Master Of The Obvious: Issue #24

Wed, January 12th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Comic books have existed for almost 70 years. Maybe it's time we took them seriously.

The word "seriously" elicits panic or derision in our industry. Professionals tend to glare at anyone who uses it with a mixture of pity and paranoia, as if that person is either brain-damaged or potentially homicidal. Fanboys freeze in their tracks, terrified they may be asked to justify their tastes. Oddly, would-be writers and artists, trying to break in, publicly go out of their way to protest just how unseriously they take comics, like a badge of honor that buys them credibility. Then someone always hauls out the old "making comics fun again" bromide, and discussion disintegrates into warring pep rallies. (Of geriatrics at their 60th anniversary high school reunions.)

"Comic books have existed for almost 70 years. Maybe it's time we took them seriously."

Then there's the familiar litany of "if they were supposed to be serious, they wouldn't call them comic books!"

So let's get it straight. I don't mean I want comics to be ponderous with "important" verbiage. I'm not saying there shouldn't be humor in them, or that characters should be humorless. I don't mean comics should revolve around social issues, or have downbeat endings, or that obeisance should be paid to old storylines, or that we should be encouraging college courses on the theory and history of comics, or try to lure the interest of cultural elites. I don't mean we should act in concert to impose restrictions on genre or style in any way.

I mean we're as good as any other medium, and better than many other businesses, and it's time we started acting like it.

There's an interesting sort of an inferiority complex at work. I see it at work all the time. From publishers and distributors, through talent, to comics shop owners and readers, we constantly denigrate our business and what we do. It's easy. We've spent almost our entire existence as throwaway trash, and we're all aware of it. Half the time we act as though throwaway trash is what we should do, because that's mostly all we've done. A common reaction is "who in their right mind would take comics seriously?" While insulting, it's at least an understandable reaction - if you confuse form with content. There've been an awful lot of bad comics produced over the years.

"...we're as good as any other medium, and better than many other businesses, and it's time we started acting like it."

And bad novels. Bad movies. Bad music. Bad TV. Bad theater. Bad food. Bad paintings. Bad sculpture.

All those things are still taken seriously. No one presumes a medium responsible for 'N'Sync is automatically incapable of producing Beethoven. (Or vice versa, depending on your tastes.) No one suggests Mack Bolan novels somehow invalidate Thomas Pynchon's work, or that even a million bad novels suggest a good one will never be created, or that it's not worth publishing a good novel because it will never have an audience as big as a bad one. Or that THREE'S COMPANY invalidates HOMICIDE: LIFE ON THE STREET.

Yet we toss around assumptions like these about comics without a second thought. Worse yet, we let other people get away with it, people who don't know a damn thing about comics in the first place, and it's hard to credibly say they're wrong and we know we did it to ourselves.

We've all known about the flaws in comics for a long time. It was no secret 15 years ago that we'd boxed ourselves in as far as content, style and theme went, and we had to break out. We knew it when we chucked it all 8 years ago to rabidly pursue fads and fast bucks. Hell, I talk to publishers of t&a comics, and even they know it. But everyone's too busy just trying to survive to do anything about it.

I don't want to survive. I want to do better than survive. Way better.

The problem is obvious, and I've said it before: we don't have an audience because we're simply not putting out a competitive product. The 32 page $2.50 color comic simply isn't a cost effective (for the reader) package anymore. We've collapsed into a narrow bandwidth content that's been recycled so many times - usually in the name of "making comics fun again" (but more in the name of assuaging publisher jitters) - it reads like an nth generation photostat. And every time anyone tries to change the course of things, the pedestrian little forces inside the industry line up to make sure it doesn't happen.

