No More Heroes
Comics: The Latest Medium to Test Fine-Arts Waters
It's a process that painting, literary fiction, classical music, poetry, and other forms went through long before most City Paper readers were born. Today's younger culture watchers, however, can observe at least one medium go through these changes, though not one they might expect--comic books. Originally created by publishers in the 1930s as a way to replace the fading pulp-fiction genres, the first comic books, like movies, had their origins in the modern age and were largely created by businessmen with no higher aspirations, such as education or inspiration--they were simply meant to entertain and put change in their publishers' pockets.
The history of comics reads like a primer in pulp. The first comic books simply reprinted newspaper strips. Soon after, seeing the books' profits, publishers began printing original stories in myriad genres: science fiction, jungle adventure, westerns, war, funny animals, teen comics à la Archie, and, of course, superheroes. Aside from a few attempts at actual art (the underground comics of the late '60s and '70s, Art Spiegelman's Raw magazine and Maus graphic novel, and other '80s alternative comics), and happy accidents that led to unexpectedly excellent work (Harvey Kurtzman's Mad magazine; Jack Cole's Plastic Man; Carl Barks' Disney ducks; Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko's Marvel comics of the '60s), comics continued happily on their profitable but unchallenging path until fairly recently.
A couple of weeks ago, hundreds of cartoonists gathered at the annual Small Press Expo alternative-comics festival in Bethesda, a by-product of the form's ongoing march toward respectability. There were some creators there showing off superheroes and other genre work, obviously trying to line up an assignment from Marvel or DC or pimping themselves to Hollywood. But the rest of the cartoonists were strictly an art-first crowd. The same weekend, the Expo's sister event, the Georgetown University-sponsored International Comic Arts Festival academic convocation, brought together scholars, historians, critics, journalists, curators, and others from around the world to the Washington area to discuss comics.
Art for art's sake plus academic recognition: Sound familiar?
Among those wandering around the Bethesda Holiday Inn that weekend was Daniel Nadel, the New York-based co-editor of The Ganzfeld, an annual (or so) journal of graphic design, illustration, and comics--all three once purely commercial art forms that have entered the fine-arts mainstream in recent years. The Ganzfeld, better than any other publication, puts comics in a historical and critical context that demonstrates how fully they have entered the rarefied world of fine arts.
The latest issue, released earlier this year, opens with "popeyeandolive," a graphic deconstruction of E.C. Segar's iconic early-20th-century comic strip by cartoonist Richard McGuire. For several pages, McGuire twists and turns Popeye and Olive's body parts into a series of abstract but familiar mono-colored shapes. It's an appropriate way to start a journal that connects comics' commercial past with its fine-arts future. Other material by or about cartoonists in the issue include "portraits" of beasts by Renée French, wallpaper designs by Ron Rege Jr., color sketchbook work from Jimmy Corrigan creator Chris Ware, more form-twisting comics by Peter Blegvad and Lauren Weinstein, and an essay on midcentury outsider cartoonist Frank Johnson.
For those who grew up buying comic books at the neighborhood corner store, spending lazy summer days enthralled in the adventures of Superman or wishing Jughead was their best friend, comics-as-fine art may be a depressing notion. Much of the four-color periodicals' charm came from their garishness and disposability--they were junk food for the brain. Much of the stuff found at the Small Press Expo purports to be good for you, Art with a capital "A." To know that future generations of children may not have those same memories of simple comic-book pleasures is depressing.
If such a move means more genius work from Ware, Ghost World's Daniel Clowes, and dozens of other lesser-known cartoonists--and the critical recognition, respect, and sales such great work can produce--then perhaps it's a wash. Knowing that a future Picasso or Faulkner may now be at a Kinko's, putting together his or her first minicomic, is the very opposite of depressing.
This isn't to say that the comic-book industry or art form has abandoned the idea of pulp. On the contrary, most comic-book stores have always and still cater mainly to superhero/fantasy/SF readers. That audience, however, seems stagnant--made up mostly of longtime fans who follow favorite characters, not artists, and often worry about intra-company continuity more than quality. It's hard to call an art form pulp that, while not dying, is not longer a mass medium.
Sales have trended downward since the comic book's heyday--the 15 years or so following World War II, when returning soldiers and their baby-boomer kids read a lot of comics--and more precipitously since the mid-'90s, despite comics rehabilitated reputation. Reasons for this loss in popularity are numerous: television's ascendance as the brain junk food of choice; the ever-dwindling number of newsstands, which have mostly abandoned comics in favor of higher-profit items; movie special effects that provide visuals once possible only to those employing brush and ink (indeed, the only thing thriving about comics these days are the number of big-screen adaptations in the works); video games that more effectively allow their users to project themselves into a story than comics ever could; and the fact that, Harry Potter notwithstanding, kids don't read much anymore.
For a look at a culture where comics still fulfill the role of pulp, check out the fourth issue of Daniel Raeburn's comics-focused zine The Imp, which was selling out quickly wherever available at the Expo. In the issue, the Chicago-based writer travels to Mexico City to read bad comics called historietas that feature, as Raeburn writes, "guns, drugs, and buns. Fathers screw daughters, mothers hump their daughter's boyfriends, and daughters steal their mother's girlfriends. . . ." And worse.
Like the original U.S. comics publishers, the producers of these comics care only for circulation and cash. A decade or so ago, Mexican publishers were the world's largest per capita producer of comic books--comics were the de facto national literature. Then came globalization and free trade, and U.S. and Japanese comics entered the Mexican market, causing locally produced historietas to lose market share. To get it back, homegrown publishers went way, way low, going after the south of the border version of white-trash young men, formerly rural American Indians and mestizos who have moved to cities, known in Mexico as nacos. This niche market turned out to be a gold mine, and these comics are sold and resold in the millions throughout Spanish-speaking North and South America.
Raeburn treats the nasty historietas with the respect they deserve: not much. But his excellent prose and cynical sense of humor turn what could have been anal-retentive academia into a satisfying mixture of travelogue, personal history, critical examination, and cultural investigation, featuring a sort of coming-of-age subplot starring a young Mexico City college professor who specializes in comics.
Buried deep in the pages of The Imp, a couple of historieta cartoonists, Zenaido Velázquez Fuentes and Oscar Bazaldúa Nava, wistfully talk about how they would like to do better, more artistic work. "They wish they could do stories about their own lives, or work in other genres besides morbidity and sex," the young professor, Ernesto Priego, says, translating the artists' conversation. Sound familiar?
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