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State of the Industry - Part I

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In this two-part discussion, Dave Lewis and I discuss the state of the comic book industry and comic book culture in the US today from a somewhat academic perspective.

Has the art form been affected by Art Spiegelman and Michael Chabon winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and 2001 respectively? Does Dr. Fredric Wertham's ghost still live on? Are characters like Batman, Spider-Man and Superman still really icons?

BROKEN FRONTIER: As an academic who teaches comics, can you say that since Michael Chabon has won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay in 2001 comics have begun to gather more respect in academic circles than ever before?

A. DAVID LEWIS: I think that it adds to the increased respect academia is showing for the comic book medium. However, I wouldn't name it as the start, per se. Whether it is due to many childhood comic book readers coming of age and now being in positions of power or whether it is a testament to the quality of work being generated by the comic book industry, I think most of American society is coming to accept that not only will comic books not go away (in the face of the Internet, video games, DVDs, etc.), but that they have had and will continue to have an impact on our culture—an impact that is significant and worth of study.

BF: If the academia's attention has not started following Chabon's novel, would Art Spiegelman winning the Pulitzer for MAUS be a better starting point? Following MAUS, Scott McCloud helped put the medium on the map with Understanding Comics, a book that is widely respected both in and out of comic book circles.

ADL: Yes, I think 1986 was a watershed year for the comic book medium on a number of levels, one of which is certainly the collection and publication of Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning MAUS. If there is a "starting point" for modern academia's interest in the modern comic book industry, that might be the best date, along with the excellent explorational works of Will Eisner (which predated MAUS by a year) and eventually McCloud's Understanding Comics.

However, there was comic book scholarship and attention being paid by the Ivory Tower before 1986, for certain. Most notably, there was the seminal How to Read Donald Duck, which was published in its native language as far back as 1971.

What I am saying is that academic acceptance and interest of comic books is on a continuum. Chabon's book may have marked a new point on that continuum, certainly, but just not the origin point.

BF: Do you think the book has had an impact on how the average American perceives comics, or is there still much of a disrespectful attitude amongst Americans? If so, that would prove that Fredric Wertham's ghost still lives on.

ADL: I think the book has had an impact on how the average book-reading, literate American perceives the history of comics—that is, the men and women behind the scenes who first created the superhuman icons that still exist today. Like, perhaps, Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation, this group of elders was finally made real for the contemporary person. They stopped being relics (if they were even noticed enough to be considered that) and started being flesh-and-blood humans with a history of struggle and everyday experiences.

On the other hand, superheroes remain a juvenile genre to many, many Americans. The medium of comic books, however, is beginning to break away more and more from being solely tied to that genre. So, if Wertham's influence remains, it remains tied to the spandex set, not necessarily to works such as Ghost World or Bone or Road to Perdition or MAUS.

BF: Does that mean that Will Eisner was spot on when in a recent issue of Wizard: The Comics Magazine he said that the level of storytelling, the level of material is becoming better and better, more intellectual even?

ADL: In many ways, he was. “Better” is not always equivalent to “more intellectual,” but, yes, I think the material overall is improving in many ways, both in terms of entertainment and in terms of depth. Of course, like science, you build on the discovery of others, so even if a writer such as Alan Moore is writing comic book masterpieces, he could not have done so without the work of people like Stan Lee or Jack Kirby or other "less intellectual" forerunners.

BF: In The Dialogic Imagination, literary theorist Michael Bakhtin stated that revolution in the novel often came from the more 'marginalised' genres. Do you think that holds true for the current comic book landscape as well?

ADL: If you had asked me this before the turn of the century, I would have said yes, absolutely. In this case, though, the “marginalised” group would not just be the general comic book industry, but specifically the small press and independent comix. A great deal of incredibly fresh and penetrative work has come from that line of work, beginning with the comix underground of the 1970s straight up until roughly the start of the new millennium—underground creators such as R. Crumb, Spiegelman, Seth, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware have remained influential.

Today, however, people have caught on to that trend, I believe. As I said before, the general American readers' awareness of independent comic voices has risen, thanks in no small part to works like Chabon's novel or movies like Road to Perdition or books like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Certainly, the book editors of major periodicals now pay increased attention there, so the “marginalised” element of that group is diminishing. If the margin is moving anywhere in comics, it may be moving to the web comic—but I think it's too soon to say fully.

BF: Aside from genres, what about characters? Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man are arguable the four most recognisable characters. With the current diversification—and the trouble Marvel and DC have had over the years to keep them really interesting (Nineties story arcs such as the Clone Saga, Superman Red & Blue and Knightfall come to mind), would the critic who says these characters are still iconic only because they have the most storied, mainstream history to them have a point?

     

ADL: Perhaps I am splitting hairs, but I think what you just said may be the definition or criteria for “iconic”—that is, an icon is created by having a history that enmeshes it into a culture or a consciousness or a period. If you are asking whether these characters are relevant (or even entertaining) any longer, then we might be on rockier ground.

At one time, I might have added Captain America to your list of “iconic” characters, but there definitely has been a problem with finding a "fit" for him post-September 11th in the U.S., and I think there has been a limbo for Wonder Woman too in this era of sexual harassment.

However, shows like Smallville or movies like Spider-Man itself show that there are still ways to keep these iconic characters fresh. In many cases, though, it takes an outside medium to have that impact on America as a whole, not comics. Even if Marvel and DC were to successfully reinvent a character, it would take a concerted effort to have that revision overwrite general culture's assumptions. Case in point, Batman was not considered “the Dark Knight” in the modern sense by mainstream America until the Tim Burton Batman movie, over two years after Dark Knight Returns.

BF: I agree with your points, though what I meant was that these characters already had an iconic status in the 1970s and ‘80s, while it wasn't until the ‘90s that Marvel and DC really started to struggle to keep things fresh and interesting. Some may even say that is still the case with Superman, who, for a character that flies does not really seem to be able to take off like he used to...

ADL: Part of the problem, perhaps, is whether or not “fresh” is always the best state for a character. That is, some people like the “classic” X-Men, others prefer the storied Chris Claremont/John Byrne run, others favour a more modern, hip take on the X-Men, and so on.

I think you're right that since the ‘90s, the companies have been looking for ways to keep or make several of their characters “fresh” again. The question that gets overlooked, though, is should they be made that way? Rather, is Superman best as a “boy scout” instead of a fully rendered character? I think we're inclined to say yes, of course, we want the more detailed, more human version—but perhaps that is something that should be re-examined. Lately, we seem to be hunting harder and harder for the metaphorical Clark Kent, when the character works best as Superman.

Given our competing love of retro and nostalgia (which, going back, the Escapist in Chabon's book nicely embodies), maybe we should not rush to revise these supposed “icons” so quickly... especially if we want them to continue as icons.

Concluded next Tuesday...

- Frederik Hautain

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