Dear readers, I am… a professional.
I say this not to boast. It is a simple statement of fact. You see, when one is in this crazy business called criticism, one often runs headfirst into an iron-clad rule of art: some things aren’t for everyone. As much as we like to talk about the universality of art, lots of art–perhaps even most art–is made for a specific audience in mind, and if you aren’t part of that audience, the art is going to leave you cold. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good! It just means that, well, it’s not for you.
Great art, we like to say, should speak to all humanity; but like a lot of things critics tell ourselves, that isn’t really the case. So, what happens when your editor gives you something to review, and it’s aimed at a demographic that does not, has not, and will probably never include you? Do you refuse, establishing yourself as a finicky sort and turning down the paycheck that you desperately need to buy weed and books about Marxism? Or do you soldier on, knowing that people will make fun of you on the internet?
Let me answer that question by repeating myself: I am a professional.
Which brings me to the subject under discussion: a light, breezy handful of self-published comics by Derek Marks, in zine format and largely drawn from his posted work on Tumblr (as natural a home for this sort of thing as I can imagine). There is so much to like about these books that I feel churlish for raising any objection to them! And yet, dear readers, it is extremely likely that once I finish this review, I will never read them again, and give them to a friend of mine (hi, Sean) who is likely to enjoy them a lot more than I did.
In fact, TCJ has reviewed Marks’ work–some of which is included in this batch–before. Nearly four and a half years ago, Judy Berman wrote about the second issue of Grace, Jerry, Jessica & Me, contained here as part of the complete Legendary Spirits collection, and really enjoyed it! I’m almost envious of how enthusiastic she was about something that did so little for me. It gives me no joy to take no joy in art! I’ll even share my weed and Marxist theory books with Judy. Or with Derek Marks, for that matter. For as much as his work is intended for an audience that I’m not a part of, there’s a lot to respect in the craft of it.
Let’s get that out of the way first: Marks is a terrific artist. His sparse and deft use of color is very effective, and he uses clean, simple linework that is reminiscent of some of my favorite artists in the medium of comics. It’s not hard to put him in a direct line that starts with Dan DeCarlo and contains luminaries like Jaime Hernandez and Adrian Tomine, to name just a few. He’s an exceptional letterer, deploying everything from graffiti and ‘80s neon to classic Art Deco and Golden Age comic strip styles. And as much as the subject of his work leaves me flat, the tone of it is frequently funny and always loving.
Now, having said that, let’s go to the books themselves.
First up is 120 Minutes: The Interview Sketches Vol. II. Marks obviously shares with me fond memories of the classic ‘80s and ‘90s era of the MTV ‘alternative music’ show, and this little zine is just what the title promises: precise and skillfully wrought sketches of the period’s luminaries, dropping clever, profound or cynical quips. Here’s Trent Reznor making a prescient comment about not wanting to tour at age 40; here’s Anthony Kiedis being horny for PJ Harvey; here’s John Lydon in high moral dudgeon. It all looks great, but… why? I could see really getting a kick out of drawing these, but reading them just makes me want to watch old episodes of 120 Minutes.
Nights and Weekends is a short collection of brief stories and one-panel gag strips that, aside from their relatively spicy sexual content, wouldn’t seem out of place in a ‘90s sitcom about sassy urbanites. Again, the art is quite wonderful - at times almost exquisite in its simplicity, quiet detail and expression. But it’s in service of gags that range from flat to just overly familiar. (One story, “Dec. 8, 1980”, is illustrated by Marks and written by Tim Hall. It’s quite moving and effective, but its subtle emotional tone and dramatic impact seems out of place with the rest of the book.)
Next, we have Fabulous Topless Woman Volume One, which is-- well, about a fabulous topless woman, and the way she manages to be fabulous while topless. Again: if it was not obvious by now, I am not gay, or a woman, and I have no great appreciation of fabulosity. (My enjoyment of topless women is fairly abstract and generalized, rather than specific.) Marks explains how inspired he was by the (real-life) fabulous topless woman’s “advanced individuality,” but the result is a handful of one-page gags of varying degrees of success; the best is the first, but the rest range from just modestly clever to predictable duds.
Finally, the jewel of the collection, Legendary Spirits: Marks’ most ambitious work and the biggest book he’s ever put out, which collects his “Grace, Jerry, Jessica & Me” stories, based on the (mistaken, as he explains in a charming afterword) idea that Grace Jones, Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange were roommates in the 1970s. Marks inserts a fictionalized version of himself as a fourth roommate, and the quartet goes on fabulous adventures both sublime and ridiculous. As great as the craft is here–and it’s often quite great–and as much as these stories represent something very meaningful for him, they did nothing for me. The celebrity worship (even when lampshaded, as it often is) was off-putting, the cultural touchstones didn’t resonate, the jokes didn’t land, the wish fulfillment seemed immature, and there was an ongoing vibe of contempt for the non-fabulous that I found kind of gross.
So where does that leave us? As simple a situation as I set forth a thousand words ago, dear reader: a batch of books of great skill, passion, and beauty that just isn’t for me. If it sounds like it’s for you, though, I wouldn’t dream of getting in your way. As Miss Jean Brodie famously said in Muriel Spark’s great novel, 'for those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.'