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Monday, January 14, 2008

 

Skeptical About Comics?

A couple of years ago, a friend teaching a high school class on comics filled with resistant kids asked me to write an apologia for the form. Hence the references to incredibly past-sell-date pop culture toward the end--not to mention a sense that we're well past the time when comics would need to be explained. Anyway, here goes, insufferable tone, stereotyping and all:

Skeptical about comics? You’re part of a very select club…basically 99% of the U.S. population.

For some comic book readers, part of being a fan is having a complex about it. Some of us feel compelled to “prove” that our hobby/habit/whatever isn’t pathetic, isn’t a sign of arrested development or a way to get grade school kids into the back of the van. We blanket our non-comics reading friends with examples of comics we adore. “You have to read Watchmen!” “You’ve just got to check out Love & Rockets!” When they arch their eyebrows, when TV shows treat comics as shorthand for illiteracy, when people we love flip lazily through our favorite comic only to shrug and say “I don’t get it,” we take it personally. We passionately insist that comics can be as valid as art on one hand (poetry, serious novels, painting) and popular entertainment on the other (summer blockbuster movies, hit songs, etc.) Our love for something so unpopular makes us outcasts and we get defensive about it—even as we tell ourselves that comics’ very unpopularity proves our refined tastes. If you love a musician or a writer or a movie that the mainstream ignores, you might know the feeling. You want everybody to know about them, love them, give them the respect they deserve—but you also want to keep them to yourself.

Also, because comics aren’t that easy to find, they tend to attract devoted fans who care to make the effort to seek them out, while repelling casual readers who might pick up a comic now or then but can’t be bothered to drive to a special store populated by geeks, where it smells like a sandwich from Subway—even though nobody there has eaten one. That’s the stereotype, anyway. And it’s one that the big superhero publishers have catered to, producing comics expressly for the obsessed fans, with backstories so complex that it’s nearly impossible for a new reader to pick up a random issue of X-Men and know what’s going on without a decoder ring.

Because of this tendency, the problem comics fans face is that many comics really are junk—not worth wasting your time on even if your precise goal is to waste your time. There are many reasons why comics are no longer mass culture, no longer sold by the millions at every corner store and newsstand like they were in the 1940s and 1950s—some reasons include limited distribution, competition from TV and video games, CGI action movies that outdo any special effect a comic artist might draw. But one of the biggest reasons is that so many comics suck. It’s hard to see through the clutter. And the clutter exists at both ends of the spectrum: stupid yet obscure comics about steroid junkies in capes pounding each other into paste, as well as pretentious “art’ comics written by skinny white guys who never got over their anger about being shoved into lockers while the cute girls laughed.

Statistics show that if you don’t start smoking as a kid or teenager, you probably won’t as an adult. It’s not much different with comics, aside from the lung cancer. If you haven’t enjoyed comics or even read them by the time you’re through puberty, it’s a hard sell to convince you that you should try them afterward. Even after decades of serious comics for adults about sex, drug use, the Holocaust, growing old, getting sick, everything under the sun--most people still associate comics and cartooning with stupid little kids. That’s just how it is.

But I’m supposed to tell you why you ought to read comics. Because despite everything I just said, you absolutely should read comics—for the same reason you should check out MF Doom albums or see The Life Aquatic, watch Gilmore Girls or listen to Little Steven’s Underground Garage on the radio. Because you should always make an effort to seek out the best, smartest stuff in any medium. Because there are comics out there that will make you think, make you nervous, make you laugh, get you all excited, make you cry. And I mean YOU. You specifically. There are comics being published right now that address your particular interests. Comics can be about anything. All the manga from Japan proves that—giant robots, cowboys, high school romances, demons, pop music, ninjas, gay ninjas inside giant robots in a battle of the bands against cowboy demons at the high school dance. Comics can be silly or subversive, tragic or optimistic. Sometimes all at once. And as Scott McCloud explains, there are things comics can do that no other kind of artistic expression can duplicate.

For instance: the cartoonist Chris Ware has a comic strip called “Big Tex,” about a dimwitted cowboy whose father openly hates him. Takes him for rides and leaves him alone in the woods. Calls him stupid and worthless. One particular “Big Tex” comic strip is broken into a dozen panels, each showing a part of Tex’s house and yard. You don’t see any people, just the house, a tree, and the word balloons of Tex meekly absorbing verbal abuse from his father. Taken all together, the individual pictures add up to a bigger picture of the whole house. But each separate panel takes place at a different point in time—so as you read the strip from left to right, top to bottom, the panels also add up to a life, as you get the story of Tex’s entire miserable existence from childhood to adulthood. All within one unmoving picture of a house, broken into fragments, just as Tex’s life has been broken into fragments. My description can’t do it justice, can’t really explain the impact. In this case, you really do have to see it. But that’s the power of comics, what makes them special. They’re a separate language, visual and verbal elements intertwined into something different than either. Because comics creators can shape panels any way they want, and because you can read at your own pace, comics are free to speed up and slow down time in ways that movies can’t duplicate. They can show details that books are forced to explain.

I love comics because…well, I’ve never known how not to. They’ve been part of my life since I was three years old. I loved them then for their absurd invention—flying dogs from outer space, magic rings, heroes throwing monsters into the sun. I love comics now for some of the same escapist reasons, but also because many of the independent comics I follow these days offer the most personal expression you’ll find in the popular arts. There are far fewer layers of producers, directors, editors, management people telling a comic book artist what to say or how to say it in order to make more money. It’s straight from the artist’s head to the page to the reader—or at least closer to that ideal than anything else I can think of.

Skeptical about comics? Good. It pays to be skeptical about everything. But don’t let that stop you from trying a few. You might even like them.

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