Comics: Storytelling with integrity, and the vampirism of other media

 

I love you this much josh spiller

An extract from my own ‘I Love You Thi$ Much’, a comic that no one has yet compared to ‘Watchmen’ or ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. You can check out more of my stories at joshspillercomics.tumblr.com 

It’s an undeniable fact – comics have never saturated culture more.

From the endless plethora of superhero blockbusters, to TV hits like Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to the slew of related videogames and cartoon series, it feels like the vast bulk of modern entertainment is either superhero-dominated, or at least superhero-inflected.

But within this boom, there is a surprising paradox: monthly comic-book sales – you know, the ones with all the superheroes in – are at pretty much their lowest ebb of all time.

For instance, according to these figures, the third highest-selling comic book of February 2016, in North America, was Batman, which shifted 102,689 copies. So what percentage of Americans bought this comic? Well, according to Google, the population of America is roughly 318.9 million.

So, if we do 102,689 ÷ 318,900,000 x 100, we should get the percentage we’re looking for. Which is… a paltry 0.03%.

To put that into context: in the 1940s, many individual comics sold over a million copies apiece. And even by the 1980s, a title on the verge of cancellation, like the pre-Alan Moore Swamp Thing, could still sell 20,000 copies per month, enough to almost be included in February 2016’s top 100-selling comics.

(For a far more detailed, accurate, and all-round better analysis of the trajectory of comic book sales over the past seventy years than I can provide, click here.)

So what’s going on? Why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between comics’ cultural profile, and their physical sales? Why aren’t individual titles selling anywhere near as well as, presumably, they should be?

Firstly, I don’t think it’s the fault of readers. You have to earn your readership. So instead, let’s consider the storytelling – and the mindset behind that storytelling – that they’re being offered.

Let’s talk revisionism

If one thing characterises modern, mainstream superhero comics, it’s revisionism. Continuities are constantly being rewritten. Titles relaunched, with a brand-spanking new ‘Issue 1’, and the promise that things will be radically different, more exciting, and better than ever.

The problem with these revisions is everything they wipe away. For all the readers that might be freshly drawn to the title, all of those who have loyally followed it for years are suddenly told: “Umm, you know all that stuff you’ve spent your time and money on? Well, none of that counts anymore. Enjoy!”

Such revisionism is applied, as you would expect, almost solely to titles with a lot of historical baggage – a.k.a the top-selling superhero books. It’s a narrative quirk, so far as I can think of, which is pretty much unique to comics. Here, a single series – such as Batman or Superman – can run continually for seventy years, with creators constantly needing to find new ways to keep readers hooked. No wonder they sometimes resort to drastic extremes.

But the moment you invalidate the history of a continuing series, you begin stripping the joy or meaning out of any long-term commitment to it; chipping away at your own edifice, and, frequently, sliding towards a regurgitation your own mythology. I mean, has any story ever justified the pressing of a reset button?

Do this, and your storytelling loses some of its integrity. The readers’ trust wanes. That’s basically inevitable.

The fact that this failing besets the very comics that  once ruled the sales charts, may help explain why the top-selling comics now only sell tens of thousands of copies, as opposed to hundreds of thousands.

The problem with “big event” storylines

Alongside revisionism, mainstream superhero comics also suffer from, in my opinion, one other major deficiency: a feverish obsession with big-event storylines. Every summer, both Marvel (Spider-Man, Hulk, Avengers, etc.) and DC (Superman, Batman, Aquaman, etc.) deliver massive, cataclysmic storylines that embroil the vast bulk of their titles, and which basically declare, year after year after year, that Nothing Will Be The Same Again.

As you can imagine, it all gets a bit wearing and pointless. If the status quo is always being shaken up, is there really a status quo to shake up? (Welcome to Zen Comic Teachings 101.) Or is it an unavoidable case of diminishing returns, where each “ground-breaking” event means less and less than the one before?

Pointing this stuff out is nothing new. Countless comic readers, afflicted with “big-event fatigue”, complain about it all the time.

What’s worth mentioning is that the stories which have actually changed these comic characters, their universes, and the very medium itself, haven’t been crossovers or needed a ton of hype. Instead, when Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns got the wider world paying attention to,  and enthusing over,  comics, it was mainly through sheer critical acclaim and word-of-mouth buzz. Thirty years later, these stories are still selling phenomenally well.

These weren’t grand-event narratives screaming for your time and money. They were self-contained, experimental stories, told with passion and integrity. They weren’t built to change the medium; and yet, perhaps even to the surprise of their creators, they were the ones that did.

