The State of American Comics Address, 2001

Okay, ground rules: I take it for granted that comics — or, rather, the medium of graphic literature (an important distinction) — is a serious artistic form, obviously under-appreciated by comparison to painting, sculpture, and literature.

When appreciation trickles towards the medium, it is really mis-appreciation, as with framed comics art in museums. While the sheer productivity of most comic book artists, forced to produce twenty-two pages on average per month, is staggering, the quality is not always great. More crucially, the rhetorical requirements of a painting are fundamentally different from narrative art: while much comic book art is too sketchy, lacking backgrounds to the point of lacking setting, the most beautiful comic book art from the aesthetic of painting does not work well as narrative art. John Van FleetJohn Van Fleet makes some of the most beautiful art in graphic literature, leaving a sophisticated viewer to slowly regard the beauty of page after page, but the stories he illustrates don’t flow as well as Steve Dillon’s, despite Dillon’s sketchiness. Bad art is bad in a comic book or a museum, but I’d quickly dismiss Dillon’s work on a wall while I’d marvel at Fleet’s. Too much detail, or even too much richness of illustration (which doesn’t have to be Baroque in style), distracts from the narrative, making the reader into a viewer focused too much on the panel as the central unit instead of the space between panels, the transitions and connections in which the reader not only constructs the narrative but envisions the action. Being a fairly ocular society, we tend to focus on the imagery of comics — a sorry mistake made even by critics and museum curators. (If there is a parallel between comic books and still images on walls in museums, it is between comic book covers and posters, whether advertising or propagandizing.)

Given that even the “highest” misunderstand graphic literature, it’s no great help that so many of the stereotypes are true. Any sort of story can be told in sequential art as surely as it can in motion pictures or outright literature — yet the medium in America is dominated by the super-hero and thus by the study of the arcane details of sixty-year histories of super-heroes. There’s nothing wrong with this; knowledge of art, no matter how specific and narrow, is admirable. But the dominance of American comic books by interlocking stories, quickly produced and abundant in quantity but not quality, of muscle-bound men and big-breasted women, egalitarian in exaggeration and in dress (preferably tights), is something less than admirable.

Graphic literature is the medium of Watchmen. Of Cerebus and Palestine. Of Signal to Noise and From Hell. Of Maus and its Pulitzer Prize (for what it’s worth). And of War Machine and Primal Force. Of a dozen or so flimsy yet expensive pamphlets about the X-Men, Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman – each and per month.

This is nothing new. The endless barrage of crap is common to most media. Television and film are no exceptions, though they seem less dominated by a single genre and are not segregated to the ghettos of comic book stores. When comic books become popular or gain mainstream attention, it tends to be either a financial or a cultural commodity. The point is either “You can make money buying comics!” / “Some weird comic-making geek(s) got rich selling the film rights!” or “Comics are cool!” / “It’s hip to be seen with comics!” But, again, this is nothing new.

We who care about comics deal with these issues on a constant basis. But if all of this weren’t enough, there have been a few particular cases recently that seem too astoundingly exploitive, to the point of unconscious parody, to believe. Both are too bizarre not to be chronicled.

Chastity SketchbookFirst, we have Chaos! Comics, an outfit fond of vampires, the ostensibly Satanic and apocalyptic, and barely-clad, big-breasted women with big hair and brandishing weapons — preferably combined with the vampirism, the Satanism, and the millenarianism. They specialize in the “bad girl” subgenre — full of vehement and venomous women warriors who happen to have enormous tits on thin bodies and whose quests coincide with a desire for high heels, long hair, and outfits that range from the likes of bikinis (Where was that throwing dagger hidden again?) and thigh-highs to leather or latex bodysuits. Recently, Chaos! Comics has branched out, printing comics based on a theatrical professional wrestlers (Chyna, appropriately female, and The Rock), a theatrical rock bands (Megadeth and Insane Clown Posse, who don’t seem to realize that, while bad music admittedly is still in style, face-painted musicians were lame almost immediately after Kiss began), and (somewhat strangely) a movie series (The Mummy, a property itself appropriately revived from the dead). The publisher also specializes in endless merchandising (now occurring to even the most obscure properties): Chaos! distributes stickers, keyrings, temporary tattoos, and endless variant editions of their comics at outlandish prices.

