More Digressions, Peter David

Mad Norwegian Press, 2009, 408 pages, $24.95 tp, ISBN 978-193523400-5

I don’t know much about the mainstream superhero-oriented comic book industry, but I do know that Peter David is one of the most entertaining “Writer of Stuff” (his own tagline) out there.  Some writers’ bibliography read like a short list of novels published at yearly intervals.  Peter’s own bibliography reads like a multimedia tour through the last twenty years of American pop culture: Aside from his own original work, his tie-in work ranges from Star Trek novels, ten superhero movie novelizations, a Babylon5 TV scripts, scripting runs on superhero comics such as Spider-Man, The Hulk and Supergirl… and much, much more.

Tying much of this work together are the regular “But I Digress” columns published in the Comics Buyer’s Guide.  Given full blessings to write about whatever he wants, Peter uses his column to discuss his life, his work, the state of the comics industry and the world at large.  I had exceptionally fond memories of the first But I Digress collection published in 1994, so it wasn’t much of a sell to make me pick up this follow-up once I was made aware that it existed.

Collecting material published between 2001 and 2008 (leaving an uncollected gap between 1994 and 2001), More Digressions is exactly what it says on the cover: “a new collection of ‘But I Digress’ columns”.  Roughly arranged in thematic sections with titles such as “Life. Don’t Talk to Me about Life”, “The Business of Comics”, “BFFs” and “Fandomonium”, the essays cover much of David’s life and work during the past decade.  David being outspoken even on the calmest of days, it’s no surprise if the book also ends up being a collection of arguments, controversies, daring proposals and public score-settling.

The first thing I realized reading More Digressions was that I had little business reading the book.  Let’s face it: the American superhero comics industry is so insular that keeping track of its mythology is a full-time hobby.  The columns collected here were published in a trade publication, aimed at readers who were fully aware of the slightest twitches and grunts of the various publishers and series.  For a very casual fan like me, parts of More Digression read like intense but meaningless squabbles about subjects that must be really important to the people involved in the discussions, but close to meaningless for anyone who’s not a comic-book store regular.  The learning curve here was steep, and I have to admit that Wikipedia helped a lot.  (Even more casual readers who feel that a book should not require Wikipedia as a reading companion may have a point, but then again every book has a specific target audience.)

Still, knowledge is one thing, and attitude is another.  From afar, reading David talk about the comic book industry and its fandom can be cause for bafflement and concern.  The comics industry is currently in crisis: it’s suffering from the rise of the paperback collection as a preferred buying format, it’s under siege from those who want to “widen” the material to appeal to the audiences hooked by Hollywood superhero movies, and it’s reaping the results of decades’ worth of catering to an obsessive 18-to-34 geeky male audience.  For creators such as David, this situation has translated into two recurring motifs: the sometimes counterproductive marketing strategies of the industry, and the rabid self-entitlement of the fans.  Reading about the dysfunctional nature of the industry and stories of fannish abuse, I felt more compelled than ever to stay as far away from the craziness of superhero comics fandom.

Of course, this is the comics universe as seen from Peter David, and that he’s perfectly entitled to be critical in his own column.  Plus, More Digression isn’t all about the business and fandom of comics: His essays about his own life and creative process are a good read, and in talking about his best friends, we get a look at such notables as Harlan Ellison (who contributes a typically self-absorbed introduction to the book), George Takei or Neil Gaiman –further proof of David’s interesting life.

More Digressions is a collection of opinions and recollections, and it’s normal that not everything works at the same level, or reaches the same interest.  I found some columns weaker than others, including a naïve take on racism that had me wincing at the lessons from the painful RaceFail debate that shook the online SF community in early 2009.  But it is Peter David’s soapbox, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff here for whoever can follow along, forgive some self-justifying entries and ignore minor trade squabbles since then forgotten.  It’s a portrait of a unique columnist, and an unvarnished look at a sometimes-demented subculture.  It’s not for everyone, but it’s exactly what it tries to be.

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