Category Archives: art

Architecting the Possibilities

I’m bummed I can’t be in Chicago right now for the AWP conference, but I’m beyond excited that my freshly-printed textbook collaboration with Lance Olsen, Architectures of Possibility: After Innovative Fiction, is making its debut there.

AoP is a re-versioning/visioning and rebirth of Lance’s 1998 Rebel Yell: A Short Guide to Fiction Writingmy involvement with the project was something of a Be Careful What You Ask For story, wherein I had taught Rebel Yell for many years in my fiction writing workshops. About five years ago I started badgering Lance to update the book every chance I got, and at &NOW Buffalo he finally got sick of me asking. “Okay, okay, okay already,” he relented. “But you are going to help me.”

We started strategizing the project in the summer of 2010. I began deliberately working on it in spring of 2011 as my sabbatical project and spent most of the summer conducting and polishing over 60 brand spankin new interviews and writing small sections on social networking and DIY publishing. It was such a pleasure to reconnect with old friends for this project and also to finally have a legitimate excuse to reach out to writers, artists and theorists I’ve always admired but was just a little too schoolboy shy to bother beforehand (for the record, yes: Katherine Dunn is the most generous, pleasant and insightful person alive today, if not pretty much ever; Stephen Graham Jones is capable of slamming out 1,500 words of razor-sharp prose in as much time as it takes to pop the top of a soda can;  Scott McCloud is just as brilliant talking into a cell phone as he is giving his sexy slide presentation). When it came time to edit the final draft of the manuscript, Lance and I found ourselves quite literally with an embarrassment of riches, wherein we simply didn’t have room in the print edition to include all of the amazing interviews we had conducted. We are delighted to collect all of the interviews that we couldn’t fit in the book on the AoP website, and to archive them alongside legacy interviews from Rebel Yell.

It goes without saying how inspirational and just downright fun it is to work with Lance in any capacity, but it definitely needs said again here how inspirational and just downright fun it is to work with Lance.  I was honored when he asked me to work on this with him and and truly blessed to have had the experience.

If you are on Facebook or Twitter, I hope you’ll check us out there. Also please check out our blog on the main AoP site.

But most of all, please accept my eternal gratitude for caring as much as you do, even if it’s just a little itty bitty bit. This project in no small measure kept me focused, inspired and motivated through some of the toughest and darkest times I’ve had professionally, personally and creatively. I know that I am a better writer, teacher, colleague and human being because of it.


Story

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Barbara Kruger, 1989


It Changes Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

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Lisa Anne Auerbach, 2008


Move Over Steve Ditko!

My youngest son is decorating his new room this week. Check out his totally sweet posters!


Scott McCloud: Oct 15 @ Clackamas CC

Zot! creator and Understanding Comics author Scott McCloud will give a keynote talk on writing and publishing in the digital age at 6:30 pm next Friday night, October 15 at the Niemeyer Center on Clackamas CC’s main campus in Oregon City. McCloud’s talk will kick off the Clackamas Story Jam, a 24-hour event featuring publishing workshops in comics, video and letterpress printing wherein participants will create a new project from start to finish within a single day.

The complete event is $150, and includes McCloud’s keynote on Friday night, a workshop, and lunch on Saturday. McCloud’s evening talk is free to current Clackamas CC students and $20 to non-students. To register for either the workshop or McCloud’s keynote, please contact the Clackamas CC registration office.


Picturebook Pedagogy #2: [Mc-]Clouding the Issue

Picturebook Pedagogy #2: [Mc-]Clouding the Issue

A couple of weeks ago, an exceptionally bright and talented illustration student (we’ll call him “Jim” because, well, that’s his name) turned in his written response to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, in which he complained that he has had the book either directly assigned or namedropped to him in five other classes at the same institution. UC’s ubiquity isn’t the problem, he argued, so much as the institutional stutter that sets in i/r/t this particular text with colleges and universities fortunate enough to even have courses in comics. Why, Jim asks, does his school find itself repeating itself so much when it comes to McCloud’s book?

