SDCC: Walking the Line Between Mainstream & Alternative

Don't fence me in! That was the reaction of the four graphic novel creators on the Walking the Line panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Nick Abadzis ("Laika," "The Cigar That Fell in Love with a Pipe," "Doctor Who"), Frank Cammuso ("The Misadventures of Salem Hyde"), Kazu Kibuishi (creator of "Amulet," editor of the "Flight" and "Explorer" anthologies) and Cecil Castellucci ("The Plain Janes," "Year of the Beasts") came together to discuss the overlap between mainstream and alternative comics in a panel moderated by Calvin Reid, senior editor at Publishers Weekly and the co-editor of Publishers Weekly Comics World, but they weren't quite buying the premise.

Reid began by asking the panel whether they considered themselves "mainstream" or "alt."

"When it comes to categorizing myself, I have always had a problem, because I just feel what I do is comics," said Abadzis. "My main intent is about telling a good story. I don't often think about where that is going to go or how that is going to be marketed."

"I think people in the publishing world think their work is mainstream, and people working in superhero comics in the direct market think that their work is mainstream," Kibuishi said. "Popularity determines what's mainstream, I would consider something like 'The Walking Dead' very mainstream, and our books at Scholastic are mainstream, they had a lot of reach too. I think of my work as mainstream but by definition of the word, and not as a genre."

Cammuso had a different take. "I started out alt, 14 years ago, 15 years ago, in Artists Alleys, doing things like SPX, and then I got swept up by the mainstream," he said.

"Does 'alt' mean virtually unpublished?" Reid asked.

"Self-published, basically," Cammuso clarified. "Then I really think the alt market took over. I think people started wanting different genres of comics, and that was alt at that point. Anything that wasn't superheroes was alternative -- in France and other places, that would have been mainstream, but because the mainstream was just superheroes at the time, that was what it was. Deep down I think I was always mainstream, but it was considered [alt] at the time because I draw funny animals."

"I think I have an indy heart," Castellucci said. She previously lived in Montreal, home to publisher Drawn & Quarterly as well as creators as Julie Doucette, Seth and Chester Brown. "To me, they were giants," she said. Her first full-length comic, "The Plain Janes," was published by DC's Minx imprint, which she described as "mainstream but trying to be alternative." Now she does work for First Second, a book publisher, and DC Comics. "I am alt in a mainstream world," she said.

"I would consider [Seth] mainstream now," said Cammuso. "He is doing books for Lemony Snicket. I think what happens is a lot of the guys do start as alt guys and as society changes, or culture changes, they become mainstream."

"Where would Jeffrey Brown fit in?" Reid asked, before immediately answering himself. "I guess he would be both."

"I grew up in a comic book world that was dominated by the direct market," Reid said. "As a professional now, I cover the book market and how that has transformed the comics world." Has that made the alt/mainstream divide less prominent, as reader embrace graphic novels and perhaps push superheroes to the side, he wondered.

When "The Plain Janes" was first published, Castellucci said the big chain bookstores would place them in the graphic novel section rather than the young adult section. "Now they put graphic novels in the YA section," she said. "I think that is an enormous signal that things are definitely moving towards the mainstream."

"It's a step in the right direction," said Abadzis. "If they are not categorized as comics, as graphic novels, people will find them. To a certain extent, we do respond to the market."

That prompted Reid to ask the creators who their work was intended for. "When you are working, is there an audience in your head?" he asked.

"I think of how readers react to the book more than how it is going to be perceived," Kibuishi said. "My focus has always been creating something that someone is going to enjoy over the course of the next hour or two hours, and hopefully creating a memory. I'm not focused on the content so much as the creation of a good memory -- the "Amulet" books I think of almost less like a book but more like a machine or device that provides a joyful experience for a couple of hours and hopefully if they remember it, they will want to experience it again the same way you experience a ride at Disneyland over the years -- once you ride a ride, it's not like that ride is done. You want to go back and relive it because you like the memory of the first ride."

"I try to write my books for the kid who had a miserable day," Cammuso said. "His parents have yelled at him for something, he's had a real terrible day, and I hope he gets to pick up my book and it takes him someplace better. If I can make him happy for a couple of minutes, I think my job is done."

"Most of my books, my prose novels and graphic novels, are about the outsider, the alternative kids -- that's what I was growing up -- the odd ducks," Castellucci said. The books themselves are odd ducks as well: "I am very interested in hybrids, and that is not a very simple thing to market," she said. "I can't worry about that. When I did 'Year of the Beast,' which is alternating chapters of prose and graphic novels, I couldn't worry about where they are going to place it; I just have to do what the book wants to be. My job as an artist is to do that and to serve the story in the best way, and it's someone else's job to figure out how they are going to put that out in the world."

