Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Everybody Be Cool: Hip To Be Squarebound

The image of the comic reader as 'loser-geek' has been well explored - but there's another type of comic reader, too. In a new series, Kieron Gillen looks at the role of the comic book as a chic accessory of the cutting-edge consumer.
04 November 2002

Grant Morrison said a pretty interesting thing to Sequential Tart a few months ago:

"Having spent fifteen years of my life trying very hard to promote my field and gain the respect of 'mainstream' culture, I've come to the conclusion that only the very cool and the very uncool will really care about comics in any significant way in the future."

And while that, like any extreme dichotomy painted on existence's vivid continuum, is full of shit, he still has something of a point.

The way Mr Morrison paints it, comic readers are either polysexual Shaman folding their consciousness into sub-dimensional pockets to a neo-disco-beat, or they live above their parent's garage masturbating to grainy web-cam footage of polysexual Shaman getting it on with each other via a pay-per-view website.

The comic-reader-as-social-zero theory has been well explored to the point of cliché, and the reasons why comics would prove popular with those who enjoy sticking up LADY DEATH posters with their own bodily fluids are obvious and well discussed. The dominant genre in comics provides sanitised power fantasies featuring strongly fetishised principle characters. In an act of pure retromancery, comics provide a return to the safety of childhood and young adolescence. Comics provide a secret language that allows their acolytes to gain a sense of worth. Comics often feature large breasts wrapped up in spandex.

It's easy to see why comics should appeal to society's detritus - what isn't so obvious is why the aforementioned very cool people should consider spending time among the sequential art.

And that's what this series of columns is about: What is it about comics that appeals to very cool people?

But we'll get to that. Let's clear the floor of dissenters before continuing.

You mention the word cool with relation to comics and certain memories come to mind - the first of which is what happened last time comics gained a thin patina of it, in the mid-to-late eighties. First, the high of celebration - a form coming into its age, the Pulitzer, the magazine spreads, the fevered column inches.

And then a string of disasters: Tundra ejaculating turtle-powered millions over the landscape. Fashionistas who once flirted with the form - as it's their general nature - inevitably turning away. As the NME of the period noted - recalled in Eddie Campbell's ALEC book HOW TO BE AN ARTIST, a fine look at this period from the inside - "If graphic novels are the literature of the future, then how come nobody's reading them?"

That's not entirely accurate, though. People read MAUS, WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. They eventually bumped into a couple of the high-end (Gollancz's non- Zarate/Moore graphic novels) or low-end (Superlad's cheery fisticuffs collected into a quick knock-off) cash-ins/noble-experiments - please feel free to delete according to your own personal level of cynicism - and then sodded right off again.

As if they were ever going to do anything else. Nothing stops things being cool quicker than them being rubbish. The Emperor's New Clothes, while momentarily distracting, are thrown off the second it gets a little too chilly.

Of course, the experience of this period has lead to the standard argument, favoured of little cottage-industry heads: To meddle with the cool consensus is to fall prey to its fickle nature. What's cool one second becomes uncool the next. For comics to be cool now requires them to become uncool at a future point. It's part of the system, hence to join it any point is counterproductive.

Er... no. That's the extreme vagaries of fashion you're thinking of. 'Cool' is something else. The post-war cult of teenagerhood has blossomed into this single word that describes all that's desirable in modern life, and comics can safely flirt with its sunglasses-at-night guardians with no worry, because comics are a form and forms are notoriously resistant to the abrasion of fashion.

Given certain conditions, of course.

Think about it: Books are cool. Films are cool. Music is cool. Dancing is cool. Sex is cool. Conversely, D&D Fantasy Paperbacks aren't cool. STAR TREK: THE VOYAGE HOME isn't cool. Celine Dion isn't cool. The Funky Chicken isn't cool. Some forms of sex aren't... alright. You've got me. The exception that proves the rule, and all that.

A form will be consistently considered cool if it contains sufficient items of excellence to maintain its reputation.

Comics are cool - in that they all have the potential in themselves for greatness. Specific examples of the form - like, say, X-TREME X-MEN - are not cool. Understand the difference.

However comics being touted as a cool item is as inherently ludicrous now as it was then. Certain books of the period - the aforementioned MAUS and WATCHMEN - were cool purely in and of themselves, and so supported the validity of the form. To consider comics themselves as cool is putting the effecting factors before the affecting ones.

The point is, comics are a form, and so a possible font of excellence, and are treated as such by very cool people. Because very cool people, by their nature, are violently cosmopolitan elitists, and a single form can't satisfy them. They need constant fresh blood to smear along the sacrificial blade of culture.

Anything cool, from wherever, is of equal merit, and they don't care if it's a group of new Japanese Zero-G Noiseniks or Brian Wood's urban revolution chic in CHANNEL ZERO. Very Cool people continued to read groundbreaking and sexy comics even when the general cultural dialogue had turned its nose up at them - because they're groundbreaking and sexy, not because they're comics.

But what makes a cool comic, and in which ways can they be uniquely groundbreaking and sexy?

Oh c'mon. This column is in a series for a reason.

Besides. I haven't thought of any yet.

Question for the day: Autonyms for the word "cool" gratefully appreciated. This is getting repetitive.

Kieron Gillen is an award-winning videogames journalist.

Ninth Art endorses the principle of Ideological Freeware. The author permits distribution of this article by private individuals, on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.