Having first appeared in 1993 from Denis Kitchen’s little-press-that-could, UC is a book approaching two uninterrupted decades in print and showing little indication that it is slowing down. It’s been translated into 16 different languages, is now published by a corporation owned by Rupert Murdoch, and consistently salesranks among the top books on Amazon.com (on March 9, UC’s salesrank was around 1,800; the softcover trade edition of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V for Vendetta, by comparison, was hovering just below 3,800, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns just above 2,700, and the “Preludes & Nocturnes” arc of Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman right around 4,000. Did I forget to mention that Amazon indexed well over 4,000,000 titles last year? I’ll just keep chirping here while you do that math…). Do a quick websearch for the book’s title right now and you’ll usually discover within the first 10 links that UC is commonplace on BitTorrent networks, and has been for the better part of five years.

In short, it’s simply not enough these days to say that McCloud has become an important voice for comics. We’re well past that point. It’s a lot closer to the mark to say that McCloud has become the voice for comics, at least as far as academia here in the United States is concerned. It’s hard to imagine discovering a fine arts, graphic design and/or humanities department anywhere in this country that hasn’t seen the title of that book appear on at least one instructor’s syllabus over the past fifteen years.

Quick tangent, I promise: when I was taking my undergraduate literature courses, I had much the same reaction to F. Scott Fitzgerald as Jim had to Scott McCloud (it must be something about that “Scott” name, right?). Regarding The Great Gatsby: yeah, I understand “great” isn’t just part of the title, it largely enacts a set of cultural expectations that come about as close to the word “mandate” as the U.S. intelligentsia-literati are comfortable with; yeah, I understand that when we use the phrase “Great American Novel” to describe another book, it’s almost always this one we’re really talking about. See, I read Fitzgerald’s book, and I was largely non-plussed by it, but I also went into reading it with the culture largely having made up its mind about this particular expression long before I came to it (c.f. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye for similar meh-ness; as I type this, my discourse community is currently mourning the passing of Mr. Salinger, who, in his post-Catcher time with us here on earth, made the lives of a lot of fawning literature scholars insanely, litigiously difficult with an army of lawyers rivaled only by the likes of Steve Jobs and C. Montgomery Burns). UC apparently for a new generation of students is now such a text.

As McCloud’s text rages on to its umpteenth printing and into its further entrenchment in the bunkers of academia, it’s probably important to point out something McCloud himself addresses early on in UC. And that something is this: McCloud owes a great deal to Will Eisner, whose work in both the practice and theory of comics is absolutely essential to the medium’s growth in the United States. Now, of course, I’m not telling subscribers to the RSS feed for this fair blog anything they don’t know (ya’ll are a clever and well-read bunch!); one only needs to contemplate the meteoric and magnificent career of Michael Chabon to see how important and influential Eisner was to an entire generation of artists after him (not just comics creators, either; Chabon might have won his Pulitzer in the post-Maus era, but it was awarded for a superb sprawl of sentences and paragraphs b/k/a The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay).

See, the reason I repeat what’s already been said by plenty of others on this Eisner→McCloud tip is that UC is probably already the first academic explication of the medium U.S. college students are exposed to, and could very well be the only theoretical approach to comics most students will read (and let’s make sure we distinguish between “most” and “serious” when it comes to students, because serious students like Jim are sure to push far into Eisner’s critical oeuvre, as well as into excellent contemporary criticism by the likes of Charles Hatfield, Danny Fingeroth, and the late Lillian S. Robinson). Those of us who still have a Kitchen Sink printing may not be thinking about this—let alone worried about it yet—but if what Jim is saying hits even remotely close to the mark, Understanding Comics has become this generation’s Ways of Seeing (or The Medium is the Massage before that). In essence, as his generation’s John Berger, Scott McCloud is—for the lack of a better term—The Man.  (Hell, even Eisner himself defers to McCloud in these regards, blurbing UC as a “landmark dissection and intellectual consideration,” insisting that “everyone…anyone interested in this literary form must read it. Every school teacher should have one.” To my student Jim’s point: we’re close to the point—if not already past it—where Eisner’s phrase “should have” is an anachronism, and needs replaced with “already has.”)

