“So — punk WHAT? Actually, what do the purported punk SF writers have in common? Stylish Gibson, antic frazzled Sterling, the pure-hearted and liberal Robinson, hot-eyed Shirley — all over 30, perhaps, but what else? I see no commonality of vision. Vague similarities — bedazzled by technology, fond of street-savvy brutality, some preference for ravaged landscapes — also link them with a horde of other SF writers.”

– From a fairly savage review of Neuromancer in Cheap Truth #12, note that all the people being talked about are actually the people that ran Cheap Truth, and people who were big enough fans of the work to follow it with their own.

This post started out on tumblr as just a followup comment to this quote, but I think that I need to expand this into a real post because all I’ve been reading lately are wrongheaded  posts from all kinds of people about what criticism’s relationship to creators is (also in the incredibly backwards world of comics, retailers and distributors as well because apparently that’s a thing now, like being a locovore or something else only an insane isolated ultra-privileged subculture would decide was a good idea). I’ve been reading a lot of Bruce Sterling for most of this year, and I’ve been thinking about Cheap Truth and it’s relationship to comics for a lot longer than that.

Cheap Truth was a series of copyright-free one-sheet/zine/newsletter made by Bruce Sterling, Lewis Shiner, Rudy Rucker and guest contributors including the inestimable Brian Aldiss. It was antagonistic, discursive, contradictory, fiercely brutal with itself and it’s peers, shameless in self promotion and calling out editors, the industry, critics, and slaughtering and dismissing any heroes, even their own. It is the work of smart asses, guys in their late 20s and 30s just starting their career, throwing on pre-internet aliases and starting enough shit to form a real movement. They had their guns aimed at the mainstream of their chosen genre, which even though it was doing better than it ever had been in history was and remained forever marginalized outside of a few massive successes. They wanted to shake some shit up, and were a little unsure about how to do it, and found it in fits and starts, by not just barreling forward with a unified front. No instead they would publish joke columns, angry screeds against the establishment, a glowing love letter to Gibson followed by not one but two takedowns because it had enough space in itself to allow more than one opinion. Hell they even had a comics column once, where they talked up American Flagg as not just exceptional comics but exceptional scifi. This is the start of a movement, one that even called itself “The Movement” before the term “cyberpunk” came along and sorta fit, that openly encouraged it’s critics, that asked for more than cheer-leading from it’s audience. Because, I think this is the most important thing, it saw that anyone reading a shoddily printed science fiction broadsheet and knew what they were talking about was going to have at least something of an opinion of what they were talking about. And their approach alienated or forever won over the people exposed to it. Even, in their final issue, they killed off their fictional leader and went off to do something else, but not before interviewing Sterling’s alter ego in a Space Pirate Captain Harlock t-shirt, saying they blew it up cause it was being recognized and respected and that the reader should start their own damn zine.

The answer to the question in the quote up top – what did these people have in common that separated them from other writers with their same interests, which have been important interests to their chosen genre since it’s inception? The answer is that these writers were rare in the sense that their engagement with each other and the people reading them made their work more vital than it would have been without that engagement. They were punks because they wanted to start some shit and promote themselves, but they did it in a way that wasn’t just BUY MY BOOK. This wasn’t a letters column, it wasn’t an advertisement, it wasn’t “community building”, at least not in the way we define it now.  This was something else.

Science fiction, like American comics, encouraged a fanzine culture, and almost immediately became symbiotically linked to it because science fiction itself was a pulp magazine business. To say nothing of the ghettoized nerd mentality that floods both worlds, or it’s cross-pollinated history of contributors, or even the extended periods of stolid doldrums, awkward approach to diversity, etc, etc.

This piece I’ve quoted at the top, that to me, is what’s missing from comics right now. A sense of… not just engagement, but legitimate conversation with the criticism against itself. Science fiction in 1983 was an art form that was largely experiencing a lot of the problems that comics has in 2011. What happens when you’ve won the war and you find out there’s no spoils? What happens when the world changes at the exact right time that there’s no future to adapt to? You end up where we are right now, and where they were back in 1983 after Star Wars proved that it was the medium not the content, just like this past decade of superhero movies (and comic movies in general) has done for comics’ “aw shucks a movie, and you’ll pay me?” mentality. The situation is only compounded by the myriad changes to distribution, production, creation, and conversation that have happened in the past 30 or so years.

