Thursday, July 12, 2007

Meta-stuff re: my 1990s series

Before getting into part 3, there's a couple of things I should mention. First, Johnny Bacardi points out that he did a similar post for the 1960s a couple of years ago. I strongly recommend checking it out, especially if you've been enjoying this series. What strikes me as particularly interesting is the sheer number of outlets where one could buy comics in Horse Cave, KY, (which is half the size of my podunk home town) in the 1960s. If you prefer, compare the population of Hart County, KY (17,000+) to Spartanburg County, SC (about a quarter million). There were way more people in my neck of the woods, but way fewer places to buy comics in the 80s. And this is well before the Direct Market had completely supplanted the newsstand. In Woodruff (where I technically grew up), there were maybe five places where one could buy new comics, c. 1984--three drug stores and one or two gas stations. (At least one grocery store also sold those three packs of Whitman comics, which included such timely material as Lost In Space.) By 1990, that had dwindled to two pharmacies, one of which mysteriously carried comics which were about a month old. Of course, you could still buy Archie anywhere.

Also, ADD notes that this is threatening to become a meme. That would be great, actually; it was partly my intention to encourage people to talk more about their experiences as a reader/consumer of comics. In part one, I referred to this project as an attempt to apply the New Social History to the history of comics. I was partly joking, but I think there is some value in redefining what constitutes comics history. Most of the existing history of the industry is what historians call "top-down," focusing on the major publishers and creators. That's obviously valuable, important, and fascinating stuff, but it's not the whole story. We should also consider the industry from the perspective of the reader and the retailer. And hell, the printers too--I know I'm interested in changes to the technology of producing comics over the years.* I'm partly trying to correct this imbalance in this series of reminisces.

Having said that, the line between the New Social History of Comics and masturbatory nostalgia is finer than one might like. I've tried to limit my recollections to subjects which might be of interest to a broader audience, or which might help answer larger questions about the industry in the 1990s. I'm trying to avoid solipsism, but something of this nature will almost always involve some personal indulgences. Hopefully I've kept these to a minimum.

I mention this because, ideally, social history includes a range of experiences. What I've been doing here is sort of a microhistory (or maybe a nanohistory) of comics readership in the 90s. One of the aims of the New Social History was to take all these microhistories and synthesize them into a master narrative of the subject at hand. (For instance, one would be able to write a more complete and truthful version of the history of labor if (s)he could draw upon dozens of microhistories related to labor in the United States--or the world, I guess, if the hypothetical historian was ambitious enough.) Of course, nobody really believes this is possible anymore; in fact, synthetic histories are sort of out of vogue right now.** Truth be told, I'm really too much of a postie to expect a multitude of microhistories to cohere into a functional meta-narrative. On the other hand, I'm enough of a contrarian to think it's worth trying in this case.

So what I'm basically saying is that I'd like to see more people try writing these things, and see if we can't suss out some interesting conclusions about the nature of reading and buying comics in the 90s (or any earlier decade, for that matter). I linked to Johnny B's post above, but you might also check out similar thoughts by ADD and history buddy Todd C. Murry's comment from yesterday's post. If you make a post of this type on your blog, send the link my way. I'll try to start compiling this stuff in the next day or so.

*We need a David Montgomery for the comics industry, basically.

**In reality, the issue of synthesis in contemporary historiography is far more complicated, but I've indulged in too much shop talk here already.


Greg said...

Social history. Blech. Give me conquerors slaughtering towns any day.

Interesting posts, however.

Richard Melendez said...

I've been enjoying your series so far (as well as Bacardi's piece), and I actually started to undertake a similar project over on my blog several months ago. Mine for the most part is an exercise in solisism, however, though I think one could glean some info on the state of the comics industry here and there.

I do see the value in trying to offer more than just personal nostalgia, though, 'll probably bounce back and forth between masturbating and enlightening in future posts, though more likely than not it will be a little of both. Thanks for the enjoyable read!


PS: I did link to both of your blogs, perhaps furthering the notion of this becoming a meme. Self-fulfilling prophecy?

Dick Hyacinth said...

Social history is cutting edge stuff, Greg. Or at least it was when I was 5 years old. Actually, it's one of these sub-disciplines that's become a victim of its own success--it tends to be incorporated into monographs that aren't strictly social histories.

I take it you're a Europeanist?

Greg said...

Yeah, my Master's is in Late Antique French history. Merovingian stuff.

I don't mind social history, but incorporated into the grander scheme of things. When the focus is all on social history, you get Stalin's Peasants, which might be useful, but it's a brutally dull piece of historiography.

Johnny B said...

I'd bet there were a lot more places to buy comics in Spartansburg in the '60s and '70s, and it's the same around here as well. For various reasons, and I've been told that it became more expensive to carry them, shoplifting was a problem, etc., most outlets for comics just dried up. Other than the occasional Archie or Disney digest, no stores sell comics around here anymore- only in Bowling Green, about 35 miles south. That's why I now buy thorugh DCBS.

I often notice that those who are inclined to get all nostalgic for the days when comics sold in the hundreds of thousands of copies, and lament the fact that these days 50k is a smashing success, often fail to take this into account- that the outlets just aren't there anymore, and comics can't seem to figure out a way to make it more attractive to carry them again.

Me? I got nothin. I'm just sayin'. And I'm glad you found that post interesting...

Leigh Walton said...

Hey Dick,

To my mind, the go-to blogger for "comics history thru personal childhood reminiscence" is Jim Roeg of Double Articulation, although I think he's fallen out of the habit in recent months. You're right, the spectre of solipsism always looms close, but it can be a useful technique insofar as "what comics meant to me" can be extrapolated to "what comics meant to us." See, for example, this post on the significance of the fact that so many of the stories we read as kids were isolated fragments of larger stories.

My own limited dabbling in the area is available here, a post I've always meant to complete but haven't yet.

Todd C. Murry said...

The mention of Jim Roeg reminded me of this post ( ) of mine from a while ago attempting to isolate the wierd thrill of starting superhero comics. It was inspired by a Roag post and the two Jonothan Lethem essays on similar subjects (all linked in the post), and this may be an area of discussion within the broader context of the "anatomy of an addiction aka Archie as a gateway drug."

Damon Hurd said...

I'm really enjoying this series. I've been working on a graphic novel that is mostly a comics memoir and due to my age, deals mostly with 90's comics (though I am a bit younger than you and lack the late 80's foundation)

It's amazing how all of our experiences reading these same comics are simultaneously unique and the same.

I look forward to reading the rest of these posts.

zeb aslam said...

Heh...I was just thinking after reading part 2 that I would like to write something similar to this when I return to regular blogging sometime later this month.

I have to say as far as memes go...this is probably a lot more fun than any of the usual "I-will-ask-you-so-and-so-questions-before-I-answer-so-and-so-questions".

Also, more educational.

Matt said...

Here's my attempt at a contribution:

Thanks for this idea; I think it has the potential to be really neat.

Todd C. Murry said...

Matt - that was a nice encapsulation, but I would like to know what happens next... your post brings up the issue of "recidivism" that Sci Fi fans talk about (periods of escallating obsession and disgust, crashing when the disgust overwhelms the obsession, followed by a period of avoidance, follwed by re-immersion), and which has certainly been true of me. Hmm, I guess I should have posted this in your blog.

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