This poses a particularly itchy problem for me because, well, I like Scott McCloud, and a big part of that has a lot to do with him helping me discover a way to talk about comics beyond the sophomoric blathering always inherent to the “Who Would Win In A Fight Of ___ Vs. ____?” postulation that, if you spend enough time in comic book shops (guilty) or in courses on comics (ditto) are far too familiar and usually endowed with a deadpan philosophical delivery that is both unmistakeable and desperate. I’ve taught McCloud’s book, either in pieces or in its entirety, for the better part of a decade, and Jim’s grumblings now have me seriously thinking about something I frankly hadn’t given much thought to and probably should have.

So here then, fair Top Shelfers, here are my Top Ten Reasons To Continue Teaching Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. And because I’ve always been a Team Conan guy, we’re doing it Letterman style:

10) Scott McCloud is genuinely a genuine human being. I know this because I had the pleasure of meeting him when he taught a week-long workshop at PNCA’s inaugural Graphic Novel Intensive in Portland in 2007. While here, he also gave his amazing Keynote presentation (I’d call it a Powerpoint show but I refuse to degrade it in any way, especially by using the term “Powerpoint”) in the Weiden + Kennedy forum, the props for which were his own adorable little family. His wife and daughters were touring the country with him for the then-recently released Making Comics, and I can tell you it is quite literally impossible for me to be objective about McCloud and his work simply because his youngest daughter back then could melt diamonds with her intelligence and bashfulness. In short, McCloud has made comics not only his life, but that of his entire family. That’s quite a commitment.

9) Twitter. I’m being serious here. This really matters. Now, true: McCloud hasn’t yet developed the ninja speed of Warren Ellis or Brian Michael Bendis when it comes to rapidfire updates on Twitter. However, he’s a frequent enough flier on the failwhale airship to warrant mentioning, and his contributions are typically comics topical, looping back into his source texts and extending/exampling their arguments. On large, traditional academic work tends to be a snapshot of the time, place and circumstances during which the research was conducted and final analysis made, and is usually already outdated by the time said work appears in front of another pair of eyes besides the scholar and her editors. McCloud’s presence on the web is both pervasive and long-standing, and he uses his online avatar much in the same way he does his cartoon self in his comics. That is, he extends the conversation through a variety of media; just take a look at his TED presentation from a few years back, when things like myspace, blogs and Facebook were mostly in their infancy, and Twitter was but a sparkle in the collective eyes of Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Biz Stone.

8) Don’t say he didn’t tell you so. McCloud has long championed The Internet and World Wide Web as offering comics an exciting opportunity to multiply and mutate, and he is among those least surprised by the rise of webcomics as not only worthwhile creative expressions in and of themselves, but social hubs for creators and readers to come together in ways a previous generation of comics artists could only dream. When McCloud’s sequel to UCReinventing Comics—was published in all-too-appropriate year of Y2K, many in the comics community snorted at some of its predictions and prognostications for how a traditionally print-bound medium like comics would not just survive in the digital age, but thrive. If the names Penny Arcade, Dinosaur Comics, Perry Bible Fellowship, Get Your War On and Top Shelf 2.0 mean anything at all to you…well, you get the idea.

7) Visual rhetoric. McCloud understands the power of images, and uses them to great effect in his theoretical work. You know the maxim “a picture is worth a thousand words”? Whoever coined that phrase way back when surely also invented a time machine, transported herself to 1993, picked up a copy of Understanding Comics, cracked it open to McCloud’s enaction/definition of the picture plane, and then invented another time machine to go back and plant that magical maxim in our cultural memories. Go ahead and try to explain that concept using nothing but sentences and paragraphs. I double-dog dare you.

6) Structuralism is still useful despite what happened during the Theory Wars in the 1970s and 1980s. Look no further than David Mazzucchelli’s brilliant Asterios Polyp for confirmation that not only has Structuralism survived into the second decade of the 21st century, but has shown itself cuddlingly capable of telling an endearing love story. (None of us could have seen that coming.) One of McCloud’s agenda items with UC is to apply semantic/semiotic techniques to a medium that is already largely/inherently semiotic to begin with. Eisner, of course, understood this, but his theoretical explorations of the medium serve and read more like shop talk (no coincidence, then, that he so often used that very phrase in his studies) than does McCloud’s full-blown structuralist analysis.

