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

May 23, 2010

Three Arguments We Could Be Having

Riffing off of a line or two in an interview with yours truly conducted by Noah Berlatsky, Sean Collins at Robot 6 made a list of comics arguments that could go away. The readers of that site suggested several more. I thought their suggestions at least reasonable in nearly every case. I will probably find a place for most of the old arguments for the rest of my life, as I personally learn and advance very little in the overall scheme of things. (I can do ten minutes on Beta vs. VHS, and don't get me started on baseball's Designated Hitter.) I recognize, however, that there is a place for new arguments in comics, discussions that should be going on around the Internet and in convention bars and on the train between Los Angeles and San Diego, debates that might better reflect the more pressing issues of the day or at least give voice to concerns that are squeezed out by another round of complaints about those downer hate-the-world crybabies making all the alternative comics.

Here are three more interesting questions for comics people, 2010, at least from my point of view. I'll add more as they come to me.

image1. Does Reprinting Archival Comics Material Have A Moral Component?
We live in a Golden Age of comic strip reprints, a market where we can read not just the current hits through multi-tiered programs at Andrews McMeel but where we find a variety of publishers -- including AM -- packaging together near- or complete runs of strips that have passed the way of the Dodo. If you were to stumble into a bookstore boasting an employee with a serious desire to sell comic strip reprints or a comic shop that can handle a number of these projects within it overall financial profile, you could find books ranging from Little Orphan Annie to Dick Tracy to Mary Perkins: On Stage to Bringing Up Father to Peanuts to Prince Valiant to Bloom County to Doonesbury to Betty and Billy and Their Love Through The Ages. And you wouldn't be 1/3 done looking.

There are also a range of comic book reprinting projects that range from the systemic (the DC comics archives), to the scatter-shot but still wide-ranging (the Marvel Essentials books), the legacy-driven (Vertical's devotion to Osamu Tezuka), to the specifically targeted (Chip Kidd's book of Jiro Kuwata manga starring Batman and Robin), to the eclectic (the Dan Nadel-edited collections like Art In Time; the Craig Yoe-edited books at IDW like the book collecting Krazy Kat's "Tiger Tea" storyline.

This is mostly wonderful material, all of it represents comics of some sort of interest on some level, and as is the case with most other art forms one could conceivably read nothing but amazing older material until the end of one's days.

What doesn't get explored is the moral dimension of such publishing. Dan Nadel identified the core issue in a recent panel in Toronto: the idea of such collections doing right by the authors involved. Nadel meant this mostly, I think, in an aesthetic sense. There is only a limited window for each artist's work: a book that collects sub-standard material visually or is otherwise poorly conceived, or is poorly executed, can be a crime against that artist's potential legacy and shapes not only the future debate on an artist or a feature's merit but provides financial barriers against future projects that could show the work in a different, better light. There are other concerns. Another potential moral consideration is revenue -- very few artists whose work has slipped into the public domain or remains cemented within a corporate structure receive payment for the use of their work, sometimes to the point of great and embarrassing imbalance (a modern cover artist getting a check for copying an old-timer's style while the family of that old-timer doesn't even get a complimentary copy). It is also worth considering the issue of credit, whether or not artists particularly in "hosted" presentations of their work receive the proper amount of the spotlight for having created certain works in the first place.

These are all difficult conversations to have: no one wants to talk about financial considerations on any level, it's hard to get at what exactly constitutes an aesthetic betrayal of an artist's work and there are easy defenses to be made on behalf of projects that make a lot of money ("But we made that guy a lot of money.") and those that don't ("Do you realize I'm doing this on their behalf for basically no money?") Sometimes both arguments can be made. That doesn't mean we shouldn't keep having the discussion. Even the notions that sting or that force us to justify ourselves have a purpose in the long run.

image2. Why Are So Many Direct Market Comics Shops Still Female Unfriendly?
One of the reasons I'm so hard on the Direct Market system of comic shops and hobby stores is that I have an inkling as to how awesome they can be. I love what the elite comics shops can mean to a specific customer base in their area; I love what they can do for certain market segments. I also have a long enough memory to appreciate the numbers on a lot of different kinds of comics that were moving through a system of mostly sell-everything stores 25 years ago, just before a new breed of scumbag poisoned that system for personal gain, younger publishers stomped over it without realizing or caring what they were doing, and the big companies roared into market share contests that stuffed so much material without corresponding attention to the infrastructure so as to give the collective a kind of cape and cowl diabetes that continues to casts a pall of sickness over the entire system. Combine that with a mostly under-capitalized publishing class and a distribution system that while enjoying obvious successes in some areas still acts in others like it's 1988 and their partners should bid on services, and you have some real problems.

Nothing irks me as a sign that comic shops have calcified to their detriment as much as the fact that so many still seem to be specifically resistant to female customers. Being repulsed by a comic book shop seems to me in a lot of cases a perfectly rational response. I'm an adult male, 6'2'', can as of my last birthday still bench press my body weight, fully nerd conversant, and in the last decade I've shopped in at least two comic books that sort of frightened me. One was down a stairwell in a church's basement with an entryway full of standing water, a Lovecraft story-like gateway that always seemed like it could be hiding someone with a tire iron. I used to bend over and stare into the shadows from the opposite side before going down the stairs. Another shop I used for a while was so filled with junk and dirt wall to ceiling and had a proprietor so scary that it actually felt at all times that I was buying illegal porno and the guy selling it to me might stab me in the neck. Seriously, that second one I had to sit on the floor to look at some of the older magazines and I always sat facing the counter. Not exactly Nordstrom's. And this doesn't even get into how retail staff might conduct themselves or the content of the material displayed might bring with it some rational objection. I have plenty of female friends that love comics and will shop at a DM store with me, but over all my years I have left more of my female friends sitting in the car than I've ever been able to convince to come into stores -- at least more than once -- and I bet that's true for a lot of people. I once took three girls 6-14 I was baby-sitting into a pretty average comic shop -- the girls all read comics -- and within five minutes each went to sit in the car. I quickly rang up and we sped away. Their parents and I joked with them at dinner about the Scary Comics Shop, and they laughed about it, but the more I think about, the more that wasn't all that funny an afternoon.

