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Comics: Being In On The Joke

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They are at the cutting edge of modern storytelling.

They are where off-the-page pencil, pen, ink and splatter layouts in forced perspective may collide with Photoshop-fueled colors to render a Sterankoesque splash page in full bleed. The place where words and pictures in concert, performed by the hands of free-form stylists, jam on a near-boundless stage with only the edges of human imagination dictating its limits –an endless scat of words, color and line.

They are the found in basements, closets, attics, landfills, auction houses and archival Mylar sleeves. They are the stuff that childhood dreams are made of -often outgrown and cast aside by Little Jackie Paper’s in bloom, or sent to the undignified and not uncommon fate of the trashcan –often during Mom’s spring-cleaning.

It’s fair to say that nearly all of the people who will read this column know it’s about comic books after reading the first two sentences. We know because we speak the language of comic’s culture.

We know the breadth of Jack Kirby’s palette fusing with Stan Lee’s character dynamics, sense of his heroes’ human frailties and their place in a shared universe. We’ve read the greatest Batman story ever told. We’ve been treated to the flawless light sourcing and textures of Neal Adams and the realism, perspective and scale of the paintings of Alex Ross. We’ve read and have been enthralled by the narrative depth of an inspired Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore story and the tales of the classic Marvel and DC characters, who modern, younger comic fans are familiar with either directly, after a fashion, or due to a direct rip-off. We’ve marveled at the Children of the Atom and the have learned the high cost of living from Death. We know of the worlds to be explored on stapled, ink-stained pieces of paper. We know something the outsiders don’t. We know comics. We “get” comics.

We’re in on the joke. And it’s a hell of a good one.

Jokes are a part of human culture dating back before recorded history. This is known because some of the worlds’ oldest recorded history contains them. They do serve a cultural purpose. Their function is essentially to aid us in our struggle in life. Jokes are our observations and what we experience in the human condition as filtered through memory and pragmatism and distilled into sly and symbolic stories and/or musings of what we believe the truths and lies of our world, and our place in it, to be, or not be. Once created (although ever-evolving), jokes are passed along for others to identify with (or not) in a myriad of ways, oftentimes for generations. Sometimes it’s the punch line that gets us and at other times it’s in the telling. And that’s the thing about jokes. They have to be told. They have a lifespan. If a joke is no longer told or ceases to adapt to suit societies needs, one may assume its observations are no longer relevant to the culture’s issues it commented on.


Comic books in American culture are a bastardized source of tales tall and legends of God-like titans clashing overhead, underfoot and in the teen’s bedroom next door in an ongoing struggle of good vs. evil. They are tales with universal truths and classical archetypes in world-shattering situations with dire consequences, or just as often a story of struggles of the mortal variety. They have confronted and commented on all aspects of the human condition from the holocaust in set in a metaphoric world of cat and mouse-size scale, to a single hearts desire writ large.

Comic books have produced some original, thought-provoking stories, and particularly in recent decades, concepts of startling originality and depth both in and out of the superhero genre. Meanwhile, they have been largely ignored by the news media and the majority of the population that seem to view them as Saturday morning cartoons on paper with staples -simple morality plays with capes for small minds, and no more important than the newspaper Sunday Funnies. Perhaps the perception that comics are all about webbing, hammers, batarangs and those who wield them in the name of vigilante justice is a result of a proliferation of male power-fantasy comics after Wertham took his best shot at destroying the comic book industry and horror comics subsequently took a powder. And let’s face it, even with the majority of comic book companies publishing outside the auspices of the Comics Code Authority, comic books still predominantly feature grown men and women running around in graphic-emblazoned spandex bodysuits and masks for Christ’s sake. That’s not exactly something that screams cultural relevance -at least not on the surface anyway. Pop cultured junkies aren’t exactly known for delving much beyond the surface of things. Look at MTV. They’re not watching The Watchmen. They’re just looking at it.

So it hasn’t exactly taken an intellectual leap over a tall building in a single bound to come to some of the conclusions the layman press has. For example, while reviewing the X-Men movie, a reporter for People magazine wondered why they tried to include so much emotional content if it was just a comic book movie. Is this ignorance on the part of the reviewer? Undoubtedly. But comic’s culture hasn’t exactly done a lot to otherwise enlighten the media’s widely held belief that comic books are essentially for kids.

Kid stuff?