5) Have I said what a swell guy Scott McCloud is already? (Sorry.)

4) Where Eisner was one of the first to tap the educational power of comics, for all intents and purposes, McCloud has largely perfected it. It never gets old watching students’ faces light up when they talk about McCloud’s book for the first time. Because for them, the realization that they are breathing life into a functional medium is very very real. The medium’s viability requires their active participation to construct meaning, that it needs them in ways that prose, film and even a so-called “interactive” medium like videogames do not. Consider for a moment that as you’re reading this, there are literally thousands of film screenings happening right now that don’t require your presence. Eisner taught us the democratic nature of comics through the wide range of texts his studio produced; McCloud enacts this by turning on a light inside his readers that only seems to burn brighter going forward.

3) Pleased to meet you. For many of my students, UC is not only the first textbook they read in my classes, but it is quite literally the first major comics work of any heft or substance they have ever read. (Ever as in, you know, ever?) When I started teaching full courses in comics, I’d say close to 90% of the students were already familiar with the medium and had read at least one trade collection or graphic novel. I’d peg that number closer to 50% these days; on the surface, someone might argue that this marks a decline in comics readership, but I really don’t see that from my vantage point. What I’m seeing is more and more students coming to class having heard about stuff going on in comics from other people and/or media experiences. In short, they are curious. And curiosity is a very good thing not only for pedagogical purposes, but also to breathe new life into the comics industry. My comics courses are easily the most diverse classes I teach (I also teach fiction writing, composition, lit theory and games studies) in terms of student ages, races, class, and gender, and a large number of those students are coming in largely just to see what the medium has to offer.

2) The Creative Process. McCloud dedicates an entire chapter to explicating “Six Steps” for artists. Over the years I’ve had a fair number of students howl about McCloud’s clinical vivisection of “the artistic process,” something they may largely inuit or even think of as a form of magic, and how confining/cold that particular part of the book can come across. But what tends to happen after the initial disgruntlement and bristling is always worthwhile: exploring, communicating and discovering how comics are part of rhetorical efforts that transcend not only genres but discrete media.

1) The Conversation. McCloud’s Understanding Comics has given us much to consider and argue about over the years, and those expressions matter. In the end, they are probably what matters most. After all, isn’t that why you’re here of all places on the World Wide Web, doing something as horribly low-tech as reading? Seriously, if you were all about the point-click-point-click, wouldn’t you really rather fiddle with Solitaire, Minesweeper or Bejeweled all day?


PictureBook Pedagogy #1

Back in January, Brett Warnock from Top Shelf asked me to write a series of posts about my experiences in teaching comics for his Hey Bartender! blog on their recently-renovated website. This is the first of that series, and it appeared on HB! back in February; you can check out #2 and #3 over there now, but I’ll eventually repost them here as well.

PictureBook Pedagogy #1: Defining the Term(s)

My tenure on The Internet predates the World Wide Web (the fact I call the web the “World Wide Web,” and do so using capital “W”s should leave little doubt); hence, I’ve long known ye olde interweb-a-ma-bob prides itself on perfecting The Confession. It’s undoubtedly the oldest rhetorical trick in the book out here, but nonetheless a potent one. After all, how else can we really explain the fact that filmmaker and as-interested-as-he-wanna-be comics writer Kevin Smith not only is going on 20 years of gainful Hollywood employment in the post-Clerks multiverse, but commands large enough audiences on Twitter and Facebook to both develop and charge 99 cents for an official iPhone/iTouch app? Dude has been enjoying some pretty successful runs with The Batman as of late, too, in case you haven’t noticed.

So without further ado—and in the immortal words of Sir Austin Powers—please allow myself to introduce myself. And to probably do this effectively, there are simply some things you need to know.

