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August 3, 2009

Go, Read: The Bridge Is Over

The artist, cartoonist and comics enthusiast Frank Santoro writes about comics conventions, the status of the mainstream/alternative split and artistic traditions. It's an effective piece in that there's a lot of to grab onto, although it's at once so broad in its implications and specific in its examples it's hard to muster a counter-argument or know if one should.

imageA couple of things spring to mind, though. Here's one: I still think of the Direct Market as a potential home for alternative and independent work because a) it's the place where the short-form delivery systems work best and I still believe in short-form delivery systems, b) I still believe that power of a weekly interaction with wide-ranging slices of art is as powerful and evocative an experience for fans of an art form as an experience gorging on, say, Green Lantern comics and nothing but, and c) certain kinds of work being driven out isn't the result of a natural progression in tastes by the audience but is largely the result of artificial pressures by companies obsessed with maximizing short-term profit and winning market share in order to better position themselves as a corporate entity. This is all hugely complicated by various economic factors, such as the comic book becoming about as appealing a package these days as paying full-ticket price every time you want to watch 10 minutes of a movie on your phone, but I think the principles are worth advocating even as the bottom line shifts. Comics are small enough that they really can't afford to embrace any one thing and give another the finger, leave any potential avenue for expression behind. There is something honorable in not leaving a party where you know you belong until you're outright asked to go. That's true of comics shops, where the presence of such art is a large factor in what has made them unique and allowed them to live longer than many similar systems of retail, and it's true of comics conventions, where works and artists like these add some substance to what might a pretty lightweight experience otherwise for thousands of comics' most passionate readers. I hope they stick it out.

Another discussion engendered by this essay is that the split between alternative/mainstream or various traditions and the like isn't for me as pronounced on the ground of a large convention or even in a comics shop as an older one between comics as personal expression and comics as marketing implement, Hollywood ballast and (slightly) cynical profit-generator. At the Comic-Con just past, I didn't feel any significant shift between visiting the table with Los Bros and the table with Darwyn Cooke, or between talking to my friends about Criminal and talking to them about George Sprott. I did feel largely alienated from and not interested at all in, for example, the Image panel I've since heard described to me, despite the presence of "founders" and the engaging banter and high-spirited goofery of so many successful, working pros. I even feel a kinship with the passion of other fandoms as they connect to the substance of what they love even as I'm confused by such fans' ability to live on a diet of being flattered, dressing to match and watching commercials everyone else will see a week from now.

Santoro tells an amusing story about a young artist being confronted with a good piece of Spider-Man art and emphasizing in response that it's Spider-Man, no matter how beautiful the piece in technical terms or even its ability to evoke and inspire. That's a great attitude for an artist to have, and there are choices every creator has to make in terms of meaning and significance that will allow them to create or perhaps even fight them doing so. Not all of us are artists, however. While I can't speak to the importance of connecting the first generation of alternative comics artists to various mainstream comics traditions, I can testify that knowing this may help me understand what I'm seeing as such art is placed in front of me. I don't know if being Spider-Man makes a piece of art less interesting, but I do know that there were Spider-Man comics with a flash of pulp and pop genius to them, a turbulent meditation on negotiating the world of adults and taking responsibility for everything you bring to the table -- with lots of hitting, wisecracks, babes, the greatest arm sling in literary history and a guy in a Rhino jammy. The reason I can tell that Spider-Man from all the rest is that I read the other kinds of comics, too. I'd be lost without comics' heady mix.
posted 4:00 pm PST | Permalink

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