January 30, 2012
Dear music journalism, we’ve been seeing a lot of one another for a long time now, and there’s some stuff I’d like to get off my chest. I hope you’re listening, and I hope we can make this work.
1. No album is “great,” “brilliant,” or even “fantastic” until it’s five years old. There are occasional exceptions — Illmatic, five fucking mics — but exceptions should prove the rule, not constantly devalue it. An album is great if you can grow as a human being for five years, listen to it then, and still find something in there that speaks to you and informs your sensibilities. “Nostalgia” doesn’t count; that’s just you speaking to yourself while jerking off.
2. If you’re going to make your music criticism political, stick to it. If you’re going to call Odd Future out on homophobia (or whoever for whatever) and then turn around and praise an Eric Clapton guitar solo without also mentioning that he is or was pro-Enoch-Powell, you have damaged your own integrity. Picking and choosing comes off as whining. By the same token, repellent people can make beautiful artifacts, and beautiful artifacts themselves can sometimes be repellent. It’s a fact of life — not a pleasant one, but there you go.
3. There is no correlation between how obscure a record is, and its quality. None whatsoever. They are two entirely separate metrics, and only douchebags connect them.
4. Mining for intellectual depth in vapid pop music makes you look like a buffoon. Saying Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” is ‘beautiful in its simplicity’ or something ridiculous like that is like when Homer Simpson explained why he had his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remake end with Mr. Smith killing everyone: “It was symbolism! He was angry!” It’s OK for music to be stupid, and if something’s stupid and fun, for God’s sake, just call a spade a spade. (Note: this may be bad advice when talking about black musicians.) ‘Beautifully simple’ lyrics don’t express how much someone loves big asses or partying, they take an outsize, unwieldy condition and convey its entire meaning in as compact a space as possible (see Cate Le Bon: “the dogs are dead and I’m getting older”).
5. Music journalism is not the German language. You cannot just take two functioning genre-descriptor nouns and smash them together, and expect people to know what the fuck you’re talking about. Related: “Band X meets Band Y” is done, and you are forbidden to continue using it. It might be acceptable when talking about, say, a band no one could ever have possibly heard of (or, in the more literal sense, an actual honest-to-God mash-up), but it still says next to nothing, and fails to give a meaningful context for a song or a record beyond your own stupid iPod.
6. “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” is a hoary old cliche, yes. It’s also the order in which the human brain prioritizes those topics. If you’re trying to make a person give a shit about your lengthy profile of whoever, call it the hook, the line, and the sinker.
7. Keep everything at arm’s length, or at least fake it. If your article or review or whatever makes you sound like Fanboy #1, then all people will take away is that you’re Fanboy #1. If you want to be taken seriously as a critic, behave like a serious critic, and cover up your cultist shaved skull with a baseball cap or something.
8. Just because you can veer off-topic and ramble about stuff that is only tertially connected to your point does not make you David Foster Wallace. It makes you come off like you have fucking Attention Deficit Disorder and no ability to copy-edit yourself. David Foster Wallace was David Foster Wallace, and in any event, look where writing like David Foster Wallace got him.
9. Before you write a single word, just remember that any opinion you put out into the world is going to be out there for the rest of your life, and you’re just going to have to live with it — so only speak up if you’re really and truly okay with that.
10. If your role model isn’t Byron Coley, you should consider hanging it up. That’s not a joke.
January 27, 2012
The thing about comic nerds — the ones who read comics when they were little, and then kept reading them instead of growing up — is that they’re always aware of the bigger shark in the water. The people who make the damn things aren’t immune to this, either. Back in 1950, comics (Krazy Kat excepted, I guess) were ways to shut the kids up in the car at best, and the reason they liked knifing people at worst. Real books had things like “literary criticism” and “respectable institutions” and “Honoré de Balzac” and all that. Next to that, it’s only natural that comics would worry about the size of their dick. Thus, Arnold Drake, Leslie Waller, and Matt Baker putting together It Rhymes With Lust – a “picture novel.”
It’ll always be like that. For most of the past while, comics have been aping film as best they can — look at how ubiquitous things like “widescreen” panel construction have become. Panels get statted with incremental changes to simulate the persistence of vision in a film. This used to be a once-in-a-while thing, usually a punchline to a gag — how else do you illustrate a double-take without drawing two faces sprouting out of one neck, hinged on a bunch of speed lines? Now it’s just “people talking, or whatever,” like the comic book equivalent of a sustained take. People can do what they want, and hell, some of them even do it pretty well.
Whether or not you like it, of course, doesn’t change the fact that it’s a precedent. For everyone content to lay flat in two dimensions and stick to the script, so to speak, there’s someone trying to make “a comic that’s more like a (insert something more popular than a comic book, like Mad Men or crack cocaine)!” Maybe they don’t even do it consciously — maybe for some of them it’s just like an itchy tag inside their shirt. Blah blah blah. The point is, “graphic novels” are occasionally more than just a novelty, and we have movies of Iron Man and all that now, so we don’t need comics that simulate Iron Man movies. Next: video games. Enter Prophet #21.
