The magnificent Nothing Nice to Say, co-written by Mitch Clem and Joe Briggs, with art by Mitch Clem. (Larger version)
I intend to write something more substantial about what NN2S has meant to me over the years at some point, but for now I’ll leave this here. Get ye stoked on Karen, and start thy bands!
“…we have a responsibility to explore new ways of connecting with the world and with each other.” Nathan Stephens Griffin on why he is inspired by Audre Lorde
(Andy’s note: Because of the way the theme is formatted, this is gonna read like crap on the home page. Click here to check it out at a more sensible size. If you’d like to write about someone who inspires you, get in touch.)
Nathan is one half of One Night Stand In North Dakota, my favourite UK band. He’s interested in comics and queer theory, which makes him double-rad to the power of zombie dinosaurs. His contact details are on his Tumblr, which you can find here. He’s written for ILS before, on lad culture and gender here. I Live Sweat interviewed ONSIND last year too. Go and read!
“…to just leave everything behind in the pursuit of something else.” We interview Kayla Marie Hillier about documenting her life in comics form.
ILS: Hi, Kayla. For readers who aren’t familiar with you or your work, could you give us a quick run down of who you are, where you’re from, and what you do.
KH: For those who aren’t familiar- I’m Kayla Marie Hillier and sometimes I make comics.
I grew up in a tiny village in Ontario called Stoney Point, got a degree in Philosophy and Film Studies in the Niagara region, and then moved on to Toronto where I worked for the Beguiling, and helped with lovely fests like TCAF for quite a few years.
I’m lucky that many of my friends are talented comic folks and being around them can be quite inspiring - hanging out with Julia Scheele especially over the fall of 2009 - she kinda shoved me toward drawing again (I’d stopped and focused on writing for many-a-year). That little push resulted in me deciding to document a, shall we say, life changing 3 month trip that I made around the UK and throw it online as a webcomic, which of course became Galavant.
Currently I’ve taken a bit of a siesta from drawing, but I do have many projects under my hat. I sling coffee for a living at the moment, so when I find the time I continue to trudge through the comic muck. I mean that in a loving way.
ILS: Could you tell our readers a little bit more about your trip, the impact it had on you, and what led you to document the experience in comics form?
KH: In Canada you don’t get as much time off for holidays as you do in the UK. For about 3 years I was working for an IT Recruitment company, essentially working six months to take a one week holiday, to work another six months for yet another week long holiday, not really enjoying my work, lacking in the ‘personal fulfillment’ department. So, that’s what started the whole thing to begin with. I’d gone to London for one of those week long holidays and fell in love. London felt right. More right than Toronto felt even, so I decided to have a little courage and get rid of my well paying job in the middle of a recession, get out of a comfortably complacent relationship, and take a sincere holiday - do some real travel.
To be honest, I’m still digesting that move. As I say in Galavant, I’m still essentially working through a decision I made at the end of 2009. I don’t regret it, but it’s only now, two years later, that’s it’s started to show it’s reward. I’ve never felt that twinge of “that was it- good job Kayla” until recently. That’s why it was so important for me to document it. I could have had a good life in Toronto. I was heading down a path, but I decided to not go with the flow and instead start over. I guess I hadn’t anticipated how much I’d really have to start over, but here we are. I could have just taken photos and written a blog… or… I dunno, the usual, but something made me think that I’d want to do even more than that. That I’d never have the opportunity again to just leave everything behind in the pursuit of something else. I thought that I’d like to see things through my eyes- not through a lens.
ILS: On the topic of telling your story from your own perspective, I’d like to talk a little bit about autobiography as an idea. Now, obviously a great many works are autobiographical to one degree or anothe; Writers frequently talk about putting bits of their own experience into a story, or modelling characters on parts of themselves, but you’re writing about your own experiences, a relatively short time, in terms of conventional autobiography and memoir, after the events. What’s it like to work on an autobiographical work so soon after the story it tells, and how have you found writing about other people, many of who I’d presume you’re still in touch with?
KH: One of the most interesting things I found while creating Galavant was how my opinion of certain events would change after I drew/experienced them- the memory and the drawing seemed to generally stay true to the actual event but over time just like with any memory- how you remember things or how you feel about certain situations can shift- so that’s been interesting.
Some parts I drew several months afterwards so I do feel like those situations tend to be more reflective - for instance the outro was probably one of the first times that I sat down and really asked myself how I felt about the whole thing.
Writing about other people has been kinda tricky- I did have one request to be left out of the comic and of course I respected that. I think everyone I was hanging out with- as most of them are comic artists, understood and were okay with it. But it does influence you- worries about people not liking how you drew them or fears that you’re not remembering things correctly.
I know with Adam a lot of the time I’d ask him for feedback or ask him questions to make sure that I was remember things correctly.
I feel like I was pretty damn honest through the whole comic but there are some events that were definitely left out because they cut too close and I didn’t want to hurt/offend anyone- but in those instances I tried to at least hint that something else was going on, if not solely as a reminder for myself (A part of me kinda wants to draw the mucky bits just for myself- therapeutic maybe?).
ILS: One of the parts I really enjoyed was the bit at the rockabilly night, where you commented on how amazing it was to see people so committed to their particular subculture. Have you been part of a subculture like that during your life?
KH: I don’t know if I’ve ever been 100% fully devoted to a subculture. I’ve never really been a trend follower- I’ll be on top of something and the second it gets big I’m that asshole that has to stop doing or liking whatever it is. I try not to do that anymore, but, deep down,my inner indie kid feels it’s necessary.
So I guess I’m a bit of a hipster. Insert groans here, haha.