But I’ve done enough to immortalize such an irrelevant publisher; what’s worth mentioning is their newest merchandising plot: panties. That’s right: you can get the logo of one of their “bad girls” on plain black cotton panties. The solicitation for these panties, which sell for $20.00, refers to them as “tasteful, yet seductive” and “the perfect gift for the lover in your life.” As if your girlfriend didn’t think your compulsive purchasing of Lady Death and Purgatori, as well as their bankrupting limited editions and merchandise weren’t enough, now you can make her wear these panties and imagine that she is the subject of your real obsession: a female comic book character. This product begs questions like shit begs flies. Does anyone who would purchase such an item, outside of the accidental and immature rich, have a girlfriend in the first place? If so, presumably both parties are young and at a time in their lives when a pimple-faced kid can hold up panties with an imaginary woman’s name on them and a girl can take them and bashfully wear them out of some combination of confusion about how relationships work, desire to please, and a self-loathing that assumes one’s lover will eventually leave — and probably for someone else. If he’s not young, there’s a gross injustice to someone with the poor aesthetic taste to read such comic books having such a willing girlfriend — particularly if she really does have the body displayed in the photo advertisement for the underwear. If no girlfriend is present, does the fan purchase the underwear for the potential / future girlfriend, then wait — or simply use them as a cumrag? Can he resist, waiting and waiting for his real-life Purgatori, trying them on himself, in the unobserved solace of his room with walls painted black?

One hopes this merchandising is a joke — but, juxtaposed next to temporary tattoos of the aforenamed characters, all big breasts and pitchfork, with a rambunctious smile and an ass projected out in the general direction of the viewer, one doubts it. If Chaos! Comics were really smart, they might’ve done this merely for the publicity (which I’m now giving them) — but, again, there’s that temporary tattoo and a limited edition comic with a sexier cover, available for those too young to buy Playboy at a slightly higher price. It’s a good racket they got going here.

Vampirella Model Search SpecialImagine: I was just recovering from this when I discovered Harris Comics, publisher of “bad girl” titles like Vampirella — which, despite itself, has had a few impressive creators work on it. “Bad girl” titles often feature photo covers; a series will have a particular model who gets dressed up as the main character. Apparently, the girl playing Vampirella quit — or, conveniently, was fired — because Harris Comics is searching for a replacement. Or at least, this is the justification behind Vampirella Model Search Special, a one-off comic book without any pretense to narrative at all: in fact, it’s just a series of full-page photos of models, almost entirely in their underwear and without any Vampirella costuming at all. Their hair is even different colors, strange if they are auditioning to play a specific character whose hair color inside the comic book — where stories will eventually again be told once this pressing model situation is sorted — will presumably not change without explanation to match the new model’s hair. The Harris Comics website even features “video clips of all the super hot babes in action” – whataction is left open to question, since it can’t rightly be Vampirella’s, given the lack of costuming or even basic resemblance.

This “bad girl” business has to stop. And not for it’s “sexism”: it’s actually a lot closer to Conan the Barbarian than, say, pornography. If it indicates anything on such grounds, it’s the normalcy of sexism against men, visible in the dumb musclebound idiots in “tough guy” jobs and without complaint regarding their status as slaves. No, it has to stop because it’s just stupid. And it looks bad for comics.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing. Film and television are filled with the same nonsense; a passing familiarity with the success of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (on TV) and Coyote Ugly (in movie theatres) should prove that. And what is Harris Comics’s Vampirella Model Search Special but a comic book version of a book of such photos published by a certain sports magazine? At least they’re not super-heroes.

That’s how bad it is.

Cherish the good art, people; support the good art.

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In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

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