The Medium of the 21st Century

I’ve put forward the theory before that comics will be the defining storytelling medium of the 21st century, just as novels were in the 19th and cinema was in the 20th. It’s a theory inspired by Harvey Pekar, mainly, but also Alan Moore, two comics creators ferociously determined to extend and expand the possibilities of the medium. I’m not so invested in this theory that I’m unwilling to be proven wrong: I’m always cognizant of the fallacy of predicting anything in this world. Despite that, I think this is an idea worth considering, and worth exploring.

Given that it’s now 2016, we can analyze to some extent where we stand on this issue. Tempting as it is to point to Marvel’s box office statistics as supporting evidence, I reject that out of hand. Marvel’s success is, first and foremost, at the movies, even though they’re obviously drawing on characters and situations first appearing in comics. The comics of the 20th century are, for better of for worse, historically linked forever with superheroes, and these Marvel films are really just the final gasp of that medium synonymity. Superhero stories require a certain technological development in order to be plausible on the big screen, and as time has gone on and CG technology came into its own, it’s only natural that these stories with their built-in fan bases are now making the crossover into cinema. And because of the exposure film offers, many, many people now consider themselves “comics” fans, even though they’re really only interested in superhero movies and a small selection of comics. The success of Marvel (and, of course, DC and some others, like Dark Horse’s Hellboy or Image’s The Walking Dead) at the movies is more of a testament to the development of cinema and a redefinition of popular entertainment than the awakening of a public consciousness of comics.

There are other, better reasons, to suppose that comics will dominate this century. Comics have always had certain advantages over other forms of media, such as their ancient past, and near-universality. To say that comics will dominate the coming century is simply to acknowledge that they have dominated previous centuries, particularly in the days before universal literacy. Stained glass windows, mosaics, and even political cartoons and graffiti are all part of the world of comics, just as memes and animated gifs are in the twitter-verse. They may not all be derived from original drawings, and they may not all be sequential, precisely, but they are all words and pictures, the radical fusion of which is my definition of the comics medium. By that standard, comics are in every culture, and always have been. Even if all other media were to drop away, comics would remain, and continue to be a form of artistic expression.

Comics are also cheap. They’re cheap to create, and relatively cheap to consume — at least when compared to film or TV. That low price barrier, particularly to creation, gives comics the widest possible range of potential stories, not dictated, as film is, by the need to recoup a possibly substantial investment in their creation. Art Spiegelman took sketches and notebooks and old fashioned scissors and glue, created Maus, and won the Pulitzer Prize. Orson Welles would have killed to have that sort of freedom to create his masterpieces and not be beholden to a phalanx of producers breathing down his neck. Welles, for his part, thought of film as something like a novel, which he could finish, in his “own damned time”, as he put it. Wishful thinking when applied to film, but not when applied to comics. (While we’re on the subject of Welles — he himself was a fantastic cartoonist in the style of Terry Gilliam, and could easily have made a living as a comics creator.) Today, with internet distribution, the world is fairly flooded with independently produced stories. In fact, my own “desk” is piled up to the sky with all manner of wonderful indie comics all waiting for a review. While there have always been indie comics and small-scale distribution, the internet has made comics as easy to share as they are to create. And in colour, too, unlike the venerable old-fashioned photocopied fold-over indie books (which still, of course, survive in all their retro splendour).

Comics in this century are increasingly accepted and understood, or at least known to a wide, general audience in ways that they weren’t before. Even the “cool kids” read comics now, or at least acknowledge that they’re part of the popular culture landscape. Although their stuffy teachers and stuffier school board members might insist on calling our medium “graphic novels” to make themselves feel better about reading them, somewhere even in their grinchy hearts, they have to admit that the medium is a mature, flexible and capable storytelling vehicle with a rich history. Such stodginess, and hopefully the “graphic novel” term itself (which I always say in the voice of Sam the Eagle from the Muppets), will pass with the natural course of generational change, leaving the cultural field open to full acceptance.

Moreover, the cultural conversation about comics is rapidly becoming mainstream. Not simply the reaction to the Charlie Hedbo killings, but news like Thor now being female, or terms like the “Bechdel test” (which originally came from comics, let’s not forget!) is common knowledge, covered in the mainstream media. Issues, particularly about the representation in women and people of LGBTQ sexual orientation, are discussed with as much earnestness in relation to comics than in relation to any other medium. People take the medium seriously enough to know that it’s important that it represents all voices and embraces all perspectives. No more getting away with casual sexism or telling childish stories: the eyes of the world are on the medium.

