If you’ve been following the comics mainstream on social media (particularly Twitter and YouTube) at any point over the past year or two — especially if “industry drama” is your bag — there’s no way you’ve been able to avoid at least a few passing references to a purported “movement” calling itself “comicsgate.” More than likely, you’ve picked up on the fact that there is plenty of controversy attendant with it, as well, but what it even is — well, that depends on who you ask.
While those who have little to no time for “comicsgate” view it as an inherently reactionary cesspool of retrograde social and aesthetic sensibilities complete with all the racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of bigotry you’d depressingly expect from such a, to quote Obi-Wan Kenobi, “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” to those who have either aligned themselves with it or are sympathetic to its frankly amorphous aims, it’s ostensibly a consumer revolt against perceived “SJW gatekeeping” in comics, particularly at the “Big Two” publishers. It’s about cleansing the medium of vaguely “leftist” political messaging and “making comics great again” by going back to basics. Differences may arise at the margins as to what “greatness” is, of course, but by and large the artistic tastes of most who either label themselves “CGers” or share their general view of what the medium of comics should be in the business of producing are almost pathologically uncomplicated : big action, big guns, big villains (or monsters, or both), and big boobs. If that sounds a dismissive summation, it’s not meant to be — after spending way more time than any well-adjusted adult should poring through the Twitter feeds and YouTube comments sections of various “comicsgate” folks, I’ve noticed the same things being put forward as “high-water marks” in the medium by hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of them, to wit : these guys love early ’90s Image stuff and they love Larry Hama’s run on G.I. Joe. Some of ’em like sci-fi, some like Silver Age capes n’ tights, some like a lot of different things — but they almost all seem to hold a special reverence for the two things aforementioned, and want comics to “get back” to the ethos established by those eras/titles/creators, etc.
Now, I’m actually old enough to remember that stuff as it was coming out, and even though my own tastes were in a far more formative stage at the time than they are now (hey, I was a kid), I knew garbage when I saw it, and so it probably goes without saying that I fail to see any sort of nostalgic glow emanating from the dollar (or less) boxes that a lot of the books the “CGers” hold in high regard are found in at countless comic shops to this day — and frankly I find the idea that comics should only, or even primarily, concentrate on a very particular brand of storytelling to be both absurd and vaguely offensive. Still, for the purposes of this review that’s neither here nor there. All that really matters here is whether or not, once the opportunity presented itself and/or was foisted upon them (depending on whose view of the “evolution” of this “movement” you put credence in) to make their own comics, the “CGers” producing said book were able to create a decent representative example of — or at the very least an “it’ll do in a pinch” approximation of — the kind of thing that’s, well, their kind of thing.
As it turns out, though, we may have to wait on that, because the first of the purportedly “big” books to make it from the minds and hands of “comicsgate” -linked creators into the hands of “comicsgate”-aligned consumers is neither the much-balloyhooe’d Cyberfrog by former DC comics “A-lister” Ethan Van Sciver, nor the just-as-much-ballyhooe’d Jawbreakers by popular “CG” YouTube “personality” Richard C. Meyer (probably better known by his social media “handle” of “Diversity & Comics”) and one-time Marvel artist Jon Malin, but a curious item to place in the role of “best foot forward” entitled Iron Sights, scripted by the just-referenced Meyer (with a co-plotting assist from one Carlos I. Silva, which I suspect may be a nom de plume, not that it particularly matters) and with — errrmmmm — “art” by a Spanish “comicsgate” partisan named Ibai Canales.
I say “curious” because this is, apparently, an attempt at a semi-topical modern “border noir,” a rather tiny sub-genre that evidence (in the form of their comic) indicates neither of these creators is terribly familiar with. Which is fine, I suppose, in and of itself — it’s not like Francis Ford Coppola cut his teeth on a bunch of smaller gangster pictures before doing The Godfather, he simply jumped right in, and if there’s one thing (and, I take pains to stress, it’s one thing) I kinda respect about “comicsgate” in general, it’s that when it became clear that the major publishers weren’t going to buckle under to their scattershot and not entirely tangible demands/requests (pro tip — harassing and browbeating writers, artists, editors, etc. may not be the best way to ensure that your collective voice is heard), a handful of them simply decided to make their own damn comics. As a small-press reader and critic myself, not to mention a staunch philosophical opponent of Marvel and DC (although not for the socially and politically backward reasons most “CGers” are), I’m all for anyone and everyone hanging up a shingle and simply doing the writing, drawing, and even publishing of the kind of comics they want to see, and create, themselves. DIY is where it’s at, and has been for a long time — and no, contrary to what many in “comicsgate” seem to think, it’s not new. Nor is crowd-funding an “indie” comics publication.
Still, any way you slice it, the amount of money that the first few “comicsgate”-affiliated books took in by means of crowd-funding has been impressive : Cyberfrog raised something in the neighborhood of $600,000, and Meyer’s two projects tallied up totals in excess of $400,000 (Jawbreakers) and $100,000 (Iron Sights). My understanding is that subsequent “CG” crowd-funders have done a small fraction of the business of these “big three,” but if they’re following the “Meyer method” as exemplified by this first book, they needn’t fear — they could take in six hundred bucks each and still be “in the black.”
