Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hide And Seek

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.



Fabio Moon said...

I liked your opinion. I do think there's that art "elitism" sometimes, but there's more than that as well.

It's not just a matter of doing your own stories and being the author, it's just this effort to know what you want and try to go for it, instead of something else.

Some people would prefer to tell their own stories, but they do Marvel comics because they have to pay the bills. They can be great at it, but it's not what they really wanted to do.

Others could want nothing more than draw super-heroes. It doesn't matter what the story is about, it's not their job. Their job, their dream, is to draw the heroes he love. I don't think these guys are hiding behind "mainstream" characters because that's what makes them tick.

I thought, at first, that the super hero artists were a bit sell out, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is to do what you love, and to try to not do what you don't love all the time (we all have to do something unpleasant from time to time). I know this guy, Ivan Reis, who was drawing Superman, and now Green Lantern, and he loves to draw these characters. He loves it with all his soul, and it's great to see him talk about his job, about his day-to-day work on those pages. drawing super heroes is a great job for him, and he's living his dream.

We all should go after that, living our dreams, doing something we believe in.

I now fight the snobbery between "alternative" comics and mainstream, but I really think we should try to do what makes us tick, because it shows in the work, and it makes it better.

Thanks for sharing your view, and keep up your great work.

Allen Gladfelter said...

A good rant. I could go on and on in sympathy with you, but I'd best not. I can say that I've gotten a whole lot more attitude from "alernative" artists who appear to take themselves and their personal taste a whole lot more seriously than do "mainstream" artists. Personally, I've had and editor at Dark Horse declare my Lost Tribe stuff "too alternative," and the publisher of NBM declare the exact same pages as "too mainstream." That suggests to me that these categories are by and large capricious and personal. I mean, is Paul Pope alternative? How about when he draws Batman? See what I mean? These lines are meant, I think, to define one's own coolness, as if to like a competently drawn superhero comic from New York isn't as cool as liking some european-styled navel-gazing self-portrait from Toronto.


Steve Buccellato said...

Great points, guys. It brings up something I forgot to mention. That is, for some reason, once you've joined the "Comic Book Elite," then it is apparently OK to "slum it" and do a Batman book for the paycheck. Paul Pope is a great example of this. He's one of the few who can work both sides of the fence. The problem is, that only members of the club can do both and remain respected. Trying to go the other way is an impossible battle.

I agree with Fabio, that artists should just do they work they love and not worry about these labels. But it bothers me to know that some of my "heroes" would regard the work of a superhero artist as less important, and the artist as an example of arrested development!

Don Hudson said...

I have heard this rant before and I will repeat my own opinion. I hate those snobs who look down on mainstream comics as less than art. Something not to be taken seriously. Any comicbook is a work of art. Sequential storytelling is something that takes a while to learn to do well.

I have done confessional childhood comic thing and I have no problem with it. I draw Superheroes and Cowboys and I prefer it. There is no shortage of artists telling their own personal stories and I wish the mass media like The NY Times and Entertainment Weekly would stop annointing the small press independent artists.

mmclaurin said...

Time will tell, is the only thing I can add. This arguement goes back to the early days of magazine illustration. Illustrators who painted magazine covers as assignements were not considered "real artists." I mean, there's Picasso, and there's Norma Rockwell, and hey're not in the same league, any artist of the time would say.

But in modern times, populist art, and by that I mean the art that the most people see, is what not only stays in the collective consciousness of a society, but also what influences a new generation. I guarantee that more people were inspired to become artists and creative peopel in general by Rockwell and Sargent and Wyeth and Pyle than by Kandinski and Dali, at least in America. Art is what people see. And the more people that see it, the more influential that art is. And more people seeing something becomes the definition of what makes it commercial.

There's always going to be the "better than" attitude that justifies ones choices. I like this band better than that band because that band is too commercial. I like this look better than that look, because too many other people have that look. And by definition, my preference means that choice is inherently better, if for no other reason than that I choose it. But the better way to think about it is, these are both good, this for that reason, that for teh other reason, and this is my preference, and I like things aligned with that preference. Leave the "better than's" alone, becasue it's all mixed up in the crapshoot of personal preference, and personal preference is formed by popular culture-in both ways, either for or against.

Great rant.

The other attitudes