We've got Marshall McLuhan to thank for reminding us that the medium is the message. But what happens when the mode of production for the medium changes? Comics mavens have been trying to answer this question since the '90s, perhaps none more diligently than Top Shelf publisher, Chris Staros.
Here's one of those crime scenes I return to frequently:
In Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative that Eisner is at his most seductive. Bemoaning the loss of daily news strip comics, Eisner suggests, "There is a major structural difference between newspaper storytelling strips and comic books. In comic books, stories come to a definite conclusion, a tradition that began when the early comic books advertised that each story was complete. A book is free-standing whereas newspapers are connected to the pattern of daily life. In a daily continuity, therefore, the storyteller need only segue into the next adventure. [Milton] Caniff understood that the story had to emulate the seamless flow of life's experiences and that the human adventure doesn't have neat endings. His work shows us how to tell a story that could make itself part of the reader's daily life".
And here's one that's harder and harder to get to each day (I'm not sure if it's because of attrition, or contrition; because of the thousands of necessary surrenders that come with growing older, or having had, almost since birth, a primal sense of alienation that requires popculture to help carve out a persona that makes you at least half the way to presentable to others):
"Naturally I was interested, because it seemed to me then, as it does now," the Great Lester Bangs writes in "Richard Hell" (which appears in January '78's Gig), "that the only questions worth asking today, are whether humans are going to have emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no."
And finally, somewhere I haven't reached yet, and perhaps shouldn't ever:
"Mom saw me!" As written in his journal the day Harry Houdini invited his mother to observe his first attempt to escape to a chained-up urn tossed into a raging Illinois river. Houdini survived, but y'know, he could have been inviting his mom to watch him die.
If these sentiments seem like disparate threads, it's because they are. But taken in that exact sequence, one after the next, they do seem to paint the bleakest of pictures about how comics as an industry has been lessened since the 90s and consequently diminished us all. It begins with Will Eisner's simple elision of the ambition of comics coming out of the Golden Age (implied in his bemoaning of comics no longer being woven into the texture of everyday life), it wends its way through a medium's struggle to grapple the Greater Things (the same which Handel exhorts us to sing of in his inscription to the libretto for Messiah, cannae majora and all that), and finally lands in a place where great personal danger is reimagined as performance art.
Or to put it another way. The usual narrative of comics goes something like this. In the 90s, things were better. In the 90s pitched battles waged almost since the industry's beginning, battles for the creative soul of the medium and creator's rights, were fought once again, but this time won. In the 90s, we could imagine "laying the foundation-stones of heaven, here on Earth," as Grant Morrison once wrote. Because on the very next day after the 90s, we could imagine comics as cultural legitimate. And then, right then, it would be the shortest possible road to a genuine comics Shakespeare, or Goethe, or Kurosawa. But of course it turns out to be none of those, it turns out to be Milton. Because the ugly prospect of corporatism rears its ugly head when Marvel and DC offer soft (the megaevent 52), then hard (Iron Man onwards), then hard again (the new 52) soft (Marvel NOW!) reboots of their various properties. One quick turn, and it's Paradise Lost rather than Dante's Comedia.
It's a neat and tidy narrative. The kind that everyone can buy into. But what can I say? Don't believe the hype, I guess? Especially if the hype comes with a three drink minimum before you can even make it in by the door.
So here's my thing. Greatness may give you goosebumps, but it's not all there is. There's also the infinite palette of human experience. For everything that there is, there's also everything else that it needs to coexist with, side by side. The well-worn dream of the 90s that with cultural legitimacy now in hand comics would soon be standing on the cusp a new kind of tomorrow, is also an ethnic cleansing of the soul. And the singleminded pursuit of excellence to the absolute exclusion of everything else, is a chump's game. It's the equivalent of acts of suicide as performance art. What you want is not only the greatest. What you want is everything, right there, side by side with everything else. Even if that concept of everything else begins to include an encroaching corporatism.
That seems a hard ask, an impossible highwire to walk. I'm still intimidated at the prospect of having to discern the good from the great even in the rapid-prototyped dusklands that scan as today's industrialized comics.
Which is why I am unapologetically in awe of what Chris Staros has achieved with Top Shelf. From ABC, American Born Chinese to Blankets to Homeland Directive (Rob, two years ago Homeland Directive read like cutting edge political fiction, now it reads like journalism) to March to Wizzywyg to God is Disappointed in You, Chris has walked that highwire like it might just be as wide and as firm as Route 66. Every decision Chris and the team have made seems to place "the right rune," as Adrienne Rich might put it, upon the rescue of comics as an industry (not a medium) from the cusp of greatness, and offer instead something infinitely more important--the promise of comics once again on the cusp of ubiquity.
And if you don't believe me, now's the time to check out Top Shelf for yourself. There annual Massive $3 Sale kicks off today and runs for the next two weeks until September 27th.