Monday, October 24, 2011

The Fever of Urbicande Begins!

Today on Sequart marks the beginning of my detailed look at The Fever of Urbicande, the second book in The Obscure Cities.

It's an indulgence for me: a lengthy examination of a comic in French that almost no one's read in English. But it's a fantastic, brilliant comic that's had a very strong influence on me, and it deserves wider acknowledgement. It's my honor to bring it to wider attention.

I sincerely hope you'll read it and share it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On The Big Lie, by Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine

Over on Sequart, I have a special Sunday piece reviewing The Big Lie #1, the controversial "Truther" comic book by Rick Veitch and Gary Erskine.

It's a positive review, one that doesn't buy into the conspiracy theories but nonetheless praises Veitch and the comic's ability to tell a story while also being polemic.

The reason this wasn't published closer to the issue's release is that I was struggling with what I wanted to say. I knew I wanted to say these things, but I had to figure out how to balance the political content, because I didn't want this to be a "was there a 9/11 conspiracy or not?" argument. And what I admired most about the comic was actually its story -- you couldn't ask for a political agenda that was better wrapped around an actually really interesting story. Reading it didn't feel like pulling teeth, as a lot of political comics do. Instead, it flowed naturally, and I found myself agreeing or disagreeing with the agenda and how it was worded, but absolutely conveyed forward by the story. More so than in the overwhelming number of super-hero titles, in fact. That's saying something great, but it took me a while to articulate it, with everything else going on.

That's not to say that I don't get into politics in the review. I do. I just don't get into the nitty-gritty of 9/11 conspiracy, which I have no desire to do, having already done my own research and been satisfied that, once one looks at both sides, the simplest explanation is pretty close to the official one.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Fever of Urbicande

Now that Monday's post is up, I can now reveal that, starting next week, I'll be returning to the subject of The Obscure Cities.

For those who are unaware, The Obscure Cities is a French comics series. I've previously introduced the series and offered a four-part look at the first volume, The Walls of Samaris. Now, it's time to look at the series's second volume, The Fever of Urbicande.

Fair warning: it's an enthralling but complicated book, and I'm not going to rush my analysis. If you thought I examined The Walls of Samaris at length, my look at The Fever of Urbicande is going to be even longer because the book has far more to talk about. These are French comics, after all, and the best French comics can be very dense. When an artist spends a year preparing a 44-page book, it ought to be dense -- not in the negative sense of the word, but instead suggesting detail and a concision of implications. That's too often not the case with French comics, but it certainly is the case here. Also, I've loved these comics for a decade now, and I've done an awful lot of thinking about them, so there's a lot to share.

In fact, I just completed another post on it yesterday, and I've already got five posts and over 17,000 words done about the book. Combine this with the 3000-word introduction and 21,000 words on The Walls of Samaris, and I'll clearly be close to the length of a short book by the time I'm through with The Fever of Urbicande. And that's just the second book in a series that runs, depending on how one counts, between nine and 20+ books. Fortunately, I don't have nearly as much to say about most of them, but the task of finishing the entire series remains a daunting one.

It's not one I set out to do, really. When I wrote the introduction, I had it in the back of my mind that, yes, I'd like to continue and at least look at a book or two. But I didn't want to paint myself into a corner, because I knew I might not get around to actually doing the writing. Most writers have dozens of ideas percolating for a decade or more, and what determines what actually gets written is an unpredictable combination of whimsy and outside demand. I've got lots of great ideas I simply haven't been inspired to write, or that I haven't had the time and mental energy to devote the focus required to bring them to life.

Writing about The Walls of Samaris, I comforted myself in thinking that I could stop after that volume, although I'd like to at least continue into The Fever of Urbicande, since I like it so much. Now, halfway through doing so, I'd certainly like to get through three short stories the stem from Fever, and getting to the second means requires also addressing the series's next volume, The Archiviste, because its protagonist is also featured in that short story. As a result, I'm of two minds: my ambition makes me want to cover the entire series, but the practical part of my brain doesn't want me to commit to doing so and then either waffle or become crushed by the size of the undertaking, which could make me feel as if I'm chipping at something too massive to ever complete.

