Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Decade in Comics:
Mediocrity Triumphant

The most important fact to remember in considering the just passed decade is that, by all rights, it should never have happened. The comics industry should have died during the 1990s, and in hindsight it was only through the sheerest of luck that it did not.

Anyone reading these words who was not around in comics ten years ago might be scratching their heads, or wondering why the events of twenty years ago should so strongly influence our interpretation of the past ten. It must be remembered that the industry - not the artform, obviously, but the industry - came within a hair's breadth of ceasing to exist in the late 90s. If just a few things had occurred differently, the series of catastrophic decisions and stock market machinations that ended with Marvel bankrupt and something like 2/3 of all comic book stores closed could have ended even worse, with Marvel in chapter 7 instead of chapter 11, and as a direct result many more stores failing. Even if Marvel's assets had been purchased by an entity with a vested interest in maintaining their publishing business and not just strip-mining the properties, any disruption in Marvel comics production at all during those fragile years would have put so many more retailers out of business that the system itself would have probably collapsed. (Marvel has always been the number one publisher by a disproportionate degree, except for a very brief period in the early 90s. Marvel's frantic overreaction to the formation of Image and the subsequent competition for market share was directly responsible for the bust of '93.) At that time, if the direct market had fallen, then all the smaller publishers who depended on the direct market as their primary means of distribution would also have fallen. Think about that for a second: decisions made by Marvel could have easily put Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Top Shelf, Slave Labor and every other non-premier publisher out of business. Anyone without a newsstand presence would have had to scramble to find alternate distribution channels - and while there were a fair amount of independent bookstores and record shops that carried "alternative" comics, there weren't enough to provide sole support for any small publisher. And a lot of these retail outlets went out of business in the next few years anyway, as Barnes & Noble, Borders and especially Amazon consolidated their grips on the retails publishing industry. Even Tower Records / Books, long a consistent supporter of Fantagraphics product, went out of business a couple years back.

When I think back to the first few years of the last decade, I think of an endless series of desperate fire sales on the part of small publishers who were fighting bravely to keep the lights on. It was dicey, for those imprints who had managed to keep the doors open during the late 90s, to keep the doors open during the following years, when just the fact that the industry had survived was considered so much of a miracle that people really weren't going to complain about the lack of market growth in absolute terms.

And then something happened: it didn't happen overnight, but the results were striking nonetheless. In my own mind, I think the first real sign that things were about to change significantly for the better was the publication of Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan in collected form by Pantheon. It seems as if that was the last comic to gain mainstream acclaim in the old "dancing bear" mode of mainstream media comics criticism - you know, it doesn't matter how good the bear dances, just the fact that they can get the tutu on is an accomplishment in and of itself. But Jimmy Corrigan was a hit, and instead of being an isolated hit it seemed instead to be the first wave in a movement that refused to subside. Corrigan won accolades, but at the time it was still an atypical success, one of those apocryphal "comics for grown-ups" that crawled out of the woodwork periodically. But it was also the first sign that the industry had reached a tipping-point, not necessarily in the overall quality of the work being produced (that never changed, contrary to popular belief) but the ability of the industry to sell that work to an appreciative, mainstream (by which I mean real world "mainstream") audience. Soon after Corrigan, Kavalier & Clay became both a bestseller and a Pulitzer Prize winner. Then after that - or around the same time? - came Louis Riel, the collected Bone, Persepolis, Black Hole, Fun Home, the American Splendor movie, the Sin City and 300 films - not to mention all the massively successful superhero action movies that clogged up the multiplexes. To say nothing of all the manga that flooded our shores. Shonen Jump, Naruto, Buddha.

Whether it was solely comics or larger comics culture, the subterranean movement that had been building for a long time finally broke aboveground - if Corrigan was the last "dancing bear," every subsequent serious comics work that would reach significant accolades was accepted that much moreso on its own terms. Fun Home was Time's book of the year, and the only notable thing about the decision, for people in the comics industry, is that it really wasn't that much of a shock. Not ten years before our industry had been on death's door, but in just over half a decade the publishing industry had thoroughly metabolized comics. It wasn't merely a legitimate publishing category (as opposed to the annex of the Dungeons & Dragons manuals stuck at the tail-end of the Sci-FI section at Barnes & Noble), it was was a publishing category that sold. Big-name creators were getting book deals with New York publishers that paid out real-world money. Smaller publishers were able to get their stable of artists into actual bookstores.

