Stuff & Nonsense 040: Muzzle of Bees
I know, I know. It's been a spell.
What's new? Dangerous Ends revisions, finishing Archie Meets Ramones script, shuffling and trimming my freelance work plus day job, baby and everything else. Never dull. No complaints.
I hope you'll enjoy this week's interview, which is a bit of a change of pace in the best possible way.
Evan Narcisse is one of my favorite critics working today. He happens to write about comics, mostly. He does this extremely well.
See, Evan is passionate about the medium. Like many of us, he's a fan. Has been a long time. But he's an extremely sharp and discerning one, not afraid to call out mistakes and equally quick to heap praise on the deserving. Working in comic book publicity by day, I read a lot of stories about comics. Evan's one of the writers that I read for the fun of it. I'd follow his work if I was selling cars. These days, you can find Evan holding court at io9.
I've also known Evan a long time. He was one of the first journalists I met and worked with when I started doing publicity for DC Comics in 2006. We became fast friends and have managed to keep in touch as we each switched jobs, grew up and kind of found our respective voices. Maybe I'm just speaking for myself - but you get the idea.
It's always a pleasure to reconnect with Evan, and I hope our conversation turns you on to some great comics.
What's the Evan Narcisse origin story?
In the early 1960s, a secret group of scientists, artists and thinkers embarked on a project to craft the world's most sensitive human being. In 1972, I was born. Coincidence? The CIA doesn't seem to think so... Seriously, like lots of professional nerd-types, I've been reading comics since I was in single digits and playing games for almost as long. Early on in my journalism career, I was a fact-checker at Teen People magazine, which was a lot more gender-neutral at launch. I argued to a receptive entertainment editor that video games and comics were youth culture and that I was the person who should be covering it. I got the chance to make my bones and establish a rep, with opportunities coming as friends and colleagues got jobs at other outlets. The most anomalous part of my career was a brief stint writing and editing articles about film and music for Time Out New York Kids but even that was touching pop culture.
We've known each other a long time - over a decade! - and I've always admire you as a friend and writer. In terms of comics and media in general - what gets you engaged as a consumer? What are the kind of stories you find yourself coming back to over and over?
I really like stories about the moral ambiguities of human nature. The vast majority of us are struggling to make sense of life as it happens and creative works that acknowledge and investigate that idea are like oxygen to me.
What are some of the challenges you face as a critic? Does working in and around comics take away the wonder of reading them? What was the last comic that genuinely surprised you?
Anybody who reads my writing regularly knows that I'm passionate about getting three-dimensional representation for black folks and other marginalized peoples in pop culture. In this day and age, that can make you a target for trolls who claim that you're trying to pressure creators into making different decisions. It's a hazard of the job that increased exponentially since I've been a critic but I try not to let it get to me. I still get excited to read comics, non-illustrated prose, play games and stuff like that. I'm only doing this work because pop culture set a fire in my soul that's been burning for decades. The best feedback I get from readers is hearing that something Ia got them back to reading comics or curious enough to jump in for the first time. Writing for places like Kotaku and io9, I kinda take for granted that I'm preaching to the choir, so hearing that I'm pulling people into the media that I love is great.
I loved your piece about Denny's THE QUESTION run - and it made me think of essential, must-read runs for me, like Morrison on ANIMAL MAN, Waid on THE FLASH, Rucka's WHITE OUT or Azz and Risso on 100 BULLETS. Are there other runs like that, that evoke a strong, emotional reaction? Why?
I'm a huge Denny O'Neil fan, obviously. His Batman work as writer and editor gets a lot of love but I feel like his Daredevil run—sandwiched between two Frank Miller tenures—is criminally underrated. I'm very fond of the Deathlok run that Dwayne McDuffie co-wrote and the first 25 issues or so of Icon. Stuart Moore and Jamal Igle's run on Firestorm. John Rozum's Xombi is a freakin' unheralded classic that everyone needs to read. Lone Wolf and Cub. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. The Private Eye.
Great choices. I agree on Denny's Daredevil run being overlooked.
I feel a really strong, personal connection to certain writers - Brubaker, Morrison, Rucka, Waid, Snyder, DeConnick, Stern, Fraction, Wertz, Lapham, Hernandez Bros - creators that speak to me beyond pure entertainment and tell stories that I feel connected to. You talk a bit about Denny in that way; as a guy who pulled himself from the gutter (he's said as much) to write these really engaging but also hugely personal stories. Are there other writers and artists that connect with you that way?
