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Committed: Man-Hating Indie Comics

012710_crumbRecently I noticed something a little creepy, nothing groundbreaking, but it’s not good news, particularly for all you men out there. Nearly all of the American independent comic books that I’ve read, present the most degenerate and pathetic versions of men. Horrible, miserable, unhappy, lazy, stupid, selfish, unhealthy men. Men you do not want to meet. For some reason, these comics are regarded as being more realistic and less ridiculous than super hero comics. Can this really be true, or are we a country of men-haters? Aren’t men just as likely to be powerful heroes, as they are to be pathetic losers? Aren’t both depictions equally outrageous?

It’s not as if I read hundreds of obscure, independent comic books, in fact most of the ones that I do read are pretty well-known. Eightball, Acme Comics, Optic Nerve, Poor Bastard, American Splendor, Essex County, Fun Home, Asterios Polyp, etc… I understand that people are often writing biographical stories, and putting themselves down can provide comic relief. Some of these books seek to provide some balance to the uber-men of American superhero comics. For whatever reason, after a while the put-downs start to feel pretty unrelenting.

. . .

The first experience I had of this genre was a variety of Robert Crumb comics. While all his work can contain extreme elements, anything biographical he produces isn’t too flattering towards men. It seems to have more to do with his own sense of self-worth than his feelings about the male species in general. This is a man who named one of his comics Self-Loathing, so he’s clearly aware of his own issues. His books are fantastically drawn, daringly written, and make truly great reads, but he consistently exaggerates some of the worst characteristics of men.

012710_hate05Hate was probably one of my first loves in this department and I’ll always associate it with San Francisco, as I discovered it a few weeks after I got here. Peter Bagge perfectly portrays characters who are basically losers. Nice folks suffering from various degrees of an inability to function effectively in society. These are not life’s winners, simply survivors making the best of things. Buddy’s male friends – particularly from his past – are an amusing insight into the kind of men who continuously sabotage their own lives, while blaming others.

Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is hardly a ringing endorsement of humanity (let alone men). As much as I love his well-observed documentation of daily life, he is a tragic figure, whether intentionally or not. At the very least, he appears to be doing his best, which is more than I can say for most of the men in the comics mentioned in this article. Unfortunately his best really isn’t that wonderful, in fact it’s limited and depressing, and his brand of self-centered angry irrelevance is difficult to witness.

Eightball was always great fun, ever so slightly “off” in just the right way. Disarming and surreal, Eightball is a lovely book, with a real affection for the characters portrayed. Adorably bizarre, everyone depicted is a little strange, but the men suffer far more than most. At best, the men are creepy art types, decent but sad and isolated. At worst, they’re pathetic, grasping, distressingly attached to their mothers. These are men who are victims of circumstances, rarely at the helm of their own lives.

012710_opticnerve.jpgThen there’s Acme Comics. I go crazy over the level of symmetry, the insane levels of detail, and the absolute dedication to perfect draftsmanship through out. Although there is a perverse joy in reading them, the stories of cold, empty lives focus almost exclusively on men who cannot (or will not) function within society. They are lost, at sea in a world that doesn’t work within the limited, stunted, childish ideas of reality they still harbor. Dysfunctional would be a kind way to describe them.

I have a deep affection for Optic Nerve. The simple line work of the drawings has a fluidity and elegance that carries each story to a higher level. The semi-tragic main characters, and the beautifully depicted environs of Northern California leap out at me and beg to be read. Unfortunately the men in these delightful stories are too often the unwilling villains of the piece. Pathetic, manipulative, possessive and sullen, they are depicted as terrible boyfriends and lousy friends.

012710_joemattFor degenerate losers, you don’t get more blatant than Joe Matt’s Peep Show. He makes a damn funny comic, and it is very engaging. But ultimately, Joe portrays himself as less of a poor bastard and more of a pathetic creep. He happily shows himself as a man who usually jerks off to bad porn, endlessly tries to shag everyone he meets, and shamelessly uses his girlfriends as fodder for his stories, (all the while knowing how invasive and hurtful it is.) Inconsiderate and base would be understating the situation.

Essex County is rich with depth and quiet, heart-wrenching, raw human drama. A boy adrift, with no one and nothing to anchor him, he looks to his only relative, a reluctant uncle, for direction and support. This lone adult male of the story (barring a male who’s not really an adult, mentally is probably as absent and disinterested as someone can be, while still filling the role of legal guardian. A lot of the tears I shed in this story were about this man who could not even pretend to want to care for his orphaned nephew. He’s not a man, he is an excuse for one. It is wonderful that Lemire depicts his characters so truthfully, but does the uncle really need to tell his bereaved nephew that he doesn’t want him? There’s a point where adults have to protect the children under their care, even if all they need protection from is said adults own mood swings. This is a man who can’t even be bothered to do that small thing.

012710_funhomeAlone in this list as a woman’s creation is Fun Home. This is as beautiful and evocative as it is miserable and distressing. At it’s core, Fun Home tells the story of a father who’s in such complete denial of who and what he truly is that he creates an environment where his daughter learns to feel incredibly uncomfortable in her own home and her own skin. It’s a story that does nothing to dispel the concept of men as terrible role models.

