If mustering the energy and motivation to do the 2019 Year-End Meta post was difficult, doing it this year felt impossible. Every year feels more difficult than the last, so who knows? Maybe this will be the last year I do one of these. Even traditions have their limits and I feel like I am reaching mine. So be ready for the possibility of no Year-End Meta post in 2021—at least, probably not one written by me.
The tradition of the Year-End Meta post began in 2013 as a reaction to the common cycle of year-end best/worst or “year in review” lists you see in print and online starting soon after Thanksgiving (if not sooner) and that makes me bristle for a variety of reasons I have gone into before. The framework of the year-end list/reflection is such a powerful one that even though I work to resist it each year in these “meta” posts, some element of it always sneaks in. Reflection is, of course, valuable, but the arbitrary categories of time that seek to define things as “best” and “worse” are so flattening that such content feels worthless to me unless you’re the type who likes to get heated about the ranking of such lists and complain on Twitter (which, honestly, feels like the goal of most year-end lists). I’m told there is no such thing as bad engagement, but I am not feeling as desperate as all that.
This year’s post is kind of a potpourri of topics connected to the site, riffing off my approach to 2015’s year-end meta, “Additions, Corrections, Retractions,” in which I revisited posts from the previous three years in order to add, correct, or retract some claim or aspect. This year I will be doing something similar, with a correction, an addition, an update, and two announcements.
Let’s start with the announcements and get them out of the way—then I’ll jump right into the work I’ve set out for myself in this post:
The Infrequent Newsletter is Dead (But May Live Again)
While I never made an official announcement, I made the decision to end the newsletter over the summer when I realized I was just never gonna get around to preparing a newsletter again. I wasn’t sure if it was a productive use of my time anyway. The last time I had sent one out was in April and before that, May of the previous year. Clearly, it was not a priority. Ideally, the infrequent newsletter (about three times a year) would help drive traffic to the site from people who don’t visit frequently or don’t do Twitter or Facebook and provide additional content (some of which is of the type I am sharing here) that didn’t fit in various posts (like additional examples of comic art). I also liked to use it to recommend scholarly books and articles on comics studies, mention podcasts worth listening to, and so on. It was too much work to keep doing, however, while still trying to actually write for the site and edit the growing number of guest posts.
My plan right now is to put the newsletter on hiatus and am already looking into hiring someone to take charge of putting the newsletter together three times a year and paying them out of Patreon funds. We’ll see, but if you’re on The Middle Spaces (Infrequent) Newsletter mailing list, just be aware that it may be a while before you get another (if ever), and if you are not on the mailing list but want to take a chance that a new and improved version will arrive in your inbox in 2021, go ahead and sign up anyway! The archive is not going anywhere either.
On Not Writing for The Middle Spaces Anymore
In 2020, I wrote 14 posts for the site (not including the brief comic reviews—which I never count—but including this one and the interviews. Guest writers (including Nicholas E. Miller’s contributions as “regular writer,” so really anyone but me) contributed 10 posts between them. That said, six of the 14 I wrote were part of the WAUGH and On and On series on Howard the Duck, so not exactly breaking new ground every time, even if they each did take nearly as long to write as a general post. Last year, however, I wrote fewer posts than the guests did (8 to their 11) and my goal for 2021 is not to write any while keeping the overall goal number (25 or more full posts a year) the same.
Relax. I am not actually going to stop writing. What I am going to do, however, is focus more energy on recruiting other writers (helped in part by our Patreon hitting a goal that allows me to offer more money to some of our specially solicited guest writers and hopefully, more for everyone who contributes very soon). That said, I am planning on starting a new online writing project in 2021. It is not wholly unrelated (it is still about critical reflection and cultural analysis) but not about comics or music or TV or movies or even so-called traditional literature. I am not ready to announce it yet (it still needs a name), but my guess (hope?) is that some of you will find it interesting enough to check out. In the meantime, my writerly contributions to The Middle Spaces might lean towards more non-comic topics (like music) as I refill my gas tank for comics writing. Along those lines, I do hope that 2021 is when I finally write the essay about “The Greatest Love of All” I have had kicking around in my head for a few years and maybe even an essay about my recent Star Trek: Deep Space Nine re-watch. But don’t worry, there will still be a lot of great comics criticism and scholarship from the guest writers, and if I had to guess, the chances are slim that I won’t be struck by some comic book I want to write about in the next 365ish days.
