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The Empty Mirror

Alright, let’s immolate my last remaining shreds of credibility right off the bat by saying that I am the person who didn’t like Spider- Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  

Now hold on, before you go to all the trouble of heating the tar and plucking the chickens please allow me to explain -

I wear glasses. Not a very strong prescription, relatively speaking. I can see and even read OK without them. However everything is just a little fuzzy and the foreshortening of medium-length distances is a bit wonky, so I usually get a headache if I walk around for any period of time without them. Not a terrible headache, but persistent.

Spider-Verse is packed with some of the most wildly inventive and visually stunning animation that’s ever been done. One of the basic tricks the movie does throughout is mimic, to exaggerated effect, the ability of a camera to pull in and out of focus. Backgrounds throughout the film are fuzzy like a filmed background might be fuzzy - using the camera as an eye to draw your eye to what the filmmakers actually want you to see in the foreground or elsewhere. Ingenious.

Imagine my chagrin when I sat down in the theater only to realize, within about two minutes, that the ingenious animation being projected onto the big screen was giving me a headache just like the headache I get when I read Twitter in bed without my glasses on. I made the decision to stick around as long as it didn’t worsen. And while it never got much worse it never improved, so I had a steady low-grade headache perched right behind my eyes for the entirety of the film.

I concede up front that this is a completely arbitrary anecdote. It doesn’t say anything about a work of art to merely state “it caused me injury” and slink away. It points to an elemental disjuncture between art and critic that under normal circumstances would forestall any kind of productive encounter.

Now, with all that said, would I have liked it anyway? Probably not!

So here we arrive, finally, at something that might be accurately described as A Point, albeit a fairly petty point: I wouldn’t have liked it anyway. The fact that it really did give me a headache is convenient cover for the fact that I found myself kind of bored by the plot. Actually, scratch “bored” - “confused” might be better. But not confused by the events of the narrative, but rather wondering why these particular derivative plot elements were hitting with people now.

Allow me a moment of recap: the Spider-Man franchise - not just the character, but the character as an ongoing business venture - was badly hurt in the 1990s by a combination of many factors. First and foremost they brought back the Spider-Clone from Gerry Conway’s 1970s run and then spent a couple years teasing readers over which Spider-Man was the “real” Spider-Man and which was really the ringer. The Clone Saga is a punchline now but it’s important to remember that at the time, at least in the early stages, the storyline was extraordinarily popular. Trust me: I am also fool enough to acknowledge enjoying it. That’s the reason it kept metastasizing, after all, with any resolution pushed further and further back as sales kept strong . . .

. . . and that was a great plan right up until the moment people got sick of the story. At which point Marvel realized they had painted themselves into a corner. Early success pushed them to elongate the mystery past the point where the creators had a feasible exit strategy. Readers tend to notice when creators start randomly running in circles. Mind, this coincided with a generally apocalyptic downturn in sales across most of the industry. Marvel almost went under.

There are a lot of reasons for that, most of which had to do with business decisions made by people who probably couldn’t tell Peter from Sarah Jessica. The Spider-Man books were rudderless for years in a way that was completely emblematic of the company’s struggles in the period: driven by business decisions that went directly against the characters’ long-term interest, the managers diligently curated a working environment in which talented creators were incapable of creating anything readable. If you weren’t already a diehard (like me) you probably stopped caring somewhere along the way.

After a good half-decade in the wilderness, the character finally re-emerged to the tentative good graces of fandom in the early 2000s, with the help of J. Michael Straczynski and John Romita, Jr. on Amazing Spider-Man. (You remember that run: it’s the one where Dr. Doom cried on 9/11.) But it wasn’t a completely clean recovery because Straczynski introduced mystical elements to the series that, in the eyes of many, undermined the character.

OK, let’s be real: in the eyes of me seriously undermined the character.

The point of Spider-Man - like, literally the whole point - is that Peter Parker is a random kid who first gets lucky and then really unlucky, and who suffers greatly because of a single moment of irresponsibility.   Every additional plot element that gets bolted onto that bog simple framework risks cluttering up the character’s wonderfully pellucid motivations - in the same way that having Bruce Wayne’s dad dress up like Batman years before Bruce (to say nothing of having the Wayne line be influenced by elder gods from out of time, or whatever Metal was about) is really just clutter. When suddenly Spider-Man is a mystical avatar of a spider-god and not just some hard-luck kid from Queens, the character is changed so completely that his motivations can’t help but blur.