What a find Asterios Polyp is! It seems to have been roundly appreciated as one of the great books of the decade. Deeply beautiful, delicate, charming, emotionally communicative – this is a book I would unconditionally recommend to anyone. Sadly, it is also another story about a deeply flawed man, one who loses nearly everything in his journey to be a whole person. While it is an incredibly crafted story, the main character is too arrogant and self-centered to see how he subsumes the people around him. His final destination, seeking some kind of retribution or forgiveness is at least some kind of redemption, perhaps for all the men depicted in this genre.

. . .

012710_lonewolfAfter all of this examination, I have come to the conclusion that while I am a great fan of the independent American comic book genre, I wouldn’t like any very young, malleable minds to be reading it. While superhero comic books might be similarly extreme in the portrayal of men, they at least are showing an idealized version of masculinity, rather than a denigration of men. If you’re going to give your sons comic books, then Superman beats Peep Show every time.

The perfect happy medium would be a comic book which portrays men as strong, intelligent, thoughtful, caring, fallible, decisive, and sexually active in a way that is respectful and appreciative towards women. I believe that this book exists, and has done for a long time. Lone Wolf and Cub is an epic comic book series about a man going against an unjust law, who follows his own laws of morality without faltering. He cares for the child under his protection as best he can. He protects the weak and decent who cannot fight for themselves. He has a strong spiritual center and takes time to pay his respect to his ancestors. He is clear and articulate. He has incredible weaponry and survival skills. He is appreciative and respectful towards women, even when they operate outside of acceptable society. In short, in my opinion, Lone Wolf and Cub is the healthiest role model a young man (or any person) could find in a comic. He’s no superhero – in fact he is an outlaw – he has his weaknesses and failings, but he is honorable, strong, and loving. American comics can learn a thing or two.

51 Comments

Agreed totally re: Lone Wolf and Cub.

Wow! What an interesting piece. Now I’m going to have to track down Lone Wolf and Cub… A comic that I’ve known about for years and years, but never read…

Thanks for inspiring me!

It’s true that a lot of American indie comics seem to depict their male protagonists as self-centred, insecure, neurotic and with a lot of sexual hangups. I’m not sure if this is supposed to reflect on their creators or readers, but the fact that these sort of comics are quite popular (on an indie level) seems to be sign of something… Personally, as a relatively secure, non-neurotic and feminist-thinking male reader, I often find it hard to identify with the protagonists of Daniel Clowes’ or Robert Crumb’s comics.

I’ve found out that it’s often easier to find male characters I can relate to in gay comics (even though I’m not gay myself). Comics like Stuck Rubber Baby or various works by Ralf König (which sadly remain unavailable in English) certainly feature male characters that, while not flawless, seem better adjusted psychologically, socially and sexually than those in straight indie comics. Even Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For has (perhaps surprisingly) pretty positive depictions of its male characters, including Stuart, the only straight main character in the strip. And if you look outside American comics, series like Dupuy & Berberian’s Monsieur Jean or Lewis Trondheim’s McConey delve pretty deep into the psyches of their male characters without presenting them as totally self-centred or neurosis-driven.

I teach college at a US university and one thing I’ve come across in trying to teach people about graphic novels is that the “good” ones tend to be about pretty horrible or extremely skewed people. A lot of times I get students asking if they are all so grim, dark, and focused on the people’s weaknesses in general.
I enjoyed the post. Thanks for giving me something more to think on…

I think the reason that comics written by men are so unflattering towards men is that we are usually painfully aware of our own shortcomings. We know how we should act, but often find ourselves unable or unwilling to do so. There’s not a man alive that hasn’t laid in bed at three in the morning wondering what his wife (or significant other) thinks of him. This tends to come out, not just in comics, but in any autobiographical work, and I believe that it’s a way for the artist to work through his issues.

Huge reason why I don’t read much in the indie side of things. And a huge reason I hate commercials (neither men nor women are portrayed very positively in commercials.) But I’m very much in agreement that American comics can learn quite a bit from manga (Lone Wolf and Cub particularly) in terms of showing positive depictions of either sex.

concerned citizen

January 27, 2010 at 11:49 am

I think you can chalk this up to the a deeply rooted sense of self-loathing felt by most comic creators. Even in the mainstream titles where we are given supposed idealized versions of men, they are portrayed as flawed, out-of-control, self-involved bastards. No suprise really considering the only ones with lower self-esteem than the creators are the fans, and these days people want read about someone they can look down on, not someone they may be forced to look up to.

My guess is that no one wants to read about the lives of well-adjusted people, unless they’re already famous or have accomplished great things. This isn’t just a symptom of comics. Anyone who ever became known because of their autobiographical work led a fucked up life.

Omar Karindu, with the power of SUPER-hypocrisy!

