Every week, Ask The A.V. Club delves into pop-culture trivia and opinions on behalf of you, the reading public. Sometimes we even help you achieve your career goals:
Art School Non-Confidential
I am a young woman who recently started her freshman year at art school. It is my dream to become a well-known professional graphic novelist, or whatever less-pretentious name you want to call it. I want my work to be important and memorable, and different from what is being done now. What are some things (genres, styles, plots, etc.) you'd like to see in comic books in the future? Or can you think of some current comic-book clichés you never want to see ever again?
Noel Murray leads off the response:
It's a great time to be a comics fan, especially if you aren't necessarily gaga for superheroes. The mainstream publishers have been offering a broader range of adventure-fantasy series, like Y: The Last Man and Fables, and the independents have been doing well with memoirs, travelogues, existential noir stories, and fine-art abstraction.
On the genre side, I'd like to see more mystery and horror, two pulp art forms that comics have traditionally handled well, and that are underrepresented currently. I'd also like to see more graphic novels that aspire to be literary, and not mere post-adolescent soap operas and melodramas. Too many of the non-fantastic "mature" graphic novels rely on disease, abuse, cultural identity crises, or just a generalized youthful ennui. All of these are fair subjects for literature—graphic or not—but it's starting to seem like cartoonists don't think a story is worthy unless it's either about some really heavy topic, or panders to an audience of romantically challenged undergrads by obsessing over the minutiae of modern relationships. If Alan Moore had ever finished Big Numbers, I'd have a clear example of what I'd like to see more of. Maybe Chris Ware's years-from-completion Rusty Brown novel—new chapter just published!—will fill that void.
Tasha Robinson adds:
Wow. Noel has managed to name-check two of my current favorite series and beat me to my knee-jerk reaction to your letter, Magnolia, which is "If I never read another comic about hugely over-endowed super-people in tights, it'll still be too soon." Not gaga about superheroes? That's me. That said, my childhood superhero fandom remains strong enough that I'm always up for titles that comment on or adapt the genre in an intelligently aware, sophisticated, or ironic way; Kurt Busiek's Astro City and Alan Moore's ABC titles, particularly Top 10, lead the way on this for me. Problem is, writing something like that requires you to be thoroughly versed in superhero comics, so you know what you're contextualizing and recreating. Which I'd say you should be if you want to make a go of it in comics—you need to know what you're competing with, what's popular, and what's already been done—but catching up on the current state of comics can still be a long, hard slog if you aren't into that sort of thing.
What am I sick of besides superheroes? Flat, unimaginative memoir comics that assume details about a tragic life are enough to render creative framing and storytelling unnecessary. American artists co-opting manga style because it's hot with the kids right now, and not because they have anything new to bring to the genre. Navel-gazing comics about making comics—in some cases, navel-gazing comics about making comics about making comics.
What would I like to see more of? Well, stuff like Fables and Y: The Last Man. Which is an impossible recommendation, because what I like about those two series is, in part, that I hadn't seen anything like them before. And it's easy to say "Just get out there and come up with something no one has tried yet," and much harder to do it—much less find a publisher who wants to take a chance on releasing it. In a more abstract sense, though, some of the things I like about Fables and Y are their strong senses of character and their long plot arcs, which let those characters develop but give the sense that the story's eventually going somewhere meaningful. Start with a strong story and a place you want to go, and the rest of the details—the genre, the art style, and so forth—should suggest itself.
In that vein, I'd be careful about starting out with the mission statement "I want to do something important and memorable." That's more likely to lead to pretension and stultifying calculation. ("This is a good story, but it isn't important enough to make me instantly famous.") Everyone's tastes are different, and there's no pleasing everybody, so you're better off making art that you like and that you think is good rather than art that you think other people will find significant and worthy.
Keith Phipps says:
Not that there's anything wrong with superheroes, mind you. Beyond Busiek there are fair number of writers who are doing fantastic to merely gripping work in the superhero field each week. For proof from the fantastic end, check out Brian Michael Bendis' recent run on Daredevil and ongoing work in Ultimate Spider-Man. There's more than just tradition that ties superheroes and comics together: The medium loves those superpowered folks in tights for some reason. Paneled pages love superpowers like TV loves doctors, lawyers, and bumbling dads.
Ultimately, however, it's your job not to listen to us. Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim series, for instance, violates a lot of rules above. It's all about post-adolescent angst and manga borrowings. It's also brimming with energy, humor, and sad wisdom. If I were Oprah Winfrey—and who hasn't had that fantasy?—I'd give it away on every season's "Favorite Things" episodes. You need to make your work yours. We'll keep an eye out for it.
