Have We Isolated Ourselves?

Every so often we get a good comics scandal involving a creator and random fan bickering across the internet. Seemingly within days it, has sent ripples across the comics world. Jack Creator and Ralph the Fan are having a war and sides are drawn.

No, it does not matter if you have all the facts or are even related to the scenario, you can take a side and take part in the rift. All of this leading to a growing divide in the comics community. In case you think this hyperbole then search for reviews of the new DC 52 books. You can even look on this very website for opposing viewpoints on the quality of the books. Everyone is joining in.

I have been no stranger to ripping into the DC New 52. While good old friendly nudging is great, it is when these attacks start to take a more personal quality that grows the distance between us all. But, far be it from me to moralize, after all my moral compass is but a faulty magnet and a pin sticking on top – that is to say not the greatest.

But, it does demand asking: Are we destroying the medium we loved so much? Should we all have a more conciliatory attitude towards what are seen as failures?

From what little of comics scholarship lives out in the internet, it can be seen that DC, cumulatively, failed in it’s experiment. But, what did our pointing out its failure do? Has DC since hired more female creators / editors? No. Has the Justice League become a book that isn’t just a perishable product? No.

So where is this going? Is there a possibility we are all simply bickering back and forth, with the rare exceptions of a Colin Smith, Julian Darius, or David Balan who dig into what the implications are in comics today?

Red Hood and The Outlaws #1But what does this unpacking of implications do? One thing it does is bring up a certain level of awareness. While everyone knew about Red Hood and the Outlaws, it was a select few like the above or Laura Hudson who were ready to parse out exactly what was happening here. But was this all somehow like crashing a small, harmless party?

After all, it has been touted that women are growing in comic readership and convention attendance, but this number of female readers is still relatively small compared to male readers and convention goers. So, if I may play Devil’s advocate for a moment: what is the harm? This means that a large sum of the paying audience is male.

If this group of males votes for more boobs and explosions, then by God that is what they are going to get. Also, once again, we have to ask, if they are paying for it, shouldn’t they get it in this consumer-driven society we live in?

If true, it would seem that we are all simply crashing an apparently harmless party. Look at those heroes! They don’t want to harm you, they just want to do cool, mindless stuff like fight villains and pose. After all, why should we care about the minority consumers? The party line seems to be: if it ain’t broke, don’t mention it or fix it. While DC and Marvel are more than happy to take money from either gender of consumer, they appear less tied into the trend that women readers are on the rise. So, if they are willing to take money from female readers, should they not be ready to listen to their voice after all?

Much of the industry’s actions would say that we do not. But this could be because we isolate ourselves as a community. While comics fans are a close, warm bunch, we can be angry misanthropes as well, as can any group. But perhaps owing to most of the comics reading population being labeled nerds and geeks, led to a self-perpetuating shame, one that most of us never grow out of.

The stigma of shame that this thing we love, no, cherish, the comic book is an artifact of high nerdom. Like the Pope’s hat, it is something that announces our rank amongst the other geeks.

This led most of us to being more than a little socially awkward. It would seem that from these awkward beginnings grew an isolated understanding of the world, one that seems to manifest itself online more than anywhere else. Why should we cater to the rest of the world when they didn’t cater to us? The same jocks who used to beat kids up for reading comics are now at San Diego trying to broker deals with hot writers for movies.

Could it be that Catwoman was really a giant scarecrow to ward off the seeming unbelievers at the throne of comic books? Starfire was not really a treatise on women’s sexuality, but rather a way to ward off those whoare not true and pure to comic books? Of course this sounds silly in light of how well-documented it is that DC’s new 52 was a stratagem to garner new readers and not just keep the old converts.

But then again, that would mean that our understanding of female readership is myopic at best and hopeless at worst. Surely, no one would undertake such a mythic task as to expand new readership (especially the female readers) by creating a salacious cast of characters and stories driven mainly by the male libido. Then again, perhaps it was an ingenious move to help “save” comic books from being incorporated like punk rock.

At the bottom of it all, the intentions seem to matter very little if new readers are being driven away. This means we are isolating ourselves, but at what cost? But then again, perhaps we are simply play stalwarts to an older simpler time when jocks and women did not read comics. Perhaps it is our turn to open up to change and see what happens.

And in case you think homogenizing comics is a good thing, remember that eugenics and other evolutionary ideas of homogeneous breeding almost always end in defects. There is a reason for this: inbreeding leads to defects because there is no diversity. If we never open up the borders of the medium, surely the quality will spoil and creativity will be a faint light behind us.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at errantghost.tumblr.com.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Kevin Thurman:

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews

co-author

Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization

co-author

Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan

contributor

The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil

contributor

a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

creative consultant

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide

contributor

18 Comments

  1. David Balan says:

    Hey, thanks for the shout-out, Kevin!

    And excellent article. I think it’s good to realize that while this stuff will sell to what Colin Smith refers to as “the rump” – the core market that will buy comics no matter what, well… Any comic would sell to them. They will buy comics no matter what. You don’t need to win their favor – you need to expand your audience. The industry is in desperate need of new blood.

