Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Wishful thinking

-The debate over Bookscan numbers seems to have (a) found a home at the Beat (where thankfully the duller-witted folks seem to have moved on to other things), and (b) moved into the realm of semantics, what with the question of what constitutes art comics (or comix, if you prefer). Of special consideration: is Bone an "art comic"? If I were asked to provide a definition of art/literary comics*, I would probably say that they are comics for which creative expression outweighs market considerations. I could see someone considering Bone to be an "art comic," given that definition. Others might have a definition which precludes anything that smacks of genre, in which case Bone would obviously be excluded.

Also worth considering is how perception of Bone has changed over time. When it first debuted, it was so different, so much better than the vast majority of comics, that I think one might have been justified in lumping it in with Eightball or Yummy Fur (I know I did, back in my late teen years). Today, with the massive success of the Scholastic printings and the sheer number of similar works (many inspired by Jeff Smith), it's harder to classify it that way.

At another point in this debate, Dirk Deppey suggests that today's manga readers might be tomorrow's Fantagraphics/D&Q/whatever reader. Heidi MacDonald shoots this notion down, but I think that might be shortsighted. This kind of debate really needs to consider the role of art in comics consumption. Comics are not the same as literature; story is not the only selling point. Surely the average person who has not grown up immersed in the world of superhero comics would find the art of Jaime Herandez or Jim Woodring easier to follow and more visually stimulating than that of David Finch (or Tony Daniel or most of the Vertigo artists). I wonder if the appeal of attractive art might not be similar to the appeal of catchy music. In other words, potential readers might gravitate towards more serious comics if the art hooks them, just like a song might hook listeners with a catchy phrase. I would think this is an advantage "art comics" would hold over their prose counterparts. Of course, this wouldn't apply to someone like Gary Panter, but that kind of goes without saying.

*Assuming you don't consider these to be two separate categories. Maybe they are, but I've never heard anyone try to distinguish between the two. And I'm not terribly comfortable with defining "art comic," either. Seems like an exercise in frustration, especially for someone who doesn't really believe in concepts like "objectively good."

-One other point that emerges from this debate (which I'm going to give its own bullet point) is whether Marvel and DC are doing enough to capture potential readers who are familiar with their intellectual properties from movies, cartoons, etc. Deppey made this point re: the new Spider-Man cartoon today. MacDonald dismissed this point in a way I'm not sure is entirely fair; doesn't visual continuity between cartoon and comics matter (and I'm guessing that the characterization might vary a bit as well)? Of course, this all assumes that either company's corporate overlords really care whether or not the publishing division can exploit this popularity in other media. Maybe Levitz and Buckley's bosses are getting more interested in what's seeing print, given the recent rumors surrounding DC, but forgive me for being a little skeptical of how much the NYC-centered publishers mean to their parent companies.

But this brings to mind an important question about DC/Marvel readers under the age of 20 (in other words, those who were too young to have read comics before the mid-90s bust). How did you folks get started reading superhero comics, given that they were much, much harder to find by the point you reached literacy? And given the much higher cost of these comics, relative to what I paid when I was a tyke?* I'm serious about this--it's a question that's been bugging me for a while now. If you yourself are in this demographic, please tell me your story in the comments.

*One of the many reasons I've always leaned towards Marvel was that their books were 60 cents an issue when I first started buying my own comics. DC charged 75 cents. It's hard to believe there was a point in my life when 15 cents made such a big difference. I guess I really am that old.

-I'd like to direct everyone to this poll at Comics Comics asking whether or not you would buy a book devoted to Ogden Whitney's work. It was an easy answer for me--I'd buy volumes collecting the work of most of the artists included in Art Out of Time. Lucky for us, there are already at least three such books either forthcoming or already out, all released by Fantagraphics so far: the Terr'ble Thompson collection, I Shall Destroy All the Civilized Planets, and the upcoming collection of the comics of Rory Hayes (who, out of all the artists featured in Art Out of Time, is probably the one whose work I would most want to see collected). Actually, now that I think about it, Fantagraphics has also published a long-form work by Milt Gross, He Done Her Wrong. So that's 4 out of 29 cartoonists (5 of 29 if you count the possible Whitney collection).

Who else needs their own collections? I'm not sure what the likelihood of any of this is in terms of surviving work or copyright troubles, but I'd love to see collections of the work of Jack Mendelsohn or Harry J. Tuthill (actually, there was a Bungle Family collection in the late 70s, but I'm guessing that it's about as easy to find as the various collections of Polly and Her Pals). One might also suggest Howard Nostrand or his colleague Bob Powell, but my understanding is that their other work doesn't really reflect what we see in Art Out of Time.

Actually, what would really be cool is a second volume of Art Out of Time, maybe with a few underground manga artists included this time. Possibly even a global volume of "unknown comics visionaries." That would be pretty cool, right?


Johnny B said...

...doesn't visual continuity between cartoon and comics matter (and I'm guessing that the characterization might vary a bit as well)?

Apparently not- for good or ill, there's been precious little of it in the 40-something years I've been reading one and watching the other...

Katherine said...

Hmm, well, I'm 28, but I didn't start reading superhero comics until 2003 or thereabouts, when X-Men 2 came out. Then again, I'm probably not a relevant data point, since I'm not US-based and the situation vis a vis comics is rather different over here -- when I was a wee tyke, there were many comics available in newsagents and even today you can get Spider-Man, X-Men and Avengers comics in Eason's (=biggest chain of newsagents in Ireland). (Marvel's UK branch does special editions for newsagent distribution that reprint two or three standard issues.)