Just about anything BKV, Rucka or Brubaker does. I love Kurt Busiek for how he revisits pulp, fantasy and Silver Age superhero tropes to find the beating heart of humanity underneath all the plot devices and reversals. The continual refinement of his craft is awe-inspiring. I said it a little bit above but Dwayne McDuffie's presence looms large in my soul. You see battles for diversity in TV, movies, and elsewhere in pop culture. Part of the reason I love guys like Dwayne and Priest is because they waded in to the fray knowing full well any spoils they might win were negligible. They did it because they believed in it. Kieron Gillen is on fire, as is Tom King. And Ta-Nehisi Coates' just-started run on Black Panther is the ice-cold water I've been so, so thirsty for.
Big question that doesn't have one, definitive answer: what makes a great comic, in your eyes?
Storytelling that uses the unique strengths of the medium. One of the best exemplars of craft in mainstream comics right now is... Squirrel Girl. Collectively, Ryan North, Erica Henderson and crew use so many tools—color, lifework, continuity, footnotes—to give you a tightly-focused dose of joy every issue. Whenever I highlight the book in a post, some commenters say that she can't draw or the art is terrible. Fuck that. Her eye for fashion and body language is amazing. You always know what the characters are supposed to be feeling when you look at her art, which you can't say for so many fan-favorite superstars working in comics.
The industry's in an interesting place. Reboots, character deaths, renumberings, mega-crossovers. What do you think of the state of comics today, and what's next?
If there's anything I want to work on as a critic, it's surfacing more non-cape comics in my articles. That stuff is meat and potatoes for many readers but is also home to some of the worst cyclical practices in the medium. That said, the level of craft in mainstream comics is ridiculously high right now and that deserves highlighting, too.
How do you read your comics? Still a Wednesday warrior? Mostly review copies? Digital?
I read almost everything via digital review copies now, with the bulk of my intake happening on Wednesday and Thursday.
You've been through a big life transition recently, moving from the hustle and bustle of NYC to somewhat suburban Texas. How have you dealt with the transition? How has it influenced your writing?
I don't feel like the move has shifted my writing in any particular way, at least not yet. I have found that doing what I do is a lot less common in the Lone Star State.
Any other writing on the horizon? What's next for you?
I have an essay about Rez—arguably my favorite video game ever—hitting HiLoBrow. Other than that, it's a steady, satisfying grind on io9 for me.
Did I miss anything?
My stunning sartorial sense, Alex. Geez.
Oh man, shame on me. But thanks for visiting!
So many good links!
A reminder: You should be reading Scott Phillips and James Sallis.
How Stona Finch became Rory Flynn.
Sarah Weinman and Megan Abbott remember Lois Duncan.
I loved this piece by Abbott on the films of Brian de Palma and Nancy Allen.
Lynne Barrett on John D. MacDonald.
A great interview with Hardcase Crime Editor Charles Ardai and a wonderful interview with The Passenger author Lisa Lutz.
If there ever was a story that felt like a Pete Fernandez book, it's this one.
I'm not the first to link to these, but allow me to join the chorus of people celebrating Terrence Rafferty's great piece on women crime writers and Michelle Dean's spot-on analysis of the perils of Internet sleuths.
I was reminded of this personal, well-crafted Charles Willeford The Atlantic profile while revisiting his Hoke Mosely books. Worth a re-read, the books and the story.
I talk about the Post-Book Launch Blues at Do Some Damage and how my obsessions inspire me at Sirens of Suspense.
The Toronto Star called Down the Darkest Street "highly readable," which is neat.
The Pageaholic on Down the Darkest Street: "Enjoyable...offers a sense of place."
At The Miami Herald, I sing the praises of Lutz and Lippman's latest novels, respectively.
I reviewed the Kitty Genovese documentary, The Witness, at Under the Radar.
I also had the chance to speak to thriller writer J.T. Ellison about her latest, Field of Graves.
Speaking of Down the Darkest Street - if you've read it and (hopefully) enjoyed it, an honest review goes a long way. It'd be greatly appreciated.
Finally, if you're near Queens, NY on Sunday - you won't want to miss this.
See you next go 'round!