Poplife: Issue #49

Thu, January 16th, 2003 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Matt Fraction, Columnist

THE ONE WHERE I MAKE LOTS AND LOTS OF NEW FRIENDS

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.

Well, I don't know about you, but I sure feel better.

Whatever all that solipsistic navel-gazing and narrative meandering meant, it felt like a dam burst in my head. Pounding it all out was for some reason important for me, but I don't pretend to understand my process any better than I can explain it to anyone else. Sometimes, stuff has to happen.

I've been amped and over-eager to get to it lately, to get down in it and messy, which is good. I've let myself start writing new stuff concurrent with the old, just to get up to speed again. Tearing through BIG HAT, and new ideas I don't have names for yet. New approaches, new ways of going at it and it feels all fixed and righted now. Whatever was stopping me from getting the job done well is gone.

Based on the last few columns here, there's been an influx of visitors to The Forum and some interesting conversations have happened. That's the good part about a web presence, about a web community-- no matter how counterintuitive The Forum may tend to be. And after all that aforementioned solipsistic navel-gazing and narrative meandering, talking about it with other people may be the best you can ask for. Starting conversations and smashing your ideas into the uninformed asshole opinions of all the jagoffs that disagree with you is the only way to insure that in Heaven, everyone will be your slave and one day you'll all be sorry, oh yes, motherfuckers motherfuckers all of you you'll pay.

In the last few days, a few folks that I think wouldn't mind being labeled as Comics Activists have dropped by to toss their filthy lucre in the fountain. Which is all well and good for them, but I feel like my responses to them were terse to say the least, and certainly mean-spirited from a certain point of view. I tend to look at Comics activism from a cynical and distrusting perspective anymore and exploring that feels like a good thing to address here now that I've addressed my own idiom in creating them. If for no other reason than I've avoided it for a long time. And as it was Comics activism that led me to where I am today, it feels at least vaguely appropriate and if nothing else Oedipal.

Comics activism, as it currently exists, is at worst doomed to failure and at best to marginalization. Comics activism is a misdirected and wrongheaded work of semantic fireworks by armchair egoists, a strange blend destined to be misinterpreted of anonymous trolling on internet message boards and chasing the sound of your own echoing applause, regardless of its intent. It appears all too often as an effort at clubhouse building, of creating a modern-day He-Man Woman-Hater's Club to the effect of cordoning off a little slice of fandom-- like when Grandpa and Herman Munster were fighting, and painted a dotted line down their already cramped living room. And finally, and most importantly, much of Comics activism is experientially devoid; it results in a fatuous superiority amplified beyond its providence by the playing-field-leveling potential of the Internet that will inevitably be ignored by the people that need most to hear it.

There's an aspect of activism that's seductive, which is its first failing-- and a failing that I learned of because it happened to me.

That seduction comes from the power, no matter how facile that power is granted, of being involved in a movement and from the utterly human desire to personify the abstract. Activism, by its definition, should be abstract, should be faceless, nameless. Activism is about the championing of ideas and not about the creation of champions. All too often, Comics activism isn't personality-driven but personally driven, and its credence and credentials are ego-wrecked before its ideas get off the launch pad. There is a point, an invisible point that passes by without notice, when the desire to attach your name to your works becomes as important as the work itself.

Ours is a tiny, safe, and subterranean medium both misunderstood and maligned by the outside world. Here you can be the most famous person within the sprawling convention center of a major metropolitan city in one moment, and then in the next cross the street to Arby's and be just another dude in line for some roast beef. Ours is a medium that aches for cred and compassion, for exposure and excitement. Ours is a medium that thrives in spite of an innate inferiority complex, and the notion of riding the crest of a mass-media wave of acceptance is more than just intoxicating. And that ache ripples ever inward and its appeal is great. Movements acquire figureheads, and from my perspective, that's when a movement loses its credibility.

Activism should be different. Activism is about action, about change. It's a moral, ethical, and philosophical revolt against the status quo. Movements aren't designed to make people famous-- as subjective a term as that is within these parameters-- so much as movements are designed to move things. Activist cells all too often become cults of personality, poisoned from the outset to expand and then gradually contract into obsolescence like the fan clubs of Child Actors turned Former Child Actors. Activism needs a voice and not a spokesman. Activism needs momentum, and those willing to get behind the mule.