January 27, 2010 at 1:08 pm

Maybe, but the problem I got form the article is that there’s a uniformity to the way men in indie autobio comics are screwed up. Gender- and sex-based self-loathing seems to be the basic mode of these semi-fictional men, and certainly one can be screwed up or even self-loathing in ways other than these.

It’s as if comics only have room for two absolutes of masculinity: absolute, impossible he-men and complete, total wretches. The perverse part is that the wretches come off like the lousier option: if the choice is between clueless narcissism and equally clueless self-hatred, the narcissism is at least more pleasant to experience.

And of course, this polarity makes it too easy to absolve the clueless narcissist — who harms other people — precisely because the self-loathing schmucks hurt other people, too, as well as themselves, but don’t even have fun doing the wrong thing.

In a way, both portrayals end up saying that “men can’t help it; they just suck inherently.” And if they suck inherently, can one justly blame them for it?

Providing examples of more functional or nuanced masculinities, even externally-perceived ones that torment the self-loathing protagnonist, in these comics would go a long way to answering this criticism.

I kinda think it all depends on where one looks. There are indie comics that feature repugnant or at least deeply dysfunctional male protagonists, but then there are a bunch that have either wholly positive ones or at least ones that exhibit the more average brand of inadequacies. Here are a few indie comics whose male protagonists are not degenerate, anti-social creeps:

Usagi Yojimbo
Usagi is a deeply honourable character. Kind of a better(?) version of Lone Wolf and Cub‘s lead. He’s very human, has his faults, but is ultimately one of the best examples of what it is to be a person struggling with the ethics of the society in which he travels.

Bone
Fone Bone is just a good guy, no ifs ands or buts. Even his jealousy for Thorn’s attention early in the series just goes to develop him into a sweet and lovable sort of character.

Scott Pilgrim
Scott may not have it all together but he’s getting there. And his immaturity is both a) understandable and b) evidently curable.

Goodbye Chunky Rice/Blankets
The male protagonists from both of Craig Thompson’s major works are deeply introspective (of the level of some of the more repugnant bio-comics), but they always comes out honest and thoughtful and careful of their place in society and are shown to have a rich beauty of spirit. (Though Craig masturbates once to the Raina in his imagination, he does so almost chastely.)

Palestine/Safe Area: Gorazde/Footnotes on Gaza
Sacco does not draw himself to be particularly handsome in these books and he reveals himself to have certain preconceptions that may be distasteful, but he is always a straight-shooter. And pretty admirable for the work his character does.

Berlin/Jar of Fools
Both books contain less than admirable characters, but Berlin‘s male lead, though perhaps a little to slight of ambition and spine is an essentially good man (and my favourite character of the series); and Jar of Fools‘s lead while down and out, isn’t a bad sort and is trying to overcome his inadequacies and memories and fears. And he’s certainly no perv.

Curses
Glenn Ganges = regular guy. End of story.

Same Difference and Other Stories
Derek Kirk Kim’s lead here is your typical late twenties guy who had some talent but not the drive or courage to make much of himself so he putters around with friends. So, he’s kind of like most of us.

And of course there are others. Off the top of my head: Hawaiian Dick, Breakfast After Noon, BPRD>, and Mister Blank (which features an awesome male lead).

Again, it’s all where you look.

Not exactly an indie comic but “It’s a Bird” seems like afairly realistic portrayal (at least from what I remember).

Good topic. I tend not to read indie comics so not something I’ve encountered but nice food for thought.

The monstrous cloud of self-pity that hangs over all of Chris Ware’s work prevents me from liking it as much as the visuals would otherwise lead me to do. And Joe Matt…the first time he was recommended to me, I asked what the gist of the comic being offered was, and the offerer replied, “He…uh…it’s about him jerking off in a t-shirt.”

To base your art solely around self-loathing is a terribly self-centered thing to do. I wish there was more wonder in comics these days and less shoegazing.

And I want to echo the suggestions of Mr. Hahne above me. Matt S. writes, “There’s not a man alive that hasn’t laid in bed at three in the morning wondering what his wife (or significant other) thinks of him.” There’s a beautiful sequence in an issue of Ganges that presents almost this very scenario in, I feel as a married man myself, one of the most authentic ways possible.

It’s just part of Indie comics culture or at least it was in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Have you read Naughty Bits by Roberta Gregory? There’s an example of a female lead in Indie comics who is as horrible as any male character.

Is it sexist of me to say that only a woman would write this article? :P

P.S. That’s not negative – it’s a good article!

Non-genre fiction in ANY media, place, or time period isn’t exactly known for uplifting characters or role models. I’m not a reader of indy comics, but I’m not surprised that they too have depressing characters.

But in my reading of non-genre novels, what depressed me more wasn’t the pessimism (I’m okay with that), but the general passivity of the characters. It reflects a widespread perception that people in the real world have no control whatsoever over their own lives.

That is one of the reasons why I generally stick with genre fiction. I am usually not bothered by unsavory characters, I’m a HUGE fan of many HBO TV shows like Sopranos, Oz, Rome, Deadwood, but those extra-dark genre shows at least have characters that act. They may do horrible things, but they do things.

