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Issue #93

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #93


Here’s a basis tenet of debate mechanics: control the language and you control the debate. Control the debate and you win.

Or: what we call propaganda.

Sure, in school debates are scored on such things as logic and decorum, but film schools score films on artistic merit rather than how much they rake in at the box office too. Or, rather, on how someone in power has defined artistic merit. Language. Welcome to the real world. I don’t know if there’s been a political debate since the dawn of TV that’s depended on logic and decorum. I don’t think, for instance, that Michael Dukakis lost any debates or the Presidency in ’88 because of his ideas (can anyone even remember what his ideas were?) but because he came off as a wuss, as Democrats, eager to prove they’re not aggressive or obnoxiously confrontational, that they’re the party of reason, often do. You’ll notice almost no one accepts the Democrats are the party of reason. Partly because there’s no such thing, partly because they’ve never given us a reason to. Democrats have this annoying habit of believing it’s the natural way of the world to accept their point of view, which is why so many of them mutter in baffled frustration so much. Meanwhile, Repulicans, clawing back from the debacle of Watergate, cheerfully redefined terms right and left (no pun intended). You have to admit, pro-life sounds a lot better than anti-abortion. (It’s almost like they’d read Jack Kirby comics; I have a feeling that somewhere in the Sandman’s library of books that were never written there’s a Jack Chick superhero where everyone’s searching for the Pro-Life Equation.) I’m not trying to suggest that renaming is wrong. This is just an example. It’s just renaming, putting a better spin on it. Whether you support a woman’s right to choose or deny it is strictly your business. My point is the Democrats have been lousy at it, except for Clinton, who could redefine terms at light speed and get away with it. And he got away with it for the same reason the Republicans got away with it: it’s audacious behavior, and Americans love audacity. This is what the Republicans never understood about how Clinton “got away with it” and why the public wasn’t as pissed off about him as they were. Audacity (at least until it strays into arrogance, and that line remains a matter of point of view) is practically our American cultural legacy. If there’s one thing that’s drummed into all our heads as schoolkids, it’s that America had the sheer audacity to tell our lords and masters, Great Britain, then the greatest military power in the world and capable of crushing us without breaking a sweat if they really wanted to put all their resources into it, to go take hike.

And audacity is what wins debates in the real world, particularly if you can inspire your opponent to moral outrage without inspiring it in the audience. Moral outrage not shared by the audience makes debaters look like blustery old coots. Comical figures. (If the audience shares the moral outrage, that’s trouble. Another thin line.)

The problem with audacity is it’s often a cover for stupidity. Last week the Louisiana State Legislature, under guise of promoting racial harmony, condemned Charles Darwin as a racist hatemonger. (Darwin, needless to say, was not able to speak in his own defense.) It’s surprising they had to go not only out of their own state but their own era to find a racist hatemonger to condemn – you think they’d be swamped with homegrown targets – and more surprising that they had to manufacture one. The argument is that evolutionary theory states “some humans have evolved further than others” (I personally don’t recall Darwin stating that, but it’s been awhile since college; I guess Louisiana will be condemning X-MEN next…) and that the theory of evolution was the scientific basis of Nazism (which, as far as I know, doesn’t have a scientific basis). You might think the Louisiana legislature’s in the grip of some communicable dyslexia that makes them all read “eugenics” when they see “evolution” (they’re not the same thing) but it’s really creationism on the march again. Only this time they’ve figured out not to use the word “creationism,” and have co-opted the language of the civil rights movement instead. Changing the language doesn’t make creationism any less moronic, but it does give it a more populist appeal. At least in Louisiana.

Redefining language is an audacious act. It takes chutzpah. Because if you can get your opponent to accept your terms (such as when Bush Sr. in the ’88 debates pushed the notion that being a member of the American Civil Liberties Union was akin to wanting to overthrow the government – a classic example of redefining terms – and Dukakis let him get away with it and let himself be put in the weak position of, rather tediously, defending his own membership in the ACLU when all he had to say was, “Let me understand this, George… Are you saying you want to be president and you’re against the Bill Of Rights?!!”) then you’ve taken over. You’ve won. You’ve got everyone talking the way you want them to talk, which means you control the discourse.

It’s easy to do. People keep trying to do it to me in the “violence in media” debate. As I noted in an earlier debate, when people talk about “violence in media” they’re inaccurately using language. They try to make it a given in the discussion that artistic representations of violence equate to violence when they’re not violence at all. If I punch you in the eye, that’s violence. If I write the sentence “I punch you in the eye,” that’s not violence. It’s just words. No one was hurt. If terrorists explode a bomb in the World Trade Center and people die, that’s violence. If a movie depicts terrorists blowing up the World Trade Center and people in the story die, that’s not violence. No one was threatened or hurt. You might not want to see it. You might not want your kids to see it. But those are different issues. The indisputable fact remains that depictions of violence are not violence and should not be confused with violence.