Exercise Your Choppers—And Your Nostalgia
I may be wrong, but I think I recall Saturday-morning cartoons in the mid- to late-'80s airing a very special kind of PSA that no one but my immediate family can remember. It was a whole Schoolhouse Rock-style 30 seconds that begs people not to use condiments, with the catchphrase "Don't drown your food." Can this have been a real thing? Is it a shared memory that my brothers and I were implanted with by aliens? A quick search of Google and YouTube found no results. And what the hell was the purpose? Who would fund such a commercial?
Tasha Robinson says:
Last question first, Patrick: Who would fund commercials like this? Lots of people. Government health programs, watchdog organizations, and advocacy groups of the Partnership For A Drug-Free America variety. And then there were the networks that aired such public-service announcements—particularly ABC, home of Schoolhouse Rock and the animated health and education series that gave us the "Time For Timer" cartoons (does the phrase "I hanker for a hunk-a cheese" ring a bell? How about "You'll have a fun time eating sunshine on a stick"?), as well as animated shorts like "They Call Me Yuck-mouth" and, yes, "Don't Drown Your Food." The cartoon you mention wasn't part of some sinister corporate plot to turn kids against condiments, it was just one of many ABC PSAs; they had a whole run of them, encouraging kids to brush their teeth after meals, exercise, chew their food thoroughly, eat healthy snacks and meals, and on and on.
So no, you didn't imagine it, and aliens weren't involved. Here are the lyrics to prove it: "I'm Louis the Lifeguard and happy to say / I rescued a drowning potato today! / They drowned it in sour cream, oh, what a shame / 'Cause food's so much better when it's practically plain!" And yes, you can see it on YouTube, though you might be better off visiting this Angelfire page or Retrojunk's most-remembered list, which include not just "Don't Drown Your Food," but a whole series of PSAs that will bring back precious childhood memories. I, for instance, had completely forgotten about "Zack Of All Trades" telling me how to avoid the "mean ol' future blob" by coming up with a career plan based on things I like to do.
I can't tell you who specifically funded "Don't Drown Your Food," though it's possible it was largely an ABC public service—before deregulation, TV stations had to earn their licenses by adhering to more stringent government standards for educational content, particularly during programming blocks for kids, i.e. Saturday-morning television. You can thank those standards for those "Knowing is half the battle!" educational tags at the end of the G.I. Joe cartoons, and for the Superfriends spots where, say, Batman illustrated the Heimlich maneuver on Robin. Sadly, I'm noticing that all the copies of "Don't Drown Your Food" floating around on the Internet have some text at the bottom of the screen at the end, presumably explaining who funded it, but I haven't been able to find a copy large and clear enough to make that text appear as more than a pixilated blur.
Not To Be Confused With The Seven Percent Solution
I was fairly young when I saw this, so it might have been a late-'80s, early-'90s release. When I reconstruct it from memory, it smacks of a made-for-TV movie, but of a quality too inferior for any of the three major networks. From what I can remember, it was about this kid who for some reason had hair that grew at a freakishly fast rate. He is kidnapped by some sort of deranged paintbrush manufacturer, and I think literally tied down to a machine that makes paintbrushes out of his hair. (Because it's really high-quality hair? Because he's an asshole? Who knows?) I also think some other kids are kidnapped and forced to work in his factory making these paintbrushes. I think the hairy kid's brother rescues him or something? I dunno.
This movie was in heavy rotation in my nightmares for at least a year after I saw it, but when I try to describe it to other people, they assure me that there was no such film. To this day, I have no idea what terrified me so thoroughly about it, but there it is.
Kyle Ryan to the rescue:
This is The Peanut Butter Solution, a 1985 "family" film that had a pretty prominent dark side. ("…it FREAKED ME THE HELL OUT!" says one poster on IMDB.) In the film, an 11-year-old boy named Michael loses all of his hair after something frightens him. (If memory serves, it happens after he sees some ghosts, who turn out to be friendly.) To restore his hair, the ghosts tell him of a magical hair-growing solution that uses peanut butter. But the concoction works too well; Michael's hair keeps growing and growing, which catches the eye of a weirdo artist who creates magical paintings using brushes made with human hair. The artist kidnaps Michael, and his friends go on a search to find him. They do, and all's well that ends well. Hurrah!
Next week on Ask The A.V. Club: Who knows? It's Christmas, so we might not be here be here. But then again, we might, if you send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.