Poplife: Issue #18

Thu, June 6th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

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POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

[Lung Gun.]
Lung Gun.
Something in my stomach is trying to kill me. Shut up. It's happening and I don't know how to stop it. My back hurts, too. Probably because I've spent the majority of the last few days lying still and thinking about the thing in my stomach that's been trying to kill me. It's okay unless I move, at which point it starts to try and kill me again. So I've sat very still and smoked, waiting for either death or for the thing in my stomach that's trying to kill me to get bored and move on to weaker, less life-happy flesh than mine. It hasn't done either yet. We can put a goddamn man on the moon, and yet we cannot eliminate our need for food or sleep? The twenty-first century sucks. The only things that make me feel like I'm living in the future are those Listerine mouth-strips. Depressing.

The response to last week's column was deafening in its silent apathy. Considering the amount of readers that feel it their need to drop dime on my whenever I say 'cocksucker' too much (or just narc it all out to Jonah like big weepy tattletales), hardly anyone had anything to say about the format of singles column. I could write about the crap on my goddamn boots and never hear the end of it (I have, and I have)-- but when you try to have a genuine discussion and you're met with resounding silence.

Which I find rather odd, yet at the same time strangely comforting in confirming my suspicion of general apathy amongst regular comics readers. It Is The Way It Is seems good enough for a lot of people, I guess.

[Feather picking fingers.]
Feather picking fingers.
Which is a pretty fucking shitty way to look at the state of things.

C'mon, goddammit, liven things up. Shake up the status quo. Just because something's been going on for ten/twenty/a hundred years doesn't mean it's the right way, the only way, or the most effective way. Ultimately, I suspect as long as everyone gets their regularly parsed out and never-changing monthly dose of THE STARTLING ADVENTURES OF FILTHY SANCHEZ, then the majority couldn't care less about how it's presented.

So any of you publishing bigwigs reading this, know that I have unlocked Comics Most Horrible Secret, and present it here for you now as a sign of my never-ending friendship and love:

Nobody gives a fuck.

Print comics on old napkins, grocery bags, restaurant placemats. Save yourself millions, and print the entire comic on a single page of paper. Slap a Travis Charest cover on it, charge twice as much, and you've made a mint.

There's a chance I might be teaching a class on How To Write Comics. I've been thinking about how exactly one does that, which is vaguely terrifying. One of the things I dislike about writing POPLIFE is that I'm not really one for deconstructing my own work methods too deeply.

The first time I really started to make my own comics was in Art School. I had two, maybe two and a half weeks of independent study, and at the end of the time I had to present a finished piece. So I made a comic.

This was shortly after I'd first read McCloud's UNDERSTANDING COMICS and Jason Lutes' JAR OF FOOLS; as a result my head was swimming with all sorts of ways to make comics more than glorified storyboards for a movie in my head.

The problem, though, was that the storyboards were complete crap, too. So I went digging around through film books looking for ways to tell visual stories. The best books I found were, I swear to god, shot by shot breakdowns of Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO and John Ford's STAGECOACH. That's all they were: perfect black and white reproductions with the dialogue running underneath in a pleasant, un-obstructive way… each and every shot from these two films.

I don't remember anything about the books other than what they were-no author name or even the names of the books themselves; they were by the same guy and I would assume there might be more than just those two. Anyone reading this who happens to spark to what I'm talking about, drop me a line.

Wait, I take that back-- someone had gone through the PSYCHO book and recreated it as a journal of her breakup with some fellow student. Various characters were renamed to real world counterparts, the backgrounds and environments labeled as campus-centric buildings and locations. Very bizarre. Most of all because this document of heartachey madness was done with pink and yellow highlighters…

Anyway, the books. The thing was, the guy who edited them sorta presented the films like comics. Most of the stills were all the same size, usually two, or three in a row. Certain money shots, though, were blown up and would fill half the page. It was an intuitive thing to do, to take that kind of liberty with the project. At the same time, though, the trick added punch and made some of the money shots really leap off the page.

[Bung Dropper.  No, really.]
Bung Dropper. No, really.
Just like comics, yeah?

To this day, I can't watch PSYCHO without saying VERRRRNNNNN. AAAAAAHHHHHH! every time Arbogast gets it on the stairwell, because across the half-page blow-up of the frame that insane little girl had written the exact same thing. His mouth open wide, eyes startled with sudden violence… his immortal last thoughts hijacked by pink and yellow fluorescent heartbreak.