On the other hand, characters in non-genre fiction (particularly of the written kind), are usually completely adrift.

That’s a great point, Rene. Thanks for bringing my attention to why I happen to despise some pathetic characters and have sympathy for others.
And it probably explains my conflicted feelings for Inio Asano’s “What a Wonderful World!” It’s full of short stories about a lot of sad pathetic people who are seemingly passive actors in their own lives and just when they seem ready to give up they have a sudden change of heart and it looks like they’re ready to be more pro-active in their own lives; and then it ends, next story. It’s frustrating and brings up so many questions; do they stick to their guns and stay active? Do things work out poorly anyway, but they keep on trucking? Do they give up? Do they have a happy ending? I think that that’s part of the point and helps offer introspection on what type of person you are, but I’m still curious damnit.

@Joe H – What a Wonderful World kind of offered a mix of what you want. Some of the characters are picked up in later episodes (even if only tangentially) and we get to see how some of them have made good on their particular epiphanies while others still struggle against their defective natures. I found the two volumes a pretty good combination of these things: never reveling in unbridled optimism nor wallowing in ineffectual half-ambitions. Some characters had satisfying arcs, some had unsatisfying arcs, and others experienced no real catharsis in any direction. It may be my personal taste, but I loved it.

LouReedRichards

January 27, 2010 at 3:54 pm

To all the people who say “I don’t read indie comics”, is their an underlying reason that you don’t read them.?

What is it about the indie comics that turn you off? I’m not on some high horse, I’m generally curious about those statements.

so true.

as much as i enjoy most all of those comix cited, men are a ragged bunch.

for an alternative take, check out my current, semi-autobio webcomic, Dean Haspiel’s STREET CODE: http://www.zudacomics.com/street_code

and, for good yarns about a bruiser and his dame, check out:

Billy Dogma in IMMORTAL: http://www.act-i-vate.com/21.comic
Billy Dogma in FEAR, MY DEAR: http://www.act-i-vate.com/22.comic
Billy Dogma in SEX PLANET: http://www.act-i-vate.com/62.comic

“Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is hardly a ringing endorsement of humanity (let alone men). As much as I love his well-observed documentation of daily life, he is a tragic figure, whether intentionally or not. At the very least, he appears to be doing his best, which is more than I can say for most of the men in the comics mentioned in this article. Unfortunately his best really isn’t that wonderful, in fact it’s limited and depressing, and his brand of self-centered angry irrelevance is difficult to witness.”

I could not disagree more. What is so tragic about his life? That he was a file clerk? That despite their normal bickering he has an obviously loving family? That he overcame cancer? What is so limited about his life? Sure, he shares his frustrations and he definitely struggled with an abundance of anxieties, but he also shares his triumphs and the triumphs of those around him. Moreover he exposes just how incredibly beautiful and rewarding ordinary life can be. What is so irrelevant about that?

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 27, 2010 at 5:38 pm

As much as I love his well-observed documentation of daily life, he is a tragic figure, whether intentionally or not. At the very least, he appears to be doing his best, which is more than I can say for most of the men in the comics mentioned in this article. Unfortunately his best really isn’t that wonderful, in fact it’s limited and depressing, and his brand of self-centered angry irrelevance is difficult to witness.

The thing is, the fact he knows there’s humour or pathos in his portrayal of his life and himself in that way, shows that he’s very self-aware about it.
You’ve also got to remember, that no matter how auto-biographical he says it is, it’s not exactly what happened, it’s his take on what happened – totally subjective, and told to an audience, which means his slanting things certain ways to make the story have the effect he wants it to have.

Which is my way of saying I respectfully disagree with the columns conclusion – heroic comics, and tales, may show an idealized version of what a man should be/could be – depending on the author (Dikto had a very different take on that to Kirby for instance) – however they aren’t based in reality at all.
These books are examinations of who we are, taking real life moments (even if they are made up), and re-telling them in a way that we can relate to from our own lives.
Pekar saying something stupid and upsetting someone and feeling bad about it can be a hilarious tale, and make him look bad – but we’ve all done something like that… it makes you reflect on your actual life – it makes some feel they aren’t alone, or let’s others see where someone who did something like that to them was coming from.
And beyond that – it’s just showing you the comedy/tragedy that populates our actual lives, not what some wish their lives could be.

Unfortunately the men in these delightful stories are too often the unwilling villains of the piece. Pathetic, manipulative, possessive and sullen, they are depicted as terrible boyfriends and lousy friends.

Women don’t come off too well in Optic Nerve either – I’d say neither sex comes off particularly well, which is what is great about the series.
In Shortcomings, Ben is definitely a dick, but his girlfriend isn’t terribly fair to him either – not in her actions (obviously), but in some of their arguments she fully blames him for her own failings/inaction in life.
I think he comes across as more of a villain in the piece, as we see a lot more of him.
Heck, whomever the main star of a longer Tomine story is, they come across quite poorly.

Seth does a very good job of balancing his main characters, particularly in George Sprott – he is a man with some terrible failings, and yet, he’s also quite likeable as well, inspiring deep dislike in some relations, and deep devotion in others.

