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Amazing Montage Magazine

for June, 2000

Focus on REINVENTING COMICS-- Part 2


Introduction
Literature and Art
Comics and Film
McCloud's Definition of Art

The Comics Market
Public Perception
Practitioner Diversity
Genre Diversity
Escapism

The Computer-assisted Artist
Stylistic Considerations of Computer Art
The Computer As Artist
The End of Print?

Infinite Canvases
Becoming Like Film
Sound and Animation
Multimedia Comics
Interactivity and Alternate Pathways

Virtual Reality


The Comics Market

Cover, Spawn, copyright 2000 by Todd McFarlane

McCloud doesn't mince words in criticizing the comics market--

'The idea that comics stores, distributors, and publishers simply 'give the customers what they want' is nonsense. What the customer wanted they didn't get-- and they LEFT.

'As I see it, mainstream comics now speak only to the hardcore few who stayed; conversing in a weird, garbled, visual pig latin only they can understand; rendering the term 'mainstream' a HOLLOW JOKE-- while the true mainstream, the other 99.9% of the populace, find enjoyment elsewhere.'

McCloud puts the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of the 'army of middlemen' running the distribution system whose function it is to connect the artist and the reader.

It's heartening to see a high-profile book taking such a strong stance. This may be an explanation for its publisher DC Comics' unusual and intrusive advisory on the copyright page, 'The opinions expressed in this book are exclusively those of its author, Scott McCloud. The history of comics as an art form and as an industry is open to interpretation, and the future of comics is open to divination. We support Scott's right to explore both, even though we differ with many of his conclusions.'

In a post-publication message on the COMICON.COM discussion board, McCloud commented on the disclaimer:

'DC raised some minor legal questions at the eleventh hour (i.e., things they thought that they -- and I -- could get sued over). I patched those willingly (in most cases with no more than a trivial wording change) but the content and tone of the book remained the same. As for DC's feelings about that tone, I think the disclaimer says it all. Some people up there were very disturbed and angered by what I actually said in the book, but my contract (the original KSP contract) insured real creative control and they honored that legal obligation throughout the process. Whatever we think of their version of comics history or their place in it, they should be commended for that at least.

'Incidentally, I suggested a disclaimer early on. The pissy wording was entirely their idea, of course. I remember when Karen Berger first read it over the phone to me. I just said "yeah, I think that's fine." After the call, I remember just shaking my head... then laughing when I realized what a favor they'd inadvertently done for me.'

Unfortunately, McCloud's charges are so vague that their accuracy is open to question. When exactly did mainstream customers leave? Experience differs from store to store, but my understanding is that most direct sales shops have been dominated by superhero books from the beginning.

Back in the early days of the direct market, a number of independent companies, Eclipse, First, Innovation, Pacific, and some others, were publishing full-color comics. But most of these titles (including McCloud's ZOT) were superhero comics similar to Marvel's and DC's. Also, these publishers went out of business for reasons that had less to do with customer exodus and more to do with market manipulation by their larger compentitors.

And if he's talking about the pre-direct sales days, there are an equal amount of specific considerations to take into account.

Witchblade copyright 2000 by Image Comics I'm intrigued by McCloud's reference to 'pig latin' in superhero comics, and I tend to agree. But it would have been helpful if he'd substantiated the description rather than throwing it out as a vague accusation. After all, he's the number one expert on comics grammar, and what he'd have to say on this topic would be extremely interesting.

On page 74, McCloud writes, 'But all too often, those "customers" are retailers and distributors, not readers, and each staffer's primary job may not be pleasing the reader so much as pleasing the next man on the totem pole.' This is an important point, but I don't think the distributor's staff is particular plays a very big role in judging comics quality. They filter out small press work they feel is too amateurish to sell, but anything the big companies give them, they take with a smile.

The lengthy and detailed discussion never clarifies exactly what the oft-mentioned direct market is and how it works, and says nothing about the Heroes World debacle and the lasting effects it had on the distribution picture. These are signifigant shortcomings in the book's educational role. Also, the picture McCloud presents of the relationship of the customer to the distribution system doesn't take account of the fact that a signifigant number of customers preorder their comics from the Diamond catalog.