Back in the 1990s, Prophet was Rob Liefeld and Dan Panosian’s attempt to create the coolest, baddest, raddest, muscliest berserker there ever was, like if the Ultimate Warrior replaced his tassels with pouches and went around body-slamming spaceships or whatever. Before long, Panosian was out, and Steven Platt was in. Chuck Dixon wrote it for a while. There was an actual, not-made-up thing called the Prophet Babewatch Special. He had a sidekick that looked just like a dwarf Jack Kirby, named “Kirby,” who was sort of like what I imagine Jack Kirby would be like if he got hit on the head and, following the resultant brain aneurysm, went around shooting everyone he saw. The strangest part of all of this was that in some weird inarticulate way, John Prophet (star of Prophet, in the same way that John Renegade was the star of Renegade) was meant to be some sort of hyper-violent Christian role model, like a 12th-century Crusader or a guy who firebombs evil space-reptile abortion clinics.
Despite the overall genius and marketability of this, Prophet lasted 20 issues (apparently) across two or three separate stabs at an ongoing series. The last one was in 2000, under the aegis of Awesome Entertainment, and tried to relaunch the whole thing as being about John Prophet’s daughter. One issue made it to stores before Awesome’s financial backers disappeared in a fluttering paper-storm of unpublished Alan Moore scripts, and that was that. Prophet #21 ignores, well, just about everything I said above. Brandon Graham and Simon Roy wake John Prophet up in an unrecognizable future, and he doesn’t have time to worry about unresolved continuity snags or villains like Crypt and Judas. He’s got a mission, and he’s getting on with it.
Brandon Graham got his start in porno comics, where no one gives a shit what you do as long as you include the requisite amount of cumshots and tits. As a result, his cleverness was never beaten out of him. He’s more famous for doing King City, a comic that was half “actual story about stuff” and half “travel guide to a place he couldn’t visit, so he had to imagine.” The latter is, by far, the better part — it’s the kind of story where you forget about the plot for a page or two and check out the graffiti all over one of the buildings instead. Simon Roy’s made a bunch of things I haven’t read, like Jan’s Atomic Heart, but from his art that I’ve seen, he comes off like Paul Grist’s French-or-maybe-Italian cousin, replacing Grist’s brutal concrete-slab linework with something more delicate and watercolored. These men are categorically not going to deliver a standard superhero comic, and certainly not one in the mold of 1990s Extreme, where people mostly just shouted and punched one another, until the next crossover when half of them died.
So John Prophet wakes up, gets ready for his mission, does some busywork like “surviving in a shithole future,” and gets his information from an alien(?) monster-thing that he then has sex with. When you break anything down into its component parts, of course it looks like something else, but really: doesn’t this sound like a video game? Begin, whole and hale, in a world that you have no conception of and must get your bearings in. Kill whatever the local nuisance is in order to gain a bit of strength. Do menial tasks that involve a lot of walking back and forth for no real reason. Reach the cutscene that advances the story, and then fuck an alien(?) monster-thing for the Xbox Achievement. Shit, that’s practically a Fallout, right there.
Look at this right here: Prophet’s gear, laid out for the reader. We’ve long had things like Official Handbooks and other off-brand rip-offs telling us exactly what Batman keeps in all of his little belt segments, but to actually interrupt the story to go through one’s pockets — where else would one do that but in a video game, when you put the action on hold to go through your item menu? Then again, one guy did pull a similar stunt a while ago…
Anyway, stuff like that is why it’s tempting to call Prophet #21 the meaningful start of “Fallout comics,” which sounds better than “video game comics” in the same way that calling something “cinematic” sounds better than “like a motion picture, sans the motion.” It’s so unlike the rest of the pack — comics that still draw from movies, or novels, or television, or most abominably of all, other comics — that the Internet has been cumming blood for it. It’s quite good, too, and the praise is deserved, even well-earned. Graham and Roy are schlepping a new warm throat-slit carcass for the rest of the industry to bite whole chunks out of.
The irony is, it’s almost certainly incidental. Most people who comment on the DNA of Graham and Roy’s Prophet note its similarity to European comics albums, the kind of stories you get in Heavy Metal and then fail to read a single word of because you’re grumbling and looking for the tits. It’s a fair cop. You could even say that Prophet is cinematic, but in a pointedly non-Hollywood sense (let’s face it: when people call comics “cinematic,” they almost always mean “mass-marketed Hollywood action picture”). All of these things often strike at the same root nerve as modern gaming, though: it’s not just about being told “this is John Prophet, and here’s what happened to him,” but also (and just as deeply) about experiencing the world around him and knowing that someone out there took care and craft to build even the most inconsequential moment. When someone builds you a world, you don’t just ask where the exit is, you explore it. The only difference between this and a Final Fantasy is that Prophet comes on a 20-page-a-month installment plan, so it might be a little hard to put in 100 hours, and even though you’ll still be collecting folded-and-stapled paper and stuffing it into mylar bags, you won’t get anything as cool as the stuff in the Metal Gear ad on the back of that old issue of Sleepwalker.
It’s not good or bad that Prophet takes after video games, even if it’s a happy accident in the process of chasing the Moebius dragon. It’s kind of new, and kind of different, and it knows what it’s doing because it’s got some skilled people at the controls. Considering the sordid state of contemporary comics, Prophet isn’t that far off from being the Vault Dweller walking through the radioactive wastelands.