Also, I don't want to be pegged as "that Obscure Cities guy." I don't want to focus on this exclusively, and I know that building in breaks is important for me to maintain my momentum.

So here's my solution: I have a roadmap through the one-year anniversary of my introduction, on 11 July of this year. That should carry me through the next two volumes and two short stories, and it's a good stopping point, because it's about where I'd separate "the early Obscure Cities" from the series' next phase. During this year, I'll make sure that only around half my Monday articles for Sequart concern The Obscure Cities, and I'll build in longer, month-long breaks between volumes. I'll also feel free to write occasional pieces on other days, should they be timely in their concerns. I'll finish out the year and see what I want to do then.

I have a spreadsheet where I keep track of all of this, and as of this Monday, my Obscure Cities articles have been precisely a third of all my Monday posts (although they're only a quarter of my total posts during the same period, counting only articles and reviews, not Sequart News pieces I've written). I'm five weeks into the next block of posts, and that's the point at which I'll be back up to 50% of my Monday offerings. I'll be over that by the time I'm done with Fever, at which point I'll take a break, and I'll try to keep that percentage at around 50% while still covering what I want to get done on the series during this year. If I go over 50%, I'll correct that with another break after the year's up.

Will this be a Sequart book at some point? I've been encouraged to make it so, but I don't know. For a long time, I thought I'd write this as a book, but I'm enjoying serializing it online, which lets me get feedback and breaks the material into far less daunting chunks. And I currently think, given the subject, that this makes the most sense: as cool as a book would be, I don't see it having much commercial potential, because we are talking about largely untranslated French comics being written about in English. Plus, I like giving people this material for free, which means more people will read it.

None of what I'm writing here could possibly interest anyone, except for those interested in the minutia of the writing process. But it's the kind of thing I'm thinking about, as I think about The Obscure Cities and my plans for the coming months.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Why Comics Have Failed to Achieve Real Respect

My Monday article is up on Sequart: "Why Comics Have Failed to Achieve Real Respect." It looks at the difference between literary respectability and pop culture cred, tracking this difference through comics history from the 1980s movement to legitimize comics to today.

If you get a minute, it's well worth checking out.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Writing in Advance

Writers have all sorts of different methods, and my attitude has always been that, while you can take advice from here or there, you're your own person, and you've got to work in a way that works for you. As long as you're being honest about what's good and what isn't, you should test out different methods and not follow a prescription. Some writers schedule hours out of their day, while others ruminate for days or weeks or years, then write manically.

This is a point I insisted upon, when I taught creative writing. It's the work that counts, ultimately, and I don't care how you produced it, outside of my writerly curiosity. That's something I've imported into my job as a publisher: I don't tend to be terribly strict about deadlines, because I'd rather have a great book than one that was rushed, against the writer's method, to meet an arbitrary date. The downside of that approach is that many writers need deadlines, so it's a delicate balancing act.

Anyway, I'm certainly on the manic side of that spectrum.

Two days ago, I finished my Monday Sequart post for 14 November. I tend to run several weeks in advance, because I like the certainty of knowing I have a queue, and this gives me the freedom to live the lifestyle of a quasi-manic-depressive writer, and I know I'm particularly susceptible to the pattern of throwing myself passionately into something for 36 hours straight and then disappearing for three days.

That doesn't mean that I can't slot other, timely material into this queue. If I've got a crazy or a brilliant idea I want to get out there, especially if it's on a timely subject, it makes sense to let that go to the head of the line. But if nothing materializes, if I'm just not inspired by recent comics or current events, or if I'm in some weird writer's funk or busy flying off to Bali to get married to someone I barely know, I know got that cushion of work already there.

