I had no involvement in the selection of this year’s Best Online Comics Criticism. And I don’t plan to talk directly about the list here. Except to point out that it is fatally flawed. Because I’m not on it, damn it.
I did think I’d take this opportunity, though, to talk about two of my own favorite pieces of comics criticism from last year.
I’ve always cordially hated Cathy. Or at least, I’ve hated it when I’ve thought anything about it. I remember reading it as a kid in the funny pages on Sundays and finding it viscerally boring and ugly. I don’t think I ever in my life laughed at a Cathy strip. For that matter, I don’t know that I can remember virtually anything about a single Cathy strip I’ve ever seen. They all blurred together into the same bland multi-color blob that contained Blondie, Beetle Bailey, Hagar the Horrible — all those hackneyed, interchangeable soulless sub-sit-com mediocrities and their dreary punch-lines. A beneficent God would have canceled them all before I was born. A beneficent God would cancel them now. Who on earth ever liked them in the first place?
Well, Cathy finally did end this year. And in her eulogy for the strip, Shaenon Garrity answers my question for this one strip at least.
After decades of mainstream popularity, Cathy is still widely disliked by pop-cult elites like you and me. It whirls eternally between the Scylla and Charybdis of gender essentialism: men don’t like it because it’s about girly stuff, and feminist women don’t like it because it’s about girly stuff. Anti-feminists don’t have reason to like it either, what with the single-career-woman heroine who’s always been as open as newspaper syndication will allow about her casual sex life. That leaves just one demographic: women who are all for liberation and being your own woman and all that, but can’t quite figure out how to reconcile it with their actual lives. Women who never stopped feeling the pressure to cook like Betty Crocker and look like Donna Reed, and just added to it the pressure to change the world like Gloria Steinem. In other words, almost every woman of the Baby Boom generation.
That paragraph captures a lot of what I admire in Shaenon’s writing. Her points are clear and quick; put out there with such breezy ease that you can miss how much thought is going on. The note about Cathy’s casual sex life in the middle of the paragraph is a toss off, but it’s a doozy; it certainly never occurred to me to think of Cathy as a precursor to Sex in the City. Similarly, I love the way the reference to Scylla and Charybdis at the opening mirrors the references to Betty Crocker, Donna Reed, and Gloria Steinem on the bottom, turning iconic feminist heroes into ancient Greek hurdles. And, of course, it’s always nice to see oneself mentioned. “pop cult elites…men don’t like it because it’s about girly stuff” — hey! That’s me!
Shaenon doesn’t convince me to like Cathy — I don’t think anyone could do that. But in explaining her own (somewhat ambivalent) affection for it, she does manage to explain to me why I don’t like it. For example, Shaenon points out that Guisewite’s lousy art isn’t an accident; but part of her Boomer aesthetic, putting personal expression above craft. Shaenon links that particular kind of self-indulgent, principled shittiness to Doonesbury — thus helping to explain why I hate that strip too.
Ultimately, though, while I appreciate the insight into my own animosities, what really made this perhaps my favorite piece of the year was the insight into Shaenon’s affections. Not her affection for “Cathy” — rereading the piece I realize that it’s actually quite difficult to tell exactly how Shaenon feels about the strip. She explains with great acuity why the strip was appreciated by toits fans, but she never quite comes out and says that she is among them.
Yet the piece is filled with affection, and indeed love. That love is directed precisely at Cathy’s fans; the Baby Boomer women. Among those women is Shaenon’s mother…and Cathy Guisewite herself. Which is why I think my favorite line of the piece is this one:
“For my mother, who adored any man on television who could make her laugh, the image of the great Carson listening raptly to Guisewite, chin in his hand, was indelible.”
As is generally the case with Shaenon, it’s not flashy…but that’s a poignantly intimate description of her mom. And the sketch of Guisewite — it’s not just Shaenon’s mom who finds that image indelible, right? It’s Shaenon herself who finds it indelible, precisely because her mom does. Guisewite let her mom know that woman could be funny and sexy and indelible — sexy and indelible because they were funny — and that lesson is on Shaenon learned as well. And Shaenon’s love for Guisewite, and for her mother, is tied up in the fact that that’s a lesson they passed on to her.
I don’t imagine most women of my generation identify with Cathy. If we have a voice in comics, it’s probably among the chatter of webcartoonists, in autobio and semi-autobio cartoonists like Danielle Corsetto, Meredith Gran, Erika Moen, Lucy Knisley. They all draw more beautifully than Guisewite ever did, but maybe that’s just because my generation never challenged that pressure to be perfect. They don’t say, “Aack,” but that’s because we cuss. They’re not on The Tonight Show, but what the hell, it’s still pretty glamorous to be a cartoonist. Maybe our mothers understand.
I’ve talked about Matt Seneca’s writing once before. As I indicated in that piece, he’s somebody whose criticism I’m ambivalent about. On the one hand, he’s a huge, huge, fan of comics in wayswhich makes it difficult for me to share his perspective, since I hate comics (and everything else too. But mostly comics.) On the other hand, he’s a wonderful writer and a fascinating critic, who often makes unexpected leaps and isn’t afraid to make a bizarre theoretical pronouncement or twelve.
Matt writes faster than I can read, but the piece of his I did read and most enjoyed from last year is, I think, his discussion of a single panel from Rob Liefield’s “X-Force #1”.
