Over the last few years there’s been so much upper middle class blather about comics as fine art that it’s overshadowed a far more significant development: the embrace of manga by the West’s 13 year old girls. In the not too distant future, a point will come where the vast majority of the mythic New Readers ages 13 through 25 shall have come to the form with no point of reference to traditions that have dominated in the Occident.
A few weeks ago, I attended a panel about the Future of Comics at the Los Angeles Public Library. Each of the guests proved to be thoughtful and concerned with comics but I came away with the impression that, with one exception, no one had any clue about the coming sea change. Let me put it this way: Daniel Clowes, an artist I admire very much, owes an enormous debt to the work of R. Crumb. Crumb, in turn, owes an enormous debt to the funny book animals of his youth, which in turn owe an enormous debt to early newspaper strips. Whomever is penciling New Avengers owes an enormous debt to those horrible guys at Image, who owe an enormous debt to Neal Addams and John Byrne, who both owe an enormous debt to Steve Ditko and especially Jack Kirby, who both owe an enormous debt to the newspaper strips of the 1930s.
Both chains of influence are totally arbitrary and made up on the spot to illustrate a point: no matter how far modern Western comics go in their varying directions, all strains are based on modalities of operation that have evolved over decades. The distance between an artist like Clowes from a book like New Avengers is far, far less than the distance of either from Naruto. If the New York Times has suddenly discovered that Whizz! Bang! Comics Aren’t For Kids! this revelation only came after they read, and understood, the basic language of the quote-pornographic-unquote Eightball #22. The idea of “not just for kids!” contains an implicit truth: each writer of the latest iteration of this kind of article must have, necessarily, read comics as a child. The reason why they now realize that Eightball is for adults is because they have a comparison with when they learned comics grammar in their youth.
If that’s confusing, let’s make it simple: go to Borders and choose a random manga title. Not good manga that’s been recommended by tastemakers, but just some crappy title about some crappy girl who loves some crappy guy who loves another crappy guy, none of whom will ever in a million years kiss, let alone have sex. Make sure everyone is in some kind of outfit you only vaguely recognize as clothing.
OK. Try and read that thing.
Come back when you’ve failed.
Right now all across America there are hundreds of thousands of early teenagers for whom that very book is no problem. To whom that book is Amazing Spider-Man #300. They speakee a different language than you, Kemo Sabe. Now, run that scenario in reverse, with those kids trying to read not only Ghost Rider #13 (guest starring World War Hulk!) but also Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings.
Two questions to ask are these: what happens when you have an entire generation of kids who’ve learned a different language? What happens when they grow up?
I’m really not sure. There’s an obvious counterargument, which is that kids seem to have no problem picking up accessible comics and understanding them– one of the few real success stories of the last years has been Jeff Smith’s Bone selling something like two and a half million copies in its Scholastic trade paperbacks. But I wonder if Bone‘s success is an indicator of anything other than the eternal appeal of a very specific style. If Disney had a clue, they could haul out the early Gottfredson Mickey Mouse strips and the Barks Duck stories and have the same trade success. Could Marvel? Would the Byrne/Claremont X-Men work with kids? Would any of the Spider-Man runs of John Romita, Jr.? (No offense to Romita. I’m a fan.) Would any of the “For Kids” comics being published by DC?
So. This has served as the preface to the multi-part examination I’ll be doing. The examination itself will not necessarily deal with this particular topic, but I suspect it will loom like a spectre over Europe. Influencing, dig?
Next post: I’ll define the Idiosyncratic Ideal of Comics using Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Phonogram, probably the best series I’ve read in the last four years.
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