Minicomics, artcomics, lit-comics, indie comics, alt-comics. That whole region of comics falls under a general umbrella. The problem is that nobody is making it rain.
There is a lot of talk about how strong comics are as an artform and how important the independent/art/lit-comics world is. Over a decade since Fort Thunder and Jimmy Corrigan and it seems like it mostly is just talk. Yes, some individuals have made a career crafting a niche product while NPR hosts scramble to describe them as “not the comic books you may be used to,” but it still does not amount to a very powerful movement. It is more than selling individual books to decent numbers of people, I am talking about does this field of art mean something to culture as a whole. Does it factor into a moderately average person’s daily life? Or are literary/art/alternative comics just an occasional novelty, like a parlor trick?
I have asked people on occasion: apart from cartoonists, you know, the people who are directly involved in this field, who reads indie comics? We never talk about them, these “civilians,” these “only readers.” I am desperately interested in them. I know a lot of cartoonists. Hundreds. I know hundreds of cartoonists. I want to know more about people who have an interest in this work without it being a vested interest.
How do indie comics factor into your life? Do you buy minicomics from conventions? Do you go to conventions only to buy minicomics and meet cartoonists? Or do public readings, panel discussions matter to you? Are you reading this blog and blogs like it? Cartoonists tend to conduct personal communication publicly between one another. Does that interest you or are we obnoxious?
For those of you who read minicomics, what do you do with them? How are they stored in your home? Do you have a special place where you go to read your minicomics? How wide or deep is your interest? Do you follow certain artists or enter a comics festival and snatch things up left and right? Do you dispose of your minicomics eventually? What do book collections of comics mean to you? Do your other (non-cartooning) friends share any part in your interest?
Once upon a time, not long ago, millions and millions of people read comics every day in the newspapers. Several changes in the business structure of newspapers dwindled the cultural power of these everyday, mass-enjoyed comic works. But there was a lot of culture to them.
Newspaper comics would be read and passed around, favorites would be cut out and pinned to cubicle walls, folded into envelopes with a letter, taped inside of a school locker.
A quick joke or a plot movement forward in a longer narrative, and people would incorporate that into their day. I remember reading the newspaper comics in the breakroom at my old retail job. Very casually, while taking one’s fifteen-minute break, one would grab the Lifestyles section of the Democrat & Chronicle, read the funnies, stretch one’s arms and then head back to the salesfloor.
I miss comics of a kind that would incorporate into an average person’s daily life without demanding to become a dominant force in a person’s life.
When I look at comic books in general and smaller comics in particular, I see a steep barrier of entry for readers. The community is very closed. Not by conscious exclusion but by years of increasingly conservative and protective stances.
One obvious example is how festival attendees are treated by the institution of a comics festival. Festivals often seem to advertise exhibitor afterparties as main events. Thanks for showing up to pay the door fee, now please depart so the real people can mingle.
Other barriers against “civilian” readers of alternative comics:
A) often, I see cartoonists at festival tables ignoring browsers to talk to friends. At times, the person browsing has been me, so I recognize being ignored.
B) the almost arcane internal logic of much of the material being produced. I’ve been reading this sort of comic for over a decade. Can a person strolling in off of the street find the same value? In short, who are people addressing their works to?
C) the self-deprecating facade of many cartoonists (and their works) is not encouraging. Sometimes it is sincere, sometimes it is a pose–a false modesty– but it is always ugly. Just like rappers often pump themselves up as tough guys, cartoonists often deflate themselves as weaklings. “Aw shucks, it’s not the best comic but it’s okay, I guess?” Stop that now. I’m not suggesting adopting a stance of arrogance but for goodness sake, show some spine and project a reasonable confidence to people. Make them feel glad that they stopped to talk to you.
D) for some strange reason, even though indie comics consist of a tightly-woven community that enjoys to publicly celebrate itself, the community fails to actually engage in public open discussions. This is not a matter of cartoonists being unwilling to offend one another–even supportive, complementary blogs receive little discussion, traffic or activity. Cartoonists will talk all day long on an ephemeral medium like twitter but not in a longer-lived document such as a posted essay or a blog entry. It gives the appearance to other people that NO ONE CARES. Because at the end of all of the talking and writing, a casual reader will see “entry has 0 comments.”
E) then there is the festival itself. Used to be that comic festivals were disparagingly called “glorified bake sales.” And they are. It is the same set up. We bake our brownies at home in our ovens (xerox machines), bring them to the church rec-hall (comic festival) and sit, smiling placidly as we hope for people to stroll by and buy our homemade brownies (they are made with love). I have publicly proposed a different comic festival. One where there is no selling but just exhibiting. Where people simply browse and enjoy the art and the pages. A gallery scenario more than a retail/craft-fair scenario. In my thinking, this would be a healthy balance, allowing some festivals to focus on outreach and encouraging people’s interest in comics without the urgency of “buy something, buy something.”
When I think about music, I understand recording artists’ sense of urgency about the economic strength of their business. It is their livelihood. But when I think about myself as a customer, I dream back to when I was thirteen, sitting beside the radio, taping songs onto a blank cassette to listen to on the way to school the next day. I think about song lyrics getting stuck in my head for hours at a time. I think about presetting my favorite radio station into my parents’ car. By the time I had my own pocket money and could afford to purchase CDs on my own, I was expert enough in what I liked that I was eager to buy albums that I had learned about. When I think about music, I remember us as kids, quoting lyrics at each other. I remember having impassioned debates about which recording artist was better than who. I remember reading the magazines to get insight into similar musicians.
Music is easy because it is so fluidly integrated into our lives and our culture. Just as comics used to be. Just as comics should be.