THE ART OF COMICS; THE DUTY OF ART
Michael Moore was booed at the Oscars.
He took the bully pulpit so generously given him by the members of the Academy and spoke his mind. And was roundly booed (though cheers were mixed in with the catcalls).
Moore’s comments were inappropriate, we were told. It just wasn’t the place for that sort of thing.
There is a saying attributed to the short story writer and screenwriter Charles Beaumont, who is most well known for writing more episodes of The Twilight Zone than anyone else not named Rod Serling: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pluck one perfect rose from the summit. And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb … you’ve lost the sense of smell.” It would appear that the vast number of those who registered their derision have similar problems with their own noses-because they can no longer smell their own bull droppings.
The Academy Awards, aside from being a nice party where pretty people wear pretty little things which cost too much, are meant to honor those who, during the course of the year, committed the best art to film. And Art is not just making things pretty; as writer Iris Murdoch said: “The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium.” Art, then, is the pursuit of Truth. And Truth, as Michael Moore saw it, demanded that he speak out, “inappropriate” or no.
We’re seeing a lot of the same sort of thing in the world of comic books as well: Creators are being cautioned, shouted at, and derided for speaking their minds and making their own cases with their art. And those funny colored bits of paper we read are art, after all.
In the more arty independents, social issues have always held sway: You need only look at Los Bros. Hernandez’ LOVE AND ROCKETS, at Howard Cruse’s acclaimed STUCK RUBBER BABY, at any the self-published works of art spiegleman, James Kochalka, Robert Crumb, or literally thousands of others to see that important issues of the day are uppermost on these creators’ minds.
The mainstream’s even followed suit, with Judd Winick’s comics wrestling with issues of gay activism, Micah Ian Wright’s cynical view of power stuctures in his STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES, Joe Casey’s examination of corporate power in WILDCATS 3.0, or any number of the new releases in your local comics shop on any given week dealing with the things these creators feel are important to them.
And what is the response? Inappropriate. Comics shouldn’t be about that. Why don’t you get back to telling stories about superheroes?
Nowhere is this backlash more to be seen than here on the internet. When comics journalists like Randy Lander, and others have taken time in their columns to decry the current state of the world, they have been roundly pilloried with these sort of responses, with people telling them that they are “un-American,” that they must be in favor of Saddam Hussein, and that they should eschew politics entirely and get back to writing about funnybooks.
The people who say these things – usually with bad diction, grammar, and spelling – forget that, just as comics creators are artists, so too are those who write about them. As the writer Mario Vargas Llosa tells us, “writers are the exorcists of their own demons.” And not all demons wear capes, have yellow skin, and speak in rhyme.
On this very website, the regular occupant of this space has taken his own lion’s share of hate mail for his regular commentaries on the current administration. [Note from Grant: I don’t get that much, really.] But don’t think that all the comics world is firmly liberal, with hearts all freshly set a-bleeding: PIPELINE‘s Augie de Blieck has often taken heat for his steadfast Republicanism, CrossGen scribe Chuck Dixon has been yelled at on message boards and websites for views which some readers have seen as ranging from overly jingoistic to atavistic, artist Mike Miller has been branded as a bigot for his oft-stated feelings on homosexuality.
For each of these creators and for many more, these are their own valid truths-and they’re truths they choose to reflect in their art.
In one way, it would be easy to cave to the jeers, to simply dash out retread after retread of Upstanding Guy Fights Dastardly Villain of the Month Comix. But then, Art is not supposed to be easy-the poet Gunter Eich exhorts us to “be uncomfortable; be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world.” And, too, to take the “easy” way, the way away from Art, would be for most of us all the harder, because we would be denying our own basic creative energies and impulses.
The other thing these people, these jeerers, tend to forget is that virtually every big event in modern comics-here I’m talking milestones; not the Crossovers-of-the-Month-has had a great deal of social commentary to it.
When Stan Lee decided he would forego the Comics Code Seal of Approval for three issues of SPIDER-MAN, it was so that he could tell a story about drugs, a societal evil he felt was important enough to confront in the Web-Swinger’s pages – and a story he felt was important enough to be told without interference.
