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Why is Comics Called a Medium?… Because It’s So Rarely Well Done

RIMSHOT!

We’re here all week.  Try the veal.  Tip your waitress.  And drive home safely.

But seriously, folks…

Most, if not all, of you who read these screeds are hip to the fact that I’m a comic book man.  I write and draw mainstream (adjacent) comic books and such, and have done so for more than a half century.  For those of you with only a glancing interest or understanding of what that means in my case, to clarify: I don’t read comic books, with the very infrequent and occasional exception of the infrequent and occasional material that crosses my eyes and sticks, mostly as a result of suggestions from friends whose taste I respect and don’t suspect.

I can say unequivocally that any recommendations for superhero comic books are rarely taken seriously.

In that further regard, while I have been occasionally entertained, I don’t care about superhero movies, and mostly find them tiresome at best or outright time-wasting stupidity at worst.  Nor, for that matter, do I give a flying fuck about most of the genres that the comic book audience and my fellow travelers truck in professionally and seem to enjoy enthusiastically.  There are certainly exceptions to this rule, but they are few and far between, much more that exception than any rule.

I am not now, and frankly have never been, one of those happy go lucky, nickname loving comic book crazy guys.  To be sure, I have always been, and will die—eventually, no rush, please—grateful to have found a way to make a living in a field that was once my hobby, or perhaps better, to neologize, my hobsession.  That said, it’s still a fucking job, and my gratitude is, as we’ll likely elaborate below, owed more to the form than to the content, certainly as a professional, and definitely as I’ve outgrown any adolescent interest in that all too prevailing content.

And there are few things in my professional life that make me feel more an outlier in my own commercial enterprise than that of my own outgrowing of that adolescent interest in that content, an adjustment that runs parallel to the continued embrace of this adolescent subject matter by an audience racing toward retirement age, an alarming number of my colleagues, and now a mass market of previously uninterested, indifferent or outright once hostile consumers who have finally succumbed to this nonsense.

I recently posted a note, that surely conspired a bit in inspiring this latest textual rant, to whit…

“…Only with super powers!”

“…Only with monsters!”

“…Only in space!”

“…Only with magic!”

“…Only with zombies!”

“…Only with dragons!”

Enough already.

Naturally, this has not always been the case, for me, or anyone for that matter.  No one performs the series of unnatural acts that make up a career in comic books without at one time or another just loving the absolute fuck out the content, unequivocally and unconditionally.

I certainly did.

I’ve told and retold the story of how I was introduced to comics by a couple of cousins, who were, to  my eyes, spoiled rotten.  These cousins had everything any right-minded fifties kid obsessed over—electric trains, toy guns of all varieties, Mongol horde sized armies of toy soldiers and every accessory called for in that regard—and, as I discovered in that Staten Island summer of 1955, hundreds of comic books, something I had never had any idea existed before that steamy day.

I can still call up the sense memory of all that shitty pulp paper, half filling a huge and sagging cardboard box that once held a Frigidaire, the mildewed smell floating into the far from frigid air to mingle with all that humidity.  I climbed into the box, and luxuriated on that impromptu mattress of four-color junk, and I was hooked, inoculated by the stuff.

And be assured, I don’t choose those words lightly.  I have an addictive personality—see my nearly half my life invested in the stepping of the twelves—and comics joined food as one of my earliest and most life consuming addictions.

I did everything to acquire comics.  I stole money to buy comics.  I stole comics.  I say this with embarrassment and shame, and a bit of awe, as well.  I was a cowardly kid, consumed with potential guilt—both of which were shoved aside in my reckless hunger, my desperate need for this frivolous and pointless crap which I valued more than most of my family, and would have included friends there, too, had I had any such a thing.

Anecdotally, within a year of that summer, I was able to read on what was tested as a fourth grade level.  So yes, in my case, Spiegelman’s quote is right.  Comics are a gateway drug to literacy.

It’s coincidence, but a telling one that makes for a good story, that my indoctrination into the world of obsessive-compulsive comic book enthusiasm happened at roughly the same time that the self-inflicted wound known as the Comics Code Authority infantilized the content of mainstream comics, just as things were beginning to become potentially interesting in the realm of subject matter and content.

In sum, what the CCA did was define comic books—not comic strips, mind—as a product exclusively for children—and subtextually, idiots—despite the fact that the basic tools and techniques of narrative used in the monthly stuff was virtually identical to those applied to newspaper comic strips.

I qualify with “virtually” because comic books had and have a story telling dimension lacking in newspaper strips—specifically, the page, a unit of space that would, when used effectively, make comic books far more interesting, certainly in a visual narrative sense, than the comic strip.

