I couldn’t be more pleased to edit a focus section on comics for American Book Review, a publication dedicated to small press publishing, avant-garde work, and marginalized voices. Comics need the attention of publications like this—and especially the attention of audiences who care about this type of work—now more than ever.
Maybe this seems counterintuitive. Aren’t comics, after all, ascendant within the book industry? Or at least more established than they’ve ever been before? Every season brings a new batch of heavily promoted graphic novels to display tables at book stores; these books and their authors unavoidably make the usual media rounds and—publicists pray—get mentioned by Boing Boing, The New York Times, or National Public Radio (NPR).
And aren’t cineplexes and popular culture currently dominated by entertainment products derived from comic books? If you travel outside of the US, it’s hard not to see cinematic translations of superpowered comic book characters as a current face of American pop-cultural imperialism.
Can comics, as a field, still claim to be marginal in 2015?
Well…it depends on which comics you’re talking about.
About those superhero comics, don’t be confused: while superhero movies based upon comic books have become mainstream culture and big business (leaving former nerdy kids like me with cultural whiplash), actual superhero comic books themselves remain a subcultural phenomenon, distributed almost exclusively within the cloistered walls of specialty comic book shops. Superhero comic books published by Marvel and DC (subsidiaries of Disney and Time Warner, respectively) are stuck serving the tastes of an aging core audience while putting fresh (but not too fresh) spins on extremely valuable, potentially evergreen intellectual properties—thus the exhausting spectacle of constant narrative cycling between baroque, cataclysmic line-wide sagas and big bang reboots that promise a return to basics. Occasionally, an individual authorial voice is heard through the noise, but superhero comics are ultimately editorially driven projects that feel increasingly like the by-product of some larger enterprise.
Resurgent cultural attention to superhero narratives is itself a surprising plot twist to comics-watchers who were so pleased and excited by the widespread establishment of the graphic novel category less than twenty years ago. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a generation of comics artists including Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Daniel Clowes, Julie Doucet, Charles Burns, Chester Brown, Chris Ware, and others produced truly underground art, engaging the comics form on its own terms and producing great works of personal expression for a different subcultural audience. These comic books coexisted uneasily with the specialty market for superhero comics, while struggling to gain any outside attention due to the longstanding stigma that comics are somehow inherently juvenile or degraded.
Art Spiegelman’s Maus (published in collected editions in 1986 and 1991) had most prominently established a model for book-length comics of serious intent that could beat a path to the outside world, and by the turn of the new millennium, a critical mass of exceptional artists were prepared to jump through the cultural loophole that changing conditions opened up: a formalized and consistently applied “graphic novel” section in bookstores and libraries. Critics praised the quality and ambition of the “new” comics just as they had at the time Maus was initially published, but this time the sheer volume of quality material established a larger, permanent footprint within a more open and receptive culture industry.
But a cultural industry is still an industry, and publishing makes concessions to the perceived demands of the market—which, in turn, determine the industry’s own attendant structural practices. Comics, previously published in modest and inexpensive staple-bound pamphlets, would conform to bookstore-friendly formats. This has deformed the field somewhat by privileging long-form narratives (when, paradoxically, comics can condense great meaning into short form work). But that’s not a fatal compromise. Book-format anthologies, collections of short stories, and even more exotic book formats have survived the supply-chain gauntlet as physical book design has, in general, evolved and diversified to resist the challenge of intangible ebooks.
Less expected (though perhaps just as predictable) was an encroaching conservatism regarding the formal and...