The acclaimed run which Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams had on GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW brings our hard-traveling heroes face-to-face with nothing but the deeply-rooted social issues and problems of the day, from corruption to politics to drugs to racism. This spate of issues – in both senses of the word – are judged by many to be the first great turning point toward realism and relevance in the superheroic world of Fights-and-Tights.
Alan Moore’s tenure on SWAMP THING, especially the “American Gothic” macrostoryline, laid the blueprint for the “intellectual comic book,” and revealed both to the hero and the readers the many ills lying not always dormant below the fabric of the American Dream. Moore’s WATCHMEN and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS carried superheroes punching, kicking, and screaming into reality, where a four-color world was just not sufficient to show all the shades of grey we find here in the real world. Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN took that trip even further, showing that superheroes, though slightly off-kilter and somewhat out-of-place, live just as we do in a world of madness, joy, pain, gender issues, love, rape, family, and death. Even the early issues of Todd McFarlane’s SPAWN had at their heart the notions of family, bureaucratic corruption, war, betrayal, and again, death.
But, we are told, such things are “inappropriate.” Just not right for comic books. As if comic books are – as those who know only the Pow! Bam! Biff! of the Adam Wests and Burt Wards and who cannot understand our love of this artistic medium still steadfastly believe – just for kids. As if comic books are not Art. And as if Art has no duty to Truth.
(Admittedly, my Truth may not be yours. As the playwright Lillian Hellman said, “What a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable.” And so it behooves each and every one of us to seek out our own truth in our own art.)
I’ll close with one more quote:
“My Country Right or Wrong: When right, to be kept right-when wrong, to be put right.” – philosopher and naturalized American citizen Carl Schurz
And couldn’t he just as easily been talking about comics rather than countries?
When I read Mr. Grant’s open invitation to post people’s view of the current state of comics I thought I’d give it a try but then I realized what could I possibly say about comics that haven’t been mention before? What great insight into the comic industry could have that no one else has touched on yet. And could I pad it out to be about a thousand words? (Something I haven’t had to do since high school).
That’s when it dawned on me that I don’t have anything new to say. Before everyone gets out of their metaphorical seats and leave, allow me to elaborate. Thanks to the electronic organism known as the internet, comics have been talked about, discussed, debated, argued, bickered, conversed, etc. and until there is very little new ground to cover. There could be totally new and inventive insight into the comic industry, but I think the discussion of comics has evolved into its own separate form and it sometimes eclipses comics itself. Like a lot of discussions on the internet, so much time is spent on talking on the subject that could have been spent on actually working on it.
Even I’ve been long winded here and my point is that now is the time to put up or shut up. Mr. Grant made a very simple point once in one of his columns and it was basically this: The only way to be a writer is to write. Clear and concise. What we need to do to help the comic industry is to get out there and help and stop talking about it. If you believe “Graphic Novels” are the way of the future, then make your “Graphic Novels”. If you think “Pamphlets” are a valid format of comics, then make your “Pamphlets”. If you think web based comics are the wave of the future, then start learning HTML or Flash.
Can all the various ideas or wacky ideas about comics be right? No, but how will know unless we try. I know it all sounds very simplistic, but it’s the truth. Comics obliviously can’t rest on its laurels and rely on it’s past. With all things, there must and will be change. The trick is to find the change that will benefit comics and help it evolve and not go the way of the dodo. (Let’s see how many clichés I can get in here.) Mathematically speaking, the more chances you have the better your odds are.
Is there a chance this will flood the market? Not really. Have you seen how crowded entertainment in general is? With TV, movies, books, cable, music, the Internet and other forms of entertainment fighting for people’s attention, I don’t think comics can be overexposed. It could be possible to burn out a particular genre or gimmick, but not comics as a whole.
In the end, I know that I’m personally trying and I’m not just sitting here talking about how people should stop talking and try. I didn’t expect to make a big splash, and I didn’t and I still don’t expect to. But I did get off my butt and I’m trying to help comics the best I can.