Chad said...

doesn't visual continuity between cartoon and comics matter (and I'm guessing that the characterization might vary a bit as well)?

I think consistent characterization might be the bigger deal, but honestly, as long as it's a guy dressed up in a Spider-Man suit punching people, I don't think kids care at all about visual continuity between various forms of media. It wasn't until Gene Colan replaced John Byrne on Captain America that I even noticed artistic differences in my superhero comics.

Also, visual continuity doesn't appear to be helping the various DC cartoon-related comics pull in big numbers, as much as I enjoy some of them.

Tucker Stone said...

I don't have much of an opinion on the sales stuff, other than a totally uneducated negative and cynical belief in none of these bad boys doing well forever, but I will chime in and say hells to the yes, more 'art out of time' more reprints of the guys in the first volume, more, more, more of that stuff. I'm not going to buy everything that gets reprinted, but that stuff is like manna from heaven. good call.

matches said...

As a kid I quite enjoyed both Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends AND Amazing Spider-Man, even though the visual continuity was spotty and the whole setup was different. As long as the character is recognizable as "Spider-Man", I'm not sure the rest of it matters all that much.

Matthew J. Brady said...

Hmmm, that "definition of art comics" issue is one that I think about sometimes (but maybe only when I'm deciding whether to put an "artcomix" tag on a blog post...); I often obsess about this sort of categorization, because I'm anal that way. I usually think of it as comics with a literary purpose, so genre stuff and "entertainments" don't necessarily fit my definition. But really, that's just me. And of course, that definition could change at some point, depending on how I feel at the time.

I'm interested in your notion about the role of art in enticing the casual comics reader. That's probably true that the likes of David Finch (or, I don't know, Frank Cho? Ed Benes?) might turn them off, due to the hard-to-follow nature. Hell, even the "good" superhero artists, like Carlos Pacheco or Terry Dodson kind of stick to a fairly complex style that might be too busy for those used to manga. So, yeah, "art comics" might appeal to those casual readers more. But I would also say that some of those art comics are so stripped down and simple that they can turn off casual readers as well. I'm thinking of somebody like Sammy Harkham or most of the contributors to MOME or Kramers Ergot. And maybe I'm revealing my own bias there, because sometimes that stuff bugs me; it can seem too visually simple. And don't get me started on Gary Panter or Jim Woodring; I just don't get those guys (although I do recognize that Woodring is a hell of an artist). The best balance is probably struck by people like Daniel Clowes, Adrian Tomine, or the Hernandez brothers. They favor clear, sophisticated storytelling that's not too simple, but also not too complex to distract from the story. I'm sure I (we?) could come up with plenty of other examples of all these groups, but that's my two cents.

Leigh Walton said...

Started reading in roughly 1992 when an uncle gave some X-Force comics to my brother and me. Spread to other X-books and Marvel at large, occasionally from drugstore racks but mostly from (irregular, maybe monthly) trips to the comic shop near Dad's workplace.

Was really into Marvel trading cards for a while (the 1992 -1993 sets). So I had a very broad and very shallow understanding of the whole universe -- amplified by the Wizard subscription that we would start a few years later. Plus, in those days Toys R Us would sell you a plastic tub of 20 or 30 random Marvel comics for cheap -- remaindered overprints, I guess. So we picked up a little bit of everything.

Watched the X-Men cartoon quite a lot (even bought the comic adaptation of it).

Read a bunch of comics from the public library - Tintin, Asterix, and Elfquest. Don't remember whether this pre- or post-dates my first Marvel comic. But the two categories (superhero comic books that you bought at the store and big euro-style albums that you checked out from the library) were fairly separate in my head.

Leigh Walton said...

Also, I gotta say, "average folks" have different visual tastes than you might think. They go nuts for Alex Ross; I suspect Bryan Hitch has a similar effect.

"It looks so real!"

Dick Hyacinth said...

Yeah, I was going to make some comment about Alex Ross being a counter-example along the lines of Gary Panter (or maybe some of the artists Matt mentioned in his comment). I meant more like the Image-inspired artists, but I totally agree that Ross or Hitch will attract many non-comics readers more than Hernandez or Woodring.

Now whether or not those artists would attract those non-comics readers who may be predisposed to give comics a chance...that's a completely different question, one that none of us could answer, in all likelihood.

Brex W. Foldingham said...

My favourite comment on DC/Marvel "failing" to capture the movie/cartoon audience is from Sean T. Collins Holiday Interview with the Spurge:

"[You see] big sales boosts for comics of finite length with a demonstrable link to their film incarnations -- Hellboy, Ghost World, Sin City, 300, and so on. [And] negligible sales boosts for comics of indefinite length with little demonstrable link to their film incarnations beyond the presence of characters that everyone already knows come from comics and have long since made up their minds whether they're interested in buying such things -- any of the superhero movies, basically."

I don't totally buy the "characters everyone knows come from comics" part, though. As a child, I loved Superman solely through the movies. I don't think I was conscious of Superman comics (maybe comic books in general)until the Death of Superman. I showed All-Star Superman to a college classmate, and she said, "They still make those?" This is all anecdotal obviously.

Chris said...

I'm 20, and my parents started buying me Marvel stuff in '92 or '93...eventually I was bribed with a couple Spider-man issues or something each week in return for going to "enriched" classes. I stopped reading around the time the Clone Saga ended and began again with Sandman in high school, but it was discovering The Invisibles shortly after that made me a hopeless addict...