The first step is admitting you got a problem...
November 5, 2014 6:32 AM   Subscribe

James Sturm's short comic, the sponsor is perhaps relevant to more people than just cartoonists.
posted by MartinWisse (48 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm doing NaNoWriMo for the first time and boy does this hit home. I'm uncovering flaw after flaw in just about every level of the stack above "have an idea". And the ideas aren't that great, either.
posted by DU at 6:47 AM on November 5, 2014


Your job is to write, DU. Other people's job is to tell you it's terrible.
posted by thelonius at 6:49 AM on November 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


This is why I have a "no scrolling back" policy. But I can feel myself starting too many sentences with "but", "however", "while" and "although" even without looking back.

Oh and having barely one character and no dialog. And no descriptions of anything at all.

My word count is doing good, though. For now.
posted by DU at 6:52 AM on November 5, 2014


This comic has caused something of a stir in certain circles.

It feels like it could've been taken directly out of my head—which is why reactions like this really fucked me up.

I already suspected I was garbage and deserving of contempt, but it was nice to have the confirmation.
posted by Sokka shot first at 6:58 AM on November 5, 2014


How the hell is that "weak and deserving of contempt"??? It's a comic about an emotion we've all felt, and it nails it.

Fucking twitter.
posted by Leon at 7:03 AM on November 5, 2014 [8 favorites]


There was a pretty big conversation about this on Comics Twitter earlier this week. I won't rehash the whole thing here, but my own thoughts basically boil down to:

-- Lots and lots and lots of artists struggle with this kind of insecurity, and it's a thing that we probably need to admit to and talk about more. There's so much shame and anger wrapped up how many of us feel about the success of other people -- particularly people who are younger -- and it would be useful to all of us to be better about processing those feelings as a community.

-- I think that this comic is supposed to be equating envy with alcoholism, but that metaphor doesn't entirely come together and it's entirely on the page.

-- There is some not-so-great subtext to the particulars of how this specific comic was executed. The dismissive comment about "online crap." The fact that these are two male cartoonists referencing another male cartoonist while they try to bear up under the weight of a woman cartoonist's success -- which is treated like some kind of tragedy that these men have to suffer through. The fact that this isn't just about how this particular young male cartoonist is having a rough time and not getting the attention he'd like, or how there's some larger trend in comics that's bumming him out, but rather a single woman's life and work and accomplishments trotted out as if they're slaps across his face, when ACTUALLY her life and work have nothing to do with him. I mean...a lot of things, like I said, there's no point in rehashing the entire conversation here.

-- I think the artist either didn't realize how much this comic echoes exactly the way that many (mostly older) men in comics talk about young, successful women cartoonists -- particularly when those women have climbed their way up to notoriety through channels like webcomics and fandom -- or didn't successfully communicate that this comic is supposed to be a critique of that outlook.

-- I think the artist could have fixed most or all of these problems, or made them much less cringe-inducing, by flipping the genders of some of the characters.

-- Again, we all have to struggle with envy, and I'm not saying that no one should ever make comics about the uglier parts of how we talk about ourselves and each other. The thing I said on Twitter was, "Think about what your work implies. Think about inclusivity. Be deliberate. Make sure your intent is actually on the page." That pretty much sums it up.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:12 AM on November 5, 2014 [12 favorites]


Yep, all that is why I pretty much lost interest in writing for publication entirely. Too much of a fucking minefield. There's no joy in it anymore, just a horde waiting to spring on you for exploiting or insulting or appropriating or mansplaining or just not sufficiently honoring their particular sacred cow.
posted by Naberius at 7:24 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Just name all characters "Francis" - problem solved.
posted by thelonius at 7:38 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


I didn't see any problematic subtext. I thought the two men were being satirized, and that the "online crap" comment, and treating themselves as victimized by the woman's success, indicated that they were being immature -- not that the cartoonist agreed with them.
posted by demonic winged headgear at 7:43 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Wow, I really liked this on a first reading and the potentially sexist reading of it didn't even come up for me (I see it there now -- like an optical illusion where you can find the duck once you've been told to look for it.)