As opposed to Lone Wolf And Cub, which I found had a little too perfect a lead (well, a lot too perfect), I think I prefer my adventure stories more in the early Spider-man or Scott Pilgrim style – the character can be a dick at times, but they are trying to make themselves better.

@LouReedRichards –

Okay, why I don’t read indy comics. I suppose it comes down to my bad experiences with modern “literature” novels. The truth is, I tried reading them when I was younger, and they bored me to tears. A combination of the passivity of the characters, the ultra-slow pacing, the general style-over-substance vibe, and the utter greyness of their everyday settings. I chose instead to dive into genre fiction, and became an avid reader of fantastic fiction in general.

And I suppose this experience translated itself into other media, like comics and movies. I never really tried reading indy comics, I just assumed they would be sorta like the modern “literature” novels, so I avoided them. The same way I never really tried watching art movies. It’s not like I avoid things that are pessimistic or complex. I love complexity, “From Hell” and “Promethea” are two of my favorite comics. And I like dark stuff fine. It’s more like I thought the literature novels lacked… intensity. And I’m afraid I’ll react to indy comics the same way.

I’m glad you pointed out these men’s opposite (you know, all those guys in tights and capes). If it wasn’t for them, I doubt we would have such traggic — and in some cases despicable — male figures if it wasn’t balanced by something else on the opposite end of the spectrum. Now I may be very wrong about weither or not this type of comic exists, but i’ve never seen a comic where women are portrayed as so flawed, so “realistic” if you will as men are in the comics stated above. Granted, I haven’t read all of the books above but if you take Essex County for example, the counry nurse just reeks of sanity compared to her male counterparts in the trilogy. I believe that the reason we do not have that type of very negative potrayal of women in comics is because, unlike the male characters, there are few consistently well done female superheroes out there. Although they are slowly building their ranks. Maybe this type of indie-realistic negative portrayal of female characters isn’t so far away as I think.

In my experience, Mario, the female-centric indie comics I’ve read tend to have at least a little tinge of politics within them…thinking specifically of stuff like Persepolis and Fun Home…which, if we’re talking active v. passive, tends to lead to having more active characters. Or at least portrayals in which, if the character cannot act, they are at least active in trying to think through their situation. Of course, observing this makes me wonder if there’s not some sort of white male / liberal / oppressor guilt at play in some of these comics mentioned in the column…or indeed, in the lives of the comic creators.

I agree with the posters above who defend the work of Pekar. I think the idea of the passive that has been discussed in the comments is key here. Pekar is constantly experiencing life, the ups and downs, and trying to make sense of it all. He’s not always right, not always fair, not always honest, and not always likable. But at least he tries.

I’m not sure if someone has already pointed this out or not, but men make waaaaaaay more comics than women do, indie comics included. I think if there were more loser females making autobiographical comics then we would get the same kind of thing.

Well, if we go to the extremes of indie comics and standard superhero comics, I agree that we’ll only find skewed portraits of men; on one side idealized übermensch who solve problems through violence, on the other wretched degenerates and losers.

But that’s not all there is to comics, and we don’t need to go to Japan to find other positive male characters.

In the realm of superhero comics, but with a more sophisticated twist on the genre, we have Tom Strong, where hero who’s also a loving family man usually tries to solve problems without violence. As a bonus, there are two terrific female characters, Tom’s daughter Tesla and especially Tom’s wife Dahlua (one of the most fascinating female characters in modern comics, and arguably more interesting than Tom himself).

Still in the realm of superhero comics, there’s Mitchell Hundred from Ex Machina – who, despite his superheroic backstory, is a really well-written character, with very relatable flaws but also great decency.

Beyond superheroes, and leaving US comics for a moment without having to go all the way to Japan, Mike Blueberry from the classic western series Blueberry is another fantastic male character.

There are also several good male characters in Fables and its companion books – such as Bigby Wolf, Flycatcher, Mowgli, Jack Frost and Aladdin. It’s not like there are only superhero comics or indie comics out there, people. ;)

And while he’s not a particularly inspirational role model, I can’t help but sympathize with the surprisingly-human Thugboy from Adam Warren’s Empowered. Thugboy is a loving boyfriend, a badass on his own right without having any special powers, and he’s definitely not idealized (except physically, I suppose, but Warren offers so much cheesecake in that series that I can’t blame him for wanting to offer some beefcake as well).

I see Eric’s point. The old model of masculinity is very criticized and discarded, but there is no consensus of a satisfatory new model to take its place. I think this is the only area where gay males and women have it easier than straight males: it’s a lot easier to find things you should be striving for.

Strange conversation here.

An interesting protagonist should have flaws, and digging into the roots of those flaws is usually key to the story.

Also, “pathetic” is relative.

As a creator, this:

“The perfect happy medium would be a comic book which portrays men as strong, intelligent, thoughtful, caring, fallible, decisive, and sexually active in a way that is respectful and appreciative towards women.”

Bores me. I always attempt to create male characters that are “appreciative towards women,” but I need some hang-ups to probe or the story is almost forced to shift away from him.