But we’re an accommodating people, really. Impatient. We don’t like to get bogged down. So we let things slide. We accept shorthand so we can get on with it. If you want to bring a debate to a dead halt – one of my favorite things to do, actually – the easiest way is to question the other side’s terminology. In minutiae. Remember when Clinton asked for a clarification of what was meant by “sex,” and, when he got the clarification, said he didn’t agree with it? Sure, it sounded stupid, but it sidetracked the case against him. Maybe you liked Clinton, maybe you didn’t, but that’s beside the point. The point is: it worked. If only for a little while. And it put forth a good ol’ boy Bubba image that Clinton frequently used to his benefit because it implied he was just too much of a bumpkin to have actually done what he was accused of. Another comical figure, but one we were supposed to laugh with.

And picayune stupidity for effect is exactly where I want to go this week, because the question must be raised: man, can’t we come up with some term better than comic books?!!

I know this sounds like a frivolous question. Comic books got the name at their creation in the 30s, when (according to one version; there are others) Max (father of Bill, father of EC Comics) Gaines got the idea of repackaging collected newspaper strips into magazines and selling them on newsstands. Cheap entertainment for a collapsed economy. Literally “books of comics.” Reprint rights cost next to nothing. Pretty soon everyone was doing it. Pretty soon the thirty years or so backstock of material was either exhausted or spoken for, and someone (according to one version, DC Comics founder Major Wheeler-Nicholson; there are others) decided to publish comic books filled with original material. Page layouts mimicked the established cut-and-paste comic strip format. Not surprisingly, many of the new comics (emphasizing “new” with titles like NEW ADVENTURE, soon to become ADVENTURE, and NEW FUN, soon to become MORE FUN) emphasized adventure material. While the adventure strip (as opposed to the humorous gag-a-day strip) wasn’t unheard of – I believe soldier of fortune CAPTAIN EASY and barnstormer SCORCHY SMITH (by the genius Noel Sickles, who was worshipped by a generation of later cartoonists including Milt Caniff and Alex Toth) both debuted in the mid-20s – the 30s were the golden age of the adventure strip, triggered by the simultaneous debut of TARZAN and BUCK ROGERS in 1929. Soon there were also PRINCE VALIANT, FLASH GORDON, STEVE CANYON, BRENDA STARR, DICK TRACY and dozens of other not-so-comic strips (including the curious THIMBLE THEATER, a humor strip with strong continuity that ended up turning into POPEYE). Continuity was the key selling point, something to keep newspaper buyers coming back day after day to find out what happened next. They were the hot thing in the 30s. Even Mickey Mouse, when he made it to his own daily comic strip in the 30s, became an action hero in continuity adventures.

So it’s logical original 30s comic books would make a strong push into action/adventure material. It was what that audience seemed to be asking for.

Problem is: pretty much as soon as original comic books appeared, they started veering from the ancestors they’d been named for. Particularly the action-adventure stuff. The required range of effects seemed to dictate a more expansive use of the page. By the late 30s, Will Eisner, Bob Kane and others were already seeing the comic book format as visually having more in common with film than comic strips. Look how the medium has evolved since.

And we’re still stuck with a name slapped on us almost 70 years ago for reasons that no longer apply and haven’t in most cases in over half a century.

There are several schools of thought on this. One is that comic books is comic books is comic books and calling them anything else is pretentious. A lot of people in the business seem to have a strong emotional attachment to the term; there’s a sizable contingent that broke into comics to relive their childhood, and it just wouldn’t be the same if they couldn’t do Comic Books. (That’s the power of language: you can hang years of emotional baggage on two words.) One is that worrying about what people call comic books is ridiculous and we should just do the work and let that speak for us. One says the only way for comics to get the respect they deserve is to slough off the old name and recast the medium for a new audience and a new era.