But overall, the gutsy stance McCloud takes on market issues is warmly appreciated. Especially notable is his formulation on page 79 of a 'Readers' Bill of Rights' corresponding to the Creators' Bill of Rights:

'1. The right to know what can be bought and why to buy it.

'2. The right to buy what we want when we know that we want it.

'3. The right to a fair price.'

Public Perception

The most interesting interlude in McCloud's discussion of public perception of comics is an anecdote about he and Neil Gaiman doing a National Public Radio show. Hoping to boost comics reputation as a source of fine literature, they were confronted by host Ray Suarez with sensationalistic quotations from Frank Miller's SIN CITY. Image from SIN CITY copyright 2000 by Frank Miller Writes McCloud, '...the tone had been set, first impressions made, and now we could only react and defend-- while we considered how comics' revolution in public perception might not have been as far along as we'd hoped.'

McCloud is persuasive of his thesis that 'Public perception matters,' that the ignorance and contempt of the wider public has much to do with comics current problems. He shows that the public must face barriers on several levels-- media coverage, unpleasant retail outlets, and the comics themselves.

One point he touches on all too briefly on page 84 is the supposed 'growing number of "comics illiterates,"' and the preponderance of comics pages with 'layouts seemingly designed to baffle newcomers.' An example from an Image comic makes the point tellingly, but I'd have enjoyed a whole chapter on this topic. This seems to go along with his earlier remark about 'pig latin.'

McCloud goes on to put public perception of comics into the historical perspective of Dr. Frederic Wertham's book SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT and the repressive Comics Code Authority it helped introduce. He concludes with a reference to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and free speech battles, a tangible example of how public perception matters.

Practitioner Diversity

The quest for diversity is a need of the comics medium that McCloud rightly underscores. He is able to tie this need in with three of the comics medium 'revolutions'-- gender balance, minority representation, and diversity of genre.

McCloud ties diversity of practitioners with artistic diversity-- '...the background of the owner of the hand that holds the pen is going to affect the perceptions-- of the owner of the hands that hold the work.' He makes this point especially strongly in regards to women cartoonists, in whom he notes 'a consistent emphasis on characterization and emotional nuance-- with their attendant differences in story structure-- and an increased awareness of the picture plane and decreased reliance on illusionistic depths of field.'

McCloud's discussion of practitioner diversity surprisingly overlooks one of the greatest sources of diversity in the current comics market-- the rising marketshare of imports, especially manga comics. These have caused a sharp increase of the participation of Asians creators, and expanded the representation of genres (including a number of genres Americans haven't been exposed to before.)

In fact, this could properly be categorized as an additional 'revolution'-- the wide availability of imported comics. The new talent influx, starting with Warren's Spanish artists, continuing with RAW and HEAVY METAL anthologies featuring European artists, and continuing with Vertigo's British imports, the exploding manga scene and anthologies like COMIX 2000, is having an enormous impact on the American comics scene.

Genre Diversity

In introducing the topic of diversity of genre, McCloud notes the predominance of the superhero genre. He goes on to note a number of other minor genres: autobiographical comics, naturalistic fiction, all-ages fantasy, minimalism, experimental, erotic comics. He also notes negligible representation of the crime fiction genre and the romance genre, and a group that defies characterization.

Interesting as this list is, it seems to consist of subgenres of the art comics genre, as if the selections were culled from THE COMICS JOURNAL, rather than from actual market research. Some prominent genres not listed:

* Adult fantasy and horror titles like Sirius's DAWN and POISON ELVES.

* Science fiction titles like ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE and FINDER.

* All-ages comedy titles like THE SIMPSONS, ARCHIE, and MAD MAGAZINE.

* Movie adaptation comics like STAR WARS and THE TERMINATOR.

Cover, FURNATION, anthropomorphic anthology * Anthropomorphic comics like SHANDA THE PANDA and GOLDDIGGER.

* Superhero satires like THE ATOMICS, LETHARGIC LAD and THE TICK.

