Utility.

2 Nov
By Darryl Ayo

Comics’ survival hinges on people recognizing the validity of the art form. Therefore: comics are doomed. Tradition is no way to attract new customers; tradition can only appeal to the already-loyal. One cannot succeed in winning new attention by drawing against a sense of nostalgia that one’s audience does not share.

Comics found their strongest growth of the past decade by appealing to something else entirely–appealing to utility. Comics are art and they are entertainment and they are culture but they are also valuable tools. For educating young readers, for disseminating political ideas, for provoking laughter. If you are trying to tell people that comics are important because the field produced terrific work in the past, then you are appealing to the wrong emotions.

From now on, when spreading the gospel of comics to the unconverted (because let’s face it, a lot of you are going to do this despite it being a strain on your personal relationships), make the case for comics being indispensable.

I looked at the comics in the New York Daily News today and then turned to the sports section. Sports writers are really funny. Then it occurred to me–not all of a sudden, but gradually–people NEED sports. Sports in our society fill the emotional role that fighting, war and physical feats traditionally fill. The idea of sports as a sort of civilized proxy for warfare to satisfy our bloodlust isn’t a new idea, obviously. Come on! That’s not even the revelation! The revelation is this: comic-people have long cast their eyes downward and accepted that “comics aren’t news,” and seem to have settled into a bewildered happiness to even be allowed in the building. But sports really aren’t “news” either. I mean, they ARE, but only because of society’s continued interest in them. Fortunately, society is interested in laughter as well. So anybody seeking to argue for the importance of the comic medium should probably get serious about jokes.  Most of the comics that we champion as emblematic of our creative culture’s significance don’t come near to satisfying the primal concerns of the average person who has not been pre-conditioned toward comics. Except funny comics.

Yes, this is a follow up to last week’s post.

Comics being funny–not artistic or intellectual–is what propelled them to their early success one hundred years ago. All of the other stuff–artistic merit, intellectual worthiness–wasn’t what made people select one newspaper over the other. Comics’ early selling point was their ability to rouse a strictly physical/emotional response in readers, which in turn served to encourage the habitual purchase of a particular publication.

Like it or not, this pictorial storytelling format started out as a way to tell jokes and sell newspapers. The humor brought people to the table and in the process it generated interest in this strange medium of expression. It seems, however, that this interest has yielded more comics for comics sake, to a predictably diminishing audience. It’s not difficult to see where that audience has gone. At the onset, comics gave readers something to laugh to, something to look at. Over time, cartoonists became self-conscious about the laughter (people were laughing WITH them though) and retreated from the public square. Hiding in specialty publications sold in specialty stores did not save comics; it damned them. Instead of fighting against shrinking publication size and tightening editorial restrictions, cartoonists retreated from the newspapers. Not in terms of established cartoonists, but rather new generations of cartoonist.

Today, cartoonists still flood comic syndicates with submission packets and pitches but many others have contented themselves with obscurity and guaranteed publication in the minuscule and shrinking comic book Direct Market.

I look at a thing like Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve #12 and its lead feature “Hortisculpture,” and I see that it is brilliant and satirical and well-crafted and bitterly funny throughout. Then I have to ask myself “what went wrong with the world that this fellow probably never even considered pitching a daily?”

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