1. A delighted “I used to read them all the time when I was a kid,” or
2. A surprised, “I didn’t know they still publish those!”
Similarly, civilian friends (i.e. people outside the comics business and/or those who haven’t read a comic book since discovering the opposite sex…otherwise known as the majority of the human race) will have the same response to some piece of comics news that makes the popular press–the latest being DC’s “outing” of the Alan Scott Green Lantern. All this proves, of course, is that comics, once available and therefore visible on the racks of tens of thousands of newsstands, drugstores, and candy stores all across the country have simply disappeared from the public consciousness in direct correlation with their dwindling availability anywhere other than comics specialty shops which, after all, civilians do not frequent. Ever!
But while comic books themselves have all but disappeared from view, the comic book sensibility has actually experienced an exponential increase in the mass media consciousness. That sensibility dominates the movies and television not only in product taken directly from comics as the source material (Avengers, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Batman, Men In Black, Walking Dead, etcetera and so forth), but in product whose form and direction are direct swipes of the comic gestalt, such as Full Moon, True Blood, Lost, Heroes, or most anything produced and/or written by the likes of J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Jeph Loeb, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar, Kevin Smith (sorry, just typing his name makes me throw up a little in my mouth), and similar creators, many of whom make frequent crossings between comics, TV, and films
Simply put, comic books, which once sold in the hundreds of thousands, now sell in the tens of thousand, if they’re lucky. A friend who has spent as much time in this business as have I was horrified to learn that a new title he was working on from one of the larger independent publishers had gotten orders of just over nine thousand copies…and the publisher was pleased with this number. While it’s true that Avengers has earned over $1,000,000,000 in ticket sales, Amazing Spider-Man $150,000,000-ish in its first week, and Dark Knight Rises will likely fall somewhere in between…well, I don’t write blockbuster movies or television shows. Neither do most of my friends and colleagues.
We write and/or draw comic books.
Which brings me to an article published a couple of weeks back (June 27) in the New York Times, “Super-Dreams of an Alternate World Order, ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’ and the Modern Comic Book Movie,” in which Times movie critics Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott engage in a dialogue about the current domination of the superhero movie.
Dargis points out the almost evolutionary inevitability of comics acceptance and alliance with film: “There was a time when motion pictures were considered disreputable too, bad for the moral and psychological health of not just (vulnerable) children but also (weak) women. Just like movies, comic books have undergone cycles of popularity, denunciation and legitimization that reflect larger shifts in mass and popular culture. Wertham’s anti-comic message was one facet in the high culture versus popular culture debates, one that was also expressed by a series of essays Edmund Wilson wrote, beginning in 1944, for The New Yorker, the first being “Why Do People Read Detective Stories?” He was focusing on a popular genre, which he characterized as a waste of time but also, amusingly, did read himself. ‘Friends, we represent a minority, but Literature is on our side,’ Wilson wrote. ‘There is no need to bore ourselves with this rubbish.’”
It’s Scott’s response, however, that is the crux of the biscuit: “But the kind of condescending dismissal practiced by Wilson and the cultural panic expressed by Wertham exist nowadays almost entirely as straw men. A critic who voices skepticism about a comic book movie—or any other expensive, large-scale, boy-targeted entertainment—is likely to be called out for snobbery or priggishness, to be accused of clinging to snobbish, irrelevant standards and trying to spoil everyone else’s fun.
“What the defensive fans fail or refuse to grasp is that they have won the argument. Far from being an underdog genre defended by a scrappy band of cultural renegades, the superhero spectacle represents a staggering concentration of commercial, corporate power. The ideology supporting this power is a familiar kind of disingenuous populism. The studios are just giving the people what they want! Foolproof evidence can be found in the box office returns (of The Avengers): a billion dollars! Who can argue with that?”
But I’m left wondering, Mr. Scott: Just what the hell exactly is it that comic books have won?