On “Hairless Ape Anatomy”
Upon reflection, I might have been too quick to criticize Howard’s characterization in the penultimate installment of WAUGH and On and On—covering Howard the Duck #29 (January 1979). I took issue with Howard’s attitude in response to the adoring attention of Vegas showgirls and other bikini clad dames of the casino set, claiming that his lurid attraction to these (in his words) “vapid” women was at odds with the ambiguity of his relationship with Bev. Throughout the series, Gerber plays up romantic tensions between Bev and her ducky—including jealousy, possessiveness, insecurity—and has a returning will-they/won’t-they have-they/haven’t-they vibe. Nevertheless, things remain short of explicit despite suggestions that they are “doing it” as early as issue #2 and a fight about Bev getting attention from other men right before the first appearance of Doctor Bong. What I forgot, however, is that in Howard the Duck #24, Howard does explicitly mention his growing appreciation for “Hairless Ape Anatomy” when referring to the sight of Marlene Dietrich’s legs in a late-night movie. Furthermore, while he was in human form, there is a strong suggestion in Howard the Duck #20 that Howard sleeps with Amy who he met in a diner at the Port Authority near Times Square. It is their amorous night together that “activated his adrenal glands, among others…and triggered a biochemical reversal of the evolvo-chambers’s effects.” That “among other [glands]” is a pretty strong innuendo. This is all to say that maybe I was hasty in calling Howard’s attraction to those poolside ladies out of character, but I stand by my sense that his silence regarding those women’s life choices is uncharacteristic. I’m not saying they deserved to be shamed. I am saying that judging people is what Howard seems to love best.
Late Addition: Marzal vs. Wakanda
Near the end of when I was writing my two-part essay examining Tyroc of DC Comics’ Legion of Super-Heroes, it struck me that there was probably something to be gained of putting the introduction of Tyroc and Marzal (his homeland) in conversation with the first appearance of Black Panther and Wakanda in the pages of Fantastic Four. Luckily for me, I own both volume two of the Fantastic Four omnibus (my version of the Bible) and A Nation Under Our Feet, collecting the first five issues of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s run on Black Panther and a reprint of Fantastic Four #52, so re-reading that issue was not a problem. I had hoped to include it in part two, but it was already too long—so I am adding the incomplete thought here, a reminder of something that might be of utility to another scholar or even a future version of me.
In both the cases of Tyroc and T’Challa, white “mainstream” superheroes are drawn to an isolationist community of African or African-descended people. The biggest difference of course, is that in the case of Wakanda, the FF are invited to come visit. The Black Panther decides to reveal the existence of his nation at a point when it can stand against the colonialist bent of the Anglo-European powers—a bent visible in the Fantastic Four’s role as an exploratory forward-wedge of American imperial capitalism, despite their humanitarian mission which Ramzi Fawaz calls “a variety of progressive political aspirations…[that]…came to include the struggle for domestic racial and class equality and Third World decolonization” (99). Fawaz also claims the comic series “offer[s] alternative images of cross-racial and cross-species solidarity” (98). In the case of the Legion of Super-Heroes, they arrive at Marzal by happenstance and give no care to the autonomy of the place or bother to learn anything about its people—except in terms of noting their “ungratefulness”—putting the superheroes’ white feelings at the center of the encounter and not expressing even a glimmer of what could generously be called “solidarity.”
It is fascinating, however, that Stan and Jack chose to have the Fantastic Four’s friendship with Wyatt Wingfoot be what saves them from the Black Panther’s testing trap. It is also fascinating to consider what it might mean that T’Challa is choosing to test himself and the FF, rather than being at the mercy of white people’s secretly administered tests (which happens to Tyroc, and also Black Lightning). While Wakanda remains isolationist and the West continues to oppress and dismiss Native peoples, the FF’s forward-looking inclusion and sense of cosmopolitanism is what gets them free of BP’s trap. The Fantastic Four’s white liberal multicultural attitude may not be without its problems (the least of which not being the racial essentialism that defines Wingfoot’s abilities), but the idealized color-blindness of the Legion of Super-Heroes is not one of them (at least not until Jim Shooter is writing Reed Richards in Secret Wars 20 years later).
Perhaps this is too facile an observation, but I think it is worth chewing on how Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were able to handle a story of cultural contact in a historical moment that resonated with social and political upheaval (especially along racial lines) in a way that may be far from perfect but somehow infinitely more sensitive than what Cary Bates and Mike Grell came up with 10 years later. If the first appearance of the Black Panther in the pages of the Fantastic Four was a risky attempt at racial inclusion in the midst of the most visible Civil Rights actions in our nation’s history (until recently), then “The Hero that Hated the Legion” is the backlash against the Civil Rights movement in comic book form—a backlash that made the very surge of Black and brown representation in popular culture a mode by which to push back against them and suggest white victimization was imminent (if not already present). Yes, we should be careful to not lionize Kirby and Lee too much. There is an element of salesmanship and exploiting the moment present in many examples of superhero comics incorporating contemporary social concerns into their stories. Nevertheless, the original Black Panther story is looking forward, while Tyroc, despite living in an advanced future, only ever looks back.