I wonder if it's almost inevitable that sex is a thing that comes up around discussions of creativity and envy -- both because "that person is younger and sexier than I am" becomes another thing to become insecure about, another factor in trying to reassure yourself that it's external, superficial factors that are responsible for someone else's outsize success, and also because artistic failure can resonate with feeling like that Inevitably Not Cool enough teenager who will inevitably never figure out dating and love and all that. Heck, there's a fair bit of backlash against John Green for getting an outsize share of attention in YA literature because he's a good-looking youngish guy. (I wonder if I didn't see the sexist interpretation at first because I've often seen it the other way.)

I've become quite good at giving pep talks to other writers or creative types while feeling personally inadequate or dubious. But, hey, feeling inadequate or dubious is not a thing that stops you from making good art, unless you let it. You can cope with expecting failure and going on anyway, if you decide to.
posted by Jeanne at 7:45 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


(In my reading 'online crap' is not a comment on the internet in general but more on the futility of buying into status games about hits and retweets and people paying attention to you?)
posted by Jeanne at 7:48 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, to be clear, a lot of the reasons why this immediately tweaked some people are extremely specific to comics culture and ongoing trends and conversations within it. I posted about some of that here for context. But obviously everyone is entitled to their own reading and their own takeaway, and I don't think anyone is a jerk or "blind" or whatever if they didn't have the same reaction as I did.

Like just to be SUPER clear.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:48 AM on November 5, 2014


(Like as in, "Tessa" is pretty closely modeled on one or two actual women that some of my comics friends actually know, and many comics people have had personal interactions with the man who drew this which color their interpretations, etc etc etc you know how it goes.)
posted by Narrative Priorities at 7:49 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


It's a darkly witty comic about a feeling we're normally too ashamed to admit. It's good - "good?" - very much in the spirit of Posy Simmonds, and I'd eschew over-analysis.

For those with jenvy towards the more successful, I can only say how I deal with this.

1. Don't feel it towards those who clearly are more talented than you. Rejoice that the normal perversities of the world have been thwarted for once, and a field for which you care and a creator you respect have been enriched. That sounds a bit woo, but it really works.

2. Feel it - bathe in it, smear your walls with it, vomit it out on busy sidewalks - towards those with less talent but more success than you. Then turn it into "Shit, I can do better than that" or "If they can do it, I sure as hell can do it", and do it. Turn all the envy into anger at the normal perversities of the world, and all the anger into energy. Keep the work you dislike to hand, for when you get stuck in the valley of self-doubt, but don't feel anything bad about the creator (unless they are also a prize jerk, but your judgement may be sullied here). They may be working harder than you, so this is a way to even the field. And if they are obnoxious twerps, you can always write them in, play with them and arrange an undignified, painful end.

3. Profit! Or not. The above actually work for me, and I have finished Stuff to prove it. It's not actually as good as it should be, but perhaps the next one will be better. (In fact, I have here a recently award-winning novel about which much has been gushed unfinished because I cannot get through the peat bogs of hack writing that squat in the middle of the thing. It is really, quantifiably bad. I feel great about that. Back in the saddle, Devonian...)
posted by Devonian at 7:50 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that's a pretty big piece of context to not be aware of.
posted by Jeanne at 7:51 AM on November 5, 2014


This comic quite clearly sets up both in-panel characters, especially the younger one, as weak and insecure. I see how the character might be read as sexist, but the comic itself seems to be more about parodying his gender-based insecurities (and maybe those of its male audience) then as validating them.
posted by signal at 7:53 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


The fact that this isn't just about how this particular young male cartoonist is having a rough time and not getting the attention he'd like, or how there's some larger trend in comics that's bumming him out, but rather a single woman's life and work and accomplishments trotted out as if they're slaps across his face, when ACTUALLY her life and work have nothing to do with him.

