Poplife: Issue #29

Thu, August 22nd, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

DAYFORNAUGHT

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.

[Harold avenges his honor; CrossGen.]
Harold avenges his honor; CrossGen.
From the Poplife Voicemail bag:

"If you ever say anything embarrassing about me on the Internet again, I'm gonna fuck you up. For real." - 'Harold in Midtown', 16 August 02

In the interest of accuracy and fairness, "Harold" traded in those ill-gotten Crossgen books for two White Stripes CDs, pulling the old 'I got these crappy books for my birthday and I don't want 'em' routine at Barnes and Noble.

[You get to see Duchovny's thingie.]
You get to see Duchovny's thingie.
Caught Soderbergh's FULL FRONTAL the other day. I liked it quite a lot, even though it's a twittering mess with a few more hats than it has rabbits… sort of riff on DAY FOR NIGHT, maybe, by way of Soderbergh's own SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE and SCHIZOPOLIS (he'd said in interviews that FULL FRONTAL was, in fact, a sort of sequel to each).

Slap a reference to STARDUST MEMORIES in there and you're gonna be just fine when you're trying to pick up some fly film lay-deez.

The press for the film describes it as "a movie about movies for people that love movies," and I suppose that's pretty accurate. Metahyperselfreflexive filmmaking about filmmaking about filmmaking about people with all their quirks and neuroses, about art and its audience. I shifted in my seat every now and again, and sometimes my attention would drift up to flecks of dust caught shimmering in the light from the projector, but as DO SOMETHING REAL by Guided By Voices rose up on the speakers over the end credits I fell into a kind of hypnosis. Maybe it was Tapdancing Hitler. Walking back from the theater to meet up with Kelly Sue felt somnambulistic-- the traffic and crowds were so slight that I wondered if something had happened. I drifted back to the coffee shop through the middle of near-empty streets in the middle of a Sunday afternoon.

The further away I get from FULL FRONTAL, the more I find I liked about it. Part of it is admiring anyone who willingly fucks themselves in public, I fully admit to that-- with a three-week shoot Soderbergh's diffused his 'winning streak' and taken that critical heat off himself. And FULL FRONTAL is alienating enough to piss off critics, moviegoers, and probably many of the man's own fans. And as much as I can get behind that, I liked seeing a flick that didn't insult my intelligence and tried to challenge my perspectives and presumptions.

It's easy to dismiss FULL FRONTAL as twee pomo navel-gazing on a scale that only Soderbergh could do because he's Soderbergh, but that's rather the point. And while art-about-art is certainly its own cup of tea, film needs an audience otherwise it's not much more than a really elaborate sketchbook entry. After the ultrasuperartifice of OCEAN'S 11, Soderbergh's made a piece that's so small and intimate it almost vanishes before your eyes, while no doubt reminding the director why he's making films in the first place. With FULL FRONTAL, he's looking at the context of film itself so that infinite moray effect is a natural extension of its own core conceit.

I think Soderbergh's reach always just barely slips past his grasp. And I mean that in a good way, because every film he's done comes off as hungry, exploratory-- entirely conscious of both its own idiom and the history that forms its context, yet he never makes anything less than very active, very noble failures. And even if FULL FRONTAL is little more than an artist talking to himself, I was engaged by eavesdropping on the conversation.

It helps that I thought FULL FRONTAL was absolutely hysterical, too.

I'm extending all of that above nonsense into comics now, for those of you who managed to wade through the previous500-something words.

So I'm wondering where the self-reflexive comics are. I don't mean autobio books, although there are moments in the works of Harvey Pekar, Evan Dorkin, Joe Matt and others like them that at least approach that level of engaging introspection. In the majority of books like that, the comics themselves are always peripheral details to their creators' ongoing public nervous breakdowns, though, and are never really anything other than a job. I'm looking for comics about comics. About comics about comics…

[The Playboy]There's a great moment in Chester Brown's THE PLAYBOY that approaches this-- Brown reveals his near-autistic recall of Playboy cover models to the amazement of his friend when he recalls a model, as well as her cover issue number and date that the friend half-remembered the details of. Not wanting to reveal that he had this information at his mental fingertips, Brown covers with a little white lie only to then agonize over the realization that he's going to have to tell the truth about the incident in THE PLAYBOY, thus revealing not only that he's lied to his friend (in print, no less), but that he knew the cover instantly in the first place. The greater horror he'll feel upon the issue's publication is up to the conjecture of the reader.

[Copybook Tales]THE COMPLETE COPYBOOK TALES, collected from Oni Press, skates over the top of this reflexivity but it's really more of a coming of age/growing the fuck up kind of story than it is concerned with greater meanings. It's way too steeped in '80's nostalgia to actualize as any sort of analysis of idiom or art. It's a comic about how the comic you're reading came about, but it's far too light and mired in shitty pop culture to be much more than that.