And perhaps it’s another coincidence that while the comic strip community was populated by a swathe of White Anglo Saxon Protestant, Rotarian Fraternity brother types, comic books were the product of lower middle to lower class ethnic New Yorkers, mostly Jews, who were regarded as the very definition of unsavory and untrustworthy by most Americans.

Or perhaps not.  We remain bedeviled by this Jews controlling and manipulating mass media trope to this very day.  Comic books may not have been mass, but they were certainly media, and so suspect in the kangaroo court of public opinion.

One thing remains certain.  That hale fellow well met posse of aging frat boys shouldered each other aside in the race to shit all over “the so-called comic books,” identifying and condemning the publishers and talent as fellow travelers alongside the peddlers of smut rotting the minds of mid-century America.

And fast on the heels of this condemnatory pack of hyenas were the moms and dads of the USA, delighted to be let off the hook for fucking up their children in ways Philip Larkin might never have imagined. But not to worry—the 1960s were imminent, and shown those moms and dads would be, and then some.  Believe you me—I was there.

Thus, almost overnight, comic books were infantilized.  Anything even vaguely challenging, or certainly transgressive, vanished, this disappearance erasing a vast swarm of truly shitty, exploitative horseshit, and, of course, taking occasionally inspired and often brilliant material down with it, too.

What was left behind was harmless and toothless genre material, mostly westerns, romance comics, funny animals, teenage stuff, these drawn, to an odd degree, by girlie cartoonists who’d honed their craft working in digest monthlies with the word “Laughs” spelled with two Fs, and, of course, the few remaining flagship superhero books that still had an audience.

Of course, this dearth of anything challenging drove away that part of the audience that wanted more than this stuff in droves.  Those underground comics that emerged about a decade later were, to a certain extent, made by those who checked out when the Code checked in.

And just as the material had been infantilized, so too had the audience that stayed behind, the self-fulfilling instigation of the Code deeming the comic book safe only for kid’s stuff leaving behind a readership of children, and, let’s be unkind here, mostly idiots.

Because, to continue this unkindness, this was an audience of the easily satisfied and pandered to, who read comic books for the content, as all of us did and do in our earliest experiences with the form.  And make no bones about it, I was a deeply engaged member of that audience.  I loved super stuff, just like so many of my contemporaries, including men and women who became working comic book professionals before and after I showed up.

I was, as we all were, a content guy…until the day I discovered EC, via the shittily reproduced BALLANTINE paperbacks, reprints of the science fiction and horror titles which were among the lost causes wrecked by the CCA.

What was this stuff?

Well, whatever it was, I was still adolescent/idiot enough to be an avid consumer of super stuff, first the late 1950s so called Silver Age revival of 1940s super characters, and then, of course that first half decade of Marvel material, which kept me content satisfied throughout my drug and alcohol riddled teens.

All this coincided with the return to print of a lot of long forgotten pulp stuff.  Sword and Sorcery, Sword and Planet, Westerns, Crime—all these newly discovered lost gems of my father’s generation colluded to drag my attention, taste and interest away from the various Fantastics, Amazings, Rampagings  and the like.

But, to quote that great thinker of western philosophy, RuPaul, “You gotta work.”

And I did just that, at first ineptly, depending on the kindness of editors who had run through all the others who were for whatever reason unavailable and were stuck with me, then, slowly, with some evolving learned skill, to finally reach a level of proficiency with those skills to be worthy of serious attention.

And that’s when it gets complicated.

Just as I became actually competent, my interest, let alone my enthusiasm, for the subject matter and content demanded of me by the marketplace had long just fucking withered.

I shambled along, doing the work I was assigned—see above, as per RuPaul—until I had a schismatic confrontation with the Editor in Chief of one of my bread and butter accounts, an argument that sent me elsewhere to make a living for a few years before I came back to spend the rest of my days working in this curious little corner of the entertainment business.

I learned a number of things in those years, but most importantly, I came to understand that I am a comics man.  Comics, as a medium, was where I belonged.  And in service to this, I sought out other genres to use as my narrative base, and began what has become a lifelong study of the use of the comics form to service the content, whatever that content may be.

To digress a moment, then to backtrack a bit, too, I am not alone in my outgrowing of my interest in what drew me to comic books in the first place.  There are a number of artists and writers who have moved on to other pursuits, several of whom became latter day iterations of those underground comics makers.  A number of these have done work which addresses their own childhood comic book obsessions, with tone ranging from almost elegiac disdain to outright contempt, for the work, for the enthusiasts and for the talent behind the material.

I am, I would guess, despite, or perhaps because, of my childhood in welfare financed, lower class poverty, simply too fucking middle class to go off on so risky a tangent.  Rather, I’ve taken what I assumed was a safer route, which has played itself out in ways I should have seen coming.