ILS: There’s a lot of that goes on in punk. Once someone gets successful, it’s like rats leaving a sinking ship. There’s a punk cartoonist by the name of Mitch Clem who wrote once that “Punks fear money like a caveman might fear fire.” It’s nice to know that notion isn’t specific to our little corner of the cultural landscape.
As far as culture more broadly goes, what are your major reference points?
KH: I think anyone that belongs to any kind of non-mainstream type grouping has the whole selling out fear deeply ingrained.
Ooh um, major reference points, hmm, broad culture…
Well music for me is huge. It’s always played a major role for me- creatively and otherwise. I’ll use it to get in the right mood to write or to remind me of certain events and moments. There’s some specific tunes that immediately drag me into my sorrows- where I tend to have my more clever moments.
I’m a big film fan - I have a Philosophy and Film degree - I love teen flicks- so I think that it all kind of goes hand in hand. Teen flicks tend to have loads of music, deal with relationships … that whole thing. I love that. I like to examine how people relate- understand one another- which of course also relates to philosophy. It’s all connected, heh.
ILS: Who are your favourite philosophers? I was in Edinburgh with my dad a few years ago, and I was excited to take a photo of the David Hume statue just down the road from the castle. When we got to it, it had a huge traffic cone on it’s head. Still not sure whether that was awesome or shitty.
KH: I was there a week or so ago and no traffic cone- I’ve seen that in Glasgow outside of the art gallery on a statue- Hume is very interesting mmhmm
Anyhoo- my favourite will always be Nietzsche and I know that it sounds a bit like a cop-out, but existentialism is probably the area I’m most interested in- Human, All Too Human is one of my all time favourites. I love his idea of the fettered spirit vs. free spirit. I also really dig Kierkegaard - different areas of Chinese philosophy are really interesting as well- But Nietzsche will always take the cake.
ILS: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re living in Manchester now, aren’t you? How do you feel about the city, and how do you interact with it on a daily basis?
KH: I am living in Manchester at the moment- oddly enough I’m potentially moving in the next month or so-
I have a weird relationship with Manchester- I love the city, but in a true ‘love’ love kind of way where you accept all the good and the bad. I’ve had some seriously tough times in this city and I can’t seem to separate it from that- but at the same time it has some of the best bloody cafes I have ever been to. The industrial revolution began here! That’s awesome! I’m also living in the swankiest apartment that I probably will ever live in and the rent is silly cheap.
Wherever I live- I do make a effort to explore and really see every part of the city. I walk everywhere until I feel that I’ve “conquered” it. But my focus in general is cafe culture. I bloody love a good brew and a baked good.
ILS: I only really know Oldham Street, and Salford, the former because it’s full of comic shops and arty book shops, and the latter because it’s where my mates live.
If I remember correctly, you had first hand experience of the rioting that hit Manchester earlier in the year. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
KH: I did-I work at a cafe and it was one of the places that go hit pretty badly. It was really strange … you could just see people filtering out of the city center and I kept hoping that nothing would happen but then we started to see these big groups of kids/teens heading downtown wearing dark clothes with their faces covered. Freaky stuff… so finally our management said we could close and just as we’d finished tidying up and we’re getting ready to leave they broke our windows- luckily they didn’t come in just then (they came back later and trashed the place, broke our pastry case etc) but it definitely wasn’t my favorite Manchester moment. I just remember running down the stairs trying to figure out if it was safer to hide or try and run through the crowds outside… horrible.
Got home safe eventually just crazy- I was really hoping that Manchester would stay out of the whole riot scenario.
ILS: I remember seeing your Twitter feed as it was going on, along with tweets from a few other UK comics folks asking if you were ok. There was definitely an air of tension up and down the country, and a very real fear at times. Did that experience colour your view of Manchester, or the UK, at all?
KH: It’s strange- I don’t think the whole thing really affected my view of Manchester in a negative way- if anything the amount of people who pulled together to clean up the city and lend support afterwards was super overwhelming and uplifting.
I guess I feel like people in any city have the potential to do something of that nature- if anything shocked me it was the age of the rioters. So many kids and teens- that was upsetting.
ILS: What is it about comics that draws you to the medium?
KH: I think I’m drawn to comics in a very similar way that I’m drawn to film. Film combines, acting, music, and all these lovely visual aspects- comics do the same- they combine words and pictures. I think an image at times can provoke so much thought and emotion- without having to give you the answer and spell it out to you. But an image drawn from someone’s hand emotes in a different way- I find that so bloody interesting. I think that’s why I’m so drawn to autobio comics, you get the extra pleasure with how things are drawn- how people represent themselves.
I like being pleased about what I’m reading and then getting the extra BABAM! at the artwork.
Awww comics are just bloody fantastic. heh
ILS: I’ve never thought about it that way before, but now that I think about it, you’ve got a point. The works of Joe Sacco, and Craig Thompson’s Blankets come to mind, in terms of that very expressive linework that, like you say, comes straight from their own hand.
Of course, comics have the added bonus over film in that they’re much cheaper to produce in most cases, and require less hoop jumping.
KH: It’s true- that is probably the best part about comics- a single person can call all of the shots and really make it what they want. Surely there are improvements that can be made via the input of others, but there is something to be said for a singular idea being developed beginning to end from a single source or idea.
Comics are very different in so many ways I think mmhm
ILS: Have you had any opportunities to do comics work beyond your self-published stuff?
KH: Not really as of yet- I’m going to be in the next Paper Science in early 2012- I’m really excited about that actually.
I’ve done a few bits and bobs here and there for friends or other things- but that will be my first major thing outside of my own stuff.
ILS: For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with it, and I include myself in this, what’s Paper Science?