And yeah, I know that horse left the barn the moment Stan himself decided to make Peter’s parents into super-spies with ties to the Red Skull. Not quite as bad as Mopee, but probably in the same zip code if we’re being completely honest with ourselves.

So what are we talking about? Spider-Verse, obviously. A story that exists as a celebration of the tail end of a particularly fecund period for the character and his franchise in the comics, showcasing the big-screen premiere of popular new characters like Miles Morales and the refurbished Gwen Stacy, now her own spider-person, “Spider-Gwen.” It’s built on the framework of the original Spider-Verse storyline, which ran through the Spider-Man books in the months leading up to the recent Secret Wars. Dan Slott’s plot for Spider-Verse took Straczynski‘s additions, as well as subsequent iterations like “The Other” (look it up, or don’t) to their logical extreme: not only was our Spider-Man a magical spider-avatar, but the entire multiverse was filled with Spider-Man variations, all magically attuned to one another. Ugh.

Do you see why Spider-Verse had me tearing out my hair? Marvel messed up Spider-Man’s status quo in the 1990s partly because they felt that being tied to a slightly older and married Spider-Man limited story possibilities. Suddenly everyone loves middle-aged Peter Parker and his depressed dad bod. Marvel messed up Spider-Man’s status quo in the 1990s partly by flooding the market with poorly-conceived derivatives that ultimately diluted the appeal of the original. Suddenly everyone loves Miles Morales Spider-Man, and Gwen Stacy Spider-Person, and even the black & white Spider-Man from the Noir line . . .

One hallmark of every phase of the Clone Saga was the creators’ willingness to push the plot forward by piling on super-science MacGuffins one on top of another. By the time we reached Maximum Clonage the stakes had become so ludicrously inflated they no longer resembled the stakes of an actual Spider-Man story. Likewise the plot of Spider-Verse revolves around the Kingpin - the Kingpin of Crime! Wilson Fisk! - funding the production of not one but two Radical Cubes - i.e. the massive machine Reed Richard constructs in Fantastic Four #51 for the purpose of breaching the dimensional barrier. Which is apparently something that the Kingpin of Crime cares about. I mean, the movie gives him a reason to care, certainly. But you have to buy that suddenly the Kingpin - the Kingpin of Crime! - has access to reality warping technology. I’ve been reading Marvel comics for well over thirty years and that’s when I had to tap out. 

What does any of it mean? It’s all just plot contrivances being pulled out of thin air to bring popular characters together in eye-popping action sequences. Does it matter if Spider-Man really shouldn’t be hopping between dimensions with the ease of you or I popping down to the Piggly Wiggly? News flash: literally no one gives a shit, including, I am almost certain, many of the people reading these words right now.

And that’s the hard cheese, old bean. People really liked Spider-Verse - I mean, scratch that, they loved this movie. Fandom took the movie to their collective bosom with a wholly unmanufactured ardor. My qualms don’t amount to much in the face of such a genuine outpouring of enthusiasm and affection. I admit freely that I’m the one left out in the cold here, stewing in my boorish juices. (Just desserts for any critic, certainly.) 

So let’s back up a minute, then. There’s a reason I’m talking about a movie, rattling on about the plot of a cartoon when I should be discussing comic books. If you’ve been reading this column from the beginning you might remember that I began with a specific purpose. After a period of change across every other facet of my life I had come to an impasse with comics. My relationship to the medium had become - like every other relationship in my life - strained, perfunctory, and resentful. As I said back in December of 2017:

I don’t know how to write about comic books anymore. I don’t know why to write about comic books. But I know comic books, better than I know anything else. I wish that weren’t so but that’s the way it is: we’re stuck with each other, comics and I, much as I think we probably both wish we could take some time off to see other people.

I needed to regain my affection for the medium if I was going to have any hope of ever again writing anything worthwhile on the subject.

My way back to enjoyment wasn’t going to come by piggybacking on someone else’s fandom high. But Spider-Verse was nevertheless an eye-opening experience because what the success of the movie showed me was the degree to which I was actually missing the point.

The point? The huge, massive, building-sized point which flew completely over my head not just for the movie’s two-hour running time but for much of my life was that people really like identifying with characters.   

Yeah, I know. Kind of obvious, right? Well . . .