“…we’re still stuck with a name slapped on us almost 70 years ago for reasons that no longer apply…”

The topic comes up from time to time. In the late 40s, Charles Biro attempted to launch an “adult comics magazine” called TOPS, an extension of his successful crime comics line, like CRIME DOES NOT PAY. He couldn’t get distribution. (20 years later, Gil Kane’s breakthrough spy comics magazine HIS NAME IS… SAVAGE hit the same rocks.) Following the Comics Code-induced collapse of the horror comics market, Bill Gaines at EC Comics introduced a new line called “Picto-fiction” before throwing in the towel and switching his company entirely to the production of MAD MAGAZINE – the first comics spawned material that maintained its comics roots but escaped the stigma. Wildly successful, it flew headlong in the face of everything civilization stood for, and thrived on the growing but still underground dissatisfaction in American society that also spawned the Beat Movement, PLAYBOY and Stan Freberg, and which later erupted into what we now call The Sixties. MAD was frequently condemned – but not because it was comics. No one even thought of MAD as comics. It was MAD: put across by guts, smarts and sheer audacity. In the late 60s, the Bill Spicer-Richard Kyle fan contingent proposed the term “graphic story” (Richard Kyle may have generated both that and “graphic novel”).

It fits. Comics are stories graphically depicted. Only problem: “graphic” is a loaded word. People hear “graphic” and they think graphic sex or graphic violence. They don’t think the Guggenheim. “Graphic novel” does seem to have taken hold enough in popular consciousness that it’s not unusual for newspapers to refer to ordinary comic books as “graphic novels.” Still, “graphic novel” is a particular type of product. The term can’t cover comics as a whole. Other terms have been put forth. Sequential art. (Suggests nothing of story.) Illustrated fiction. (What about non-fiction?) Over the last few decades, people have tried to redefine comics to include everything from cave drawings to Egyptian hieroglyphs to Lynn Ward’s woodcut novels, in an attempt to say “we are not some kiddie pseudo-literature, we have a vast and rich history and our medium is deserving of attention and respect.”

But respect is irrelevant. It’s a funny thing, but the more you want respect the less you’re likely to get it. In our culture, there are really only two ways to get respect: audacity and money. People don’t give you respect because you think you deserve it. Everyone thinks they deserve it. You don’t beg for respect, you don’t earn respect. You do what you do, and you get respect or your don’t. It’s not worth concerning ourselves with. When comics are audacious enough, or make enough money, they get respect. When they’re not, they don’t. Most of the time they’re not. That’s something that has to change too.

What isn’t irrelevant and may now be critical is 70 years of baggage. As much as we may cherish our noble history, to most people “comic books” suggests goofy. Despite all that’s been done in the field for 60 years, “comic book” still carries connotations cemented in the early 50s: venal sub-sub-literate trash for small children and halfwits. Even many people in the business, many fans, are so subconsciously sure of this they think the salvation of comics is in catering more (or exclusively, as some have argued) to the small child/halfwit audience we’ve “left behind.”

“As much as we may cherish our noble history, to most people “comic books” suggests goofy.”

But our economic survival now depends on retooling the public’s idea of what the medium is, and as long as we cling to the label “comic book” we make that so much harder for ourselves. There’s no shame in dumping it. It’s simple marketing. Companies, even whole industries, do it all the time. If “prunes” connote laxatives for old people and you want a wider market, rename the product “dried plums.” From our point of view, what does it matter what we call ourselves? Is anyone that desperately protective of the legacy of comic books? But to the public we need to reach, the public we should reach unless we relish our current condition of a tiny cultural cult, the name means everything. We can’t reinvent the medium and the industry unless we go all the way. We can’t depend on Hollywood to reinvent us for the public because it’s not Hollywood’s job (their job is strip-mining whatever they can and leaving the empty, dried husk in the gutter) and they don’t give a flying crap about it.

I don’t have any ideas for what the new term should be. I know it needs to be simple, something immediately conjuring up an appealing image. (Which is where terms like “sequential art” fall short: what the hell do they mean?) It has to suggest words and pictures working harmoniously together to create an experience. It should be something that does not imply “comic books” and doesn’t require acknowledgement of comic books to understand. Or we’ll be back where we started. I know it’s hard to swallow that something as simple and overt as a language adjustment could change everything, but in the beginning was the Word and all that. This is the lesson to learn from MAD: even if they’re very obviously comic books, if we call them something other than comic books and market them as something other than comic books, they won’t be comic books. And we’ll have a chance to start fresh.

Or we can have our own version of Queer Nation and all wear T-shirts that say “comic books and proud of it.”

But language changes the world, and language is something we can control. If nothing else, we’ll never have to listen to that insipid “if they’re called comic books, how come they aren’t funny?” argument again.

Not much to talk about this week. Sean Phillips sent in his pencils for the Blob short we’re doing for October’s X-MEN UNLIMITED. It’ll be a little comedy story with, from the looks of it, great art. Thanks, Sean.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what term do you think should replace “comic books”? Why?

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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