KH: Paper Science is put together by We Are Words + Pictures which is a group of comic artists and writers who promote comics at festivals and events all over the UK. They also do this via Paper Science which is a quarterly anthology that runs with support of Newspaper Club. I’ll be in the 7th issue- the 6th one has just come out this weekend. Really fantastic stuff for only a couple pounds!
ILS: How have you found the comics scene in the UK? I noticed the Phonogram lads, Jamie and Kieron, popped up in Galavant.
KH: The UK comics scene is good. I personally really dig it. Since I got out of uni, the lion’s share of my friendships have been with comic artists or people related to the comic scene by some happy coincidence. I really like the Toronto folk but I haven’t really done comics in Canada, I started out in the UK scene. I never felt that push to do it back home. Most of my friends there are published whereas most of my friends in the UK are self-published. I think it’s much more encouraging to get your own work done when you see what all of your friends have accomplished of their own accord. I also really like the level of control that you can have by making something yourself.
I rambled on a bit about this at TCAF but I just feel that this scene has a more “give it a go!” feeling whereas back home I’d look at the professional stuff that friends were creating and I’d feel like I should just quit while I’m ahead.
Ah and to add.. yes Jamie, Kieron… and loads of other amazing British comic artists/ writers have been so bloody welcoming and supportive - not only with my comic shenanigans. Loveliest people.
ILS: Do you think that’s to do with relative proximity to the major US players, in terms of publishing?
KH: I do think so- not only that but you have Drawn & Quarterly super close by and loads of other publishers. That being said though, there are quite a few publishers that have popped up in the UK over the last few years who are allowing for some incredible opportunities for UK artists. I think things are definitely changing.
ILS: How has getting your work out there via the web been for you?
KH: I don’t have much experience with comics outside of throwin’ ‘em up on the web- but it has definitely been a positive experience. You get this immediate response from people- you don’t really get that when you toil away at a book and then release it. Every page is out there and each individual moment is getting a reaction. It’s neat.
But since printing the full Galavant collection I’ve also had the opportunity to hear from people who have never read it online and have bought the book. Neat seeing how the two experiences differ.
ILS: Right then, I think that’ll do us. Have you got anything you’d like to add before I let you go?
KH: Hmmmm ponder ponder… I don’t think so. heh.
(Andy’s note: This interview was conducted between the 6th of October and the 5th of November, 2011)
Kayla Marie Hillier is a comics creator and pastry slinger based in the UK. She is originally from Canada, where the friendly people come from. She can be found at her website, and her autobiographical webcomic, Galavant.
“Pull on your tights…” Andy Waterfield responds to Frank Miller’s recent comments on the “Occupy” movement.
“The “Occupy” movement, whether displaying itself on Wall Street or in the streets of Oakland (which has, with unspeakable cowardice, embraced it) is anything but an exercise of our blessed First Amendment. “Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness. These clowns can do nothing but harm America.”
So begins Frank Miller’s recent blog post about the “Occupy” phenomenon. For those who aren’t familiar with his work, Frank Miller is a comics writer and artist of some considerable standing. While critical response to his more recent work is varied, his work in the 1980s, and, to a lesser extent, the 1990s, is considered by many to be one of the most important bodies of comics literature of all time.
His run on Daredevil: The Man Without Fear, beginning in 1979, redefined the character, and his cinematic style, heavily influenced by film noir, invited a new generation of creators to rethink what could be done with the medium.
His Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, produced in collaboration with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley is a compelling and evocative character study, examining the motivations and methodology of an aging Bruce Wayne, determined to reclaim his city and the world from corruption and crime, even it means sacrificing himself in the process. It is by turns a work of masterful adventure storytelling, a biting satire of the “talking head” political commentators of our time, and a beautiful, often genuinely stunning, work of art.
I could go on a lot longer, imploring you to consider the subtle tensions in Batman: Year One, to those familiar with the work, clearly a key source of inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s incredibly popular film, Batman Begins. Or maybe I could talk about the use of contrast in the oppressive and claustrophobic violence of Sin City?
I’m not going to do any of that, because that’s not the point of this piece. I just wanted to make it very clear that I have been a fan of Frank Miller’s work, or much of it, for quite a while, and while I have problems with some of it, I can appreciate that he is a master of the craft of comics storytelling.
None of that matters here, because here and now, in this most recent tirade, Frank Miller is quite simply wrong, and I intend to explain why.
Firstly, Miller appears to be labouring under the misapprehension that “Occupy” as a phenomenon, is exclusive to New York and Oakland, or at the very least, he appears to be implying that it is concentrated primarily in those places. While these expressions of the phenomenon are almost certainly the largest, “Occupy” exists in a great many places, across multiple continents. The Guardian’s Data Blog has an interactive map charting the brood brush strokes of “Occupy” in terms of attendance estimates and locations. Without putting too fine a point on it, the map speaks for itself.
Miller claims that Oakland has embraced “Occupy” “with unspeakable cowardice”. He doesn’t back up that assertion, but maybe he doesn’t feel he needs to. I’m certainly not prepared to put words in his mouth, but I will say this: Miller grew up in Montpelier, Vermont, and while he spent much of his early career living in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, I think it’s fair to say he made a significant amount of money in the 1980s, and has made fair bit since, given the continued success of his most famous comics works, and the success of films based on his creator owned work.
What I’m getting at, is that Frank Miller may have known poverty at certain times of his life, and he may recognise it in others, but he is no longer of poverty himself, if he ever was.
The US Census Bureau provides vast amounts of free to access data gathered under it’s American Community Survey. The five year estimates for 2005-2009 suggest that Montpelier city, Vermont, the town in which Miller grew up, has 11.9% of individuals living below the poverty line. This is below the figure for the US as a whole, which stands at 13.5%. The ACS gives a margin of error of +/-3.1. Now, Miller might very well have been living in poverty during his younger days, but unless Montpelier has been on the up and up since he lived there, it’s poverty levels more broadly are fairly average.
