Under discussion: “Community Standards: The View from Outside” from Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud.
Chapter 4 of Reinventing Comics deals, ostensibly, with public perception of comics–the good, the bad, and the changing–as well as the response of institutions such as universities with regards to comics studies and comics-adjacent research and production. This means that the chapter covers a pretty wide range of topics including the changing tenor of cultural criticism of comics; the lambasting of comic books in the 1950s in books like Seduction of the Innocent; and the difficulties that normal folks have in navigating through the labyrinth of negative perceptions and the ocean of stereotypes (and don’t forget the tidal wave of metaphors!) about the kinds of people who read and draw and sell comics.
The higher ed information is a much smaller portion of the chapter, and focuses somewhat on comics creation programs and not comics studies programs. Both are probably necessary for the kind of vibrant national and international dialogue that McCloud, myself, and others are hoping for, but I don’t really know what the landscape for all of that stuff looked like in 2000 CE, so I’m not judging. (Like, not at all. The whole thing, A+ Great Work.)
What McCloud sort of glosses over–he mentions it in passing in one panel and then moves on lickety split–is how the price tag for comics is such a big barrier to broader understanding. I secretly think that one reason (among thousands!) that superhero and action-centric comics dominate the market is that they don’t break your bank if all you want to do is follow one comic month to month. They don’t break the bank and they still give you a reason to come back–a cliffhanger on every page and at the end of every issue! the ROI on the dramatic tension alone!–and they only charge you $5 to stay in the club. Whereas a graphic novel a month? That’s the equivalent of 2 or 3 or 4 (or more) actual paper prose fiction novels that you could buy with that same money. And if you’re a heavy user, then there’s a good reason you choose prose fiction over comics: because you can actually build a library worth preserving, a library worth exploring, for yourself.
What I’ve had to do to take on this “Year of Comics” project is get really cozy with my local library. Ann Arbor has a great comic shop in Vault of Midnight and they also have a great graphic novel section at the Ann Arbor District Library (AADL). But it has to be said that for this “My Year of Comics” project, I’m moving through 800-1000 pages of material a month. That would cost, what $200 a month? So $2400 a year? More? Enough for a beater car, maybe? And where am I going to store these trade paperbacks and graphic novels? You might have room, but I have kids. Every shelf in my place is crammed with blocks and occupation-based figures and loveywuffle snugglefriends (or whatever our stuffed animals are getting called today). The point is–ain’t no room, y’all.
But for a kid interested in stories or art or both, there’s not shelf space excuse: there’s just no money. And that’s more true for some kids than for others, right. So if you’re going to grow your audience, you’re going to have to actively promote local libraries and inter-library loan programs (thanks MELCat!). You have to catalog and create helper guides and put your stuff in a public space where people will see it.
I’m serious. If you’re at a library with a great graphic novel collection, you should be brainstorming ways to show this collection off, brainstorming ways that people can use these books to learn things, either raw information or else style tips or whatever. Give people a reason to pick up something you’re carrying. Get those books out the door, get those thoughts out into the world.
Because it’s not as simple as stocking good books and choosing a half dozen to put on outward-facing book stands. That’s not enough. Readers need time to browse. To pull stuff off the shelf and leaf through. To look up on the internet whether something is any good or just looks good. What’s in stock now vs. what you’ll have to put a hold request in for. To see what other volumes of a given series are also available at your local library system or whether you’ll have to get them through inter-library loan. Because, no kidding? A reader’s whole reading experience, which is to say their entire aesthetic experience, is shaped by how fast (by which I also mean how slowly) they get to read these books. It’s taken me three months to get to Saga Vol. 6. It’s taken me two months to get to Akira Vol. 5. The story and art that you remember from those earlier volumes is faded, warped, misshaped by your memory of it. If you want to binge a thing, you have to buy it.
But there’s a payoff for your sacrifice, which is that all that time spent browsing leads to the kind of flipping-through-cases-at-the-record-store happy discovery. I binged aama by Frederick Peeters because I saw it sitting on the shelf and nobody else was reading it–not one volume of it on loan when I started. And that led me to Blue Pills: A Positive Love Story, also by Peeters, which is the best book that I’ve read in a million years. It’s hard to imagine having that recommended to me off the top of someone’s head, and the process of discovering that book is a significant part of the joy I had in reading it, in the joy I have in remembering it now.
NOTE TO SELF
The list of comics that Scott McCloud has mentioned so far that I haven’t read includes:
- The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller
- The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird
- Megaton Man by Don Simpson
- Love and Rockets by Los Bros. Hernandez
- Eightball by Dan Clowes
- Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder
- American Splendor by Harvey Pekar et. al.
- Yummy Fur by Chester Brown
- From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell
- Acme Novelty Library by Chris Ware
- “Discovering America” by David Mazzucchelli
- Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McKay
- Krazy Kat by George Herriman
- New Gods by Jack Kirby
- Weirdo by R. Crumb
- “Ace Hole: Midget Detective” by Art Spiegelman
- Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
- “Rubble” by Harvey Kurtzman
- A Contract with God by Will Eisner
- Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes
- Adaptation of City of Glass by Paul Auster (comic adapter name?)
- Our Cancer Year by Harvey Pekar
- It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by Seth
- “Home” by Eric Drooker from the anthology Flood
- Doonesbury by G. B. Trudeau
- The R. Crumb Sketchbook
- Hicksville by Dylan Horrock
- “Here” by Richard Macguire
- Peep Show by Joe Matt
- I Never Liked You by Chester Brown
- Historical comics by Jack Jackson
- Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick
The list of comics that Scott McCloud has mentioned so far that I have read includes:
- Various stuff by Joe Sacco (thought I should read more)