But that's the whole point! It's that envy and insecurity anybody can feel when you see somebody younger or newer being more successfull than you in your chosen field of expertise. It's not nice or mature but that envy is there.

To read it as a specific swipe at a particular female cartoonist is the least interesting way of reading this and is just another way of insiders to patrol the borders of their ingroup. Oh everybody knows it's actually about so and so but nobody is actually willing to say so outright.
posted by MartinWisse at 8:26 AM on November 5, 2014 [6 favorites]


I love comics and I want the community to be as welcoming to everyone as possible. I feel extremely strongly about this. I made a comic about it.

The reason this comic kind of bugged me is that it feels like it's shaming a new up-and-comer -- someone who's trying to become "in group" -- for their success. Like....young women cartoonists are not the people who are patrolling the borders of comics and keeping other people out. I honestly don't know what you mean.

There is a lot of negativity and resentment directed at young cartoonists in general and young women cartoonists specifically, and it's shitty. And if you're going to make a comic dramatizing this, then yes, I'm going to hold that comic to a higher-than-usual standard. Because this kind of thing is a HUGE problem in comics right now.

That older man, the sponsor? Imagine that man runs a major comics publisher, or was chosen to edit this year's "Best American Comics," or is a prominent comics journalist, or any number of things. Or is, say, James Sturm, the director for one of the most prestigious post-graduate comics programs. Who do you think he's going to hire? Whose work will he promote? Who does he emphasize with? Who does he want to see succeed? Who does he perceive as needing his help?

That young male cartoonist, of course!

I mean, look at the gender breakdown for Best American Comics. Look at the gender breakdown for the Center For Cartoon Studies instructors. It's insane. This is a real problem.

I don't know this comic's artist personally and I cannot speak to his intentions. All I can talk about is what's on the page and my own reaction to it.

As for the "Oh everybody knows it's actually about so and so but nobody is actually willing to say so outright." Most people on my feed seem to think Tessa is a stand in for Lucy Knisely, but she's not quite that young. Probably it's a combination of a bunch of people. I don't know. There aren't that many women who have had this particular kind of success, especially not as independent creators working on their own.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 8:46 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


I don't see how it helps anyone to criticize people for having helpless, negative emotions. The comic as written shows the feelings of envy and self-disgust to be uncharitable and destructive. Criticizing the comic for showing those emotions is completely unhelpful.

Every artist feels this way, and every artist rationally knows that those feelings are horrible and unfair, and often sexist, racist, agist, or some other kind of -ist. When I was performing for a living, I experienced those feelings all the time, and that's part of why I got out of performing. Those feelings come whether you want them to or not, and the grow out of your own feelings of inadequacy. They are not in any way about the other person, the successful person. You feel like they are, but they're not. So basically saying "your feelings are bad and you're a bad person for having them" makes things worse.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 8:56 AM on November 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ben, I'm not sure if you're responding to my comments, or to the tweet linked above! If you weren't talking to me, then I apologize!

Anyway.

I'm going to put it on a separate line and bold it:

I don't think these feelings are horrible or that people who feel them are horrible. At all.

I'm talking about specific piece of art -- this one comic -- which was deliberately constructed by a medium-prominient member of a specific community and posted on the internet for other people to read. And I'm talking about how this specific piece of art is interacting with and reflective of a larger problem in comics.

And as I said above, my beef with this comes down to specifics in execution which were probably thoughtless and not at all malicious, not the very idea of having an honest discussion or making honest art about envy and jealousy and insecurity.

I don't know how I can be any more clear about it.

We all experience these feelings and we are not bad people for experiencing them. But we should be mindful of how the way we publicly express those feelings -- and how they influence the way we talk about and treat other people -- because we're all part of a community and we're all in this together.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:04 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


But we should be mindful of how the way we publicly express those feelings

Castigating artists for baring their souls is flat-out weird.
posted by Leon at 9:07 AM on November 5, 2014 [5 favorites]


I thought the mocking of AA culture was kind of cliche and unnecessary. Envy can be a sort of addiction, but it doesn't seem right to compare it to a physical addiction/disease for which people find support through things like AA.
posted by sweetkid at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2014


Narrative Priorities, I was not responding to you specifically, but rather responding in general to the response on this thread and in the Twitterverse.