Confession #1: I Never Appreciated Sandman Back In The Day(TM), b/w #1a: The First Time I Read Watchmen Was For Some Eggheady Class In Grad School

I worked in a comic book store in Moscow, ID in the early 1990s. The store, Safari Pearl, was then located in the attic of a now-defunct secondhand bookstore called Twice Sold Tales; my roommate and I begged and pleaded its owner for summer jobs, and we were grudgingly allowed to watch the counter on weekends for trade credit. In grade school, I grew up on Frank Miller’s runs with Spidey and Daredevil, but had already left comics before DC’s The Dark Knight Returns miniseries; in essence, I got out of superhero books just as shit was getting really interesting in them, and I hadn’t yet discovered Crumb (I was only 9, after all, and I did grow up in southern Idaho. I had however, perfected Smilin’ Stan’s smooth stylin’ “Nuff said!”, if that counts for anything).

So when I returned to comics again, Neil Gaiman’s run on Sandman was already underway, and I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how the DC universe I knew as a kid could have possibly arrived at the place in time it had. When I first started working at her comics store, I started asking its owner and patrons what I should be reading. The near-unanimous answer, of course, was “Sandman!! Are you fucking kidding me?!” And because I’ve always been quite sucked in by peer pressure and marketing hype (I was, after all, an only child spending my first full summer away from the dopey little town of barely 20,000 people I grew up in…), I began pulling monthly copies starting with issue 14. But I never made real attempts to read the series because, frankly, I just didn’t get it. Meaning: I couldn’t figure out how Sandman existed on Planet Spandex, and Dave McKean’s gorgeous mixed media work for the covers didn’t help matters at all.

And there certainly wasn’t any help waiting for me in academia when I returned to school later that fall. The only whisper I’d ever heard about comics in my undergraduate education involved Art Spiegelman’s Maus (which had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize only a year or so before I started taking classes and working at the comics shop), and was usually found on the supplemental/recommended reading lists for some of the history courses I was taking to round out my minor and elective credits. At the time, Maus was considered important because of its content; its medium was left largely undiscussed, if it was addressed at all. Literary scholars I studied with could (and occasionally did) discuss Spiegelman’s work within conventions of identity politics, confessional traditions (did you catch that by the way? The nod to the confession within an actual confession? Pretty clever, right? Most definitely you should be able to nail the exact date/time/picosecond I secured my undergraduate degree), and post-Lacanian psychoanalysis), but they would most likely ignore the medium in which Maus worked its magic.

When I finally did buckle in and read Watchmen, it was because my faculty advisor made me, when I took his graduate-level literature seminar titled “Postmodern Theory and Fiction.” The 12-part miniseries (quick snark here: I don’t care how it’s formatted, tracked and analyzed now by DC, The New York Times or bourgeois culture as a “graphic novel.” Watchmenwas conceived, executed and published as a comics miniseries. Big difference.) was not merely the only work in comics we read for the course, but juxtaposed with prose novels written by the likes of Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, Ishmael Reed and Kathy Acker and social-historical theory by the likes of bell hooks, Frederic Jameson and Stephen Greenblatt. Needless to say, my introduction to Watchmen was at least a full step removed from the comics world that produced it; even though I’ve now taught the miniseries at least half a dozen times (including a full-blown literary analysis course which tackles Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ masterwork much the same way I might Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy), Watchmen still feels foreign to me, as if I’m playing from behind somehow or trying to fit the octagonal block into the square hole. And there’s more than a little bit of guilt buried in there, since I had ample opportunity to read the damn thing long before I had a head full of semiotic soup.

This leads me to:

Confession #2: I Am, More Or Less, A Bloodthirsty Colonizer

Quick tangent here: Espen Aarseth is a new media theorist who specializes in games studies. These days, academics can use terms like “games studies” and largely get away with it, and maybe even have people catch the gist of what they mean, but a fair amount of readers of even this nimble website could consider bringing pop cultural artifacts inside academia problematic at best. Aarseth argues that games and games culture are currently going through a stage of intense academic colonialism. This most often occurs when something historically ignored by The Ivory Tower(TM) is suddenly “discovered” by a bunch of competing disciplines within the humanities (social science, philosophy and literature departments are usually the ones on the bottom of the dogpile fighting over the bone, it seems).