* Other comedy genres; gen-x comedies like CLERKS; Goth comedies like OH MY GOTH and LENORE; fanboy comedies like THREE GEEKS and KNIGHTS OF THE DINNER TABLE.

* Historical comics like Caliber's WITNESS TO WAR.

* Rock-and-roll oriented comics like GRATEFUL DEAD COMICS (although I haven't seen many of these lately.)

* Educational comics like RADIO, AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE (Jessica Abel's recent comic for National Public Radio), CLAN APIS, and the superb line of comics published by Discovery with artists like Jim Woodring.

* A recent line of wrestling comics (?!), all published by Chaos Comics.

* Numerous subgenres of manga comics.

McCloud analyzes the stylistic attributes of superhero comics, writing on p. 114-145, 'After 60 years of mutuations, the superhero genre currently incorporates hundreds of embedded stylistic "rules" governing story structure, page composition, and drawing style-- and when the creative community trained in that field ventures into other genres, it tends to take many of those rules along for the ride.' This last is aptly illustrated with a panel from a Kirby-esque western.

The charge that superhero conventions are carried over into other comics is obviously valid in many cases. But McCloud's broad generalizations invite a witch hunt to identify superhero riffs in a wide variety of other work. For example, he writes that 'exaggerated depth of field' is a superhero attribute. Would this mean that any comic that invites the reader to gaze at the background is superhero-derivative?

This witch hunt aspect comes through especially clearly in McCloud's critique on p. 123-124 of the 'ingrained habits' evident in HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY. '...penciler John Buscema shows us a multipanel conversation-- then draws the same panels in the dynamic house style (i.e., refined Kirby) of that era's Marvel Comics. Yet in both examples, the physical relationships are reiterated in nearly every panel! (Five out of six panels in the original illustration.) Like game pieces assembled for a skirmish, always wary of the other guy's position.'

The sequence in question does project the tension and drama McCloud talks about-- but is that inappropriate for a story of any kind in which the characters are in conflict? Furthermore, is McCloud seriously asserting that it's inherently adversarial to show both characters in the panel time after time? After all, such positioning may be functional-- it allows both characters to have dialog in each panel, replying to each other's remarks.

There is no doubt much to criticize in HOW TO DRAW COMICS THE MARVEL WAY, but McCloud is indulging in a far-fetched interpretation rather than dealing with substantive issues such as whether Buscema's art is too idealized and stereotyped, or whether the 'dynamic' reworking of the sequence overpowers the conversation and shatters the continuity (which I think it does; the first, 'undynamic' sequence reminds me a little of Milton Caniff, who knew a thing or two about portraying conversations.)

In turn, it should be acknowledged that in many instances superhero artists have advancing the techniques of naturalism in comics. For genres that require naturalism, these techniques should be studied and mastered, not scorned. A COMICS JOURNAL review of Steve Lieber and Greg Rucka's WHITEOUT comes to mind-- the critic repeatedly referred to the creators as hacks because of the technical skill they displayed!

McCloud denies that there's anything inherent in superheroes that give them a 'manifest destiny' to be a dominant genre. Rather, inherent forces in the market, creative community, and readership forge genres out of an original state of diverse choices.

McCloud does a good job of defending genre diversity against the standard elitist critiques of genre. First acknowledging the validity of this critique, he writes on p. 122, 'In some respects, the battle for diversity of genre is a battle against the very idea of genre itself. After all, a greater number of genres could be seen as just a greater number of rule-bound cages to lock comics into.'

Countering this, McCloud continues, 'But for an artist intent on following no rules at all-- the chance of finding a place on somebody's shelf is at least increased in a diverse marketplace-- and for those who pick and choose their rules, a wealth of techniques can be gleaned from those who have been at it for a while.'

He illustrates this idea with references to manga comics in the sports, kid's comedy, samurai, and romance genres, focusing on the stylistic innovations in the art.

It would be profitable to expand on this idea in turns of the writing of comics. What techniques could be learned from the exploration of non-superhero genres in comics?

* In the mystery genre, the challenge of portraying a complex realistic situation in detail, with a 'clue' hidden therein which the reader is challenged to find, could help develop comics ability to portray locations and situations in greater depth. It would also foster the values of intellectual problem-solving over the violent problem solving currently prevalent. Also, mystery and crime stories are vehicles for exploring the dark, violent side of human nature.