That’s the thing. I’m not that bright. It took literal years of being soaked in the changing nature of fandom, of seeing up close just how people were taking and absorbing these characters into their own lives - via role playing, cosplaying, video gaming, what have you - to see how differently most people were engaging with these characters, to really get the distinction.

The virtue of Spider-Verse was precisely that it was a springboard for an expansion of the Spider-Man franchise, with a specific eye to spotlighting a younger and more diverse group of characters, to appeal to a younger and more diverse audience. And while I understood the words, on paper, I didn’t understand the significance of what it meant to look on screen and identify with a character.

Spider-Verse brought with it to fandom the concept of a “spidersona” - i.e., every fan creating their own version of Spider-Man to reflect their own aesthetic. For a few weeks they were everywhere. Everyone loved it. Everyone got to see themselves, this time. 

It became clear to me in the wake of Spider-Verse that I actually was literally missing something from the experience of these stories. Women were galvanized by the Wonder Woman movie in a way that was awesome to behold. African-American audiences embraced Black Panther as a cultural milestone. The part of me that retains nothing but suspicion for the comics industry and its corporate overlords bewails the fact that Disney owns so much of our collective imagination, but regardless of who owns the copyright - or even, at this late date, who created him - the Black Panther belongs to the kids across the world who saw someone who looked just like them spotlit onscreen, kicking ass and taking names across the whole damn Marvel Universe.

Something that became clear to me in the aftermath of Spider-Verse was the difference between fictional identification and relationship. I talked a few columns back about just how much I related to Thanos, of all people. He’s a creature of pure fantasy whose moodswings and baseline irrationality remind me of myself (sigh), but I plainly do not identify with him. This illustrates a difference I have come to understand between the kind of second-order acquaintanceship you can have with characters based on affinity with personality traits and shared history, and the first-order connection you can have with characters based on affinity with unvarying characteristics.

(Although now that I mention it I guess “Thanosonas” could and should be a thing? Can we do that now?)

The former relationships can be strong but also have a tendency to wax and wane with different creative teams. who can choose to deemphasize or exaggerate any point of characterization they choose. Rogue is one of my favorite characters but I haven’t read even close to all the Rogue stories in existence because many of them are terrible and most of them barely feature her in speaking roles.

The latter, though? The latter kind of relationships seem on another order of magnitude entirely. You don’t need to have a preexisting history with a character to relate to them if you share an immediate and visceral connection. You don’t even need to know who they are, if the first story is just right.

Does all this seem obvious to you? I imagine it might. 

I’ve never felt that connection.

Crucial to the process of reigniting the spark of my engagement with the medium has been the acknowledgement that superheroes no longer exist solely or even primarily in the pages of the comics. They have become so much bigger for so many people than merely the sum total of their printed stories. But the process of translation tends to flatten the metatextual baggage of extended continuity. Thirty years of Carol Danvers getting fucked over and rehabilitated by successive waves of artists and writers can easily be flattened into a two hour narrative, but something very important is lost along the way.

And that “something very important” is what I loved, and still love. Comics - mainstream, mass produced superhero comics, mainly - as physical objects, not as collectibles per se but as puzzle pieces for the intrepid reader to piece together at their own pace and to their own taste. Every puzzle piece different, constructed by different hands for different purposes, but all ultimately contributing to something new greater than the sum of its parts. That’s why I’ve always loved crossovers: the process of putting together really big stories from little pieces.

The way comic book stories are plotted out and paced has always been a source of fascination. When I was a kid stories had to be legible in discrete chunks which might never be read in entirety or in the correct order. Scarcity and chance were both still huge factors in buying comics, unless you were lucky enough to happen to live near a shop. In hindsight part of what I was seeing was the slow heat death of newsstand distribution in the United States, as more and more retailers began to realize they weren’t making a lot of money off a very finicky product line. But I didn’t know the context at the time, I just had to figure out which 7/11s still had comics and which had dropped the medium in favor of a couple more feet of porn on the racks, and proceed accordingly. It was a hunt.

I didn’t identify with the heroes on the page - or even really, any fictional characters. I understood stories as the product of men - mostly men, yes, for the one’s I loved, but not all - working side by side and separated by years or decades or centuries. It didn’t help that at a time in my own life when I was starting to disassociate from any awareness of my body as a physical entity - of course I didn’t relate to the enhanced physicalities on display in the comics I read. I identified with the disembodied names in the credit boxes.

When I was ten that seemed like the best gig in the world. Not so much anymore, honestly.

