Thursday, August 6, 2009

Baby and Bathwater, over "The Bridge"

Frank Santoro's essay "The Bridge is Over" on the ComicsComics blog has really hit me hard. Jeezus I feel old. Or odd. I'm not sure which - probably both.

In the course of an analysis of the Direct Market 2009 and what he perceives as a rupture between an alternative audience and a mainstream audience, Santoro identifies something that strikes me as more significant - a generational divide in the larger comics audience, between those with a connection to comics history (ostensibly older readers) and those without (a new generation raised in an era of alternative plenty). More to the point, he extends that split to creators as well. Anyway-don't take my word for it, go read the essay (if you haven't already).

The comments around Santoro's post tend toward the economic rather than aesthetic, which is fine. Personally, I'm happy to buy my comics in whatever venue and form I find them in, which here in upstate NY tends to be online and as graphic novel or trade collection. I'm afraid I don't follow a lot of current mainstream, and so I don't much miss pamphlets (except when I'm feeling nostalgic -- and despite a great love of the form). Where I'm going to sell my work in the future-is an entirely different concern - and fuel for another post.

Nevertheless, it is the aesthetic, theoretical and historical aspects of "The Bridge" that are of interest to me. And I am troubled -- or perhaps simply disaffected. Not because there is a new model, or as Santoro puts it, comics creators unencumbered by mainstream comics history and tradition are"grafting" new techniques and traditions onto the larger"tree" that is comics. "Grafting" is part of the creative process - and I hope that those "alternative" traditions are as diverse and fruitful (ha!) as can be.

But I'm not an advocate of willful ignorance, or disdain for history or tradition simply for the sake of the new and novel (nor am I suggesting that Frank Santoro is - he's a well known devotee of comics history and he assumes the identity of "Watcher" in this essay). I'm not an advocate for the rejection of genre simply because it is genre - the rejection of stylistic choices and subjects that are bound to tradition. It smacks of throwing the baby out with the bath water, or, if you will, over the bridge, the result being the imposition or embrace of a creative limitation.

Now - Santoro's observation is not definitive, I'm not aware of any data-based research into the subject, and I'm sure there are alt-comics fans and creators of the "new generation" as tied to history as any of us geezers. But from behind the convention table, at SPX or MoCCA - one bears witness to the essential "rightness" of his supposition. (I say this as one whose books are steeped in genre and tradition.)

Years ago, I was a student in the class of a well-known art-critic who was speaking of the recent work of a contemporary photographer , much of which featured the use of mannequins. In discussions with her, he was dismayed to find out that she had no knowledge of the work of Hans Bellmer, nor did she express any interest. She didn't want to be burdened by too much history-it might freeze her creativity. In the critic's view, this weakened her work and her standing as an artist. His words have stayed with me-

"It's her job to know--her responsibility."

The lesson was- that awareness of history informs the work, broadens its scope -- it doesn't limit it. And if you want to be a world-class artist you have to engage it.

Now that's not the reason for the split Santoro identifies, the disregard for (mainstream) comics history that he speaks of springs from a different set of conditions - but the result is the same. Work that is less informed. Less interesting. Less a participant in the generations long conversation that is art.

The rupture between mainstream and alternative, the shift in the audience, the "grafting" that Santoro speaks to - may also be related to another shift-- among creators-- which I'm not sure anyone has as yet catalogued to any great degree. From the first generations of urban, working-class, self-taught, immigrants practicing the craft, to art-school trained/University educated BFA's, MFA's, and dropouts of the last 10-15 years, that shift has resulted in numerous changes to the ways in which (some) comics are perceived, packaged and understood. Attendant with that is a move towards cultural legitimacy, a standing previously unavailable to the "degenerate"medium assailed by Frederic Wertham.

I admit, I haven't given it a great deal of thought myself - but if I am to consider it, I know that art-school culture is a very different environment than the Eisner-Iger studios. And the comics produced are likely to be very different.

There are plenty of contemporary art surveys taught at University level, there are few examinations of comics history. There are plenty of classes in which one learns to draw from life, but few where one learns to spot blacks. In the first year of art school, freshman students, the "class artists" in high school because they could draw manga and Disney characters, take foundation classes wherein they learn to disavow the "slick" techniques they've practiced and admired for years.

Do these circumstances contribute to the rupture Santoro has identified? I don't know-I'm just hypothesising. It's not a negative for young art students and cartoonists/comics creators to be exposed to a variety of visual experiences and approaches-far from it. But there does exist the potential - for the establishment of a mindset that encourages distance from comics tradition and craft, and fuels the outright rejection of popular models of the form - i.e the super-hero.

