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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Quasi-public Comic Books.

A couple of events this week forced me to come to grips with a dilemma. One was the casual observation from a fellow professor that all pop culture must be avoided because it dumbs down the mind and undoes progress. Another was discovering a book on the current scene in comic books by an author who didn't quite get his doctorate. i won't say anything more about that since i only glanced through the work and cannot meaningfully discuss it.

Both event though helped me diagnose a condition I was suffering from. I was reintroduced late in life to comic books by a successful doctoral student who disclosed some the the high minded themes in today's current writers. That being the case, although I could clearly recognize the sophistication in current comic writers, I eventually became weary or the apparent retreading of views and opinions subtly expressed in them that just did not resonate with me. For me the popularity of Japanese manga was a great alternative because their comics were actually fun to read. However, it was palpable that they were not doing much for me intellectually and that the reiteration of the same old devices was making the novelty wear off fast. I liked manga when it reflected on the unique features of Japanese culture. Now I can see that even the Japanese have a criticism of their own culture which shows that it is toxic. so it is hard to be excited about it anymore.

Now I see the problem. Japanese comics are pop culture and American comics are not. Let the generalization pass for the moment. More importantly, what's going on in most American comics that are made by 'Big Comics' (as in 'Big Business', 'Big Media', and 'Big Science') are featuring a certain elite body of writers (setting aside the artists for the time being) who are all very distinguished not only in comics but also in publishing, screen writing, and/or television writing, Hollywood in four color print. These writers are also involved in an ongoing conversation with one another, a conversation that has its roots in reflecting on stories and traditional and contemporary thought. The coterie of comic writers is not unlike the coterie of professors within a discipline, including the aspect of speaking mainly to each other. You might not think so since comics are "for the masses". But the fact is that comics are packaged in way such that they finally result in graphic novels which will only be purchased by the self-styled and sophisticated consumer, one that sees themselves as part of an elite, all geekiness aside.

Much of what comics mainly do in this circle is to affirm, modify, challenge, etc. what the author sees other authors doing and so most comics are really about the state of comics itself, and the development of the direction of comics fits in a rewarding way with the categories and theories of modern literary studies. The comic industry functions like an extension of the literature department of a public university, whether intentionally so or not. Consequently, it is likely to be analyzable in terms of a Kuhnian account of paradigm change or a rhetoric of culture.

Which explains what I don't like about these comics -- their dogmatism and the corresponding discounting of rival comic projects (like Astro City). Gertrude Himmelfarb uses the phrase "quasi-public" to characterize ostensibly private institutions that develop bureaucracies remarkably similar to public institutions due to there dependence on the public sector for resources. Whoever has the gold makes the rules.

Are Big Comics quasi-public? Big Comics are not dependent on the public treasury for financing. But they are not banking their livelihood on Joe Fanboy's $2.95+ per issue either. They do significantly depend on other things which are quasi-public; Big Universities, Big Art, and Big Media. Consequently there is always the danger that Big Comics will become more like Court Comics. Comics becomes all about genre and not about "pop".

On the other hand, do Big Comics force the hand of the healthy minded consumer who does not want to be dumbed down but who does not fit well with the professionalized paradigm of "good story matter"? Big Comics can always oblige us to listen by their excellent quality (which no one can deny). But equally talented yet contrarian writers may just have to sit and listen and shut up. Maybe we need a blog for comic writers.