Fast forward a couple decades to my first few months in graduate school. I read a book by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick called Touching, Feeling that in one stroke managed to undercut my enthusiasm for criticism as a discipline. It called into question the entire edifice of discourse - both cultural and academic - surrounding literature. Its a field that prizes suspicion as a forensic tool. When I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, literary theory and criticism suddenly seemed hollow pursuits, at least in the ways we were being taught in school, to say nothing of the ways I’d practiced it for years as a working critic and blogger. 

That was literally the first months of grad school. I didn’t end up leaving because Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick caused me to question everything around me, but in hindsight I never really tried to answer her existential challenge to the discipline, either. If I had been a different person at the time I could probably have put that challenge to profitable use in my academic career. But the very brittle conception of self in my early thirties was very strongly invested in acclimating to just that hoary old model of academic discourse as a form of paranoid jousting. The career path was simple in theory if elusive in fact: find a windmill at which to tilt for two or three hundred pages, find an institution to sponsor further pugilistic endeavors in the same vein, boom goes the dynamite.

A couple more decades pass and you’re the protagonist in a mid-period Philip Roth novel. You write a book about Henry James and Joseph Conrad that is never checked out of any library that owns a copy. You probably have never slept with a student but you secretly resent yourself the core of common decency that prevents you from entertaining the notion.

Is that the life you want? Honestly the gig writing Avengers West Coast fill-ins is way more appealing at this point. I could at least die happy in the absolute 100% dead certain knowledge that more people have read every extant issue of Avengers West Coast than any doctoral thesis written in the decades since the first issue of Avengers West Coast saw print. I don’t have to look to know, and neither do you.

If the last year and a half of these columns have an overarching theme, it’s the attempt to bridge the distance between where I was - the person I was when I started writing these at the tail end of 2017 - and the enthusiasm for comics which had fallen completely by the wayside. Along with an enthusiasm for just about everything else, I should add, including the literature I supposedly went to grad school to study. When I started writing, I really didn’t know where these essays were going to take me, but my hope was that ultimately we’d get to a place of reconciliation.

The point was to repair things that had come undone. By sheer chance Stan and Steve both died over the course of the year, a coincidence so bald-faced that if you were reading it in a book it would seem laboriously heavy-handed. And yet that’s how it came down. Whether I wanted to or not I was going to have to confront the roots of my ambivalence and anger towards the industry. I couldn’t repair anything until I acknowledged just how deeply these ethical contradictions had traumatized me, to the point where I couldn’t see past my own self-hatred at the hypocrisy of continuing to get some appreciation and enjoyment from these properties - and I use that term very pointedly - long after they had been wrested from the hands of their creators.

I really didn’t enjoy Spider-Verse - it made me grouchy in a way I hadn’t been expecting because it made me feel decidedly out of touch. It wasn’t that I didn’t get it, it was that I got that it represented a completely new paradigm of fandom that didn’t hold much appeal for me. And after I mulled that over for a while I realized something else: that was OK, too.

Sometimes it takes seeing something you don’t like to bring into relief what you do: all the cool stuff that audiences were responding to onscreen didn’t really interest me because what I really like about these characters and stories has absolutely nothing to do with them as ongoing properties. I can’t identify with a character in a movie when I’ve personally written thousands of words about how his creators hated each other. There’s no way to get back to that place, for me, for so many reasons, but that’s a really big one.

The trend in superhero storytelling for a long time has been scaling back all the stuff that I loved - it’s not gone, but it’s not the main event. And that only makes sense. We’ve already reached the horizon beyond which the history of the Big Two is longer than a single human lifetime. The idea of a single fan or creator or editor being able to do, as Marv Wolfman did in the lead-up to Crisis and Who’s Who in the 80s, gulp down the whole of a company’s output and regurgitate it productively - well, who has the time? People don’t hate continuity but they don’t want to have to fight it. And so much of those old stories may not have actively fought the reader, but assumed that since the reader should always be left wanting to see more, that this fundamental incompletion was part of the experience. When, to anyone not already invested, the choppy and inconsistent nature of serial comic books was often a huge turn-off.

Now comics are hard to find, in terms of actual retail, but can be remarkable consistent once you get there. Or you can order online, or even read online, decades available at a click. Legally, even! There’s no mystery about where the next issue is ever coming from, no worry that the distributor might just not distribute the fourth part of a four part story after you’ve already read the first three parts. Doesn’t happen. There’s no more taking a trip to another town and seeing all the weird comics their 7/11 carried that you’d never seen in yours. Remember that? Different stores had different comics!

