11/16/2009

Independents and Strange Tales


Featuring interviews with creators like Kevin Eastman (TMNT, Heavy Metal) and Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), Chris Brandt’s documentary Independents moves slowly away from being about independent comics makers to a film featuring cartoonists conveying one message: “What we are doing is more important than what the other guy is doing.”

“Indie” comics aren’t always necessarily independent, as is often discussed here on this blog. Many comic makers published by Top Shelf and Drawn and Quarterly are considered independent by people who are industry insiders and outsiders. However authors of "regular" books who simply write and aren’t contracted to one publisher wouldn’t be considered “independent” authors. Indie comics makers are really Alternative comics makers, because that’s what these people are really proud of being, the alternative to what is popular. Does independent just mean not Marvel or DC only when we’re talking about comics?

Plenty of people making monthly comics for one of The Big Two aren’t obligated exclusively to one company, and often writers and artists are going back and forth between the comics giants. I’m not talking about an artist who draws one Wolverine one-shot here, I’m talking about people who work on a book month to month.

While I realize being independent is much more often about being capital-"I" Independent--doing things on your own and owning your own work--it becomes more than that. It’s not a matter of just having “not made it”, it’s about not “selling out” to one of the big guys.

This extremely punk rock attitude holds people back, narrowing their already linear thoughts towards art and creativity. It’s like when one of your friends’ crappy bands gets onto MTV and all of your other friends’ crappier bands never change to “stay true”, or become this “experimental project”. This isn’t because everyone should be working for Marvel or DC, but because by trying so hard to not to do what they’re doing, you only box yourself in.

With Strange Tales, Marvel let these work for hire, self-publishing, mostly Indie writers and artists take on their greatest characters. Some of the contributors, like Paul Pope, Dash Shaw, Matt Kindt and Jim Rugg, took the characters and placed their own style of story telling and artistic vision onto the previously existing work to create something attractive to both Marvel readers and fans of their “indie” work who may not regularly pick up a Marvel comic book.

Dash Shaw, known for Body World and Bottomless Belly Button, put his spin on Dr. Strange (specifically Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange run). His story’s perfection comes from Shaw’s ability to place himself, his art, into the world of Dr. Strange, instead of forcing The Sorcerer Supreme into a Shaw-ian place. There's a perfect balance between Shaw the artist and Dr. Strange the character.

While the story ends on a silly note (Strange fighting off a yawn) the rest of the story parodies, but does not talk down to, the original work. Other stories, like Jacob Chabot’s Fantastic Four four page short, Lookin’ Good, Mr. Grimm, are completely silly. The Thing growing a mustache using Chia Pet solution is ridiculous and may never happen in the real comic, but the relationships between the Four Family are on-point, making the ridiculous situation actually funny, and not, you know, ironic.

The other side of Strange Tales is creators who forced the characters into their own styles. Self proclaimed inventor of diary comics James Kochalka’s Hulk Squad Smash reads like the rest of his work. It’s nothing special or new, it’s just a badly drawn, unfunny section in the middle of what is otherwise a perfect comic. Kochalka couldn’t--either he's unable or unwilling--move away from his cutesy style to allow his story to grow. The “Cute over Craft” artist boxed himself in, and sorta put a rut in the issue. It’s the only story that upon a reread I skip, it just steps away from what the rest of the stories are, it stands out only for what it isn’t and not what it is.

Not all of Independents is about what they are not, much of it is about what they are, which is artists. Much of the documentary is about how to succeed in a hard business, regardless if succeeding is selling 100 copies of your mini comic or 100,000 copies of your book.

However, angling themselves against The Big Two, and taking an actual stand against what they do is unfortunate and hurtful only to themselves. Many of these creators and publishers started when comics were very different, but they firmly hold onto their opinions, no matter how irrelevant they are to today’s comics. And they are irrelevant because rarely any comics readers' taste don't include a few super hero books.

Gary Groth of Fantagraphics fame said, referring to super hero comics: “They’ve never been interested in doing work that reflects contemporary life, serious existential issues, independent work, small intimate stories or autobiographical work.” Both Marvel and DC have been taking on race, sex and gender issues since their inception, with a pronounced focus in the 80s--not a shock that it lines-up with "the Black and White boom". Look at something like X-Men: God Loves Man Kills a testament to the real life issues that big dumb ass X-Men deal with. Using a super natural angle to talk about real issues just makes us look at the subject at hand differently, hopefully opening up a few eyes.