First, my credentials: don’t have any. Aside from a brief stint writing comics for Innovation back in the early ’90s, my experience in the comics industry has been the same as anyone else who’s walked into a shop and bought a comic in the last decade. But I am a passionate believer in the medium, in its ability to tell stories in a way that is unique to the combination of sequential art and (often, though not always) words. For that reason, I’ve made a point of not just reading comics, but reading about comics and the comics industry – first CBG, then Comics Journal, and then sometime later online resources like Savant, Bad Signal, and CBR. I’ve read many manifestos, many analyses of what the industry is doing wrong, many gloomy predictions of its ultimate death, and all of these seem to orbit the same assumption: that for comics to survive, it must be embraced by the “mainstream.”
To which I say, screw the mainstream.
This isn’t about superheroes. It’s not about whether superheroes are infantile creations that are somehow holding comics back from their true potential, and it’s not about superheroes being some kind of mascot to the rest of the world. That’s all beside the point, like arguing about whether Sherlock Holmes is somehow emblematic of the entire mystery genre.
The point is this: that while comics are a rich, inventive art form, they are also a marginal one and always will be. Like opera, Shakespeare, James Joyce, jazz, “The Saragossa Manuscript,” and Laurie Anderson, even the laziest of comics requires not only a certain amount of dedication on the part of the reader to learn how to read it in the first place (panel transitions, different fonts, motion lines, all the Scott McCloud stuff), but also an interest in seeing stories told in that fashion at all. And in the same way that a lot of people — a lot of the mainstream, in fact — don’t enjoy classical music, a lot of people simply don’t like to experience stories in comic form. It’s not a matter of “if they only knew,” it’s that they just don’t like it. Hey, I don’t like Merchant Ivory films; that’s not to say that the entire genre of genteel British films of quiet desperation is bad (or doomed for that matter), only that it’s not my cup of tea. So to speak. Comics will never be implicit in our culture the way they are in Japan or France (or at least, not in the same way), and all the lobbying to change that is simply wasted effort better spent elsewhere. The sooner the industry stops chasing acceptance and starts concentrating on the things it has done well for decades — telling stories and getting them to a dedicated audience — then the sooner we can all quit this bizarre streak of self-loathing and get on with enjoying and challenging the art form.
This is not a call to insularity. We’ve all read about the ailing state of the industry, and maybe it’s true, maybe there is an encroaching tide of red ink that threatens to swamp everything. I haven’t seen the accounting books. But I do know that I can walk into my local comic shop today and not only select from a vast array of books from a number of publishers (American, European, and Asian), but also from more genres than I’ve ever seen in my life as a comic reader. In the boom days of the ’80s, your choices were basically corporate superheroes or shoestring independents. Today, I can read professionally produced thrillers (WHITEOUT), horror (30 DAYS OF NIGHT), romance (“Cheat,” “Three Days In Europe”), martial arts (“Lone Wolf and Cub”), fantasy (LUCIFER, BONE), action (INTERMAN), sci-fi (GHOST IN THE SHELL), or what would simply be called “fiction” in a bookstore (JIMMY CORRIGAN, BERLIN). And while X-continuity is, has been, and always will be a tangled mess that makes the Dead Sea Scrolls look like first-grade primers, you’ve got to admire the fact that it can still be retro-fitted into the templates of social satire (X-STATICS) and gonzo sci-fi (NEW MUTANTS). We’ve got manga, manwha, online comics, original graphic novels, reprints of historically important material, magazines on writing and drawing, and it’s easier than ever to buy any of these by walking into a bookstore or ordering online.
This is all good. This should be encouraged. This is why we should say “screw the mainstream.” Why would we ever want to go back to the days of spinners at a convenience store? Why would we want to limit our genres to juvenile superheroes or abstract underground comix? Whatever the mainstream is, it’s usually not about variety or choice, it’s about predictability. It’s about being able to ensure a bottom line. That’s not good or bad, it’s just a fact. The mainstream doesn’t like new and different things — at least not until those new and different things start making money. But seeing all the new and different things that are happening in comics right now is so exciting. If you accept the fact that we’re entertaining ourselves here, why not have some fun? Run with the art form, push its boundaries, tell stories both serious and silly, stories for adults and kids, stories of superheroic wish fulfillment and heartbreaking works of staggering genius, and when the mainstream leans over to see why we’re having such a good time, we can shrug and show them our new toy. If the recent licensing frenzy is any indication, they’ll ask us where we got it so that they can go buy their own.
