Mid-Life Creative Imperatives Part 3 (of 3)

Posted by on February 26th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Previously: PART ONE, PART TWO

The Journal began publishing almost the same month that Art Spiegelman and Bill Griffith’s underground comix anthology Arcade ended — as good an event as any to signal the last whimper of the underground movement. But, by 1981, Spiegelman (with Francoise Mouly) was back with Raw, and Robert Crumb began editing Weirdo the same year. Independent publishing and the post-underground generation took off in the ’80s with the Hernandez Brothers’ Love and Rockets (1982), followed by Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Jim Woodring, Charles Burns, Chris Ware and others. This was all due mostly to a) the inspiration of underground cartoonists a decade earlier, and b) the burgeoning comic-book specialty market, which took off in the late ’70s and early ’80s and gave such artists a small commercial niche for their work. Comic-book stores were sprouting up and for every 10 that exclusively trafficked in Marvel-DC pap, there was one that prided itself on appealing to more connoisseurial appetites.

This publishing activity represented a step beyond that of the undergrounds. Artists like R. Crumb. Justin Green. Gilbert Shelton. Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson and Bill Griffith brought a self-conscious, even dogmatic integrity to the practice of writing and drawing comics; for the first time, a cohesive body of comics artists thought of themselves as artists rather than laborers or, at best, craftsmen. Expression was their highest priority and they wouldn’t tolerate editorial interference. Publishers were less insistent on claiming an artistic status for comics so much as they were part of the zeitgeist and let the cartoonists do their thing (as well as own their thing). Fantagraphics Books, and the publishers (and self-publishers) that were to follow us in the ’80s and ’90s (Drawn & Quarterly, Blackeye, Top Shelf, Dave Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim, Jeff Smith’s Cartoon Books, et al.), took this a step further by insisting on comics as a legitimate art and treating cartoonists like authors. More independent cartoonists emerged in the ’90s: Jessica Abel, Jordan Crane, Brian Ralph, John Kirschbaum, Steven Weissman, Seth, David Mazzucchelli, Ben Katchor, Tony Millionaire, to mention just a few, appearing under a wider umbrella of publishing venues, each reflecting the same kind of stylistic uniqueness that distinguished their predecessors.

A reform movement also ran, from (roughly) 1976 to the turn of the century (when it petered out because the evolving status quo had become more or less acceptable to all participants) on a parallel track. The Comics Journal, recognizing the economic injustice inherent in the traditional corporate comics system, the generally squalid terms of “employment” most artists suffered under, and the cretinous editorial edicts imposed on artists, was the first magazine to actively agitate on behalf of mainstream comics creators. An entire class of writers and artists who had remained silent about their conditions were finally willing to go public, and the Journal served as a vehicle through which to air their grievances; there was, for the first time, a loose feeling of solidarity among them. In the early to mid ’80s, and for the first time in many years, a number of small publishers sprang up willing to publish the same kind of work as Marvel and DC (super­heroes, heroic fantasy, genre work, etc.), offering more rights and benefits, challenging their hegemony, and giving the creators leverage to negotiate better contractual arrangements (or contractual arrangements of any kind) for the first time.

There’s no question that alternative publishing (and self-publishing) increased markedly throughout the ’80s and ’90s, that young cartoonists finally had the freedom and economic opportunities that artists of Krigstein’s generation could only have dreamt about, that a small but devoted readership for literate comics has been cultivated. There is also no question that there are a handful of small comics publishers today who are the equivalent of literary publishers like Grove Press. North Point Press, et at., firmly committed to the proposition that comics are art with a capital A. There is, in consequence, more independently produced cartooning available now than ever before. This is the standard, potted history, trotted out in a prideful, asseverative, and Capra-esque breathlessness: the triumphant ascendancy and legitimacy of the small press, and their role in the growing public respect of cartoonists, comics, graphic novels.