So forget the short-term sales spikes that big-event narratives can bring. Just focus on telling a dope story. Or, to put it another way: ply crisis upon crisis to your books, and your sales could soon be in one.

To be clear: this is not to say that no good or great work is done in mainstream comics. It’s simply highlighting a broad phenomenology that seems to be leading to their decline.

The issues we’ve looked at so far – revisionism and big-event storylines – are both matters regarding storytelling integrity. They are problems internal to the medium, and thus are (relatively easily) fixable.

What’s much trickier are the external factors.

The wider worldview

Comics, in their physical monthly format, seem to have been hit hard by almost every other medium. Want your superhero fix? Movies, TV and videogames can take care of that. Fancy reading this month’s latest comics? Don’t go down to the shops. Simply download them from Comixology (owned by Amazon) to your computer.

Even graphic novels – simply monthly comics collected into a book-like form – have eaten up some of comics’ old market share. For instance, while February 2016’s comic book sales were down 7% on February 2015’s, graphic novel sales were up 12% over the same period. This isn’t surprising. Graphic novels tend to be cheaper than the individual comics they collect; have no adverts; and can be binge read (Netflix-style).

Plus, unlike monthly comics (which you can read for years, only to have much of what you enjoyed eliminated from continuity) graphic novels essentially have a beginning, middle, and end. You’re not likely to have your story undermined partway through reading it. Therefore, there’s an integrity to their form, and this perhaps gives them an advantage over monthly comics.

All of this, I hope, helps to explain why, in the age of the superhero boom, the medium that birthed them is going through something of a superhero bust.

Nevertheless, within this flux that the industry is experiencing, there are fascinating shoots of green growth – growth wholly contingent upon 21st-century culture.

The crowdfunding community (on websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo) seems to be remarkably generous, enabling numerous independent, company-less creators to realise their projects.

In fact, it’s been such a success that established comic companies are now also beginning to utilise these platforms. In February this year, for instance, comic company Avatar posted a campaign on Kickstarter to raise money for a new black-and-white anthology that would feature some of the best talent, scriptorial and artistic, in the business. In 14 days, it was ridiculously over-crowdfunded to the tune of 1,000%+ its initial target, drumming up a total of $110,333.

Clearly, there’s a lot of good will out there for backing new comics, both from obscure, amateur creators, as well as from the industry’s hoary heavyweights. None of this would have been possible even a decade ago.

Moreover, on a general level, spending is like voting. Whatever you spend your money on, you’ve voted for there to be more of that thing in the world, whether it’s vegetarian food in the supermarket, action films, or electric cars. And broadly speaking (although there are many caveats), in a capitalist society, you get the world you spend/vote for. So perhaps these crowdfunded comics signal the way things are going.

Personally, I’d hate to guess. Look at Marvel – they filed for bankruptcy in 1996. Flash-forward twenty years, and they’re a corporate juggernaut. Who would’ve predicted that?

But whatever happens, hopefully this article offers a snapshot of where comics are at today… where they might be heading… and spotlights a couple of key flaws that, to bring readers back into the fold, the monthly medium urgently needs to address.

(N.B. I’m not a comic retailer, and this article is largely based upon anecdotal evidence and online research. So if there are any false facts, glaring gaps of knowledge, or cack-handed misprisions on my part, then, as ever, corrections are welcome. Well, not welcome exactly – they’ll really undermine my authority – but I’ll be happy to post them below.)

About the author

FullSizeRenderJosh Spiller is a published writer of comics, short stories, and scripts, and is currently looking for representation for his first novel. He’s also interacted with the “real world” by reviewing restaurants and theatre pieces for Flux Magazine and The London Word, and is worried that this bio is too self-centred. You can judge his work here, joshspillercomics.tumblr.com; and his very soul here – @JoshSpiller.

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How not to write about music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. "

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. “

Firstly, gratitude: Extensive thanks to Dan McGurty for his help with this piece.

Musical epiphanies

Musical epiphanies are fun. I mean specifically like when you just get a song where you never did before, which I often find happens when listening to the song in question out of its usual context – say you always listen to the whole album and this song’s maybe three-quarters through by which point you’ve stopped properly paying attention how you do to the openers, or you haven’t listened to this band in years and back when you did this was one of the ones you skated over, or, or – but whenever it happens, at least that first time, it is an out-of-nowhere fist clenched round the sternum, is like a body of water you long since convinced yourself was placid empty now suddenly come thrashing all leviathan, and all you can do is sit back and behold. But this I tend to find comes mixed in with a kind of regret, and also a kind of anxiety: lost time, coupled with the possibility that this is only temporary, the attunement will pass, and both of these down notes are maybe not just inevitable but actually necessary for the proper shape of the rush in that they make it that much more vital, immediate. And this is all pretty much instantaneous, which is kind of trippy. So: fun.

