13 September, 2005

O'Neil Grades THE CUTE MANIFESTO "C-"

It's funny that a review so lacking in insight into The Cute Manifesto cites Kochalka's own lack of insight as a key reason for the poor grade the book gets from the reviewer.

Tim O'Neil spends an entire paragraph on this bit of utter irrevelance:

First, I would like to plead with the folks at Alternative Comics to please stop advertising this book as "James Kochalka's 'Dianetics'". For anyone who knows anything about Scientology and the pernicious effects of L. Ron Hubbard's space-alien cult, it is in no way a positive association - imagine, perhaps, a tag-line such as "James Kochalka's 'Turner Diaries'". Less people have died as a result of Hubbard's madness than Andrew MacDonald's, but Hubbard's words have also effected hundreds of thousands of people for the worse. Since Kochalka isn't trying to build a cult out of vulnerable people willing to be bilked out of millions of dollars in exchange for bad sci-fi fairy tales and anti-psychiatric propaganda, I can only assume the analogy was erroneous - a product of the cult's relentless public relations campaign dedicated to masking its own true nature.

If you manage to stay awake through that, O'Neil does actually look at the book, and even makes a point I agree with:

[The "Craft Is The Enemy" posts] are reprinted here, but not (as I mistakenly inferred from promotional materials) the complete online conversation. Therefore, Kochalka's words are presented independent from the context of his slightly rancorous debate with Jim Woodring and assorted TCJ.com luminaries. Printing Woodring's comments would have been a humble gesture that could have thrown Kochalka's own evolving beliefs into sharp contrast, and additionally defined The Cute Manifesto as less of a polemic than a contribution to an existing dialogue.

I, too, was disappointed that the entire discussion was not presented in the book, but on the other hand I realize that permissions would have to be sought from everyone who took part in the discussion on the Comics Journal message board, and in fact, for all I know the other participants were asked and declined to have their comments featured. Maybe O'Neil has knowledge of this one way or the other, but it seems unfair not to find out if you're going to make such a big deal out of it.

Where O'Neil really loses me is here:

Anyone who believes in the innate goodness of the world simply because they have procreated is probably too far gone for me to comprehend: Kochalka's never-flagging spirit of Panglossian optimism will probably allow him to be a wonderful parent, but it makes for a hopelessly facile approach to art.

Given that the piece in question is about James and Amy Kochalka's decision to have a child, I'm not really certain what themes or issues O'Neil would have preferred to see examined to make the work a more successful one in his perception.

It's would be incredibly simplistic to dismiss O'Neil's review as not "getting Kochalka," and I do think overall he is smarter than that. But I found most of the work in The Cute Manifesto of real value to readers, people interested in comics, and especially people interested in further exploring Kochalka's unique worldview. Read O'Neil's entire review and contrast it with my own review, and come to your own conclusions.

Update: James Kochalka has responded to O'Neil's review:

He is...easily befuddled by the fact that I make opposite and contradictory statements in the book.

I'd say if one is unprepared for contradictions in the art they choose to experience, they may be unprepared for all art, but certainly Kochalka's.

16 Comments:

Blogger Cole Moore Odell said...

Um, anyway...

Tim O'Neil is a very smart guy. i find lots to like at The Hurting--I'll always be grateful to his site for introducing me to Kevin Huizenga comics--but some of his criticism goes off the rails for me. I think maybe it's the enormous stick up his ass--and the fact that he consistently mistakes his gut opinions for reasoned arguments (see his anti-Batman tirades of a few months ago, which basically boiled down to "I hate Batman because he sucks"--and *he's* calling people on tautology?) O'Neil often makes cogent points, but he's at least as guilty of psuedo-intellectual masturbation as anyone in comics criticism. Frankly, his critical writing often seems to me like the Comics Journal Message Board's most egregious faults accentuated. As if he's paid for all that grad school lit-crit jargon, so goddamn he's going to get his money's worth out of it.

I happen to agree that Kochalka is open to criticism for the weight of the ideas expressed in Cute Manifesto. Perhaps it's telling that a number of the book's positive reviews have specifically praised it as comics over philosophy. I find it less successful as a collection than it probably was as a series of mini-comics. And the book would have benefitted from broader context, be it TCJ responses on Jason X-12's Sunturd. But O'Neil's characterization of Kochalka's viewpoint as "Panglossian optimism" seems to me a fundamental misunderstanding. Did he not see the page with the dead baby corpse on it? Has he not read Kochalka's repeated explanations of his "evil universe" theory underpinning SuperF*ckers? I think Kochalka is challenging the very preconceptions that cause O'Neil to dismiss the book. Note the way O'Neil casually refers to "kitsch" as if all right-thinking people agree about what constitutes it. O'Neil and Kochalka seem to be talking past each other.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

Hm. The rest of the review does seem a little off (though I don't have Cute Manifesto yet, except for most of the minis that make it up), but I have to admit that I'm kinda-sorta with him on the Dianetics thing; he is really right, but I always assumed using that as the tagline was tongue-in-cheek/ironic. But it IS something that probably should have been done differently; I'm not necessarily sure I'd want my big explanatory work being compared to that.

