On the "Mainstream" in Comics

Literacy & A Laureate!

Last Friday, in Kendal, the Comics Literacy Awareness project was announced, and industry veteran / stalwart / good egg Dave Gibbons was crowned the first UK Comics Laureate. CLAw has quite a specific remit of encouraging the use of comics within the educational sector, to improve the literacy level of UK children through use of comics in schools, but it inevitably ties into the bigger discussion of whether comics are any good or not, and whether they’re ready to crawl out of the ghetto they’ve been inhabiting. Certainly, David Barnett’s piece in today’s Guardian tackles that bigger question, with a list of Five must-read graphic novels that prove that comics are worthy of a laureate.

I want to take issue with the premise of this article on a number of levels. To clarify, I want to take issue with it in order to help further the adoption of comics outside of the ghetto. And I have a positive suggestion to make at the end. I think it’s great that CLAw exists, and that we have a laureate. I think it’s great that mainstream press like the Guardian is reporting on it, and that this in itself is no longer as remarkable as it used to be. And I think it’s great that Dave Gibbons has the job for the next two years – his acceptance speech oozed amiability, enthusiasm and energy. Bring it on.

The Ghetto

A word on the ghetto – I’ve mentioned it twice now, so let me make myself clear. I’m talking about the Superhero ghetto. Through some quirk of fate/history, the majority of comics have been about superheroes, people who have “special powers”, wear lycra-like costumes, have secret identities, nick-names and fight crime. There’s a marvellous variety of stories told within these conventions, and I don’t intend to dismiss all superhero stories, but the near-monopoly exerted by a genre (superheroes) over a medium (comics) is deeply, utterly, profoundly – well, more than a little bit – strange. It’s as if all TV detective stories featured detectives who were also chefs, had speech impediments, and were named after the signature vegetable that showed up in every meal they cooked, or all celebrity chef shows were filmed on the top of a tall building with a resident mime artist in attendance. After 50+ years of such a situation, we just might stop noticing that it’s bizarre.

(Ok, so I’ve just invented the two killer genres that the world never knew it needed, but don’t run off and write your best-selling script yet, hear me out to the end of this article!)

So, the stated aim of Mr. Barnett’s article is to prove that comics are ready for prime time (inasmuch as having a laureate indicates that), and he’s trying to prove it to us by presenting a curated selection of five works.

I so, so want him to prove that point.

Yeah, here comes the “but”s. But four of the five are about superheroes. But one of them was being touted as the “get out of the ghetto” ticket in the late 1980’s, and we’ve evidently made only limited headway. But what about books X, Y and Z, that are definitely in the top 5? (The comments section of his article is brimming with that last one!)

At the root of it, how can a list of any 5 comics make any headway? Can you name the five foods that will “cure” a fussy eater? The five herbaceous plants that will “make” any garden into a work of art? Even the five best writers or painters of the twentieth century?

And who are we trying to convince? The educational establishment? The readership of the Guardian? Society at large? Some shadow projected on the wall because we had a hard time reading comics as a teenager (hey, I’ve certainly got one of them)?

Audience

For the sake of argument, I’m going to define a target audience. They sometimes read books, watch films and TV, have other interests such as gardening, cycling, walking, sport, pets that consume some parts of their leisure time. Oh, and every Thursday at 7.30pm,  while cooking dinner, they hack into the international banking system under their adopted pseudonym “The Leek”, assemble the evidence required to convict a prominent tax dodger, nip round to their house to confront them, and tie them to a chair leaving the evidence neatly filed on the table underneath their calling card, a freshly baked Quiche Lorraine, before calling the police and disappearing quietly into the background. You know, ordinary, if somewhat middle class, people.

Now, maybe this audience isn’t to your tastes? Too narrow, maybe? Too posh? Too nice? No probs, they’ll do for now, and what I’m going to say to them probably applies to your audience too.

If we look at the tastes in music, or TV, or books, or films, of this audience, it’ll be all over the place. Classical to punk rock to death metal to jazz to easy listening to folk to reggae to pop. SAS confessionals to Aga sagas to gritty crime to quirky rom-com/chick-lit to metafiction to costume drama. Oh, and everything in between – I forgot about that.

