Jack Jackson died over the summer.
Unless you're a hardcore comics fan, I wouldn't expect you to know the name, but Jackson (a.k.a. "Jaxon") was responsible for one of the first underground comics, 1964's God Nose (Snot Reel), and after helping to start Rip-Off Press in 1969, Jackson contributed trippy sci-fi stories and history plays to comix anthologies like Slow Death and Insect Fear. In 1979, he collected some of his history stories in the book Comanche Moon–one of the few serious, mature comics books to be published in that era–and he continued to do extended historical stories (mostly about Texas) throughout the rest of his life, published in books like Los Tejanos and Lost Cause.
Jackson's name was already rattling around in my head when he died, because at the time I'd been reading The Comics Journal Interviews The Writers, an absolutely fascinating collection of interviews that TCJ conducted with the hot young comics writers of 25 to 30 years ago–people like Dennis O'Neill and Steve Gerber and Chris Claremont and Marv Wolfman. By the late '70s, underground comix were all but extinct, and the fledgling Comics Journal was digging for signs of life at DC and Marvel, or wherever else they could find it. To the eternal credit of the magazine's editor Gary Groth, he wasn't willing to settle for "better than the usual crap," and it's uncomfortable at times to read Groth and company's relentless grilling of some of these writers, as TCJ says to them, essentially, "You're smart guys. There are glimmers of intelligence in your super hero work. Why can't you grow the hell up?"
Most of the people featured in the book never did get it together, with the notable exceptions of the late Archie Goodwin (whose subsequent work as an editor produced smart comics for adults and the rousing juvenilia that the medium still needs) and a pleasant chap named Alan Moore, freshly introduced to America via Swamp Thing and ready to rewire some fanboy brains. The rest of the group spends a lot of time grumbling about business demands and audience expectations, and patting themselves on the back for introducing just a little post-Watergate ennui into some dopey Captain America comic. The Journal interviewers–Groth especially–counter with examples of some good non-mainstream sci-fi and fantasy work that might be a better model for these writers to follow. They also mention Will Eisner's loose shot at a "graphic novel" A Contract With God, and, ta-da!, Jack Jackson.
(Aside: In the TCJ book, Groth seems frustrated with the persistent mediocrity of American popular culture in general, including movies, TV and pop literature. For some reason, he and others keep bringing up the TV series adaptation of The Paper Chase as an example of "smart" entertainment. It was a different time, I guess.)
Ultimately, what's fascinating about The Comics Journal Interviews The Writers is how restless and dissatisfied Groth is. Even stuff he likes–like Eisner–he seems to think is lacking something essential to real art, and while he's jabbing away at Len Wein or Steve Englehart, he keeps suggesting that there's no real reason why the best we should hope for from comics is just a slightly more nuanced superhero book. (A few years later, Groth would put his money where his mouth is and publish Los Bros Hernandez's Love & Rockets, and considering the full context of the times, those Los Bros comics look all the more phenomenal … sort of like jumping from Arrival Of A Train to Citizen Kane in a single year.)
What's particularly amusing about a lot of the interviews in the book is what happens when Groth suggests that one day people might read and enjoy 200-page comic books. By and large, he gets laughed off.
I'm not sure that even Groth envisioned where we'd be right now, with 400-page art-comics selling six figures, and hopelessly "mature" Batman pamphlets barely cracking 50K. And while I'm generally happy with this turn of events, I do feel we've lost something along the way. The world needs well-made disposables, like the kind energetic, easy-to-grasp myth-making that DC and Marvel used to excel at, or even the straight-from-the-id one-pagers that the original underground comix creators would crank out and crudely staple together. Everyone swings for the fences now, looking toward a legacy.
And the thing is, as much as I love the medium and how it's matured, I'm not entirely convinced that those graphic novel naysayers were wrong. It's not that it's hard to read a 200-page comic; but it sure is hard to write and draw one. A good one, that is. Even when Marvel Comics first introduced multi-issue epics–storylines that now get spoken of with hushed reverence, like the Kree-Skrull War–what stood out were a few surprising plot twists and a splash panel or two. The actual storytelling was pretty soggy, full of rushed passages, shoehorned backstory, and stretches of wheel-spinning.
Don't imagine that the non-superhero auteurs are immune from this either. Even some of the classic works of alt-comics era, like Seth's It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan and, yes, Art Spiegelman's Maus, are at once moving, profound, and just a tad dissatisfying. Sometimes they're too abrupt. Sometimes they repeat themselves. And sometimes they spend pages and pages on not much.
Of course, there's no reason to single comics out. There are great movies and great novels that aren't perfect either; and in truth, "perfection" is kind of a fool's pursuit in art. The tighter art gets, the more airless and pre-determined it gets, with little room for the viewer/reader/listener to bring some of him or herself to the piece. But at the same time, the persistent pacing problems of comics is in some ways inherent to the way the medium has arranged itself. The art of editing–so crucial to movies and novels–isn't as easy in comics, where cutting something that's not working might mean spending days or weeks rearranging and redrawing pages. The great comics artists do just that–or they plan their stories meticulously in advance–but there's still a lot of "doing the crossword puzzle in ink" machismo to comics creators, as some artists prize immediacy over craft.
The other problem is, of course, serialization. Some comics creators feel comfortable enough with the economics of the business–and confident enough in their own work ethic–to put together a full book before releasing it. But most still put out pamphlets, even if just one a year, to keep income steady and keep themselves on task. This poses some unique sets of challenges, from the artificial constraints of page counts to the drudgery of spending month after month and year after year on the same story, while other ideas pile up in the backlog. It's no wonder that so many graphic novels feel rushed, pinched, and otherwise underdeveloped.
And now that I've gotten to the point, I'll break and finish this later in the week, with some thoughts on alternate alt-comics business models and whether superhero comics can ever not suck.
Jack Jackson died over the summer.