Now let’s take a look at Oakland. According to the exact same data set, 17.5% of Oakland’s population live below the poverty line. This time around, the margin for error is +/-0.6, so the ACS is a damn sight surer of these figures. In addition to it’s high levels of poverty, when compared to the average across the US, Oakland also enjoys a high level of ethnic diversity, unsurprising since so many African Americans moved there for work in the post-war period.
Now, I should stress that my picture of Oakland is amassed from what I’ve garnered from news reports over the years, accounts of the place in music and film, social science resources like those featured above, and the autobiography of Huey P. Newton, Revolutionary Suicide. I don’t know this town, but then how well does Frank Miller know it? Perhaps he’s deeply familiar with Oakland, it’s history, and it’s people, and therefore has a firm foundation on which to base his assertions about it’s people, and their relative levels of courage. We can’t know that, but what I know is this. Given it’s history, it’s economics, and it’s relative poverty, it doesn’t look like the type of place to be apathetic about economic injustice.
“”Occupy” is nothing but a pack of louts, thieves, and rapists, an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness.”
This is almost certainly the single most malignant sentence in Miller’s piece. Note that he is not merely saying that there are “louts, thieves, and rapists” within the “Occupy” movement. Indeed, for any body of people of that kind of size, we could very well expect some of them to be thieves and rapists (an unfortunate, but very well documented phenomenon, to which progressive movements are unfortunately not exempt). However, Miller isn’t saying this. He’s saying that the people who make up “Occupy” are “nothing but” these things, “an unruly mob, fed by Woodstock-era nostalgia and putrid false righteousness.” Miller doesn’t back this last assertion up with any evidence. Considering how frequently I myself am asked what the Hell I’m talking about, when I make reference to some aspect of this era in conversation with my peers, I’m loathe to believe that “Woodstock-era nostalgia” is some far-reaching or defining quality of my generation, though I could be wrong. Either way, we might want to steer clear of the brown acid.
““Occupy” is nothing short of a clumsy, poorly-expressed attempt at anarchy, to the extent that the “movement” – HAH! Some “movement”, except if the word “bowel” is attached - is anything more than an ugly fashion statement by a bunch of iPhone, iPad wielding spoiled brats who should stop getting in the way of working people and find jobs for themselves.”
It’s here that Miller gets dangerously close to having a point. The “Occupy” movement is undoubtedly clumsy, and has been poorly-expressed at times. This, however, is the nature of a fledgling movement, attempting to veer away from hierarchy and dogma. Plenty of people, within the movement and without, have acknowledged these points. That it’s an attempt at “anarchy” however, is a shaky assertion indeed. From what I can gather, the “Occupy” movement is composed of individuals from a range of backgrounds and political ideologies. There are, undoubtedly, Anarchists in this mix, but there are also socialists, social democrats, and others, all with their own particular perspective, and, one must assume, their own particular views on the best way for “Occupy” to proceed. Painting such a grouping, across many nations and continents, as some sort of ideological monolith is simply absurd. Indeed, seeking to portray Anarchism as a monolith is ridiculous too, but that’s much of a muchness here.
There are accounts all over the internet from people involved with “Occupy” who have gainful employment of one kind or another (you can search for those on your own time, chums), and while there are certainly valid questions about the relative class privilege of a proportion of the protesters, you can all make up your own minds as to whether every last “Occupy” protester is weighed down by a rucksack full of Apple products. I’m not even going to dignify Miller’s apparent contempt for unemployed youth with a response.
“This is no popular uprising. This is garbage. And goodness knows they’re spewing their garbage – both politically and physically – every which way they can find.
Wake up, pond scum. America is at war against a ruthless enemy.”
It’s here that Miller takes something of a shift in the direction of his bile.
“Maybe, between bouts of self-pity and all the other tasty tidbits of narcissism you’ve been served up in your sheltered, comfy little worlds, you’ve heard terms like al-Qaeda and Islamicism.
And this enemy of mine — not of yours, apparently - must be getting a dark chuckle, if not an outright horselaugh - out of your vain, childish, self-destructive spectacle.
In the name of decency, go home to your parents, you losers. Go back to your mommas’ basements and play with your Lords Of Warcraft.
Or better yet, enlist for the real thing. Maybe our military could whip some of you into shape.
They might not let you babies keep your iPhones, though. Try to soldier on.
Are we to ignore economic injustice simply because Radical Islamist Terrorism is a thing? Apparently so, if Frank is to be believed. On this point, I’ll refer you to David Brothers’ extremely well executed critique of Frank Miller’s Holy Terror. You’ll find it in book shops all over the place. I know I have. Holy Terror that is, not David’s review, more’s the pity. The following is an extended quote from David’s article, which you can find in full here.
The Fixer nabs a terrorist and calls him “Mohammed,” because “you’ve got to admit that the odds are pretty good it’s Mohammed.” They call him “Moe” throughout the rest of the book. The terrorists are viewed as something sub-human. One page contrasts Americans watching a Transformers-style movie on a big screen with Arabs stoning a woman buried up to her neck in the dirt while calling her an infidel, slut, and whore. A generic man in a suit takes his wife, wearing an Afghani Burqa, beats her, and then leaves the house. And finally, when Natalie infiltrates a mosque, she thinks, “the night wind blows away seven centuries.”
The constant bashing of Islam as a throwback to the Dark Ages is stupid, ugly, and tiresome. It’s also factually incorrect. While Europe was in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages, the Arab world was in the middle of what was essentially a golden age of enlightenment. They made vital discoveries and advances in science, math, medicine, art, architecture, and several other areas that had a profound impact on the rest of human civilization.