Another tipping point in a decade seemingly filled with tipping points was Fantagraphics' announcement of the deal to produce The Complete Peanuts series. For decades smaller publishers had been frustrated by an inability to get presumably saleable product into real-world bookstores - and even those that had met with some success, such as the early 90s iteration of Classics Illustrated, were often frustrated, or worse, victims of their own success. Suddenly, a company like Fantagraphics could announce a project whose primary audience was far outside the direct market, a book series that was practically guaranteed massive sales in conventional bookstores, and be confident that these books actually would find their way to an appreciative audience in the wider world. Fantagraphics had signed a distribution deal with W.W. Norton to ensure these things would happen. A far cry from needing to start a porn imprint to stay afloat.

But the question that has gone unasked in the flood of accolades over "comics' greatest decade" is, was it worth it? Team Comics won, right? Things are good now, aren't they?

In absolute terms, it is an unambiguous good that more cartoonists can make a living wage producing comics, and that they are able to get their work into the hands of a larger, appreciative audience. In absolute terms, it is an unambiguous good that so many great comics from the medium's history have been reprinted, that so many of the classic comic strips are now available in durable editions for the appreciation of new generations of fans and scholars, that so many great works from around the world can be feasibly translated and find an enthusiastic audience within the United States.

But I would posit that even though there are far more comics being published now, there are no more truly great comics being produced now than there were at the beginning of the last decade. If you discount the constant stream of reprints and international offerings, new English-language comics are about as good as they've ever been, it's just that there are more of them. In fact, because of the market's rapid expansion, actual average quality has plummeted. It's not a question of having abandoned critical standards in order to gain popular market share: comics never had critical standards. What we have done now is to adopt the standards of the larger book market. Earlier I was careful to distinguish between the comics industry and the comics artform: well, now that the comics industry has been absorbed by the larger publishing industry, we've been forced to adopt their standards, which are wholly commercial in nature. They're the standards of the marketplace, the standards against which every other popular entertainment medium in the world has had to conform or die. Which is great, for someone, I'm sure - but just the other day I saw that the first volume of the new Twilight manga is going to have something just shy of half-a-million copies in its initial print run. That's sure something. But what, exactly? Does it mean a damn thing to anyone besides Twilight fans? I daresay we've reached the point where a big print run like that can be safely dismissed as of no importance to "comics" as a whole, if ever there was a day when it would have mattered. It's a localized phenomena. Comics has fractured.

Comics is no longer "a thing," it's now become multiple things, a whole universe of worlds - far more than any one person can realistically hold within his or her grasp. It means so many different things now that it really has to struggle to mean anything at all. There's no point in being a fan of "comics," because there is no centralized notion of "comics," not anymore. It's so diffuse - and not diffuse in the old-school fake high-art Comics Journal vs. low-brow WIzard dichotomy. As fractious as that seemed, it was still just an internecine quarrel over scraps of the same commonly-held territory. In explicit economic terms, it was about a fight for the wallets of direct market retailers and costumers. Now, there are separate retail channels for separate types of comics - it's not just the same zero-sum direct market game. Art comics are being sold just like art books, and to art-book customers - everyone who cried fowl over Kramers Ergot #7 has obviously never paid attention to how high-quality art monographs are sold and marketed. Literary comics are solid like literature - they even have a volume in the "America's Best" series, so you can put it next to all the other middlebrow "America's Best" volumes designed to sit unread on yuppy coffee tables across the country. And even superhero comics have thrived, in their own way - the analogy I'd use would be that superhero books have grown into their niche as the artform's crass annex, in much the same way that fake sport such as WWE and NASCAR form a neon-colored distraction from "real" sports. But the only distinctions that matter anymore are marketing, now that the industry actually has marketing that doesn't simply consist of ads in Amazing Heroes and Wizard. We can go our own separate ways and never look back.

Think back to that list I made up the page of all the "really good" comics that have been published to wide acclaim and decent sales throughout the previous decade: how many of them are "really good," and how many of them are just mediocre comics that managed to sneak into a recognizable mainstream publishing category like "Memoir / Current Events?" The book industry knows how to sell first-person memoirs with topical subject matter; it knows how to sell underwhelming high-fantasy with a family appeal; it knows how to sell portentous, well-drawn but fatally vapid juvenilia. And that's our comics industry in 2010, or at least, the "good" parts.

I don't have any stake in comics anymore because it's just too big. For the first time ever, I can walk into a comics store and walk out with empty hands - it's not that there isn't stuff, but there's just too much stuff. With so much to choose from, it's far easier to choose nothing at all.

No comments :