Not to be this quote guy, but Linda Medley (Castle Waiting) may have never read a super hero comic in her life but probably stared at the covers: “They’re not risk takers, they’re not trying to communicate, they’re trying to make money and they’re not trying to expand the consciousness of anyone”. Reading Strange Tales may open up lots of super hero readers to independent comics, and I just hope that sometime soon there is a book that ingratiates snobby comix readers to super hero comics, that can make people want to open up a super hero comic for more than big tits and tights.

26 comments:

Matthew said...

Damn, dude! Snobby comix readers indeed! Preach it!

I think I really agree with you here. I tend to stray away from the weekly roster of "Big Two" books to be honest, but it isn't out of a conscious rejection agenda. I simply tend to tire of "the same old, same old". Because, come on-- Bucky is now ALIVE and it sounds like Steve Rogers ISN'T DEAD either? (I honestly haven't paid that much attention. And I think I just kinda proved my point?)

Regardless of these "safe" returns to form for both Marvel and DC, I get why this cyclical nature must exist for the household name Superheroes: Readership. If we wanted people to STOP reading Cap, we'd keep him on ice PERMANENTLY. But then there would be no more Cap at all. And I think we can all agree that maybe that's not such a good thing either. My point being that keeping the names of these characters relevant, means keeping these characters around no matter how trite and repetetive their stories might become. Because at the end of the day, we still have Cap fighting for truth, justice and the AMERICAN way... and Marvel still has their property dutifully chugging along. It is a business after all.

All that being said, there are some DAMN GOOD Marvel and DC reads out there. And I'm not only referring to the limited run series by the high-profile Indy comic creators either. I consider my tastes geared strongly toward the Independants, but I cannot deny the pull toward a good Batman run or the awesomeness that is "The Ultimates". To poo-poo any and all "mainstream comics" is to shut oneself off to the possibility of being delighted by the unknown. Just because these heroes have traded the trenchcoat-and-a-pack-of-smokes look for day-glow spandex doesn't mean that they can't tap into the same well of humanity that all "good comics" come from. A good story is a good story, no matter where it comes from or how it might be dressed.

And now I flip the coin to all you weekly Marvel & DC purists as well. How about trading the tried and true for that weird looking crime comic or the off-beat superhero title from publisher X?

Judge ye not, lest ye be judged.

MarkAndrew said...

"Not to be this quote guy, but Linda Medley (Castle Waiting) may have never read a super hero comic in her life but probably stared at the covers"

And drew the Justice League. And Doom Patrol.

And colored Batman.

I don't wanna be the guy who's all "basic fucking research."

But, on the other hand, "basic fucking research," y'know.

david e. ford, jr said...

there is something about comics people that you don't really see in criticism of other forms where they will use an error in detail to justify dispensing with an entire theory or argument. obviously it's nit-picky and meaningless and demonstrates a basic lack of understanding of how people engage with art or literature

samuel rules said...

Mark-
Thanks for reading and not commenting on the article, but a mistake. I also misspelled a word, I hope you find that too.

samuel rules said...

Matthew-
I think with all the dead or alive stuff or any other kinda weird kinda bullshit that comics do, it's awesome when you're reading it and retarded when you're not. I don't read a ton of DC but am trying to, and a lot of characters/stories I used to think were weird or silly I'm now really into and pick up as many Jimmy Olsen back issues as possible.

I buy a lot of weird super hero and sci-fi stuff, I try to give a lot of stuff a chance and anything anyone gives to me I'll definitely read. You're definitely on to "tried and true" being a reason people can't step away from Marvel, DC, Fantagraphics, Image, etc., I think we've all just been burned at one point or another by giving something a shot and it sucking, or even worse it being awesome and the series ending due to funding issues.

A lot of times when buying something I've never heard about, i think about thirty years from now will it reprinted by Fantagraphics or a similar publisher as one of these slept on stories like the Fletcher Hanks stuff or something.

MarkAndrew said...