    • No problem David.
      “They will buy comics no matter what” – ain’t it the truth. This is why I don’t get why we keep catering to our core. Your core will almost buy anything regardless of quality. For such an experimental super medium, it is used awfully conservative.

  2. “They don’t want to harm you, they just want to do cool, mindless stuff like fight villains and pose. ”

    Okay, this makes my quote of the day! Too funny.

    It’s an interesting point you bring up, and it sort of parallels a discussion that took place in another article whether Watchmen can be considered “literature” and the anxiety of change that many of the “literati” of academics are feeling over the inclusion of these funny books into lit canon. In a similar vein, it seems the business of comics needs new readers to expand (and survive) as the present population is not enough to really keep the business afloat; however, the content of these books continues to largely cater to the comics “literati” who generally look for only a narrow selection of story arcs and visual styles (I’m painting with broad brushstrokes here).

    Perhaps what we’re seeing with the buzz around the “Not-So-New 52″ is an example of this anxiety coming to a head. Just as we generally understand the literary canon needs to adapt and expand to include comics as a means of better reflecting the culture, so too do comics need to adapt and expand to better represent the new demographics of readers (that the business side of comics does want to actively bring into the fold)?

    Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we have to necessarily “toss” these older models but I do think we need to reconsider the somewhat narrow view of the potential for what mainstream superhero comics can be, and it would go a long way in their marketing plan (I believe) to back up the goal of expanding their readership through truly thinking outside the box. Kevin, while I loved your quote for the humorous way you put it, I do think that if Marvel & DC can’t do more than what you’ve assessed, then I think we (as a comics community) only continue to ostracize ourselves from non-comic readers.

    • I would emphatically say that we should keep both baby and bathwater. You point out one of the biggest philosophies prevailing which actually hinders comics growth: anxiety over change.
      We need diversity in order to enter new elements into the comics medium thus opening up new doors to readers. If there is one message I want to get across it is that we need to end any type of elitism. Sadly, as you point out, there are big, deep issues hindering this.

      • That’s funny, because I tend to agree with you, Kevin, and yet I’m unabashedly an elitist. Not in the bad sense, in which one dismisses immediately what’s not elite. It’s a strange thing to be elite about comics, after all. But I feel like an elitist, because I have no problem saying “this is good, that is crap, and I’m not going to apologize for saying this — it’s pretty objectively the case.” To me, a good elitist is one who believes in meritocracy — and is willing to subject themselves to the same conditions.

        That’s semantics on my part, but I always find it funny how people see words differently.

  3. Miguel Rosa says:

    “It’s an interesting point you bring up, and it sort of parallels a discussion that took place in another article whether Watchmen can be considered “literature” and the anxiety of change that many of the “literati” of academics are feeling over the inclusion of these funny books into lit canon.”

    That sounds interesting. Where can I read this article?

  4. Greg Martin says:

    Is the model really broken however? For me it’s not…i like superhero comics so i’m pretty much delighted with the present offerings-my main quibbles are with the art, kind of shocked really at how pedestrian some of the marvel and dc offerings are-that being said artwise we are in a better place than comics ever have been before, i mean of course i have event fatigue but the dc relaunch was much needed and my dc pull list which was 2 on a good month is now 7.

    And the companies really are giving me what i want-a bunch of different books about superheroes. I think we may be pursuing a mythic beast when we start to talk about ‘new readers’ and particularly ‘female readers’…and why the sudden concern? Comics have always been lurching from this dire strait to the next one since…forever. I was reading an old warren mag(vampirella ftw :D) recently and in the editorial page was a column predicting the imminent doom of both marvel and dc with attendant effects-essentially the end of comics.

    Now with the internets it seems we have many more doomsayers and nostalgists…it was always a better time back then, storytelling isn’t the same(don heck was masterful they sigh), comics are dying, comics desperately need the ‘new reader’(the ones evidently they have never had)-to quote anthony lane from his masterful review of revenge of the sith ‘break me a fucking give’. Link here- http://prince.org/msg/100/146130 .

    Comics are of higher quality and variety than ever before..if someone wants to read fables, or sandman, or a critic’s darling like love and rockets(a comic talked about much more than read)-then go ahead. Why don’t people buy comics? We can look at any number of issues-top of my list is internet pirating, how much market share does it take? Tough to tell but when i can on a high speed connection download the complete uncanny x-men in about 3 hours…well we can see the problems.

    The ‘thinking’, or at least blogging, set is the one that is having a problem with comics-bemoaning the lack of taste of the comic public(the people that actually buy the books)…look at those philistines buying secret avengers :D. The tut tutting, finger wagging, and endless anxiety evinced by this set is more a mindset and now with the internets a way of life, than a reflection of or commentary on the state of comics-the eternal truth is known to all…a copy of she-hulk drawn by frank cho is always going to be better than a peter bagge comic.

    • David Balan says:

      Just because comics have been a niche market in the past isn’t a reason they should continue to be so.