Call it hubris, call it guileless self-regard, call it flat out stupidity, but I assumed there were others out there, more than a few, that had outgrown the super stuff but had interest in other genres, and were furthermore interested in the channels of narrative that I had developed on AMERICAN FLAGG! and TIME(SQUARED), which were my first demonstrations of a holistic relationship between graphics and narrative.

Will Eisner, with his THE SPIRIT splash panels, had pointed the way.  Harvey Kurtzman, with his formalist design on MAD, TWO-FISTED TALES and FRONT-LINE COMBAT, was another example. I experimented with montage, but I am not strong enough in my finishing skills for something quite so organic.  Finally, with FLAGG!, and the work that follows it to this day, I had found what worked for me in delivering that synergy, of graphic design in the service of narrative…

…Just in time for the content to become transcendent all over again, first in comic books, and then, and now, in the culture that has been invaded and, yes,  infected with comic book stories as its primary source of delight.

And to return to that back track, it’s worth noting that comic book enthusiasts have, to the surprise of no one, an evangelical relationship with the material they love.   They love this nonsense so much they want everybody to love it, too (See also, Jazz, NASCAR, among other obsessions, magnificent or otherwise.).

What none of those proselytizers could have anticipated was the co-opting of this one true love by culture at large, debasing forever the purity of that obsession.  Let’s face it—the spiritual descendants of all those people who gave us shit for reading comics in high school are now making bank off this stuff in television, movies, and ancillary intellectual property based media.

In the retrospect of 20/20 hindsight, I, we, should have seen it coming.  From the brief, silly but nearly universal Batmania in the late 1960s, to the sudden and inexplicable embrace of STAR WARS a decade later, by a culture that had never previously demonstrated any interest in such trope-based stuff, there was clearly something going on in masscult and midcult that ran deeper than I could have ever imagined.

Some years back, in response to what at the time seemed the inexplicable idea that the writer in comics was the Alpha, with the artist reduced to a delivery system of the writer’s presumably far more significant contribution, I posted an essay about what writing in comics means, and, implicitly, how while the writer delivers a template for the story, the artist tells the story, with technique that illuminates and undergirds whatever the writer has delivered with visuals endowed with actual narrative value.

I won’t repeat what that screed had to say—you can find it on my substack platform, should you so choose.  The bottom line, the subtext of all that, was that the audience for mainstream comics, now mostly middle-aged men and older, with a smattering of similar aging women, were actually reading comics for the stories, with comics, the medium, devolved once again into no more than that delivery system for those stories.  The nature of the medium, the language, the vocabulary of the comic book and the comic book page ceased to be of any real interest to the enthusiast, casual or otherwise.

And that’s when the midcult and masscult moved in.  While Batmania came and went without much of a ripple, STAR WARS evolved into what has to be acknowledged as a secular religion.  I expected such a thing to happen in my lifetime, with my bets on Elvis Presley.

Go figure.

And ancillary to all this is that mass and mid embrace of the movie and television versions of the stories told in super comics, extravagantly produced and presented to an audience that only a few decades ago would have been indifferent to such stuff—and for the vast most part remains indifferent to the entertainment venue that is the source of all this super action, if it has any awareness that comics still exist at all.

Of course, the physical plant, the vocabulary, the syntax of comics isn’t evident in any of this mass media stuff.  Rather, it’s all the shit I have no interest in, to whit, the Roadrunner/Coyote Moebius strip narrative template, the self-congratulatory liberal ends achieved by equally self-satisfied fascist means, the heroes and villains so demarcated as to resonate with the most simplistic of melodrama, the insipid, glumly adolescent narcissism grafted onto alleged adult characters and their over-the-top behavior…the beat goes on.

So now, those who have co-opted the enthusiasms for comic books have brought us right back to that infantilizing moment in 1955.  Comic book stories dominate the movies and television, with a narrative sameness—that ersatz gravitas, that grim self-mythologizing posing.  Even material based on those teenage comic books that survived the Code are presented in that same woe is me suicide poets for dummies manner.

So, the actual element of comic books that gives them their distinctive character, that makes it a medium of merit, the page, and the manner in which the page is designed in the service of the story, is deemed irrelevant.  The story itself—all too often a rehash of all those “Enough alreadys” as noted above—is what matters to an audience increasingly as credulous as we children of the 1950s were about comic books and their content.

Every time I took a long look at material that was “blowing minds,” “brilliant,” “transcendent,” I came away mystified by the low bar that represented excellence for so many.

Thus, and finally, one of the unintended consequences of the vast and universal success story that is the adoption of comic book narrative as the primary entertainment source in the twenty first century, is the imposition from those above, those responsible for the billion dollar franchises this nonsense has inspired, the discomfiting reality that comics are no longer a medium but a genre.

But not to worry.  They’re still rarely well done.

As ever, I remain,

Howard Victor Chaykin…a Prince—not to mention, yes,  a fucking snob.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.

 

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