Not so in France, where comics artists like Moebius and American expatriate Robert Crumb are national treasures, or in Japan, where Manga comics can sell several million copies a week and their biggest creators are cultural Gods. Comics are a popular entertainment in Europe and not branded with the stigma of being merely “kid stuff”, as they largely are in America --Old World culture and all that.

The average indulger of pop culture (damn near everyone) may not even know of the comic book world beyond that of superheroes, where modern and more avant-garde literary genres are represented. From the highly personal work of Harvey Pekar, to the simultaneously harsh and hilarious Tarantinoesque riffs on edgy, explosive characters in Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon’s Preacher, to the varied and thought-provoking tales of Drawn and Quarterly and Acme Novelty Company, comics run the genre gamut.

There are those who would posit that a reading of Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell or Los Bros. Hernandez’ Palomar tales would trump any argument that the “kid stuff” stigma attached to comics is because of the inclusion of pictures to go along with the written narrative. The argument being substantially rooted in the assumption that pictures assist the unimaginative in visualizing the story.

Comics may point the reader in a direction visually. It is however, up to one’s imagination to interpret or decide the mood, pace, motion, elapsed time etc. not just within the panels, but between the panels as well. An artist may use anywhere from 1 to 50 panels, or more to demonstrate the same span of time. Often an average comic may require the reader to make several different subconscious decisions interpreting rhythm and pace etc., due to time and motion progression between panels, sometimes without dialogue assistance. All of this of course, is in addition to employing standard tools of literary interpretation like plot, structure, character motivation and the like. If the story is done well, a comic reader makes the interpretive decisions required to immerse themselves in the intended mood and atmosphere of a story with virtually no effort. Once submerged in the characters’ space, the feel of the story becomes apparent from the characterizations, visual and written text and subtext. In short, reading comics requires an understanding of the language of the comic book art form itself, accomplished only by diving in and reading them.

It seems that for the most part, American society appears to consider reading story narrative and dialogue while viewing a drawn, choreographed, accompanying image that is motionless, to be a storytelling art of lesser import than one consisting of prose, animation or a captured moving image with live actors, sound effects, spoken dialogue and music. Comic books remain more and more a niche entertainment catering to a specialized audience as opposed to the grasp on nearly everyone’s wallet the film and video game industries enjoy. Poor distribution of product seems to be the primary culprit industry pundits point to, citing a lack of exposure to new readers due to traditionally formatted comics’ being primarily available in specialty shops instead of a variety of outlets ranging from 7-11, to the corner market, to Barnes and Noble –which currently sells only Graphic Novels and collected editions.

There are also opinions that with sales as low as they are, perhaps comic books have priced themselves out of the kid market and a little informed reevaluation of what is now considered the average target audience is needed before the bulwarks of the industry seize and sputter. That audience has evidently shrunk as well as grown up. With recent data indicating that the average age of a comic book reader is now 25 (about a dozen older than the target audience of a decade ago), it stands to reason that the vast majority of teens are spending their precious entertainment dollars elsewhere. 25-year olds and up have the disposable income to indulge their comic jones, and being older, their tastes have grown up as well. In recent years, creators (particularly writers) have more than ever been able to placate their adult literary whims and sensibilities by developing more mature and thought-provoking tales, with and without spandex-clad protagonists. This may be indicative of a maturing of the comic book audience as a whole.

There is a new audience for comics and it appears to be an adult one presumably capable of communicating its passion for the art form to functional society and indoctrinating new readers into what comics have to offer. They’re in on the joke.

There is something inherently cool about being privy to something special that others are not: Knowing how to score a baseball game in score-sheet shorthand, seeing a sneak preview of a highly-anticipated film two weeks before it comes out in wide release, or an intimate understanding of the unique vernacular of any given hobby. However, the coolest part about being “in” on something as cool as comic story-telling is eventually sharing it with someone and seeing his or her reaction.

Yep. Comic book fans are in on one hell of a joke all right, but we’re not really sharing it with outsiders. We haven’t exactly taken the story-telling medium we hold so dear and promoted it through brilliant feats of our own raconteurism. We’re delivering it as more of an aside. Treating the joke as a mere throwaway …like mom did.

We are not gathered around the water cooler to discuss the latest Katsushiro Otomo masterpiece in microsurgical/analytical terms to impress that cute co-worker like we do a marginal summer movie blockbuster. We are in chat rooms with others well versed in the arcana of the subject, arguing over whether or not the last issue of Battle Chasers came out 6 months late or 7.