-BCM

Weirdly enough, I like to think that comics like these helped me through my adolescence quite a bit.
I can specifically remember quite a few times when I felt I was really doing thing wrong when I turned to an indie comic and said to myself, “well, at least I’m not screwing up as badly as these guys!”
Really.

Thank goodness you haven’t read Johnny Ryan (I needed a shower after reading one of his comics!) On the distaff side, though a bit more nuanced; what about Phoebe Gloeckner? (Don’t know if that’s the right spelling) Thinking back, the whole underground ‘comix’ scene from the 60’s to todays indie stuff is pretty distressing. Maybe that’s the role it (self-consciously?) fills; to upset, pervert, subvert etc
Another great article BTW – keep ‘em coming!

I’m not familiar with all of the above comics, but certainly Hate and Eightball seem just as harsh on the women as the men from what I’ve read. Particularly Ghost World.

And count me in with the ones who can’t see any man hating in American Splendour.

I think the self-loathing that pervades indie comics of the auto-bio/ semi-auto-bio genre stems from a few sources, but mainly 2 places: a difficult childhood and the authors’ sense of inadequacy.

Boys who are not talented in ways deemed acceptable by their peer groups are more likely to develop low self-esteem. My impression of the characters in most indie comics of the cited variety is that they are introspective, sensitive, and not athletic (Essex County being one of the few indie comics I’ve read that has *anything* to do with sports). Coupled with a childhood fraught with poor relationships, the self-loathing may last into adulthood. Writing and drawing are outlets the unhappy child may seek for some measure of satisfaction and achievement.

I know I’m overgeneralizing, but books like the ones mentioned in the post, some of which feature stories about difficult childhoods, seem to support my conclusions.

As for Lone Wolf & Cub, one of my favorite comics, the women aren’t treated very well. Sure, Ogami is a gentlemen, but there’s a whole lot of rape and manipulation in those pages. I don’t have the comics in front of me, but I do remember Yagyu deciding to have a child with his daughter, who was nearly raped by her brother. Ogami could be a role model, I suppose, but I don’t want my son reading LW&C until he’s at least in his teens.

Matthew Johnson

January 28, 2010 at 7:53 am

I don’t disagree with you overall, and I think you’re right to point to a self-flagellating quality in independent comics — particularly among Crumb’s heirs — but I have to disagree with you about Essex County. To me the tragedy in that book is that everyone, even Lester’s uncle, is doing their best; their best, in emotional terms, is simply not enough in some cases. (I think one of the themes of the work is the emptiness of men’s lives without women; for example, though Lester fantasizes about having a father figure, it’s his mother he’s mourning.)

I don’t know that the father in “Fun Home” really comes off that poorly either. Granted he’s a tragic figure, self-deceiving and self-destructive, but Bechdel doesn’t paint herself in any more positive a light: the only real difference between the path his life takes and hers is the times they grew up in.

In other words, Mike, they’re nerds.

@Mario

Chris Ware’s Building Stories is about a neurotic and recluse woman and it rings pretty damn true.

Other comics about flawed females:

Eye of the Majestic Creature by Leslie Stein
Infadum Ad Infinitum by Molly Lawless

Those were the three that stood out in my collection without going through anthologies.

Also: I’d like to echo those people that are saying that it depends where you look. This article is kinda guilty of the “all indy comics are lit comics” straw man. It was annoying but kind of valid ten years ago (and even then Zero Zero should have put that to rest), but its just plain false now. There’s tons of genre fiction in the indy scene and a lot of great examples of very admirable dudes as well as ladies.

Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi:
Johnny Hiro
Street Angel
Cold Heat
The Mourning Star
Mouse Guard
Love and Rockets
Pirates of Coney Island
BPRD
Rice Boy
Princes of Time
Bone
RASL
Echo
Citizen Rex

Horror:
Pim and Francie and anything else by Al Columbia)
The Blot (and anything else by Tom Neely)
The Goon
Black Hole

Absurdist Comedy:
Capacity (and anything else by Theo Ellsworth)
Boys Club
The Breakfast Group
1-800-Mice

Theres a ton of other stuff out there too, This is just off the top of my head.

I don’t know why exactly cynicism seems to be the default attitude of so many indie/alt comics creators, but I do wish and hope that the scene can wise up to its tendencies before self-loathing auto-bio gluts it the way superheroes have glutted the mainstream.

Replace “indie/alt comics” there with “art comics.” And the sentiment applies across the entire culture, really; somewhere during the Modernist period we picked up the notion that to be a Serious Storyteller, you have to be ponderous, navel-gaze, and hate your parents.

My guess is that no one wants to read about the lives of well-adjusted people, unless they’re already famous or have accomplished great things.

Like Tolstoy said, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

That said, I do think this piece suffers from a pretty limited test sampling, so to speak. I would definitely disagree with the inclusion of Pekar and Lemire and Bechdel – I would swap those three for Ivan Brunetti (Now with industrial strength self-hatred!) and the godfather of the autophobiography* genre, Justin Green. It ignores the work of Julie Doucet, Pheobe Gloeckner, Mary Fleener, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and Roberta Gregory, all women whose work has mined the theme of self-loathing to varying degrees; it’s hardly the exclusive playground of male cartoonists, though of course the majority of work is created by guys.

