GET YOUR MONEY'S WORTH
So, the other day, I went out to breakfast with my good pal John Lee. You may have seen ol' John walking around in a space suit at the Alternative Press Expo this year. You may remember him as the Korean ice miner who tells the story of the Fourth Century king in Astronauts in Trouble: One Shot, One Beer. If you're married, chances are John was in or at yours.
The guy's attended over 300 weddings. And he's not crashing 'em. These are the weddings of people he knows. He went to 58 last year. That's more than one a week.
Ol' John is one of those guys who has informed opinions on everything. Why'd Chevrolet only make the hard-top Bel-air in '57? John knows. Best place to find a hamburger in San Francisco after 2 am on a weeknight? John not only knows, but he'll drive us. With a pinball machine? John doesn't hesitate; just get in the car, he'll say. Dick York or Dick Sargent? John could tell you some stories.
So over our eggs John says he'd read last week's column, and wants to know where that wine-tasting I'd gone into was. "Beverages and More, over on Geary, by Kieron and Binky's studio," I say. He nods sagely. "Where are you going with that 'what makes a good comic thing?', besides your Planet Lar gauntlet-throw?"
And it is here I should interject that six years ago I wrote and produced a weekly acetate-covered fanzine called "Planet Lar." Named after the B-52s song "Planet Claire," I used the zine as my soapbox to the rest of the world. Part rumination on the comic book industry, part comics review, part oh-my-god-I-can't-believe-this-guy-does-one-of-
these-a-week-and-sends-them-to-me, Planet Lar was what I did with my spare time because I didn't then have a website.
In issue twenty-five, halfway through its fifty-issue run, I wrote this:
There was a concept held in high regard by the ancient Greeks called "arete." This meant "virtue," or "excellence." It was a concept that was associated primarily with victorious athletes, but not exclusively so.
It is my contention that arete is intrinsic to human beings. It is an underlying element that applies to the world in general and every human being who's ever been in it. Arete is linked, not just to excellence in performance, but to hope.
In the comic book industry in 1996, there is a palpable sensation of connection to one another -- and to history -- among fans and professionals alike. There is a sense that we're in the middle of watershed events that will resonate in the industry much as the events of ten years ago do today.
But, much as the ancient Greeks had their Olympic Games that started out as sacred rites and devolved into spectator sports, so too has the comic book industry devolved from an entertainment and artistic medium available to the masses to a "spectator sport," with clearly delineated separations between the producer and the consumer.
Fans are gone.
Speculators are gone.
Half the retailers who opened stores in 1986 are gone.
Those of us who are left are those who believe in the white-hot purity of the form. We're not loudmouths. We're not show-offs. We're not totems. We don't want people vicariously identifying with our own arete.
We want quality comics.
We want pathos. Engagement. Poignancy. Elegance. Falling-down Funniness. Instruction. Joy.
I've got some discretionary income and I wanna spend it on quality funny books.
I wanna reward those who are displaying, in whatever way, arete.
So whenever someone would ask me what made a good comic, I'd explain the concept those ancient Greeks held in such high regard, and say that a good comic is one in which the makers displayed arete.
"But specifically," John says, "what makes a good comic?"
"It's like the definition of 'obscenity,'" I say. "I know one when I see one. I don't really think too much about it. I don't want to spoil the allure."
"Don't make me get all Socratic on your ass," John says, around a mouthful of his Sausalito omelet. Ol' John spends a lot of time talking like his world-view has him as the star of his own Samuel L. Jackson movie, with a score by the Propellerheads. "'The unexamined life is not worth living.'"
"I know what I think," I say, "You, Mister Let-Me-Show-You-How-To-Braise-That-Steak-Properly… what do you think makes a good comic?"
Whereupon John launched into a brief description of "terroir," which he described for me as that special combination of soil composition and climate which provides distinction to a particular grape-growing region. The environment under which the grapes are grown and the wine is made has a unique effect on the final result.
John then went on to explain something about the California growing zones and the subsequent formation of a unit of measurement called "degree-days" and the agreed upon assumption that certain varietals perform better in individuals zones and a bunch of other stuff and I hasten to add any errors in reportage here are mine and not errors of fact on John's part.
But it quickly became clear to me that this "terroir" thing works in comics as well. Just as you can have wine made from the same kind of grapes grown in the same place yield a different tasting vintage, so too can you have a comic done by the same guys using the same characters yielding variable levels of enjoyment.
Instead of subjecting you to variations on the "its oaky flavor is reminiscent of long walks in the Vermont woods in the second week of October" and "this pinot noir smells of Russian leather and candle wax" thing, I'm just going to come out and tell you what I think makes a good comic:
Words and pictures must juxtapose so the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
If I wanted aesthetically pleasing art, I'd visit a museum. If I wanted enjoyable words, I'd read a book. Give me an enjoyable story with pleasing art, and that's a good comic.
A sense of entertainment.
If I'm going to spend time reading a comic book, I want to be entertained. It doesn't have to be entertaining, per se; see the "Pathos. Engagement. Poignancy. Elegance. Falling-down Funniness. Instruction. Joy."-comment, above. But it has to be worth my time.
It's gotta take me by surprise.
Anything, here; a character who reacts to a situation in a novel way, a joke I don't see coming, a new look at an old archetype. A fresh storytelling voice, a new style of artistic expression. A unique vision.
All of the comic book stories I really enjoy are ones that have a particular message to me as a reader. Sometimes the message can be a simple morality play from a well-told action-adventure; other times, it can be a graphic novel from which I get new meaning upon every subsequent reading. But at the end, I have to have cared.
It's difficult to quantify something that's inherently a matter of taste, after all.
But reader Max Leibman, over at the Loose Cannon Message Board said it best last week, though, I think: "A good comic is one that I feel I got my money's worth from."
Whatever that means to you. Just get your money's worth.
Email about this column should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org, although please don't take it personally if I don't respond to an email of yours. You may have said something so pithy that I can't think of anything to say other than, "Well, yes!" or perhaps I'm just not current on my correspondence and by the time I get to it, a response from me is not warranted. I'm not in Steven Grant territory yet, but sometimes a week goes by that I simply don't have time to respond to every message. I read 'em all, though, so keep 'em coming.
Of course, most answers to simple questions you may have about me or my company can be gleaned from http://www.ait-planetlar.com.
What's THE best comic you've ever read? Tell us all, over at the Loose Cannon Message Board.