POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don’t get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE’s purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.
activism coda; outreach prologue:
My dictionary defines activism as “vigorous and sometimes aggressive action in pursuing a political or social end,” and, I dunno, I don’t think writing about comics for comics readers, no matter how intelligently you do it or how much time you spend at it, is a particularly vigorous or aggressive action. Let alone one that pursues a political or social end. Nothing new there, and I don’t think I was claiming there really was, just, you know. I’m just sayin’.
Call me crazy, but when I think about the folks I’ve met that regularly give out comics to literacy programs, I think of activism.
Or I think about the crazed fucker around my town that’s been doing his own comics on a Xerox machine as long as anyone can remember and leaving them around for free.
Or people that print out PREVIEWS reviews from any number of web-sources to inform their retailer about small-press books they may have otherwise missed, they make me think of activism.
I think about art spiegelman and Chris Oliveros, who convinced the BISAC this past week that Graphic Novels have earned their own space in bookstores when I think of activism.
I think about the tragic impotence of most comics activism when I hear such momentous news broken to deafening silence engulfed by bland hype.
My boss Peter Siegel at ARTBOMB became a mail-order outlet for ARTBOMB readers that had no other access to the good shit. I thought of it then.
And most of all, I think of that one morning when a bunch of people gave Chris Starros all the money they could spare so that Chris still had a job that afternoon when I think of comics activism.
I tend to think of that kind of idiom-shaking, paradigm-shifting, eye-opening action rather than ego-, community-, and enmity-building frivolousness that so many seem willing to cling to like a blanket under false auspices. When I read over someone’s two hundred word capsule review of SGT. HIPPIE AND THE MODFUCK MIND SQUADRON– regardless of how thought provoking that review is, I tend to think of that kind of work as outreach. No offense meant– but, you know, c’mon. It’s outreach.
Flipping to the O-section of that aforementioned dictionary, I see that outreach is defined as ‘the provision of information or services to groups in society who might otherwise be neglected.’
So let’s talk about outreach.
Comics outreach is absolutely essential towards building the kind of healthy and robust medium and market we all desire. Bleeding in the waters on the edge of pop culture irrelevance for so long, Comics lack the money and power to command any sort of viable marketing presence. Conglomerate interests in comics are borne purely out of the brand exploitation comics can practically guarantee: as every media outlet’s preferred target audience is largely 18-34 year old males with disposable incomes, Comics are custom-crafted and engineered to appeal to the most desirable demographic in the world. A successful comic is a microcosm of popular appeal, and as comics are too small, too broke, too dumb, or too whatever to exploit that advantage themselves the brands get kicked out west to Hollywood for toyetic multiplexing.
The genius of this kind of thing is that these conglomerates hold all the cards– money, exposure, and respectability– that comics so direly need to win a single hand in the court of public perception, and thus comics give it up faster than Methodist girls at Church Camp for a little taste of class. No money means no power, means no leverage to deal. Meaning, long story short, that most publishers are trying to keep their doors open to say nothing of stopping their own small market share from further contraction and collapse. They don’t have the time or resources required for effective outreach, honestly. Hell, most comics don’t even have people proofreading for them anymore; so any PR revenue is going to be applied as whatever Hollywood told us we smelled good in last.
So volunteers, wanted or otherwise, pick up the slack.
That sense of obligation is inexplicable and frustrating, and yet so many try so hard to push another rock up the pile: no one comes to comics to get rich, and no one comes to comics criticism to earn intellectual cred. Grad students pull the trick every now and again, but aside from their MFA committees, the world at large must go un-graced by their insight. Writing about comics feels like writing about the aesthetic of porn films sometimes: for every valid and legitimate exception, the rule itself has been hammered into the collective consciousness through sixty years of BAM! SOCK! POW! headlines. Oh, oh comics! You are a cavalcade of whimsy and lowest common denominators being confirmed and stereotyped to the point of clichéd punch line.
Witness the inevitable freak show human-interest story that the local news runs whenever there’s a comics convention in town; witness the Comic Book Guy on THE SIMPSONS. Outreach feels like a losing battle in the face of such familiar and famously low expectations.
And nine times out of ten, outreach probably is.
That tenth time, outreach is worthwhile in that those famously low expectations are disposed of in one fell swoop.
