Committed: Is Indie the New Mainstream?

by  in Comic News Comment
Committed: Is Indie the New Mainstream?

Popular, successful comic book creators are often accused of being unsuccessful unless they make books for Marvel or DC, but these books are rarely the most lauded. Despite what some readers of the CBR Top 100 Comic Books of 2010 might think, mainstream acceptance of beautifully crafted comic books doesn’t translate to equivalent breakthroughs in the quality of superhero comic books.

Yesterday I had a quick read of the Comic Book Resources forum to see the response to the CBR Top 100 Comic Books of 2010. Since a lot of my picks had made it into the list, I wanted to see what people thought of the choices and the words we’d collectively written. As in all areas of life, some people were happy and some weren’t (to paraphrase one whit: “‘You didn’t pick my favorite book! I am outraged!’… Did I do that right?” which was pretty much spot on as to how some people responded.) Some people were excited to have a list of recommendations for future reading, I include myself in that last group as I was happy with the variety of choices. However, there were some vehement responses that shocked me, these were the ones that seemed to think this was a list of obscure books of little interest to the general public or a list of overhyped comic books of dubious quality. These people seemed to believe that the list ought to have had more superhero comic books on it.

Unfortunately the rest of the world still doesn’t think of superhero comic books as adult reading materials, including the publishers themselves. Adult fiction readers wrongly assume that capes books are for kids and men living in their mother’s basement and the publishers try to produce books of a corresponding quality. They find our excitement and interest in the genre juvenile, it is annoying, but it is the way things are. I’ll admit that superhero-influenced film, fashion and art is becoming mainstream, but have you noticed that the readership of the actual comic books themselves is not? Superhero comic books are still perceived as something invented for, and read by children. As comic book readers ourselves we may know this to be false, but to call a non-superhero comic book an elitist comic book is to completely misunderstand what is happening in our culture. Yes, people are gradually accepting the medium of sequential art as a true form of artistic storytelling, but that does not mean that they are comfortable with (or even interested in) reading about well-built adults wearing spandex. The concept was always far-fetched, but we buy into it because we understand that the metaphor is that much stronger and richer than it can seem on the surface. The simple addition of a veneer of costumes and powers opens up the character’s fictional worlds to incredible possibilities, as writer Samuel Delany once noted in answer to why he wrote science fiction, (but it can be applied to superhero comic books): “The phrase ‘her world exploded’ in a naturalistic text will be a metaphor for a female character’s emotional state; but in an SF [or superhero] text, if you had the same words— ‘her world exploded’—you’d have to maintain the possibility that they meant: a planet belonging to a woman blew up.” Unfortunately many people can’t see past their assumptions about the superhero genre, to them it is fun and dorky, good enough to watch an action movie about, but not to read about.

People who buy books buy them in book stores, online, or find them in libraries. In these places they often miss the superhero comic books entirely, because they’re relegated to separate sections. Even people who read comic books rarely seek out comic book stores for various reasons, I know this. Today a friend told me “Oh I know where the comic books are in the library, they’re on the shelf on the left”, which meant that he’d only seen the adult, non-superhero comic books, since the superhero ones are all in the “Young Adults” section on the right. I regularly introduces friends to my local comic book store and they are surprised to find it such a friendly, relaxed atmosphere, encouraging customers to browse and ask questions. Many comic book stores like this exist, it is becoming a very welcoming environment and yet still, people who read comic books continue to look elsewhere for them. If you look in a book store you will find superhero comic books divided from other fictional books, near the books aimed at young adults,  labeled with an off-putting “Teen Reading” or something similar. It took me a 4 visits to find the superhero comic books in one local bookstore, because it never occurred to me to look in the “Teen” section for superhero comic books about alcoholism, violent war, sex, death, etc, but that is where I found them. Meanwhile the non-superhero comic books sat happily on the adult bookshelves alongside adult books. That is what happens; Superhero comic books are effectively dismissed while the comic books without superhero-subject matter aren’t trapped in the superhero ghetto of the book store and library shelving system. Books by people like Chris Ware, Dan Clowes, Los Bros Hernandez, Darwyn Cooke and Charles Burns can often find a way into the main shelves because these are books which obviously appeal to a wider group of people, and thus they are more popular in the wider world.

So yes, while there are a lot of us who read superhero comic books proudly, they still aren’t as quickly palatable for non-comic book readers. The books that I use to get my non-comic book reading friends hooked are those supposedly elitist books, because the quality and presentation is so much more appealing to someone unfamiliar with capes. Recently I got a friend Persepolis for her birthday. If I bought her Kick-Ass she would have immediately thrown it out, no matter how many times I told her it was great. Instead I got her Persepolis, which is enough of a step outside of the medium that it appealed to her. That friend has been derisive of my love of superhero comic books, but it never occurred to her to tease me about this book, since it was an emotionally revealing, politically aware, autobiography. For her, it didn’t even belong to the same genre as the superhero comic book.

For people who worry that the CBR staff are lauding elitist books too highly, I would invite you to open your eyes. Of course people still look down on us for reading comic books about superheroes, they still aren’t the most popular books and they often aren’t the highest quality. You take a book like Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library #20: LINT for example, (which was CBR’s first place choice for 2010.) This is a book written and drawn by one man, at his own pace, published on the most beautiful quality paper. Simply as a physical object, we rarely see superhero books which reach this level of quality, this book is aimed at the whole world. No one buying this book complained that it was $3.99 and not $2.99, it was created as an expensive object of desire. No publisher canceled this book half way through, no publisher pushed the author to put it out every month, regardless of quality, in case some kid forgot to buy it when it was a month late. There are so many reasons that this book is a better comic book than many corporately owned superhero comic books. This book had advantages over superhero comic books, not just because it was more popular with a larger demographic of the general public, but because it wasn’t hobbled by an industry treating it like the content didn’t matter.

It is a shame that more people don’t love and understand the incredible gift that the superhero metaphor is to our fiction, but to decry the reality and perceive superheroes as the mainstream is to give up the fight. If we pretend that superheroes are the mainstream choice of readers, then we stop trying to improve them and spread the word. The fact that a lot of non-superhero comic books made it to the CBR 2010 top 100 is a call to action. We need to continue pushing to bust the medium apart, stretch the boundaries, continuing the work done in the ’80’s which is what was such a large part of the film industry in the last few years. A good quality book might cost more, or take more than a month to produce, or contain storylines which are upsetting or complex, and more comic books about superheroes should be allowed to shine on that level as well.