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:
"...it looks like a cartoon..."
image: Superman #15; copyright DC Comics/Warner Bros. 2009