Recently I noticed something a little creepy, nothing groundbreaking, but it’s not good news, particularly for all you men out there. Nearly all of the American independent comic books that I’ve read, present the most degenerate and pathetic versions of men. Horrible, miserable, unhappy, lazy, stupid, selfish, unhealthy men. Men you do not want to meet. For some reason, these comics are regarded as being more realistic and less ridiculous than super hero comics. Can this really be true, or are we a country of men-haters? Aren’t men just as likely to be powerful heroes, as they are to be pathetic losers? Aren’t both depictions equally outrageous?
It’s not as if I read hundreds of obscure, independent comic books, in fact most of the ones that I do read are pretty well-known. Eightball, Acme Comics, Optic Nerve, Poor Bastard, American Splendor, Essex County, Fun Home, Asterios Polyp, etc… I understand that people are often writing biographical stories, and putting themselves down can provide comic relief. Some of these books seek to provide some balance to the uber-men of American superhero comics. For whatever reason, after a while the put-downs start to feel pretty unrelenting.
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The first experience I had of this genre was a variety of Robert Crumb comics. While all his work can contain extreme elements, anything biographical he produces isn’t too flattering towards men. It seems to have more to do with his own sense of self-worth than his feelings about the male species in general. This is a man who named one of his comics Self-Loathing, so he’s clearly aware of his own issues. His books are fantastically drawn, daringly written, and make truly great reads, but he consistently exaggerates some of the worst characteristics of men.
Hate was probably one of my first loves in this department and I’ll always associate it with San Francisco, as I discovered it a few weeks after I got here. Peter Bagge perfectly portrays characters who are basically losers. Nice folks suffering from various degrees of an inability to function effectively in society. These are not life’s winners, simply survivors making the best of things. Buddy’s male friends – particularly from his past – are an amusing insight into the kind of men who continuously sabotage their own lives, while blaming others.
Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is hardly a ringing endorsement of humanity (let alone men). As much as I love his well-observed documentation of daily life, he is a tragic figure, whether intentionally or not. At the very least, he appears to be doing his best, which is more than I can say for most of the men in the comics mentioned in this article. Unfortunately his best really isn’t that wonderful, in fact it’s limited and depressing, and his brand of self-centered angry irrelevance is difficult to witness.
Eightball was always great fun, ever so slightly “off” in just the right way. Disarming and surreal, Eightball is a lovely book, with a real affection for the characters portrayed. Adorably bizarre, everyone depicted is a little strange, but the men suffer far more than most. At best, the men are creepy art types, decent but sad and isolated. At worst, they’re pathetic, grasping, distressingly attached to their mothers. These are men who are victims of circumstances, rarely at the helm of their own lives.
Then there’s Acme Comics. I go crazy over the level of symmetry, the insane levels of detail, and the absolute dedication to perfect draftsmanship through out. Although there is a perverse joy in reading them, the stories of cold, empty lives focus almost exclusively on men who cannot (or will not) function within society. They are lost, at sea in a world that doesn’t work within the limited, stunted, childish ideas of reality they still harbor. Dysfunctional would be a kind way to describe them.
I have a deep affection for Optic Nerve. The simple line work of the drawings has a fluidity and elegance that carries each story to a higher level. The semi-tragic main characters, and the beautifully depicted environs of Northern California leap out at me and beg to be read. Unfortunately the men in these delightful stories are too often the unwilling villains of the piece. Pathetic, manipulative, possessive and sullen, they are depicted as terrible boyfriends and lousy friends.
For degenerate losers, you don’t get more blatant than Joe Matt’s Peep Show. He makes a damn funny comic, and it is very engaging. But ultimately, Joe portrays himself as less of a poor bastard and more of a pathetic creep. He happily shows himself as a man who usually jerks off to bad porn, endlessly tries to shag everyone he meets, and shamelessly uses his girlfriends as fodder for his stories, (all the while knowing how invasive and hurtful it is.) Inconsiderate and base would be understating the situation.
Essex County is rich with depth and quiet, heart-wrenching, raw human drama. A boy adrift, with no one and nothing to anchor him, he looks to his only relative, a reluctant uncle, for direction and support. This lone adult male of the story (barring a male who’s not really an adult, mentally is probably as absent and disinterested as someone can be, while still filling the role of legal guardian. A lot of the tears I shed in this story were about this man who could not even pretend to want to care for his orphaned nephew. He’s not a man, he is an excuse for one. It is wonderful that Lemire depicts his characters so truthfully, but does the uncle really need to tell his bereaved nephew that he doesn’t want him? There’s a point where adults have to protect the children under their care, even if all they need protection from is said adults own mood swings. This is a man who can’t even be bothered to do that small thing.
Alone in this list as a woman’s creation is Fun Home. This is as beautiful and evocative as it is miserable and distressing. At it’s core, Fun Home tells the story of a father who’s in such complete denial of who and what he truly is that he creates an environment where his daughter learns to feel incredibly uncomfortable in her own home and her own skin. It’s a story that does nothing to dispel the concept of men as terrible role models.
What a find Asterios Polyp is! It seems to have been roundly appreciated as one of the great books of the decade. Deeply beautiful, delicate, charming, emotionally communicative – this is a book I would unconditionally recommend to anyone. Sadly, it is also another story about a deeply flawed man, one who loses nearly everything in his journey to be a whole person. While it is an incredibly crafted story, the main character is too arrogant and self-centered to see how he subsumes the people around him. His final destination, seeking some kind of retribution or forgiveness is at least some kind of redemption, perhaps for all the men depicted in this genre.
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After all of this examination, I have come to the conclusion that while I am a great fan of the independent American comic book genre, I wouldn’t like any very young, malleable minds to be reading it. While superhero comic books might be similarly extreme in the portrayal of men, they at least are showing an idealized version of masculinity, rather than a denigration of men. If you’re going to give your sons comic books, then Superman beats Peep Show every time.
The perfect happy medium would be a comic book which portrays men as strong, intelligent, thoughtful, caring, fallible, decisive, and sexually active in a way that is respectful and appreciative towards women. I believe that this book exists, and has done for a long time. Lone Wolf and Cub is an epic comic book series about a man going against an unjust law, who follows his own laws of morality without faltering. He cares for the child under his protection as best he can. He protects the weak and decent who cannot fight for themselves. He has a strong spiritual center and takes time to pay his respect to his ancestors. He is clear and articulate. He has incredible weaponry and survival skills. He is appreciative and respectful towards women, even when they operate outside of acceptable society. In short, in my opinion, Lone Wolf and Cub is the healthiest role model a young man (or any person) could find in a comic. He’s no superhero – in fact he is an outlaw – he has his weaknesses and failings, but he is honorable, strong, and loving. American comics can learn a thing or two.