Monday, May 08, 2006

comics 4

I made the mistake of taking my wife to a comics shop. I should have known better.

It was "Free Comic Book Day" this last Saturday, and I went in the afternoon to surf around for a new book, and, you know, support the medium. I found Shaolin Cowboy by Geof Darrow, and was mighty pleased. I also noticed some little wind-up robots (Kikkerland gadgetry!) on the way out, and they got to bugging me to the point that I decided to go back and buy one on the way to get groceries with my lady.

She hates comics. I've suggested Blankets, Ghost World, Orbiter, A Distant Soil, others, but she just can't get into them. Part of it, she admits, is a prejudice toward the key memes of the medium -- the capes and tights and muscles-for-justice. Part of it is that she thinks women are overly sexualized in comics... We debate this point (including the traditional oversexing of men in comics) about once a month or so. The sad thing is, she mostly right, because most comics still insistently truck in such dreck (so the brilliant stories get obfuscated by what's marketed to 13-year-old-30-year-olds).

So we go into the comics shop and I pick up my robot (okay, yes, my toy), and we're waiting quietly in line to buy the thing when the manager dons a black and purple belled jester's cap and addresses her, like, "Heeey! This is free comics day!! You can't have your hands in your pockets in a comic shop! Don't you wantafreecomic??!!" and starts jangling his cap, like he's talking to a 4 year old. All the folks turn to look at my wife.

She holds her own, says "No thanks. I don't even like comics." But the guy keeps blathering on and on. I butt-in and cut him off, saying that I've already got too many comics, yada yada, that I've already been in once today, yada yada, and that deflects attention from her. Cool.

Then when I actually check out, the cashier makes some kind of allusion/joke-thing about "Stargate: SG-1" and I don't follow the show, and my wife doesn't follow the show (we don't get channels, even, we just rent DVDs), so we're lost, but he's cracking up. Here's the money, thanks, bye, you've managed to out-nerd me. Congrats.

We step out to the sidewalk and she immediately says "I'm never going in there again."

Alright. Pause. Take a breath.

Librarians, notice!

This is the part where you think: "Gee. Most of the patrons who check out graphic novels from my library are teenage girls. Granted, they're almost exclusively taking out the manga love stories and teeny romance tales, maybe with just a dash of The Sandman or somesuch sometimes... But he's right. Comics shops are usually male-only domains. Why don't girls feel comfortable in comics shops, but very comfortable getting comics from my library?"

And this is the part where comic shop managers should take notice.

Most new readers are female, and most are young. That means that if you get your act together, wipe your noses, and make your stores inviting to the young woman demographic, you might just garner yourselves some lifelong customers. And you might just be doing your part to rescue the medium from itself.

Others have been writing about this for some time (see Warren Ellis' Come in Alone for a very good example), but I'm yet to see much change. Comics are absolutely going to suffocate in their own excrement of control fantasies and sexual fetishism unless alternative kinds of stories, styles, values, and aesthetics come to be celebrated, and come to be the touchstone in what we mean when we say "comics" -- and this needs to happen soon.

Now what can comic shops learn from librarians about cultivating a strong comics customer base?

  • Libraries aren't dingy, musty, dusty, and dark.
  • Libraries don't encourage groups of grown men to hang around cuss the %@#$ out of each other over the subtler points of orcish armor in D&D 3rd ed.
  • Libraries offer lots of kinds of stories in lots of formats -- not just superheros and hentai.
  • (and here's the main point) Libraries aren't creepy -- they're not the kinds of places where everyone leers when a girl (OH MY GOD, A girl...) walks in.

Obviously, not all comic shops are so bad. And superhero stories can be fun, for sure. I don't mean to throw it all out.

But a little sunlight and and a little cool music and a little bit of Bubble Tea culture would go a long way towards encouraging girls and women to pay a visit to the shop. A little less uber-nerdlingness and a little more of a "your you're cool, we're not creepy, please enjoy your visit" attitude in the shops would go a long, long way too.

It would have made all the difference to my wife on this last Saturday.


Listening: Paulo Conte


Anonymous said...