Never mentioned is the concomitant ascendancy and consolidation of corporate power and status, the sly spin-controlling on the part of corporate comics publishers that has successfully rehabilitated their former image as money-grubbing thieves, and the pragmatic accommodation independent artists have made to corporate money and power.

“Independent” publishers who challenged Marvel and DC at their own game in the ’80s and ’90s (Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics, Malibu. Valiant. Image, et al.) were cheered on by a new wave of dissidents. These publishers have since gone out of business, been absorbed by Marvel and DC, or have become largely indistinguishable from Marvel and DC. After a furious and cutthroat war among distributors in the latter half of the ’90s, only Diamond Comics Distributors remained standing; an unholy alliance with DC gave DC (which is owned, let us not forget, by AOL-Time-Warner) the right to buy them in part in their entirety.

Given that the ’80s was a time of rhetorical extravagance, the creators who inveighed most noisily against the corporations for whom they worked, have lost ground. Frank Miller, who repeatedly declaimed DC and Marvel as pirates and thugs is back at DC working on a new Batman project. Image co-founder Todd MacFarlane who loudly insisted that Image was a moral reaction to Marvel’s and DC’s mistreatment of creators couldn’t wait to do a Batman cross-over with DC. As soon as Image sales started to lose steam, Image co-founders Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld cut a lucrative deal with Marvel to redesign several comics series (and Lee sold his entire branch of Image and its work-for-hire properties to DC in 1998). Alan Moore, who swore never to work for DC again, was sold along with the rest of Lee’s assets, and soon became one of DC’s highest profile creators. Scott McCloud airily predicts that the Internet will democratize the economics of comics publishing (or delivery) and hasten the demise of multinational publishing corporations like AOL-Time-Warner — in Reinventing Comics, a book published not on the Internet, but by AOL-Time-Warner. In the 1990s, DC was particularly aggressive at trying to make inroads into a sub-literate, teenaged, goth demographic with its Vertigo line, and any number of alternative creators have been seduced into their occasional employ. Even Art Spiegelman, of the once-radical Raw has been somewhat domesticated by his alliance to the Tina Brownized New Yorker. It is not a matter of standing fast against the lure of corporate money, either; one could quibble with individual decisions, but penury or starvation are not options for artists. At worst, this could be seen as a capitulation to money and power; at best, a compromise that gives creators the financial means to pursue their vision on their own terms. But the drift is unmistakable, and the fact is that 20 years of alternative-comics publishing has ultimately failed to emancipate us from dealing with the amoral bureaucratic entities against whose ethos we firmly stood.

It’s a classic example of living in the best of times and the worst of times. With nine multinational corporations dominating world-wide media — book publishing, film, television, newspapers, and retail outlets, and all the unprecedented synergy that implies — with a combined annual sales of $115 billion, the Catch-22 of the small press is that it either remains inconsequential and marginalized or becomes successful enough to be absorbed cozily into the machine, piece by piece. André Schiffrin, in his recent The Business of Books, eloquently describes the infinitely adaptable opportunism of the book-publishing establishment and its predatory need to colonize new markets (and just as quickly discard them when they prove insufficiently profitable). Alternative-comics publishing has never been more vigorous and therefore more likely to show up on the radar of hip, corporate hustlers with their eyes perpetually on the main chance and a conveniently deculterated conscience. The encroaching threat of co-option is as readily apparent as it is insidious; we fail to recognize the small press’ fragility at our peril. Fighting against the tidal wave of global commercialism should be seen literally as a matter of fighting for our lives.

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One Response to “Mid-Life Creative Imperatives Part 3 (of 3)”

  1. JimSheridan says:

    “In the 1990s, DC was particularly aggressive at trying to make inroads into a sub-literate, teenaged, goth demographic with its Vertigo line, and any number of alternative creators have been seduced into their occasional employ.”

    I would LOVE to have “Member of the Sub-literate Teen-aged Goth Demographic” on a t-shirt. Classic!