      Music is pirated. Films are pirated. Everything is pirated. Why, then, do films, music, and every other form of media (TV shows are also heavily pirated), sell lightyears beyond comics? Pirating cannot be the reason that comics sales, industry vitality, and creator livelihood in comics lags so far behind every other industry.

      Because comics have an insular culture. It’s so insular that most of those inside it don’t even realize how inward-looking it really is. Superheroes are taken for granted as important, and many stories lag.

      Keep in mind, I am not at all a doomsayer (comics aren’t going anywhere – they just could be going better) nor am I a nostalgist – Yes, there are lots of good comics that were created in the past, but there were also loads of awful ones. That trend is true even today – modern comics are mostly awful, some good, a bit of great. So are comics from the 1960s. Or the 80s. Or any era. That’s the nature of entertainment.

      As for your final paragraph – yes, the people who actually buy the books like the stuff they’re buying. Of course they do! That’s fine! Go on liking it! But that’s literally almost all the big two are producing – relatively brainless, poorly crafted superhero books. That’s not going to expand your market, that’s not going to keep your company on the cutting edge. It’s not good for comics because the comics audience is absolutely miniscule compared to the film audience, or people who read books, or worse yet – people who listen to any particular genre of music.

      All of those categories have comics beat in spades in terms of dedicated fanbase. Why?

      Because mainstream comics right now, as a whole, are an insular culture that is so caught up in what a tiny niche audience thinks is great that they re-hash the same tired cliches over and over again and pretend they’re important. This won’t draw in any new people to comics, and the cycle of niche, isolated, frankly awful comics will continue.

      I’m not saying a change of mindset will suddenly cause all comics to become good – not at all. Most films are crap. But there’s a much greater variety of films available and advertised. There is so much more potential – the film industry began almost concurrently with the modern comic industry. Compare how many classic works there are in film that stand the test of time as great works to how many of those there are in comics.

      The ratio doesn’t look good.

    • Greg,

      I don’t think it’s so much of a question that the model is broken (it isn’t), but it is more of whether or not the model needs to be expanded upon. In that regard, I think much of the discussion here as of late and from outside of the niche market (as David accurately identifies it) seems to support such a notion. A great example of this is Bendis’ update to USM (see Julian’s article on this one–as good an analysis on the series that I’ve seen to date). He takes a superhero comic (THE Marvel Superhero) and really adds to the old, and in turn, makes something new and refreshing for even more readers to enjoy.

      And like David, I’m actually quite excited about where comics are going nowadays. I just wish there was a greater diversity in every sense of the word in the mainstream. Anecdotally, I’m reminded of when I’m trying to introduce a new but challenging activity to my students. If I’m able to get the more charismatic students to buy in, then I’m usually able to get the rest of the class to fall in soon after. In a similar vein, if we could get DC and Marvel to do a little more to expand the model for readers such as yourself so that other readers who are looking to get on board with comics but aren’t finding the present stuff as appealing, well… I think we *would* have a little more luck at catching that “mythic beast.”

      And I’d would never compare Cho with Bagge. I just personally have a hard time with Bagge’s art (but that’s just my opinion there…)

    • Great reply!
      I appreciate your erudition on the history of comics.
      Personally, I just read the first Secret Avengers by Hickman and really loved it.
      Listen, let me say this, I was never into Sandman or Bagge or any indie creator growing up. I was 100% Marvel. I obsessed over Wolverine and Gambit. I did not read Grant Morrison till I was 20 something, same with Ellis.
      But, I would say they are not the best today. Our genre is still largely dominated by super-heroes. It would be like only being able to see Jerry Bruckheimer movies at the theatre or only The Big Bang Theory on TV. We need something more.
      Think about it this way. If you lived on a diet of only bacon fat and flapjacks, how healthy would you end up? Port that analogy over to comics.
      Bottom line: comics fans, by and large, are vastly intelligent. They are. So, perhaps lets treat our comics with that same intellect and see what we get?

  5. I love the point you’re making, Kevin, about how the comics culture, as nerds, might be self-isolating. That’s fairly brilliant.

    I would say that, while the DC relaunch is a critical flop, at least with top critics, it’s obviously a huge commercial success…

    And thanks for the shout-out!

    • I respect and love the hell out of what people are doing here.
      I really started thinking about it at Comic Con last year when we were doing interviews for Captured Ghosts. I remember watching these Hollywood execs wander around making fun over everyone, but then trying pander to them for deals. It was surreal.
      DC’s commercial success vs its critical failure, to me, reminds me that explosions and shitting fire (as pointed out by you in JL 1) trump story.

      • I also feel like execs at movie studios and the big 2 comic companies see dollar signs each time something explodes or dies. I hear it works like viagra.

      • I think that Hollywood attitude towards comics was something I tried to get at in “Why Comics Have Failed to Achieve Real Respect.” But I think you looked at an overlapping issue in a completely different way, which went to the emotion and psychology of comics as an isolated and self-isolating community. That’s insightful.

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