Under discussion: “Negativeland: The Business of Comics” from Reinventing Comics by Scott McCloud.
The great writer Tom Bissell once opened a lecture by imagining a bunch of poets in ancient Greece—the Homeric style of poets, the kind who memorized everything and then recited it back—a bunch of poets who were sitting around worried if this whole writing things down trend was going to take off, and how it would affect their jobs.
Bissell was using the example to communicate to a room full of would-be literary writers that their worries about being taken seriously and, most importantly, about their ability to support themselves were very, very real.
I can feel that same anxiety burning at the edges of the pages of chapter 3 of Scott McCloud’s Reinventing Comics. How do we earn money, what do we sacrifice to earn, what does the machine consist of, does the machine really not need us or does it only believe it doesn’t need us. (Machine meaning the comics industry, or any creative industry. Us meaning talent, us meaning the storytellers.)
McCloud’s explication, per usual, is thoughtfully executed, crystalline in the clarity of its complexities of scale in the comic book publishing. There is, maybe not surprisingly, a crib note version of American comic book publishing history encapsulated in McCloud’s examination of the problems and pratfalls of the contemporary comic book industry, which helps contextualize somewhat the morass of poorly sorted options one encounters when entering any sizeable comic book store.
What is maybe missing from the discussion—and part of this awareness or lack of it can be blamed on the difference between the kinds of discussions happening in 2000 when Reinventing Comics was published as opposed to the kinds of discussions that happened later in the aughts and tens and today—is the concept of the reader/creator. Everyone might not be a professional storyteller, but everyone alive is a storyteller. If the utility and joy of lay comic creation is invisible or inaccessible to an average person, then the importance of the medium is automatically, and maybe rightfully, called into question. Ditto for comic book stores.
I say this as someone who has spent all kinds of time with comic books and all kinds of comic book stores. I say this as someone who feels an acutely near-home-ish coziness in the graphic novel section of my local library. I’ve read hundreds upon hundreds of graphic novels, and yet sitting down to create a little one page comic for my spouse or kid makes me feel basically adrift as to how to start or what to say or what part of my efforts might be interesting or of value. Anxieties, by the way, that are basically absent when it comes to writing a small gift story (I know my way around the kitchen, so to speak) or doing a funny doodle or drawing (where my lack of trained skill is so enormous that it doesn’t matter if it’s any good). But combining art and words and putting it all in order leaves my palms sweaty.
McCloud talks about the direct market and its benefits and drawbacks, and he ends the chapter by ominously mentioning digital distribution, as if all of this might GO AWAY IF WE’RE NOT CAREFUL. But I’m not sure a million new whats-her-names and whats-his-names are going to start buying comics unless they see how comics are helpful to their daily lives. (Twist ending! Poetry, both spoken and written, has fallen into this same trap.)
By “helpful” I mean that comics illuminate something powerful about the way humans work, or the way the world works, or that comics are created by someone the reader identifies with, or comics communicate very useful information in an entertaining way. And if people are creating their own comics, then reading becomes a way to get in touch with that part of themselves that loves to create comics, and, more broadly, that loves to create stories. Creator and reader are brought together by that universal human feeling of “isn’t it awesome, look, I made something.”
Maybe the way to save the direct market isn’t to free up professional creators for more mind-blowing graphic novels (although that couldn’t hurt), maybe it’s to abandon professionalism as the sole value-determining heuristic.
If I were a comic shop—“Holy crap, a talking muffin!”, do you know that joke?—then I would find some local-ish comics creators to teach three different classes:
Superhero comic writing and drawing;
And I would cluster my books in sections that allowed people to experience those genres in all of their glory, to point out overlaps and question classifications. But transforming a place where you buy things into a place where you make things is one very important way to engage and grow customers.
NOTE TO SELF
This third chapter is the funniest chapter of this book, by the way, and funnier than the chapters in Understanding Comics also. I laughed out loud three different times, which is a lot for someone like me.