In case you’re unaware, to those who care about such things, Liefield is one of the most loathed mainstream artists in comics. His drafting skills are terrible; his design sense is aggressively crass and messy, his storytelling is…well, also crass and messy. You can see many of the problems on display in this panel here. The superpowers of the woman on the right appear to be (a) giant enormous hairdo, and (b) various limbs three times as long as they should be. The guy on the left also has an enormous hairdo, but his other superpower is the less impressive cape-made-out-of-an-accordion. Both of them are arranged in front of a Mondrian-meets-Jack-Kirby-but-uglier test pattern, and the composition in front of that is a splatter mess; it looks like Liefield threw ink at the panel and then arranged his figures so as best to cover over the blob.
Matt acknowledges all of that — and he thinks it’s awesome.
.. Liefeld was self-taught and snot-nosed, didn’t know or care what supposedly essential elements his panels were missing, what supposedly extraneous bits he was adding in, why it shouldn’t by rights have worked. And it didn’t matter a bit, because work it did — commercially, to the tune of more issues than had ever been sold before or have since, and aesthetically, as bizarre, confrontational, visionary comics. There’s precious, precious little of anything with even a remote connection to reality in this picture: the anatomy is shot to hell, the rules of gravity are awol, the figures and faces betray no connection to the human and only vague relation to the humanoid. But it’s all so self-consistent, all so true to the continuum of mind and hand and eye behind it. Liefeld sees muscles where people don’t have them, but always in the same places. He imagines hairstyles that boggle the mind, and he uses his trademark wavering, bleedy masses of little lines to sculpt them. He draws facial expressions that only intense plastic surgery could create in our world, but the surgeon is always the same. He creates superhero costumes that edge into abstract ideology, so “functional” that they’re no longer functional at all, pure eye-gouging adornment for the deformed demigods that tangle with each other like a sinewy yin-yang across this thick-bordered box. It’s a vision of a world further from the humdrum reality that superhero comics are supposed to free us from than anything else the genre has ever given us. Pure, fully formed, perfection unto itself.
This is the level Liefeld functions best on: abstract art. The crosshatching is ridiculous if you insist on it being some kind of representational device, but look at it for what it really is, lines on paper made by a hand that didn’t want to stop making them until every centimeter of space was shouting at maximum volume, and you’re getting somewhere. There’s a joy in the pure marks of Liefeld’s line-blizzards, something most every “Image style” adherent since has missed. A sugared up, perpetual-motion glow. It gets into the background of this panel too, where the raw naturalism of the hatchmarks’ asymmetry is dropped for a Jim Steranko spread of geometrics: the shape-and-line toolbox of superhero technology spread across the page in minute, functionless detail. There’s a significant aspect of the baroque to that background, so laden with stuff that it vies with the figures themselves for attention. Like the hatching, it’s purposeless, but it takes the picture further with enthusiasm, sheer steroided muscle, the delight its creator takes in the task of making it and then making more. And through all the glorious indulgence, Liefeld displays enough working knowledge of the action-comics mechanism to pop the characters out of their frame, increasing the bang of the image while ensuring that no matter how busy the background gets we’ll see what matters first.
There’s a lot of lovely description there; the “line-blizzards” the “sugared-up, perpetual-motion glow.” I think the best moment, though, is “sheer steroided muscle.” “Steroided”, of course, is a neologism, and an ugly, unnecessary one at that. But it’s ugly and unnecessary in exactly the way that Liefield’s drawings are ugly and unnecessary — lumpy, over-charged, bursting hideously from proper form in a gauche spray of cancerous adrenalin.
Matt’s piece, then, is not just a plea for Liefield — it’s a plea for a certain kind of comics, and a certain kind of comics criticism. Matt loves comics for their comicness, which means both for their pulpiness and for their existence as lines on paper. In the comments on the post, Matt notes that he is less fond of Liefield contemporaries like Jim Lee, who are able to draw more realistically and so have some more claim to being vaguely competent. And this makes sense — Matt doesn’t want comics to be competent by other standards. He wants comics which are nothing but comics; comics where the entire value is in the comicness. It’s not unlike the love that some critics bring to outsider art — the whole point is that it doesn’t look right. As Matt says, for him, Liefield is “visionary,” connected not to reality but to his own dream. And that’s Matt’s vision of comics, too, I think — a medium validated by its marginality. For Matt, folks like Suat who want comics to be part of, and judged alongside, the rest of the arts are elaborately missing the point.
As I’ve said before, I’m generally with Suat on this; I think the glorification of comics as comics (or of outsider art, for that matter) is problematic for all kinds of reasons. But…in this instance, the fact that I’m not a fan actually makes me appreciate Matt’s point more, I think. Matt begins his essay by noting that it’s very hard for comics fans to see Liefield art; he is so popular, and so despised, that his style turns people off instantly.
Look at it. I think it’s pretty great, and I’ll explain why in a second, but can you even see it straight? Or have the two decades since the comic it was published in sold four million copies so poisoned your eyes to liney, jumbled, hyperkinetic panels like this that something switches off in you the moment you perceive it? It’s a struggle for me too.
This doesn’t really happen to me. I mean, yes, I know who Liefield is, and I have generally not liked his stuff a lot. But I haven’t seen a lot of it, and really, I’ve hardly thought about him at all, because I haven’t cared enough to. This is probably the first time I’ve ever looked at a Liefield panel closely — and while I don’t think I love it the way Matt does, I can definitely see and enjoy the bizarre trashiness he’s grooving on. I don’t think I’ll seek Liefield comics out or anything, but the next time one comes my way I’ll be looking at it through the lens of Matt’s post.
So one of the things I liked about this post is that it changed my mind…and the reason it was able to change my mind was that I’m coming from a really different place than Matt. He writes things I’d never write, or even think about. So does Shaenon for that matter. Which is kind of a joy.