So any list of five isn’t going to hit a very big target within that group, as I grumped to Messrs Barnett, Gibbons and CLAw earlier today on twitter. So what can hit the mark? Well, Paul Gravett’s given us a list of 1001, and a very fine list it is too, but it takes rather a long time to read, and therefore the drop-off rate is going to be quite high. Can we target things a bit better?

#comicequiv

So here’s an experiment. On twitter, make a connection between a film, TV series or novel (or a director or author), and a comic (or graphic novel if you’re feeling posh!), and word it like this:

“If you like X then you might like Y #comicequiv”. Two words in there are particularly important:

  • “might” (because up to 50% of the time, we’ll be wrong!)
  • #comicequiv : that’s a hashtag, a meaningless bit of interweb flotsam-y, jetsam-y metadata. Twitter knows how they work, and will allow all of us to track and collate posts with that tag on it. Nobody else is using that tag right now.
  • If there’s a longer review of the comic that you think is persuasive, stick in a link to that. Shout out to the comic writer AND the book author/film maker etc. You’ve got 140 characters to play with!

Does this make sense? If we build up a map of good comics based on tastes in other media, would that help CLAw, and Dave Gibbons, and writers like David Barnett in the mainstream press to get their message across in away that sticks?

Us

I want to have a look at a second target audience – the ones who I wrote this article for, the people who care passionately about comics and want to see them grow up big and strong. (I didn’t write this for the readership of the Guardian, or for the people I’d like to persuade about how cool comics are.)

The majority of us, the promoters of comics, are comic fans, and have grown up within the ghetto. We’re steeped in the culture of comics, and therefore have a certain myopia. Whatever we grew up with as kids and teenagers is imprinted deep in our brains. I grew up on Marvel UK and 2000AD in the late ’70’s, Miller’s Ronin, Simonson’s Thor and Moore & Gibbons’ Watchmen blew my socks off in the ’80’s, and Gaiman and McKean’s early experiments & McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” wowed me as a student in the early ’90’s. I’ve since gone on to discover all sorts of other amazing comics – Mattotti, Tan, Toppi, Peeters, Modan, Greenberg etc. etc. etc. – but somehow I’m not imprinted in the same way to works I’ve come across as an adult. Not that I think the stuff of the ’80’s is better, or even that I enjoy it more – far from it – but it’s deep in my cultural make-up somewhere, and I’m therefore more prone to overlook it’s faults. And therefore more likely to make a poor recommendation.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

B&Q is a large DIY chain store in the UK. They play piped music to their customers. I realised I had reached a certain age, in the late 90’s, when I went into the store and they were playing popular schlock from my teenage years – the sort of music that I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. Wham!, Duran Duran, that sort of thing. And, before my cultural censor kicked in, I felt a thrill of recognition. We are imprinted by all sorts of things. I wouldn’t expect someone not growing up in the ’80’s to be moved by the same music, nor someone who didn’t read 2000AD aged 8 to be completely excited by Ron Smith’s rubbery Mega-Citizens or Ezquerra’s “Stainless Steel Rat” as I still am. Nostalgia does weird things to us. I raise it now, because reading through the many comments on David Barnett’s article that suggest an alternative “obvious” contender, I think the majority are driven by nostalgia. It’s as powerful as a kick to the head, and – get this – utterly impossible to communicate to someone who wasn’t there.

(I think the big two publishers understand nostalgia quite well, in the way they sell more to their existing, ageing audiences, rather than broadening the audience out.)

Case in point: I remember trying to convince a non-comic-fan friend that comics were cool (this was a while ago). I picked Morrison & McKean’s “Arkham Asylum” as the then=pinnacle of the medium, with it’s gorgeous multi-layered artwork and symbolically-dense script, that was inextricably tied in my head to the two non-superhero plays Morrison had brought the Edinburgh Fringe with Oxygen House theatre. I watched my friend read it, with a creeping realisation that they didn’t have the in-depth knowledge of second-tier batman villains – Mad Hatter, Scarecrow, Killer Croc – required to even have a clue what was going on. Bad choice, my myopic nostalgia and acclimatisation to life in the ghetto. They were not convinced.

When making a recommendation now, I try to bear nostalgia in mind.

There, that’s all. Let’s get tweeting!

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