Al-Qaeda is treated in the text as something that is representative of Islam, rather than something that is a twisted, rotted off-shoot. Conversely, the Ku Klux Klan are terrorists are nominally Christian, but they’re never portrayed as representative of Christianity or whites. Again and again, Miller hammers home outdated and bigoted assumptions. The Fixer and Natalie Stack approach torture with glee, Natalie sends a terrorist off to his “seventy-two black-eyed virgins,” and on and on and on. They’re fighting Islam, not Al-Qaeda, and the book suffers greatly for it.
I strongly suggest that you take the time to read the full text of David’s article. It really is a great piece, and examines the relative merits and deep and troubling shortcomings of the work in an even handed way I don’t believe I’d be able to muster myself.
Somewhere along the way, as an avid comics reader, I stopped reading what Frank Miller had to say in interviews, and a short while later, I stopped reading his new work altogether. Over the years, I’ve wondered whether parting ways with such a gifted creator was the right tack to take, but at this point, I’m sure that it was. I have no interest in supporting this man, or his work, while he continues to hold what I take to be deeply troubling political beliefs. I sincerely hope he changes his mind.
There’s a sequence in Miller’s sequel to The Dark Knight Returns, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, where Batman stands in front of a huge mass of confused but righteously angry young people, and entreats them to turn their anger into a positive force for change, and ultimately, for justice. It’s a sequence I’ve gone back to over and over again, and when I hit upon the idea of donating money to Oxfam each time I spent money on comics, and inviting my comics reading friends to do the same, putting a name to the enterprise wasn’t much work.
It’s also the spirit I believe lies behind this enterprise.
So it’s with this quote that I leave you, and I’ll stand by it, even though I’ve left the man who wrote it, Frank Miller, to his thoughts. I hope that it inspires you, whether you’re involved in “Occupy” or not, to do your bit to work toward a more just world, in which the boundless aspirations of the seven billion or so of us who make up this clumsy, ambling, but ultimately hopeful species, are matched by a wealth of opportunities and capabilities to achieve those aspirations.
“CHILDREN, PULL ON YOUR TIGHTS—
—AND GIVE THEM HELL.”
Andy Waterfield is the founder/curator of I Live Sweat, and a News Editor at Punknews.org, and when he isn’t thinking about punk rock and comics, he’s probably thinking about the films of Terry-Thomas, social science, or Marmite. He has a couple of degrees in the social sciences, if anyone fancies giving him a job. Not that he’s unemployed at present - sorry, Frank!
“We can do better. We should do better.” Costa Koutsoutis offers his thoughts on the shortcomings of subcultural journalism
(Andy’s note: If you’d like to write a guest piece on this topic, whatever your view, please get in touch via ilivesweat at gmail dot com.)
Coming from backgrounds in what would be considered “outsider” cultures, like independent music and comic book culture, it’s initially hard to see where serious critical works about either one can be found. Granted, in the past several years (arguably decades if you’re including The Comics Journal), there has been a growth in terms of critical analysis and serious journalism. However, to the outside world, that sort of writing is seen as less than professional, primarily because of the nature of the cultures.
A huge aspect of writing about outsider cultures are news announcements regarding things starting, things ending, and things changing. For the most part you still do find that from what are considered “professional” news outlets for outsider cultures. To get any real measure of critical analysis, questioning, reporting, or academic thought, you need to look at amateur work.
Fan-driven outlets such as ‘zines and blogs are where people have traditionally gone for that sort of stuff. We go to blogs for reviews of material, for opinions on topics within the communities, and for analysis of topics and issues that have come out of the culture. It’s the inherit nature of being a fan, as well as having the writing bug, either as an academic or a journalism-related fan; You want to write.
However, this is where I think that we as communities have to admit it starts to fall short. Far too often, I see terribly-put together ‘zines about music that are pretty illegible and unprofessional. I’m sorry, but in this day and age there is no excuse to have the resources to create a print periodical and not be able to make it look at least semi-professional. I can’t tell you the amount of ‘zines I’d get and just throw out without reading them. Why? Too small print that seemed almost purposefully smudged and dark, and proofreading and editing mistakes that anyone with ten minutes to spare and a dictionary could have caught. It was painful to see resources and potential go to so much waste simply because the standards that ‘zine communities set for themselves (or a lack thereof) are simply not high enough.
The Internet and blogs are another monster altogether, with content appropriated and used without citation, and opinions and editorials passed off as “journalism”, that, because of the unorganized urgency with which the mainstream press tries to appropriate web journalism, ends up being touted as a legitimate outlet.
And for those that put a lot of work into actually attempting to be serious non-traditional media outlets and writers/critics, that’s a serious blow to the you-know-what. The unfortunate acceptance of less-than-professional writing in “outsider” cultures as a legitimate has created a stigma and a standard where work that would be considered as “average” in any other academic or journalism outlet is now “extraordinary” to comics and music writers.
And that’s a shame.
As writers and critics, we need to hold ourselves to higher standards as communities when it comes to aspects like journalism and academics. Plain and simple.
No one is going to take you seriously if you don’t take your craft seriously. That’s what it always boils down to, from art, to journalism, to academics, to cartooning, to music. And when it comes to trying to encourage serious discussions and analysis about issues in your craft and culture, the way you approach it is incredibly important. Applying some key professional basics that cost no money can go a long way to separate you from everyone else. Taking the time to create your outlet, working to establish real contacts, doing the actual research, covering every base when it comes to proper links and citations, and making sure you have the rights to use images… It’s a lot of work.