It's way to easy to lose sight of that.

The second failing of Comics activism in my eyes is that it becomes mired in community building, and in being community driven. Of course, by its very nature, activism requires a community of some sort; a group of the likeminded seems to me the only difference between the Quixotic and the revolutionary. I'm not entirely sure where to draw the line between revolutionary and cult, however, and I'm not entirely sure that Comics revolutionaries do, either.

I don't feel like activism should be exclusionary. There should be no secret handshake, no uniform. The perils of getting wrapped up in the pursuit of a common goal are that the desire to present a unified front crosses an invisible line at some point and the inclusive becomes exclusive. Something about the nature of the Internet tends to magnify that to ugly extremes. Maybe it's the lack of civility the web makes possible, maybe it's the power anonymity infuses with confidence, but for my tastes online tribes descend into tribalism, hostile and intimidating to new voices.

And activism is, at its core, about new voices fueling its fire with their ideas.

(An interjection: ideas are not opinions. This isn't to suggest that any jackass with a keyboard should be able to spew the cretinous bile which passes as their opinion at whomever whenever. Yeah. Fuck those dudes.)

A larger trap is the meta-textual referencing that activist communities-- hell, any kind of web community, beyond comics ones, activist or otherwise-- descend into. It's a strange phenomenon, but anyone that's spent time looking around the web and its various forums will know what I'm talking about. Every tribe has its own rules, its own systems and habits, its own way of being. Some are so rich and so dense that there's no way to pick up the rhythm anymore, and if you're activist-minded, this is poison. Without the constant influx of the new, without the infusions of vitality that fresh ideas and perspectives provide, communities collapse into recursive self-portraits doomed to never expand beyond its own vision. Activism decays into a perpetual state of self-critique and repair, activism-within-activism, the snake eating its tail whose primary focus becomes How do we fix what we want to use to fix things?

You're down the rabbit hole and up your own ass at that point. And all of the best intentions your energy and passion brings are wasted in endless semantic loop-de-loops.

I fully concede that there are more than enough points to agree or disagree with in the above. I've probably managed to irk some friends of mine in the process, too, but as they're my friends they'll understand that I'm prone to rampant fits of dickery by now and will forgive me eventually. What follows, however, is comics activism's final coffin nail.

There's nothing that a fan-cum-activist can say, no matter smart it is or how well it's said, that will be looked at by anyone within Comics as a viable, thoughtful alternative or avenue of change. Thoughtful commentary is one thing, but the vigor and zeal of a passionate amateur is considered just that. It's the curse of the Armchair Quarterback: no matter how valid your criticism may be, until you've walked in the shoes of the critiqued, the critiqued are under absolutely no obligation to listen to you.

And most times, they wont. Because fuck you, no one intentionally tries to suck, and no one intentionally tries to be disliked. Because they're trying their best, and who the hell are you to know how to do their job better?

I don't know that this point needs to be belabored any more than that.

So what then? What's the point, right? What does that mean for comics activism?

There are people with the best of intentions for comics out there. There are people that really love this medium, and love instances of the work it has produced. There are people that want nothing more than this medium to burst wide open, for the prejudices and preconceptions of the past to crumble beneath their own irrelevance. None of them set out to become the ego-tripping, self-referential, blowhard jackass know-it-all that I've described above. No one ever does.

Activism needs elegance and simplicity. It doesn't need codification and a point man. What activism needs is passion and selflessness. It needs people willing to work quietly, so as to better magnify its ends. Activism needs action.

Comics need better comics. Comics need new voices never-before heard in its history, new ideas never-before committed to its pages. Comics need to grow in every direction it can reach. Comics need more people, different people, reading them on subway cars, in coffee shops, at home, and all over the world. Comics need a bit of a facelift and a new press agent.

Comics don't need to be told it needs saving. It already knows.

Gouge away at The Forum if you like. I'll be around.

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