Poplife: Issue #48

Thu, January 9th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

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GARAGE

POPLIFE is a collection of excerpts from my work journal. There is no specific form or function the column serves other than to allow the reader to see what my experience in my first year as a comics-writer is like. Some weeks I get work done, so I talk about work. Some weeks I don't get any work done, so I ramble incoherently. POPLIFE's purpose is to provide a glimpse behind the curtain of my specific process.

Now feels like a good time to outline some ideas that have percolated into a new kind of idiom, stabbing and grasping at the eel-y bastards the best I can, to see how it looks and how it sounds when plunked down on the page. And, as Chris Allen has pointed out, people do in fact read what gets plunked down here in spite of what I like to tell myself. So let's see what happens, let's see what growing up in public does to young ideas.

I tend to look at comics-- as an artform, medium, and business-- as half-empty rather than half full, more problematic than promising. If you tend to agree with that perspective or find yourself adapting that burdensome, tireless public optimism of Morrison and Millar (who will show you astrographs and Power Point presentations insisting that we are in fact right on course for the next 1986-type golden age of greatness, no really, it's just right around the corner, really it is), I don't think you'll find many people that believe that Comics are exactly where they need to be.

No matter how approached, it's a given that Comics are outdated, outgunned, outclassed, and undersold. Comics can't even make its own numbers make sense, or perpetuate its own artificial bubbles for any kind of long-term profit. Using our computers as Electronic Arguing Machines (it was either Warren or Larry that came up with that one) to armchair quarterback the shit out of the industry is exhausting and futile-- look at the non-Direct Market successes of Viz and Tokyo-Pop, or the continued growth and expansion of publishers like Larry Young or Oni Press that have defied conventional wisdom for so long. Credibility is a zero-sum game in the online world, and for every interesting idea or challenged notion presented there, every time the guy writing GREEN LANTERN gets a death threat posted on USENET, we all get set back to running at less than zero. Comics are a virgin market never built to compete against sex, drugs, or rock music-- let alone cable, the net, and GRAND THEFT AUTO 3. Nobody knows anything.

So let's talk about what really matters. Let's talk about the Art. Because now feels like a good time for creatives to start shaking things up, to set some shit on fire.

The History Part:

You can skip this bit if you want to. It's pretty turgid.

The New Silver phase (sketch that in from roughly, oh, 1992/93 to 1997/98), with a morality and visual system more familiar with the past than the future, was a creative reaction to and rejection of the Dark Phase, the Image Phase, the I Gots Lots of Chains and Guns and That Girl's Gots A Thong Phase (sketch that in from 1986/87 to 1991/92). And that was born of the more nihilistic and violent aspects of what came before, the WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT era--1981-82 to it's pinnacle in 1986/87-- removed from its proper context and played for a shock, tabloid sort of appeal.

The New Silver phase saw a return to basics for mainstream comics: everyone shaved and got on some nice Prozac; everyone stopped slumming it and began to walk a very Gardner Fox/John Broome sort of gait, steadfast and upright. It's a miracle mainstream comics characters didn't start wearing snappy hats again.

This was a movement that stood for something, even if it was simply standing AGAINST the grime and muck that had come before. It was a movement that didn't want a dead Superman or a broken-backed Batman. It was a time for square-jawed heroes giving battle against the evils of stuff. Comics were swathed in a tidy self-referential loop, unable to escape the mores of the Superhero genre. This was the time of broad morality tales sans ethical complexity or ambiguity, this was Comics masquerading as family values-laden Pop Art, sans irony or wit. These were comics for young boys-- for good American boys, by God. Young good American boys from the 1950s. Otherwise known as, um, our Dads.

Comics were like fifty-year old Dads with ponytails.

Anyway. This wave gave birth to the next creative wave of the mainstream: call it the phase of Pop Comics, of Mad Beautiful Ideas, of Widescreen Comics (say, oh, 1997/8-present). This idiomatic zeitgeist saw the rampant re-imagining of what came before, examined and exploded in a contemporary context. The best of the past was strip-mined and re-contextualized, the dull luster of spandex upgraded to the modern sheen of vinyl. Comics became acutely aware of its Low Art potential, of its pulp roots and limitless trashy energy that had recently sat undisturbed just below the surface. This was a mainstream married with a more contemporary visual style, built to compete against the eye-popping graphics of the modern video games, storytelling dipped in the sex and adrenaline of contemporary pop music.

Comics got big and dumb, and gloriously so: it was the Michael Bay era, glib and superficial, high gloss and high octane. The mainstream moved back into the nihilistic and morally bankrupt, and it was all dashed off to the clever snickers of little boys getting away with murder. At its worst, it was Comics as fashion: shiny and odd, a little pretty and a little strange but ultimately meaningless, and really, aren't you all just really pulling our legs anyway?