Hm. All good points. I've been thinking about comics lately. I don't dig them much, either. I saw Aubree read blankets and didn't do much for her. I tried it, too, and ditto. Obviously women aren't objectified in it and there's no superhero-biz, and what I came up with is this:

(and this might not really be a good thing, I don't know, but it's how my brain works)

(maybe Aubree thinks similarly?)

When I read even a better-than-most comic, I still get bored with the language, and I want all the things I get from stories and novels. All the devices, the imagery. I get bored and think I'd rather go read a book.

When I look at the pictures, I get bored, too, and I think I'd rather go look at my Jim Dine book or my Bonnard book or my Egyptian or Japanese art book. I'd rather look at paintings and "tradional" (and unstylized) drawings. Figure drawings. Landscape paintings. Illustration just doesn't interest me.

And I know the argument is that comics are a whole new deal, the "marriage" of drawing and language. Perhaps so, and I'm sure there's value in that. My brain just splits in half and gets sleepy, wants a novel or an art book to wake back up. Maybe this is a tad snobbish, but it's very unintentional -- I mean, who can help what they're attracted to, ya know? And I know people can be interested in all of it. Which is probably the better way to be; I just can't get my synapses going about comics, for some reason, even the ones that break stereotype. I totally feel Aub on this one.


Anonymous said...

Also, comics are young, so a lot of this isn't really their fault, and it might not be fair of me to compare them to old mediums. And of course there aren't many mediums out there that are overshadowed by the "pop" aspect the way comics are, which is something, as you suggest, that'll have to be addressed. What I mean is, certainly Hollywood and Big Labels make the money, but independent films and interesting music are still pretty easy to find.
But in the comic store, you just have "comics." Categorization would be helpful -- certainly it would help newbies like me who are willing to keep reading quality comics in hopes that something'll strike a chord. 'Cause, like, I'm all for that great comic book that helps me become more interested. It's hard to do, though, when you have to filter through so many others.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, one more thing, then IShush. Ha.

Maybe comics just doesn't have its own "rules" yet like art and lit do because people have been talking about art and lit so much longer than they've talked about comics. Maybe comics need to establish rules for themselves to function within. Or maybe they're there already and I just don't know what they are?

Glad you got me thinking.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

Great post. Personally, I read a few comics as a child (Marvel, DC, the "usual" stuff), then sort of got away from it. I am now getting back into reading comics, and discovering many wonderful literary graphic novels along the way (I am thinking things here like _Road to Perdition_ and even _Maus_). It's a genre full of possibilities that I find fascinating from the "traditional" superhero comics to other genres. They can do so much in terms of visual and text. Heck, I wish they had some of that stuff when I was growing up.

I am lucky my town has a comic store. It is pretty brightly lit, comfortable. Heck, I am comfortable enough to take my daughter there. But I have also been to the more dingy, dark ones. While I think the guys should be able to cuss each other about orcish armor if they wish (I don't think we should eliminate that), the stores do need to be more open to other people as well. My child? Big on the manga. Me? Big on the comics (going back to my childhood I guess), but also excited there are so many other things. I think for some readers, and I see this in the commenters' remarks, it may be a matter of style, as in learning/reading style. Some people are more visual than others. I am more text oriented, but I happen to like the art as well. I mention this because I read somewhere that a librarian who does RA in graphic novels should be able to answer the question of what do you prefer: do you look more at the pictures or do you more read the text? Which does remind me there is still work to be done in the RA area for this, if nothing else, for the "newbies" who need to find something that will work for them.

Best, and keep on blogging.

Caroline said...

I'll chime in as a woman who likes comics but, yes, hates most comic book stores specifically because of that "ooh, look, there's a girl in the store" thing, and because they don't tend to stock or prominently display many of the comics I really like (e.g. Love and Rockets, Meat Cake, Optic Nerve, Kramer's Ergot, most of the Drawn & Quarterly artists). Now that I think about it, part of my problem with comic book stores is the way things are displayed; those lines of boxes only hold appeal for people for people who know what they want, have some level of expertise, or have the collector's bug that lets them spend hours flipping through plastic-wrapped items. I'm not a collector (except for Los Bros. Hernandez and Dame Darcy's stuff), so when I go into a standard shop I don't immediately see anything that interests me. This is where the comic book shop gender dynamic gets especially irritating; given the creepy feeling noted above, I really never want to ask anyone if they have what I'm looking for. I'm sure there's a lesson to be learned here about the way we display materials and privilege certain readers' levels of expertise in libraries, too.

