishing so little and putting so few ideas in there. Look at that JSA: All-Stars travesty, which had a lame, basic supervillain plot wrapped around basically the same one-shot over and over: "I'm a young hero who has big shoes to fill/I'm an old codger trying to find meaning in life -- LOVE ME!" Where's the new? I can't remember a lot of superhero plots a month after I've read them, but I'm still thinking about Greg Feely losing his cat, you know? Sophie from Promethea is a friend of mine. Morrison and Moore resonate not just because of "mad ideas" and magick and symbolism, but because there is compassion and emotion in most of their work.
ADD: And the "mad ideas" line is getting really old, especially when one does a little research and finds out that the type of magick that Moore and Morrison describe is closer to science than superheroics or the supernatural. Even Ellis throws in some cutting edge science in some of his better work, but the idea of using one's will to affect beneficial change on your immediate universe -- which is a lot of what Moore and Morrison are talking about, when you strip away the hyperbole. There's some discussion of the intersection of science and magick here, and of course Moore's Promethea is a virtual primer on the subject if one follows up on the references in the text. Morrison is even taking part in a weekend educational retreat with other noted, forward-thinking authors. But it's so easy to dismiss these progressive, exciting concepts as "mad ideas," and therefore deny yourself the full range of the work, comforting yourself with specious claims that Moore and Morrison are wacky charlatans. Meanwhile, comics like The Invisibles and Promethea are mapping out a potential course for 21st Century humanity based on history, science and yes, magick. And they're doing it in monthly funnybooks. No wonder the nerds are so outraged when they don't get it. No wonder there's so little discussion of Moore's stunning novel Voice of the Fire, which perfectly encapsulates the universality of human experience with wonder and awe, while also serving as a speculative fiction of the human race and Alan Moore's hometown over the course of thousands of years. This stuff is just too big for the average sooperhero fan, I suspect -- but for those willing to make the leap, Jesus, you couldn't ask for more entertaining or rewarding work.
CA: I guess I should point out here that I'm not irritated because Moore's work doesn't make any Top 10 sales lists, or because many people ignored The Filth but bought healthy numbers of New X-Men. More challenging work, and work not featuring established characters, is going to find a smaller audience. That's fine. I'm more annoyed by the general ignorance and lack of respect for these guys. Knowing Moore's time is winding down, why haven't orders increased on his ABC work? Why did Seaguy thud, when it's a thoughtful, energetic adventure of shifting moods and lyrical storytelling, with terrific Cameron Stewart art? We complain when our comics aren't giving us the thrills we need, yet we ignore the excellent authors slaving away to create newer and more interesting thrills. Alan, you made a good point -- two, actually -- about trusting these creators, and how second readings often reveal deeper layers. Even when I feel that Morrison or Moore dropped the ball here or there -- Moore's shorts in the ABC anthology titles, mentioned earlier, and Seaguy not ending satisfactorily, I rarely feel that either author disrespects me as a reader/consumer. I feel that they were engaged and trying hard, and the two of us just didn't line up that well on a particular work. As far as second readings, how many current comics really deserve them? I'm not just talking about superhero comics, though there's probably more forgettable ones than altcomix, but even a terrific writer like Bendis doesn't often write stories that gain deeper meaning on a second reading. Andy Diggle, Bill Willingham, Brian Azzarello -- all very good, but do you think you missed anything on your first readings of respective issues of The Losers, Fables or 100 Bullets? To say nothing of the wider range of writing techniques M & M employ, while the others find something that works and stick with it, for the most part.
ADD: I find those last three you mention varying degrees of overrated -- Willingham's stuff is fine for what it is, but in the long run it's not for me; both Azzarello and Diggle have disappointed me enough times that I'm quite convinced it's them and not me. Augie and I bond over our befuddlement that The Losers is considered a quality book, when it's a barely-there mish-mash of action-movie cliches, while I find Azzarello's stuff overblown and undercooked at the same time.
