Becky Cloonan’s latest blog entry makes the case for comics creators to get more personal. She references another blog that made her consider that when artists work on projects that “don’t tell the world what they think…or believe…” then they are hiding. They’re not being “true to themselves” and, ultimately, they will be forgotten.
I was going to leave a comment on her blog in response, but I felt my own soap-box sermon coming on, so I decided to address the issue here! (Stand back--!)
On one hand, I can understand the sentiment. Like Becky, I have a deep affection and appreciation for the comic art form. As it happens, in the past, I’ve thought on this subject. When I read a book like Craig Thompson’s Blankets or anything by Will Eisner, Adrian Tomine or Joe Sacco (to name only a few), I am struck by how goddamned personal their work is. These people have a real point of view, something to share and some brass balls for putting it all out there for everyone to see! I admit it—I sometimes feel small in comparison, and I hope that one day I’ll have something equally interesting to say. This is something to aspire to.
On the other hand, the thing that bothers me about this train of thought is that it smacks of an elitism that truly drives me crazy.
A couple of years ago, I was flipping through a piece in the New York Times Magazine about some of my contemporary comic book heroes. There was a big photo spread featuring Seth, Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine, Chester Brown and, of course, the Nobel Prize-winning author of Maus, Art Spiegelman. The article was the latest version of the old, “Comics aren’t just for kids” bit. It was a very good piece and nicely prominent, but when I finished reading, I was upset.
The reason why is because it reminded me of the “elite club” that these “heroes” of mine belong to, and the fact that I can never join.
Why not? Because I have worked all these years on “mainstream” comics for Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that people don’t talk about in comics. There is a real snobbery in the world of “alternative” comics (or “comix” or “sequential art” or whatever label you want to use). It comes through in the New York Times article, it was apparent in a lecture I attended at UCLA given by Art Spiegelman, and I see it in the blog that caused Becky Cloonan to reflect & comment on. It is an attitude that says, “Our books are ART and everything mainstream is not to be taken seriously—regardless of the quality present in the story and art.” It says that the circumstances in which the works are created are more important than the demonstrable skill of the artists in question.
I truly believe this to be the case, and it pains me. It pains me because all of the aforementioned artists are, in fact, heroes of mine. If they sucked, I wouldn’t care. I really don’t understand how they can marginalize the artists who work “in the trenches” at Marvel & DC simply because that’s where they get their paycheck. The fact is that once you are in the trenches, you can’t get out. You’re not a serious artist, but a commercial hack; a sell-out.
Think I’m exaggerating? Imagine this scenario: A famous “mainstream” artist decides he wants to stop drawing mutants and draw a personal graphic novel about his suburban childhood. Let’s say it’s Rob Leifeld. Now imagine something else: this book is a huge departure from his mainstream work—understated, mature and insightful. The book is personal and has a unique point of view…
…Is anybody going to take this book seriously?
No offense meant to Rob, but think about it. Is Art Spiegelman going to suddenly add Rob Leifeld to his list of “important” contemporary artists? Is The Comics Journal going to mention the book at all? No way. If this were a true story, people would be insulting this book long before anyone ever read a page. It wouldn’t stand a chance in the world of “serious” comics literature. What’s more, Rob’s current fan base wouldn’t be interested either.
I used Rob as an example because he’s famous, but I believe the same would be true for a relative unknown like myself—and I don’t carry the baggage (good & bad) that Rob does. And that’s what makes me upset—Because one day, I would like to try my hand at something “personal” and I’d like it to have a fighting chance. Unfortunately, I might have a better chance of being taken seriously if I published those “comix” pretending to be a newcomer and using a pseudonym.
Why don’t I stop work on my Tokyopop manga and draw my own personal vision right now? Is it because I’m “hiding?” I don’t think so. It’s a complicated issue. I mean, there are financial considerations, to begin with. It’s easy for Art Speigelman to give the advice he gave at UCLA—he told aspiring comics creators that working on the mainstream books was a waste of time and not really art. Of course, he doesn’t need to draw them—he can illustrate a single New Yorker cover and be paid more that I would for a whole issue (or more) of a comic.
Who's to say that a Thor story can’t be an artist’s personal vision anyway? The fact that Stan Lee & Jack Kirby created Thor stories years before Walt Simonson doesn’t diminish Walt’s contribution. Does the fact that the book is a monthly periodical exclude it from “art” status, or does it depend on who owns the character? Was Frank Miller’s Daredevil or Dark Knight less artistic or less of a “personal vision” because it was drawn on a work-for-hire basis? Is Sin City automatically a more valid artistic expression because Frank owns it? Do I need to point out that there are hundreds of self-published, self-indulgent, personal visions being produced these days? Most of which are forgettable.
I don’t think I’m hiding or not being true to myself. I think I’m honing my craft. Every new project I work on teaches me something new. Hopefully I am improving my skills and opening doors, even if I’m not joining any elite clubs. If I’m lucky, I’m building a reputation that will help me get noticed when the time comes that I do have something personal to say. Also, I don’t want to do something “personal” just for its own sake. That’s called masturbation. I hope that when I write to really “say something” that it will be something worth reading. Meanwhile, I’m happy if I can entertain my readers on any level.
End of rant. Your input is appreciated.