Fair Trade Comics is an ongoing series where Comics Bulletin looks at creator-owned comics that you can read without guilt or moral compromise. Check out these books and make your comic reading life a little better.
Fuck your heart; comics will ruin your goddamn life. Sure, you hear the success stories — your Mark Millars and Stan Lees and the overnight sensations who get movie deals — but in their wake you have a dozen Roy Thomases or Chris Clairemonts who enjoy the spotlight working on other people's characters for a bit, and then are slowly phased out to make room for new hot superstars. Whatthefuckever, say the readers, as long as we get our Avengers and our X-Men, it doesn't matter who's making them (BUT WHAT IF THEY FOUGHT?????). Hell, just actively making them will destroy you — you can see it in Daniel Clowes' autobiographical introduction to Pussey! as his hairline and physique deteriorate over the course of two pages. Nobody wants to fuck a comicker, and upon realizing this your body just hits the delete key and you fall apart.
Back in the '80s, Clowes had the experience that most talented people have in comics when they couldn't care less about drawing Batman — that comic book "fans" don't really give a shit about you unless you're drawing Batman — and channeled that anger into a handful handful of stories in his serialized Eightball, all eventually collected into a single volume called Pussey!
(Nowadays, lots of people give a shit about Clowes, but you could probably attribute a lot of that to the Ghost World movie, so what does that say? I don't know, I'm talking about comics here and we all like Daniel Clowes comics.)
Pussey! chronicles the life of a comic book artist named Dan Pussey who finds himself toiling alongside a hapless group of artists, letterers and writers as "The Infinity Comics Group," a miniature sweatshop dedicated to producing shitty comics half-assedly conceived by a huckster named "Doctor Infinity," pretty much a take on the Stan Lee persona if "The Man" had more sinister intent and no toupee. He manages to sell his books on the promise that they're not run-of-the-mill superhero comics ("We are not here to RETRACE the steps of others!") even though they totally are (Doc Infinity calls them " "super-champions")
Y'see, Pussey's one of those kids who grew up wanting nothing more than to make superhero comics. I know the kind, because I was one, spending my childhood/well-into-my-teens dreaming up stories for X-Men and the Justice League or originals characters clearly derived from Justice League and/or X-Men. But, y'know, you keep having experiences and like things outside of superhero comics and eventually want to make your own stories. Seemingly, Pussey's only influences as a creator are other superhero comics (I think he mentions Star Trek once) and his inherent boner for power fantasies ("Why cant there be more women like Matter-Transformer Lass?"). He's like the original Geoff Johns.
Thing is, Pussey isn't content drawing other people's shit. He wants to branch out and create his own comics, but there's no place for him to do that — the Emperor's New Clothes anthology thinks his whiz-bang superhero comics were made ironically, and the publisher at Highbrow has to find new words in the dictionary to describe how awful he thinks Pussey's comics are. He's neither an innovator or a pioneer — just some guy who wants to make "pretty good" superhero comics and wants to be paid for it, even if his art swipes from people who swiped from old, forgotten journeyman creators.
That bit where he visits the aforementioned parodies of Raw and Fantagraphics is a key moment in Clowes' satire of the comics industry — it's easy to shit on superhero comics culture, but is the alt-comix crowd any better in its barrier to entry? Probably not, but it was a necessary reactionary culture at the time, I suppose. Nowadays we have a middle ground with stuff like Image Comics and Vertigo — institutions that were in their infancy or less when the stories comprising Pussey! was conceived — so people who aren't going to be crippled by arrested development can transition from dumb superhero comics to relatively smart mainstream comics to highbrow "art," if they so desire, but back then I dunno how anyone reading, say, Walt Simonson Thor would ever make the move beyond that considering how creators seemed to be generally either indie or not. Sure, there was the black and white boom, but I wonder how many shops were just overrun with Ninja Turtles wannabes? I'm just rambling at this point, but nowadays Dan Pussey probably have some success putting that shit out through Kickstarter or something.
Pussey! is a satire — obviously — but it's real easy to feel bad for Dan Pussey. When he's not being rejected, he's being used, like when he meets a "real" Artist who pulls a Lichtenstein and uses his comic book scrawl as the basis for his gallery fodder, making more money off a single piece than Pussey makes off a single page, or when he gets hitched to a woman with dollar signs in her eyes. In his introduction, Clowes admits that he was first motivated by "revenge" in creating the Dan Pussey stories, but soon actually came to care for the character. Even though he warmed up to his own target, it's hard not to take solace in realizing that the guys who are garnering way more attention than you are going to one day be replace by younger models and die alone and forgotten in nursing homes — even though you'll be right aside them, doodling in a nursing home with an old relic humanity once called "a pencil."
I pretty much gave away the ending of Pussey's story, but you should be reading the damn thing anyway and not substituting this essay for a proper comic book experience — why, that would go against the very nature of this series! Anyway, Pussey dies in a sterile, Jetsons i>-like future where nobody knows what a comic book is a anymore and even his terse obituary amounts to "Worked in printing industry and telecommunications. No survivors."
"No survivors." Those words should scare the shit out of anyone who loves comics. Because that's the future we risk if we keep on like we do, letting the industry chew up its legends in favor of getting product and scaring off the smarter of us all the way to Hollywood. Because you make a shitload more money writing an unused draft of X-Men 4 than you do writing the goddamn source material.
When this industry finally reaches that oncoming iceberg it's been watching for decades, just remember Dan warned y'all motherfuckers back in '94.
For more Fair Trade Comics, check out our other features in this series:
- Introducing Fair Trade Comics
- Fair Trade Comics: Atomic Robo
- Fair Trade Comics: Pussey!
- Fair Trade Comics: Our Ever Improving Living Room
- Fair Trade Comics: The Bulletproof Coffin
- Fair Trade Comics: Dracula World Order
- Fair Trade Comics: Local
- Fair Trade Comics: Liz Prince Will Swallow the Key to Your Heart
- Fair Trade Comics: Monsters
- Fair Trade Comics: Cow Boy
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.