Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

December 7, 2008

CR Sunday Feature: Why There’s Hope

By Tom Spurgeon

Part of the problem with discussing the current recession is that no one really knows what's going to happen next. Until we know, all opinion seems valid. It's hard to have a public conversation about the economy when one person is making comparisons to the early 1980s and the next is making comparisons to the first ten minutes of Mad Max. The only way we're going to know for sure if we're in the midst of a few months of skyrocketing unemployment figures or at the beginning of 36 months straight of same is to live through the next three years and see. Even then we may not know the full extent of what happened. Everyone experiences economic hardship differently, too. Some people have been in distress since the mid-1990s, some families of my acquaintance haven't recovered from the early 1980s, and thousands of people were laid off just last week.

In an age where punditry has supplanted reportage as the glamor occupation of journalism, it's easy to forget how much a dialogue will change when it's rooted in real-world actions rather than the asserted inevitability of same. It may not be as much fun to talk about the future of the syndicated comic strip on the Internet as it was in the late 1990s when the field was wide open, but United Media posting its archives and King Features launching an on-line newspaper partnering program allow for a conversation with greater connection to the reality of the situation over one that traffics in fanciful possibility. We can now discuss the future of editorial cartooning knowing that a Jim Borgman can leave a Cincinnati Enquirer. And so on.

So given that some economic distress is ongoing, that it's likely more could be on the way, and that the exact shape of the road yet taken is going to be decided by the twists and turns and tire ruts of a car that has yet to drive over that stretch of landscape, I'd like to concentrate on the present. More specifically, I'd like to focus on those elements of the present that give me hope for comics in the days ahead, no matter what happens. It's not that I believe hope is so necessary that it must be manufactured. I just think that operating from a position of possibility rather than one of helplessness and despair better reflects where comics is right now. In other words, I don't value hope as much as I find there are things that, like it or not, make me feel that way. I hope you'll allow me to think out loud about them over the next few days.

The first and most important reason why I'm hopeful for comics in a deepening recession is that comics is as great and valuable and deserving of attention as any popular art form out there right now, and better than most of them.

It's absolutely true that if the current economic crisis deepens and widens to a certain point, no one will care about new comic books, comic strips or editorial cartoons. But I think it's also true that if the economic crisis deepens to a certain point, no one will care about new movies, TV shows, movie or prose, either. As a group, the best comics are as vital, compelling, entertaining and on those terms as outright necessary as the cream of the crop in any other popular art form. Too many folks out there seem to be suggesting, many I think without realizing it, that comics are somehow a more frivolous purchase through time or money than the other media that share its functions as art and entertainment. That's simply not true. Further, I believe that to be a view that hearkens back to the fundamental self-loathing that many older comics fans and pros in particular still carry around like a faded FOOM membership card stuck in the back pocket of a pair of Oshkosh B'Gosh jeans. It's time the world of comics let go of its peculiar brand of shrugged-shoulder self-hatred. Comics needs self-criticism and self-esteem, the courage to say what's wrong and the clarity to see what's right. Things look like they might become bad enough without a self-fulfilling prophecy muscling its way into the conversation.

As much as any current art form matters, comics matter. They matter to you, they matter to me, they matter to the artists that enjoy the pleasure and satisfaction of creating them and they matter to readers to whom they bring the thrill and challenge of art and the comfort and joy of entertainment. We should never act as if comics are a second citizen of the arts industries or as if there's something wrong with asking for fair value in return for what the best comics offer. Comics has had a better decade than the other art forms, and on merit alone should be the last one on which people give up.

Instead of trying to construct some sort of outside-in reality to match a quicksilver conception of how an art form should operate in tough times, including the ridiculous notion of "now it's time to make necessary art," let's take our lead from the art itself and continue to reform an industry, good times or bad, so that it better values those works and in ethical fashion offers an opportunity for their creators to be rewarded. Let's not spend too much time worrying if hard times end up in a bunch of crappy, uninspired market share boosters having a tougher time of hanging in there; let us refocus that energy into insistence that the greatest works deserve twice the audience they have whether people are buying them indiscriminately or saving up left over change to do so.

It's not always easy to look at comics this way, but right now it may be necessary.

I like the writer and comics pundit Steven Grant very much, but I disagree strongly with nearly every single aspect of his recent essay where he declares that comics are soaked with dreariness. It was poorly observed and poorly argued. You can find dreary comics if you want -- they're always around. I submit that the difference between now and years past is that there's more standing in bold relief to that dreariness, not the dreariness itself. It's up to each of us to decide where to place emphasis. I reject in theory and in application Grant's asserted measure for comics of whether or not Mark Millar has become a household name. It's a ridiculous notion, clearly. I can't recall who wrote Frost/Nixon, and I saw it on stage in New York; I don't know the name of the guy who wrote Forrest Gump, either. Instead of a measure that might have an effect on one person making dubious art outside of comics, why don't we consider a standard that might encourage more comics from the best creators and those that aspire to make work like them. Is it more important that Mark Millar has failed to achieve cultural significance almost no one gets or that a Joe Sacco has started being paid enough to make work that's satisfying and rewarding and personally meaningful to him -- and excellent besides? (Sacco's work, incidentally, fails to use Watchmen as a touchstone.)

Further, I reject Grant's notion that there are reasonably only two comics that make a best-of list when I'm as mean a critic as they come and there are comics in the 21-25 position on my rough best-of list that could conceivably crack my top five from just about any year preceding 2003. I refuse to accept Grant's assertion that people are locked into making franchises and trying to hit the big time when the top writing talents at Marvel and DC almost all have personal projects they'd cut their pinky fingers off to see succeed (i.e., Brubaker's Criminal, Fraction's Casanova...) and one of the three biggest stars of book publishing's entry into comics is a Iranian-born woman living in France doing autobio comics. If you don't care for Naruto, you can take comfort in the fact that the same aspect of comics has given us several volumes of Cromartie High School and all of Ode to Kirihito; if you don't like Jeff Kinney's children's book hybrids, there's Brian Selznick and Shaun Tan to consider. There are more self-publishers of value diligently making more personal projects on-line than the entirety of Grant's generation made in paper form of a dozen years of the Dave Sim-led phase of that movement -- with greater, more complete control. Up to a half dozen fine young cartoonists made major book debuts this year. One of the two best strips to launch since Calvin and Hobbes had its first collection. A David B. book shows up at my office and there's so much good work coming out I didn't even know about it in advance. In general, I have no idea what the hell Steven Grant is talking about.

Don't let anyone suggest differently. Comics is an art form worth rallying around. I for one feel more positive and confident that a case on its behalf in good times or bad can be made without blinking, without qualifiers and without apology. If we go down with the rest of the ships in the stormy waters ahead, we're going down with the best looking sails and competitive rigging. If for whatever reason comics doesn't survive the dark days, I'm always going to celebrate the fact that it deserved to. In the meantime, it's on that basis I'll fight for its continued viability and hope you'll join me in doing the same.
posted 7:00 am PST | Permalink

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