I have to admit, I’m not much of a cultural theorist. My grasp of our cultural gutter is about as sophisticated as a falling anvil — and it’s nowhere near as funny. Which isn’t to suggest I haven’t myself reclined in the gutter and slurped up its spillings like the rest of us… but to try and define the thing itself, not to mention what attracts me to it, is like trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks (if you’ll pardon the pillaged metaphor).
In my defense, comics are a gutter-al artifact due mainly to misinformation — okay, so maybe their sensationalism (at least in their formative years, produced for a North American market of, mostly, young boys) played a part. But to claim that Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, to name just two in the recent spate of literary graphic novels to grip the medium, are indistinguishable from X-Force or the collected Heathcliff is too absurd for words.
Yet it remains the prevailing consensus in our culture: that comics can only titillate or distract, never provoke or inspire.
Now, don’t think this a jab at titillation and distraction — they can be great fun (add a bottle of Jagermeister and a pit of whipped cream), and I pity a life without them — but art can do more.
And many cartoonists don’t merely aspire to it but create, consistently, work that resonates deeply, that provokes ideas and is as relevant to our cultural discourse as any art being made. And just as consistently, their work is dismissed or simply ignored. Just because it’s comics. (We’ll see if the medium’s present cool is a genuine shift or just another wave of interest that seems to build and ebb every decade or so.)
Comics’ gutter status seems to me based mostly on prejudice, misconception and ignorance. I’m one of many writers trying to rouse the public (the English-speaking North American adult public, if you want to be picky) from its anti-comics stupor, and the amazingly fruitful work being produced these days is ample wattage to jolt people to attention. The growth of the graphic novel, the ascension of manga, the boom of comics communities and the waning influence of Marvel and DC genre books, all are contributing to a thriving comics subculture of a piece with the San Francisco underground boom in the late ’60s, but on a vastly bigger scale. Many comics still appeal to adolescent power fantasies — the gutter prime — but increasingly, artists are trying to express an adult worldview and describe complex experiences in challenging, nuanced ways. And if this “literary” approach can be fraught with pretension, it’s also stretching the medium in ways it never was before.
Problem is, the medium’s lurid history tails it like toilet paper on a boot, so many readers don’t even bother with it. And unlike, say, video games, which have thrived in spite (or perhaps because) of their marginality, comics are still restricted by it — publishers still have trouble making a profit and top cartoonists still have trouble making a living from their work. My hope is that writing about comics will encourage more people to read them (ie, buy them), which would encourage more people to make them, and develop the form further. It’s a pretty selfish goal, really: more readers mean more (and better) books. If I can educate readers about this unique, flowering medium, and if I can in some way expose its potential to someone who might not otherwise care, I may be able to help the comics and artists I love… if not escape the gutter then at least find some nook where they’re less likely to get trampled.