Which, yeah, is my way of saying that Iron Sights bears all the hallmarks of an exceedingly cheap publication — I don’t have a physical copy, but tweets and photos of the flimsy, glued-binding paperback have been all over the place, with a fair number of customers justifiably bitching about the fact that their books (for which they paid a whopping $20, plus shipping) are already falling apart after just a few weeks. I’m guessing that Meyer, being new to the publishing game, simply went with the cheapest printer he could find for this debut release of his new “Splatto Comics” imprint, but come on — when you take in $100K, you can afford to splurge on at least a semi-decent product. Unless, of course, your definition of “success” lies in how much money you take in, rather than how good the end result of your labor is.
What’s even more inexcusable, though, is that this commitment to “quality” carries over to the scripting and illustration — in fact, “shoddy” and “embarrassing” are the two words that pretty much exemplify not only what Iron Sights looks and feels like, but is. Kelsey Shannon’s cover artwork is at least passable, even if the “sexily”-posed woman looks more like she suffered some sort of back injury, but once you get to the interior contents — all bets are off. This is “next level” bad.
As someone who’s spent over a decade reviewing “B”-grade films, I have a high tolerance for “bad,” though. In fact, I like quite like “bad.” But there’s a big difference between “so bad it’s good” and “so bad it never passes go, never collects its $200, and just stays bad” — and this is the latter, on steroids. It’s risible, sub-amateur, artistically bankrupt stuff that might at least be able to masquerade as a Ben Marra-esque partial spoof on macho, hard-boiled bullshit, but lacks the self-awareness necessary for parody. In other words, Meyer and Canales appear to have earnestly believed they were making something really fucking cool here — but were too lazy to put much effort into it, trusting instead to some inherent level of competence that neither of them possesses.
Apparently Meyer is a military veteran himself, but that doesn’t mean that his protagonist, a former solider named Ramadi, is written with anything like a whiff of authenticity — bizarrely, his dialogue reads like what a guy without an ounce of experience at being “tough” thinks that a “tough guy” would or should sound like, which again means that in the right hands it could be something like even an entirely unintentional pastiche, but here it just comes off as every bit as contrived and stupid as it is. Ramadi also has no real personality to speak of, but at least he’s in good company there, because the same goes for basically every character in the book. They do things they’re supposed to do in accordance with the sorts of people they’re supposed to be, and that’s about it. Calling them “two-dimensional ciphers” is giving them too much credit — whether we’re talking about Ramadi, late-arriving sidekick Woods, head bad guy Old Man Rodriguez, ethically shady accountant Cancel, or literally anyone else, they read like were written by a 16-year-old with an Elmore Leonard novel in one hand and a gasoline-soaked rag in the other who makes it to page ten, decides “hey, I could do this!,” takes another huff, scribbles some shit down on a yellow legal pad, and then passes out. In other words, we’re not in “burn after reading” territory here — you wanna burn this shit well before you read it. The samples I’ve included with this review are in no way “especially bad” compared to the rest of the comic, I assure you — they’re blandly representative of all of it.
As for the art — damn, where to even begin? Canales seems to bob and weave between sort of trying (but not, crucially, having any actual ability) and flat-out not giving a shit — not only from page to page, but from panel to panel. I get that Meyer was probably only paying him a pittance and that he put forth the level of effort commensurate with what he was being compensated, but seriously — a lot of these pages don’t even appear to have been fully pencilled, much less inked. The one constant running theme is that they look like the sort of thumbnail sketches that many artists do on their first “pass-through” of a writer’s script in order to figure out how they’re going to approach things when they actually draw the pages — it’s just that, for whatever reason, some of these “rough outlines” have a little bit of ink added to ’em, and some don’t. Backgrounds are largely non-existent, anatomical proportions are all over the map, characters aren’t placed in relation to one and other (or even to objects) within space in ways that make any logical sense, facial expressions are either blank (hell, in some cases entirely absent) or overly-exaggerated caricatures, shading effects are haphazardly applied with no thought as to where or why they would be there — honestly, it looks like as much “effort” went into drawing this book as went into writing it, by which I mean : if either of these guys spent more than one or two drunken afternoons “working” on it, then there’s really no excuse for how utterly shitty it all turned out.
And while we’re at it, “shitty” is a more than fair descriptor of the attitudes on display here, as well — anyone who’s watched any of Meyer’s rambling, elliptical, steam-of-unconsciousness YouTube mouth-foaming will know he sure loves him some racial and sexual hyper-generalizations, and when a guy with a worldview that retrograde decides he’s gonna make a comic book about Iraq vets taking on the drug cartel down on the border (with a pretty girl caught in the middle!), what you end up with is less a “story” than a strung-together series of excuses to indulge in archaic stereotyping. Mind you, my best guess is that Meyer probably didn’t actually set out to churn out a series of overtly offensive cliches here — it’s just that he doesn’t know any other way to write, because he doesn’t know any other way to think.
Obviously, at this point any readers pre-disposed to defend either of these creators could be forgiven for saying “you’re just biased because you don’t like their politics,” but that’s utter nonsense. I’ve written detailed appraisals of Steve Ditko’s work for any number of websites over the years and am a major fan of both the man and his art despite finding his Objectivst political views laughably absurd. If you can’t separate art from artist you have no business being a critic and if Meyer and Canales had made a good comic here, I would suck up my pride and admit it, even if I had to do so through decidedly clenched teeth.
And I dearly hope that clenched teeth is precisely what both of the creators of Iron Sights will have when they leave comics behind forever, and embark on their next career with the words “welcome to Wendy’s, may I take your order”?