Comics are a medium of self-expression, as well as for artistic experimentation and entertainment, and the glut of internet-hosted biographical comics is testament to those who want to use this medium as their “blog”, or more properly as a way of documenting their lives. I’ve read great perspectives from people from very different background from myself, such as transgendered people, and come to the conclusion that we have more in common than we sometimes think. And, of course, that dear old Harvey Pekar’s legacy is quite secure, having inspired such a diverse group of people to examine their own lives through comics. That use of comics shows no signs of fading as the century progresses.

Finally, due to all of this cultural progress, comics are starting to really scale true artistic heights, and there’s every reason to believe that upward course will continue. Sure, we had Maus and American Splendor as well as Watchmen and The Dark Night Returns in the 1980s, but those were exceptional, and stood out from a crowd of mediocre product. Not that there isn’t still a great deal of mediocre product (just as in any artistic medium), but these days it seems like we get a Maus-level product just about every year, and sometimes more than one. The Eisners, and other comics awards, have had an embarrassment of riches in the past decade, and the comics are only getting better as artists and creators grow more bold, big labels publish more daring content, and more people are reading it. Just in the past year I’ve stumbled across bold, original storytelling from most of the major labels and many of the minor ones. I still read mostly Image Comics, the home of some great creator-owned titles, but there are of course many other great comics, available from a wide variety of sources. The world of digital distribution allows everyone to access the best comics, and there now truly is something for everyone.

Certainly, film and TV, whether they are released in theatres or digital streams, will still be here in the 21st century, but they still require more collaboration, more energy and often more money to create than comics. They also require more technology, perhaps not in the hands of everyone. But as long as there is someone with a pencil and paper and desire to tell their story, or a story about which they are passionate, through words and pictures, there will be comics. The more young people accept the medium as normal, natural and a part of the cultural landscape and the less it is associated with big budget superhero stories (and I think both trends are occurring right now), the better chance that comics truly will dominate the 21st century. It’s a good time to be in comics, and it’s only going to get better.

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Independent scholar Ian Dawe has been writing for Sequart since November 2013. Before that, he had a mixed background, initially in science (Molecular Biology and Biochemistry), where he earned an MSc from Simon Fraser University and then an MA in Film from the University of Exeter in the UK. He spent a decade teaching at the college level, delivering courses in Genetics, Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Biological Anthropology and Film History. His academic work includes peer-reviewed papers on the work of Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar for Studies in Comics and a dissertation on Terry Gilliam for the University of Exeter. He has presented papers at several major academic conferences including Slayage 2014, Magus: Transdisciplinary Approaches to the Work of Alan Moore in 2010 (in the wizard's hometown of Northampton), Comics Rock and the International Conference of the Humanities in 2012, and at the Southwest Popular Culture Association Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 2014 and 2015. He has contributed to several books, including a chapter about the TV show Archer in "James Bond and Popular Culture" and two chapters on Breaking Bad for "Breaking Bad and Masculinity", both now available from McFarland. At Sequart, he has authored a chapter for New Life and New Civiliations: Exploring Star Trek Comics, A Long Time Ago and two more upcoming books on Star Wars comics. He has also contributed to books on Alan Moore and 1970s Horror Comics. He is currently planning a full-length book on Better Call Saul. Ian currently lives in Vancouver, BC.

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Ian Dawe:

The Cyberpunk Nexus: Exploring the Blade Runner Universe


A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe


A Galaxy Far, Far Away: Exploring Star Wars Comics


A Long Time Ago: Exploring the Star Wars Cinematic Universe


New Life and New Civilizations: Exploring Star Trek Comics


1 Comment

  1. I agree, and am gratified, that comics are increasingly receiving the recognition they deserve. For individual creators with a singular vision, they certainly are the medium of the present. That said, it looks as if various forms of computer games will be the dominant medium of the 21st century. Perhaps because games are immersive rather than narrative (in the traditional sense of the word), they still aren’t given their due. Games seem to be disregarded as a credible narrative medium the way comics were in much of the previous century.

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