And it's hardly filler. It's work I care passionately about. It's just not particularly timely.

And as a publisher, having queues is essential. With Sequart, we tend to run a few weeks in advance, although Cody, Kevin, and I all tend to run closer to a month. The weekends are far more open and subject to scrambling. Fortunately, Cody does a fantastic job as webmaster, working with writers and getting pieces up ahead of time.

That lets me breathe. Because believe me, there's no way to run a website with daily content without doing it this way. If I don't know that we're locked away, I get really nervous. It's one thing, relying on yourself. But when you need work by someone else, you don't want to be in the position of calling that person last-minute, only to find out that person had a fire or something -- or worse, to get assurances the work will be done, leaving you to stress about whether it will actually arrive, or arrive in a form that needs editing you cannot do at that particular moment (because you're asleep, for example).

And whether you're manic or not, we all get the blues. We all have lives, and lives are unpredictable.

Over at Martian Lit, I've got nine weeks of my own contributions already written. That's a little different, because the site hasn't launched yet. Launching a site properly, so you can ensure regular delivery of quality content, is no small thing. I wanted to launch the site a couple months back, but the material wasn't quite ready. Unfortunately, this leaves a few people, who have delivered material and done nothing wrong, having to wait. That's something I regret and take seriously, and all I can do is assure people that we are working and do know what we're doing, in deciding that it's best to delay.

Ah, the life of a writer. And the joys of not having to work last minute!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Great Onion Interview with Breaking Bad Creator Vince Gilligan

Breaking Bad's fourth season wrapped on Sunday, and it was titanic. So many episodes, especially beginning about three episodes before the finale, felt like a finale -- they were that jam-packed with drama that advanced the plot. It was a stunning season, certainly one of the best seasons in all of TV history, and it more than fulfilled the promise of season three's unbelievable final couple episodes, which left things very precarious for the characters. It also managed to tell a complete and satisfying story.

If you're not watching the show, you're sinning, obviously.

If you are, you may be interested in this: the Onion's A.V. Club has a brilliant interview with show creator Vince Gilligan, who offers great insight not only into the characters but into how to think about character-driven narrative in general. It's recommended not only for fans of the show but for all writers.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why You Must Read Colin Smith

If I'm forced to name a single comics blog I recommend everyone read (in addition to the non-blog website Sequart, and of course all its books and movies), it's Colin Smith's "Too Busy Thing About My Comics."

Why? For one, he's an excellent writer.

One of the things that makes writing about comics difficult is that we barely have a vocabulary that allows us to talk about panel construction. Sure, we all know what a "gutter" is, and we can all describe how a panel has angled borders. But describing that panel's shape can be difficult, and describing the composition within that panel can be even more so.

As a result, those writing about comics often simply avoid discussing artwork at all, except in the most generic of terms. This is compounded by the fact that most comics critics come, as I do, from a mostly literary background, with maybe a bit of cinema thrown in, rather than, say, an art historical background. The result is that talking about narrative or character is a lot easier than talking about panel composition.

Yet Colin does talk about panels, and he does so both brilliantly and precisely. He'll isolate a panel and dissect it expertly, in the process showing (or at the very least, reminding) the rest of us how it's done. In the process, he shows us all that he sees more in a panel than most comics critics see in entire issues.

While we're on the topic of writing more generally, Colin also tends toward long and thorough analysis. (Did I mention he does analysis? That alone separates him from most of the crowd.) If any of you are familiar with my writing (and damn you if you aren't!), you know that I also favor longer essays, more in the 3000-4000 words range, than what seems like the 1000-word average. And in those 3000-4000 words, you can expect a lot of analysis, with a sense of completion, that there aren't huge subjects pertaining to the topic at hand that haven't been at least mentioned, if not fully discussed. Well, Colin does that too.