These were books predicated on their Mad Beautiful Ideas, whatever that means, as a rejection of the boring, stodgy old dad crap that came before. It meant Big Pretty Shit happened: stuff splodes, dudes get kicked. It meant glorious designer carnage, it meant gorgeous and brutal and awe-inspiring pop pulp adventures frozen cold at their core. There was a disconnect between style and human substance. Interesting thoughts, brought up and dismissed, all reduced to byte-friendly pop taglines most often in lieu of characterization and in favor of an ironic sort of intellectual slumming. This was an almost self-hating kind of Low Art it seems (or at least reads) to me… As though the creative zeitgeist was hey, this is dumb, and no one's more aware of this than We The Creators. At its rock bottom, it was a movement that feels like a kind of shameful and embarrassed era for comics, masquerading under those tepid and tired adjectives: widescreen, mad and beautiful. Its surface and soulless, all artifice and no art. These are comics for raccoons: bright and shiny, a goofy effect to play pranks on the otherwise spotless mind.

And it's all so very exhausting. Wads of blood-flavored bubble gum gone stale overnight.

The What's Next? Part:

It feels like the time to shatter the tedium of reference, of Comics endlessly tethered to their own history. Somewhere along the line we all were taught that "sincere" means "boring"-- probably because sincerity's never really been handled well in the mainstream; it's never been handled in a relevant, urgent, modern way. Comics written for Dads by Dads never are and never can be. That soapbox moralizing has lead to a generation of readers and creators raised thinking that feeling things was wrong or was made for boy scouts and mommy-coddlers. Rejecting those lessons, they gave us chrome and pop-physics, they gave us a mainstream defined by surface, because I don't know how much they really believed in it anyway.

I want a stripping away of the glib and cynical, a mainstream borne of a kind of pig-ignorant instinct and honesty that doesn't know from irony or cynicism, all the while retaining the essential genetic muck, the gloss and sheen that makes it all tick, hum, and vibrate. No more neurotic boy outsiders, within or without the Comics mainstream. Strip back what worked about the Widescreen Movement and smash it together with the best intentions of what came before it.

It feels like it's time for a non-ironic recommitment to the glorious pop essentials that make Comics work and the wholehearted embracing of the mania and energy of the form joined hand-in-hand with an unpretentious execution and sincere heart. A new energy, a new sincerity. This isn't Pop Comics anymore-- to again belabor an already shaggy dog metaphor-- This is more like Garage Comics.

Warren Ellis referred to my book THE ANNOTATED MANTOOTH! with that dubious sobriquet and, at the time when I read it, I thought it was most likely a polite way of saying "this is a goddamn mess." And it probably is, but now I want to take the phrase and explore it, exploit it. I want to adapt it and adopt it and brand it global, because it makes a sick kind of gut-sense to me.

And if the winds of change in Comics are blowing out of the Far East, maybe it's time to adapt some of our thinking, as our thinking to date has slowly, steadily killed off the industry. The creative engine that makes Manga work-- the over-the-top pyrotechnics honed and controlled by mastery of the page to diversity of subject matter to dearth of formats and availability to that funny, sad little way that Manga wears its heart on its sleeve the way most keep chips on their shoulders-- maybe, you know, maybe there's something to all that stuff.

Rethink the physicality of the medium from the inside out. Comics are design artifacts, Comics are art objects. Comics are a gnarled bastard hybrid of high arts. Comics are a glorious Low Art, full of all the wit and potential the best of pop can offer. The best design thinking applied to the medium still retains its air of the classic, even if its decades old. The worst looks dated six month after the ink dries. Think smarter, think faster. Make the kind of thing you want to be seen reading. Make the kind of thing that can get you laid. Read comics in public.

These things we make should be enviable. Read comics to pick up girls. Or boys.

Whichever you prefer.

The most brilliant achievement of the Widescreen Movement was the absolute acceptance and embracing of mainstream Comics as Low Art, as Trash. No high-falutin' fancy talkin' big thinkin'-- just pure adrenaline, pure entertainment. No attempts at good clean moral fun nor the tired stabs at forcing Comics to be 'Carver-esque'-- we don't need Comics to be Carver-esque, that's why we have Carver. If you want art, go to a fucking museum. The mainstream of Comics should be trashy, should be fun.

It's a trash balanced, though, against the vapidity so conjoined with that school to create the newest Hagelian dialectic off the pipe. Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis: Anything you want, it can be done. Comics should be made when your heart hurts and when your brain hops. The mainstream should be filled with vibrant and dangerous charmers telling the kinds of stories they want to read, drawn the way they want it to be drawn, with a clear, clean voice unashamed of this gorgeous ghetto we call home.

Comics are a trash art and they should be treated as such by those that make them. Tear out that shallow and callow superficiality and replace it with the spectacle of the sincere. Comics are the ultimate hybrid medium, the whole so much more than the sum of its parts, and this is just the natural progression onward, ever onward towards a new something. A medium that says Yes, a medium whose mainstream is as varied and spectacular as its components both inside and out. Comics will not make you rich, and there's not enough of a marketplace to take seriously anymore. So no more apologies: do what you want, do what matters to you. Make a medium of spectacular failures and brilliant successes, a restless and shifting medium that tries new things.

It's a fickle line to walk, and its much easier to think about and feel than to try and type out.

And so here we all are.

I'm up for batting all this shit around in this thread on my Delphi forum. Come on b.

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