I'm Glad Comics Aren't Popular
Article for Sequential Art SIG
Jesse Richards - February 4, 2001

Comic books are just not cool. We all know it. In both high school and college, I lived with this stigma, but now, as an adult, it’s worse. Even though the majority of the comic book industry’s readers are now adults, the public still thinks comics are for kids. And we can’t stand it.

Among comic fans, this has been written about and analyzed, dissected in comic book magazines and journals, discussed at fan forums and conventions. We’ve all heard the questions, and asked them ourselves. Why can’t the public get it through their heads that comics aren’t just for kids anymore? Adults publicly enjoy comics in Japan and Europe - why not in the U.S.? Why can’t comics be more popular? How can they reach a wider audience?

Well, here’s a new question: What if being a small, under-appreciated, fringe industry isn’t a bad thing? What if it’s part of what makes comics the unique art form we love? I believe a big fallacy is revealed when comic-book aficionados start clamoring for the American public to give comics more respect: it’s taken for granted that it’s inherently a good thing for the industry to be more respected and mainstream.

Why do we want comics to be accepted so badly? Does it come down to a simple psychological need to be accepted, to be cool? For example, I love Scott McCloud’s work, but calling comic books “sequential art” seems nothing more than a pathetic grasp at legitimization, saying “Nuh-uh!” when co-workers call comics kiddie-fare.

I think comics have a problem with legitimacy simply because they are a relatively new form of art. And I don’t mean new since 1900’s The Yellow Kid or even 1938’s Superman, but the mid-1980’s - when the industry’s current adult readership started to solidify. Before then, comics did thrive, as kid’s entertainment. When they shifted in content to quality, “grown-up” work, they didn’t shift in the public’s perception. Comic fans haven’t adjusted yet to this life outside the mainstream, haven’t accepted it fully.

Similarly, both contemporary art and literature are outside of the mainstream, but their “fans” have less of a problem with that, because the fields have been around hundreds of years - long enough to legitimize their contributions to culture, long enough to shift from “obscure” to “elite”. The same with classical music, opera, poetry. People who study or collect contemporary art, for example, are nearly non-existent in number compared to the vast majority whose art knowledge extends only as far as a poster of van Gogh’s Starry Night or Klimt’s The Kiss, if that. As an art major in college, I was often surprised that no one I spoke to could name a single fine artist from this century, Picasso and Warhol being the rare exceptions. Many others didn’t even know what century Picasso painted in.

Yes, that’s just ignorance, but it’s partly because the art world has created an elitist image of itself that prohibits accessibility by the public. I think comic books have done the same; we just haven’t realized it yet. And, unless it’s taken to an extreme, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing.

All forms of entertainment and art in America today can be defined as either majority or minority, mainstream or independent, popular or not. Some fields are, as a whole, more mainstream than others. Television vastly dwarfs any form of reading, but the number of magazines read is much higher than novels, for example. Sports and poetry are an example of two extremes. The least watched sports are more popular than the most widely read poetry. But within each field, entries in both categories exist. For every football, there is billiards. For every People there is the New Yorker. For every Britney Spears, there is Ben Folds Five. For every Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, there is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In comic books, an obscure field as a whole, there is still a range: from X-Men to Jimmy Corrigan, Batman to Cerebus.

That last paragraph was just a sneaky way to plug some of my own favorites, but the strange fact remains: more often than not the work with the most artistic merit, quality, intelligence, and aesthetic sensibility is not what most people like.

Movies are an excellent example of this. Everyone can picture what a “mainstream” movie is as compared to an “independent” film. Even the word “movie” is more mainstream than “film”. So what makes “Wild, Wild West” so different from “Pi”? Common sense would seem to argue that the more money and talented individuals devoted to a project, the better it becomes. But using the above example, and countless others, we can all agree that often the opposite is true.

The weird doublethink here is that the public is aware that “art films” are of a higher quality than blockbusters, but enjoys blockbusters more anyway. The public prefers entertainment to art. Comic books shifted from kid’s entertainment to adult’s art two decades ago, and while that shift is not absolute and certainly not popular outside the comic’s field, I believe that is the direction comics should continue to grow in.

In order to become true “art”, one theory holds that an art form must find its inherent essence. For centuries, painting was concerned with capturing likenesses, but in the mid-nineteenth century, it was discovered that photography could do this much better. This freed painting and sparked a whirlwind of imagination and innovation that started with Impressionism and continued throughout the twentieth century, a 150-year period containing more unique art forms than the past millennia combined. It was found that painting could better capture expressions, feelings, memories and impressions, and some feel this is painting’s true essence. Comics started as kid’s entertainment, but now we see television and video games doing a better job of this, which leaves comic books at the beginning of a quest to discover their own true essence. I feel the industry can only do this if it remains relatively small.

Yes, I don’t want the industry to expand too much, are there are many reasons for this. But first we must get a pestering question out of the way: Does a work’s exclusion from the mainstream itself make it good? One guilty thought is that we like a work just because it’s obscure, regardless of its quality. Maybe that’s partly true, but it’s very elitist. There’s got to be more to it than that. I think a work does gain quality by being outside the mainstream, but for more legitimate reasons.

