Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Decade in Comics:
Taking My Toys and Going Home

When I wrote the last post I knew that the next post would be, essentially, a rebuttal to my own ideas: I was trying to articulate particular, uniquely unpleasant associations I have developed in regards to comics over the last few years, associations which I framed in as universal a light as possible despite their avowedly idiosyncratic expression. I've been dissatisfied with comics for a while and I have had a very difficult time explaining why that is, especially to myself. Usually it's easier to just read a pile of crappy superhero pamphlets than to figure out why I just don't feel like engaging with something better and smarter. And then I ask myself the question: why? Why does it seem easier to give up? I've lived with comics for almost three decades now, consistently. It's kind of weird to realize for the large majority of my life, there have been far, far fewer days when I haven't read some kind of comic than those that I have. I can go weeks without watching a movie but even when I'm at my busiest I almost never go longer than 24 hours without reading some kind of comic.

So, as should be obvious to anyone, my dissatisfaction with comics has far more to do with my own inadequacies as a reader than with comics itself. It's been really frustrating to read all the encomiums for the past decade and realize that, all things being equal, most people regard it as a great decade, I've even seen some people refer to it as "comics greatest decade" or some such. And inevitably the list of truly great comics made during the last ten years grows longer than your arm, and the comics are good, and the people making comics can make money making comics, and they make more comics because people with money pay the people making comics to make more comics . . . etc etc.

And what does it all mean? It means comics is grown up. It's not just "comics" anymore, it's basically a huge thing that reaches all across publishing and the arts scene and entertainment and film - it's bigger than any one person. Jog intimidates the fuck out of me because he actually seems to be equipped to take it all in - he's the model of the type of omnivorous reader our new comics industry demands. But if you can't keep up with everything - and who can? - it's really dispiriting. Too much stuff. There's just too much, and I can't keep up with it anymore. Used to be that skimming through Previews on any given month, you could order every new, interesting book or periodical and not spend more than, say, $200 a month. Now, you can drop that money just on the new strip reprint compilations released every other week.

When I talk about how the comics industry almost died, well, it's partly wishful thinking. That must be the craziest thing I've ever said. But bear with me: through the darkest days of the comics industry, when stores were closing left and right, it seemed really apocalyptic. I used to travel around California a lot when I was younger, and I knew where the good comic book stores were in every city and town between Los Angeles and Eureka - Bakersfield, Palm Springs, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Chico, all points in between. And then at some point all these shops that I used to look forward to visiting on my trips just disappeared. We'd drive into town and there would be nothing left, just an empty storefront and phantom tumbleweeds.

No one read comics, there wasn't even anywhere to buy comics. In order to keep reading comics in the years following the boom and bust, you really had to love comics, and more importantly, you had to fight for the privilege. Mainstream comics were disappearing from grocery stores and 7-11s, comic book stores were fading into the night - even the few conventions I attended in the late 90s seemed like ghost towns. I remember seeing Rory Root at the 2000 Wonder Con and having a brief, depressing conversation about just how dead the whole place was.

That attenuated weakness was invigorating. No one cared, no one paid attention, the only people left in the room were people who had self-selected themselves as fanatics, people who had survived boom and bust cycles and horrible mainstream comics and spotty distribution for good comics and dusty head shops. Comics, or at least what survived, was ours, and it belonged to no one else. No one wanted it.

One of the singular features of the first generations of post-60s "alternative" cartoonists was a knee-jerk rejection of the supposedly commercial values of dominant "mainstream" books. Front and center was the singular focus on the demolished alter-ego: the prejudice against "alternative" comics as poorly-reasoned autobiography focusing relentlessly on the shortcomings and vicissitudes of demasculated protagonists begins here, with Crumb and Spiegelman, with a very real desire to stake out rhetorical space as explicitly differentiated from the steroid-bound muscle cases as possible. Of course, that wasn't all that non-superhero comics represented, or even a plurality. But it was as much a part of our wish-fulfillment landscape as the ultra powerful Kirby-esque demigods. Our self-flagellation was gorgeous.

And that was how we got by. I can't speak for everyone, but for me, personally, comics has for a long time contained an element of exquisite self-loathing - every comic read during my childhood was ten or twenty minutes taken away from doing something else - and over the course of a lifetime all of that "something else" eventually adds up to an alternate lifetime filled with regrets. Why were you reading comics when you could have been paying attention to the scenery on family car trips? Why were you reading comics when you could have been interacting with now-dead grandparents? Why were you reading comics when you could have been out dating girls? But these regrets, and the negative self-image that eventually got up and followed me everywhere I went, was part and parcel of the romance: I had sacrificed a great deal of my life, a great deal of what I could have been, because I got sucked into this damn world. I identified with Captain America when I was a kid and Chester Brown as a young adult, Dave Sim on my worst days - nowadays, I recognize I'm probably somewhere in between. But they're all in there.