To respond to your specific points, which I admit are more measured and nuanced than the response in general -- I read your points as "this comic expresses an important point but does it in a problematic way" (reductionist, I realize). I would say that criticism is inevitable, no matter how careful the artist was to avoid it. Making the "successful" cartoonist a man, or the same age or older than "Casey", would turn it into a different situation.

I understand that some people believe that the female cartoonist mentioned in the comic is a real person, and that Sturm is expressing his actual envy of her, which people believe is problematic. I don't know enough about the comic business to know if this is accurate or not. What I do know is that feelings of envy are often ugly and problematic, which I think is the point of the comic.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:35 AM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


I thought the mocking of AA culture was kind of cliche and unnecessary. Envy can be a sort of addiction, but it doesn't seem right to compare it to a physical addiction/disease for which people find support through things like AA.

In what way was it mocking AA culture? You don't think it's conceivable that someone fighting with alcoholism, when faced with ugly feelings of envy at another's success, might feel tempted to fall off the wagon? It seems like a completely realistic scenario to me. And I took the last panel to mean that one is never free from such temptations.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:36 AM on November 5, 2014


It didn't seem to me like they were alcoholics in recovery. They were comic artists in envy recovery or something. And "the first step is admitting you have a problem" is often used in a jokey manner about other, more trivial topics like loving Apple products or going to Chipotle a lot. It's not that it's the worst thing ever, but it's fairly cliche and trivializes real addiction to me.
posted by sweetkid at 9:51 AM on November 5, 2014


Huh, I didn't read it that way. To me, it read like an actual exchange between an alcoholic and his sponsor.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:55 AM on November 5, 2014


It's also not the first step of the 12 steps.
posted by thelonius at 9:55 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


FYI, "the first step is admitting you [have] a problem" is only in the title of this post, not in the actual comic, unless I'm missing something.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 9:59 AM on November 5, 2014


Huh, I didn't read it that way. To me, it read like an actual exchange between an alcoholic and his sponsor.

I'm not even talking shit when I say I am eternally fascinated by discussions like these because of the wide, exotic interpretations that emerge of what people thought the joke was.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 10:02 AM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


-- I think that this comic is supposed to be equating envy with alcoholism...

I read it as equating dependency on crowdfunding with alcoholism.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:19 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


I read it as equating making comics with alcoholism.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 10:26 AM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


And I read it as equating alcoholism with alcoholism.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 10:28 AM on November 5, 2014


I didn't think there was a joke other than the obvious one. Hit home for me as a person in a band who feels jealous and unworthy often about my art.
posted by josher71 at 10:32 AM on November 5, 2014


The reason this comic kind of bugged me is that it feels like it's shaming a new up-and-comer -- someone who's trying to become "in group" -- for their success. Like....young women cartoonists are not the people who are patrolling the borders of comics and keeping other people out. I honestly don't know what you mean.

I get where you're coming from, but that reading doesn't make sense if you look at the strip on its own, but only if you're plugged into the world of alternative comics and know or think to know that this is based on real people.

What I've found in the criticism of the comic online is that those who attack, seem to do so not on what it says, but because these critics know or assume to know that this is a swipe at a specific person, but so far I haven't seen anybody step foreward and say, yes, actually, this is about Sturm's jealousy of cartoonist X (until your comment). So for those of us not plugged into the same back channels, it's been impossible to judge whether or not this criticism is justified.

Without that knowledge, it's just a comic about the insecurity a cartoonist, or any creative person, can fall prey to, where you know you shouldn't look at other people's success but you can't help it. It's fairly sympathetic to this, though it knows how absurd it is to feel this way and hence that's why it's framed in AA terms.