"Not to be this quote guy, but Linda Medley (Castle Waiting) may have never read a super hero comic in her life but probably stared at the covers: “They’re not risk takers, they’re not trying to communicate, they’re trying to make money and they’re not trying to expand the consciousness of anyone."

Emphasis mine.

This is not a misspelling.

I typo more than anyone I know. I have an exremely lazy-fair approach to grammar, and I've made obvious and ignorant factual errors in writing that was read by thousands of people. Sometimes I get paid for this.

http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2009/09/11/the-16-best-team-up-book-runs-6-4/

Check the first comment below.

So, to my way of thinking, this is a little more serious than a typo.

This is implying that, because someone disagrees with your argument, they are ignorant.

So you're rudely calling someone ignorant. Fine. I'm in no position to throw stones.

However, this is implying that someone is ignorant without spending whatever time it takes to verify.

And that makes you look... not good. And certainly detracts from your credibility as a writer and damages your point.

david e. ford, jr said...

is anybody else having a difficult time figuring out what this dude is up to?

Bhavesh Patel said...

Samuel -

As someone who only really started reading comics/manga about 18 months ago, this mutual antagonism between the superhero crowd and the "indie" crowd in North-American comics is just downright puzzling to me. This snotty attitude towards other genres doesn't really happen much in any other area of the arts, does it? I can't remember ever hearing a prose reader say "It's gotta be a bildungsroman or nothin', yo!".

It sounds incredibly stupid and makes everyone involved look like some adolescent music fan.

David -

Getting bogged down in minutiae when there's an interesting discussion to be had seems to be the mainstay of lots of blogs/forums (comics or otherwise). In any mature debate, a minor factual error would never be used as the main thrust in any critique of a person's argument. Unfortunately, curt and surly just seems to be the first order of the day, acting all offended when your dickery is pointed out is the second.

Comics 4 Serious -

I've been reading through your blog over the weekend and I'd just like to thank all of you guys for some really intriguing and helpful posts. As a relative comic novice in search of something other than the received opinion that often passes for comics criticism, it's been a real eye opener.

samuel rules said...

Mark-
I sorta try to avoid this back and forth stuff on the internet because sometimes it gets too weird and away from the original point whichever party was trying to make. That said:

I basically was trying to be a dick and/or funny because like, come on, that quote? She's for real? Being like she "may have never read a super hero comic in her life but probably stared at the covers" is the same as saying "they present themselves as punk but have probably only ever heard 'I Wanna Be Sedated'". y'know.

I'm actually really into your stuff and Comics Should Be Good! in general, and as someone who has to deal with this situation from time to time, I was sorta bummed you wouldn't even comment on what I wrote, and just something you saw as a mistake or whatever. Thanks for reading.

samuel rules said...

Bhavesh-

It comes from pride of being a part of something that isn't a mainstream culture. I felt it as a kid listening to bands who recorded themselves into their mom's basement instead of signing to 'mainstream' labels, and at a point I felt it reading kinko's copied stapled together comics. Most people move out of this stage and are willing to give anything with promise a chance, but some people will forever stick to what they feel comfortable with, fighting the man or whatever.

Thanks for reading dude, always feel free to comment.

brandon said...

I think Sammy was being funny Mark. I don't think it in anyway meant she actually hadn't read any superhero comics--let alone done work on them. Anyone in comics has certainly read some superhero stuff.

Jesus fucking Christ.

david e. ford, jr said...

clearly this conversation is over, but i would also point out that the person who drew attention to the factual error in your post also commented on the content of your piece and wasn't a complete dick about it. thank you for sharing that with us!

david e. ford, jr said...

oh, also, BHAVESH:

thanks for the compliments and for reading our blog!

brandon said...

I should end this but really this is an unfortunate trend on the internet and we should chill out, but dudes like Mark should do more than stop reading an article when they think something's incorrect.

I read Sammy's article, I kinda sorta read all of them through to make sure they sound alright and in no way was I reading that as a factual assertion. Both Sammy and I are aware of Medley's work and indeed, that was part of the irony of the statement. I don't think anyone would read that thinking "Man, how would you know Medley's never opened a superhero comic??"

Basic fucking civility, son.

