So Are Webcomics a Hot or Cool Medium?
Is a Marshall McLuhan Reference Too Pretentious for an Alternate Title?
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Con
A broad range of material falls under the umbrella of the comics industry, and although it’s a big enough umbrella, it’s always those not wearing spandex who end up getting wet. Still, even if most of the attention is given to the superhero set, ours is a diverse… umm… hobby? Medium? Industry? Look, the point is that diversity is good and comics has got it.
That diversity was on full display last Friday at the New York Comic Con, when storytelling guru Scott McCloud and cultural-critic/filmmaker/comics-writer Douglas Rushkoff presented a panel in the same conference hall that, later that weekend, would see the big three roll out their exciting new plans for the next year, plans that were not substantially different than what they’ve been doing for decades.
Hey, I’m a superhero fan. Superhero comics comprise most of my comics reading, but it was refreshing to sit in on a panel offering a serious, analytical discussion of the state and future of the medium, not gossip about the industry or speculation about who is or is not a Skrull.
By the way, I’m pretty sure Rushkoff is a Skrull, because no human could possibly be so cool. Before this panel, I was unaware that Rushkoff even wrote comic books as I knew him only from documentaries like Persuaders and Merchants of Cool, which I regularly assign in my Intro. to Mass Comm. courses. As he explained during this panel, he read and was inspired by Understanding Comics to pursue his love of the medium. Specifically, it was McCloud’s assertion that the gutter–the space between the panels–was an important part of comics storytelling that compelled Rushkoff to write Testament, a comic book that, Rushkoff said, “took place in the gutters.” So now Rushkoff has written several great books of media criticism, made some great films, and written some intriguing–at least in concept–comic books. I can’t wait to peruse some Testament and see just how a book can live up to the concept of occurring in the gutters.
Rushkoff and McCloud’s conversation took place in a meandering, stream-of-consciousness fashion that was alternately fascinating and maddening. On the maddening end of the spectrum was their tendency to speak of the medium in glowing, idealistic terms, and to extend those terms to popular culture products in general. Rushkoff, for example, referred to comics as an ideal medium for expressing “potent ideas in seemingly candy shells,” and both men extolled The Simpsons and Pee Wee’s Playhouse as examples of pop culture products that were “poison pills,” avant-garde shows that emerged from the fringes of the entertainment industry only to crack through and eventually alter the mainstream. I’d say that’s overstating what those programs did; rather than alter the mainstream, I’d argue they were subsumed by the mainstream, cleaned up and sanitized for our protection. Have these subversive–an adjective McCloud and Rushkoff threw around with reverence–shows really changed anything? I’d say one could compare them to any one of a thousand similar pop culture predecessors that did not alter the mainstream so much as they drowned in it. Consider the Marx Brothers, for example, who squirmed through the cracks of the dregs of vaudeville–not even the popular vaudeville circuit–to emerge in Hollywood itself, where they were, briefly, top box office stars whose films were considered anarchistic and, indeed, subversive, but what did they really change? Groucho–once considered the most acerbic, acidic wit in America–went on to become the cute, grand old jester of prime time TV. Or how about the Looney Tunes cartoons? Once considered to have put the “post” in “post-modern,” they now adorn the diapers our babies crap in.
Rushkoff and McCloud also spoke in glowing terms about those aforementioned fringes in the comics industry, saying it was the crazies and the malcontents making comics in their bedrooms that would keep the medium, and indeed the entire industry, alive. I suppose in some ways they are right, but they are right in a way that undermines their previous argument. When Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry defied convention and shattered taboos, they did not substantially alter our culture, they simply perpetuated a pattern. The same parents repulsed by those rock gods would have grandkids who would repulse their parents with Led Zeppelin, and great-grandkids who would do the same with heavy metal, and great-great-grandkids who would do the same with their love of rap music. And what has changed? Nothing. Elvis was honored on a postage stamp. Flava Flav has reality show. One decade they’re burning your records, a few decades later you’re hosting “Shining Time Station,” a couple of decades later and you’re the subject of a Vegas show. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
So even if the malcontents of comics present end up creating the content of comics future, what will have changed? Little to nothing. One wonders if Rushkoff wasn’t protesting too much to make himself feel better. He is a super-leftist–as am I, so I’m not criticizing him for that–who has loudly and famously warned of the dangers of the unchecked growth and power of large corporations. Further, in this panel he glowingly talked of the loonies of the alt comics world, and of champion snowboarders who protected the purity of their sport by refusing to allow it to become a standardized, respected Olympic game. However, Rushkoff’s first comics work was published by Time-Warner, one of the handful of media companies that controls nearly all of America’s media output. This from a man whose latest book encourages readers to embrace local culture and businesses in order to counter the power of corporations.
Am I criticizing Rushkoff for lamenting the death of the local at the hands of the global? Not at all, as I share in his grief. Am I criticizing him for “selling out”? Of course not. I have a family, too, and I understand that one often has to accommodate reality while one aspires to ideals. My only criticism here is that, in their casual, spontaneous conversation, McCloud and Rushkoff overly-idealized reality instead of being realistic about how un-ideal this industry is.
Besides, Rushkoff is apparently a man of contradictions. In the course of their conversation, he asserted that the move to web comics left him at least a little cold because of the lack of some concrete, tangible, physical artifact. It lessens, he claimed, the feeling of connectivity between creator and reader when the latter doesn’t actually hold in his or her hands a product of the former. For someone who so loudly and inaccurately portrayed the industry and medium in glowing, rosy terms, he seemed like quite the luddite. That was even truer when McCloud countered that assertion with an explanation of how the internet has increased his sense of connectivity. Now instead of waiting months to get his work into the hands of fans and then receive their feedback, the entire exchange can happen almost instantaneously.
Indeed, it was McCloud who truly made the panel. In many ways this panel was more like one you’d experience at an academic conference rather than at a comic book convention. In fact, I attended a Popular Culture Association conference last year where two panels rapidly deteriorated into mock-McCloud sessions–or MockCloud sessions. Oh how the PhDs chuckled condescendingly at the idea that McCloud’s work had any value, and then proceeded to present paper after paper where they explained how comics really worked, even though none of them had ever made one. Is it any wonder I usually loathe academia?
McCloud was funny, insightful, charismatic–everything you’d expect from the little cartoon dude who narrates
his books, only, you know, three-dimensional. And with pupils.
The hour allotted to their discussion passed quickly, and the audience never got the chance to engage in a Q&A. It’s probably for the best. Although they might have taken the opportunity to point out some of the flaws in the speakers’ arguments, or to prod them for further insights, they probably would have used the time to try to make themselves look smart by spewing their own incoherent treatises on the dichotomy between corporate hegemony and the seemingly nihilistic worldview of Daniel Clowes that was in fact a life-affirming body of work. Or whatever.
After the panel, the audience, seemingly sorry to see the time come to an end, loitered outside the conference room, engaging in our own at-least-somewhat-intelligent-stream-of-consciousness discussions, a process McCloud and Rushkoff joined in on. As I finally drifted away an hour later, the two of them remained behind, their informal panel discussion continuing in the hallway of the Javits Center.
In all, it was an intellectually stimulating couple of hours that renewed my belief in the power and importance of the medium I’ve loved for nearly thirty years, and it gave me a lot to think about over the course of the weekend. Besides, the chick sitting behind me was super hot, and I got her email address.