I can see where you're coming from in terms of gender representation in comics, which especially in established alt comix circles is abysmal, but I think you can indeed change Tessa into Thomas and have the same strip.

And to be honest, I can see both sides, there's indeed a lot of free floating jealousy of certain young, up and coming cartoonists who haven't had to struggle in a hostile direct market environment like the previous generations, but I can also understand how threatening or unfair it may seem, in the dark teatime of the soul, to see somebody succeed so easily where you struggle, deservedly or not.

I'd be lying if I haven't felt the same, sometimes.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:35 AM on November 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


Can you imagine Crumb worrying about this?
posted by Devonian at 11:52 AM on November 5, 2014


I wouldn't doubt that the cartoonist is guilty of problematic behavior, but I see this more as homage (sic!) and ritual bending of the knee to brilliant up and coming women cartoonists than as an attack on them.
posted by jamjam at 12:13 PM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


See, I don't think this has anything to do with women cartoonists, real or imagined. One of the points I tried to make earlier is that when an artist (or anyone) feels envy or jealousy against someone who is more successful (deservedly or undeservedly), those emotions are not about the successful person. They are entirely about the person experiencing the envy or jealousy, and that person's feelings of inadequacy and injustice ("why not me?"). The object of envy could be anyone. It could be your best friend, your brother or sister, your own child. It doesn't matter.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:27 PM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


It was really weird for me to see Indy Comics Twitter focus entirely on the gender of the specific characters rather than that place of envy for the current It Boy/Girl. Have none of them ever been the one laboring in lonely obscurity, with no idea what might be wrong with their work, or their promotion thereof? Do none of them remember the painful realization (which this imaginary cartoonist will probably have to have soon) that they would have to learn to become salespeople as well as creators, even though their personality was the exact opposite of what makes a good salesperson? Have none of them looked grumpily at the work of someone vastly more popular than themselves and said 'I draw better than this person, why the hell are they so popular?' and refused to hear people noting their better stories, more sympathetic characters, better promotion?

Have none of them been this person? Ever? Because I sure have. I have felt pretty much this exact same way about various comics creators. Male, female, whatever. "three years younger than me with a book deal while nobody knows I exist" is a hard place to be. Hell, I still feel a little of it now and then.

And maybe they've been ultra-sensitized to the gender dimension of this due to how shittily comics tends to treat women, whether fans or creators. I dunno.

(Also of course potential inside baseball of HE'S REALLY TALKING ABOUT THIS ONE PERSON!!!1!!! that I really just don't care to become enough of the Indy Comics Community to be aware of...)
posted by egypturnash at 2:10 PM on November 5, 2014 [4 favorites]


James Sturm is successful enough (and has been for quite some time) that I don’t see how he could be targeting a specific real-life up-and-coming individual, unless he’s pathologically insecure (which, granted, is not unheard of in comix artists.) If anything, his avatar would likely be the older character.
posted by El Mariachi at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Narrative Priorities, I would be very surprised if the woman in question was Lucy Knisely. She came to CCS the year before I graduated, and was already a successful and published graphic novelist with a movie deal lined up for French Milk. But I'm no longer plugged into that community so I have no idea who else it could be.

While I agree that CCS's faculty is woefully under-representative of women (and people of color for that matter), much like the comics and indie comics communities, I'm not sure I would peg this comic, or Sturm for that matter, as being sexist. Or at least not purposefully so; there's no reason he couldn't have had one of the two male characters be female and/or had Tessa be a guy. For all of the problems I have with Sturm and CCS, I would say that he and CCS seemed to be good about fostering female talent. Knisley was awarded CCS's Diamond in the Rough scholarship to attend for free. The previous recipient was a women as well.

