Attention Versus Quality (or Fuck the Market)

People love to complain about it. I can’t enter a comic shop without hearing it. Everyone in American comics seems to want another boom — as if the last one was good for us. Well, I don’t. Not particularly. Let me try to explain. I love literature. Hell, write it. Copiously. Novels, poetry, plays, movie scripts — the works. I’ve also got an M.A. in literature and have had more classes on it than most Ph.D.s. But I challenge you to show me a novel published in the last five years that’s as challenging to convention, as revolutionary, and as just plain fun to boot as Mark Millar’s The Authority. So let’s have none of this second cousin shit. Yes, comics are a second cousin to literature, to film — and often to the likes of baseball cards — in the popular press in America. Absolutely. We’re in a fucking ghetto of popular attention, and it sucks. No one likes it. But we can do things that they can’t simply because no one’s looking.

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

Alan Moore's Swamp Thing

Haven’t you ever noticed that comic book titles and TV series often become the most revolutionary when they’re on the verge of cancellation and are so desperate for readers, or viewers, that they actually try to do something new and exciting? Yes, sometimes that same instinct takes the form of gimmicks, of killing off the main character only to bring him back in two months, or of bringing in Pamela Lee Anderson, that stalwart bulwark of intellectualism. But sometimes they hire Alan Moore, like on Swamp Thing in the early ’80s, and let him go to town. It doesn’t work if the people running the show aren’t smart. Leave Billy-Joe Jim Bob to do whatever he wants because, frankly, there’s little hope of surviving economically anyway, and he’s more likely to mix zombies with aliens than come up with a new style of writing an entire genre. But it sometimes happens that you have smart people at the helm and that they do great shit because no one’s looking over their shoulder with lawyers and promotional schemes that have budgets in the multi-million-dollar range. Film saw a lot of the same shit that comics do now in the 1960s. TV had made a serious dent in the film market: why go pay for a movie in the theatre when you can watch moving images on the telly, right? And film tried gimmicks: hundreds of different widescreen formats premiered, desperate to give film something unique over TV. People worried about the death of the medium. The major studios, for a while, were producing only a tiny, tiny fraction of the output of the majors today. And there was, according to many experts, a real renaissance in terms of the types of films, in terms of the quality, and in terms of experimentation. You see, no one was looking. Comics are in a similar spot. No one’s looking. And comparatively, we can go crazy. Do I want greater attention paid in America to comics? Yes. But I’d rather the comics were good. And I’d rather the attention wasn’t of the “Crash! Bam! Boom! Comics Grow Up!” variety.

The Filth #1

The Filth #1

The comics being produced today in America are to my mind among the best America has ever seen. Even much of our drek is better. Marvel, for God’s sake, is doing good stuff. We have Garth Ennis on Punisher and Nick Fury. We have a new Neil Gaiman mini-series for fucking Marvel, of all places, and an anthology of his work featuring the Endless — that looks to be fantastic because of its artwork, if nothing else — coming out later this year from Vertigo in hardcover, like a real book. We have Grant Morrison doing New X-Men, still drek, but far better drek than the X-Men have seen in generations, with perhaps rare exceptions. And he’s doing The Filth in the style of his brilliant The Invisibles. We have Mark Millar doing solid drek with Ultimate X-Men and brilliant work with The Ultimates. We have Brian Michael Bendis, a fucking independent, black-and-white, crime comic book writer and artist doing major work at Marvel, most of it shit, but some of it, like Daredevil, quite exceptional. We have Alan Moore doing super-hero work at America’s Best Comics, quality distractions if nothing else. We have Warren Ellis doing mini-series that hit hard and fast like intellectual guerrilla warfare. We have Vertigo doing drek for the over-eighteen mental age crowd, but also good stuff like Brian Azzarello’s 100 Bullets. Hell, even Hulk features brilliant covers by Kaare Andrews, if nothing else. This doesn’t even include the growth of independent work, like Seth and Adrian Tomine, that anyone can pick up and read and enjoy but that doesn’t get nearly as much attention. We’ve got Dave Sim on Cerebus, Warren Ellis at Avatar, and an upstart company in Florida named CrossGen that makes pedestrian comics but that’s thinking of new ways to produce and market comics. Not to mention Image Comics publishing independent work along with the drek. And of course, we’re getting trade paperbacks of important past work and new work, from the moderately decent to the actually good, all the time. Do you understand how long we went without Miller’s original Daredevil run in print? Just think about it, about the sheer insanity of it, the willful severing of history implicit in that. Make no mistake: it’s a good fucking time to be in comics, from the perspective of quality. Yes, that’s not saying much based on our past. Yes, I’d like more diversity of material, less outright super-heroics and more crime, more straight fiction, more experimental work in terms of genre. But it has gotten better. Yes, the vast majority of comics are still unreadably bad, but so are the vast majority of novels and poetry. Yes, we’d all like to get a little more respect. But tell me you’d rather be reading in a boom of popular attention — but be trapped reading the comics of the early 1980s… or the 1960s… or the 1940s… And let’s not forget that the last big boom, in the early 1990s, led to a big crash that almost destroyed the medium. If sales means alternate covers, speculators, gimmicks, and everything else but quality, forget it. Sure, some people got rich, but they weren’t necessarily the best creators; such wealth was instead fairly randomly distributed, in terms of creator quality, but the crash that followed hurt everyone. And it certainly didn’t inspire great comics; instead, it inspired people to cash in, producing a lot of nonsense that makes us hold our noses today. It’s not like comics have ever boomed because the whole world is reading Maus. And that’s what we should want: more great works. Sales don’t necessarily follow; don’t let anyone bullshit you quality automatically equals commercial success. As a reader, I’d rather read great comics than the kind of schlock another speculator boom would produce. Or the kind of schlock likely to suddenly become a fad and sell well, inspiring countless imitations and monopolizing (i.e. wasting) the talents of many who could be producing good material. Oh, I’m not against sales. I’d love to see Sin City selling in the millions, or From Hell, or The Ultimates. But quality’s more important, and I don’t want sales if it means Captain America getting an armored costume and dying over the course of a year. I rest my case.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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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