Sunday, May 04, 2014

We're Living in a Golden Age of Comics and We Don't Even Seem to Realize It (lots of links)

OK. It's time to stop complaining about the state of the comics industry and take inventory of what we have.

First: lets move away from the word "industry" for a moment. Lets replace it with the word, "movement." Notice how, once we stop talking about comics as a commercial enterprise, everything changes. Something magical happens. We start talking about the comics we love. What's being created and rediscovered right now. And if we're going to talk about comics as a movement, instead of an industry, it's impossible not to acknowledge that there isn't a single time in history when there has been this many great and diverse comics available to us.

From the  resurgence of micro press books or zines,

with conventions like Stumptown and Zinefest, Mocca, The Small Press Comics Expo and many more,

to massive hardbound collections of  golden age comics and strips.

Japanese and a growing number of European imports have also been spreading in popularity, including a resurgence of kid's comics which have been absent from the market entirely too long.  


Despite distribution monopolies pushing out the little guy, great comics keep surviving and thriving. Non-genre books, genre books, too many to count. And of course, as in all media, most of it isn't that great. But a lot of it is. For the first time in decades, if I want to turn someone on to comics, I have a true library to recommend just as I would in any other medium. And now Comics are critically regarded in a way that they never have been before.

Webcomics are huge, and may end up becoming the default way to serialize comics, but handmade zines still have currency. You can't mass-produce the silkscreen covers and just plain care that goes into the books produced by micro publishers, so no matter how prevalent web comics become (which is not a bad thing at all) small press comics still have a niche.

Hundreds of great comics are being supported by Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites. books that wouldn't exist otherwise, including my own, (Mostly) Wordless (now available on Amazon for pre-order, wide release on the 14th).

Shameless Plug

Dudes, buy my book!
Comics Exist in a Unique Bubble Where Academic Acceptance Doesn't Matter 
(At Least, Not That Much)

And of course distribution continues to be a problem.  Some of the best comics just aren't being seen by the public at large. There are few publishers willing to take a risk on comics with less conventional content. 

But in some ways this is a benefit. People are making comics because they need to make comics, not just because they think they can sell them, a phenomenon that just wasn't happening, at least not like this, in the 80s when I started reading comics. This means many comics creators have modest, or little commercial aspiration. Many comics are made for small audiences for the craft and art of making comics alone.

Cartoonists have to hustle to sell their books on their own at shows and conventions for little financial reward. But these comics are being made for the love of the medium. Since there isn't a structure in place to support these comics in the same way that other mediums are supported, it's the only medium right now where creators aren't likely to get rich from popularity or critical attention. Comics in a unique bubble where academic recognition and art world or literary success is not a big motivator. Grants and gallery exhibitions are rare. Even the mainstream media reviews we see often reflect a fundamental lack of understanding of the mechanics and history of the medium. So these cartoonists create for the benefit and enjoyment of diehard fans. I can't think of another medium where this is the case. The result is a purity of vision and lack of pretension that you just don't see in fine art and literature.

While cartooning schools are emerging with more of an academic bent, like SAW and The Center for Cartoon Studies, they still don't carry the creatively inhibiting baggage of hundreds of years of academic analysis.

 But this isn't going to last. Comics are starting to creep into the academic world with all its influences and pretensions. And it's becoming less and less feasible and practical to publish the kinds of lavishly produced books and reprint collections we're seeing now as digital is more popularly accepted as an economical and practical means of consuming media.

So it's time to start appreciating what we have while we have it. Because we're in the midst of a comics renaissance like never before, and things aren't going to be the same for very much longer. Mind you, I don't think it's going to get worse, it just won't be the same. There will be more comics, and good, and even great comics, but as with other progressive movements like modernism, there's only so much formal invention and truly innovative content that can happen within this short and fertile period while this very young medium remains largely unobserved.

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