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Three Thoughts
posted February 20, 2005

1. Please Answer My Stupid Question

Here's something I never quite understood, and maybe one of you can explain it to me. Why are so many comics published? It doesn't hit you unless you step back for a second, but there is just an astounding number of comics produced these days. And it's not just a bunch of companies I've never heard of making comics I'll never see, although there are plenty of those. It's like an attack on all fronts.

I cover comics with a portion of a my professional life, and I might fail a quiz on exactly what Humanoids is up to the next few months. Or where Wildstorm stands. Or which X-book has the students in it and which has the dimenson-hoppers. Or which company is Adhouse and which one is Absence of Ink. Or which publishing house hired Madden and Abel for their new graphic novel line and which publishing house hired June Brigman. Who has the vampires again? Who has the robots? It took me two months to tell the ADV Manga book from Tokyopop's, and now there are manga companies going out of business I've never had the chance to learn about.

Given how many people are producing work that at least has a chance of being widely distributed, one would think this is the most successful industry on earth. It would be more successful if the wealth were distributed in a different way, but I'm not sure if it's successful as any issue of Previews might indicate.

I know part of the reason is that the economics of comics improve with numbers. Mainstream companies have their market share battles. I'm sure some books are published for various political reasons specific to a company that might not see the light of day otherwise. But are we perhaps choking on all this pulp? Would a smaller Previews benefit retailers, a smaller publishing line at a major benefit those books that remain with increased attention and publicity, fewer big releases from manga house allow potential hit franchises to be spread out over a few more years?

Should comics be a party to which everyone's invited?

2. Comics Is Whiter Than You May Think

The Seattle Times' new article on the issue of race and comic books suffers from the assumption that comics operates the same throughout its various sub-communities. Logic dictates that companies that derive a large part of their income acting as licensed property herders and responsible to stockholders are going to have a different view on issues than companies that publish comics authors and are owned by one or two people and responsible only to their tastes and the ability to survive. The flopsweat emanating from DC Comics executive Dan Didio's strange statements reflect his company's more difficult general position, although I'm not sure I think much of the "we've got one black person on every team" claim and I'm not sure I even believe claims of an increasingly diverse workforce and freelancer pool, atlhough I admit that's just a hunch on my part. Fantagraphics co-owner Gary Groth gets closer to one truth on the matter when he notes that comics is a whitebread industry. But that's really an understatement. It's the weight of history that really works against comics' diversity. Unlike other entertainment forms, American comic books are so conservative and so locked into a model that enables this certain profitability while crushing outside competition that the likelihood of tastes of any kind outside of the appetites of comics' core audience being satisfied anytime soon seems very, very unlikely.

Put another way, it's hard for anyone to crash a party that's being held with the curtains down in someone's parents' basement. And I'm not sure anyone is promised a good enough time to get people made to feel unwelcome just in terms of numbers to stick around without major passion on their part taking hold. Manga was able to start a party down the street by virtue of a fortuitous confluence of cultural and economic factors that I don't see repeating anytime soon. Those interested in alternative comics were able to sneak upstairs and break into the parents' liquor cabinet, but only after four major cycles where such content failed to catch, and with only limited returns (Side issue: why weren't there any major black underground cartoonists? Grass Green springs to mind, but 1) he wasn't quite a first-tier talent and 2) he came from fandom, not a wider culture of protest.).

My guess would be that there aren't more comics targeted to a black readership or coming from black authors because despite incremental gains there really aren't significantly more comics targeted to anything other than the same readership comics has had for years. The kind of sustained effort to make a diverse marketplace for more than a select few seems beyond comics, period, at least by itself. And it will take a sustained effort. Recently we've heard a lot about the marriage of hip-hop culture and manga, and while such an effort sounds promising, the BookScan numbers I've seen for some of the most hyped books in this sub-category, those numbers have totally sucked. There's no magic bullet.

3. Are We Saying Goodbye to a Whole Way of Doing Comics?

imageThat same Times article brings up Ho Che Anderson's King, which I believe is out this month but has to be enjoying the least heralded dropping of a major work since, unfortunately, last summer's Birth of a Nation.

One thing that's really interesting about Anderson's book is that it's a rare complete graphic novel in a illustration-focused comics style that draws from other media in a way that provides an experience closer to fractured writing or non-mainstream film -- a kind of Ralph Steadman school, perhaps where the individual illustrations storm the reader in such a way they most be processed at a completely different rate and pace than the text with which they're presented. Most American comic book readers are probably familiar with this general approach through the work of Bill Sienkiewicz.

Reading King, with its various confessional moments and shifting viewpoints and changes in style and the almost poster-design look to the pages, something may hit you like it hit me. How long has it been since we've seen a big work like this? Does anyone in mainstream comics other than Ashley Wood work like this anymore? Does anyone other than Wilfred Santiago and Ho Che Anderson work in that style that do comics outside of the American mainstream? It can be really rewarding to read comics like that, because so much can be communicated through the power and effectiveness of the art, the clash of approaches, that doesn't go down in the smooth lines of animated-influence art or the propulsion of manga, or even the dynamic form-first work of American mainstream. Is it simply too much work to make comics like this? The chops of all these artists are incredible. Are we stuck with a very limited conception of what comics narrative can mean?