I’ve been writing these columns for a decade now, and reading comics for more than two. In that time an awful lot has changed. Prices have risen for a start. Creators who were at the height of their powers when I started reading comics have fallen from grace, new blood has leaped onto the scene, paper has metamorphosed from coarse newsprint to the fluorescently glossy “magnificence” we see today. Superman has died and been resurrected, as has Batman*. Comic book movies have stopped being a joke and started being major box-office.
It’s been an eventful couple of decades. A time of flux, of transformation. As comics readers we have lived, as the Chinese might have it, in “interesting times”.
On the other hand, there have also been some reassuring constants floating serenely on this swirling sea of change. The likes of Bryan Talbot and Dave Gibbons have continued to be creative giants. For all their ups and downs, the main producers of American comics continue to be Marvel and DC. Norman and Harry Osbourne still have stupid haircuts, nobody has seen Alan Moore’s chin or Judge Dredd’s face, and the unlikely juggernaut that is 2000AD has continued to roll against all odds. The more things change, the more they stay the same, and in the world of comics that is perhaps true in one respect above all others. We still crave academic acceptance, and we still don’t really receive it.
And of course, when comics types get together we still talk endlessly about why this might be, and never quite come to any real conclusion.**
It’s not as though the effort isn’t being made.
Everywhere you look there are people taking comics into museums, libraries, schools, anywhere that might afford graphic narrative a little more respect. It’s nearly twenty years since Maus won the Pulitzer Prize – one of the highest literary honours the Western World can bestow on a book after all. A lot of people thought that this would be the long awaited “breakthrough” moment. But not a bit of it.
I used to think it must be the way teachers treat comics in schools – but I now know from experience that in fact – in the UK at least, secondary school teachers are pretty enthusiastic about the whole idea of graphic narrative. I’ve used comics in the classroom many times, as have many of my colleagues, and we’ve had visiting experts from Matt “D’Israeli” Booker to Kev F. Sutherland to Tony Lee visit my school in the time I’ve been there. School Librarians also fall over themselves to get comics in front of kids – if anything I’d expect kids to avoid reading comics simply because we thrust them under their noses so often.
Even such august institutions as the British Museum have incorporated comics into their exhibitions, most notably when they commissioned the internationally acclaimed Manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu to create stories featuring his character Professor Munakata exploring the Museum’s Japanese exhibits. And yet we still get slightly looked down on as, in Alan Moore’s memorable lament “literature for kids and semi literates” – not just by the academic establishment, who in truth are actually as accepting of comics as they of anything else that was created less than two hundred years ago, but by kids and your average bloke in the street.
In fact, if anything of late there seems to be something of a trend for the self appointed “high brow” cultural commentators to bang on endlessly about how wonderful comics can be. Obviously they often have no idea what they’re talking about and frequently fail to mention anything post Sandman, but hey, the highbrows seem to love us – it’s everybody else that thinks we’re really childish.
After all this time I’m beginning to wonder whether we shouldn’t just give up on the whole thing and accept that the vast majority of people are never going to “get it”, and continue to look down on comics even though the vast majority of them are more challenging and better written than the movies and TV shows they couldn’t live without. This is, I accept a slightly defeatist attitude, but at the same time I can’t help thinking that they’re the ones who are missing out. Maybe life’s just too short to keep having the same old argument.
I used to think that we needed to keep trying to persuade the mundane to see the error of their ways in order to ensure that new readers found their way to the wonders of comics. This wasn’t an altruistic mind set, you understand, I was just concerned that we needed to make sure there were always enough readers to make the production of the comics I wanted to read viable. Over the years, however, it’s become clear to me that the people who are receptive to the idea that comics might be worth reading will find their way to them anyway, so all the evangelism just isn’t necessary.
Besides, it turns out that there are many more fun things to turn our attention to.
Take merchandising, for example.
There is rather a lot of it about – from Spider-Man duvet sets to Wonder Woman lampshades, to Batman belt buckles. Seems almost everywhere you look there’s a comic book character’s image on a lunch-box or a pair of kid’s shoes. As a kid I remember Superman battling the villainous “Nick O’Teen” to persuade me not to smoke, and it seem that there’s a superhero in every DC book I buy trying to make me drink more milk. Given that I’ve just spent more than eight hundred words telling you how much the general populous doesn’t seem to take comics seriously this is, at the very least, a little strange, but there you go. It would seem that it’s a strange world out there, and there’s a bit of comics merchandising that perhaps illustrates once again that the disinterest in comics I’ve spent this column bemoaning is largely an Anglophone phenomenon.
It seems that the French are upset. Very, very upset. Now, as a proud Englishman I know that anything that upsets the French has to be a good – or at the very least funny – thing*** but on this occasion, once I’d stopped being amused by it I couldn’t help wondering if on this occasion the French might well have a point. You see, McDonalds has used Asterix the Gaul and his friends in an advertising campaign.
Now, in the general scheme of things this is completely unsurprising. McDonalds, in common with many companies, often uses popular cartoon and film characters to promote its burgers. Asterix is, perhaps the best loved cartoon character in France so it’s hardly a great leap of imagination to connect one with the other. It seems to have touched something of a nerve though.
Of course the knee-jerk cultural mistrust***** that the French have for American culture is almost as strong, and certainly as automatic as their distaste for English wine******, and Asterix – perhaps because of his position as a champion of the native Gauls against the imperialist Roman Legions perhaps in this instance the nerve was a little more exposed than usual.
Of course from my vantage point here at the heart of perfidious Albion, I have to say that the whole thing looks to me like more than a little bit of an over reaction. The ad shows Asterix and his friends in the middle of a party (something that anyone who ever read and Asterix book, which is surely anyone who ever tried to learn French******* is traditional at the end of every story) inside a McDonalds – except there are two interesting anomalies that were worth pointing out.
First of all, although the building they’re in sports the famous Golden Arches, none of the characters visible in the ad is eating a burger – or indeed anything else. And second of all, the roof of the building they’re all in (well, all except the bard Cacaphonix********, who as is also traditional, is gagged and tied to a tree) is green, not red. One French internet commentator has been quoted as saying that he believes that the posters will cause traffic accidents, but I’m not sure that if I didn’t know about the controversy I’d even connect the image to McDonalds in the first place.
But there’s no denying that this is a big deal for the French, which illustrates that in some parts of the world comics really do matter – I’m not sure what the French equivalent of McDonalds is, or even if they have one, but assuming such a thing exists, can you imagine your average American giving a toss if they used Batman or Mickey Mouse in a commercial?
I certainly can’t.
So here’s to the French. Because they take comics seriously enough to care.
And they make great cheese, which is also a good thing.
*Well, OK, he hasn’t quite yet, but we all know he’s going to…
**This is usually because at some point the bar always closes…
***Annoying the French has been a national pastime for the English**** since at least 1066. Apparently many of my Anglo Saxon ancestors thought the Norman conquest was just rude, and of course those of you who know the history of the conquest will know that Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwinson had been taking the piss long before that. Go on – look it up!
****Not the British. The Scots have always preferred the French to the English. Both the French and the Scots regard this as perfectly understandable.
*****I’m putting it no stronger than that, although a French acquaintance of mine once described it as “utter, utter loathing and contempt”. She was smiling when she said it of course. And come to think about it we were in a McDonalds at the time, so make of that what you will.
******As a patriot and ex-wine merchant I feel that I should point out that those French citizens who really know about wine recognise English Wine as amongst the best in the world, it’s just that we don’t actually make enough for many people to have tried it.
*******Or actually is French of course…
********And am I the only person who thinks it’s brilliant that they have a musician character whose name basically means “shit sounds”?