Going on Twitter or Facebook and calling yourself a critic, just because you tell me just how deep you think Alan Moore is every day? Not working, especially if you want to run with the big boys. Making purposefully sloppy ‘zines with purposefully non-structured writing in it just for the sake of appearing “punk rock”? Doesn’t make me take you seriously as a journalist or critic. The first thing I did when I seriously started writing as an academic was get style guides. The same goes for my journalism; I got cheap copies of style guides and format examples. I was working with editors at this point as a writer, and they didn’t take any shit when it came to telling me I was wasting their time with rough drafts.
Don’t waste my time with your rough drafts. If we want to be able to do this as serious writing, we need to stop considering our rough drafts as being “good enough”. It’s not good enough. We can do better. We should do better. We, as writers, critics, bloggers, journalists, and academics, owe it to everyone who reads our work and takes something away from it.
Costa Koutsoutis is a culture writer/editor, educator, and cartoonist. He grades papers, fights fanboys, writes about music and comic books, and walks the dog in Columbus, Ohio. He’s got a Hot Water Music tattoo and reads newspaper comic strips regularly. He blogs here.
“The world’s too small. Too connected”: The case for an internationalist Superman
Just recently, a fairly straightforward Superman story, published in Superman #900, kicked up a storm of controversy. In the story, written by David Goyer, Superman stands in solidarity with pro-democracy protesters, in a nation which is clearly an analogue for Mubarek’s Egypt.
Whilst Superman is extremely careful not to interfere physically, this act of solidarity forced him to question his US citizenship. Don’t ask me how a bloke nobody knows the name of was a citizen in the first place, but apparently he was. Read more about the issue over at Comics Alliance.
When it became apparent that DC Comics intended to have Superman give up his American citizenship, the internet, or at least the bit that cares about superhero comics, was ablaze with opinion, much of it from people who don’t seem to read comics at all. In the following article, I intend to present the case for an internationalist Superman, taking a number of key works in the ongoing Superman mythos as my principle points of discussion and reference.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean when we say Superman. Superman is the costumed identity of Clark Kent, a career reporter from the small farming community of Smallville in Kansas. His birth name, which he still uses in certain contexts, is Kal-El. His birth parents were Kara and Zor-El, scientists from the doomed planet Krypton. They sent him to Earth so that he might live when their world perished. He was then found and brought up by Jonathan and Martha Kent, on a farm outside the aforementioned Smallville. Or at least, that’s the usual story. There are others, alternate takes and the like, but they usually follow the pattern outlined on the first page of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman:
We are talking, then, about an individual who uses three key personae, those being Clark Kent, Kal El, and Superman. It’s important to stress at this point that the most important part of this overlapping triumverate of identities is Clark Kent. Ignore Quentin Tarantino’s conflicting view on the matter; the man doesn’t have a clue. It’s Clark, and his modest upbringing on a Kansas farm, that keeps the most powerful being on the planet relatable at a human level, and it’s the moral teachings of Martha and Jonathan Kent that give their adoptive son his strong moral compass. Having said all this, Clark Kent remains an American citizen. He believes in the basic values of the American constitution, and despite being an illegal immigrant, holds an American passport. That said, Clark Kent and Superman, while being the same individual, are not one and the same person, and ought not to be considered as such, but rather as complex facets of a greater whole.
Firstly, it’s best that we reflect upon one of the more facile arguments for Superman retaining his American citizenship, and thus his presumed allegiance to the United States of America and it’s people above all other nations and peoples. That argument is the claim that the red and blue in his costume represent the colours of the American flag. There is some insight to be garnered on this issue from Steven T. Seagle and Terry Kristiansen’s masterpiece study of the character and his myriad meanings, It’s a Bird…
‘You’re as much America as jazz, baseball, or the comic book— —but you’re not red white and blue.’ (Seagle and Kristiansen, 2004, p. 41)
It’s important to point out at this point, that this is not an argument against Superman being an American icon. He quite clearly is, although he has been worked on by creators from many nations over the years. It’s an argument against Superman as a fictional character, indeed, the vigilante alter ego of a fictional character, identifying himself as an American citizen.
‘You’re clad in a triad of primary colours: red, yellow, blue— —the three hues from which all other colours are created.
‘Is red-yellow-blue some kind of pre-political correctness? Do you represent men of all colours?
‘Or is it more mechanical than that? Did Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster choose red-yellow-blue because of the arcane printing limitations of 1938?’ (Seagle and Kristiansen, 2004, p. 41)
It’s in the above sentence that we find the probable truth of the matter. Superman wears primary colours for the same reason that Spiderman does, that the X-men did, and that The Flash does. These are the colours which were easiest to print in the old four colour comics, featuring, as they had to, only colours which could be created by simple combinations of red, yellow, blue, and black. It’s the very same reason that the Hulk is traditionally green. He was originally grey, but keeping the particular shade constant was difficult, so green was chosen, being a simple mix of blue and yellow ink. Superman is brightly coloured, because it suits his character. He’s red, blue, and yellow, out of necessity.
Even if we set aside the real world, practical reasons for his costume’s primary colours, we still find compelling arguments against the American nationalist model within the comics themselves. The most obvious point being that Superman hears, and responds to, cries for help from all over the world. Never once has Superman decided that the life of an American citizen is of more worth than a person whose lacks a green card or a social security number.
Superman endeavours, wherever he is able, to do the right thing. There is no serious moral argument for privileging an American life over the life of a person from any other country, so Superman doesn’t. It’s easy for readers whose involvement with the character is sporadic to forget that Clark was brought up, not just on homespun wisdom from his Earth parents, but also on Kryptonian culture, the culture of a world which, for all it’s arrogance and flaws, was without borders.
In Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu’s magnificent retelling of his origin story, Superman: Birthright, we are presented with a young Clark Kent traveling the world, doing his best to learn from others, and help out where he can. This version of Clark is a vegetarian, and Waid allows Clark to explain why this is with the simple clarity of a writer who has spent his life immersed in the myth of Superman, and understands him implicitly.