1:26 PM  
Blogger ADD said...

Well, Kochalka is talking to anyone who wants to listen, O'Neil just seems to have his fingers in his ears.

I wonder if he's even aware of the American Elf Forum thread where Kochalka asked how a second printing of the book could be improved, and answers addressed a lot of these issues, from the lack of Craft is the Enemy counter-arguments to the possible inclusion of Sunturd. It'll be interesting to see if there is a second printing, and if those elements are folded in, how much stronger and more effective a collection it will be. And it would be nice if, as a critic delivering a largely negative review, O'Neil appeared to even have a clue that Kochalka was engaging his audience on the book's flaws and seeking to redress them.

1:30 PM  
Blogger jpb said...

Actually, I think I would enjoy reading a comic billed as "James Kochalka's Turner Diaries."

3:03 PM  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

(I removed that last post due to glaring grammatical errors.)

I had no idea that the supposed flaws were being addressed. Might make for a slightly more engaging volume.

But as I implied in my reivew - the book merely accentuated all the things I've always found annoying in his work. I've been following Kochalka for years and I find him to be one of the most frustrating cartoonists around. This is example #1 of why his work only periodically engages me.

I am not a candidate for the Kochalka fan club, in any event, although I do hold some of his work very highly.

And no, I am in no way confused by the opposing statements in the book - I think I make the point that the brief glimpse of Kochalka's evolving viewpoints is the most compelling portion of the book. But it was, for me, too little too late. Too much bloviating. This is the kind of book I think an artist would need at least another twenty or thirty years under their belt before tackling without looking like a hopeless tyro. Even then it'd probably still be a dicey prospect.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Cole Moore Odell said...

Geez louise, Tim. "Hopeless tyro"? Maybe when you have another 20 or 30 years of criticism under your belt you won't come off like a junior Harold Bloom wannabe. The funny cover photoshopper/"I go stabby" Tim is a lot easier to take.

8:48 PM  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

Heh. Well, I'm glad you like at least half of me.

9:16 PM  
Blogger Cole Moore Odell said...

It's weird. I think half of you is hilarious. The other half I want to whap across the forehead with a rolled-up Alf comic.

9:49 PM  
Blogger The Cheese said...

The world is good. Just a lot of bad people living on it. Always have been, always will be.

5:17 AM  
Blogger ADD said...

"This is the kind of book I think an artist would need at least another twenty or thirty years under their belt before tackling without looking like a hopeless tyro."

When one looks at how much depth and nuance has been infused into Kochalka's work since the days of Deadbear Circus Detective or even the Magic Boy strips, Tim, this is really an insult of staggeringly ignorant proportions. I have no desire at all to engage in any kind of war with you or anyone else who doesn't enjoy Kochalka's comics -- believe it or not he's done some that aren't to my taste, too -- but as a critic, to dismiss virtually en entire body of work, especially as much thoughtful and ambitious material as is in The Cute Manifesto -- seriously calls your standards and motivations into question.

I think it's pretty clear from reading over the body of your Kochalka reviews that you are coming from a reactionary stance, that you are mystified and aggravated by the affection and respect I and other have for the man's comics, and you feel the need to correct what you see as our "cult" with your own observations.

Unfortunately for you and your readers, they are so transparently inaccurate and unenlightening that you do a graver disservice to yourself than you do to Kochalka's body of work.

There are plenty of cartoonists whose work I don't dig. I've reviewed many of them. But I find, generally, that once you've made a definitive statement of why you don't care for their stuff, it might be better to let that one review speak for your thoughts than to dilute your message with weak arguments like those you make in your Cute Manifesto critique.

Thanks for responding to comments here, and to everyone in the thread for keeping it civil.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Cole Moore Odell said...

I hate to be fair, but Alan, has Tim dismissed an *entire* body of work? I didn't think Tim's CM review had much merit, but I also don't want to be overly defensive about it. (That can lead us to defend against arguments that Tim hasn't made.)

He gave a quite positive review to SuperF*ckers, and usually mentions that Kochalka does certain things well (I'd assume those projects that seem to have a more cynical or pessimistic surface). But yes, he has pretty conclusively panned Kochalka's comics philosophy tracts, namely Conversation and CM. I get the impression that Tim has some formal philosophy education under his belt, and bristles at someone like Kochalka trying to come to grand conclusions about life, the universe and everything without apparent training. This is just an educated guess, though, based on reading his site for the past couple of years. Again, I don't want to create a straw man.