That's quite unique in the blogosphere, where terse blog entries seem commonplace (as they are here). That's part of why Sequart is quite clear that it publishes articles and not posts or blogs. Yet Colin raises the blog to new levels, treating it as a serious matter.

This leads nicely into another virtue of Colin's writing: he takes his job as comics critic seriously. He's not idly throwing stones, nor offering unexamined praise. Indeed, he's setting the tone for comics criticism, intending to lead by example. Think that's going too far? Well, I did a 20,000-word interview with him on the subject here.

Finally, Colin has a social conscience. That sounds vague, I know, but I use the term specifically. Because I don't mean that he practices social criticism -- which has gotten such a bad name, especially in some literary circles, dividing some English departments. Social criticism can be a stodgy practice, and Colin's anything but stodgy.

Also, while Colin's critics -- especially those who don't care for his point of view on a particular comic that they happen to like -- may call him politically correct. What they really mean is that he's criticizing the politics of something of which they're a fan, and it's easy to dismiss him by calling him by this term. And indeed, political correctness has left a bad taste in many of our collective mouths. But Colin is hardly politically correct. He's human. He's thoughtful. He's passionate. Sure, he might be concerned with issues like sexism and racism and homophobia, but he doesn't come at these issues in a politically correct way. Underneath his criticism -- which is often quite humorous -- is clearly a humanist, one who's justifiably concerned with these issues but is anything but the I'm-always-right, humorless, follow-the-rigid-rules tone of the truly politically correct.

Indeed, one has only to look at the way he's incredibly giving in the comments section of any of his posts to realize that he's keen to consider other points of view, however much his humanism compels him to passionately address such matters. To confuse this with political correctness is merely to devalue any and all social criticism.

That's why I use the term "social conscience." Because while Colin argues a point of view, he doesn't refuse to listen to disagreement. In fact, he couldn't be more respectful. And that's what separates him from the politically correct. He's not out to end these debates, nor to censor comics -- which he's opposed quite strongly. He's out to get people to think about the social implications of these stories and their presentations. He's not out to end debate; he's out to start it.

Of course, this isn't all that Colin does -- he's anything but a one-trick pony. But he's not afraid to address social matters, whether it's the sexism of Flashpoint, in which women are made the genocidal sexual mutilators, or the sexism of the new Ultimates, in which women hardly have any place outside of -- literally -- serving Nick Fury coffee. Neither are issues I'd even caught, really, and they don't radically change my evaluation of these two comics. But they're legitimate and important points of view that I hadn't considered, on any serious level. And to offer that to me, who also is usually "too busy thinking about my comics," means a hell of a lot. It's invaluable, to be more precise.

It also sets him apart. The very fact that he's willing to address these issues, in a comics culture in which such topics have long seemed so verboten, is commendable. That he does so with such precision and care is all the more so.

In fact, it's contributed, I personally know, to the recent debate over sexism in the DC relaunch. That's not to say this debate wouldn't have happened without him. I don't know that. But I do know that his work has informed mine, as well as several people I know. He's actually making a difference, helping to steer the conversation.

It's clear that this is rooted in a deep love of comics. And this same passion comes through in other ways as well. Particularly, in his holding poorly-constructed comics to task.

It's a subject on which, to my shame, I haven't always done. My response, to what I see as declining standards of craftsmanship in the last five years or so, has largely been to write about comics before this period. If I don't have anything good to say, I figured, I'd say nothing. Yet the result of so many apparently following this strategy is that there simply aren't many critics of comics who are willing to say any particular comic is shoddy, shoddy work that's an embarrassment to the creators involved, as well as to the publisher, nor that it's hard to imagine how such work went through an editorial process.

That's something that desperately needs to be said. And there's Colin Smith, unafraid to say that the emperor has no clothes. And he'll explain why deliberately and precisely, looking at specific panels and how they fail to communicate basic events, and generally proceeding in such a careful manner that his conclusions are, frankly, inarguable.