We are dealing, in this interpretation at least, with a character so in tune with life itself, that he refuses to eat animals, under any circumstances. Why then, would we presume that such an individual, who values even the modest life of a small mammal or fish, would privilege the life and experience of one human over another, purely by virtue of their nationality?
There have, of course, been many interpretations of the character which are unashamedly patriotic, often to the point of absurdity. We have to remember, though, that Superman’s much vaunted motto of “Truth, Justice and the American Way” only came about during the Second World War, as the comic book heroes were expected, like everyone else, to help out with the War effort. Without belabouring the point too much, which of these three principles ought we consider, as rational and caring human beings, to be the most important? It may be my perspective as an Englishman, but the “American Way” part reeks of exceptionalism, as if other liberal democracies (of which there are a great many, a fact that someone really ought to relay to Fox News) are incapable of striving toward such lofty ideals as a meritocracy.
This brings us to an obvious paradox within the history of the character. The Comics Code Authority, which effectly neutered the US comics industry for decades, decreed in 1954 that:
Crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal, to promote distrust of the forces of law and justice, or to inspire others with a desire to imitate criminals.
Are we to take it that the popular vision of Superman, drawn, for so many, from memories of his ’50s and ’60s adventures, is a wholly authentic and unproblematic interpretation of the character, given that Clark Kent, a keen and compassionate reporter, from a modest background, was forbidden by CCA of being shown to be sympathetic toward any criminal, under any circumstance? There is certainly a kernel of authenticity to those tales, but the notion that the highest ideals of generations of writers and artists, molded into an unrelenting fictional protector, without these restrictions, would be so unthinking and stooge-like, is laughable.
None of this is to say that the flag-waving American Superman of popular myth is not a valid interpretation, but this is certainly not the way Superman must be. In fact, two key works in the Superman canon appear deeply critical of this interpretation. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Superman is a tool of US foreign policy in no uncertain terms, and it’s glaringly clear how Miller feels about this particular brand of heroism:
Similarly, in Mark Millar’s masterpiece, Superman: Red Son, baby Kal-El’s rocket lands in Soviet Ukraine, and so Superman grows up loyal to a different state entirely. What makes this version of the character so powerful is that his personality is intact, but Millar shows us what an unrelenting ideologue looks like on the other side of the Cold War, and the answers are unsettling. Given this version’s publication in the early 21st century it’s also easy to imagine this version of Superman as a comment on US military and cultural hegemony:
This interpretation is given all the more weight by the appearance of a Luthor-created American Superman, who is almost utterly mindless, a being of simple and unquestionable dictums, whose diplomacy consists of brute force alone:
None of this is to say that Superman cannot consider himself an American citizen, and retain his status as a bastion of our most noble hopes and dreams. It does, however, call into the question the notion that he MUST be American.
Speaking again as an Englishman, I recognise much of the patriotic fervour around Superman’s national identity or lack thereof from my nation’s history books, specifically the appeal to patriotism in the final years of empire. As I write this, America’s economic hegemony is being called into question in a way that has been unthinkable since before the Second World War. As a species, we are moving quickly into a world where the old hierarchies of power, in international terms at the very least, are having to be reexamined and rethought, and it seems only fitting that Superman, a character who has reflected his cultural context like no other since his inception (moving from socialist and unrelenting ally of the poor, to wartime mascot, to cultural conservative, etc. as history sees fit), should put down his flag and look outward to the world at large in his search for the brighter tomorrow he’s always promised us. Because, ultimately, it’s the right thing to do.
Seven decades ago, two young men created a hero who would never let us down.
Any of us.
Andy Waterfield is a 24 year old living in South Leicestershire, England. When he’s not running I Live Sweat, and thinking far too hard about superhero comics, he eats a lot of Marmite and works out. He’s going to be a quarter of a century old in less than a month, and is currently stressing about the Oxfam benefit show he’s plotting to mark the occasion. He has the ‘S’ shield tattooed on his left calf, and wears it with pride.
You do not. As with Amazon, Nook, and other e-book companies, you don’t own the book you buy; you license the right to read it on supported and authorized devices.
Dark Horse Digital’s response to a question on their FAQ page, that question being: Do I own the digital comic I purchased?
To my mind, this approach is the worst thing about the majority of larger operators in the digital marketplace for books and comics, as it currently stands. It may be inconvenient to store bloody great blocks of heavy wood pulp, but at least I know they’re mine to keep. Either users of these services don’t know this, or they’re thicker than pig shit in a drought.
“There is no secret identity.” - Joe Briggs reviews Punk Rock and Trailer Parks by Derf
(Andy’s note: So stoked with the standard of this piece. Looking for more contributors to write about comics. If you’re interested, do get in touch.)
There’s a really good article by Charles Baxter in which he coins the term ‘Owl Criticism’, referring to the sort of critics that dislike a book for its content, rather than the way it deals with its content, the sort of people who might say “This book has an owl in it, and I don’t like owls.”
I definitely get annoyed with reviews of art that don’t engage with the topic, and then refuse to analyse the reasons for this failure to engage, but it works the other way too. There are things we’re going to like because they’re in a certain genre we enjoy, or because they deal with a certain subject we’re interested in. That’s great. The problem there is, when we come to talk about them, we have to look at whether we love them for their merits, or just the topic they cover. Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is like that. It’s a book I love, but I do wonder if there was ever a chance I could dislike a book where Joe Strummer and Lester Bangs get drunk and decide to slash the tires of Journey’s tour bus.
Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is a bildungsroman set in and around the punk scene of late ’70s. It’s written and illustrated by John “Derf” Backderf, (whose website can be found here) also known for his weekly comic strip The City, and his short graphic memoir about the weird kid named Jeffrey Dahmer he was friends with at school.
This is, for the most part, the story of Otto, a Tolkien-quotin’, beach-party-movie-lovin’, extremely tall, nerd, who, thanks to a couple of younger classmates, is drawn into the Ohio punk boom of the late ’70s that flowered in the wake of Devo and The Pretenders. Otto is, at heart, a traumatised victim of constant bullying, and has invented a ridiculous ‘cool’ persona for himself called ‘The Baron’ to take him away from himself. At school he’s still ridiculed, but as he gets drawn into the punk scene, finding himself as a bartender at the local punk club, The Bank, and eventually as a singer in a local band, he starts to take on this mantle for real. But as he becomes immersed in the punk scene, he’s still a nerd at school, and him and his friends have to negotiate creepy teachers, idiot jocks, unattainable crushes, sketchy neighbours, alcoholic uncles, and all the awkward travails of adolescence.
Like the songs of Craig Finn, another Midwestern chronicler of punk rock and youth, PR&TP is concerned with the pseudonymous power in punk rock; the same power that means a middle-class son of a diplomat can become ‘Joe Strummer’, living embodiment of the rhythm guitar; an angry DC white kid named Henry can borrow the name of a mysterious sax legend, and then pour the same amount of feeling that the old jazzman put into his horn into thrashing hardcore anthems of alienation; a fat kid can store up the names he’s been called and choose to wear it as a proud definition, striding onto the stage, axe in hand, as Pig Champion; and in this story, a bullied masturbation-obsessed high-school band-geek can take on the hard-rocking super-tough alter ego of THE BARON and become king of the scene. This is the key theme of the book for me, teenage reinvention of self and how far it can take you, what it’s limitations are, and how it both liberates and traps you. Maybe the central message is actually a wholeheartedly corny ‘be yourself’ but it blurs the idea of what that self is, because it’s neither the superstar or the geek. There is no secret identity. It’s about establishing a sustainable synthesis between these two conflicting parts of yourself.
The journey of Otto is chronicled in a Forrest Gump style trip through the scene of the time; meeting Wendy O. Williams, hanging out on the The Ramones tour bus, shooting the shit with Stiv Bators. There’s one panel where two of his friends fail to realise that his car isn’t finished and almost fall through the floor of it, later on, to show how far he’s come, that panel is repeated but this time with Strummer and Bangs in the car on the aforementioned mission to stop the corporate rock and roll machine in its tracks.
The art has a blocky cartoony style to it that emphasises the adolescent awkwardness of the leads, and probably owes something to the exaggerated physical attributes of Robert Crumb’s work (although less interested in tits, though this is a book which has three teenage boys as the main characters, so inevitably that obsession crops up). I really like the way it deliberately distorts perspective to highlight the juxtaposition of certain people or objects and their relation to each other. It’s one of those places where you can point at comics and say, “Look, this is not just a film storyboard. This is something you cannot do as subtly or effectively in any other medium.” And I like books where you can do that, because if you can’t do that, then what was the point of making it a comic? There are also cool touches like the Ramones’ amps bouncing merrily in the air like the anthropomorphic NPCs in 3D platform games, and I love the way the lettering is drawn as an integral part of the art style, taking up large portions of the page when it’s shouted by one of the punk bands we see in action.
One minor criticism is that sometimes it falls foul of the show-don’t-tell rule, with regards to both the symbolism and themes, and just basic images. Some of the things people say are overly articulate. It works alright most of the time with The Baron as that’s his character, an eloquent commenter on all the craziness he’s caught up in, but it’s a technique that’s overused. Some things that happen are obvious enough that they don’t need to be expounded upon by the characters. The first time we see The Bank, we don’t need one of the characters to announce “An abandoned bank turned into a punk club!” We can see that. Not just simple descriptions either, sometimes the motivations of the characters and the symbolic moments should be left for the reader to work out for themselves. Steve Aylett said of his slipstream science-fiction Accomplice quartet: “Unlike real life, most Accomplicers are aware of and ridiculously articulate about their own delusions, but like real life, they don’t change.” Except Aylett used it deliberately to great comic effect. In Derf’s writing it sometimes comes across like a lack of faith in his own narrative ability, which he shouldn’t have, as it’s a great story he’s telling, and he tells it well for the vast majority of the book. It’s just that sometimes we don’t need to be told what’s inside someone’s head, or what we can see happening right on the page.
The end of the book does conform to the narrative of a lot of punk rock stories with a moral that suggests this is all just a phase. To risk Owl Criticism, I’m not a fan of that do to my own personal preference for seeing punk rock as a living breathing malleable entity, but I recognise that it really works with the story here. And it’s not a depressing ending, it perfectly captures the wry mixture of knowing melancholia and stomping triumph present in these life-altering moments in the same way as The Clash’s Death or Glory. There’s a sense that something has gone, but that something just as cool is about to creep over the horizon. This sense of loss is only amplified by the post-story final page which notes that pretty much every single one of the punk rock icons of the time featured in the book are sadly no longer with us. This book is a hymn to the transformative powers of punk rock, and a story of all the weirdos and outsiders finding a place for themselves, not just for the glorious moment when the music rushes through their veins, but how they have to fight to keep that feeling alive in the everyday grind of society.
(Punk Rock and Trailer Parks is published by SLG Publishing, formerly Slave Labor Graphics.)
Joe Briggs is a writer from Oxford. He owns too many books and yet not enough. He attempts to map the shape of his punk-addled brain on his blog. He also has a twitter, a tumblr and a barely know ‘er. Like every other cunt in the world, he’s writing a novel. (Photo by Marc Gaertner)