Abadzis asked the group if they have a specific age group in mind, "or do you leave that up to the marketing department?"

"That is internal memo stuff," said Kibuishi, recalling a conversation about "Amulet" with his agent, Judy Hansen, who asked him what age group the book was for. "I said 'I think they are 10 and 14,' and she said 'They can't be 10 and 14, they are 8 and 12,' because that was the market distinction. Middle grade is 8 and 12.'

"It's never discussed in the book," Kibuishi continued. "I knew a 14-year-old would enjoy it as much as a 12-year-old or a 13-year-old. I understood it from a marketing perspective. As the years go by, I understand it is important to be able to communicate what you are producing to a parent who is not going to read it before they hand it over to their kids. They want to be sure that they are handing over something safe that is safe for the kids -- and if there is a clear distinction that it is for somebody in that age group, it makes life a little bit easier for them, so I have realized over time that I have to clearly state to somebody that I am making middle-grade fiction."

"It depends on the kid," Castellucci said. "There are some 10-year-olds who are extremely sophisticated, and they can handle anything, and then there are some 14-year-olds who have no skin on their body, they are walking around skinless, and they are very, very sensitive. I always try not to worry about having an internal memo somewhere else. I just write the book."

"I have people say my 5-year-old or my 6-year-old has read this book, or my 12-year-old -- the range is so wide that if I were to sit down and think 'I am going to write this for a six-year-old or I'm going to write this for a seven-year-old, that would be counterproductive," said Cammuso.

"The comics reading community can be very stratified," Reid said, pointing out the different types of comics -- manga, superheroes, indie comics. "Is it making your life as an artist easier because maybe there is an audience out there who is not locked in to presumption of what is good, they are just looking for a good story? How do you see the traditional comics market and readership playing out in this new era of really diverse genres and comics in bookstores as well as in comic shops?"

"When I see diverse genres, it's a sign of a healthy industry," Kibuishi said. "There are enough readers in the space that you can create subspaces. I don't think we are there right now with all ages comics. There isn't someone who says 'I'm an 'Amulet' reader,' or 'a 'Smile' reader' -- they are the same person. We have become a sub-genre because it is still so small."

"I feel like middle grade comics and little kid comics are getting very healthy in terms of having that diversity," Castellucci said, "but I still feel like there are not enough contemporary young adult graphic novels."

"Do you see the readership that's out there now as essentially a new generation?" asked Reid. "I was talking with a comics artist, Paul Pope, who said to me 'We are living in a new world -- people love my work who don't even know about Jack Kirby.' Is that a good thing or a bad thing?"

"I think we are living in a golden age," said Abadzis. "There is so much diverse work that caters to all kinds of tastes, very sophisticated storytelling -- I am talking about all age ranges, not just YA and kids -- and you can go into a comics store and find so much that caters to every taste. Fifteen years ago that wasn't the case. It is now, and that is an extremely healthy state of affairs."

"The hope is that if you discover movies or if you discover novels or if you discover fairy tales or if you discover comic books, the hope is that you enter in one way and if you really love it you discover Jack Kirby -- you go back to the root of what it is," said Castellucci.

According to Cammuso, even Kirby had no idea how influential he would be. "People were tearing the covers off these things and sending them back," he said. "They were practically worthless. But it made such a mark on enough people that they kept it for generation to generation and now we are making movies about it, making theme parks about it, they really left a mark. That is the thing that is going on right now with kids' literature: We are making a mark on kids, but we don't know what is going to happen 10 or 15 years down the road."

During the question and answer session, an audience member asked how much of the alt/mainstream divide was cultural.

"I definitely think it is cultural," said Cammuso. "It's also social mores and things like that. I can't imagine that right now someone like Michael DeForge would be considered mainstream. I think he is alternative, but maybe in 20 years or 15 years -- who knows? Look at 'Adventure Time.' A bunch of alt guys are going into it, and that is becoming mainstream."

"People's perceptions are widening," Abadzis said. "They are accepting crazy artwork on the TV that maybe they wouldn't have accepted 10 or 15 years ago."

Even so, Kibuishi said, maybe the question of alt versus mainstream really isn't all that important. The situation reminded him of the end of 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' where Indiana Jones tells Marion to look away from the ghosts escaping the ark. "That's kind of the way I treat my work," he said. "I sort of look away from all that. I find it interesting, and I poke my head out a little bit like a gopher just to see what's going on outside, and then I go back but my focus is always on the one-on-one experience between me and that reader out there who is going to pick up this book. I think that is really important."

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