Comics, Art for the Idiosyncratic

by Shaun Huston

11 August 2009

With little pressure to conform to storytelling or visual norms, comics are rife with artists like Jason Shiga, who bends and splices genres, and whose aesthetic sense is readily identifiable as his own.

One of the best books I’ve read this year is Jason Shiga’s Bookhunter (Sparkplug Comics, 2007). The joy and pleasure I get from this work starts with the art; perfectly expressive cartoon figures, richly detailed backgrounds, and shades of brown for color that give the book a vintage feel, like sepia or black and white in film.

There’s also the narrative, which is a crazy mashup of period piece (1970s Oakland, California), police procedural, and action-thriller. There’s also the twist: the police in question work for the public library, and are on the trail of a thief who stole a bible from the rare book room of the Oakland Library.

Shiga fills the panels of Bookhunter with images of ‘70s library technology—card catalogs, microfilm readers, databanks on magnetic tape – that, for some, will bring back memories of days past and, for others, will be windows into a seemingly alien, analog and proto-digital world. While reading Bookhunter, one realizes it could only have been a comic.

cover art

Book Hunter

US: May 2007

Compared to other popular visual and storytelling media, comics are an exceptional enabler of the idiosyncratic, or the airing of peculiarly individual narratives, interests, and obsessions. This is not a technical matter—in purely formal terms Bookhunter could be a movie or TV series – but rather this is a question of where different media fit into contemporary cultural economies and along the array of artistic practice.

One reason that comics are so well-suited to the articulation of singularly odd and innovative narrative visions is that the barriers to entry are low, not just in comparison to film and television, but in absolute terms, as well. At base, all you need is 1) a tool for drawing and 2) a surface for drawing on. Ideally, both will be made for easy reproduction. As a general matter, pencil and paper will do the trick.

A talent for drawing is necessary, of course, but because comics are also a narrative form, one where story, character, and dialogue matter as much as their visualization, simple figures in interesting situations or conversations can make for a good comic. Anders Nilsen’s artwork, for example, seems almost designed to prompt reactions like, “Hey, my kid could do that,” and while fair enough, that same kid is unlikely to draw two men, one with a scribbled out head, in a satirical dialogue about semiotics. More to the point, comics are a medium where it hardly matters if, in fact, your kid could do that.

The low barriers to entry not only mean that just about anyone can become a writer and artist, but also that just about anyone can actually afford to do so, too. While digital technologies have made filmmaking and television production more accessible than ever, working on a shoestring in those media is still a much different proposition than it is in comics where, again, pencil and paper will suffice. Financially, comics can sustain idiosyncrasy much more readily than movies or TV.

For the artist, such affordability means that that there are virtually no limits to what one can do visually or narratively. For example, the opening set piece in Bookhunter would require a significant investment to stage for a movie or for television, but here it doesn’t cost anything beyond the initial investment in paper, pencil, and ink.

The relatively low financial stakes in comics further means that small audiences are rarely a reason why a book won’t get made. It also means that there are fewer pressures to conform to storytelling or visual norms. Comics are rife with artists like Jason Shiga who bend and splice genres, and whose aesthetic sense is readily identifiable as his own.

Even the biggest publishers with the biggest titles can afford to indulge their creators. While this is not always a good thing, letting artists run wild in the corporate garden can produce deliciously creative results like Warren Ellis’ and Stuart Immonen’s Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. (Marvel Comics, 2006-2008), which, despite the lack of creator ownership, is as singular as any small press book. In film and television, because the pressures to find and categorize the potential audience are more intense, works that defy such pigeonholing are more difficult to get made and then, to get distributed.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t artists making highly individual works in film and TV, of course, but the ability to be productive in that way in those media is more circumscribed than it is in comics, where the creator can set her/himself up at home, writing and drawing in her/his off-hours, and making copies for distribution at the local copy shop (or, even, individual handmade copies).

That image of the lone artist working at home points to another reason for the amenability of comics to idiosyncratic art: while the medium often is collaborative, it in no way needs to be. The digital technologies that make film and TV production more accessible financially also make it technically possible for a single individual to be their own studio, but that is not, I think, the best way to work in those media. Even at their most stripped down, the skill sets required to make film and TV are different enough that few can manage to work on their own in an effective and efficient way.

The collective nature of authorship in the production of narrative moving image works makes those forms interesting and exciting, but it also makes them fundamentally different from comics, where the individual creator can, in fact, exercise their particular demons and fixations without having to compromise her/his vision with others.

When considering distribution, the differences between comics, film, and television begin to blur. In all three, reaching a wider audience still largely requires business, and possibly corporate, partners. However in all three, there are increasing opportunities for creators to retain creative control over their work while relying on others for distribution. Individual artists in all of these forms can also self-publish online, but in all cases the internet is a noisy, crowded, and cluttered place that poses challenges for any independent producer to navigate and get noticed.

When getting down to the most basic ability to share one’s work with others, the simplicity of comics production is matched by the simplicity of distribution. I can carry a stack of comics with me and hand them out, or sell them, to whomever I find that shares my interests or is intrigued by my work, and I can do this with relative ease and minimal cost, as compared to comparably handing out a film or TV show, both of which require additional technology to be seen, not excluding costlier production. In much the same way as individual artists can control the production of their work in comics, so too do individual readers control their experience in ways that is not quite possible with moving image media.

The potential for such individual exchanges is why comics conventions, especially those that cater to individual creators and small publishers, work as effectively they do for writers, artists, and readers alike (in fact, I purchased my copy of Bookhunter at this year’s Stumptown Comics Festin Portland, Oregon).

The apparent simplicity, and sometimes crudeness, of comics makes it easy to look on the form as necessarily lacking in artistic value. What this impression misses is the creative latitude and freedom that the medium grants to artists. One of the truths hidden in the “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” cliché is that comics are a medium wherein it is possible, common even, for an artist’s vision, in all of its idiosyncrasy, to flower.

As much as I love film and television, I know that I will find more unique and singular works in the catalogs of small and independent comics presses than I will in theaters or on TV.

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