“Why Comics?,” I ask Samuel Sattin, the mind behind League of Somebodies, in my most earnest Charlie Rose-style interjection-interrogative, “Why defend comics as an idea this late in the game?”
Sattin doesn’t falter, doesn’t miss a beat. His enthusiasm carries him forward as he ponders my question before he answers. For Sattin my question is more revealing of the biases around comics, and in fact the need for a book like League of Somebodies, than any answer he can provide. Not to suggest that is answer isn’t revealing.
Given what we’d been talking about until now, I’d assumed that Sattin’s answer would be closer akin to the economics of comics. Not the economics in a traditional sense, of markets and sales figures and one publisher versus another, or one genre (superheroes) eclipsing all others. But the economics in the complexity-economics, Eric Beinhocker sense of things. The question of the suddenly explosion of material well-being that Beinhocker addresses in his 2010 award winning The Origin of Wealth. A defense of comics that, coming from Sattin, might go something like “Well, comics exist, so why attempt to dial back and scrap them as a cultural project?”
That would be a fair defense. Nothing worth having has ever been “unsummoned” from the popular imagination. But as safe and as certain as that defense might be, it’s also the most pedantic of possible defenses. Such a response to the question would seem… unfair, maybe even a slight disappointment. Especially in light of the high-powered conversation we’ve been having. Which, in just a few moments from now, will include one of the most culturally-savvy and openly sublime statements made about the Renaissance, as it applies to popculture.
But Sattin doesn’t take what Tom Waits fans can only refer to as “the Low Side of the Road.” Instead, he begins by offering a walking tour of comics’ struggle for cultural legitimacy, in which he explains what’s at stake, and why it matters as much as it does.
Sattin’s League of Somebodies, a novel rather than a graphic novel, arises at the juncture of three important popcultural struggles. First, the struggle for the cultural legitimacy of the medium. “Aren’t comicbooks just for kids?,” you may well ask, as in fact others did ask almost all throughout the medium’s history. (So many have asked, and so frequently, that publisher DC was prompted to a “Comics Aren’t Just for Kids Any Longer” campaign back in the early ‘90s). Second, there’s the struggle for the legitimacy of fandom. “Was I simply wasting my time,” you might again ask Dear Reader, “or is there something redeeming, something worthy of merit and adult attention in the medium?” And third, the struggle for the superhero genre. “Was that just a passing childhood fascination? Does Mom, or My Wife getting me to throw away my old books signal the onset of adulthood?”
What makes League of Somebodies such an important project is not that he convincingly tackles all three of these popcultural struggles (There have been giants who’ve tackled this quest, the illustrious Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, but neither of these writers have tackled the question of medium, fandom and genre simultaneously), but that Sattin tackles them simultaneously. What’s more, Sattin opts for fiction, and specifically the novel to tackle this trifecta of quests for cultural legitimacy. What’s even more, is that Sattin’s novel appears at a critical time, one in which these struggles seem to have been concluded, when in truth, the “acceptance” of comics has stalled somewhat and resulted in nouveau retreat from the cultural mainstream.
Issues of fandom and the medium’s retreat from cultural hypervisibility have already been dealt with in a number of arenas, among them Rob Salkowitz’s Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture, as well Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion, and of course on our own pages here at PopMatters. The question is one that’s tied to history and to the rise of the direct market.
Back in the days of the original New York Comic-Con (the original Comic Con and the same one that would eventually move out West to become the San Diego Comic Con), Phil Seuling sought to create a direct market for comics sales, one that guaranteed purchases for the publishers in question, in advance of printing. While this proved not only successful, but ultimately, the way in which business would be conducted in the near future, this move also ushered in the rise of Local Comics Shops, and a world where comics could no longer be purchased for a dime at newsstands. By the ‘90s comics fandom would become a cultural elite, secluded within opaque boutiques of popular culture, where rights of access were controlled through familiarity with backstory and continuity. It wasn’t something Seuling could have foreseen, or perhaps, not even something he wanted, but by the mid ‘90s, comics had diminished from mass medium to subculture, and were teetering on the brink of special interest group.
The turnabout for fandom comes in the form of the tireless work done by countless dozens of people. Not least of all the legendary Will Eisner who was perhaps the comics evangelist of note since the start of his career in the 1930s, and the greater cultural acceptance of the medium that came with the publication of the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus by Art Spiegelman. And contemporaneous with Maus, the publication of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns which in their own way forwarded not only the appreciation of the medium and the rise of fandom, but offered individuated defenses for the superhero genre as well.
Could there be more to the superhero genre than powerful heroes beating up on dastardly villains? Viewing the entire genre in such crass terms as those is probably best equated with the kind of intellectually reductionist criticism that undermines Norman Rockwell by referring to him as an “illustrator.” Both Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns did almost as much as was needed to cripple that kind of derision that paraded as criticism. The superhero genre is open to the widest possible array of sociocultural issues—from gender identities to geopolitical threat assessment to nuclear deterrence to post-traumatic growth—and it’s a genre that operates best when it appears in tandem with the future-oriented reading mechanics of comics.
Sattin’s novel about the latest scion of a fictive line of Jewish men who have taken intergenerational steps towards growing a superhero, who have embraced a place within broader society yet remain true to older traditions (which rightly sounds eerily like a comment on comics reading culture of the ‘90s) deconstructs more than just the superhero genre or the comics medium—it begins to deconstruct all of popular culture, and the way in which high art always seems to borrow from popculture.
Asking my Charlie Rose style interrupt question, I expected a very different kind of answer—one that tend towards a pedantic defense of comics as somehow preexistent and therefore not needing to deleted from the collective experience of the cultural mainstream. I didn’t get that. After a walking tour of the road we as comics readers have collectively travelled thus far, what Samuel Sattin offers is simply sublime—an argument that draws back the line of time and casts the question of popculture versus high art in terms of world history.
“If the cultural politics of the Renaissance had been followed through to completion, and the political concerns of Medievalism had never needed to be appeased,” Sattin states, “you and I would never be speaking about the validity of popular culture.”