The biggest regret of my career thus far is (no, not the time I swallowed half an Evian bottle on film at Atomic Comics’ “Bizarre Bazaar”) that some of the most beautifully rendered works of art I’ve had the honor of having my name attached to are also the hardest for me to look at. Not because they’re written poorly (I came to terms with that years ago) or because the letterer was dyslexic (ask me about that at a con if you have a minute), but because the subject matter is so juvenile it makes my longbox of “Milk & Cheese” comics look like “The Great Gatsby” in comparison.
I don’t know which particular mental illness of those in my rather impressive repertoire kept me producing them for so long, but for a good number of years I was (for lack of a spookier word) possessed by the infernal compulsion to keep churning out autobiographical mini comics.
They were, for the most part, grotesque exercises in self-aggrandizement masquerading as cleverly illustrated suicide notes.
Topics included: detailed play-by-plays of the slow dissolution of my five-year-relationship, anecdotal evidence of my terminal sensitivity, and blow-by-blow confessions of my entire sexual history (all five minutes’ worth).
They were repellant to most, but hypnotically enthralling to a few. In a word: “cultish”.
And therein lies the serpentine allure of autobio comics: of all the genres available to comic book authors, the Autobiographical Confessional is the quickest path from author to audience.
Those of us without access to the big Dayglo Gods (read: “who don’t work for Disney or Warner Brothers”) often have trouble getting people to give two shits about our stories. There’s a big “if it’s not in continuity, then it’s not in my pullbox” mentality among comics consumers (And I totally get it. The only reason I read half the stories I did as a kid is because they took place in the same universe as Clark Kent’s. I mean, The Flash is awesome—but nobody would’ve known it if he hadn’t played the opening band to Superman’s headline act, y’know? . “Come for ‘The Metropolis Marvel’, stay for ‘The Scarlet Speedster’”. The same goes for “Aquaman”. And Quadruple for “Apache Chief”).
Autobiographical comics get around that need for a trademarked character the same way reality TV shows function without high paid celebrities : they present simple narratives in a format that people are used to receiving much more glamorous stories from—thereby making themselves a novelty act. So, not only does the information presented seem unique (even though it’s usually mind-numbingly mundane), it’s immediately accessible (because of that same mundane “I’ve been there” quality).
Think that’s harsh? Try comparing an episode of “The West Wing” to “The Real World”. Go read an issue of Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor” and an issue of Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis” back-to-back.
See what I mean?
It’s okay. I forgive you.
And it works. Innumerable publishing empires have been built upon the foundation of sepia tone tomes about physical self-gratification and waxing intellectual about what one’s ingrown toenail “really means, in the big scheme of things” (see the complete works of Jeffrey Brown, Joe Matt, Seth, Jason, Eddie Campbell, etcetera).
The nineties were full of that kind of stuff. Post “Watchmen” & post “Dark Knight Returns” when everyone felt that anything that could be said with superhero books had already been said, one couldn’t toss a Pog (get it? Nineties joke. Not funny? Okay) without hitting the self-congratulatory dust jacket synopsis of an autobiographical graphic novel. Those suckers were all over the place.
Listen closely and you can hear the sound of the fourth wall breaking:
There’s a Morrissey doc (“Morrissey: Jewel in The Crown”) on in the living room to keep my cat (“Krypto”) company, and as I write this,through the rice-paper-thin-wall of my office, I can hear Mark Simpson, author of “Saint Morrissey”, dropping some applicable science:
“He had to be assassinated in order for the nineties to happen, he was this ultimate pop star…and it’s an impossible act to follow. So that’s why he had to be got rid of”
Replace “This Charming Man” with “The Man of Steel” and it’s the same with comics: everybody had to suddenly act like superheroes weren’t cool anymore in order to avoid being compared to them (and falling short).
It’s the same way each new generation has to convince themselves that their parents aren’t hip, in order to proceed unhindered by the constant fear of living in their shadow.
It’s the Jor-El quote from “Superman: The Movie”:
“You will travel far, my little Kal-El, but we will never leave you-even in the face of our deaths. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father. And the father, the son”.
And it worked. People bought into the marketing. A niche was carved. Here we are, twenty years later and printing for my first three books was paid with the loot I made off of mini comics about lamenting the loss of my high school sweetheart.
And that’s… well, that is what it is. It’s flattering that people dig ‘em. It’s awesome that people give me money for ‘em.
But they’re not art, really. They’re commercials for one’s self. And while useful (for getting laid by sadness chasers and developing a small degree of local notoriety), that’s not what I’ve set out to do with my life.
I don’t want to be known as the guy who contracted aids to a laugh track, or who can’t talk about anything other than Tyrese Gibson’s “Mayhem” in public settings. I want to be known as the guy who wrote the definitive origin story of “Mxyzptlyk”. I want to be remembered as the guy who made” Jimmy Olsen” cool. I want to write the definitive “Steel” run.
I want to tell stories.
I want to make myths.
But I’ve pigeonholed myself. The superhero people don’t take me seriously because they see me as an “indie” guy. And the self-proclaimed indie guys (who will preach about the artistic merit of a six page masturbation sequence until they’re purple in the face) refuse to concede to the idea that anything in the superhero genre is worth taking a look at.
All those years of work I put in cultivating a loyal fan base with the hope that they would follow me to the ends of the Earth (or a four issue “Kid Flash” mini-series, or whatever) were for naught.
I am an idiot.
I am an idiot with stupid hair.
I know, I know. I am being the teensiest bit dramatic. I mean, Ed Brubaker went from writing autobiographical strips about dealing coke to high school kids and punching his girlfriend in the face (“A Complete Lowlife” ) to scripting “Captain America” (the nation’s avatar of all that is good and just), so I haven’t lost all hope. But I’m pretty sure that he’s the only one of us to successfully make the jump.
Everyone else just turns out a sad parody of themselves: James Kochalka ( author of “American Elf” and father of the daily journal strip format) is so married to his notoriety he named his musical ensemble “James Kochalka Superstar”. Harvey Pekar was given a chance to write Superman in the 2005 “Bizarro World” anthology and he turned in a stellar script— but his illustrator’s rendition of Bizarro held an uncanny resemblance to Harvey. Even in the sprawling multiverse of the DCU, Mr. Pekar couldn’t elude the spectre of his public persona.
There’s no escape.