Repairing my relationship with comics required being honest about what I was and wasn’t getting from the medium anymore: I wasn’t getting anything from contemporary superhero comics. I can still enjoy and respect them when they cross my transom, but I feel as if any continuity - in multiple senses of the word - between the comics as they are now and as they were then is purely contingent on perspective. And honestly that’s probably healthier than a monofixation on comics as artifacts, with the attendant collectors mentality and wonkish discourse that naturally follows. Both of which may be good in moderation, but can be taken to unpleasant ends when left to the province of a clannish few.

I still love comics as a medium, but my personal and highly eccentric definition of comics - what I care about and hold dear as a part of the medium - had come to an impasse where it needed to acknowledge that I was alienated from just about everything related to the contemporary industry, fandom, and discourse. Spider-Verse was a massive success precisely because it took a huge pile of ideas which hadn’t really worked that well on their own - and a few that, to be clear, had worked perfectly fine on their own and just needed an umbrella, so to speak - and polished them up in such a way that viewers who had never had the unique pleasure of cracking open a pristine copy of Maximum Clonage #1 (you know, with the pointless stiff chromium cover that lots of people probably used for rolling joints if we’re “being real”) could enjoy just fine the idea of multiple iterations of Spider-Man bouncing around cracking wise. I mean. I’d rather not not have flashbacks, if at all possible, to the Jackal wearing that fucking awful dark trench coat that literally everyone in the 90s thought looked awesome but which, I promise you, never actually did . . . but this is the world we live in, and these are the hands we’re given.

I couldn’t see the joy or pleasure in a single great Spider-Man story because I don’t really care about Spider-Man. I care about the people who created Spider-Man, to greater and lesser degrees, and some of the people who have made Spider-Man comics over the years as well. I can’t look past that history to just see the character as characters anymore. If you can? Please, with many blessings, enjoy what you can.

Across these pieces I’ve alluded to the changes I experienced in my own life that led, one way or another, to the process of attempting to reconcile all the contradictions that had been propping me up. Definitely the kind of event that inspires a season or two of naval gazing, for normal people. But for a critic? It would have seemed a form of professional malpractice not to acknowledge the degree to which the last few years had not simply changed my tastes, but my entire approach to consuming art. If I had any interests in the field, coming back after a significant time away (in my head if not in fact), it was exploring precisely how those changes had occurred. Digging in to see what meaning those changes might have.

When I say I never identified with comic book characters, I meant quite literally, I could never see myself in any of them. It was easy for me to see them as lines on paper, products of craft, business, and history, because the magic trick that allows other people to inhabit fictional characters just doesn’t work on me. I appreciate serial fiction because I enjoy the pleasure of seeing characters of very old acquaintance acting like themselves, which is in most cases completely different than me.

I didn’t see any familial resemblance in the muscle-bound superheroes, but neither with the buxom super ladies. They were fiction! The question wouldn’t have made sense to me.

In hindsight, however, there was one instance that stuck out in memory, perhaps not of conscious identification but something close enough as to show me the rest of the way, even if the path was at the time unrecognizable. One last example that will, I think, illustrate the broader point:

This isn’t an essay about queer representation in The Sandman, partly because lots of talented people have already trod over that ground, and partly because it doesn’t interest me in the least. I was a deeply, deeply closeted kid, closeted even from myself and living in a rural area. There weren’t going to be a lot of chances for anything to pierce my bubble. The profoundly negative view of trans life visible in a handful of stories barely impacted me at the time as a recognizable human variation  - queer life in that context had the same epistemological parameters as that of any other fantasy creature featured in DC’s Mature Readers line.

Growing up and only seeing queer characters as, essentially, perpetual victims living lives of unending misery, that was a hallmark of even well-meaning, thoughtful representation in the period. It was a time of plague, after all - real plague, not even slightly metaphorical. But that was so far away from me, then, growing up where I did, that it might as well have been Mars. And what queerness seeped through during my development was so heavily tinged by tragedy that there was no possible point of reference where I could have thought to see myself as a very confused kid. What queer representation seeped through to mainstream media was often drained of sensuality, leaving only a stylized and joyless husk.