The only comic shop I've been in where I feel really comfortable is Comic Relief in Berkeley, and I think the appeal is that it's kind of like a regular bookshop. They display lots of different types of comics face out or stacked on tables at the front of the store, and they relegate the carboard boxes to tables in the back. The floorplan is really open, it's well lit, and nobody bats an eye when a girl walks in.

Anonymous said...

Read over the rant and the comments that followed. Most of what Liz commented on was the result of a lengthy and highly enjoyable discussion that began as a question of what kept public perception of comics as something other than "art." So, I've been thinking a lot about this as well, especially with the World Lit-by way of-graphic novel class I'm teaching this summer .

My own personal definition of art, I figure, is a medium that has rules inherent to that medium. "Art" is what's accomplished when those rules are rethought, rewritten and rethought again, the end result being a product that speaks to the human element on a highly charged level.

"Comic books" tend to be entertainment, mostly. A lot of it bad, a small, but a healthy amount of it good. Superman, for example, has long fluctuated between the two. But I have come to question if Superman has ever been art? It's hard for me to defend it as so right now. Blame it on the editorial forces which protect a corporate cashcow or the inherent silliness of a man in blue and red leotards fighting crime, but the writing has NEVER challenged me and while the art has varied between the merely capable and extraordinarily pleasing, there's not much there either. And I LOVE Superman. Besides the obvious Christ-iconography, it's just the serialized adventures of guy. Take the fantastic element out of the book and you're just left with "a guy."

Liz is very right to complain about the lack of that challenge in the medium. It's RARELY done well. Blankets, while critically acclaimed and a fine little coming-of-age story, shouldn't really be held up as the ideal. TIME named it one of the best novels (that's right... novels) of 2003. While I'm grateful for the respect that the mainstream critical world has begun to cast on a medium I've had to defend my entire life, I don't know if it's fair to novels or fair to Craig Thompson to compare the two. Prose and graphic literature do two very different things. But before I segue into an entirely new discussion, I enjoyed Blankets. I did. I find the stylized art approrpriate for the story and pleasing to the eye. What I can't, however, is immediately recall any moment where I thought I was experiencing the true "marriage" of the art and prose. There's something to be said for a pleasing story and pleasing art, but Craig Thompson doesn't really WORK for anything there. Not to deny the obvious amount of man-hours and emotional hand-wringing that came with the production of that book, but what separates the art form is its "sequential" nature: how one image speaks to the next and the one before it. There are nuances to the form that can build suspense or renew faith or break the heart all without words. I can't believe I'm about to say this, having argued for a balance between the collaborating writer and artist, but the ART REALLY IS MORE IMPORTANT.

Which brings me to the sad fact that the majority of those who get into the business are self-trained, having drawn capes and tights their entire life without ever really considering what's possible in comics. Many, many have attended schools of graphic design, but many many have not. Which brings me to this: while I like Dave Johnson, Jim Lee, Carlos Pacheco, Cliff Chiang, Stuart Immomen, Steve McNiven etc. what I'm responding to is "style" rather than their ability in sequential art. And that's an necessary distinction to make if we're to make any real progress in formulating a language to discuss the medium.

While I will argue til the day I die that Jim Lee is an amazing draftsman-- there are precious few who can duplicate the dynamism and power that live in his panels-- he is, however, a medicore storyteller. His layouts are competent, but never daring. He rarely considers timing of panels, shape of panels, the perspective of the panel in regards to that shape. When I hold up a copy of Lee's recent Batman run and compare it to the preview images of J.H. Williams take on the same character, there is a WORLD of difference. Would that every artist were J.H. Williams! Here is a man who is versed in cinematic form (and I'm beginning to wonder if it would EVER be fair to compare comics to fine art and vice versa). His first issue of Warren Ellis' newly ongoing Desolation Jones reveals a refined touch that incorporates elements of French New Wave film and purposeful collage. And it's hardly even his style. What's amazing about Williams is that he accomondates for content. His work on Promethea is as different from Desolation Jones as is Seven Soldiers. There ARE artists who take their art as art, rather than craft. Guy Davis, Art Spiegelman, Will Eisner, Tony Harris, Michael Lark, Craig Thompson (try Chunky Rice!), Frank Quitely and more.

