Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Comics 101

While attending college, I have had a few professors that have given assignments in which the topic is broad; if it relates to the subject matter at hand, we can write about it. I then take the opportunity to write about comics as it relates to that class’s area of study, and the professors have been cool about it, because they are absolutely awesome. I’ve written about Supergirl and Wonder Woman for my feminism class, western comics for my American Frontiers class, and submitted a power point about American depictions of Nazis in comics during WWII for a class about the history of American foreign policy. What’s even cooler than that is that I’ve usually received good grades on those papers.
The one drawback, of course, is finding scholarly essays relating to those topics. A lot of the material comes from my own memory or my private collection. Actually finding a peer-reviewed article discussing is a task bordering on the Herculean. For example, it seems academics just don’t plain write about Supergirl. Hmmph! As if there’s no scholarly merit to a girl in a mini-skirt who flies around shooting lasers out of her eyes!
Once my fit of pique over such an omission passed, I began to seriously consider the question: why isn’t there a body of criticism about comics? Certainly, there is a lot on the history of comics, but they tend to paint trends in a very broad fashion; specific stories are hardly analyzed. Similarly, there’s “The Science of Superheroes”, but again, that focuses more on how science is utilized in a particular story; it’s more an example of how to relate science in pop-culture terms to those crazy kids. Finally, there are many, many well-written essays found in blogs and online articles, but these tend not to be respected sources.
Again, I come to why? Why isn’t there a larger body of literary-style criticism as it relates to comics? Maybe because comics are seen as “kids stuff”. Even ignoring the many times history proved that untrue, that there were adult readers of comics who took them seriously (such as the Fifth Columnists who sent death threats to Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for daring to portray Captain America humiliating Hitler), does anybody really consider comics as just for kids anymore? After all, adults tend to make up the large majority of the industry’s target demographics.
Also, with the critical reception of graphic novels such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen (which was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Greatest Novels), not to mention films like Christopher Nolan’s Batman films or Iron Man, you would think that academics would say “Hmm… There’s some value here.”
Maybe the problem stems from a lack of primary sources. While I certainly have a lot of comics, I assume it’s safe to say that Professor Stuffy-Pompous in the English department does not. And thanks to the direct market, you can’t find comics at newsstands. You can only find comics at comic stores which, thanks to changing technological, social, and economic trends, often wind up going out of business.
To this I say hogwash! (Granted, I usually try to work in the word “hogwash” once a day, but still, I find it appropriate here.) First, thanks to the rise in popularity of trade paperbacks and collected editions, comics are slowly but surely filtering back into bookstores. Naturally, the stock can vary from store to store, but generally, you can find a few shelves dedicated to them. Also, thanks to the internet, you can now buy current and past issues without ever leaving your house. Those comic stores that not only continue to stay in business but thrive have set themselves up so you can order comics via their website and they ship them to you, usually for a reasonable cost. And then there’s If there’s anything you can’t find on Amazon, then I haven’t found it. Of course, that statement doesn’t make sense when you think about it, but there’s a lot of stuff on Amazon regardless. And, free shipping on orders over $25! As a cheap bastard, I approve.
And those options just cover print comics. Both Marvel and DC (and presumably other smaller publishers) offer electronic versions of comics for download. Moreover, many comics from years gone buy (primarily the Golden Age) have lapsed into public domain, and many fans have seen fit to post these online. This being the internet, there are those who see fit to post copyrighted material from current publishers online as well, but what can you do.
So, maybe the reluctance just comes down to bias. Comics are not seen to deliver the same kind of message that novels or other literary works do. Comics are certainly not the only victims of this kind of bias. Video games have struggled to prove themselves as an art form, trying to deliver powerful narratives while still allowing for a degree of interactivity, no mean feat. And yet, despite the strides they’ve made, guys like Roger Ebert are still dismissive of them. What Mr. Ebert fails to mention, however, is that the field of respected film criticism is itself relatively recent. It wasn’t until the 1970’s, with works such as Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, that film criticism really was taken seriously, and even then, I doubt there it would have taken off as a field of study if not for the home video market boom. Today, many campuses offer Film Studies course. In fact, I just read an essay discussing Keanu Reeves’ film career, and in one part a critical analysis of Point Break was offered, which you may remember as the movie in which Keanu’s hotshot FBI agent is tasked with bringing down Patrick Swayze’s ring of diabolical bank-robbing surfers. The truly amazing thing is not that the author took a film like friggin’ Point Break seriously, it’s that he had citations and quotes from other sources. Let that sink in for a moment- there’s enough of a body of criticism about the film Point Break, a film in which one of the main plot points is Keanu and Swayze skydiving, to write a long scholarly paper.
Maybe it’s the fan mentality that keeps comics from being more respectable. Let’s be honest guys and girls (mostly guys, quite frankly)- we don’t make it easy for outsiders to come in. I’d call The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy an ugly stereotype if it wasn’t so goddamned accurate. He’s large, shabby, condescending, and has no real goals outside of his hobbies. Certainly, that’s the minority, but all it takes is a few CBGs to make the rest of us fans look bad.
So, what’s the answer? Unless one were to start their own college (with blackjack! And hookers!) where Comic Studies was offered as a field of study, I’m not sure there is one. We can hope that good movies about comics get made, and that fans continue to provide critical insights about comics via forums at their disposal, but otherwise, it’s a field in which respect, if it comes at all, will be a long time in coming.