[Box Office Poison]Same goes for BOX OFFICE POISON by Alex Robinson through Top Shelf. While only one of its myriad plotlines is about comics, the people that make them, and the parasitic subculture blooming in its gutters, the book really has way too many balls to juggle for that storyline to really be anything other than a little bit of Inside Baseball for those of us in the cheap seats. There is a level of veiled history going on, which adds a little oomph to the proceedings but its end result is a little too tidy and a little too wishful in its thinking to pull itself off successfully.

[Dreamer]Eisner's THE DREAMER skates close to the flipside of those books' glib superficiality but isn't nearly as substantial as its historical power needs. There's just not enough punch in its pages, and it's probably my fault for looking for it there. That said, I would love to see Eisner put out a work of heavy autobiography that blends the thinking-about-comics of THE DREAMER with the urban romantic realism of DROPSIE AVENUE or THE BUILDING.

[Cages]Then there's CAGES, by Dave McKean and recently re-republished by… somebody, I can't remember who the fuck has that book anymore, but it's out again after a long absence. CAGES, as aesthetically beautiful as it is, is more about capital-A- say-it -"awt"- ART and thus has a lot more room to fail, which it does as often as it succeeds. I don't even think comics are mentioned anywhere therein, but there sure are a lot of people talking about art and the meaning of art between its covers. AND it's got the book-within-a-book thing happening, but it never really seems comfortable with the idea of comics. At times CAGES feels like a novel slumming it for hipster cool.

[Hicksville]HICKSVILLE, by Dylan Horrocks from D&Q is an interesting case. It's the story of an American comics journalist who travels to a remote island off the coast of New Zealand where comics are a sort of national-- or at least local-treasure, to investigate the hometown and origins of the World's Most Famous Comics Creator. Some of HICKSVILLE is comics-within-the-comic: pages, fragments, and whole entire stories sometimes. Its failings come from Horrocks always-kinda drawing like Horrocks, really. No matter whose comics we're supposed to be looking at while reading HICKSVILLE, it always looks drawn by the same guy so the metaphor falls apart on some practical level. Beyond that, HICKSVILLE works in equal parts as a lament and autopsy, yet eager and hopeful. It's a strange mix, and at the end of the day, HICKSVILLE isn't so much about comics as it as about the nice people that make and keep them. It comes close. It comes really very close, but keeps itself far too internal and introspective, it's a little too shocked and appalled at comics' ugly history and uglier present to follow through on any of its metacomics conceits. Horrocks is continuing to spend at least some of his creative life in Hicksville via his new series ATLAS, so I know I'll be staying tuned…

[It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken]I feel like I should mention Seth's IT'S A GOOD LIFE, IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN (also from D&Q), even though I'm not entirely sure what I should say about it. A comic about a comic artist tracking down his favorite obscure cartoonist, fiction-as-autobiography, IT'S A GOOD LIFE… is more about obsession (maybe too strong a word) and nostalgia more than anything so forceful as art, creation, or the medium itself. I'm not sure how it fits in here. At the same time, it's worth exploring and getting lost in.

[Alec]Lastly, Eddie Campbell's HOW TO BE AN ARTIST from Eddie Campbell comics and Top Shelf. This probably comes the closest to nailing the self-reflexive, auto-analytical in-joke turned inside-out style of FULL FRONTAL and DAY FOR NIGHT, but doesn't feel quite right for some reason. Maybe it's too historical, too documentary for our purposes here. At the same time, though, there are brilliant moments of self-reflexivity, like older Campbell popping Younger Campbell in the back of the head-- although it occurs to me now that this may in fact be in AFTER THE SNOOTER, I don't have the books in front of me. The tone and timbre of the narration works beautifully, that of Older Campbell lecturing his younger self, narrating the course his life will take. Campbell outlines his creative life as an artist via his primary art to beautiful effect, and he manages to cover quite a lot of comics history in the process. It's more about Campbell as an artist, paralleled with the modern history of the art; closer than anything else above, but still not quite right.

I more or less like all of the above to varying degrees, but try as I might none of them quite fit my half-assed parameters. There are other moments scattered across dozens of books I don't have room to talk about: Taiyo Matsumoto in BLACK AND WHITE; Bill Sienkiewicz does it like most people breathe; Chris Ware in some of the non-JIMMY CORRIGAN stories; Grant Morrison in pretty much everything he's done, especially INVISIBLES; there are even levels of this happening in PLANETARY, although it's played as pastiche more than anything else.

I fully admit that what I'm looking for is an acquired taste. Most folks probably lack the time and patience for such exercises, especially when so many attempts can fall up their own asses while trying to get a better look at their shoes. At the same time, though, this level of postmodern auto-analysis seems a hallmark of any number of art forms, be it Duchamp wanking in a gallery, or Lindsay Anderson casting IF… at the end of O LUCKY MAN, or Kurt Vonnegut writing himself into BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. Art is allowed to look at itself, to question its purpose and play with its identity and examine itself in a larger context. To play around, to figure itself out, to evolve before our eyes if we're interested in paying attention.

All the other arts do it. Why not us?

Discuss this column on the Poplife Forum or on the Matt Fraction Forum.

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