* The romance genre explores the most intoxicating mystery of human existence. Romances foster more in-depth expression of emotions, and often develop the themes of personal change and the transformation of children into adults.

* The sports genre often puts the focus on teamwork, earned individual achievement, and the relationship of admired sports stars with the community at large.

* The Western and other past-occuring genres demand an accurate historical focus, and often require the writer to adopt a mindset quite different from (and often more admirable than) contemporary attitudes.

Escapism

On p. 124-125, McCloud addresses the issue of escapism. 'In some respects, the fight for gender balance and minority representation may seem at odds with genre issues. The first two argue for a body of work that represents the world as it is, yet the third seems geared towards our need to escape from it.

'Ironically, it's often those most schooled in life's harshest realities who grow up least inclined to revisit them in fiction.

'Some in comics' progressive wing tend to sneer at escapist fiction. I can come across that way myself. But all readers want to be transported by fiction in the end, even if the journey is through a mirror of the world we already know-- and as long as no one gave us a choice of the world we were born into, a little escape seems a reasonable request, and one of the many that comics can fulfill.'

McCloud's remarks are helpful, but the issue of escapism needs to be examined more closely. What exactly constitutes escapism? It's defined by Webster as 'habitual diversion of the mind to purely imaginative activity or entertainment as an escape from reality or routine.' By this definition, virtually any fiction could be termed escapist.

The criticism of escapism needs to be clarified as well. Presumably the problem with escapism is that the reader is avoiding responsibilities and isn't concentrating on solving personal problems. But what if the reader has fulfilled their responsibilities? What if they don't have pressing personal problems to solve? What if their personal problems are simply unsolvable? Is all escapism harmful all of the time?

There's an entire laundry list of issues related to this:

* What are our responsibilities in the modern world? Are we expected to merely perform our duties as defined by society, or are we obligated to be fully engaged in the transformation of society (by picketing polluters, etc.)? Since the latter is presumably a full-time job, is all attention to the arts inherently escapist and corrupt?

* How is some art 'escapist' and some is not? Is pleasure a criteria? Are we expected to be suspicious of pleasurable art? Conversely, are critics of escapism employing an austere, puritanical value system?

* Does the desire to escape through fiction suggest that the reader is weak? Conversely, is the mastery of 'difficult' art a means of empowerment?

* Does some art have a privileged status of being non-escapist, because it deals with real issues? Is the enjoyment of realistic art some kind of substitute for fulfilling our responsibilities in the real world and working on our personal problems?

* Is fantasy inherently more escapist than realistic fiction?

* A valid criticism of unrealistic fiction is that it often fosters unrealistic beliefs about the world. But should this be part of an escapism critique, or should it be taken on a case-by-case basis?

* The portrayal of violence in popular entertainment has disturbing implications. Is this kind of escapism more egregious than others?

* Does the escapist critique apply to non-storytelling arts? Is it escapist to enjoy an abstract painting, or a gourmet meal? Does it apply to other activities not related to the arts? Is it escapist to go for a 20-mile bike ride on the countryside, or take a vacation in Hawaii?

* Some of the places that fantasy entertainment transports us to are quite unpleasant places-- post-apocalyptic futures, dark mansions inhabited by ghouls, alternate universes where Disco never died! Can such stories properly be termed escapist?

* Escapism is often described as fiction that transports the reader to a different place. But escapism may be more an escape from self. Superhero and other adventure stories help us imagine that we are stronger, faster, and more brave than we truly are; detective fiction, that we are more clever, like Sherlock Holmes; romances, that we are more attractive to the opposite sex. Wish-fulfillment in this sense is a key element of escapism.

* Related to the above, is escapism a form of role-playing that can have a constructive value? In trying to solve a mystery puzzle, are we developing our analytical skills? By playing a hero or a romantic lead, are we clarifying what our real-life goals should be?

McCloud has more to say about escapism in his discussion of virtual reality, and we'll take up the debate again as we consider that section.

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