Not enough of us are learning the literary and film tastes of friends and family and pushing graphic novels in one or more of the genres they enjoy their way, telling them there will be a quiz afterward, and that we will pester them to read it if need be. A little tough comic book love never hurt anybody.

When’s the last time you read a comic book in an airport or on a flight? I was 11 (my first flight) and it was Batman #243, the issue that featured part of a classic Neal Adams Ra's Al Ghul story –the one with the bound-together-by-wrists knife-fight between Batman and a Ra’s’ protégé on the cover. It was my introduction to the Batman and superhero comics. I haven’t read a comic book on a plane since my early teens, or anywhere in public for that matter –unless you count San Diego Con.

I’m as guilty as the next fan. But I’m making efforts to change since I returned to reading them about 10 years ago. I’m telling the joke.

A few lapsed fans where I work, who, like myself had outgrown comics in favor of girls in their teens, chatted me up about the current state of the art form, and it has been a thrill to see now-adult former regular readers of comic books turn on to a work like Marvels, Batman: The Killing Joke, or even something unfamiliar to them like Sandman or A Distant Soil and have them ask for more. I have also taken the liberty of giving my dentist comic books and Ultimate Marvel Magazine for the kids to read in his waiting area as an introduction to the form. Friends I have known for years that had never before read comics find themselves glad that they caved in to my pleadings to read a comic in a genre of fiction I know they like. Now they will try whatever I give them. There is something for everybody in comic book fiction. Does he watch The Soprano’s religiously? Give him Punisher. She likes Marion Zimmer Bradley and Roger Zelazny? Throw a Gaiman Graphic Novel at her to read and see if it sticks, or a CrossGen publication. Are they into intellectual minutiae? Howzabout a little Jimmy Corrigan?

Word of mouth carries a lot of weight in this world and everyone enjoys a good joke. If you don’t, check your pulse. While the comics industry may not be in a permanent downward spiral, it is certainly in a state of transition. With the recent Editorial Glasnost towards more adult, gonzo creativity, and away from the Comics Code, Marvel has signaled to DC that it’s time to note the average age of the current audience and grow up. Unless DC wants to become a mere training-ground for kids looking to graduate exclusively to eclectic compilations, graphic novels and more mature hero books like Rising Stars, Astro City and Alias, they’ll listen up. The creator playing field and those whose money they covet grow closer together in age every year, but new readers must still be gathered from the young. Marvel and DC both either do publish, or will be publishing animation series adaptations and comics of original tales more suited to youngsters. In addition, there are Manga collections and other publications for kids to go along with Power Puff Girls, Pokemon and the like. If rumors prove true and Joe Quesada actually succeeds in getting J.K. Rowling’s name on comics in some creative or editorial capacity, it could very well be a benefit to the industry as a whole, as her name would definitely “put butts in seats” as Quesada himself might say it. Many complain that it would be butts in seats viewing only Marvel product, but we all know you have to start somewhere. My first exposure to superheroes may have been Batman, but I am an old fashioned Marvel Zombie first and foremost.

So the joke is being told to some extent. Comics seem to be getting some much-needed media exposure, publishers seem to be doing more to promote product and there seem to be hints of optimism among industry observers. However, at this point in the evolution of the comic book industry, the joke needs to be told a lot. Fans need to be seen reading comics (next time I fly, I’m reading Watchmen again, as it’s a long, excellent read and therefore a pleasant time-killer when stuck in coach) and sharing tales with our co-workers, friends, relatives and acquaintances -the unusual suspects. If someone seems dumbfounded when you tell him or her you read comic books, inform them that the artistic level in the industry is higher than ever before due to the influx of talent of people trained for careers in the graphic arts field. Note that some comic books are being written by Hollywood level (and put a positive spin on that) wordsmiths and best-selling novelists and that “oh, by the way, the guys that made a little movie called The Matrix (you may have heard of it) got their start writing for comic books.” Tell them that many of the most popular and entertaining movies of recent years, and many to come, have begun as comic books and been made by people who read comics. Tell them that comic books are more than just “paper movies” and have their own unique language and rules. Tell them that the only limits on a comic book stories are the collective parameters of the writers, artists and readers’ imaginations, and the amount of paper and ink in the world.

Tell the joke.

Once told, a great joke makes the rounds like The Flash on Crank. Everyone tells two friends and they tell two friends and so on, and so on etc., just like the pretty blonde in the Breck shampoo commercial of yore.

So anyway, this Caped Crusader and his ward walk into a gay bar…

Copyright 2001 Mark A. Bittmann


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