That said, this comic bugged the hell out of me. And not just for the "wah waaah" nature of shooting a dig at webcomics on a Medium blog. My issue is that as head of CCS, Sturm has had a long history of picking favorites from the student body within the first few months of a new class, shunting opportunities in this person's direction and promoting their work outside of the school. Which is his right as head of the school, I suppose, but it is one of the reasons for the sort of eny and depression that his comic chastises the less successful indie comics creators for. It's a surprisingly tone-deaf and patronizing way of addressing an issue that Sturm plays a large and active role in fostering as head of a comics program that has, in as relatively short time, established itself as a tastemaker in the indie comics scene. And again, that's his right. But this comic read like an exploitation of the very poisonous environment that Sturm has helped foster.
posted by UltraMorgnus at 3:46 PM on November 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


> The reason this comic kind of bugged me is that it feels like it's shaming a new up-and-comer -- someone who's trying to become "in group" -- for their success. Like....young women cartoonists are not the people who are patrolling the borders of comics and keeping other people out. I honestly don't know what you mean.

Now here's the weird thing - I know nothing about this artist, the back story to this comic, or any of that. I read the comic before reading on into this thread and my dominant feeling toward the successful artist was "wow, that person is going for it". I can't see that the successful artist is being shamed at all.

After reading the thread I played with the comic text a little in my head. Made the successful artist male, black, white, Vietnamese, quadriplegic, blind, and so on. I switched the field from comics to writing to commerce. No matter what I did, it made no difference to my reaction to the successful artist. I conclude that this comic is not about the successful artist. They are simply a plot device used to highlight the dynamic interplay between the two foreground characters.

Then I played with the onscreen characters the same way. As soon as I made "Casey" female, the dynamic changed. It changed again when I made him (her) black. Ditto for ringing the changes on the "sponsor". Arguably the strip could have been more powerful if the artist had done this, but I think the added complexity would have overwhelmed the situation of two people dealing with the sense of being reduced to also-rans by someone else's success. By the name, James Sturm is male: male is going to be his default viewpoint. The old master and the young student are a common combination.

So ... my take is that he simply used what were, for him, plain-vanilla characters, whose heads he could easily get into. It's not a very ambitious comic, but I'm not seeing any shaming - except arguably of the two foreground characters - and therefore I'm also not being persuaded by the analysis and criticism being directed at the artist. He may or may not be an asshole but this comic does not tell us anything useful in that regard. If you want to criticise James Sturm's actions or attitudes, it's an odd choice for FPP.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 8:07 PM on November 5, 2014


I think the added complexity would have overwhelmed the situation of two people dealing with the sense of being reduced to also-rans by someone else's success.

Yeah, you don't want to overwhelm the simple idea by taking these normal characters and making them all complex, with weird, confusing genders and races and shit. Just make them regular. That will have no implications, because white dudes are people, and anything else would add unnecessary complexity.
posted by misfish at 9:17 PM on November 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


>you don't want to overwhelm the simple idea by taking these normal characters and making them all complex

So dismissive. It's a short comic.

In drawing that comic, he pared away the elements he considered extraneous to his main point. What's left is what he's most familiar with. He's a white male. He may or may not also be a sexist-white-dude-privileged asshole, and I'm open to seeing that thesis developed, but so far nobody has managed to make the FPP here support that allegation, and that's a problem for this thread because it makes it into nothing more than a contrived excuse to engage in white-dude-bashing. Get over it.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 10:53 PM on November 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Just pointing out that your defence of the comic is not doing it any favours.
posted by misfish at 12:19 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think the added complexity would have overwhelmed the situation of two people

Yeah, "make them simple i.e. white" is really pretty offensive, though common. I'm a nonwhite woman and am tired of hearing how complicated I am to represent in culture.
posted by sweetkid at 9:25 AM on November 6, 2014 [2 favorites]


I also very much doubt this was supposed to be about a specific person.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:50 PM on November 6, 2014


The brilliant Brandon Graham did his own take on the story.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:59 PM on November 7, 2014 [2 favorites]


I also very much doubt this was supposed to be about a specific person.

Tessa is "loosely based" on Tillie Walden.

Also Heidi MacDonald linked to this thread.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:44 PM on November 10, 2014


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