Chris Brandt said...

I may be mistaken, but I believe both quotes (from Groth and Medley) were within a historical context, speaking about what brought about independents in the 70s, and what moved them to publish the work they did in the 80s and 90s. Regardless of how DC and Marvel may extend themselves in content, it is certainly fair to say that the work published by Fantagraphics and many other independent publishers would not be touched by Marvel or DC. Dysart's "Unknown Soldier" and Sacco's "Palestine" may both cover war in a serious light...but there is a wide segment of the population who may not be interested in a fictionalized action-based tackling of the issues, and they aren't aware that there's an option in comics.

I apologize for using broad strokes to present the issues, however I was making this with novice readers in mind, and I don't think most (if any) of them give half a rats butt about a detailed analysis on this stuff. I was working on the assumption that most non-comic readers already "poo-poo any and all mainstream comics" based upon the belief that the medium is limited to pulp genres. Why not present them with an alternative take?

Also, had about a two or three minute bit that was cut, contrasting the terms "independent" and "alternative". But, again, I wanted to stay away from insider arguments in this doc. I, personally, would define an independent creator as one who has "final cut" control over any project...even if it's Frank Miller doing Dark Knight, or Lee/Kirby inventing Spider-Man. But defending that sort of statement is a whole documentary on its own, so no room in 77 minutes to cover it.

Anyhow...I hope you enjoyed it, despite its inciting you to rant. :-)

p.s. How's the weather in MD? I grew up in Ellicott City.

samuel rules said...

Chris Brandt-

I live in Timonium now, so pretty close to Ellicott City, and it's in that weird period where it's cold but sorta beautiful when it's not raining. You know how great it gets here.

I did actually enjoy the documentary, and just so you know, I bought it from CBLDF at the Small Press Expo this year.

Thanks for giving context to the quotes, I was watching it and hearing those two right after another made me smack my forehead. I understand that I'm not an industry insider and a lot of things go on that I don't understand, but such a disregard for the companies just struck me so hard.

The "trimmings" (deleted/extended scenes) features are really great too, especially the Manga one. I feel like Manga has the same problem Super Hero books have, but from "Indie" dudes and "Fanboys". There sorta isn't anything else like this, so I really appreciate you making this, thanks a lot for creating a dialogue and especially thanks for reading.

PS. I love the store spotlights, I could watch an entire DVD of those.

brandon said...

Where'd Mark go? Is he off "correcting" other blogs??

That "Unknown Soldier" exists, via DC, no matter how much it doesn't appeal to most regular comics readers is something of an affront to the kind of stuff spewed out by "indie comix" types...

david e. ford, jr said...

chris-

you definitely make some good points and your documentary is very engaging and also quite infuriating. of course, this isn't really your fault, except insofar as you were involved in deciding which bits made the final cut and which did not. the sorta level of talking down that is done by so many of the contributors in the film makes seem almost like an episode of south park. craig "blankets" thompson is only the most egregious of offenders. every time you hear him say how he doesn't think that artists' special insights make them any better, you can see in his face that this is precisely what he thinks. its risible, really.

i'll give you a case in point of the sorta fallacy of trying to reach people who aren't into comics by showing them the 'intellectual' side of things. i'm a perfect example of the sorta snobby, cultural elitist who for most of his life quite literally looked down on those who read comics. i've been into arty films for most of my life, have read proust, in its entirety, one-and-a-half times, not to mention ulysses, the man without qualities, blahblahblah. when i began working at a book store i was first introduced to the idea of 'serious' graphic novels and would occasionally pick up a persepolis or a palestine or from hell, or whatever. some of these books i enjoyed alright, but none of them made me want to continue to read comics, per se. then when i began working with sammy and brandon and the two of them were able to show me comic books, which is to say, straight up sci-fi, spacey, pulp-ey comics that were doing some of the same things that these other more respectable forms were doing, i was hooked.

the problem with presenting self consciously arty "comix" as the example of how the form can be sophisticated is that it simply perpetuates the notion that there is something wrong with 'normal' comics. it's no different from any other bullshit high/low culture divide in the sense that anyone who needs their art/culture to be overtly sophisticated is simply advertising their own lack of sophistication.

i don't really mean for this to sound like i am coming down on you as a filmmaker, because really what bugs me is the bullshit exclusivity of the indie comix (music/movies/literature) crowd. i think the most talented and most sophisticated people making comics in this country today are people exactly like paul pope, joshua dysart, brian wood, brandon graham, who can write and/or draw comics that have energy and sophistication and legitimately have something to say about what it means to live in this world at this time, but which also embrace the entire heritage of comic books. readers in europe and japan (and i'm guessing many other parts of the world) figured this out long ago, which is why you have such vibrant and developed industries in those places.

brandon said...