I find that Brian Bendis's Powers rewards second and even third readings, but that's a creator owned work that I think it's clear is much more of a labour of love for Bendis and Mike Oeming than anything else they've ever done, and certainly moreso than anything they've created for the corporate superhero comics companies.
CA: To put it another way, Morrison and Moore are a couple of Beatles in a sea of Dave Clarks and Monkees. Don't get me wrong; my comics diet contains a good deal of straight entertainers like Steve Niles, Robert Kirkman, and Eric Powell, and I don't need my mind expanded with every book. Escapism and entertainment aren't dirty words. But the way we treat our visionaries, especially when they are so rare and have yet to be joined by a younger generation of genius, is pretty shoddy. When these guys quit or tell all the stories they have, who's left waiting to carry the torch?
ADD: And I think in the interests of staying on-topic covering corporate comics writers, we've been extraordinarily kind. Creators like Chris Ware, R. Crumb, Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, Chester Brown, Phoebe Gloeckner, Gilbert Hernandez, Renee French, Joe Sacco -- I could go on and on, and some say I do -- but in any objective assessment of the relative merits of all comics creators, both in the corporate and artcomix realms, man, guys like Johns and Tieri and Loeb and Winick, they're not even in the top 200 list of quality creators. They are the bottom of the goddamned barrel. It's only in a myopic, inbred community like the direct market and the commentators discussing it where shit-peddlers like this can be taken seriously, regularly interviewed and reviewed as if they actually contribute something to the artform. It's like a bad joke, but everybody keeps laughing.
The majority of corporate comics creators, expecially writers, and I'd even include (especially include, come to think of it) guys like Claremont or Bruce Jones, these people are not artists in any sane sense of the word. They're craftsmen, hard workers who know how to build a somewhat sturdy chair that doesn't wobble much, but they have absolutely no aspirations beyond the most basic entertainment, or if they do, they demonstrate no ability to fulfill those aspirations in any way detectable by even the most careful of readers. Moore and Morrison, on the other hand, are true artists who've chosen to practice their art within the corporate comics structure for one reason or another, and are among the very few who truly deserve consideration among the all-time great comics creators, the majority of whom are usually writer/artists working exclusively outside corporate comics. Writers who have demonstrated a gift, like a Bendis or a Kirkman, would do well to beware of the lures of the quick buck and the instant fame and better follow the model Moore and Morrison have built for themselves, yielding little in their will to personal power and creative freedom, and in return taking the opportunities they do have to create enduring art that enlightens and informs and expands the possibilities of what is possible in comics. To falter from that path may make one wealthy and popular in the short run, but at the end of my life, personally, I would rather look back and be able to say I created work that made things better, that improved the artform and its readers, than to laugh from my modest mansion as the fanboys line up to buy my latest reinvention of the 2099 universe or the goddamned Doom Patrol. It is to shudder.
CA: I agree with you, up to a point. I think it's dangerous to, say, only write things you feel are of great consequence, or believe your own hype. Woody Allen made an effective transition from funnyman to filmmaker of depth, but who really likes to see Bill "Booty Call" Cosby passing judgment on everyone else? Why can't Rob Reiner or Barry Levinson be funny anymore? I think for many artists it's absolutely necessary to do lighter work between the heavy lifting. Garth Ennis does it; Ellis does -- probably too much. Moore's strips and Morrison's "headjams" are ways to clear the lines so that the more meaningful work can come through, I think, so that a "Splash Brannigan" might be a way for Moore to mentally cool down and have a laugh between Promethea's.
ADD: And even there, there are degrees of value. I think any sane observer would concede that Splash Brannigan pales in comparison to the Jack B. Quick stories -- even the best issues of Tomorrow Stories are a lesson in the ways that even the very best creators can vary in quality depending on their level of interest, their creative partners, and other factors.