So no, I found nothing of myself in the series’ gratuitously tragic trans characters. But there was another character who did reflect something strange and stirring which, yeah, sure, looking back I understand to be a kind of recognition -

- and you know, that was the way of it for the longest time. Queer people, historically speaking, don’t want to see themselves as the tragedy cases in well-meaning “issues” pictures or Very Special Episodes. So where do we see ourselves? Well, dammit, the only characters in the stories who get to have any fun are usually the villains. It’s often messy and problematic, but so are lots of things that people love unreservedly.

So can you see why I was so confused at such a young age? I didn’t know what I was, certainly didn’t recognize myself in characters themselves so much as I recognized shared obsessions with creators and fans of futures past. What was I supposed to do with the fact that the only fictional character to whom I had ever felt any tug of recognition in response, however muffled and misunderstood, was Desire of the Endless?

There wasn’t a lot of non-binary representation in the media of my youth . . . or young adulthood, or early adulthood, or basically any other time before literally right the fuck now. There was a non-binary actor in the last John Wick - first time I’d ever seen someone like me on a movie screen, at least knowingly. What a remarkable feeling to have so late in life.

And the reason why Desire was and is still cool is precisely that they weren’t designed to be any kind of representation. They were just another character in a cast that consisted primarily of mythical and supernatural creatures of every stripe. No one knew what “non-binary” was in 1990. The queer and specifically trans representation in the rest of the run is sufficiently abysmal as to prevent me from truly loving the series anymore but - I guess since we’re making completely disqualifying confessions - it was vitally important to me for a significant period. I never really thought it deserved the ignominy of all the overpraise. Those characters are in my blood but it’s as compromised as anything else I love, just maybe in different ways. Won’t stop me from rereading it, when I’ve a mind.

So yeah, I don’t begrudge anyone the thrill of seeing themselves represented onscreen. Closest I ever got was - not even as a kid, obviously already a teen by then - a supporting character in a fantasy comic with no identifiable gender. Am I envious of kids who get to grow up with media that actually understands the significance of that kind of identification and recognition, the power of seeing yourself?

Sure. You should be, too.

I didn’t even know what non-binary was until my late thirties. Not too long after I knew what it was I knew what I was. Imagine what I could have been, had I only seen myself earlier.

Imagine, then, what I can be now that I have.

*

This essay is the last in a long sequence of pieces, not just leading back a year and a half to the beginning of the column but to over a year previous and the publication of an essay on my own blog called “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days.” That essay proved, to put it mildly, an enormously generative act. Turns out I had a lot of pent-up creative energy following an extended malaise that stretched across much of my thirties and encompassed a myriad different and distinct phenomena. Who knew?

I got a book out of “One Hundred and Sixty Four Days,” called Tomorrow Is Always The Best Day Of My Life, and that book in turn generated two sequels. The first of these, called Galaxy of Zeroes, has been serialized on my blog parallel to the publication of these essays. It’s also wrapping up about now. Those pieces have been loosely organized around the subject of “Star Wars” in the same way these essays have been organized around “comics” - many different definitions of comics, as it turns out.

And this is the second sequel. I have a name picked out for what it’s going to be when its put between two covers - trust me, it’s not Ice Cream for Bedwetters. Which, I swear to god, I did think was a good title at one time. It’s a memorable line from a popular movie, usually a recipe for success in these instances.

The reason these essays exist, here, in the form they do, is down to one man: Tucker Stone. He gave me an open invitation to pitch basically whatever I wanted, and I told him I wanted a column with the ultimate goal of the project being the creation of something resembling a book-length manuscript. He never blinked as the essays got longer and more baroque and more personal - in fact, knowing each other as we do, I think he would have been disappointed had they not.

Tucker picked most of what I wrote about. Not the first column, nor the columns about Thanos or Spider-Verse, but everything else. That has, honestly, been a complete blast. I’d never even seen that run of Green Arrow until the day before I had to write about them, and I think that piece turned out pretty well. Somehow over the course of a year’s worth of columns we hit a good spread of different topics. Michael Fiffe helped as well. When Ditko passed and Tucker was at that moment neck deep in something else, I suggested that Michael find me some Ditko to riff off. He pulled out Shade

Although each of the essays was generated differently they’ve all been aimed at articulating the same set of themes and ideas. There have been a few columns where I think, in hindsight, I was “writing for the trade” in terms of pacing out a manuscript, and I humbly beg your forgiveness if in these instances the structural demands of book chapters proved distinct from those of individual columns. I think the Wolverine column, for instance, will read better when situated properly as the two-thirds point of a book than as a discrete and oleaginous object encountered whilst trying to skim to the funny parts on the can during your pee break at work - a veritable gelatinous cube of addled verbiage!