I'd also like to add, and this only me speaking, not the blog as a whole, that this whole thing where you talk some mess on something, then the creator of the thing you talked mess on shows up and is affable, so we're nice is frustrating. Dude's a good guy, but he made a wack documentary and did the thing that's the scourge of docs in the past 20 years or so--he"simplified" all the ideas instead of developing a more complex thesis.

Chris Brandt said...

I'm a little slow, so to keep everything straight in my head, I'm going to leave separate comments for each response.

Sammy...yeah, Fall is my favorite time of year, back there. Haven't been able to enjoy that season fully in almost twenty years. :-\

Thanks, too, for letting me know you got it from CBLDF. I hadn't seen the DVDs out on their table the last couple of conventions I attended, and was wondering...

I think any genre (referencing Manga, Indie, Superhero) suffers from preconceptions. I'll speak more to that in the following responses. Reading Manga for me is instructive, because I think it occasionally gives me insight into how non-comic book readers feel when they pick up a modern super hero comic (referring to confusing panel composition, and lack of familiarity with continuity), in that there are specific visual cues that just go right over my head. I had this happen just last night while reading Tezuka's "Buddha". There is a panel stuck in middle of an event that looks totally abstract and surreal (at the same time) to me...I still can't figure out what it's supposed to mean.

As for the store profiles, don't think it didn't cross my mind to do more. James Sime of Isotope informed me of a couple of stores in the midwest, one of which was a combo laudromat/comic store...fascinating! I'd love to watch a whole doc on just the history of comic book retail.

Chris Brandt said...

David -

Ha! You point out exactly why it is my fault. As much as I tried to keep people's comments in context, they are most definitely used to my own ends, and to construct a discourse that is wholly its own thing separate from the individual conversations I was having with each interviewee. I must suggest that your feeling that anyone is being anything but earnest is a product of your own preconceptions and insecurities. I assure you that Craig Thompson was wholly honest in his appraisal of himself, and you'd be easily swayed to this view if you had the benefit of seeing the straight interview with him...which I may post (for all interviewees) at some time in the distant future.

Regarding the presentation of the "intellectual" side of things...I assume you are suggesting that this is what my documentary does, and (if this is the case) I must further assume that you didn't watch the whole thing...or at least not closely. Because there are several things within the documentary that argue against intellectualization (word?). To keep this brief and readable, I'll point out only two: 1. On nobodies list of intellectual comics would be included the works of Erik Larsen or Kevin Eastman (and I'd include a few others from the doc who are more fun that brainy, but they'd be arguable, and I'd prefer to stick to point), and 2. the suggestion that "graphic novel" is an needless, intellectualized term attempting to bring a facade of respectability to "comic books".

"The problem with presenting self consciously arty "comix" as the example of how the form can be sophisticated is that it simply perpetuates the notion that there is something wrong with 'normal' comics." I agree, but this was not the thrust of the documentary, nor is it suggested at any point. In fact, underground comix, and their embracing of sex, drugs, and violence are used as the key example of more "sophisticated" comics.

The bullshit exclusivity of the indie comix crowd bugs me, too. I think that way of thinking, though, is a bit old hat. I don't run into those sorts of folks anywhere but the TCJ messageboard, anymore. And Paul Pope started as an indie creator much hailed by the crowd of "intellectual" comic snobs.

Chris Brandt said...

Brandon -

Good comics are never an affront to the comic snobs. Vertigo has been publishing great stuff for over a decade (or even through two centuries), and they have been instrumental in improving DC's line as a whole. The fact that it doesn't appeal to most regular comics readers would seem to augment the kind of stuff spewed out by "indie comix" types...

