03 January 2006

COMMENT: Comics & "the Mainstream"

The Comics Reporter's Tom Spurgeon, in his first CR Sunday Magazine of the new year, said:

"Screw being mainstream anyway. Comics has a lot of its cultural power not just as a secondary art form, but as a semi-disgraced secondary art form. I think because of their personal neuroses, which in many cases expresses itself in a desire to be popular, some comics fans put too much stock in a wide audience. The goofballs who write 'According to Jim' have a bigger audience than the playwright Tony Kushner. But who has the more admirable, effective and ultimately desirable creative platform? I'd say Kushner."
I've said many times how much I respect Spurgeon's writing on comics, that I think he's one of the best at what he does, but it doesn't mean I always agree with him. "Screw being mainstream" is the pouty equivalent of the nerd claiming he doesn't care about being popular - or, more honestly, simply being accepted for who/what he is - lying through his teeth while mocking those who do.

It's a disingenuous argument at best; defeatist and self-prophetic at worst. It reminds me of the way performing poets are treated, that they should be thrilled to have any audience at all and being paid for their efforts is a luxury, not a right. Just like Kushner didn't balk at his play, Angels in America, reaching a larger audience via HBO, comics creators (and activist fans) shouldn't settle for simply playing in the direct market sandbox, or for being considered "a semi-disgraced secondary art form."

It's one thing for an individual creator to be satisfied with creating art for art's sake, as it were, but to suggest an entire industry be perceived that way is absolutely ludicrous. Just like there are millions of rational, liberal human beings living happily in the so-called Red States, the "mainstream" is not some distasteful, monolithic (nor moronic) audience that one should be ashamed of aspiring to reach. I'd wager Kushner would be thrilled to have a similar platform as the According to Jim "goofballs' to work from.

It's what you do with it that counts, and I believe that every artist's goal should be, at some level, to reach as wide an audience as possible without compromising one's integrity. Otherwise, it's not really art; it's masturbation.


Mark Fossen said...

The problem is, Guy, that until comics accepts it's place as a secondary art form like jazz, poetry, theatre, etc. a lot of time and energy is wasted on achieving the mainstream. If every poet out there spent all his time and energy trying to get his book the same sales as Harry Potter ... it'd be Quixotic at best. You're better off accepting the limits of your readership and then focusing on making good art.

I think Tom's right on point. It's ok to try to grow the audience, but you need to recognize the limitations, and not expend energy where you won;t see a return.

Guy LeCharles Gonzalez said...

Well, yeah, but I think Tom takes an unnecessarily extreme stance on the issue. I think you can focus on making good art while simultaneously making a sincere effort to reach beyond the limited audience the direct market caters to.

I think his final point makes a much truer, and stronger, statement about comics and the mainstream, and effectively contradicts the one I commented on: "Most plans or ideas to make comics mainstream accept pernicious elements of the status quo rather than deplore them and demand they change."

Comics accepting its place as a secondary art form is one of those "pernicious elements of the status quo" he decries.

Erech said...

Well there is a very active minority of people IN comics (note, not fans) who are very proud of the "secondary" status comics are. No illusions about it ever selling better than video games or Harry Potter coloring books etc or whatever assinine scale some folks try to measure them to. I like that punkrock aspect of it myself to some regard, but I also know the marketing being done by almost every publisher out there is being phoned in, at best. So until that changes, these sort of arguments are pretty moot.

I can't say I agree with the "secondary art form" title either, but I understand comic books are what they are in the sceme of things. I mean, as I sit here and eat my Batman cereal, wearing the Flash shirt I got at Urban Outfitters, and watch my X2 dvd, I'm totally not scoffing at all.

I do love Tom though too, even when he's wrong.

Jason Martin said...

Okay, it’s one thing to “accept your limits”, but it’s quite another to accept the market/industry as it stands today. I think, to Guy’s point.
You can argue comics, graphic/sequential/artistic stories can only ever appeal to x percentage of the public, but it’s a proven fact that 150-300k is not the number, it’s far greater than that (and I’d argue, the sky’s the limit).
Just look at previous sales levels, either domestically, or particularly abroad…

To champion acceptance of this oppressed state is ludicrous to me, and I’d think should be to anyone who genuinely cares about the medium. It’s not about maintaining the art or craft and appreciation of it for yourself, if you truly care about it, you should want it to reach as many as possible, and 200,000 superhero lovers is not the number (or 50k goth, 200k manga, etc etc). It’s not even close.