I’m pretty shit at listening to music so I’ve had probably six or seven musical epiphanies with Don Caballero (or Don Cab, if you prefer, which I do) alone, two of which were with the same song (The Peter Criss Jazz.) (Both of them, incidentally, happened when I was falling asleep; I don’t quite know what that says about me, or it, or anything, but probably not that much.) The first one – which was during the second movement – I was on a train, (somewhere in Yorkshire I think,) and actually it wasn’t so much that I was falling asleep as I was shifting back and forth between sleep and not, where you don’t entirely know where you are, or what that would mean, and then it doesn’t matter because where you really are is carried on the movement of this music, fluting and wind and gorgeous in the way of something behind glass and refracted and then I properly woke up. The next one – the first part of the song – I didn’t get until probably a couple of years later; I was mostly asleep on a floor, (in Edinburgh this time,) drifting again, and I think one of the speakers was like right next to my head which probably influenced matters somewhat, but the song it just opened up like I’d never quite heard before; like the mouth down into a cave, or I guess like a story.

*

I don’t know if this is a particularly common thing or not – based on the (again kind of few) people I’ve spoken to about it, I’m not sure that I know anyone else for whom this is true, but that might just be me explaining it badly – but I tend to (kind of, sort of, a bit) experience or conceptualise music visually. As far as I can tell this isn’t synaesthesia; there aren’t actual sense impressions or associations, particularly. More it’s as shapes, or as a series of lines. Picture an xy line graph, like plotted from a polygraph or a richter scale in many films. The line shifts over time, peaks and troughs, goes back on itself, overlaps, evolves. It’s like that, only it’s not the same because a graph is just that – is a graphical representation of data, which data is something and somewhere else. The graph is a signifier; the music – the image – is itself.

Only that seems somewhat incomplete, at least in that music itself doesn’t just exist; somebody made it, or somebody made the instrument that made it, or the device through which you listen to it, and so on and so forth but which would mean that the shapes are, in fact, a representation of something else: some data, or else information, whatever was in the musician’s head when they made it. Crappy morning. Argument between the bandmates. Relationship: complicated. Financial pressure. Producer’s insane. Extensive drugs. Any and all of these things are there because nothing about music – as all art – is inevitable, and however much it’s refined, however much that which is not the statue gets stripped away, it’s still fundamentally contingent. Only I’m not convinced that matters? However too much coffee the drummer had before the band started jamming, whatever phone call the singer got, the pianist’s sister’s pregnancy, it is or it can be basically meaningless in the listener’s experience of the music. (You don’t have to ignore biography, but it helps.) So at least in the event of experiencing, the shapes are shapes; are music; are themselves.

*

Depression is a funny thing. (Debatable). (But it kind of really is). There are explicable, empirical reasons for it, and it (both the state and specific episodes, or bouts) can be traced to triggering events, and to an extent it can be understood, sometimes fought (if that’s a useful way of describing it, which it may well not be) or otherwise dealt with, but I can’t help feeling like these are to depression – the experience of it – as the hangover the band had when they went in to record is to the experience of listening. The state of depression is itself. A concrete phenomenon, yes; separate from the fact of the chemical imbalance (or possibly more accurately the altered chemical balance,) the sensation itself is (sometimes, for some people, maybe) all but physical – something like nausea, but also something like pressure, and also like you exist twice: you are, and you are slightly – say five centimetres – shifted left, occupying or overlapping the same physical space, pulled simultaneously toward and against, unable to reconcile and unable to maintain that tension, but it’s really not as if you have much of a choice. (Whether one or the other of these iterations takes precedence – is the “real you” – is I guess up for debate, but me personally, I would say not.) But it is a dislocation beyond or beside the physical, as well; a separation from time into only moment. There is this, now, and it is unconnected to any then, because to suggest that there even could be a then in any direction would be to imply that now, that this, could be other than it is. Could be not this adrift. And colourless; or not so much colourless as no colour in itself but a muting or a greying of others, dragging all surrounding into its own leaden unevent. Flat, but also warped; wrong like an angle but at the same time inexorably right. This is it. This is what you are. Do I contradict myself. Very well I contain zero. I contain entropy. Depression is a slowing; is the inside of a collapsing mouth.

