Credit: Brantley GutierrezFor denizens of the Internet, John Hodgman is a man who needs no introduction – he’s become an iconic figure in the last several years for his appearances on The Daily Show, numerous films and TV shows, his essays, stories and Twitter posts, and of course the PC in the Apple commercials.
Hodgman is also a great comic book fan, and used to review graphic novels for The New York Times. I recently had him on the phone to talk about a local appearance for his latest book, That is All, the conclusion in his trilogy of false facts and trivia. You can read that interview, where we discuss such topics as mustaches and the “Occupy” movement, here.
While I had him on the horn, I found out he was a Newsarama reader, and we engaged in a spontaneous chat about comics, where he offered his criticisms of the New 52 at DC, the advantages and disadvantages of continuity, and some of the comics he currently enjoys.Newsarama: So John, I thought it’d be fun if we talked comics for a bit.
John Hodgman: Oh, sure! Though I was hardly an expert on comics when I was writing on them for the New York Times book review, and I am even less of one now. I am a great fan of the form, both in its corrupt fanboy nostalgia factor of pining for a time when I read superhero comics as a child, and also for its mature, challenging, artistic future.
There’re some incredible artists working in comics today, not excluding people in the superhero genre, but especially beyond it. It’s an incredible medium, and it’s really come into its own, but I don’t know that I’m an expert on it.
Nrama: Well, what are some comics you’re reading and/or enjoying right now? Your fans might be encouraged to pick some of them up.
Hodgman: Well, right now, it’s not really what I’m enjoying, it’s what I’m not enjoying.
Nrama: Oh dear.Men of War #6 Hodgman: Let me say this: I’m really enjoying Men of War by Ivan Brandon at the New 52. I think Brandon’s a terrific writer, and I’m really getting into that. There’re some really great comic book writers working today who are producing work on par with the best in any serialized medium – film, television, novels.
I’m a huge fan of Brian K. Vaughan, for example, and what he did with Y: The Last Man – I’m certainly the “last man” to come in with praise for that one, though. Vaughan’s a terrific guy, and Pia Guerra’s a tremendous artist.
It’s funny – when I started writing about comics a few years ago, I discovered a lot of new things, one of them being the Glenn Ganges comics by Kevin Huizenga. I just love his work. And James Sturm’s work, I didn’t know that before, I loved it.
And in particular, the European cartoonists – I think they use that term proudly – like Joann Sfar, and his crazy adult comedy funny animal fantasy book Dungeon. That world they created was so wonderful in its unadulterated fun-ness.
There are so many things these creators are doing now that I’m missing, and it’s because I am just absolutely befuddled by what’s going on in superhero comics right now. I don’t mean to tar all these creators with the same brush, but… my nostalgia roots are in Marvel Comics, I grew up reading Marvel. And it wasn’t until about a decade ago I started feeling like, “Oh, I’ve got to start going through the DC canon,” which I’d always sort of poo-pooed.It was largely through discovering stories like the ones by Alan Moore that I got into DC – his stories were just so amazing. And they were doing something really interesting, I felt, with this universe, and Brad Meltzer’s Identity Crisis, which goes back almost a decade now.
And I felt, “Okay, they are going to do something fun and innocent, and also take their weird canon seriously and kind of build comics for a new generation,” and I thought they had struck a pretty good balance between the comics that were just doing fan-service to the 40-year-old losers like me, while also telling stories that lots of other people of different ages could enjoy.
The New 52 thing – again, not to paint everyone with the same brush, I think Wonder Woman is great, I think Cliff Chiang is terrific – but to me, they seem to have distilled everything that I had come to really dislike about superhero comics.
(It began) as a kind of mining of their canon for fun, interesting stories like “How do you take someone like the Calculator seriously?”, finding someone like Brad Meltzer trying to solve these problems was really fun to me. How do you take these characters seriously?
But unfortunately, it seems like there’s always been this other mode in comics, since the whole grim-and-gritty thing of the 1980s and 1990s, this misunderstanding of what an adult comic really means. There’s a difference between a film made for adults, for example, and an “adult film,” which is a euphemism for porn.
And I feel like there’s this confusion about the fact that these comics are not for kids any more, as so many newspaper articles have beaten into our heads the past 20 years. That means all these characters should be killing each other and having sex with one another.
I think that’s all fine in the context of a well-told story, but there seems to be so much reliance on titillation and a lazy reliance on decades of continuity to be telling a story that’s making in-jokes for people who just knew this all ahead.