I used to point people to his review of Flashpoint: Hal Jordan as an example of this, as mandatory reading for anyone who wants to see just how much their eyes have grown accustomed to ineptitude. That piece expressed so much of what I already felt and thought, yet hadn't bothered or dared to find the words to say. (It's available in one big page on, but the original appeared on his own blog in three devastating installments.)

But you don't have to go that far back. Take his most recent post (as I write this), on the new Aquaman. It begins: "It seems that Geoff Johns isn't writing scripts anymore so much as lists." And he proceeds to explain exactly how this is so. It's sadly hilarious, but it's also precise. And behind it all is a man who quite clearly loves the medium and wishes it lived up to half of its potential. And sees this, not so-called "events," as the medium's best chance of expanding its audience.

I could go on, but I didn't intend to run nearly this long. I thought this would be a short, little piece linking to Colin's blog. Instead, it's become a bit of a manifesto.

That's because I've come to know Colin, and I've thought about his work. And because it has been an inspiration, both to me and to Sequart more generally (which is something, as an arrogant prick who dedicated himself at the age of about twelve to accepting nothing less than being the best writer the world has ever known, that I don't say lightly). He's also been an inspiration, I believe, to the entire industry, truly elevating the discussion of comics, in terms of both their craft and their social implications.

What else can you say about someone who's analyzed the presentation of Aquaman as a king? Or the laws which seem to govern Thor's Asgaard?

Or offered a loving, brilliant defense of Warren Ellis's The Authority as not dark but actually pretty sweet -- an essay that not only showed me something about one of my favorite series, which I'd thought about a ridiculously amount -- but an essay which subsequently got cited back to me, by a very smart outside (pre-press) reader I didn't even know, as evidence against a position I'd staked out in my essay in Sequart's book Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide?

Yeah, I know I'm making this about me (the world is my hallucination, and self-evidently so). But seriously, that does not happen.

Clearly, this a man making waves, and you're doing yourself a disservice not to read him.

You can read his blog here. (You can also see all of Colin's posts on Sequart -- which consists entirely of reprints or adapted content, which he's graciously permitted us to do.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Sequart's Movies

This weekend was a big one for Sequart's movies. We had no fewer than four updates, including some huge news.

First, we're proud to announce that our documentary Warren Ellis: Captured Ghosts will officially premiere at the Napa Valley Film Festival on 11 November. The film is one of the festival's official selections.

Second, Warren Ellis will appear at the film's London premiere, on the following evening!

Third, we have postcards for the film, which will be distributed at New York Comic-Con, where you can see a sneak peak of the film, prior to it's official Napa premiere.

Finally, we have a first look at the animation which will be on our other upcoming documentary, Diagram for Delinquents: Fredric Wertham and the Evolution of the Comic Books.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Eight Thoughts on Ultimate Spider-Man Vol. 3 #1-2

I've got a look at the first two issues of the new Ultimate Spider-Man up on Sequart. It's a long and thoughtful piece, covering just about every aspect of these two issues, but focusing on two very touching, character-driven scenes. Along the way, however, I get to talk about decompression, race, Brian Michael Bendis, and the excellent artwork of Sara Pichelli. It's well worth a look, if you have a few minutes.

And though I forgot to put an update here, a week ago, I offered a follow-up to my piece on sexism in the DC relaunch. It's a rather conciliatory look at the thinking of Scott Lobdell, writer of Starfire and Her Amazing Friends... er, I mean Red Hood and the Outlaws. In all seriousness, it's a thoughtful attempt to bridge the gap between how the sexes view gender in America and a passionate call for more debate and discussion. (And yes, I get that it's not really a war between the sexes, but it's also not a war between feminists and unreconstructed sexists either. Quite the contrary, as I point out in the article.)

In case I forget to mention my new articles any other week, yes, there's a new one up every Monday, and I'm running considerably ahead, so that's not likely to change anytime soon.