Thursday, 29 May 2008

Ask Not What Your Comics Can Do For You...

A warning here, before I start. This isn't a comics review. This week looks like one of the best in comics since I got back into them, and I will be looking over some of this week's comics over the next few days (except Judenhass, which I already reviewed a couple of months back). This is an incoherent rant.

In this rant I will be hypocritical - making exactly the same mistakes I accuse others of - and I will no doubt say some intensely stupid things. I will almost certainly delete this post, unless I don't, because I know going in that it's going to get nasty. Please read this with that in mind, or skip it. This isn't a well-reasoned piece of logic, it's a scream at the stupidity of the world, purely in immediate reaction to something I've read. I wrote this because I had to get this off my chest.

I was reading Newsarama today (I know... I have only myself to blame) and I read something that shocked me to the core. A statement so callous it bordered on the sociopathic, but one that seemed to go unnoticed by everyone reading it - so much so I had to triple-check if I'd actually read it correctly:

"Just think for a second about the pinch on the budgets of millions of Asians and fears of civil unrest that are being raised. In fact, food riots have erupted in recent months in Mexico, Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Guinea.

What do all these mean for the comics industry as a whole?"

You read that right. I didn't cut out any context that would put this in a better light.

"People are starving - there are riots in six countries because the people there don't have enough to eat!"
"Really? That's terrible! Ultimate Hulk Vs Wolverine may never come out if this continues!"

Now, you might think this is just an isolated example of idiocy from Benjamin Ong Pang Kean - a man who, after all, less than a month ago thought the best response to being pulled up by Paul Cornell on his witless bigotry would be to try to make a joke about Cornell being British and then publish the whole thing. We're not talking here about someone competent, after all.

But to me this seems to fit a pattern of thought that's observable in a lot of comic readers - when the Siegel family won back their share of the copyright for Superman the other month, the response among the message board posters wasn't generally a discussion of whether justice had been done, or the intricacies of 'intellectual property' law and whether the decision made sense, but revolved around two questions - "Does this mean I won't get my comics?" and "Does justice being done in this case mean it might happen in other cases, thus denying me other comics?"

Now, I think the article that got me so infuriated had everything exactly backwards. When something terrible is happening in the world, the response of 'the comics community' should not be 'what will that do to my comics?' but rather 'what can we, as 'the comics community', do to help?'

(Please note, I'm only talking about what 'we' can do here qua 'comics community' - I'm assuming for the sake of argument that everyone who cares about the state of the world is doing all the other Good Citizen stuff like contacting your elected representatives, giving money to charity, and so on).

Now, this particular problem is, alas, not one that is wholly soluble by comics (unless we were to pool our collective resources into a gigantic magical ceremony led by Alan Moore and Grant Morrison to pull Superman into the real world from ideaspace and have him sort out the economic mess - a solution not noticeably less practical than those offered by many leading politicians) - the problems that are caused by having populations grow while resources shrink were pointed out quite effectively by Thomas Malthus 210 years ago - but other problems can be helped by comics.

That sounds like a grand claim - but remember that comics are an art form and medium of communication, and an effective one. Art can and does help find solutions to social, economic, political and even technological problems - by giving us new ways to think about them. Probing the limits of the possible allows us to try out ideas, and the impossible can be used as metaphor, allegory or analogy.

The problem is, I think, that a large number of comic readers now read little or nothing other than comics - or more precisely, other than superhero titles taking place in the shared 'universes' of the Big Two. And increasingly, those comics, when they're about anything at all, have become about nothing more than other comics. As Douglas Wolk puts it in his rather wonderful book Reading Comics, "More and more superhero series are readable really only as metacomics, because they're mostly about where their plots and characters are positioned in the matrices of the big superhero narratives".

The problem is, when a large majority of superhero comics are only about superhero comics (to the extent they're about anything) then... well, they're not about anything else, are they? And is it really surprising that a genre that has essentially turned into navel-gazing on an immense scale produces fans who wouldn't care if the whole population of Asia were to die so long as they got their comics (though they'd probably complain at the price increases because of the lack of that cheap (slave) labour that lamentably even the more 'ethical' indie companies use to print their comics).

(Art comics don't get a free pass here, either. They're not usually about other comics - not since they finally got over defining themselves by what they're not - but a staggering number essentially boil down to 'my life is the most fascinating thing in the world'. Save it for LiveJournal.)

I think in order for comics to actually matter, they have to start containing actual ideas, about things other than comics. Meta-commentary is fine as one element of a larger story, but when it's the only thing approaching an actual idea in the comic, then there's a serious problem. The ideas can be about anything - from a new formal idea about the medium (a different thing from the genre, note) to 'a superhero who only speaks in Irving Berlin lyrics' to an alternate universe in which the introduction of crop rotation never took off thanks to a new species of insect wiping out all turnips in the 15th century. So long as it's an idea. Start putting in ideas, and the readers will start to think. Get a few hundred thousand people thinking and who knows what will happen?

But pressure needs to be put on the comic companies to do this, in the same way feminist comic bloggers have over the last few years put pressure on them to moderate at least their worst excesses (so we still get Black Canary posing as if she's presenting to someone just off-panel on the front of her comic, but Spoiler is no longer dead). We've tolerated the lack of ideas in comics for too long. If you read a comic and come away thinking 'meh. Nothing happened. What was the point of that?' then that comic is contributing to the creation of morons, and needs to be held up as an example of everything that is wrong with the medium.

Because if we want to know what good comics can do, the single most important thing they can do is change the mentality of people who prioritise comics over starving human beings.


Richard said...

Andrew, if you delete a word of this post I shall have to find out where you live and go there and punch you.

What you say here is neither hypocritical nor incoherent. It may be a rant, but that in itself is no bad thing when the subject deserves ranting about, and it's essentially the same rant I've been keeping bottled up in my own head for ages now. If anything, you said it in a much more positive and constructive way (and with considerably less cursing) than I could have managed.

I mean it, don't touch this.

Anonymous said...

Second what RAB said, and double it.

Was going to put a great big comment here, but I may turn that into a separate post instead.