Don't Say Pitch

Comics & the high cost of privilege

I recently attended The Beguiling’s 25th Anniversary launch in which Seth moderated a panel with Charles Burns, Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware. The men discussed the history of comics and quickly tread into the arena of high vs low art. Although this type of thing often veers toward subjective taste, this is more than just a theoretical consideration because it relates to issues of legitimacy, privilege and access to resources like arts grants.

Being from an earlier generation, the panelists spoke of the need to legitimize the comics genre medium and this was evident in the way they spoke. The need to justify one’s work as worthy of respect, recognition and at least a decent living wage. There is a very real benefit to moving into the mainstream and gaining privilege.

But the benefits of mainstreaming/privilege is not what I want to write about now. I wish to write about the cost of these things. I am not referring to selling out; I couldn’t give a shit about that. I am talking about something far more fundamental and structural. I speak of the suppression or divorcing of the more radical, fringe elements of a community when it begins to enter the realm of the privileged. The cost of mainstreaming is to invite increased scrutiny, standardization and regulation by the status quo. Because, let us never forget, that while resources and power, respectability and legitimacy, all lie within the boundaries drawn by the mainstream, the price we pay for access to those things, to the comforts and protections of the mainstream is to legitimize the logic of privilege and to submit to the increased surveillance and policing that is deployed to enforce that logic.

Consider the term “graphic novel.” While this bid helps the mainstream market to understand comics as a “serious” artform by borrowing a term from the more “respectable” medium of literature, it suggests that comics ought to be judged through the lens and standards of literature in order to be considered valuable art instead of being judged on its own terms. You can see a line being drawn, ever so lightly, in the sand. Maus is a graphic novel. Peanuts is just a comic strip. One is intelligent psuedo-literature; the other is disposable pop culture. What is missing by dividing comics in this way? Opportunities to destabilize the status quo, to question how the power of privilege works, to criticize the boundaries the mainstream draws between what is legitimate and what is not, what gets access to resources and capital and what does not.

Tomine stated that his in laws are impressed by his The New Yorker covers, while it seems that Shortcomings, a far more complex and “artful” work, garners no such prestige. In fact, I overheard someone at the Beguiling event saying that comics artists have really made it because they’re being featured on The New Yorker.

So what does increased mainstreaming mean for comics besides designating some works as graphic novel and not others? From my extremely limited vantage point, not much yet. Only in comics can you find subversive works, like the output of R. Crumb, that are basically canonical. Were Crumb’s output produced in any other medium, it would be highly marginalized and far more heavily censored. His work would be shunned as a filthy part of that medium’s history, rather than being celebrated for its creativity and counter-culture ethos. (Compare this with the clear structural divides between say, pornography and non-pornographic works in film. They are practically separate industries from a business perspective.) I also don’t see the suppression or silencing of comics that challenge the status quo, or admonitions from more “respectable” mainstream cartoonists. Don’t make us look bad.

Although I do see there is some attempt at distancing from superhero comics, newspaper funnies and pornographic works, comics strikes me as a very fluid industry. The prestige, power and capital afforded to the top selling cartoonists are not astronomically different from the average cartoonist, and, at least, as far as I can tell, the hierarchy is still incredibly flat in comparison to other media.

I like this flatness in comics. I like that it bleeds through mainstream boundaries and that its subversive fringe elements can intermingle and coexist with its more mainstream elements without conflict. I like how there isn’t a sharp divide between margin and mainstream, that a lot of mainstream comics are subversive and a lot of independent comics are actually pretty mainstream in content and style.

The momentum of the comics industry has been incredibly rapid. It seems to have hit a sweet spot between the margins and the mainstream, but as the industry moves forward, will it sustain this flatness that I love so much? And what does the industry have to gain by remaining marginalized? Stay tuned…

p.s. I’ve been reading comics forever but am fairly new to comics from the production end, and as such, I’m not sure how strong my analysis is. Please let me know what you think.