Content, however, is a different problem altogether. There are many many fine writers working in the business, in the independent and popular scenes. But as with any storytelling medium, the "literary" be it cinema, television, prose, songwriting, or comics is always outnumbered by the mainstream, the dumb. (Liz is convinced, however, that prose doesn't suffer as much from this problem as others) Like Liz noticed in the movie Crash (an abhorrent movie), the story and visuals are so loud and obnoxious that it's too easy to be turned off. What's left to the imagination when we're told what to think every frame? Not much, but the same can be said for cinema. We have sound, music, dialogue, compostion of image. We have almost too much. But it doesn't seem to be a problem, huh? (Except in the cases of the heavy-handed like Crash) Caroline brought up Optic Nerve, a comic series by Adrian Tomine. Fine fine stuff and a book, I think, counters this argument. I met Adrian last year and we talked for quite a bit about how Ray Carver has influenced his work. He's one of a slate of new writer/artists (like Chris Ware and Dan Clowes) that have been termed "minimalist" for it's heavy dependency on subtlety in the art. Small gestures, turns of the neck, half-grins are carefully calculated to their fullest meaning. My only real proble with Tomine is that he suffers from a stock grid layout. He depends far too much on those small gestures, rather than incorporate them within the layout of the page. We're talking about an art that's unique vantage lies in its "sequential" nature rather than the single image.

A quick aside: my favorite piece of graphic literature is V for Vendetta. The comic (not the movie) challenges everything that we would ask of the medium. And, if you can stomach superheroes, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns are yadda yadda yadda. It's every fan-boy's defense mechanism, but that doesn't mean its not accurate. Watchmen was named by TIME as one of the best novels of the CENTURY. Think on that for a minute. I feel bad for even bringing up the three I have considering they've been discussed so often. They're almost throwaway answers.

As was stated before, comics are still a very young medium and there hasn't been a great deal of development in the form. There's been good discussion, excellent books written, but the medium suffers from the problem that Warren Ellis best described by asking whether or not you'd go crazy visiting a bookstore where 90% of the fiction there were hospital romances. Superhero fiction (full disclosure: I still very much love superhero fiction) is an albatross that hangs around its neck. Only one thing can save the medium: more discussion. Whether it's TIME or Entertainment Weekly's regular columns on comics or its in a more academic setting (where myself and others are hopefully shedding light) or even in the comic shop itself where people such as ourselves can elevate the level of conversation to something that runs the geeks out screaming "snobbery," TALK is needed. Participation is needed.

Uh. Talked a little long. Still SO MUCH MORE to say, you know?

So, who's next? Speak up.


Anonymous said...

Well, I could be told "Think on that" about the fact that several of those books are on what two people call the "100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present" and I still wouldn't be convinced that the novels belong there. The list is a bit of a catch-all. I'd boot Gone With the Wind and White Teeth right off if we're talking about the best 100 novels. I'd add Finnegans Wake since Ulysses was booted out due to being published too early (anyway, Finnegans Wake is a great book and could easily take the place of several on the list) and In Cold Blood. I don't know how I feel about a list that can't account for James Joyce and Truman Capote. I might add W. Somerset Maugham, too, to replace something else on the list. I'm not saying that the fact that Watchmen is on the list should be disregarded; I just have problems with the list in general and am not really so easily sold based on the fact that it's TIME and says "100 Best." It's all a matter of opinion, really, and that's only these two editors' opinions.

But that's just one little point.

