-Via Blogorama, an interesting piece about the difficult balancing act facing comics in the graphic novel era. On the one hand, increased respectability has potential financial benefits (maybe, depending on who you ask). On the other, this higher profile might, in part, reflect the continued disrepute which clings to comics as a medium. The hipster middlebrow types* who shape (or, rather, attempt to shape) public opinion are supernaturally attracted to all things outre. It nourishes them, separates them from the masses. Allows them to carve out an identity for themselves, or (for the less ambitious) to leech onto the current hot movement. Which is to say, don't believe the hype. The popularity of Naruto is much more important than Time's opinion of Fun Home.
Anyway, here's the passage that caught my eye:
But some argue “Maus” was followed by a greater work. In early 1987, “Watchmen” concluded its 12-issue run, delivering an epic murder mystery, Cold War melodrama and probing, skeptical examination of superhero-worship.
Now, look. This guy Peter Rowe isn't just talking out of his ass; he actually has a quote from Tom Spurgeon, which is a pretty good way of establishing some modicum of credibility. But really, who exactly is it that thinks Watchmen is a "greater work" than Maus? I mean, besides those folks whose biggest gripe against Watchmen is the lack of toys?** I like Watchmen just fine--it's not Moore's best work, but it's a great comic. But seriously now--better than Maus? I'm not sure From Hell is better than Maus.
*The highbrow (by which I mean "academic") types are also reading comics, but either (a) purely for their own enjoyment, or (b) in the service of obscure projects which hold no pretense in shaping public reading habits. For instance, a couple of years ago my wife sat through a nearly incomprehensible presentation on depictions of the apocalypse in popular culture; said presentation drew heavily from Watchmen (hey!) and some manga she didn't recognize (and which I could not identify from her description). In case you weren't aware, most academics are more interested in description than prescription, which explains the vitality of their role in current popular discourse. In fact, practitioners of any applied sub-discipline are often looked upon with some mixture of animosity and amusement by those who work in the purely theoretical mainstream of the field. At least that's been the behavior I've observed.
**I've actually seen people who take great personal offense at Alan Moore's refusal to sign off on Watchmen toys, as if Moore is being unconscionably selfish. I'm not sure what to say to these people--I'm not sure we even speak the same language.
-I'll have another installment of the ever-popular 90s series tomorrow, but before that I'd like to touch on one subject I neglected last week. As I've already mentioned, part of the Image Myth is that the only reason these comics sold was rampant, foolhardy speculation. Of course, any fool could tell you that Spawn and Youngblood probably wouldn't have sold around a million each without the support of speculators. But again, this ignores the question of how these books became so popular in the first place. Speculators were attracted to popular artists. They might have used Wizard (or that other monthly price guide, and I don't mean Overstreet--anyone else remember its name?) as crib notes, of course, but Wizard didn't spin this hype out of thin air. There was a massive popular demand for comics drawn by the Image founders, particularly Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Rob Liefeld. These were juvenile comics, to be certain, but many (perhaps most) of the readers were literally juvenile.
When she was publicizing her fill-in issues of Teen Titans, Gail Simone mentioned that her teenage son expressed an uncharacteristic interest once he saw the art--which, of course, was supplied by Rob Liefeld. Simone concluded that there was something about Liefeld's art that attracts adolescent boys. I totally agree, and would mention McFarlane and Lee in the same breath. But as of 2007, Marvel and DC are in no position to publish art so blatantly juvenile. Lee has maintained his popularity, but he was always the most grounded in realism of the three; I think people mistake his excessive linework for detail. Perhaps more important, Jim Lee represents the acceptable Image alumnus. He's a socially-acceptable conduit for all the accumulated Image nostalgia. True, Marvel occasionally publishes comics featuring art by Liefeld or Marc Silvestri, but their contributions in the last few years have been limited to cover art or hermetically sealed miniseries with no impact on any other books. Even then, normally art-agnostic message boarders will vociferously denounce their reappearance in the mainstream (such as it is), as though their very presence will somehow resurrect the "dark ages" of the 90s. You know, back when kids actually read comics.
I'm not trying to defend the Image founders on aesthetic grounds, but on commercial grounds. They were enormously popular; they attracted a wider audience than Grant Morrison or Alex Ross ever dreamed of. And, sadly, most of that audience is apparently not reading comics anymore. At least that's the impression one gets when reading message boards or blogs, where many posters don't think twice about admitting their love of Darkhawk (Darkhawk!), but swear up and down that they never liked Rob Liefeld. In fact, they never even read X-Force #1, no siree.
Everyone is in favor of Marvel and DC publishing comics geared towards juvenile readers, and many adult readers seem to particularly enjoy these comics. They present versions of characters which hearken back to the readers' childhoods, after all--the Avengers before Bendis! Dick Grayson is Robin! and so on. The art is usually clear, competent, and maybe a bit plain--an aesthetic somewhere between Bruce Timm and Curt Swan, ideally. Yes, it's no wonder these comics are so popular with adult readers. But are children (or their parents, grandparents, etc.) buying them? Certainly not in comics stores, no. Maybe in book stores? We really don't know, but when I'm in Barnes & Noble, I certainly see a lot more kids reading manga than Marvel Adventures: Avengers. And it's not something good like Drifting Classroom, either--it's stuff that I just can't get into as a 30-year-old man, for whatever reason. But then again, it's hard to produce comics for children that aren't dull as dishwater, transparently pandering, or secretly intended for adults. It takes a certain mindset--not exactly naiveté, but a real disingenuousness. Jack Kirby had this quality, and so did Harvey Kurtzman. But then again, so did a lot of other, lesser talents.
Look, let's say you missed lunch and were starving, and the only thing available to eat was Go-Gurt (or whatever that yogurt-in-a-tube is called). Realistically, what can you expect from this tube of green goo? It's not made for you. It will sell regardless of what you think about it, in fact. If tubular dairy sludge were the only food available, I would be the first one to complain. I'd much rather snack on something like wasabi peas. But I don't think we should try to feed kids a less-pungent version of wasabi peas--they want their Go-Gurt. Do you think the manufacturer of Go-Gurt eats that shit? Do you think that the average 11-year old Go-Gurt fiend grows up to eat nothing but squeezable foodstuffs? Why don't we let the kids have their Go-Gurt, for Chrissakes?
-So anyway, I'm thinking about reading some of the "classic" work by various prominent Image guys for the first time since puberty. I rarely read any reviews of this material which seeks to do anything more ambitious than ridicule it. Hey, that might be all that it deserves, but I'd like to find out first-hand. If I follow through with this impulse, I think I'll start with the works of Rob Liefeld--aside from McFarlane, he seems like the Image founder with the most fully-developed identity as a writer/artist/creator. I'm not interested so much in evaluating the quality of these comics from an adult (or semi-adult) point of view--I'm more concerned with trying to figure out why I liked these comics so much when I was 15. So yeah, maybe I'll work on that once I'm done with my 1990s reminisces.