Why, exactly, are comics still being sold as “cool”?
Western comics and their readers have for so long been the subject of stigma. Of comics being for children, for the socially awkward and maladjusted, for the intellectually slumming, for perverts. The problem is that this stigma no longer exists, or at least has been diluted to the point that any and all thrashing out against it from people that read comics feels like they’re stuck in an old aspect of cultural conversation. There are a million examples of this urge to change perceptions – from pointing out that famous figures read comics, feeling validated by film adaptations of a work, “comics ain’t for kids anymore zap pow” articles, Read Comics In Public Day, Free Comic Book Day. All of which reek at least a little bit of desperation in the light of the way the world is now. Geeks, or whatever pejorative term you wanna throw around and/or identify with, have won. The major literary publishing houses are releasing books by O’Malley and Clowes and Mazzuchelli, superheroes dominate the cultural conversation, comics are taught and discussed at most of the colleges in the country, and the internet has exposed most of the world as fixated unhealthily on something whether it be Glee or fantasy football or scrapbooking photos of Condi Rice. Or, I dunno, xvideos. Or searching xvideos for Condi Rice.
There is a sense that in fighting against these ideas, comics has made some it’s greatest strides. Which is in at least some ways true, there was a conception that needed to be battled and whether it was Watchmen or Blankets or something else big enough to crack the real world, it’s been thoroughly beaten back.
The urge of creating counterprogramming; of being the smarter, cooler more of the moment variation of the art form in response to (superheroes) (big two) (newspaper strips) (editorial cartoons) (movie pitch comics) (indie) (underground) (graphic novels) (manga) (euro) (porn) (OEL) (autobio) (genre) (literary) (pop) (noise) (limited print runs) (experimental printing processes) (curating audiences) (webcomics) (any and all of the above) is so strong that it permeates every aspect of the medium in some form. In every one of these situations comics are being redefined by it’s readers or creators as this years model. This new one, it’s SO much cooler than the last one. Trust us.
The idea of scenes, the idea of rock star creators, of cults of personality, of living and creating in opposition; they all come from the kernel of “how do we make comics cool?”. How do we convince OTHER people, all the people who never cared before. More modern, more literary, more adult, more punk, more young. The need for acceptance, of trying to distance ourselves from all the kids who got picked on for reading comics (and yeah, it happened to me too, I even had someone tell me “Comics are so last year” when he saw me reading Knightfall in the 4th grade. I got over it) is palpable in every move we make. The neurotic boy outsider prototype has now been outdated long enough that the only people still clinging to it are the ones it applies to, and the only people persecuting them for it are themselves.
And where has it gotten us? Specialization, myopia, crowd-sourced publishing, scripts by committee, twitter and facebook “community building” that amounts to racking of faceless numbers or naked careerism, scanlations of foreign comics that are more accurate than the official printings, and a distribution monopoly that no one really can get behind but still cannot bear the (frankly inevitable) idea that it will fail.
Comics as a medium is experiencing a problem that most of the popular arts now have – because of the internet and a massive boom in reprints, the entire history of the medium is accessible. Books that were white whales and holy grails years ago come into print, they pop up on ebay or amazon marketplace for cheap, you find them in dollar bins. Maybe someone has scanned it and thrown it up on their blog, tagged with all the other out of print bronze age shit your little heart desires. The hurdles of jumping to print have been lowered or done away with altogether. Gigatorrents of 2000AD or translated Metal Hurlant to make you feel totally okay with being born in the wrong hemisphere. Like film or music, you can no longer tell the difference between talented amateurs or decades-deep trained professionals because of the tools available. Both of these changes have created a climate where influence, cross-pollination, and taste become incredibly malleable, and the battle lines that were drawn decades ago seem arbitrary to someone who wasn’t raised on an us vs. them mentality (any one of the dozens that litter comics).
Incidentally, the most interesting comics right now are scattered in idiom – amazing stuff found randomly on the web, ranging in style from gag strips to medium-smashing experiments. The odd issue of a big two comic that sneaks out with a great artist at the helm. Self-published one man single issue anthologies. Prestige adaptations of decades-old novels. Veteran-built character dynasties. Pictographic mind vomit with really nice publishing values. The two or three Image series that quietly outdo all their peers without making a show of it. Exceptional manga reprints. All of these are the kind of comics that can be held up and examined as great, and not one of them seems to be dealing with a need to make what they are doing acceptable. The best comics right now, like all the best comics historically, don’t seem to be taking any consideration for legitimacy or reaction to what has come before, or even shitting on whatever is most the most sacred cow of the moment. The best we have to offer is always going to the work that has greater concerns. While the rest of us shackle ourselves to ideas that ultimately ghettoize a storytelling art form that has little to do with the subcultures we continually create around it.
Comics will never be any more or any less “cool” than they are right now. There was a piece of graffiti from the Paris 1968 student riots: “The future will only contain what we put into it now”. If comics are to move forward, it will not be through a new scene or a change in presentation, it will be through works that cannot be denied. Comics haven’t had need of being saved for some time now, if they ever did. Except maybe from the culture that surrounds them.
The only revolutionary act left in comics is to live up to its potential.
- Sean Witzke, continually failing to live up to his own standards, October 2011.
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