It just seems woefully alienating to anyone who wasn’t of a particular demographic and frankly, genre of comic book readers. And that’s fine! I’m willing to accept that those comics might not be for me, and that there might be a readership for that out there, possibly a lucrative one.
But my understanding of this relaunch of the line is that it was supposed to be giving new readers a chance to come in and experience these characters. And on those terms, I find many of the decisions in those comics to be really befuddling.Nrama: Based on what you’ve specifically mentioned, I’m wondering if you’re talking about Red Hood and the Outlaws, which has been a particular magnet of controversy for the New 52.
Hodgman: I think that one’s a little skeevy! Everyone has their right to do their take on these characters. But I was really touched by a comic creator who had posted about her daughter feeling betrayed by the depiction of Starfire.
There was a lot of hullaballoo about that, because they had rewritten Starfire to be this sort of bright-eyed anime cosplay girl in the Teen Titans cartoon, which is how a lot of kids first encountered this character, in a way that was very girl-positive and fun.
I loved those cartoons, they were great adventures. But to turn Starfire into essentially this dispassionate nymph, it’s a big statement to make, and I think one that if you make it, you’re going to have to suffer the reasonable criticisms that you’re letting a lot of people down who liked this character for a certain reason.
I’m all for being provocative, but I don’t think that being provocative for provocation’s sake is a legitimate art form. And what I’ve found more troubling about that book, for example, was that the storytelling was incomprehensible. It didn’t make a very strong case for its bad attitude, you know? (laugh) It didn’t make a case for the provocative situations it put those characters in.
Overall, I think the new Batgirl is fine. I’m sure that there are a few New 52 that are quite terrific.
Nrama: Speaking as a fan and not as a journalist, Animal Man by Jeff Lemire is quite good.Animal Man #6 Hodgman: Look, I like Sweet Tooth a lot, and he’s a terrific writer. But the issue I read of Animal Man was great… if it were an issue of Animal Man that you read 30 or 40 or 50 or a hundred issues into a run. That’s how it read to me. Instead, you’re starting the story in the middle of the story.
I don’t feel like I have to apologize for saying, “Look, you’re starting over with 52 new number ones! I’m expecting to read 52 first issues, and you’re not really introducing these characters!” So that was a great story, but it was introducing the characters in the middle of the story.
As I say, I don’t want to mean about all these books. I just don’t understand why Rob Liefeld on Hawk and Dove… he’s not my cup of tea. I don’t understand how he’s allowed to continue to draw things. My brain cannot process these impossible figures that are considered to be appealing by other people.
…you know what? I’m going to dial it back a little bit. But here’s the thing: I’m feeling really positive about Men of War by Ivan Brandon. I thought it was a great first issue, a great homage to the continuity, a brand-new story, an interesting way of addressing a traditional format, which is a war adventure comic book, and making it as relevant as it should be to today. And it’s something I’d be proud to show another person.
So many of the other books I’m reading – and it’s on both sides of the aisle, I don’t mean to put it all on DC, but in many ways they put their chin out when they relaunched their entire line, and invited more scrutiny than perhaps they intended to have – but there are very few superhero comics I would feel comfortable showing someone else who I might want to entice into reading superhero comics.
I don’t want to come out as someone who’s trashing this. But I just find it puzzling that in this new direction, the preponderance these books seem to be taking is just a distillation of what I didn’t like about the old books, which was this sort of navel-gazing churning of the continuity, plus mistaking of titillation for adult content that only reaches a certain narrow bandwidth of readers, because I love these characters.
And yeah, there are plenty of great creator-owned books. There are plenty of great non-superhero comics. I don’t like to sit around reading superhero stuff all the time, but I get excited when someone is able to do something with these characters that is interesting and not sort of dumb and vaguely embarrassing.
And there are a lot of writers who are doing that. As a storyteller, I love it when someone will take something possible, like “How do you make a character like Animal Man really interesting?” And Jeff Lemire has really obviously tapped into something like that, and I give him credit for that. That’s really exciting.
For me, for example, the reason I came to The Lord of the Rings really late, but really got into it when I did – besides the fact that it’s great writing – is the really tremendously weird hard-left turn that Tolkien took from writing for children in The Hobbit and creating this almost juvenile stereotypical fantasy world and then saying, “Okay, I’m going to take this really seriously now and write a huge adult quasi-Nordic epic.”
