Not long ago, I saw a post on the the Comics Beat by former Comics Journal contributor Robert Boyd remarking upon the virtual separation of the world of “mainstream comics” and “artcomics.” Boyd didn’t comment on how this situation came to be, but there’s an interesting history behind the bifurcation.
“In the beginning” there were only mainstream comic books and, for the most part, mainstream comics strips, even if an occasional arty strip like Krazy Kat may have enjoyed some degree of success. The flashpoint for change came about thanks to EC Comics in the early 1950s. Evidence suggests that the majority of EC’s fans — particularly the little ghouls who loved the horror titles — were no older than the readers of most other genres. Still, EC nurtured a small coterie of older readers sometimes known as “satire-fans.” Whether or not the name was accurate for all fans, it did denote a different set of priorities from those of that group of hardcore fans that bloomed slightly later and was centered around Jerry Bails’s Alter Ego and similar fanzines. The influence of these ‘zines upon both the history of fandom and of mainstream comics has been covered elsewhere and needs not be detailed here, any more than one needs see another history of the growth of alternate comics through the undergrounds, etc.
It’s doubtful that the two groups were ever as radically separated in the 1950s and 1960s as they would be later. Big Name Fan Ted White, for example, was both a member of the EC Fan-Addicts’ Club and a contributor to Alter Ego.
In the 1970s and 1980s, following the establishment of the direct-sales market, there came to be what might be called a “Protestant Revolt” against the notion of fannish “catholicity,” with Gary Groth, editor of the Comics Journal, taking a role not unlike that of Martin Luther. The revolt was usually framed as one of superior taste over inferior taste, but it’s not hard to discern motives beyond pure aesthetics. Anyone attempting to publish “superior comics” had one thing in common with all the publishers of “inferior comics”: that publisher still had to cultivate a customer base derived from the only base that existed. With the marginalization of the undergrounds, this base could only be the readership of “mainstream comics.” Groth’s company, Fantagraphics, was in the forefront of the revolt, but certainly other publishers attempted to derive what they could from the readers of “inferior comics.” The cover of Robert Crumb’s HUP #1 blatantly (and perhaps not entirely seriously) denigrates the reader for buying “that super-hero crap” and urges him to pick up “a real adult comic.”
It would be interesting to read an impartial history of the many rhetorical battles fought during the 1980s and 1990s. Some of them, like the notorious Gary Groth – Dave Sim feud, concern not the battle of burgeoning artcomics versus the bludgeoning mainstream, but different viewpoints on the subject of artcomickery. Yet if any advocate of artcomics ever thought that sheer rhetoric would win the day, that advocate was doomed to disappointment, for the direct market remained dominated by mainstream comics. My favorite local comics-shop attempted for two decades to host a wide variety of artcomics in addition to mainstream offerings. Now that the market for artcomics in the comic-book format has dwindled, artcomics in TPB or normal-book format are all that the owner carries.
The Revolt was indirectly successful, though. It didn’t transform the readers or distributors of mainstream comics, but its rhetoric did attract the attention of publishers with deeper pockets, wider distribution and more adventurous readerships. These of course were the book publishers. And while I am sure that the book-publishing world has its own share of vicissitudes, it has made it possible for at least some purveyors of artcomics to enjoy the fruits of their labors. This in turn made it possible for the comics sometimes called “independents” to become financially independent of the comics mainstream. There is, so far as I can tell, no longer a reason for Robert Crumb to attempt to poach readers from the super-hero publishers.
And so, the sheep now sitteth on one hand of God, and the goats on the other. What now?
One answer is that, even though the readerships will probably never fuse, we can still understand that all genres within this medium we love — as in all mediums — belong to the same bitching-at-each-other-at-Thanksgiving family. It’s not “Team Comics;” it’s more like “Family Feud.”
Being in a family doesn’t mean everyone likes each other, or that everyone shares the same desires or intentions. What it does mean, though, is that all the members share a history that can only be understood through the most impartial critical overview.
My own approach, as I’ve detailed often on my blog The Archetypal Archive, is, of course, archetypal criticism. In future essays, I’ll attempt to explain why I think it offers such impartiality without, of course, insisting that it’s the only possible discipline that can do so.