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#459116 - 02/06/01 08:12 PM Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Stephen Geigen Miller Offline
Member

Registered: 07/16/99
Posts: 45
Loc: Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Hm. I normally prefer to opt out of the maelstrom of argument that tends to surround Pat O’Neill, since I believe that irreducibles can’t be debated in a meaningful way. However, the recent “Attn: Pat O’Neill” thread, as well as Kim Thompson’s “Free Comics For Pat O’Neill” thread responding to it, got me thinking. Specifically, I was mulling over this particular assertion:

“I've steadfastly said this stuff is too "down" for the general public...and I'm consistently proven right.” (Pat O’Neill)

This was a comment on the lack of breakthrough success (especially cross-media success) for Fantagraphics publications like Hate and Love and Rockets. But I thought about some broader implications of Pat’s comments for a while, and why I disagreed with him.

This is what occurred to me: It’s been pointed out, in the other threads I cited above, that contemporary comics are still almost completely invisible in mainstream culture. It’s a good point. But individual works do occasionally grab the spotlight of both public recognition and cultural relevance. Works like:

Maus.
Watchmen.
The Dark Knight Returns.
Jimmy Corrigan.
Safe Area Goradze.

These stories aren’t exactly sweetness and light. They don’t all have “happy endings.” They’re “down.” But together, they mark a significant majority of the comics/graphic novels to achieve the breakthrough into broader public awareness – outside of the industry and fandom – within the past 20 years.

A case can also be made for the breakthrough status of Sandman, which, although often uplifting, was essentially a tragedy built with elements of dark fantasy and horror.

Of the other “big breakthroughs”, two were calculated marketing events – the deaths of Robin, and of Superman – which, themselves, were not exactly upbeat either. Then there was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which actually had a lot of dark, post-Frank Miller urban vigilantism before being reinvented as a multi-media kids franchise.

(Okay, there’s also Pokemon, which is, admittedly, pretty unequivocally happy. But the comics in that case were piggybacked on a TV/CCG/movie marketing juggernaut.)

So, the works that have broken through into popular consciousness, and have brought the most recognition and acclaim to the comics medium (in North America) have been “down,” and this has proved to be no barrier to the general public at all. In fact, the broader success of these works has been seen as the best hope for comics, both the medium and the industry.

And – in my opinion, at least – no, the Superman, Batman, and X-men movie franchises don’t count. If anything, the success of those movies has proven that a popular movie based on a comic doesn’t necessarily translate into greater success, or a higher public profile for, the source comic. (How many people think about Marv Wolfman, Marvel Comics, or comics in general, when they think about Blade, I wonder?)

What I'm talking about are the comics that have achieved cultural relevance as comics, not from being translated into other media.

(I think this difference, by the way, is central to the argument that the entire “Attn: Pat O’Neill” thread has been built on. I, and I think many other posters, are discussing the cultural impact and relevance of comics, both individual works and in general – not the cultural relevance of Superman as a character versus that of Enid Coleslaw. Batman will probably always be more famous than Jimmy Corrigan, but that doesn’t necessarily imply greater cultural relevance or artistic merit.)

So: It’s been the “down” comics and GNs that have broken through, and achieved recognition and acclaim beyond the comics culture. But what I wonder is, why has this been the case? Maus, Watchmen, Dark Knight Returns, Jimmy Corrigan, Safe Area Goradze, and Sandman, haven’t been the only good comics and graphic novels published since 1980. Why has our best foot forward, our calling card, been material dealing with that end of the emotional spectrum? What factors are at work, here, in comics, in the mainstream media, among academics and critics, and in the reading public at large? What, if anything, does this mean to the ongoing, incremental efforts to inform the broader culture about comics, and the achievements and potential of the comics medium? Any thoughts?

Stephen

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Stephen Geigen-Miller
Cup O' Tea Studios
Publishers of Xeno's Arrow
http://www.xenosarrow.com
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Stephen Geigen-Miller
Cup O' Tea Studios
Creators of Xeno's Arrow
www.xenosarrow.com

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#459117 - 02/06/01 08:32 PM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
OwenE Offline
Member

Registered: 08/26/00
Posts: 54
Loc: UK
Why has our best foot forward, our calling card, been material dealing with that end of the emotional spectrum? What factors are at work, here, in comics, in the mainstream media, among academics and critics, and in the reading public at large....

The reading public at large can only really get into things the mainstream press talk up.

A lot of the mainstream press has until very recently centered around the 'comics aren't just for kids any more' aspect where the seriousness of the work is a hook for the article. That hook probably played a part in those articles seeing print, journalists picked up on works that they could convince their editors were clearly for adults and should be covered in adult areas of papers.

While there are plenty of upbeat and worthy comics they might not have been so immediately obvious as adult works and therefore harder to get covered. If there wasn't the hurdle of having to show over and over that comics weren't just for kids then journalists might be readier to write about less Sturm and drang comics.