CA: I don't want this to get into a rant where we're telling the majority of the comics-buying public they're idiots with no taste -- that's Part Two (kidding) -- but I would suggest that we, as consumers of comics, have a kind of relationship with those who create these entertainments for us. If a Morrison, Moore, Milligan or Miller has rocked you with their work, give them a chance on whatever they do. I'm not saying one should feel a responsibility to pick up a $24.95 hardcover graphic novel, but those that dug New X-Men, why didn't you at least give The Filth a shot? And vice-versa. There are warring factions among fanboys; those who want the best and brightest creators toiling on company-owned, familiar properties, and those who support only the creator-owned or offbeat work and spite the creators of these books when they do something company-owned, without giving it even a chance to show that the creator's heart may even be in the work. Moore has been successful and/or disciplined enough to not do any work-for-hire for many years, while Morrison can't help but put good ideas and effort into every company-owned property he writes. I don't think Robert Kirkman writing a bunch of books for Marvel is really going to help him grow as a writer, you know, but if he has given you sufficient enjoyment from Invincible or Walking Dead or anything else, maybe you want to give him a chance on some of these books. It's hard to grow artistically if you're hungry, right? But on the flipside, I don't want to see Milligan or Brian K. Vaughan spending too much time on X-Men and Punisher books that they could be spending on their own creations. Milligan, by the way, has made Human Target as complex and personal a work as anything on the shelves, and he doesn't even own it.
ADD: And the audience doesn't seem to be supporting it, despite the fact that it seems to get better almost every month. I do despair to see quality writers from independent, alternative or creator-owned comics "poached" by corporations -- Kirkman's first issue of Captain America was certainly the very least impressive effort I've ever seen him deliver -- but when we see something like Morrison's New X-Men run, it is a reminder that there can be life in the so-called mainstream, yet. That people with genuine ideas and enthusiasm can be willing to give up new characters and plotlines in exchange for the joy they get from creating stories about the characters they loved in their youth. But in the entire time I've been reading comics -- since 1972, to be exact -- this has become more and more rare, as creators see how little long-term reward there is for their toil. In an industry that has utterly betrayed the very fathers that created it -- Stan, Jack, Joe, Jerry, and so many hundreds more -- it's a wonder at all that a Frank Miller or a Grant Morrison or an Alan Moore or a Darwyn Cooke was ever willing to jump in the sandbox and give up their toys. As readers we should be grateful when they do decide to do so, in the face of so much evidence that it will ultimately bring them only heartbreak and misery -- but instead it seems more and more that the majority of comics shop consumers would rather eschew the truly good stuff, as rare as it is, and find comfort in the reliable mediocrity that makes up the top of the sales charts virtually every month. This industry has much to be ashamed for, but only the readers can truly be held accountable for the deification of crap to the detriment of work that actually moves comics forward. It's in the hands of every reader to celebrate the great works of comics by supporting their creators, and ensuring the weeding out of garbage by not supporting works that don't stun your senses and shock you with their sense of the new, the exciting, the what's next?. So far, it seems like the crap is winning. But who can resist, when it comes wrapped in a holofoil variant cover by someone who didn't even draw the insides?
CA: I'm actually a bit more optimistic, and not just because I have a few fairly challenging projects in the works myself and have to be optimistic. I think the next Moore or Morrison will emerge, and in the meantime we've still got Milligan, Brubaker, Vaughn, Thompson, Clowes, Ware, Hernandez, Hernandez, Bendis, Grant, Waid, Niles et al. Things aren't so dire. Bendis, for one, manages to infuse all his work with both a snappy sarcasm and a heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that makes most other superhero books look stiff and cold. Heart isn't a bad substitute for ideas. I'm also optimistic about the celebratory quality of the SD Comic-Con, because it really felt like comics were very nearly cool to a significant portion of the outside world, from kids to Hollywood suits. I think that this can lead to the next generation of visionary writer, maybe a guy with a million great ideas who abandons screenwriting because he can't get anyone to buy his stuff, maybe feeling his vision is too grand for a feature. In comics, there's no budget for special effects, and story length is very negotiable. And if and when one of these startling talents arrives, let's encourage and support them, and enjoy their gifts without trying to contain them in the same old box.