What will it take for the medium of comics to produce truly great works of art, and truly great artists? Alasdair Watson believes the potential is there, if only the business side would take the necessary risks to push the art form to the next level.
10 October 2003

Whats your favourite poem? How about your favourite painting? Novel? Play?

Now, I'm sure you can answer all of those questions. Ninth Art's readers are a cultured and sophisticated lot. (If you stumbled across this site by chance, and cannot answer any of those questions, then please, switch off your computer, and don't turn it back on again until you can answer all four of them. And simply being able to name one of each that you've seen or read doesn't count.)

A lot of people compare comics to film, and to music, both as art form and industry. Pop arts, basically. I wonder, though: are we letting them off lightly with these comparisons? Surely if the aspiration of the medium is to Art, then we should hold them up against the full spectrum of human creativity, not just that against which it can (debatably) hold its own.

It's easy to make excuses for comics. The medium is still in its infancy, for example, and given its relatively small size, it perhaps shouldn't be surprising it hasn't uncovered its Van Gogh yet, or its Shakespeare. But then, cinema is about the same age, and has been produced serious talents for decades, including the likes of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Akira Kurosawa.

'I'd like to see comics with the same weight as the works of Tolstoy or Goethe.' What has comics got? Alan Moore. Who, with the best will in the world, has still spent an extremely large chunk of his career filtering what he wants to say through the genre prejudices of the medium he works in. We've had a few "significant works" by people who aren't Alan Moore - Art Spiegelman's MAUS leaps immediately to mind, and Chris Ware's JIMMY CORRIGAN, of course - but for the most part, the medium goes largely unnoticed because even at its best, even when it leaves superheroes and all the things that traditionally turn people off comics behind, it still hasn't produced very many serious works. For all that I love PREACHER, SANDMAN, THE INVISIBLES, or any of the other works that people suggest as comics for non-comics readers, they're still light entertainment.

Nothing wrong with light entertainment, of course. But I'd also like to see comics with the same kind of weight in them as the works of Tolstoy or Goethe or Joyce. Hell, even the seriousness of someone like Perez-Reverte, who, as much as I like him, falls short of any of the aforementioned by a country mile. He at least produces works that have something to say about the human condition, and he isn't afraid to be serious, or to ask the reader to think and to empathise. He doesn't seem to feel obliged to inject gags and spectacle ever third page to get the sales.

I suspect that part of what keeps comics from doing this sort of thing is that it's never been done before. I can't believe that out of all the people working in the medium, there isn't a one who could sit down and produce a Serious Work, if only they were allowed to without being forced to serialise it or make other concessions to the market. And if only they could find a publisher who would pay them a living wage for it, of course. But that would mean that the publisher would have to take a risk. So that's not going to happen.

Of course, looked at another way, most of the greats never made any money from their Serious Works while they were alive. Everyone knows about Van Gogh. Or William Blake. Shakespeare was hardly loaded, come to that, though he was lucky enough to earn a living from his work.

So on the one hand, things continue much as they always have - the artists take the jobs he can, the ones that pay, while working on his own labour of love in his spare moments.

But hang on here a minute. Gary Oldman gets to make NIL BY MOUTH, if he does a couple of films like LOST IN SPACE. James Cameron gets to make GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS. Damien Hirst seems to be allowed to do whatever he damn well pleases, which is something I'm sure we could all do without.

'Even at its best, the medium still hasn't produced very many serious works.' Comics is a medium that afford its Artists (whatever trade they practice) little respect. Part of this has to be familiarity breeding contempt, I'm sure. If there's dirty laundry out there, it'll get a public airing at some point, and faced with such clay-footed idols, is it any wonder that fans accord them little respect? Which is not to say that anyone, in any field, should automatically be elevated just because they're a creator. But still, the fact that it's so easy to see these people warts-and-all makes it hard for anyone, be it fan or prospective editor with a pitch on his or her desk, to spot the glimpses of something special behind that reputation as a whiny prima donna who can't make a deadline.

Of course, it's not just the reputations and the bitching and the gossip. With luck, it's not even mostly that. Comics, as everyone keeps pointing out, are an art form and a business, and while I don't believe that one is the death of the other, it's true that the demands of business are often inimical to art. Art, if you'll permit me to use the term in its most intellectual, elitist snob sort of sense, demands something new, something honest, and at times, something difficult or disturbing. Business, on the other hand, tends to demand more of whatever was selling well yesterday.

Cinema does this too, although not as much. For all the dross that the film industries turn out, in any one year I can be guaranteed a couple of really interesting films in amongst the nonsense. A BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE, or a PI, or even a DONNIE DARKO. All of these films made money, but you'd have been forgiven for betting against them at the box office.

But then, for all business of comics demands more of what sells, it only does that because it's been conditioned to believe two things: one, that it's very hard to reach the non-comics audience, and two, that the existing comics audience is resistant to change.

'Comics is a medium that afford its Artists little respect.' Except that it's demonstrably not that hard to reach the non-comics audience - if it was, MAUS, JIMMY CORRIGAN, or the works of Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds, wouldn't have won the awards they have. GHOST WORLD or FROM HELL wouldn't have had the sales spike they did on the back of their respective movies. The non-comics audience will turn up for a work with a bit of weight in it, if it's put in front of them. Hell, even ENDLESS NIGHTS, which I'm still trying to make my mind up about, got in at number 20 on the New York Times bestseller list (not that sales are necessarily indicative of quality, of course). If you can sell a comic work to them in the same way that you would sell a book, they they'll show.

And if you can sell to a new market, then surely the old one doesn't matter any more? Or at least, if you've got products for new markets, then you don't need to work about how they play to the old one.

Of course, this would all depend, again, on a publisher doing something new. This would depend on a publisher dealing with bookstores in a sensible manner, like book publishers do. I note that whenever a book publisher decides to do comics, they look around to see what the comic publishers are doing, on the assumption that comic publishers know what works. This seems deeply crazy to me, because for the most part, the attempt I see comics publishers making with bookstores is pitiful.

I don't think it's an accident that Gaiman's work sells very well in bookstores, any more than I think it's a coincidence that Terry Pratchett is Britain's best-selling author. Both of them do the same thing, whenever they have a new book out - they tour. They do signings, readings and press. They help bookstores sell their product, rather than thinking that the job is done once the book is in the store.

Oh and incidentally, if anyone out there still doubts that this might be effective, you might want to take a look at Neil Gaiman's site, where he says himself that in order to make him the same amount in royalties from the comics as he has from the collected editions, each issue would have had to sell over a million copies.

Is it hard to get into bookstores? Probably. Is it as hard as the industry would like to believe? Probably not. But they don't seem to be making any serious effort, either in terms of the work that most of the industry puts out, or in terms or the help they appear to give bookstores in selling the product. Warped as it may seem, it seems to me that if there were a little more time and support given to the art of comics by the business of comics, the art might find itself doing better business.

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