I'd guess it would take either a major upbeat adult work (something on the lines of Kyle Baker's stuff perhaps) or regular comics coverage to get over this. As long as comics coverage is limited to works that break the public perception of what a comic is it is likely to focus on downbeat material. If comics were being reviewed week in week out then there wouldn't be the need for that angle every time comics are mentioned.

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#459118 - 02/06/01 08:42 PM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Shine Offline
Member

Registered: 12/29/00
Posts: 159
Loc: Gaithersburg, MD
I think a point worth mentioning here is that comics, when actually looked at by the "normals", are considered pretty hip. Now look at hip movies; RESERVIOR DOGS, FIGHT CLUB, AMERICAN BEAUTY, COOL HAND LUKE, THE WILD BUNCH, THE KILLER, THE HUSTLER... Hipness tends toward the downbeat. Relative to most of these examples, HATE seems pretty damn perky. People who watch FRIENDS don't always tend to be the readers looking to be challenged by the new ideas found in comics. Not typically anyway. They will sometimes hook on to comics-like ideas such as THE MATRIX without realizing it though. Even if one looks at the Batman movies, the successes have been the darker two films. So I don't think comics are too dark for the mainstream, but rather the mainstream may be too light for comics.
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#459119 - 02/07/01 01:06 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Zonndo Offline
Junior Member

Registered: 01/25/01
Posts: 17
Loc: Reno, NV USA
Well, let's consider some mainstream success stories of the past few years. The Aliens franchise... Terminator... Quentin Tarantino... The Matrix... the first Batman movie, of course... the X-Files... all pretty violent, gloomy, and downbeat in their tone. And yet none of these, I'd say, have much more depth than something like Mary Poppins. This is indicative of another flaw in the way Pat is looking at things; just as "positive" does not always equal "popular and appealing", so a work's being dark does not necessarily mean it's difficult or serious. Likewise, serious work doesn't have to come across like a Goth convention. The Hernandez brothers can be dark, but they can just as often come across lighthearted and exuberant. Joe Sacco deals with horrific events, but I think his feeling for the people who live through them is life-affirming at its core.

Well, okay, I can't think of anybody else at Fantagraphics. But I think my point stands.

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#459120 - 02/07/01 07:09 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Pat ONeill Offline
Member

Registered: 08/18/99
Posts: 3064
Loc: PA, USA
Quote:
This is what occurred to me: It’s been pointed out, in the other threads I cited above, that contemporary comics are still almost completely invisible in mainstream culture. It’s a good point. But individual works do occasionally grab the spotlight of both public recognition and cultural relevance. Works like:

Maus.
Watchmen.
The Dark Knight Returns.
Jimmy Corrigan.
Safe Area Goradze.

These stories aren’t exactly sweetness and light. They don’t all have “happy endings.” They’re “down.” But together, they mark a significant majority of the comics/graphic novels to achieve the breakthrough into broader public awareness – outside of the industry and fandom – within the past 20 years.


What you miss is that all these "breakthroughs" occurred not by and among the general public, but by and among what Tom Spurgeon calls "the high culture gatekeepers"--among whom the dark, the depressing, the nihilistic is seen as deep and meaningful, while the fun, the light, the spiritually uplifting is seen as so much fluff.
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Best, Pat

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#459121 - 02/07/01 07:30 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Broken Shakespeare Offline
Member

Registered: 07/06/00
Posts: 43
Loc: Maysville, Kentucky
I don't know how you can say that some of those works have received recognition among the general public. I've been reading comics for 20 years, and out of those you listed,

Quote:
Maus.
Watchmen.
The Dark Knight Returns.
Jimmy Corrigan.
Safe Area Goradze.


I had only heard of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. If a 20 year reader of comics hasn't heard of them, do you really think the general public has? I know that besides Watchmen and DKR, I've never seen an article about the other books in any publication, whether comic related or not. I've never seen a TV story or anything else to indicate acceptance of the material by the general public. As a matter of fact, the only place I've seen those other books discussed are on RACM or here at Comicon.

When you can say 10 or 20 million people have read a work, then maybe you can claim that it hit home with a small segment of the general public. Mabe 50-100 million and you can say it has cultural significance. Until then, they really just seem to hit home with a niche market.

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Broken Shakespeare
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#459122 - 02/07/01 08:07 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Jason Arnett Offline
Member

Registered: 02/01/00
Posts: 476
Loc: Lawrence, KS USA
Well, I'd heard about Maus by reading a local newspaper article while I was in high school. That was the first I'd heard of it. Later, I read again about it in Rolling Stone. I knew about Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns from haunting the local comics shop. From reading the posts here, I've learned that both of the other books have been profiled in Time. And I seem to recall Spiegelman doing a guest shot on the Tonight Show, but I'm not sure I remember that correctly. Can anyone confirm or deny this? (My memory has Johnny Carson taking the material VERY seriously...)