I'm assuming you're using "wack" in its negative connotation. I won't get into the logistics of detailing a complex medium, its business, and its sociological repercussions in a single narrative. You might as well decry "Dick and Jane" for its lack of thematic structure, or "The Alphabet Book" for its childish over simplified example images.

I must, however, take to task the assertion that I did not develop a thesis. There is a very clear line of thought developed through the documentary, and if you were distracted by your own presumptions about what a documentary that surrounds comicbooks should contain, I can only suggest that you revisit it with an unbiased mind. This documentary was not about comicbooks; it involved people who create comicbooks, and so I covered the rudimentary aspects required for someone who had no clue as to what's taken place in comics over the past hundred years. If you'd like a detailed history, I highly recommend "Comic Book Confidential" and "Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked".

I spent two years worrying over how every detail of my doc would be picked at by more ardent fans of comics, so I'm well aware of any niggling detail, and happy to correct misconceptions. Still, I am surprised by how easily people are distracted from the body of a work; I shouldn't be, as I have the same problem with films and comics. Small details that embody a pet peeve will make it difficult for me to concentrate on the work as a whole.

Please feel free to be as uncivil and rude as you like with me. I've put up with enough from the TCJ boards to be able to stick to my thesis.

brandon said...

I'm not a hater or nothing, so don't paint me as one, sir. Again, showing up to defend your film is fine and you're doing that fine, but don't get upset because I'm gonna talk about it the same way I would if you weren't in the comments fray.

This is what you said, about your own documentary:

"I apologize for using broad strokes to present the issues, however I was making this with novice readers in mind, and I don't think most (if any) of them give half a rats butt about a detailed analysis on this stuff."

Chris Brandt said...

Brandon, I'm hardly upset. I was being tongue-in-cheek with my last paragraph. As far as what you've quoted from what I wrote, I'm not sure what your point was in doing so.

brandon said...

Mainly the part where you dismiss "detailed analysis" as something no one will care about? Come on man...it's be different if this were a big deal documentary released in theaters and stuff, then the "this is for N00bs" excuse might play, but really man? Sammy bought it at SPX, that's your audience.

As I said, you're not alone in falling back on these excuses for making mediocre documentaries, it's a big trend that seems to stem from Moore--or even Morris (Errol)--wherein, rather than the doc being something you figure out and uncover, it's something you mold to fit an easy, digestible thesis.

Chris Brandt said...

I have had at least a dozen other creators thank me for making this. I have had at least two "Noobs" tell me that it got them to buy comics. My audience is broad, and the people I get complaints from are exactly the people I expected to get complaints from.

Brandon, if my thesis were easily digestible, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

The documentary is about figuring out and uncovering, and it's pretty obvious about it. The questions are peppered throughout the documentary, and there are no easy answers provided. Your summation of what I've done is so clearly unfounded, that I find it hard to believe you watched (or if watched, paid attention, or watched all the way through) my documentary. You have nothing to say to the point, only commenting broadly over Sammy's opinion.

As for you suggesting I'm "falling back on these excuses for making mediocre documentaries", saying so is tantamount to calling me a liar, **and** it is conversationally unfair, as I have no way of proving to you all of the pre-planned reasoning I put in to my documentary, other than presenting you with the forty hours of uncut footage, transcripts of all of my phone (and other untaped) conversations, and a point-by-point breakdown of the whole thesis. But I don't think you really care enough to know the truth; if I'm wrong in this, please feel free to come by my apartment any time, and we'll get started.

You display a marked ignorance of the processes of filmmaking. "(It'd) be different if this were a big deal documentary released in theaters and stuff"? Really? Not only is this a ridiculous premise based upon its lack of understanding of distribution, but it's so dismissive of the integrity of creative endeavors that I question any aesthetic opinion you may have. Come on, man... it'd be different if you were just spit balling b.s. with your pals, but you're responding to reasoned analysis by the actual creator. Do you really want to do put your arrogant ignorance on public display like this?

FYI, the main thesis is "why do artists pursue their works regardless of wealth, or fame?" I might add "understanding, or thoughtful criticism", but in the context of this discussion, I'm afraid you'd take it personally (though it's directly discussed in the doc).