I checked these books out for the better part of a year, above and beyond the duration of the project. Just liked having them around. Liked studying them. Figuring out how these two masters told their stories, where they put their cameras. When Ford would break the axis and when he wouldn't. You could flip through either volume and get exactly what was happening without a lick of dialogue. Sure, some of the nuance and specificity was lost, but at the same time there wasn't much of a loss in translation from screen to page.

I should've stolen those books, goddammit.

The other thing that helped me start to get my head around the generally strange and awkward formatting issues of writing comics (aside from the obvious READ COMICS SCRIPTS TO SEE HOW IT'S DONE thing) was doing a cover version of a comic.

Cover versions work on the same idea as being in a band the first time and trying to build up your chops. Find a comic you like, find a comic that's impressed you with how it was written, and reverse-engineer a script out of the final product. While certainly an exercise in the pedantic and strange, you can pick up a lot by trying to reproduce a comics script. It's more helpful if you do a weird handful of stuff, comics you like and comics you don't like, across a variety of different creators and titles.

You might not learn how to make stories up, but you'll at least come away with a better understanding of how to tell them. Like teaching yourself foreign idioms by just listening to street patter.

THE COMICS JOURNAL has been knocking it out of the goddamn park lately. The regular magazine remains, umm, as charming as ever; the SPECIAL EDITIONS they've produced as of late just floor me.

[Neckbreaker.]
Neckbreaker.
To the best of my knowledge, there've been two released, one their quarterly edition that reads like a Cahiers Du Cinema of comics: the first one had interviews with Joe Sacco and others, an overview of the strangely quiet career of Al Columbia, and a ton of other stuff in addition to the page after page of original comics material in the back. The other book in THE COMICS JOURNAL LIBRARY is just out today and is a special volume about the life, times, and career of Jack Kirby.

Larger than a record album, these books are giant floppy things, with a thick spine and a smooth, varnished cover. Thick, slick, glossy pages inside. The packages are around twenty bucks, I think, but are well worth the price.

These fine volumes are absolutely essential, I would think. In both form and content, Fantagraphics have broken ground with these books, and it's a shame more people don't care.

I wish there were twenty more just like it, rather than the sad abominations that most comics magazines are.

I think the thing in my stomach that's trying to kill me is PREVIEWS fault.

Going through the catalog this weekend was a slow and specific torture that I wouldn't wish on anyone.

Between Special Panty Editions of your new favorite tits and ass comic to the sad, anonymous shuffle most of the smaller publishers use to hawk their wares unsuspecting to the world, PREVIEWS made me want to kill myself. No, even worse, PREVIEWS made me hate my parents for ever bringing me into a world full of people so awful as those of you who think that Yes, you DO need a Special Panty Edition of a book categorized as boner fuel at best, and THEN made me want to kill myself.

[Skinning Tool.]
Skinning Tool.
I don't see the relevance of PREVIEWS or of Diamond or of the Direct Market anymore. The big publishers and the quality publishers will continue to sell to the specialized crowds they have cultivated carefully, but with a heartbreakingly few exceptions, there's not much of a chance for a breakout crossover beyond the urine-scented corners of this genre's goddamn basement.

The direct market seems like a racket to me, and one that doesn't do anyone any good above and beyond the aforementioned. It's a catalog of ads. PREVIEWS isn't bringing in new readers, and why should it? PREVIEWS looks like a comic adaptation of the soft-core porn on Cinemax. Read PREVIEWS in public and mothers will huddle their children away from you, old men will spit in disgust. Exciting and vital work lies buried and smothered beneath the endless hype of thongs and monsters.

Of course PREVIEWS is really just the messenger, isn't it? PREVIEWS is a pulpy invitation to cannibalize an already irrelevant and miniscule market.

Which is why things like OGN-only publishers or people like Pantheon books fascinate me so much. There are people that see the way things are as a diseased, dying, and most of all irrelevant. So they're moving on to greener pastures. Certain retailers are, too.

There are, according to Diamond, 2600+ comics shops in the country. That's it. We're lucky if 10% of them are worth anything. How many readers, overall, do you think there are? Quarter of a million? A third?

Fine, fuck it, keep 'em. Serve them up reheated juvenilia and puerile garbage too embarrassing to read on a subway train. Don't change anything, and don't challenge anything. And don't come at me with how SPIDER-MAN or motherfucking THUNDERCATS is going to help anything. Look at the charts. Even if millions of people are stampeding into comics shops looking for a four-color pop fix, retailers aren't reflecting it in their orders. There aren't a million new readers in shops like there was after BATMAN, because there isn't a million new orders anywhere to be seen.

Lord help me, I've just figured it out. This thing in my stomach doesn't want to kill me. It wants to kill you.

Special grind of the bone saw to Xtop for encouraging my nascent slaughterhouse techno fetish.

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