Aarseth justifiably has a big problem with people like me (specifically, writers and scholars largely trained to see the world and all contained therein as little more than one big box of narrative tissue paper) discussing things called Games (that’s not just me capitalizing the word, by the way; I am talking about academia here, after all) within a larger thing called Games Studies (except he doesn’t call it that, he calls it Ludology, because going Greek on top of the capital letter thing definitely simplifies things, yeah?). And I don’t begrudge Aarseth a bit for this because his underlying concern isn’t as much about marking territory as it is asserting that an entire medium cannot and should not be boiled down to a single user function. In other words, a medium’s value isn’t exclusively found in its ability to buoy a narrative, even/especially when the narrative is actually compelling. Let’s face it, folks: novelist Gilbert Sorrentino was definitely on to something when he boldly declared “plots are absurd.” Because most of them are. Maybe you haven’t played its underwhelming videogame adaption just yet, but you’ve probably seen Avatar. Nuff said(?).

In his introductory essay to the McSweeney’s #13 anthology, Chris Ware declares, “without the critical language of fine art to surround it, comics are…perceived more clearly than any other art form.” What he means by this is that people like me tend to be ruinous polluters, for once we establish our base camps on the gentle slopes of a given medium’s mountain, it’s usually only a hop, skip and a jump from curious exploration to full-blown gentrification and gated communities. And who loves to throw around the phrase “gentrification” more than the academented?

That’s right. Nobody.

Confession #3: I’m 98.6% Convinced Warren Ellis Was Right

If you’ve read this far, I’d take 4:1 odds that you’ve also read Warren Ellis‘ “Old Bastard’s Manifesto,” a missive from those cheery days post-Y2K and pre-9/11, in which he lambastes the comics industry for stagnating on superheroes and refusing to grow up. In the event that I hit snake eyes on that bet, though, here’s the nitty of the gritty: “Comics are not habitual entertainment that need to remain static and require broadcasting regularly until death do us part,” Ellis declares. “Comics, like their related media of novels and cinema, must be allowed to tell complete stories…Those who support us will be rewarded…and given the gift of the Future.”

The “gift” Ellis refers to is not only that comics would tell “complete stories,” but (more importantly) that intelligent, invested, and–yes–mature readers could begin having more complete conversations about both the stories and the medium which buoys them than “Wolverine is really really cool” or “Maus is really really sad.” This isn’t difficult for us to imagine ourselves doing, by the way, at least not in theory anyway. But here in the United States, our capacity to talk about most things is modulated by our internal Like/Dislike barometers, which of course are plugged into the larger cultural-consumer matrix of Want And Desire that effectively stops conversation at the point of purchase. As a writer, reviewer and literature professor, I’ve found those barometers particularly tough to crack; it often feels to me that the anti-intellectual climate surrounding both the production and discussion of art here in the United States has effectively stopped with Roger Ebert. Gods help us if the man ever loses control over those golden thumbs.

Let me try saying this another way, and then we’ll get out of here for the day: we are routinely asked what we prefer, but rarely asked what we think. A preference can be indicated incredibly efficiently (a show of hands for who likes pancakes? Great! Now how about waffles? Awesome! Thanks!), but real-to-goodness thought takes time and often involves risk.

So what, then, about comics? To me, they might well be the purest artistic expression of time through risk. And I mean this with full cosmic bravado, too: capital-T time, capital-R risk. Anyone who has ever tried executing a simple page of sequential stickpeople (you remember Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, right? Snapping the lead off his #2 pencil, erasing furiously, pushing way too hard into the paper?) can attest to the staggering amount of time often involved laying one panel next to another, hoping the chemicals firing in her brain somehow spill onto the page in a coherent, orderly pattern that somehow resembles the synaptic original deep inside the skull. To attempt the translation process into not only words or not only images but both is a highwire act at best, sado-masochism at worst, and this is probably why the gulf between The Can and Cannot is appreciably wider in comics than in any other medium.

Nearly a decade ago, The Old Bastard, Mr. Ellis, wrote, “We might not be a grown-up medium yet, but if we dress like it, we might just bring it on.” Tell me what you really think, now: we currently occupy the Future he was hinting at back then, so what are we going to make of it? Not the Future, of course. The Present. ‘Cuz there simply aint no time like it.

One last question then. What’s another word for “Present”?

That’s right. “Gift.”

Bring it on, indeed.