The first full movement of The Peter Criss Jazz – after the intro with the harmonics (I think that’s what they are) over the drums, in I think 6/8 or possibly 4 with a triplet feel, with the drill-sound tremolo bass hits underneath the layered guitar, at the edges the chords bleeding in, and over the top, around, the throughline guitar melody, coiling and fractured and barbed like a voice, like someone saying I can’t go on I’ll go on I can’t I’ll on I can’t I will can’t I: this – if music is noumenon, or is as close as we can get to direct experience – is the sensation of depression. Or if depression refers not specifically or not solely to the emotional state, but – as a clinical diagnosis – the concomitant physical effects, the triggers, all of it, then those two and a half minutes, stumbling and cyclical and subdued and a lurch through tangled water and with no promise of an end, are despair.

The second section’s something else. Tenser, more urgent, I think; the bass loop through the whole is nervy, hunted, and above that mark the repeating four-note melody colliding with itself in bent reflections on like a wire-edge balance, dancing round a vortex, step to keep above, always on, and it’d be frantic enough without the drums in cardiac landslide under, beating from the wire, but see where in the first section they were a structure underpinning, were the bones, here they pick up where that chanting melody left off: centre-stage, a torrent dragging through and where despair strips you of time, anchors you in windowless grey, here in this stretched-shape anxiety you’re hyper-aware of the passing, it’s all you can do to keep moving, to find anything like a stable footing, to keep up to the impossible evershifting now with the blood like caustic blink thrumming in your ears and your chest gone echo and your eyes patchwork out until it settles.

Which is in itself a key difference: in some way, this section resolves. Where the first movement spirals on itself, layering chords and loops and shaded by the leading melody but never really undergoing any fundamental change from where it starts, the second stays more stripped-down the whole way through while the drums build into a climax; and then there is a shift, and that four-note melody, at the end, has moved forward by one beat from the off- to the on. Surer footing, maybe. A different balance achieved. Story: someone climbs up a tree, comes back down from said tree having changed. It arcs out, this part, held just together with the loop but it’s an orbit deranged to shatter, to battering cascade and when it comes back round it has learned something out there in the dark.

*

The whole album is a classic

It sounded like a narrative to me, I guess is what I’m getting at, when I was mostly passed out on the floor. There’s a third movement to the song – after an interlude with these ghost-colour harmonics that curve and pan from left to right – and it is maybe best described as happy. All major-key swung rhythm and clatteringly bombastic fills over walking bass and the melody tangling over and this would make sense, as a conclusion, or a reward; through despair, then panic, into primary-colour relief. But it’s not; there’s no resolution, no single cathartic moment, it just continues into fade and the melody never exactly repeats but works through the chord always off-kilter, pushed back to where it nearly falls off the beat every time but just about makes it. Not calm; happy, sure, but no less tense, no less of a balancing act than ever before. It’s work; it is always going to be work. – but I mean this is projection, this is all subjective, this was no insight into the true nature of anything it was just I was half-awake and stoned and dumped and fucked up, and no one experience of anything whether music or depression or any anything can necessarily ever meaningfully map onto another, so, like, what the fuck. But then if music is a direct experience of some kind – not an expression of any one person’s particular emotional state, but a capturing of something that actually is – even then it doesn’t follow that we can hear it as such. By what mechanism could anyone, observed as we are, actually grasp it? Wouldn’t we just fit it as best we could into the shape of our own experience, twisting it where we have to, maybe widening ourselves where we can? Or: you hear what you hear; I guess I heard something that sounded familiar, and maybe some thoughts about getting better. Or maybe not so much getting as staying. (Which – to be clear – most likely requires somewhat more than a song.)