And no Denny Eichhorn? No Eddie Campbell? No Jason, no Alex Robinson, no Trina Robbins, no Will Eisner, no Carol Lay, no Chet Brown, no Hernandez Brothers, no Seth, no Lynda Barry, no Mike Dawson, no Dave Collier, no… well you get the idea. There’s no disputing the type of books you’re talking about exist and are an well-established genre, or that cartoonists are a cowardly, superstitious lot… err, I mean a neurotic bunch, but there is a lot more diversity out there just waiting to be gobbled up.

*I made a new word!

If you want autobio comics that don’t have such a downer on men, Eddie Campbell’s your man. Not American, which may be significant.

But I think there is a definite current in anglophone culture in recent decades that’s quick to assume the best of a woman and the worst of a man. Politically correct commentators are ever-ready to call out perceived “misogyny” (Neil Gaiman recently got a load of it after being quoted as saying he was “nobody’s bitch”) so artists shy away from portraying female characters negatively, and since drama is conflict and conflict needs extremes, all those extremes are loaded onto the male characters, who act out the conflict, observed by the female characters. You end up with a comic like Preacher, where Jesse, the male lead, acts, and the rightness or wrongness of his actions is judged by the female lead, Tulip, who rarely acts herself and so is never seen to be in the wrong, and is praised as a “strong female character” when really she’s little more than Jesse’s conscience.

I agree with other commenters that the low self-esteem of many male artists is a factor. Another is the superior hipster attitude of some of the art-comics guys, who do like to look down on people – and since it’s more socially acceptable to put down men than women, most of the objects of their scorn will be male. Putting yourself down is also more socially acceptable than putting down others, and most comics artists are male.

@Rene

Thanks for the answer, like I said, I’m always curious when somebody makes a statement like that.

I’ve read some independents that were really just crap, but I’ve read some really great stuff from the indies as well.
Just like with the mainstream, it varies from creator to creator. For the most part I’m out of touch with most current comics these days, but their are some absolute classics that would probably be worth checking out. Eightball, Ed the Happy Clown, and Peter Bagge’s work are just some examples. There’s nothing at all boring about them. And for the most part there’s not that much navel gazing or passivity going on, and when it does it’ usually damn funny
Taste vary of course, but I’d recommend those to just about anybody (well as long as they weren’t easily offended).

@Layne

I haven’t read all of my copy of Sacred and Profane but it seemed much more nuanced than self-loathing autobio.

“Is it sexist of me to say that only a woman would write this article? :P”

The difference is that a man who wrote it would be called a whiner and a sexual inadequate and a misogynist by liberal indie-comix fans.

That is one of the reasons why I generally stick with genre fiction. I am usually not bothered by unsavory characters, I’m a HUGE fan of many HBO TV shows like Sopranos, Oz, Rome, Deadwood, but those extra-dark genre shows at least have characters that act. They may do horrible things, but they do things.

This comment’s been bothering me for a bit – I’m not familiar with Rome, but in the others, the main characters try their hardest to do nothing at all.
Deadwood’s set in a town of people who all live their due to there resistance of change, and the only time they ever actually do anything is at the last possible moment, usually when forced, to act to stop change – or at least control it for the least possible amount of change.
Heck, does Swearengen do anything but bide time and only act to avoid change?
As for the Sopranos, Tony Soprano is the least changing, least active character ever – he ‘does things’ but they aren’t really doing anything. And the only time he is ready to do anything useful, and improve himself (which is what his character’s main goal is) his psychiatrist regresses him to keep him as her patient.

If anything with Oz, Deadwood and The Sopranos, the genre gives the illusion that these characters are ‘doing things’, but that’s just the window dressing to tell the exact same sorts of stories that ‘non-genre fiction’ are telling.
(Because Deadwood and Sopranos are totally different beasts to the usual stories told with gangster fiction, or in westerns – that’s why the are genre-breaking or genre transcending shows, as the critics often refer to them).

FunkyGreenJerusalem

January 28, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Sorry, that was me just then.

@FGJ-

Fighting tooth and nail to preserve the status quo is not the same thing as the same thing as “doing nothing.” The essentially passivity of so many male protagonists in art comics reflects an inability to either enact change OR prevent unwanted changes when they come. And really, the old character in Deadwood whose almost sole focus is the latter is Swearengen.

I’m not a Sopranos guy, but in Deadwood, Swearengen clearly wants to be undisputed ruler of his own little prarie fiefdom, Tolliver wants the same, and people like Bullock and Garrett want to live simple country lives that aren’t under the control of distant governments but still serve the basic functions of civilization. Throughout the show, we see Tolliver straining to advance and build his power base, while Bullock and Garrett begin to do things like bring in families, enforce laws, and start schools. The only one who can really be said to constantly fight change (aggressively, actively, and in a way totally in line with his goals and motivations) is Swearengen, and that’s because he’s clearly work and achieved all his aims before the show even begins.