If this kind of thing even attempted to happen in the world of twitter and facebook and comments sections, what would happen? What do you get when you try to corral all these ideas together, to be this antagonistic and sharp and committed without falling apart or being co-opted or getting tired or any of the other problems with trying this again. Also being good – that’s the biggest problem actually I can name 30 loosely affiliated crews of creators or critics or both offhand. I can name maybe 3 that are good enough to actually be considered as good as the Cheap Truth contributors. If you look for something like this in comics today, what do you find?

Do you get the hall of mirrors Comets Comets guy(s) who are more interested with obfuscating their identities for a small audience than anything else? Do you get the trolling for the sake of trolling for the sake of antagonism for the sake of fuck you for the sake of academia for the sake of getting Eddie Campbell to call you out lulz of the Hooded Utilitarian? Do you get real life collectives that would never in a million years bring that shit to print, having these same ideas but never putting anything out there but the work? Do you get the frat boy echo chambers of creator-run boards? (Here’s a tangent – maybe the biggest problem with the trajectories of the internet is now that no one wants to conquer the world anymore, no one wants to take their shit to the masses, they want to cultivate an audience and make a nice living, no one is willing to risk fucking up on a large venue anymore blah blah). Or the pseudo-intellectual version of the same? The faux-David Eggers assesment of critic motivations from creators who no one likes to talk about started their careers as critics? The screaming for recognition from creators by jilted critics (hey, look I’m a part of this too). The call for community in an artform of loners and indoor kids, of blind positivity from the people who have the most to lose, of TEAM COMICS desperation and the culture of inferiority complexes that spawned all of it. Do you get the halfhearted us vs. them mentality that creators and readers are forced to sleepwalk through while waiting for something interesting to come along, even if it is a Mark Millar selling them battery acid as gatorade and calling them retards for it because dear god at least we know how he really feels… I don’t fucking know…

But anyway, comics needs something, anything, like this. It needs people at the top of their game that take criticism as a challenge rather than wave it away as a lunatic fringe, and it needs critical voices that are willing to actually be honest and not fawn and gasp when A Someone links a positive review on twitter or shows up in the comments section of a negative one. We need some kind of professionalism to where it’s not name calling and taking offense, it’s like comics is a bad marriage, we don’t even fight anymore. Comics needs antagonism and a new movement that walk hand in hand, but still cordial enough with one another to entertain a decent argument once in a while. God damn it, everyone on every side needs to grow their balls back.

“CT: I guess I see… Any final words?

VO: I hereby declare the revolution over. Long live the provisional government.”



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7 Responses to NO LOVE LOST

  1. sean witzke says:

    Please check out this lecture by Sterling that Abhay linked to as well

  2. tucker stone says:

    I haven’t read a lot of those “what critics do” articles, but the ones I have seem to prize Find Something You Like/Write Ad Copy For It as the ultimate goal in all things. I’m not sure why people who propose that get listened to at all, why that gets treated as if it’s a real position that everyone should have some relationship with. That’s a big part of comics, I guess. Being a hyperconsumer, buying lots and lots of things and taking it personally whenever that behavior, or that action, is criticized.

    This is the worst place this medium has ever been in. And this is the worst audience it has ever had.

  3. Rick Vance says:

    Man those manifestos on roles of people in the industry always bother me, also this article is the truth. I could see some up and coming hot creators doing it but the picture that is put out at least from the outside of the industry is one that everything is happy between everyone all the time, except for when someone decides to burn bridges when leaving companies. All feels so empty.

  4. Great essay, Sean. I’m never sure if I violently agree or disagree w/ you, but you’re always thought-provoking.

    One big problem is that we don’t have many professional critics who aren’t glorified p/r flacks or ‘hyperconsumers’. Another is that we pay far too much attention to the worst critics, the most myopic creators and the most embarrassingly bad product.

    And not to defend comics, but do creators/artists at the top of their game in any media take criticism as a challenge (instead of an irritant/promotional opportunity)?

  5. tucker stone says:

    Oh, and take a look at this sucker, sorry it’s looong:

  6. Tucker – I love Groth when he’s filled w/ righteous frothy indignation. There’s a part of me that rejects the notion that this problem is somehow unique to 2011 or 2001 or 1991 or 1981. I don’t understand the false nostalgia for a past that was just as shitty as the present. There’s something suffocating about ‘whatever happened to’ arguments, isn’t there?

    Anyway, this whole debate about criticism bring to mind the recent discussions about Pauline Kael’s legacy and the dominance of ‘trash’ culture – particularly the convo btwn Zoller Seitz and O’Hehir at Salon (ignore the provocative title).


  7. D. Hackborn says:

    Been reading your crit stuff for awhile and I just wanted to thank you for the link to the Cheap Truth text. Just plowed through all of them in the last two hours and they were excellent.

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