I do believe that display, etc., is a huge problem. I mean, at least in Barnes and Noble there's a literature section next to all the other (some silly) sections, so people looking for a certain "thing" know where to go. And everyone knows about independent quality bookstores and where to find them. There doesn't seem to be such a thing as a comic store equivalent. I know it'd probably be impossible to keep the store in business, but still. I'm sure there are people serious about comics the way there are people serious in, well, any profession, and if there were a little section where their work was displayed (and this is primarily the responsibility of the store manager; if they're interested in quality comics, they'll give them a display, don't you think?)I would honestly stop for a while and take a look. So far, I just haven't been exposed to any books that have made me want to do that.

I'm not vehemently against comics or anything; I just haven't found any yet that have challenged me the way I want to be challenged. It seems like, at some point, every single one of them contains a cliche of some kind, even the "serious" ones. What do you think about that? I'm just wondering why it seems to be a bit of a prerequisite. And please, if I'm wrong, prove me wrong! :) I'm hoping to be wrong.

Am I getting way off track here? lol. Probably. But talking is fun.


Anonymous said...

But, too, props for editors who are willing to break out of the literary canon and all. I should never post, because I can't keep an opinion in my head for more than 10 minutes.


Anonymous said...

re: cliche...

sometimes something reads like 'cliche' because it started the thing that becomes a cliche. I remember thinking Jules Verne's stuff was full of cliche when I first read it.

Comics are full of "bits of bizness" that get appropriated to other media -- then when a comic nods back to the original bit or seeks to refine or clarify it, the bit reads like cliche.

I think that that's one thing that's happening.


Fuji said...

I've lived in many differnt cities and been a comic fan for as long as I can remember. New York City was by far the wrose place to go to comic shops. All of the shops seemed to be the dank type that made me feel like I was God's gift to women after leaving the store. Houston, TX has its ups and downs, more downs than ups though. One place is nice and bright, fun atmosphere, but with little product that it didn't matter, or bright, well lit, but had the pretentious air when walking into the store. Currently in Austin, and I must rave about Dragon's Lair. Yes, it is a geeky name, but the store is not only bright, well lit, with very out going and helpful people, but women actually work there too. Shocking I know. The place also has something like 4 cats that just wander the store. So, Dragon's Lair is very warming. I'd be willing to take my girl there, if I weren't single.

Aside from that, I also think that the problem with the whole comic industry is not just the gross over-sexualization of the genders (really? what guy has muscles there!?) but the daunting task of not only finding a good story with good art, but finding that story early enough so that you can follow. Most people cannot watch "Lost" if they miss an episode, and that's what comics have been for a while now. Sure, there's some one offs, but as a whole, try as a new reader to get into "Strangers in Paradise," God help you if you want to get into the DC or Marvel Universe.

There's a reason why manga is a little more popular with the female demographic than the American style. It's usally the art and the style of writing. The art tends to be a little bit more "realistic" if you will, and the stories are just more pleasing to them. Let me clarify what I mean about the art; Take the ultimate version of Vision and compare her/him to Alita in the Gunnm/Battle Angel series. Yes, Battle Angel is more aimed at males, but just look at the two character. Which seems more plausiable? Which seems more like the average real life body?

I dunno, I think I am just typing for the sake of typing. If the comic industry wants to be saved, they will save themselves by not making the stories so convoluted that if you haven't been following them for 16 years you won't get it, have the staff actually bathe once in a while, and give it a more open, welcoming air to it all. And stock better manga. I swear, it seems that they all pull the lowest quality titles...

elishare said...

I'm Woody's wife, and I want to clarify some things. First of all, I don't hate comic books. I just don't like to read them myself, and when my husband tried to push his latest buy on me, "You must read this; you would love it!" I usually push it back because of bad experiences I've had with comic books in general.

They make me mad because just when I'm getting into the plot, some senseless sexism is thrown in for no artful reason (that is apparent to me). Look at the movie Sin City, for example, which I realize isn't a comic book but is, however, derived from and therefore representative of comic books. The guy's therapist (or is she his parole officer, I can't remember) is naked in every scene. Come on. She's supposed to a be a leader and strong role model for this character. However, according to the writer's interpretation, the only way she can gain respect or call his attention is if she's naked? That's the way I read that, and it's unfortunate all around.