It's not that corporate entities and their representatives haven't contributed to the degeneration of the super-hero themselves. They've done what they can to speed disaffection among readers. But the end result has been the de-legitimization of (mainstream) comics, of the super-hero in particular, at a time in which comics are taken more seriously than ever. And the young creators Frank Santoro encounters can't perceive the beauty of a page from a "Spider-Man" comic-simply because it is Spider-Man.

One last anecdote (I promise - no more, at least in this post). In art-school, one of my first painting classes -- I brought in a large piece for the critique.

My instructor frowned at it, dismissing it thusly:

" looks like a cartoon..."

image: Superman #15; copyright DC Comics/Warner Bros. 2009


  1. "Years ago, I was a student in the class of a well-known art-critic who was speaking of the recent work of a contemporary photographer , much of which featured the use of mannequins. In discussions with her, he was dismayed to find out that she had no knowledge of the work of Hans Bellmer, nor did she express any interest. She didn't want to be burdened by too much history-it might freeze her creativity. In the critic's view, this weakened her work and her standing as an artist. His words have stayed with me-"

    This is what's happening. It's really weird. I have students that are making awesome work. They sort of repeat history and they don't give a f**k. It's actually kind of charming. BUT, it is some sort of willful ignorance. Yet, it's happening. And it needs to be addressed.

  2. and at the same time-this is the greatest period for the "conservation" of the comics library-with "Terry & the Pirates" complete, "Peanuts", "Popeye","Fletcher Hanks"-not to mention all DC Archive editions, The Marvel stuff etc.,etc. It's all there, all available-I was crazy for it when I was a kid-and even more so now.

    I had the opportunity to teach a comics history class once-(italics on "once")--and the students were really receptive. If you can direct them to it-they'll dig it. But the opportunities to teach such a class- -in my case,at a small university where the required courses have to be addressed first, etc.--are few.

  3. In a way many of these anxieties are described by Dan Clowes in Ghost World and to some extent in other works. Your hypothesis seems correct; the changes in the (social, political, economic, ideological, technological) conditions of production of comics determines not only the way they look or are packaged and marketed, but what they are.

    It seems to me that postmodernism only works as an aesthetic strategy when hypotexts (or referents or past history of the art form if you will) are recognized. I truly believe that in comics as in everything else in life knowledge of history is a responsibility. This does not only apply to the specific history of comics, but to the history of art in general. There is a double-bind here, because as "art-school comics" seem to be proving these days the insertion of comics within the fine arts canon has not necessarily developed more awareness of the history of comics, even in their most appallingly naive or commercial examples.

    The truth is there's people out there who grew up reading Chris Ware and not Peanuts. Is this any excuse not to go back and understand where Ware is coming from? No.

  4. I can't speak for everybody but for me, as an aspiring comic writer/artist, it isn't that I'm not interested in what came before, but where do I start? And after I'm done where do I go from there?
    When I took art history we covered quite a bit of material, and I knew we were only really scratching the surface, but I never knew where to go from there. Should I start at the Renaissance? Further back? How much time should I spend on each subject before it's enough and it's time to move on? Do I just look at the work itself or do I find critique and the history of the work and the artist and the influences of the artist? Is just the one generation of influences enough or do I look at the influence's influences too? It all seemed so daunting that I just gave up on it, because all I really wanted to do was just create art. Leave the research to the scholars and the art to the artists. I know that's not a very intelligent approach, but that's how I, and I'm sure other people, feel.
    To paraphrase, it's not that I'm not interested in learning, but there's just SO MUCH history and material that it's daunting to figure out where to start.

  5. Joe-
    Wow-it is daunting. I think you start with what appeals to you-an artist, a movement, a comic--and ideally, you want to find out more about the artist/creator-and that opens doors to other artists and movements-and history. You may read an interview w/the artist where they talk about influences--and that leads you in a direction to the past.
    There's no one way--or right or wrong way. It needn't be in a class or follow a text or even develop chronologically--it should be organic and speak to your needs as an artist.

    (Practically speaking-There are a number of good texts-whether you want to start w/comics or a general survey of art history.)

    What appeals to you now-may not be what interests you later on in life-and so the process goes on. It's a lifelong project--I think we're all trying to catch-up. Just an example-I was never really into "Wonder Woman"-but recently Noah Berlatsky is writing some really provocative stuff that's kindled an interest in me where there hadn't been before.

    Start with what grabs you-but don't stop there.