Just because you’re not mainstream doesn’t mean you’re not commercial. There are plenty of artists who operate outside the mainstream with both artistic and commercial success — directors, writers, musicians, playwrights, screenwriters. The vast majority of Americans have probably never heard of the authors profiled in the New York Times. But all of these artists still manage to be successful in their chosen field, and, not only that, many times their influence eventually does bleed over into the mainstream. Would I love to increase the number of artists and writers able to do that in comics? Of course. The more people creating, the more interesting things are created. But I believe that we’ll achieve that state not by trying to curry the favor of the mainstream, but by continuing to develop innovative, cutting-edge material that makes them want to come to us.
I’m of the firm belief that individual art forms exist because they communicate in a way unique to that medium. Movies excite in a way that would be impossible to capture in music. Music moves people in a way that be impossible to duplicate on stage. Comics tell stories in ways that nothing else can. We should celebrate this rather than cut off our own nose to make ourselves attractive to a fickle mainstream that, in many ways, needs us more than we need them. So clean up the comics shops, produce more comics for underserved demographics like women and kids, branch away from superhero stereotypes — but don’t do it looking for approval. Do it because it’s cool, because it’s neat, because it’s interesting, and because you care. And if anyone looks funny at you, tell ’em to screw off.
I just wanted to throw my two cents in regarding the (long overdue) proliferation graphic novels into libraries. I can not believe that it took this long for such a thing to happen. When I was maybe five years old my dad became concerned with my literacy skills. As a preventative measure, he insisted my big sister take me to the library, and that I come home with some books. And I did. Copies of BATMAN: FROM THE THIRTIES TO THE SEVENTIES and the similarly packaged SUPERMAN volume. I’ve been a hardcore fan of the medium ever since. Looking back, I can see that there are some seriously goofy stories in those volumes. Goofiness aside, comics were in the public eye. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that as comics were seen less and less by the non-fans, sales went down. By the time I was twelve our library ceased ordering any ‘new’ editions. Still, over the years I was fortunate to read collected volumes of seminal works by Charles Schulz, Al Capp, E.C. Segar, Burne Hogarth and others. I will always be grateful that I had the chance to read these great works and that our library system made such material available.
During the last year the graphic novel section of many libraries has quadrupled. Despite the amount of work available, your observation are accurate; libraries can’t keep them in stock. I noticed that after the SPIDER-MAN movie all the ULTIMATE and ESSENTIAL SPIDER-MAN volumes were at almost all libraries. I disagree with Marvel’s notion that superhero movies are going to be its salvation. Energies should be focused on getting comics into the public consciousness. It’s not impossible. Teenagers and older patrons don’t scoff at the material. Seen it with my own eyes, I have. I work as a literacy tutor at a Fresno high school and the same phenomenon occurs on our campus library. Could it be the more formalized setting? Isn’t it time the comic companies really started looking into all this?
I hope that this isn’t a passing fad. Maybe this somehow signals a new way of bringing comics to a wider audience. I hope the comic companies are keeping an eye on this trend. Think about it: a new generation actually reading and focusing on comics and not movies, tee-shirts or role-playing games with comic characters. Could Marvel initiate marketing/publicity studies to expand on this? I’d love it if even more material was collected. Not just superhero stuff, but underground comics, LOVE AND ROCKETS, Charles Biro’s crime comics, etc.
The only note I have this week is that Scott Slemens has published a response to Michael Medved’s assault on Captain America mentioned a few weeks ago here; he’d have sent it to Medved directly but Medved apparently isn’t accessible by e-mail.
As they used to say on MIGHTY MOUSE, see you next week in a brand new show.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.
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I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.
My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it’s about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn’t up yet, but keep watching this space for details.
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