I don't hate comics because I think they get some people interested in reading at an early age. Also, I respect the experimentation involved with comics. According to my husband, comic books often work hard to send daring poltical or spiritual messages that other media are afraid to. Also, as a language and literacy educator, comic books can be a creative and fun way to teach English.

Therefore, I don't hate them; I just have a bad taste in my mouth. Every time I give them a chance I'm left disappointed.

However, just for the record, that day we went into the comic book shop to buy my husband his toy, I didn't go to get a free comic book, nor did I go to look at comic books. This comic shop in particular had a lot of puzzles and games. We went for that. Nevertheless, I am indeed never going into that shop again.


elishare said...

One more thing I forgot to mention: I don't get bothered by that whole "Oooh, it's a girl!" vibe when I enter a comic book shop. But what I am bothered by is the fact that there's no "section" for me. There's no special place for educators or women's interests, for example. It usually takes me about five minutes of perusing most comic book shops to discover that, and after I do, I don't know what to do with myself. So as I wait for my husband, I wander around with my hands in my pockets trying to avoid eye contact so that no one discovers that I'm not "in the club." It's then that I inadvertently get the creepy vibes.

What if there were a bubble tea or coffee stand with some comfy chairs and a few magazines lying around? Just to give the wives and girlfriends something to do?! Make a place for us! If not on the shelves, then somewhere in the store, at least!!!

Anonymous said...

But is this a chicken and egg situation? What I mean is, is your local shop that way because they set out to be that way, or did they become that because that's what their customers want?

Just as an example, I know my local store has attempted to support indy books to the tune of thousands of dollars lost in unsold inventory gathering dust. If you think that the mere presence of a section of what you classify as women friendly titles are suddenly going to bring women into the store, you are wrong.

While they still do have a nice indy book section, they've learned over the years that it's a little foolish to chase after a market (of women like your wife) that doesn't particularly care for comics anyway, especially when their resources are limited. It's sad, but most shops simply cannot afford to stock something like Meat Cake in hopes, among their hundreds of regular customers, one might someday bring their wife in.

The library analogy fails because libraries don't typically have to worry about making rent every month, nor are they a for-profit endeavor.

Anonymous said...

related is:
comics 2 and
role-playing games...

"I think it's fun to be a paradigm mutant, with half your head in dead media, half your head in new (or imaginary) media. Keeps me keeping myself guessing. Comics are distinctly 20th century babies (that doesn't mean that they're dead!), and I don't think that comics (as we think of them) will survive much longer. You've got a new crop of youth who read and write 'webcomics', and find last century's masterpieces a little too spooky, a little too morbid. They want manga-informed lighter fare.

I'm a little bit interested in what they're doing, but like I said -- I've got half my head back in 1986. Anyway, what's the effectual difference between a Flash powered webcomic and a "video cartoon" on television? Audio?"

So... I'm also interested in where the lines are drawn between and around these media... Is comics, like poetry, a genre... or is comics, like romance, a genre... or is comics, like television, a medium?


elishare said...

But what about the libraries who have to fight for their existence, such as military libraries? When Woody was a reference librarian for the military, he and his staff had to regularly submit data to the powers that were to prove that the library was used and needed. Otherwise, funds would've been cut. So they altered the environment and experimented with titles to beef up daily patronage.

My point is that the comic shop/library analogy DOES work because not all library funding is secure.


Anonymous said...

Anon said: "The library analogy fails because libraries don't typically have to worry about making rent every month, nor are they a for-profit endeavor."

Aubree makes a good point, and tis true -- libraries don't typically have to "make rent" on a month-to-month basis, but many do have to "make rent" on a quarter-to-quarter or fiscal-year basis... and this all comes down to taking risks with "stock" to attract new patrons to increase the circulation of materials.

Libraries aren't usually in the extreme woefull financial direlands that some comics shops can find themselves in, but the situation (Especially for any kind of corporate library -- and that usually includes DoD subcontracters -- or small libraries that have to take risks to keep themselves relevant) isn't too very dissimilar in my experience.