As both of my regular readers have probably noticed, I’m occasionally using this blog to write about things other than comics. Since consistency is the soul of marketing, this is probably not a great idea.
Unfortunately, the idea of writing about comics and comics only makes me a little queasy. In part this is just because I’m twitchy. But in part its because I have serious reservations about where comics is as a genre and where it’s going.
In art and in life, it’s somewhat of a truism to say, “there’s good and bad in everything”. Sure there may be bad art comics…but there’s also good art comics. There may be bad super-hero comics, but there are good super-hero comics too. And so forth.
Obviously, it’s always possible for someone to take a given form and do something interesting with it. I’m sure that if I listened to the entire output of mainstream Nashville radio over the last 20 years, there’d be something that was at least mediocre. But the fact is, genres can be healthy, and they can be the reverse. Sometimes a medium or a part of a medium is at a point where artists working within it are encouraged to do exciting work. Elizabethan drama was just a lot more interesting than mid-18th century drama, for example. Victorian literary novels as a whole are better than literary fiction at the moment. R&B in the oughts is a lot more interesting than R&B was in the 90s (see here for an explanation of why). And so forth.
All of which is a prelude to saying that I think American comics have some serious problems. Most of these have to do with insularity. The direct market super-hero titles (as Dirk Deppey often points out in his blog Journalista) are aimed at an extremely narrow demographic — thirtysomething white guys who have been reading comics for twenty years, basically. They exist (like, say, neo-bop) mostly as nostalgia fetish objects rather than as art, or even entertainment. As a result, the point is not so much quality as knee-jerk formula. The craftsmanship in most is laughable — the fact that hideously ugly computer coloring is standard throughout the industry tells you all you need to know about professional standards and aesthetics.
Alternative comics don’t have those problems — and yet, at the same time, they kind of do. There is certainly a wider imagined audience for non-super-hero titles. But super-heroes still hang over the art comics like giant, four-color, cadavers. Alt comics seem to be constantly looking up nervously at these suspended, bloated monstrosities, feebly protesting, “What that…oh, no, *that* doesn’t have anything to do with me. We just came in together accidentally.” Or to put it another way, alt comics have a huge chip on their shoulders, and they have responded by rejecting everything super-hero in favor of Serious Art — which, alas, often means seriously boring art. Why on earth is autobio and memoir the standard for art comics? Is there an imaginable genre which makes less use of comics’ inherent strengths — the ability to represent fantastic, magical situations with charm and ease? The answer’s pretty clear: it’s the very boringness which appeals. Alt cartoonists are desperate not to be associated with super-heroes, and the best way to do that is by becoming literary fiction. God help us.
Which isn’t to say that comics are (like contemporary poetry) unredeemable or absolutely doomed. Fort Thunder, which looks to visual art rather than to literary fiction, is great. And there’s a whole generation of potential cartoonists growing up who see manga, not super-heroes, as the standard. In moments of hope, I think that in twenty years Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and the Comics Journal will all be seen as a quaint detour in the history of the medium, and comics will be a hugely popular, aesthetically vital medium mostly created by women in a manga style. That’s not because I hate Chris Ware or the Comics Journal ( I don’t). It’s just because I think, overall, it would be a better direction to go.
So, anyway, if you read this blog and conclude that I hate comics, its only because I kind of do.