Comics is a secondary art form. It has undeniable appeal but relative to that wave of positive feeling a small audience of people willing to buy, buy deep, and buy wide. And yet one of the primary systems for selling comics to such an audience seems geared to limit what gets sold and to whom: an appalling lack of regional coverage, a single and restrictive retail model, a near-religious focus on a primary genre, neglecting entire product categories or expressions of the art form because it's not something they feel their store is interested in selling (the winnowing out of alt-comics pamphlets; the non-starter for most shops that was manga). All of these things are problems, but nothing should gall more than the idea that any customer feel less than welcome in a retail establishment on the front lines of commerce for an entire industry. This should be a base-line consideration, every single store that drives away customers in this fashion should be mocked and censured, the big companies should take a much more active interest in how they're represented community to community and I'd argue that this is important to discuss again now because it seems like very little came of such discussions 20 years ago. There is no other art form where I dispense everyday advice about how to enjoy it and make routine, casual qualifications based on someone's sex. I've never sent a prose reader to Amazon because Amazon doesn't leer; I'd like to stop doing it in comics. I think we should talk about this until it stops, and then maybe we can talk about the rest of it.

image3. What Are All These Superhero Comics Really Saying?
The prism for talking about most comics, but particularly mainstream comics, is their monetary success, either relative to the industry in which those comics come out or for their value within the wider entertainment world. I'd like to see more discussions on what these comics are actually saying about the concepts they engage. One reason is I think the conversation would be deeply disturbing and thus somewhat hilarious to have. Forcing people used to justifying creativity through marketing language to actually discuss the ideas they're putting out there can be a fun ride. It's not that comics don't exist as items that are marketed; they do. But they also exist as a vehicle for ideas, for stories, and that almost never gets discussed except under a strange construction that relies on the notion of fan entitlement. That's too bad.

The way comics work as a forum for ideas offers up a variety of things to discuss. One is identification, inclusion, the way that a comic can reflect a reality of gender and age and race that either has a place for you or doesn't. When you kill off a character, you're indeed making a shocking move that shows just how serious the storyline is, or whatever goofy way it gets phrased in the next day's CBR interview, but you're probably also offing some poor younger reader's favorite character, some fictional construct with whom some group of readers identify for some reason or another, a reason you probably provided them. Isn't that just as important to talk about as whether the numbers of who and what is killed breaks one way or another? Some characters also embody abstract principles that are frequently betrayed by the soap opera elements of twist, turn, shock and surprise. When characters that extol the virtues of great responsibility act in an irresponsible fashion and are rewarded in some way, that can confuse the effectiveness of an idea you're foisting on people as a core strength of said character. If you really think your characters have cultural power, or even iconic status, switching up what makes them that way for some sort of temporary oomph in this year's mega-crossover just weakens your ability to communicate those primary ideas over the long term. Santa always stays on message. Superman might consider following Santa's lead. This kind of thing is exacerbated with the editorial control these companies favor, as you don't even get the same kind of back and forth and correctives between creators you might of seen 20-30 years ago.

Mostly, though, I'd just like to see that kind of comic held to the basic standards to which all popular entertainments are held. What do these stories actually mean? I read all these Image comics about these apocalyptic confrontations and the nature of good and evil -- are they saying anything of value about these concepts, and if they're aren't, isn't that worth noting, too? I barely watch Lost, and I still know it has something to say about the spiraling costs of bad parenting; I read all of Final Crisis like three times and I couldn't tell you about one idea it extolled beyond looking up its own ass and giving a thumbs-up to the general, grand spectacle of imaginative superhero comics. If comics say something about the cultural zeitgeist, what exactly is it they're saying? The current cycle where the monies made justify every last act of goosing core concepts and telling increasingly cynical and unpleasant stories, and the criticism that mostly comes in response of pointing out outlandish aspects of this and saying "Holy crap, that's idiotic!" -- both of those things could make way for some real conversation, I'd say. I laugh whenever I see superheroes standing around at yet another funeral that probably won't take in their disrespectful-looking circus outfits, but I'm not sure I know why I have my reaction and why other fans join them in their Iron Eyes Cody impersonations. If nothing else, the generation of people for whom such characters seem to hold unquestioned, unimpeachable importance is going to start dying in droves in a quarter century. Getting back to the ideas behind such stories seems to me a better way to understand how the stories working with such ideas might continue, or if they're not destined to continue at all -- a World War II-era fan of Westerns time travels to 2010 and almost immediately starts shrieking -- help nail down an important aspect of their legacy.


So that's three. I'll try to come up with more. It's depressing to me that we keep arguing the same things over and over again and rarely if ever move forward or at least move on. There's a lot out there to talk about.
posted 8:30 am PST | Permalink

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