I’m not really an indie comics guy, but its mostly due to the fact that I grew up with the superhero / action / fantasy comics and I’m just not all that interested in the other genres. Nothing against ‘em.

Pointing out this portrayal of men in these comics makes me think of the criticism — which I somewhat agree with — of the current batch of movie comedies, particularly the Judd Apatow brand of comedies. In most of these, men are portrayed as boorish, selfish man-children afraid to commit to a woman. And in the end, he has to learn to completely change who he is to become an adult and get the woman. The lesson seems to be that the man must realize that he is a jerk and should just count himself lucky a woman even looks at him. They also seem to portray a woman as some one who scold you like your mother until you grow up and act just like she tells you. and stop having fun.

I guess that the indie comics showing men like this is some kind of opposite of the superheroic men from mainstream comics, but Superman never struck me as some kind of example of how great men are.

Julian – I didn’t mean to sound like I was giving Green short shrift! You’re absolutely right that his work is nuanced, but the “Warts and all, let it all hang out” aspect of autophobiography* has its roots in Binky Brown Meets The Virgin Mary. It’s definitely not Green’s fault that most of his progeny have glommed onto the unabashed underground sensibility rather than the craft, depth, and insight, mistaking confessional vulgarity for effective storytelling or just reveling in the former at the expense of the latter, but if I were making a family tree for this genre, he’d certainly be the trunk.

*It’s just so ‘fetch’!

I read, write and draw, love and hate all kinds of comics. I am a man. I live a good enough life and see things as half full most days, with good reason. Pessimism for me has been up a bit this year, but it less an internal struggle then a reaction to our communities challenges. I don’t need a comic to be a role model for me. I don’t need the idea that our media arts, our sports figures our famous, somehow need to be there to guide us, when we have mentors in life we live with, we can talk to, we can touch. I read comics for some level of connection, understanding, intrigue, emotion…story. But it doesn’t make me change my seance of well being. In my view the majority of the cartoonist mentioned above are doing at this time and place much of the best cartooning done for their generation. To truly be frustrated with their contributions in terms of representation of persona would be similar to being frustrated with McCay, Herriman, Foster, Eisner, Kirby, Shultz and Kurtzman at the heights of their carriers. Tomine’s work has made me feel home sick before (I am from the SF Bay Area). Ware’s work is a window into the subtle connections of life. Clowes brings in a juxtaposition of eclectic elements that I often identify with. All of the three before mentioned have depicted women in comparable places. Crumb shows that we are paradoxical as a society and as heterosexual men in our thoughts of women. I don’t read Peep Show, but I thought Matt’s Fair Weather was a reasonable portrayal of what it is like to be a boy. Mazzucchelli’s character evolves from an egotist through a balanced transition into a state of empathy and love; nothing sad about that. I am not denying that in this small circle of cartooning there is some crossover or even similar emotional notes, and they are in some ways the antithesis of superhero comics (which I also love). There is some limit to each spectrum of representation. These cartoonists all know each other as friends, and may just simply see things similarly. Comics are small world, and it gets smaller when you brake it into genre or publishing houses. If you get to know some of these cartoonist you see aspects of their particular persona imprinting on the page, just as you can see Kirby in his and Shultz in his. I have the same taste in my mouth when I read TCJ (which I love)…but hay the publish half the names you mentioned. They are not even saturating the market. And it has been a good thing that superhero comics have evolved and created room for “indy” books. Yes the industry needs to keep evolving in a direction that is relatable to more males and females. And yes Lone Wolf and cub are a welcome contributor in that effort. But the human experience and our stories often follow patterns in specific times and eventually they move on. I would not fault these cartoonist for making comics how they want to. In stead I would encourage people who have stories in themselves that would broaden the spectrum of stories to step up and make comics creating a broader opportunity for readers. Eventually if all of our collective visions make it to the book shelf or iPad then maybe we will have finally have the verity of characters and stories that represent a broader range of persona.

I am glad that some people are pointing out the wide range of “indy” comics being made today. I would add Jim Woodring’s Frank to the list…yes another Fantagraphics book…but it is so good, and he is such a nice guy. I would also stress that both patterns of story types and at the same times verity in story types are not new to comics (Sonia is talking about small sampling over 40 years of cartooning above and if you take in the 115 years of American comics into consideration you will realize there has always been some variety…just not ever enough).

I would also stress that cartoonist often live tough lives, and sometimes their comics are cathartic and sometimes they are escapist. But cartooning is a very isolating experience and it should not be a wonder that depression emerges as much as fantasy.

“For some reason, these comics are regarded as being more realistic and less ridiculous than super hero comics.”

I guess it’s more realistic in regards to the fact that you could really find loser like the characters you mentioned and not often find guys wearing spandex and fighting crime.

which is sad I’m sure many of us would rather hangout with a dude in a cape that can fry bacon with his eyes then the type of characters we see in the comics you listed

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