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Jason Arnett
Jackleg Comics
jack_leg@hotmail.com
Website under construction

[This message has been edited by Jason Arnett (edited 02-07-2001).]
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Breaking & Entering
What it takes to make comix
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#459123 - 02/07/01 08:43 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
OwenE Offline
Member

Registered: 08/26/00
Posts: 54
Loc: UK
When you can say 10 or 20 million people have read a work, then maybe you can claim that it hit home with a small segment of the general public....

Anyone care to comment on how many modern books sell 10 million copies (presumably he means in the USA). I was under the impression that the hardcover sales for Gorazde and Corrigan were actually respectable or even pretty good for modern fiction or war reporting in general.

Asking for 10 million sales before you can claim something has hit home with the general audience is holding comics up to a standard other media dont have to meet. The Ed McBain paperback I was reading last night boasted of 100 million sales for his countless novels over the last 4 decades, he is clearly a succesfull writer and his publishing house clearly felt the sales were worth commenting on. By your standards a single book would have to sell a tenth or even a fifth of that before it had been considered to make an impact. That is ludicrous

This is similar to Pat's Superman argument in that while it does rule out the comics in question it also rules out just about everything else created in the last 5 decades including works in a wide range of fields which are generally accepted as having cultural significance.

Owen Erasmus

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#459124 - 02/07/01 08:52 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Robert Boyd Offline
Member

Registered: 12/09/99
Posts: 82
Loc: Milford, CT, USA
Broken Shakespeare wrote: "I don't know how you can say that some of those works have received recognition among the general public. I've been reading comics for 20 years, and out of those you listed,
quote:
Maus.
Watchmen.
The Dark Knight Returns.
Jimmy Corrigan.
Safe Area Goradze.

I had only heard of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. If a 20 year reader of comics hasn't heard of them, do you really think the general public has?"

"General public" is kind of a vague term, but I would contend that more people outside of comics fandom have read Maus than people within comics fandom. In any case, according to Andre Schiffrin, the former publisher of Pantheon which published Maus, Maus has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. I realize that in a population of 250 million, that seems like small potatoes. But in the world of graphic novels, Maus might well be the all-time best seller.

Broken Shakespeare continues: "When you can say 10 or 20 million people have read a work, then maybe you can claim that it hit home with a small segment of the general public."

No comic book or graphic novel (and indeed, very few books of any sort) published in the last 40 years can meet or ever will meet this standard.

"Mabe 50-100 million and you can say it has cultural significance. Until then, they really just seem to hit home with a niche market."

In which case, no comic book in the history of the medium has ever been culturally significant because no comic book has ever been read by that many people. MAYBE some newspaper strips, but no comic books.

I'm not going to give you a detailed counter argument because I think it would be fruitless. But you have consigned all comics to niche status, which is frankly something I welcome. If we recognize that comics are niche items, then comics that sell well (say 100s of thousands of copies, like Maus) to the well-educated cultural elite niche should be considered at least as important to comics that sell similar numbers to other niches, and more important than comics that sell less. This is, of course, assuming we're using sales figures as our be-all and end-all of cultural significance.

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#459125 - 02/07/01 10:28 AM Re: Too “down”… Or the best hope for comics?
Walt Stone Offline
Member

Registered: 01/01/01
Posts: 496
Loc: Katy, Tx
Deep characterizations often are generated from deep emotional conflict, and those are easiest to portray with the dark topics. Critically acclaimed comics are going to tend to be the dark ones.

Will the "down" comics save the medium? Hell no. Why? I'll play a "what if" -- What if there was an important, critically acclaimed (even celebrated outside in the general media) like a "Maus" -- Launched/published this calendar year. Nobody's heard of the creative team... brand new "Name" in the industry. Huge dramatic flair, wonderful enticing spectacular art. The art community loves this creative team.

And... the comic is a dark modern tale along the lines of "Angela's Ashes". Maybe uplifting somewhere near the ending...

The team goes on Oprah... maybe even considered for Oprah's valued "Oprah's Book Club" which is the equivelent of winning the lottery.

Huge dark, yet compelling story. Success without compromise! Whoo-hoo!

Now what? You think folks are going to flock to "Comic Book Store Guy" to fill his pockets for equally good stories?

Nope. YOU may think it might save comics. I don't. Granted, I'm not a comic book guy - I come from a different viewpoint.

Ultimately, the adult audience for comics isn't a growth area - in my opinion. Why? No matter what success you have in the "Down" comics artistically... no matter how high you can hold your head when you talk about the "best" comics with the rest of the art crowd, the standard comic book store is never, ever going to magically morph into a place that is considered to find decent literature by the general public.

If the story is THAT good, it'll be marketed in the standard book stores. And therefore, if you are a creator, and you want to be considered seriously, being marketed in comic book stores is hiding your work under a basket.

Walt Stone

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