And the different types of storytelling he works in, from the English countryside, this almost Jane Austen-y portion at the beginning of the book when they’re all at the Shire, and then the gradual change to the generational epic in the last third of that book, it asks the question, “How do you take something silly and ridiculous and find something meaningful to tell?”
And I love that. It’s why I keep going back to superhero comics long after I obviously shouldn’t care about them.
This is the last thing I’m going to say on the subject, because there are tons and tons of books out there, and you could mention them and I’d be aware of them, or that I should have read them. There’s tons and tons of incredible non-superhero books out there. And yet, the form will always have a touchstone of this history in it, which is the superhero comic.
And one of the great things that happened to comic overall was the meme that started in the 1980s with comics that were written and drawn for actual adult people, like the ones by the Hernandez brothers, and actual adult superhero stories, like Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” for Superman, which is the most melancholy superhero story I’ve read, and there’s not a single machine gun or drop of blood in it.
Nrama: Well, there is some heat vision toward the end.Hodgman: Yeah, but that’s part of the genre, you know? Alan Moore, for me, does no wrong. He explores the genre, reinvents it, and does something new, usually all in the same story.
So the idea that comic books aren’t entirely for kids is a very powerful idea. We should feel grateful that for the most part, America seems to agree. But it also seems that we need an understanding that “Yeah, comic books also have a long history of being for kids, and these characters in tights and capes weren’t created for 40-year-old men. They were created for children.”
In many ways, I feel that DC’s animated universe was so smart and deft and fun that I find it much more enjoyable to read than many of the grown-up comic books. When I read these, I go, “These things aren’t supposed to be for grown ups! They’re crazy people in tights!” I feel they struck the balance there much better than they have in the New 52.
I know there are a lot of people who’ll see that quote “comics should be for kids” and go, “Eh, he’s an old dude and he’s got kids now and he doesn’t want to deal with adult stuff, blah, blah, blah.”
I don’t think comics should be juvenile, but I do think that they owe a debt to their history as juvenilia, because that’s what they were. And one should not be embarrassed about that.
What made comics special for me growing up, and what made me return to superhero stories as an adult, is not just nostalgia – which is toxic, I just hate nostalgia – but because the stories are great.
They’re great for kids as fun adventure stories, they’re great for teenagers and smarter older teens because when they work, they’re also provocative science fiction and bring some ideas to the table, and for grownups, they’re a nice trip down memory lane.
I think that’s a nice balance that just all feels a little out of whack to me at the moment. I haven’t read all of it, but some of it.
You know, look, I’m all for making reference to a shared universe. I enjoy the weird, unique storytelling perils of continuity. It’s kind of a roller-coaster ride, how you have to tell a story while making it fit into this arbitrary set of rules that get rewritten every couple of years, rebooting the entire continuity.
There are very few stories in media, except for maybe soap operas, that are like that. I love putting together all of the puzzle pieces, and the little references that allows, and everything else. I like it best when someone like Grant Morrison or Alan Moore uses it to build a story that is intrinsically interesting. I don’t like it when it’s used to give a wink to a knowing audience, provide a little fan service, or avoid actually having to tell that story.
…I’ve actually got someone waiting for me to call them, so I’ll wrap up: I really love comics, and there are some amazing people working in the medium right now, both inside and outside the genre of superhero comics. And I’d really like to have more superhero comics I could share with someone who isn’t already initiated.
What seems to be happening is as comic book readership plateaus or constricts, they keep saying, “We’re going to open these up to new readers,” but instead they draw their shackles tighter. And I don’t get it.I would draw your attention to Atomic Robo, if you haven’t read it already. I went on a Twitter-rant about this stuff, and one of my followers brought their books to my attention, and I bought them and enjoyed them a lot.
I like them because they’re really good storytelling, and when you go and read their little manifesto on their website, it’s very inspiring. Their first point of order is that they’re not going to do fan service, they’re not going to titillate, they’re not going to churn through issues and issues just to set up a big reveal – their first principal is they’re going to tell a good story in this issue.
One of the things I love in comics is serialized storytelling, but that can be a pitfall if you rely too much on what happened last week.
I’m not trying to start feuds. I’m really just expressing feelings of existential anxiety about where all superhero comics are.
And now I really do have to go…
Nrama: Okay, any last thoughts before you go?
Hodgman: I still love everything that Paul Levitz writes. Long Live the Legion!
John Hodgman’s That is All is in bookstores now.