Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Am I the Rob Liefeld of Indie Comics?

Do comics have to look good? Does that matter to anyone?

I've been having a bit of a comics-conscience-crisis of late. This was sparked by a lot of things - my studio-mate Julie Maroh's brilliant looking holiday card, seeing the aisles and aisles of gorgeous french comics at Chapitre, and reading an American indy comic - I'm chicken shit and am not going to say which one - that was so impossible to look at that I gave up three pages in.

Julie Maroh's work is undeniably stunning
I started wondering whether art really mattered at all. I found a review of Dash Shaw's massive Bottomless Belly Button - and this was just a customer review on Amazon - that said that readers needed to meet the comic at it's own terms.

What other medium could you ever possibly read something like this? Music? Definitely not fiction ("you have to meet the style / prose / language at its own terms????) Perhaps movies, but only when describing a fun piece of junk.

So, if art is graded on a curve in a comic, what universal standards of quality are there? Storytelling? Characterization? I also read a glowing review of a different indy book from a prominent critic that, as an aside towards the end of the review, said the characters were two-dimensional.

I'm worried these laissez-faire standards will push comics further into the ascending colon of the art world. Maybe there's nothing wrong with this - I don't know. I can't help but have a lot of skepticism about the art world's relationship with comics - when somebody sells a single issue for $40,000, maybe I will change my mind.

A Dash Shaw piece where he adapts an episode of the reality TV show Blind Date. If this type of high-concept work is what critic Tom Spurgeon calls "The Future of the Comics" I'm not sure where my role is.
And maybe it's my own snobbery. I don't know how people can read a long, bad-looking comic. I just give up after a few pages - my eyes get tired.

And hey, I understand that standards of beauty vary, but to me it's obvious when there is genuine craft involved - you get absorbed in the world, it becomes believable, and the characters and story are free to really "live" in the reader's mind.  And I'm not talking about classical standards of beauty. It doesn't need to be a complex, or highly detailed, or even elegant style. It just has to have a style. Box Brown, James Kochalka, and Kevin Huizenga are quite capable artists that nobody is going to confuse with Moebius, but their work is visually harmonious and appealing. Through the power of their pictures, I can connect with their stories.

Great work from Ganges
So who's a bad comics artist? Well in this world of relativisms, one thing that's absolute is that Rob Liefeld is terrible - or at least, it's ok to say Rob Liefeld is terrible.
When I was 13 this was the most awesome thing ever, and I can still see it's charm.

Rob Liefeld is THE touchstone of bad art in comics culture. It isn't just superhero comics fans that bash Liefeld, it's the indy folks - maybe even especially the indy folks. But why? I really don't know. Is it because we have to meet superhero artwork on different terms? Is there any indy style that is trite, or cliched? Does my own work, which draws more than a few things from Clowes, fall into that cliche? Am I the Rob Liefeld of indy comics?

Is there any connection between our elevation of contemporary artists who's art we have to meet on their own terms and these massive, gorgeous, expensive omnibuses of super-talented and totally-deceased artists like Schultz / Barks / Ketcham? Or is it just cheaper to print these books after the artists are dead?

Anyway, enough indignant ranting. Power Out goes live tomorrow on MTV Geek. New stuff! I will be talking about it tomorrow.


Max Ink said...

A very thoughtful post, Nathan. But you're no Liefeld!

AJA said...

I agree, it is pretty disheartening to hear about the integration of the fine art world and the world of comics. But I try not to worry about it. I mean, in the fine art world, there are still people making great art(though sometimes, they are overshadowed by people like Jeff Koons.)

By the way, I don't think Dash Shaw is trying to do high concept art. If he was, he wouldn't be adapting a trashy reality television show.

natsch said...

Sorry guys, I thought I responded to these earlier but something messed up. Curse you blogger!

Max you're right - I'm not rich!

AJA, I feel like that "repurposing something trashy" is such a fine art troupe by now. But I agree about Koons, this is an interesting article (with an even better comments section) in the Economist:

Adam P. Knave said...

Actually I DO meet prose and music on its own terms. A bit of pop can be great pop. But it makes for sucky classical, eh? And this is ironic and that isn't and the intent and knowing the direction they were headed changes things.

There are books I couldn't read until I worked out how to see the book the way the author WANTED ME TO, not the way I TRIED TO see them. And once I did they became some of my fave books ever.

I don't see the problem of meeting art of any sort on it's own terms.

natsch said...

Ok Adam. But then, what's good and what's bad? Or is it irrelevant?

AJA said...

I'm actually quite confused about meeting art on its own terms. How is that possible? I just open a book and read. Is meeting it on its own terms thinking about it a different way, or is it thinking about the way the artist intended it to be read? I don't know... But if you have to read a comic the way the artist intended it and not the way that it is, then that comic if a bad comic. If you need to know more than what the book is telling you just to enjoy the work, then that artist isn't executing his art very well. I'd rather not have to read an interview about the intent of the artist just to enjoy the art.