It must also be said, if the project had run more or less monthly it would have finished half a year earlier. The gap between the final columns undoubtedly hurt momentum going into the home stretch. Regrettable, but ultimately a symptom of nothing so much as real-world concerns. Boring stuff like family obligations and mental illness gets in the way, you know.

So with all that in mind the main inspiration for this project, if we’re being completely frank, was one of personal ambition. Waking up suddenly in my late thirties I felt no small sense of regret that I had so little to show for years spent writing in a field in which I was supposedly considered, once upon a time, to be a bit of a voice. Longtime blog readers should know I used to have a nasty habit of starting ambitious features that never finished. The past few years have seen many changes in my life, but one of the most significant was coming to the realization that I didn’t want to die feeling that I had failed to live up to my potential, and would thereby be compelled to act on the realization by actually finishing something.

I didn’t care about any of the writing I did in graduate school. I have no idea if it was even any good. It was writing for the consumption of one or two people only, often highly technical, and as such I labored mightily to breathe style and wit into quite dry kindling indeed. I didn’t care about it, and I’m sure it showed. I cared enough about the writing I do on this subject, however - the writing I have done and the writing I still intend to do - that while taking stock of my life in recent years I felt great regret at not having already produced a book on the subject. 

Now I just have to get by on one less regret.

I do feel as if these columns, however, and the book they ultimately will form, represent a mood and a tone that may have run its course for now. Style turns into self-parody so quickly that it’s best to move on when you feel instincts hardening into practice. The next thing will be different, or why bother?   

So thank you, Tucker, for giving me the opportunity to finish something for a change. I intend to remain at the Journal for as long as you and they’ll have me. It feels like home in a way that no venue ever has, excepting only my own blog. It’s certainly as compromised as anything else I love, just maybe in different ways.

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5 Responses to The Empty Mirror

  1. RM Rhodes says:

    Great series. It’s been fascinating to read your insights into stuff you’ve never seen before. Thanks for being so entertaining.

    But this jumped out at me: “Remember that? Different stores had different comics!” Remember it? This is still very true. There’s a reason why I visit comic shops nearly everywhere I go. I want to see what the various shops think are interesting to the local audience. There is no way that any shop will have everything in print anymore. Especially in other countries.

  2. Alex says:

    These have been great! Looking forward to whatever comes next

  3. Mike Rhode says:

    Excellent job. I agree about the problem of identification, and especially this paragraph:

    “The point of Spider-Man – like, literally the whole point – is that Peter Parker is a random kid who first gets lucky and then really unlucky, and who suffers greatly because of a single moment of irresponsibility. Every additional plot element that gets bolted onto that bog simple framework risks cluttering up the character’s wonderfully pellucid motivations – in the same way that having Bruce Wayne’s dad dress up like Batman years before Bruce (to say nothing of having the Wayne line be influenced by elder gods from out of time, or whatever Metal was about) is really just clutter. When suddenly Spider-Man is a mystical avatar of a spider-god and not just some hard-luck kid from Queens, the character is changed so completely that his motivations can’t help but blur.”

    I’ve been having this problem for years, and literally read no superhero comics any more.

    I look forward to the book, because I still like paper.

  4. Tegan O’Neil says:

    OH MY GOD … SOMEONE JUST POINTED OUT … there was no such thing as Maximum Clonage #1, it was Maximum Clonage ALPHA.

    I feel as if it is time for the glue truck. No option.

  5. BradC says:

    Tegan I want to congratulate you on finishing this project! I can relate to not completing ambitious projects, so along with feeling happy for you, this is selfishly inspiring.

    Do you think the fact that the audience has an identification based relationship with the movies is due to the frequency and quantity of release?

    Spider-Verse gets to be a statement people can identify with because there is only one movie to consume. The characters and their stories haven’t become pure product yet.

    In comics there would have been 6 to 12 more issues of Spider-Verse by now. Each issue being a chance for the creative team to make a choice that will piss the audience off.

    I suspect that by the 3rd Miles Morales movie the magic spell of identification won’t be as effective. The fact that these characters’ lives are being driven by the choices of the creative team will be more apparent. It took a long time but it eventually happened with Game of Thrones.

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