Funnybook Babylon

April 20, 2008

Thoughts from NYCC – Days 1 + 2 – Tryin’ to Save the Game

Filed under: Blurbs — Tags: , , , , , — Jamaal Thomas @ 4:00 pm

The interesting thing about my experience with going to some panels at this convention is that even when they’re lacking, they can sometimes help clarify some issues that are endlessly discussed in pop culture circles. Douglas Rushkoff, the author of Testament, and an upcoming book about corporations and modern society (hint: corporations are bad) and Scott McCloud, the world-famous author of Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics engaged in a lively debate that lingered in my mind hours after it concluded. The panel was billed as a discussion between two theorists about the future of the comics industry. This drifted into a broad debate about the relationship between mainstream and underground culture, and the impact of technology on local communities.

As the discussion progressed, it became apparent that Rushkoff’s view of comics culture seemed to be linked to his views about the implications of the role of large corporations in culture. He argued that comics were countercultural artifacts that were in danger of being transformed into purely commercial products. On one hand, some of the traditional storytelling devices used in comics embraced a non-linear understanding of the world, which is a common element of underground art. One example provided was the ‘gutter’ between comic panels, the dark space that bridges the gap between creator and audience. This contributes to a sense of community that distinguishes comic books from other forms of mass culture. It creates a dialogue between creator and reader, in which the reader is invited to fill the space between the panels. The illegitimacy of comics in American culture also contributes towards the rebellious nature of the medium. In Rushkoff’s view, this role of comics in our culture, and the communities that have developed around comics are threatened by the growth of corporate comics. But what are corporate comics, exactly? Although the term was never clearly defined, both panelists seemed to focus on corporations that published comics for the primary purpose of exploiting the stories and characters in other media. This distinction became obvious to me as I walked through the convention, which was cluttered with giant brightly colored displays promoting a new movie or an action figure line. However, once I started paying attention, the line blurred, especially once I really began to interact with the creators and staff at the booths. Yeah, Marvel was selling movies, but the writers and artists at the Marvel section were also there to interact with fans, and promote their work. Even when I saw editors for various publishers, they didn’t exactly remind me of corporate cogs.

Will the growth of corporate comics undermine the rebellious and creative nature of the industry/community? Maybe a better question would be whether corporate comics represent a growing trend, the last gasps of the Direct Market model, or a healthy subset of the mainstream. Or whether independent comics are truly rebellious. The panelists began the discussion by arguing that comics were a natural part of the counterculture, or at the very least, representative of a untraditional perspective on life. But as the conversation progressed, I got the impression that they were focusing on a specific kind of counterculture, one that is designed to subvert mainstream culture. This ‘alternative culture’ could conceivably be threatened by hip consumerism, which would co-opt the most marketable and palatable elements of oppositional counterculture. This process appears even more sinister if one assumes that the transformation of art into product requires a tension between the corporations marketing the product and the creators who are producing the work.

But art is resilient. Art is alive. Or at least, art doesn’t vanish when it’s sold. McCloud described American comics culture using an analogy to an ecosystem. In this model, countercurrents will always arise to curb the influence of ‘corporate’ ownership. Even though the corporate booths were gigantic, you could spend hours wandering among small to mid-size publishers with revelatory product. If you talk to Pedro for a long enough period of time, he’ll tell you that it’s what makes Artist’s Alley amazing. True fans are high information consumers. Their passion for the art form leads them to develop a familiarity with dozens of creators that would be obscure to the casual fan. These interactions reinforce a sense of community, and of dialogue between audience and creator that transcends political and sociological labels. When you walk along the crowded aisles, past Baltazar and Franco gleefully churning out sketches for a dollar, older creators engaging in spirited discussions with people half their age about inspiration, and Mike Oeming answering questions while painstakingly inking a sketch for a dedicated fan, all you see are a bunch of artists. The divisions between mainstream and alternative, genre and ‘literary’, or high and low brow melted away. The artists are all there to engage in a dialogue with their audience, and build a community. The artists are all there to promote their latest project and sell product. At the end of the panel, Rushkoff plugged a new book on corporatism, which would discuss the internalization of corporate values. Even the people who try to limit the growth of corporations tend to treat them as natural persons, instead of a business arrangement between a number of individuals. The more that I met and spoke to creators and executives, the less power the illusion had. The money didn’t compromise the art, and the art didn’t inhibit commerce.

4 Comments »

  1. I’d agree it was really cool to see people just talking with the artists, and hearing about the work. I stood in line forever to get Grant Morrison’s autograph, and as I was watching, it seemed like every person who met with him was telling some kind of story, really interacting, beyond the “I love your work” pleasantries. And, that’s what I do love about comics, that you can meet your idols, that the guy who invented Captain America is sitting at a booth.

    But, I can see what Rushkoff is saying. When I went to the Battlestar panel, a guy from Sci-Fi channel was talking about how they were working with Virgin Comics to develop cross-media, multi-platform properties in comics that could be exploited in other media. And, maybe there’s not a huge difference between that and the people working at DC or Marvel, but it just feels wrong in some ways, that the express purpose of these stories is not to make a comic that’s great, but to make a comic that can become a movie.

    Comment by Patrick — April 20, 2008 @ 7:14 pm

  2. Not to be, like, a one note dick, but this is why I favor the DM — the DM may be mono-fixated on some reasonably unhealthly (and/or non-sustainable and/or “something else”) aspects of comics, but we, as a general rule for most of the market, approach them not as a commodity to be commodified, but as something to be excited about and to be celebrated.

    Or to put it another way, I’m not aware of any other creative form that has the kind of interaction between fan and creator that comics does that you’ll find at a comics convention, and I strongly think that’s because of the existence of the Direct Market as the primary source for most Western material — where the primary source for the material is moved through independently owned and controlled businesses that exist more from passion than from driven by the specific need to specifically profit. (though we generally need to generally profit)

    -B

    Comment by Brian Hibbs — April 21, 2008 @ 12:43 am

  3. Wow, Jamaal, you’re always posting the most well-thought out thinkpieces….

    Anyway, I think I see what you’re saying – any art meant to be sold is then just as much commercial as it is “art.” I think that fits in with something I’ve long thought – the only real difference between indy comics and corporate superhero comics is the size of the audience looking to buy each.

    On the other hand, I’ve found myself more and more put off by superhero comics due to what seems to me to be an increasing number of comics just made for the sake of making comics. A comic I can use as an example because I used to read it is Black Panther. Since Priest left, Black Panther has never felt like it’s in any way relevant. It feels like a book published just for the sake of publishing it. I think we don’t really see that from any indy comics; each indy comic is produced by someone trying to make a relevant piece of work.

    Comment by Kenny — April 22, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  4. Brian,

    I agree with you about the importance of the Direct Market in reinforcing those bonds (between creators and communities), but I wonder what incentives can be used to broaden its appeal to a wider variety of fans. Even though the market is the primary provider of comics to the American marketplace, fans of genre books, ‘art’ comics and ‘literary’ comics still feel excluded from traditional comic book stores. I think that more stores should feel like cons, with fans of superhero books, manga, and all of the categories mentioned above intermingling with one another.

    Comment by Jamaal Thomas — April 23, 2008 @ 9:33 am

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