It is a bit of an odd one, though, even-especially within the context of the rest of the band’s music; I guess embedded within/necessary for the idea of a musical epiphany is the fact of not initially being that into the music in question, and I strongly did not get this song for, like, a while. (As previously noted: shit at listening to music.) You can maybe hear aspects of it prefigured in the stuttered, uncertain close-out of No-One Gives A Hoot About Faux-Ass Nonsense, or the swirling-embers-into-night end sequence of In The Absence Of Strong Evidence To The Contrary, One May Step Out Of The Way Of The Charging Bull but I don’t know you’d ever guess that they’d lead into this. Ian Williams (guitarist) has talked fairly extensively about taking influence from composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, particularly in terms of cyclical structures; he and Damon Che (drummer) famously despised each other, and given the different musical directions they pursued after Don Cab’s breakup – respectively, Battles, and a reformed (and significantly more straightforward math-rock) Don Cab – it’s difficult, as much as anyone might want to ignore biography, not to hear a tension in the architecture of the song. Personally I always visualise it as a line, and horizontal. Overhead are brief lights, like moments of frost formed and then gone in the air, which silvers at its edges; the line is both black and white at once, and it rises at intervals to the glow but always returns to flat. In between the line and the light are, variously, empty space; interruptions of tangling, like minor clouds by cross-hatching, and dense; an asemic scrawl of one symbol insistent, and repeating, and lit; and another line, like a ribbon, maybe paper and with both edges torn, and unfurling.

About the author of this post

David Greaves

David Greaves’ poetry and fiction has appeared in ‘Valve’, the ‘Verge’ anthology and ‘From Glasgow To Saturn’ journal, and his prose-poetry pamphlet, ‘Hinged’, was released by the New Fire Tree Press in 2011. He mostly doesn’t tweet at @dgrbolith

The role of the creative and our place in culture

'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35'

‘Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35’

Creatives of all forms remain in a constant, symbiotic tango with human nature and culture. All of human thought remains distinctly entwined with that strange, living thing we call culture. Literature, art, music, photography – these strands of culture both reflect who we are, in our values, our hopes, fears, ideals, and shapes who we become by influencing us and immersing us in what becomes an agreed upon notion of how we define ourselves. Culture mythologises certain values, while negating others – shaping our perceptions of the world, and in turn leading us to create – through writing and art, etc – our own culture.

This is rather succinctly summed up by E.B White, co-author of the must-have book for all aspiring writers ‘The Elements of Style’. In considering the responsibility of the writer, White asserts: “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

In nuce, then, what we have is a constant dialogue between our nature and what we come to believe is our nature. A notion captured by physicist Dave Bohm in a 1977 lecture: “Reality is what we take to be true. What we take to be true is what we believe… what we believe determines what we take to be true.”

The role of the creative

Within these constructed realities, then, creatives find themselves in a curious position of being at once channellers of a culture they did not create, and simultaneously being creators of that same culture. For writers and creatives, then, such a position comes with much responsibility. As White notes:

“A writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down […] The writer’s role is what it has always been: he is a custodian, a secretary. Science and technology have perhaps deepened his responsibility but not changed it. In ‘The Ring of Time,’ I wrote: ‘As a writing man, or secretary, I have always felt charged with the safekeeping of all unexpected items of worldly or unworldly enchantment, as though I might be held personally responsible if even a small one were to be lost. But it is not easy to communicate anything of this nature.”

“A writer must reflect and interpret his society, his world; he must also provide inspiration and guidance and challenge. Much writing today strikes me as deprecating, destructive, and angry. There are good reasons for anger, and I have nothing against anger. But I think some writers have lost their sense of proportion, their sense of humor, and their sense of appreciation. I am often mad, but I would hate to be nothing but mad: and I think I would lose what little value I may have as a writer if I were to refuse, as a matter of principle, to accept the warming rays of the sun, and to report them, whenever, and if ever, they happen to strike me. One role of the writer today is to sound the alarm. The environment is disintegrating, the hour is late, and not much is being done. Instead of carting rocks from the moon, we should be carting the feces out of Lake Erie.”

The creative custodian

Creatives, then, can see themselves as custodians, or secretaries, or interpreters, of culture. There is an ideal at the heart of this notion: that the role of the creative is to shine a light on the meaningful, to frame for the reader or viewer what matters in the world and why.

Yet, in a digital world of easy blogging and clickbait headlines, there must surely be a concern that the responsibility creatives have for maintaining standards and baked-in accountability has fallen away, replaced by journalistic laziness that would never have been acceptable in White’s heyday. The easy, instant gratification of Tumblr and other mediums also perhaps denigrate the creative integrity of photography and art – as writer and photographer Mike Dodson opines in an interview with Nothing in the Rulebook: “The great thing about technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer. The problem with technology now is that it has made everyone a photographer.”

There is an implicit accountability instilled within the heart of the creative that must, therefore, be recognized. A kind of truth standard that should be adopted before putting pen to paper, paintbrush to easel, finger to iPhone camera and Instagram upload. Ultimately, of course, the choice is ours as to which standards and expectations we adopt in creating whatever art we use to define ourselves. But it should be remembered that these choices will, fundamentally, “inform and shape life.”