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With comics now accepted into the cultural fold, is there anything left to contend for?

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With comics now accepted into the cultural fold, with the full legitimation of the medium as a unique artform, is there anything left to contend for? Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for Maus the harrowing account of his father’s trails in Auschwitz. Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen stands as the most direct visual record of the bombing of Hiroshima. Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde make for startling first-person journalistic narratives of the twentieth century’s war-torn places. But while comics has become acceptable, legitimated even, while the ghost of Will Eisner can rest easy tonight, the medium has also become irreconcilable with its roots in the cultural mainstream.


Cynically perhaps, there’s Hushmoney to be had here. Pulitzer’s are not simply doled out to every writer worth reading. But a comicbook writer is now numbered among that elite. Katsuhiro Otomo’s post-apocalyptic epic, Akira won a Sci-Fi Grand Prix. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman short story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” became the first comics to win a World Fantasy Award. Due in no small part to its radical inversion of expectations by wrestling with the Shakespearean play of the same name in its comics text. The accolades and the awards keep piling up. In return for this cultural ascendancy, what’s asked of the longtime fan, the fan from before the direct market, the Kid In The Candy-store armed with a pocketful of dimes for a dozen or so comic books ... what’s asked of that Kid is to simply remain quiet.


Nineties logic is not easy, but it is simple. Superheroes are something garish. Harsh, blunt and crude, they are treated as such by the cinema. Comics for its own part, attempts a cultural divorce from the superhero genre. Sure, comics can be culturally relevant, just no more men in tights. This profound thing that two kids-grown-older from the Midwest invented when they first conceived of Superman, this strange marriage between a heroism of storytelling that can redeem an angst-ridden, socially-bullied teenage reader with a medium that absolutely requires emotional involvement to animate its tale, this thing was at an end. Superheroes would never be legitimated, at least not in the way comics could be. The polite thing to do now, was to turn your back on that dream. To relegate it to the trash-heap of failed childhood schemes and to bask in the warm, soothing glow of that Pulitzer. Time to grow up again.


I Wanted To Believe


The crest of the comics wave had begun to break just around the time Chris Carter’s X-Files was back on the cultural agenda. A touchstone for the ‘90s, production company Ten Thirteen’s number one show would ring its curtain down with an impact crater of unprecedented upheavals. Longtime series lead, David Duchovny would reprise his role as Agent Fox Mulder, after two seasons’ absence. He would be closing out a decade-long crusade to bring shadowy conspirators within government to light and make them answer for hiding knowledge of extra-biological entities.


Mulder’s Quest in many ways mirrored comics own quest for a cultural legitimacy of the medium. Why not? Both seemed just causes. Both seemed to be trapped in a cultural labyrinth of being perpetually forestalled. Both seemed tantalizingly just beyond their dreamers’ grasp. The two causes, Mulder’s fictive hunt for aliens hidden by an untrustworthy government, and comics’ credible search for cultural legitimation, for acknowledgement as a unique artform, seemed to sync in just the right way at just the right time in the popular imagination.


Scott McCloud—the phenomenal mind behind Understanding Comics—is perhaps the most eloquent of comics’ ardent supporters. His seven-years-in-the-making follow-up, Reinventing Comics, would make the most passionate of arguments. That he was a cartoonist. That his life was in comics. That he really wasn’t at all interested in retooling his intellectual properties as movies, or as videogames. That he could really care less about speculating in comics as a means of building a stock portfolio. He worked in comics, and his financial security should come from the comics industry. Dark fantasy guru Neil Gaiman would praise McCloud’s work as a ‘manifesto’, and laud its purity of vision as a polemic meant to change the world. Comics should always be about comics. This impassioned plea seemed so fragile in the days before 2005’s Batman Begins, and so vital, and so necessary. Our Candle In The Dark, as astrophysicist Carl Sagan would have had it. Something to keep us all going in the lean times.


On the surface of it, McCloud’s plea is a rational response, even a courageous response to the cultural decimation of a medium. Who would speak for comics? It is Kantian in its elegant simplicity. Comics as a medium deserves its interior spaces. It deserves adoration for the thing it is. But like the great Immanuel Kant, McCloud glimpses at an interiority even as it is beginning to fade from view. Supporting McCloud’s vision of a comics for comics, is a host of cultural assumptions. Given the radical tear-away cultural politics of the ‘90s, McCloud’s passion seems perfectly situated as the voice cultural professionalization of the medium. That comics itself should remain segregated from the cultural mainstream.


But isn’t the best measure of an icon, its enduring and wide-ranging cultural impact on the popular imagination? Isn’t the dream of any creator to have has broad an impact as possible. The move from comicstrips to comicbooks was for Siegel and Schuster, entirely pragmatic. It meant a broader audience, and an increased revenue stream. For comics publishers, this move meant something else entirely. It meant an economic legitimation. A Final Victory that would ensure their own segregation from the newspaper industry.


This search for cultural independence which ultimately ends in cultural exclusion, is a product of Second Gen comics publishers, as Gerard Jones reminds us in his deeply moving Men of Tomorrow. Wanting to remain segregate is what we were taught we always wanted. Unsurprisingly, it is the same thing comicbook publishers always wanted, to distinguish themselves from the newspapermen they once hoped they would be.


But this task of would require a Great Work of cultural unplugging. One that would eventually end in an impassioned plea for the segregation of comics the medium, from the superhero genre that popularized it. If on the cusp of the millennium, The Kid In The Candy-store was ready to forego the superhero genre in order to redeem, it was because this false choice was engineered into the industry at its inception. The ongoing skirmishes of the 1930s and 40s that eventually ended in the establishment of Second Generation comics publishing houses, would eventually spillover into mainstream culture in an unprecedented way.


Agent Mulder’s infamous poster depicting a UFO in clear view hanging above the treetops, with the tagline “I Want to Believe”, would need a radical revision before it could be adopted by comics people on the cusp of the millennium. The X Files and comics had parted cultural ways. For comics people, it was no longer a question of that steady, familiar suffering of waiting for a dream to come true. For all the cultural legitimacy that flooded comics people by the millennium, the feelings were wholly different. This was a question of That Kid having to refuse superheroes. If there was a tagline for this wave of emotion, it would read “I Wanted to Believe”.

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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