So now, it all seems mediocre - there's nothing left there for me to identify with. The artform continues, but despite the supposed vivacity, it seems pallid. It doesn't help that so many of the supposed "great works" of the last decade have been seemingly designed for the specific purpose of alienating my sensibilities. Scott Pilgrim? I've personally rarely encountered a book as insipid, proffering up a familiarity with the rhythms of video games and nerd media as if it was some sort of justifiable postmodern stance and not merely an apologia for a lifetime spent skirting illiteracy. (Besides the fact that its retrograde attitude towards women makes Identity Crisis seem like a Betty Friedan tract.) Blankets? Mewling kunstlerroman based on juvenile identifications and facile sub-Fruedian self-analysis, glossed over by a surplus of admittedly decent craft chops. Black Hole? Even worse than Blankets - wow, how amazing is it that a misfit teenager can be saved by an idealized wet-dream icon of motherly sexuality? The fact that the art looks like a black-light poster conjures up memories of listening to Led Zeppelin IV on a beanbag chair with heavy cans on your head for some, I'm sure, but I never much cared for Zeppelin. Pandering to the collective sense of lost nostalgia of an aging twenty- and thirty-something demographic is hardly great art. Bone? I've never been able to get past the first book - achingly unfunny.

I could go on but really, what's the point? I just sound like a screeching old man, hopelessly out of touch, alienating what few readers are still around this far into such a poorly-thought out and researched slab of hate speech. Some of the best - or at least most well-regarded - comics of the aughts were the products of the 90s: Black Hole and Bone took over a decade each to finish themselves up before they could be compiled between two thick covers. Same with books like Jimmy Corrigan, From Hell, Louis Riel - books I like - products of years of toil. So it's not as if the previous decade sprang full-formed from the head of Zeus. All those good books and critical acclaim was, literally, years in the making. So it's not as if the success of this decade came out of nowhere.

But if I exaggerate how close the industry came to annihilation? Well, if it had died, or at least been cut down so low it couldn't have rebuilt nearly as well as it has - it'd still be ours. We wouldn't have to share it with anyone. We wouldn't have to admit that this thing to which we sacrificed the best years of our lives was really never ours to begin with - that it was just an accident of history that the comics industry grew so weak and emaciated that it ever needed anything so fickle as our undying loyalty to survive. Comics owes me, dammit . . . but then, really, comics doesn't owe me a God-damned thing.

Now if you walk through academia you see comics added to reading lists in English and Comparative Literature departments. Having returned to school some time ago, I've seen Persepolis, Fun Home, Black Hole, even the Luna Brothers, show up on syllabi. But really, Persepolis never impressed me - it strikes me as even more of a "dancing bear" than Corrigan ever was, only the remarkable thing is not that it's a halfway intelligent comic book but that it's a comic book drawn by an articulate Iranian woman with far more interest in communicating her story than ingratiating herself with the fanboy politik, either through open pandering or explicit rejection. She's just a cartoonist who happens to tell stories readily accessible by anyone with a fleeting interest in current events, who happened to hit upon a zeitgeist of interest in that specific region and ride a wave of success. Why do we (and by me, I guess I mean I) resent it? Because she didn't "suffer" - her kunstlerroman ends with a mature, fairly happy and well-balanced young adult who has gained some degree of perspective on her life and narrative - kind of like Blankets, Black Hole, Fun Home. But that's not the story! The real story is Rusty Brown. Happy people don't get to be in comics!

And then I wake up and realize how absurd it is to posit for one second that Marjane Satrapi didn't "suffer," just because she didn't grow up shaped by the dialectical conflict between Gary Groth and Gareb Shamus. She had bigger fish to fry, so to speak. Even if, honestly, I don't think she's anywhere near as good a cartoonist as David B., (and I'd still say the same thing about Adrian Tomine in relation to Daniel Clowes), she came by her story the hard way, and her success, much as I am loathe to admit it, is well-earned.

But it represents a paradigm shift nonetheless. What is comics? Does comics exist for its own sake only, filled with people who have sacrificed a great deal to join a club whose exclusivity is defined only by how much self-loathing you want to express in any given social event? There's this idea in my head of "pure" comics, unbound by any allegiance to any standard other than the ideal of the autonomous artist defined only by his or her own sense of responsibility - but when I take out these prejudices and look at them in the clear light, they make about as much sense as Clement Greenberg's claims that ab-ex represented the apotheosis of western art. Well, dammit, I still think that color fields are the best paintings in the world. When I was in San Francisco we went to the SF MOMA and I spent a good ten minutes staring intently at this canvas, absolutely hypnotically beautiful. But touting this kind of Olympian remove in the arts is kind of old fashioned. All the minimal techno I've cultivated over the last decade is starting to sound, well, dated in a way I would never have thought possible. Likewise, the self-abnegation of mid-to-late 90s alternative comics is probably a movement of its time.

Things are busy and fast now. People like comics, people read comics casually and without really thinking about it. It's probably the best environment in the world to be a cartoonist. But suddenly the clubhouse got crowded - different standards took over, standards that aren't beholden to having decades of familiarity and emotionally-charged history with the medium and particular schools of critical thought within the medium. Basically, books that people might actually want to read actually started getting bought by people who would want to read them for no other reason than that there was an interesting story therein. If it feels at times like the clubhouse has got too crowded, if the Android's Dungeon has been corrupted by outsiders . . . well, tough shit, I guess. There is no more clubhouse. It burnt down.

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