The most effective kinds of outreach are the types that struggle against perceptions, that strive to be accessible to new eyes and minds rather than to uplift the discourse between those already on the team, and that manifests itself in new, unexpected places. Part of the reason I dove into working for ARTBOMB was because that precise strategy was innate to its DNA: ARTBOMB was conceived to not further the status quo but to champion and spotlight each and every “Yes, but,” any of us had ever muttered in connection with comics. ARTBOMB was born to make rules out of exceptions, to do so in a manner both appealing and accessible to anyone happening upon it accidentally without context, and to manifest in an environment not connected with anything that could cause doubt or bring pause to its motives.
Anyone considering an active roll in any kind of comics outreach should keep that firmly in the back of their minds and on the very tips of their tongues– the status quo will do just fine perpetuating itself and pulling new people in. Sometimes someone will stumble along and make a mental note to investigate, sure; but I’d argue they were going to anyway after seeing HULK, SMALLVILLE, or X-MEN 2. Comics don’t need smart-sounding reviews of superhero comics written under the auspices of outreach, because superhero comics don’t need outreach. Not because they’re not worthy or anything so subjective or judgmental, but rather that the grammar of superhero comics are effective at attracting people on their own merits. There’s a reason why Hollywood comes calling, and that’s the same reason that twelve year olds have been reading BATMAN for sixtywhatever years now: the shit just works. Hollywood is doing all the outreach the pervert suits and boob socks need or know what to do with… So let ’em. More to the point, the world at large doesn’t perceive comics as anything but pervert suits and boob socks and to draw more attention to them, regardless of quality, and to do so under the banner of changing perception is spurious at best and dippy at worst. It smacks of slumming, shame, and apology– but most of all its just so boringly trite and predictable.
Criticism aside for the moment– that’s next week– anyone touched in the head enough to do work under the auspices of outreach should struggle with tone and voice, with actually writing well, in addition to writing intelligently. This kind of work won’t benefit from rote performance and a voice comfortably on autopilot any more than it would the polar opposite of high expressionism and stylish fop acrobatics (of which both I myself am guilty, don’t get me wrong). I believe deeply that anything well written will be well read, oftentimes in spite of the content of that writing. It’s the writer’s oldest and most sinister trick, that the unfamiliar can be duped into giving time and consideration to things outside of their sphere if handled properly. Good writing is good writing regardless of its venue or form, and good writing is the manifestation of a unique voice. Outreach needs unique voices most of all. Outreach work isn’t art in and of itself, yet outreach has the unenviable task of opening eyes and turning heads towards it; outreach isn’t about art but the art within.
There’s a level of self-evaluation critical to this realization that’s difficult to make and maintain.
The placement and delivery of outreach is probably the factor most critical to its effectiveness and success. I tend to think that good intentions can make up for a lot of bad execution, but if you’re singing in an empty theater no one’s gonna be able to make that evaluation in the first place. Outreach needs its own space, its own geography both literally and metaphorically to succeed, a place disconnected from inaccurate perceptions and histories. Any collusion between the perpetuation of everything outreach is working against, no matter how innocent or well intentioned, will irrevocably taint the message and diffuse it of its power. Take, for example, the art spiegelman and Chris Oliveros coup that occurred earlier in the week.
When these two approached the Book Industry Systems Advisory Committee (BISAC) of the Book Industry Study Group, Inc., a body formed to standardize book categories and, therefore, how they’re shelved and presented in retail outlets and walked away having convinced them that graphic novels were diverse, robust, and substantial enough to warrant their own section instead of being ghettoized with the crap science fiction books and role-playing games. This is a major, major coup for comics, a long fought for historic victory in changing the perception of comics to the outside world. Several comics news outlets, ostensibly with an interest in bettering the medium and furthering its reach into the world at large, covered the story.
For all of about twenty minutes.
Before more press releases about new Marvel books began hitting, burying the story amongst proud pronouncements of more superhero comics about special boys with special powers, superfish out of their terribly boring waters and blah blah blah. If you go hunting for the articles this victory generated within the comics press, you’ve got to wade through precisely the tripe that spiegleman and Oliveros just helped us all pull away from.
Comics are nothing if not a medium of mixed signals.
Inevitably, the charge gets leveled at anyone considering what they do to be comics outreach is that they preach to the choir. That oh-so-tired cliché bears no weight.
When one preaches, the choir’s going to hear. It’s the sermon– what you’re saying, how you’re saying it, and where you’re getting the work done– that matters.