If publishers and distributors took things seriously, they wouldn't make decisions based on an unconscious dictum that genre is content. If you've ever pitched anything, you know the routine: "we tried that already, and it didn't work." It never seems to occur to them that maybe it wasn't a matter of genre, maybe the content stunk! Maybe if they had encouraged dealers to try the series, or at least not buried it under a thousand "sure things." (I had one publisher tell me conclusively that women aren't interested in comics because they put out a comic aimed at women and it died. A comic filled with women of Herculean proportions in unnatural, smutty poses knocking each other around in one long fight scene, and on top of that sold exclusively in comics shops, and there's no female audience for it. That's a mystery that'll never be solved.) They'd be formulating "cradle-to-grave" publishing strategies, with material aimed at each age group and designed to encourage people to start reading comics and to stick with them as their tastes grow more sophisticated.

"The 32 page $2.50 color comic simply isn't a cost effective (for the reader) package anymore."

If writers, artists and editors took things seriously, they'd stop regurgitating old motifs and find new stories to tell. They'd make use of the vast array of narrative, storytelling, and artistic techniques developed over the long history of the business instead of narrowing in on whatever the whim of the moment seems to be. They wouldn't play to their own fixations, and if they're following the leads of others, which most do, they'd deconstruct the work that's appealing to audiences now and see what of it they could bring to their own work, not to graft a few superficial elements onto the same old thing but to try to understand what's communicating and what isn't. They'd be actively trying to create material that would draw audiences back to comics, not just pander to the prejudices of the still dwindling stock of readers who each month get just a little more overloaded on the current material and start to wonder if maybe there wasn't a better way to spend their money. They'd be working out what makes comics different from other media, which of those differences work better, and they'd be playing to that instead of floundering in reactionary creative reflexes born of their childhood reading and never really fed by anything resembling introspection. If the talent took comics seriously, they wouldn't spend so much time being so dismissive of the medium.

If dealers were taking things seriously, they'd be locating and designing their stores to facilitate buying. They'd be approaching their customers to learn what they'd like to see instead of imposing their own tastes on them. They'd be doing whatever they could to get customers into the shops instead of doing what they can to drive them out.

If readers were taking this seriously, they'd be roving ambassadors for the comics industry. There's still no better advertising than word of mouth. Every time you read a comic you like and don't tell someone else about, don't try to get a new reader interested, you're helping to kill the business. Every time you hear some jackass dismiss comics as only fit for halfwits and addled toddlers, and you don't speak up, you're tacitly telling everyone else that what's being said is true. We need the readers to speak up, to attract attention, to share an enthusiasm strong enough to draw others in. If there is no enthusiasm, you need to express that too, unconditionally.

Of course, there are exceptions in every group. There are even exceptions to the general trends still eating away at the business. Fantagraphics, for instance, is experiencing a steady increase in sales, even though most of their material isn't aimed at comics shops. Some comics shops are full service and very profitable, and carry a nearly total array of comics on top of it. There's progressive talent, vocal and intelligent readers.

"Every time you hear some jackass dismiss comics as only fit for halfwits and addled toddlers, and you don't speak up, you're tacitly telling everyone else that what's being said is true."

There just aren't enough of any of them. The medium of comics is never going away, but the business has never been shakier. No more excuses. Get serious.

If we were all taking comics seriously, we'd be envisioning the future instead of spending an eternal present wallowing in the past.

Thanks to the millions and millions of MOTO readers who replied to the @ question last week. The upshot: while there are a number of international names for the @ sign, as laid out at http://www.herodios.com/herron_tc/atsign.html, and one reader put forth the name "sirculay" (defined by the OED as "circlet," but neither is connected to @ and I haven't found anywhere that verifies the claim), the official name is… the @ sign. Or, as the Encarta World Dictionary puts it, @=at. Oh well.

The conclusion of OUT FOR BLOOD, #4, is still on sale from Dark Horse Comics (with cool art by Gary Erskine) and so is STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN #3, from Chaos Comics. I just turned in the script of X-MAN #63, and all goes well there. Beautiful book, and Warren's spin on the character is terrific.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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