- Grown-Ups and Fanboys
It’s a long and sordid tale, the history of adult comics. This particular hotbed of intrigue has everything for the perfect television mini-series; suspense, prejudice, passion, censorship, homophobia, Anglo-American cultural relations, exploitation of creative individuals by massive and all-powerful media industries—even, gasp, communism. One wonders why the TV version has yet to be made. In its absence, Roger Sabin’s Adult Comics sets itself the formidable task of presenting this largely untold tale.
Sometime in the mid-1980s, the British media suddenly became aggitated over the phenomenon of so-called ‘adult comics.’ Many argued that comics were laying claim to a hitherto absent literary legitimacy, largely through the use of the term “graphic novel” to denote the departure these “new comics” made from the supposedly childish orientations of their predecessors. The media response to this ostensible trend was divided between approval and outrage, but nearly everyone adhered to a suitably comic-book language of wild hyperbole.
Among enthusiasts, the general attitude was one of terrific excitement about comics that—wow!—used cats and mice to tell the story of the Holocaust, or—gasp!— looked closely at both the politics and psychoses of superheroes, when the industry was presumed to have hitherto kept its heroes’ reputations untarnished. What’s more, these things called “graphic novels” were full-color, fully painted works of art which—hey!—you did not need to feel ashamed to read in a public place, even if you did look as if you were scouring the porn shelf to get to them (Sabin 72). It was finally safe for comics’ fans to come out and admit to their unspoken love.
Others, however, were more hostile. David Lister set the resurgence of comic book popularity in the context of The Novel’s imminent death.1 Given the supposedly three minute culture in which “we” live, a visually based narrative media (as if television weren’t bad enough!) could only signal a turn for the worse. Lister refused to allow comics to hide behind the cloak of the term “graphic novel,” since this was of course an attempt to disguise the fact that the things were still “merely . . . a diverting entertainment for children.”
One can readily set this whole debate over adult comics during the mid-80s in the general context of a series of debates over what constitutes culture. As Sabin notes, the growing popularity of Cultural Studies within British universities, and the faddishness of applying the term “postmodern” to anything that might be seen as challenging high/low culture boundaries, provided a perfect context for the adult comics hype to generate both excitement and outrage amongst its many commentators. Add to this the widely circulating arguments about whether visual literacy could be considered equal to textual literacy, and it is easy to see why the spark over comics briefly became a fire.
Stepping in before the embers get cold, Sabin offers Adult Comics primarily as a “primer-textbook” for university teachers who know little about the medium and its histories, but might consider including comics on their syllabi. After all, as a medium it lends itself to all manner of disciplines, perfect fodder for the interdisciplinary age. Media studies, popular culture studies, literature, art history, and even history itself, could all be suitable disciplinary venues for the teaching of comics. Many comics offer themselves as history texts, and many flaunt such a high level of aesthetic-theoretical sophistication that their gradual assimilation into the hallowed halls of academia should not really surprise anybody.
In his effort to seize on the moment of comics’ potential legitimization, Sabin casts himself in the role of demythologiser, trampling all over the rubbish that the mainstream British press has been churning out ever since comics became an issue. The death of the novel? Well, popular novels still sell pretty well. The first adult comics? They’ve been going strong since the nineteenth-century, mate, and other countries accepted them long before the English and American press leapt on the bandwagon. The collapse of high/low culture boundaries? A story as...