For one, the fewer people a book has to appeal to, the more concentrated its artistic vision can be. The smaller the circulation of a book, the fewer people that need to work on it, keeping the book’s integrity and vision unfiltered. Even within comic books we see this: tons of people contribute their opinions to X-Men, for example, and the book has to kowtow to its intricate history and the standards of the comic code. On the other hand, often the best books are created whole in the mind of one or two people, with fewer rules to hold them back, such as Maus, Sandman, Watchmen, Preacher, Sin City, 300, Grendel, Bone, and Will Eisner’s work.

Anyone who works in a large office knows that when decisions are made by committee, they often lose a lot of edginess and originality, gravitating towards a compromise to please everyone involved, and everyone’s constituents. (Actually, anyone who has ever tried to select a video to rent with a large group of friends has seen this too.) There are many spheres of society where this is of great benefit, such as in government, where laws and organizations need to help the majority of the people and following a “singular vision” can lead to dictatorship.

But art has always been a very personal pursuit, and talented people should not dilute their visions to please the mainstream. This is the difference between art and entertainment. It’s entertainment’s role to help people escape their lives and have a good time; it’s art’s responsibility to dissipate truth into society and make people think. The best entertainment is talked about at the water cooler and then forgotten; the best art ennobles the soul and touches on personal, inner truths that stay with us throughout our lives. Luckily the best art is entertaining, too, in that it holds our attention and is engaging.

I see the aftermath of decision by committee every day. I’m a graphic designer at an advertising agency, and with each project I work on, as many as ten or twenty people might be contributing to it. This produces excellent and effective ads and web sites for our clients. However, it does not, in my mind, produce art. Too many concessions are made; too many design decisions usurped by the need to display a logo or package prominently. Even remotely innovative ideas are scrapped for fear of offending a potential customer.

In today’s society of mass production, all but the most local, independent works are group projects. Even when a musician writes and performs her own songs – these days, a rarity – she still needs a recording studio, producers, and technicians to produce an album, let alone market it. Writers still need editors; artists, galleries. But if a singular vision can emerge and remain powerful in the finished work, I believe that is the definition of true art. Using our motion picture analogy, the worst films are often too compromising and watered down by studios and committees. Think of Independence Day, Batman & Robin. But what’s arguably the greatest movie of all time? Citizen Kane, whose lead actor is its director and co-writer. The works of Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and other great directors who clearly have unique, consistent approaches often top lists of not necessarily the most entertaining, but the best, most artistic films.

Comics, like films, are inherently a collaborative process. All but a few comics automatically have at least six contributors: writer, penciller, inker, letterer, colorist and editor. But one of the great things about comics is that the contributing circle usually does not get much larger than this. It’s a field where, due to the fast-paced regular shipment of books, there is simply no time to nitpick, and the artistic visions of the writer and artist are often passed through for expediency’s sake. It’s one of the easiest fields to get your own work published in, and though the largest companies still have some restrictions, many more go out of their way to promote the works of the individual creator. And it’s much cheaper, faster, and easier to self-publish in comics than to film your own movie, for example. In comics, there’s a much greater chance of your original ideas being intact at the end.

And, like in other fields, when the rare genius comes along who can do it all - write and draw his own creations - often the best work in the field emerges. Like Will Eisner, Frank Miller, Chris Ware, Dave Sim, and Art Spiegelman. True passion about a work shows through, and is most likely when the work is the creator’s own idea. This happens too rarely in television, movies, and popular music – but seems to happen much more frequently in comics, a field whose small size allows innovation and demands quality control.

Still not convinced that there’s some merit to keeping comics out of the mainstream? Well, look at the one time in comics’ recent history when the industry enjoyed greater financial success – the early ‘90s boom. This generated much more mainstream interest in comics, enticed more of the non-comic-reading public into stores, and gave comics a lot more press. But did the quality of work improve? It’s debatable, but in my opinion, no. This era became known for amateurish, over-hyped art (epitomized by Liefeld), gimmick covers to drive up prices, and “event” storytelling – resorting to a shocking revelation or death to sell books, many times at the expense of good storytelling. Of course, comics is a diverse field and many great stories were produced during this time as well, but the trend is certainly noticeable.

So, while I wouldn’t mind more people getting to enjoy great comics, I don’t think expanding the industry is the principle solution to comic fandom’s disillusionment. Only coming to terms with comic books’ place in American culture, and accepting that this still allows for, maybe even is responsible for, high quality work, will do that. While half of me hopes good comic books expand into the mainstream and replace a lot of the garbage people are reading and watching nowadays, the other half fears that by doing so, comics will lose a lot of the great qualities inherent in the medium and become just as sensationalized, predictable and trite as the detritus they replace. And while I’ll probably still be shy the next time I tell someone I read comics, deep down I’ll know I’m enjoying some truthful, edgy, high-quality work. And that’s always cool.