Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A few weeks ago DC Comics sent out a press release announcing that all of their comics would be relaunched with new first issues and that this would allow for something fresh and accessible to the masses of contemporary culture. A week or two after that, the writers and artists that would be behind the coming avalanche of product were announced, along with images displaying what the art would look like, and those paying attention learned that the idea of "contemporary" that a 2011 comics company is willing to put out there looks exactly like things that were popular in the 1990s. Popular comics-wise, at least, at a moment when comics were at a low ebb in terms of their cultural currency: The drawing style I'm talking about would be made most manifest outside of comics in Todd McFarlane doing album art for the band KoRn and directing one of their music videos. If the visual gleam of this crosshatched surface had a sonic equivalent, it would be nu-metal, essentially, and that is the house style, mandated from the higher-ups, for DC comics come mid-2011: Drawings that look like they come from a Disturbed CD.

The original announcement of restarted numbering came part and parcel with the idea that these comics will be available digitally the same day that the physical copies are on sale, a concession to ideas of the digital world. What's strange, then, is the disinterest these comics have towards the way that the online world is oriented towards visual culture: Look at tumblr, flickr- all these tools that people use to keep track of what floats their boat, visually. A big part of this stream is photography, and that isn't necessarily germane to a comics discussion, but shit: There are plenty of people who draw, or design, and these people's sense of aesthetics is miles away from the product that DC hopes to charge money for an audience to look at.

The reason for this, probably, is because that anyone who learns how to draw comics via reading comics is also going to learn a lot of history, and for this generation of cartoonists, that means knowing that working in the labor mines of the mainstream is not a worthwhile way to spend away the vitality of your youth. Anyone looking at Jack Kirby drawings (as drawings, as comics, and not just a vehicle for certain characters beloved by fan culture) is going to learn that Jack Kirby's career arc is not one to emulate: It involves working pretty much until you die, with diminishing commercial success. Any prospective penciller that might not know these things, and be closer to the "fan" mentality that would be interested in drawing characters from their youth, probably grew up on manga, and would have a drawing style completely repugnant to the companies signing the checks. So the people the companies find to make things look "new" are those that have already been employed by the industry, for the past 15 years or more: The artist chosen to draw the flagship comic that kicks off the whole initiative, Jim Lee, is in his mid-forties.

So, that's the upside. The past is dying, and the mistakes prior generations made have been learned from by the children of the future. However, just because the best and brightest of those making art have learned where the action isn't, doesn't mean that the average consumer has, and mainstream superhero comics remain a major revenue stream for comic book stores, places I would assign cultural value to. I would like it if the people willing to pay for high-production-value color printing offered that service to people willing to use it in an interesting way, but that is not the case, and the fact that things look different printed on paper than they do on a computer screen will probably be lost to the generation after this one. Plenty of comics with meager virtues to their art, worth learning from, can currently be found at comic book shops across this great land, sold for dirt cheap because most people aren't interested. Connoisseurs of bottom-feeder culture have the quarter bins of comic book stores the same way they have the one-and-two-dollar bins of record stores, but that only lasts as long as either remain open, powered by a stream of things with actual profit margins.

The downside to a major publisher dying is the death of print, and comic book stores, and the continuance of landfills in the face of everything else.


Brian said...

For the sake of efficiency, this post does not address a lot of counter-arguments that I thought of as I wrote the post. Let me run through them:

Todd McFarlane is not directly involved in any of these DC comics: But Greg Capullo is drawing Batman, Jim Lee draws Justice League, and Rob Liefeld is back to drawing Hawk and Dove. Others are mining this same visual territory.

Cliff Chiang draws in a clean-illustration style, and is given the fairly high-profile Wonder Woman assignment, where he is working with a Jim Lee costume redesign.

Artists should continue to find work in their mid-forties, that is not that old, and the comics' industry habit of no longer employing certain freelancers as they age is actually fairly shameful.

Richard Corben drew the album art for Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell LP, and I love that guy.

Brian said...

Oh yeah and I could've run through a list of comics folks whose style I find fresher than the 1990s Image Comics style that I think could translate to mainstream comics: David Mazzucchelli, Geoff Darrow, Seth Fisher, Bill Sienkiewicz, Brian Chippendale, Brendan McCarthy, any number of Kyle Baker styles, Moebius, Paul Pope, John Paul Leon, James Romberger, Osamu Tezuka, Steve Ditko, Sam Kieth, etc ad infinitum. MY POINT BEING that many things that predate the Image Comics style, due to not finding as many imitators and never proliferating past a certain tipping point, retain a certain numinous charge even after all these years. Styles that lead to imitators do not age as well, and if you are trying to make a line of things feel contemporary and American one would be best served by employing a plurality of different approaches.