Frankly, I suspect I react more unfavorably to the occasional pomposity of Tim's critical style than I do to his actual positions, which I attribute to my basic anti-intellectualism. You do have a point that Tim almost seems to be itching for a fight with Kochalka fans, and this post you seem to be inching toward obliging him. Then again, I'm the one who said I wanted to smack him with an Alf comic.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

You know, I haven't actually had any formal philosophy training, but I'm kinda of flattered that it seems like I do. I try, at the least, to not sound like I'm talking out of my ass. (My opnions do enough of that for me, but at least the stuff around the opinions doesn't look so stupid.)

But yes, there is more than a little aggravation at these kinds of projects from people who do not seem to have as - what's the word - exhaustive a handle on these issues as I personally strive towards. In a nutshell, I've read enough to know that my own opinions on these things are basically unformed and should not be broadcast. This is speaking as someone who's dedicated themselves to refining their art: I read enough to know I don't know shit. Everything more I read tells me how little I actually know. It's easy to criticize but hard to create - this I know - but I hope you don't think me hypocritical in applying the same standards that I live by to the artists I enjoy.

And I *do* enjoy Kochalka's work. I would probably rate the collected Sketchbook Diaries as one of the singular achievements of the last decade, no caveats. I loved Superf*ckers. I have a ton of Kochalka books on my shelf, some of them I like some of them I don't. But there are always these little grains of sand that get in the way of me fully appreciating his work, and TCM was like all those grains of sand rolled up into one big pearl (if you get the metaphor). Some people like pearls; me, I'm a grumpy-ass clam.

not to be confused with a grumpy ass-clam, which is a totally different thing.

10:08 AM  
Blogger ADD said...

There is more than a little aggravation at these kinds of projects from people who do not seem to have as - what's the word - exhaustive a handle on these issues as I personally strive towards.

Whereas I feel like watching Kochalka struggle with the most basic questions about his life, his world and his art is one of the biggest pleasures comics has ever given me.

In a nutshell, I've read enough to know that my own opinions on these things are basically unformed and should not be broadcast.

Right. Ultimately, though, the market has decided that Kochalka's opinions should be published, as there seems to be enough of an audience to support his more, shall we say, "questing" projects. I mean, "The Horrible Truth About Comics" and "Reinventing Everything" were two of my favourite works of his long before they were collected in The Cute Manifesto.

This is speaking as someone who's dedicated themselves to refining their art: I read enough to know I don't know shit.

I'm sure James would concede much the same, although he might differ in how he expressses that thought.

Everything more I read tells me how little I actually know.

Wow. I have never gotten that from his work at all, except in thge most heated Craft is the Enemy exchanges, perhaps. I just cannot understand or relate to the baggage you bring to his work, Tim, and I am trying mightily to understand you here.

I have a ton of Kochalka books on my shelf, some of them I like some of them I don't.

Hey, have you read Sunturd? I sure would love to read your thoughts on that.

There are always these little grains of sand that get in the way of me fully appreciating his work, and TCM was like all those grains of sand rolled up into one big pearl.

Well, isn't it nice to have all the stuff you don't like collected in one big thing you can ignore? God knows I feel that way about Marvel and DC Comics, or, say, The Bendis Board.

Thanks again for taking the time to delve into your thoughts on this, Tim.

10:26 AM  
Blogger ChristopherAllen said...

I'm not going to add my own boot to Tim's ass-clam, but I do think he misses a big point of TCM, which is that it's MEANT to be a young tyro work, or at least not a seasoned, reasoned, blowhardy tome. Kochalka is a very Zen guy--it's all about the struggle and the journey, you know? I wouldn't be surprised to see a book from him 10 years from now tackling some of the same themes in a different way, and that won't negate THIS book. For a guy who examines and exposes his life in daily comic strip doses, and whose other books are generally pretty loose, and who struggles with the value and pitfalls of craft, I find it odd that Tim would expect a more polished work. And for one who admits he doesn't know shit (and that's not an insult; I share this point-of-view), why is it preferable for an artist to pretend they know the answers?

3:15 AM  
Blogger Tim O'Neil said...

It isn't preferable to pretend you know everything: it's best not to flaunt your ignorance. The Zen thing makes sense but, then again, I'm not much of a Zen fellow. The journey isn't so much important as what you have done that will be remembered in 100 years time. or at least that's the only way I can look at it.

4:44 AM  
Blogger ADD said...

He isn't flaunting his ignorance, Tim, he's sharing his exploration, and it's a generosity of spirit that strikes a chord with me and with many other readers. I'm sorry you can't see it, especially since you enjoy the Sketchbook Diaries stuff, which really is the end result in Kochalka's comics to date of the journey the man is obviously on and so willing to talk about with his readers.

6:42 AM  

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