Update: Collecting Comics / Collecting Data
Last year’s Year-End Meta post had a large section related to analyzing data about my comic book purchases (both current and back issues) going back five years. As I explained then, some of the numbers had to be estimated because I was not carefully keeping track as I went along and had to use receipts and notes in the little notebook I use to help keep track of what I am collecting to reconstruct them. But since putting together those numbers retroactively in December of last year, I have been keeping careful track. I am glad that I have been because the coronavirus impact on comic book distribution made this an unusual year. The total number of current comics I purchased dropped precipitously. Firstly, no comics arrived for a couple of months. Secondly, I have not been replacing comics I dropped from my pull-list (or that were cancelled or ended). Lastly, I made up that deficit in new comics by buying LOTS of back issues, including going to a dollar sale at the New Dimension Comics Elwood, PA store in January and doing another deep dive at their Waterfront location soon after. I also purchased a bunch of back issues online once lockdown hit, using both Midtown Comics’ ability to ship them with my pull-list books and mycomicshop.com. As such, I figured this Year-End Meta post was as good an occasion to give an update for comic purchases since 2019 as any, and some part of me thinks that if I do return to meta-posts in future years, chances are they will be focused on ongoing collecting practices and results.
Anyway, in 2020, the two categories I mentioned above (current comics and back issues) flipped places, which is evident in the dramatic drop and spike crossing paths in the updated graph below.
The number of current comics may be short of the actual number by a handful due to the way I get my new comics shipped (a month at a time). As I won’t be getting the final shipment of my December comics until early January, I took a pretty accurate guess based on the comics due to be released in the final week of the year. As such, the next data I want to share (the average cost per issue) may be slightly off because I haven’t been billed for those comics yet (though perhaps I will come back and edit this piece when the data comes in).
In 2020, the average cost for new issues (including shipping and tax) came to $4.52 each. This is still below the $5 or less I want to spend per book, but some of the individual monthly numbers scrape against or surpass that $5 ceiling. In May, Midtown Comics only sent me one book! Thus, the average that month was $8.26 because the shipping cost usually split among 8 to 12 books was applied to just one making a $3.99 comic cost more than double! In June and September respectively, the average was $5.00 and $5.01 per issue, which made me wince. (Paying over eight bucks for a comic that could have easily been shipped with the next month’s books made me actually curse and contact customer service). And having just figured out my December average so far ($5.07), I am irritated. Thus, I have to decide if continuing to get new comics in this form makes sense. I think if that average had climbed over five bucks for multiple months in a row it would be easier to drop them all and risk trying to find them later or in trades, but the current state of flux keeps me in one, too. I don’t want to be visiting already musty and frequently cluttered comic shops during a pandemic.
The average cost for back issues is much lower, coming in at $1.72 each (also including tax and shipping). This makes sense since I purchase most of my back issues for one or two bucks each and never go past five bucks if I can help it. The highest monthly average was $4.69 in July, when I made an order from mycomicshop.com to fill gaps for my Tyroc essay and to try to complete my run of the Howard the Duck magazine volume from the early 1980s. The lowest average was in January when two visits to New Dimension Comics came to an average of $1.24 per back issue.
Not sure how 2021 will pan out in terms of comic book purchases, but my guess is that the number of current comics will remain about the same since I am not adding many new books to it (and there might be a couple of books still behind schedule due to the pandemic). The fact that my writing about comics is going to slow down in the coming year also suggests to me that I will be spending more time just reading comics. If this means that I will stick with reading through all the ones I own that remain unread or if I will redouble my efforts to fill gaps in series I really do want to read (or re-read) all of (like Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run or the first volume of Spider-Woman) remains to be seen.
Well, that’s it from The Middle Spaces for the trash fire year that was 2020! As always, I and everyone else who works on the site want to thank everyone for their support! Especially those that donated to our ko-fi account or supported our Patreon, but also those who helped us out just by sharing a link or spreading the word. They say hindsight is 20/20, but like a lot of us, I am looking forward to making 2020 into hindsight…just remember, however, that years are arbitrary numbers and a lot of us have been saying it’s a shitty year since 2016 and that shittiness may continue. There is no knowing. We may be in the middle of a shitty decade. So, as I have tried to do here, rather than assuming what is past is done, consider what needs correcting or supplemental thinking, as to connect the now to a continuum of being for which years are just a convenient framework—just panels that pretend to break up time, but that in themselves hold multiple temporalities. Time is a comic book page not a calendar.
Until next year (or maybe not!), wishing everyone a happy holiday season and some moments of light in this darkness.