Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The New Counter Culture

There’s been a bit of a hullabaloo over that the fact that 2004 is the 70th anniversary of the modern American comic book. For most people, this is one of those nostalgic milestones that reminds us of our lost innocence. Hey, Lou remember the Funnies? Remember the Hit Parade? Remember egg creams? Gosh, those were the days. To Mr. and Mrs. America today, Comic books are either hopelessly quaint or vaguely disreputable. In this age of endless electronic diversion, where does something as hopelessly archaic as a comic book fit in?

I asked the manger of my local comics store what percentage of his non-Manga clientele is under 15 and he replied that it was maybe 3%. Then I asked him which percentage is 15-20 and he responded maybe 10%. I remarked that in the 80’s when I was managing New England Comics the 10-20 age bracket was probably 80% of the market. The over-30 bracket was limited to a few strange old birds who wandered in now and then. I would say the over 30’s are 60% of the market today.

Now, when I go to a comics store I generally have a hard time finding things to buy. It’s not that there aren’t a lot of things I want, it’s that the Bush economy has been murder on my finances and I just can’t stock up on all those Masterworks and monographs I eye wistfully every week. I see a lot of things on the racks that I admire or enjoy thumbing through, but when it comes to plonking down 3 bucks for a five minute read, I get super picky. Let me say this: anyone who puts out a comic book- never mind a series of them- instantly gets my respect and admiration, even if it’s often grudging. And let me also say this: the overall quality of comic books has never been higher and they just continue to improve. I can’t believe how many talented artists there are out there- it’s simply astounding. But again, I have kids and a mortgage and my 2003 tax return would inspire fits of laughter and derision if I divulged it here. So I have to be frugal. And I have noticed that there has been a waning level of excitement among fans since the glory days of the Bill and Joe show. But that’s to be expected. It will come around again.

So, in an age of Kazaa, Reality TV and Grand Theft Auto and MTV, why do Comics persist? Why hasn’t the medium just laid down and died like so many have predicted for the past 30 years?

Well, Comics persist and will continue to persist because it is not simply a format we are talking about here, like 8-tracks, Betamax or Big Little Books, or even a medium, it is a Counter-Culture. Comics, have for at least the past 20 years, behaved contrary to the whims of the Mainstream. Where Mainstream media has gotten stupider, glossier and emptier, Comics have become brainier, edgier and more subversive. The very fact that you have to actually sit down and read the damn things is itself a seditious act in a culture seemingly hellbent on eradicating literacy entirely.

There was such an uproar from all quarters over Janet Jackson’s breast exposure at the Super Bowl half-time show you can’t help wonder what true nerve was struck there. In many ways, that tit-flash was the apotheosis of American culture over the past decade. An talented but aging singer being reduced to what is essentially a form of prostitution to regain the attention of jaded Americans. Liberal sophisticates shrug their shoulders and ask what the big deal is. And the knee-jerk cultural conservatives wallow in it far after everyone else has moved on. After all, smut is only acceptable if you feel guilty about it.

But the real issue here is American culture is so atomized, and American’s entertainment dollars are so violently fought over that the bar is being constantly lowered on every conceivable front. I am not one of those people who thinks that sex and violence in entertainment leads to criminal behavior, in fact I think the opposite. I think it leads to docility.

After all, as entertainment has become ever more extreme over the past 10 years, crime rates have fallen, as have other negative social indicators like teen pregnancy and abortion rates. One look no further than Japan to see how extreme entertainment actually inoculates a society against transgression. If you get a nice, safe, easy fix of sin on your couch, you don’t to get a risky dose of it on the streets. But that’s just my current theory and the argument will go on forever.

But what to me is inarguable is that kids are not reading enough, especially boys. Video games are the primary source of diversion for young boys today, and it’s the neurological not the moral implications of this which trouble me. I see it in my own boys and my God, its nearly impossible to counteract. The repercussions of this are starting to manifest themselves in the academic under-performance of boys in relation to girls, girls being far more likely to read. This is the damage of Popular Culture in my eyes- illiteracy, docility and intellectual incuriosity, particularly regarding young boys. And what a “counter” culture is mean to do, is - duh - counter the prevailing trends of the dominant culture.

I ‘vie never been one of the fans who thinks that Comics need to appeal to the mainstream and lament the fact that Comics are no longer a mass medium. Because screw the Mainstream and screw Mass Media. To me, the mainstream is Babylon and the mass media is Samsara. These are things to resist, to fight against, to deride, to sneer at. All I see is greed, stupidity, and sleep induction when I turn on network television. The only movies I haven’t felt underwhelmed or ripped off by in the past few years were the Lord of the Rings pictures and Finding Nemo. In fact, I don’t even go to the movies anymore. All I usually see on the screen is the work of a committee of accountants. I hate the new corporate Rock with a flaming passion and can’t stand commercial radio. To me, even the dumbest comics are inherently smarter than the crap the Mass Media is force feeding us.

Fans, especially hardcore fans, love to moan about the state of the Industry. Things are always getting worse. Never mind that the market share for everything is going down as new diversions vie for an audience. And it’s true that a stigma still remains on Comics and there is a definite need for fresh blood. But the way to keep the medium vital is not to paint Comics as a failed, old mass medium, but as a red-hot, roiling counter-culture. Even if the Internet downloading hurts sales ( a phenomenon I just heard about ), it cant help but get new eyes looking at Comics. Smart kids are always going to want something to believe in and immerse themselves in, and you can see that in the diversity of the audience over the past 20 years. And even if most kids move on if the Manga fad fizzles, I am willing to bet that some will stay on and look over to see what the homegrown variety tastes like.

I will have a lot more to say on this in the future, whether here or on the Net. But I really believe its time for this community to get off its knees and raise its fist in the air. The only way for Comics to truly thrive is as a fork in the eye of the mainstream. The world isn’t dreaming anymore because the all encompassing reach of Mass Media has stolen those dreams from us. I don’t understand exactly what it is, but there is something special that Comics do to the imagination, which is exactly why we see so many comics fans getting rich in Hollywood. There is something alchemical about this medium that not even novels can touch. It’s that mixture of words and pictures that stimulates something in the deepest reaches of the brain, and people outside the Ghetto are starting to notice. Comics aren’t dead by a long shot. I say they’re are just now truly being born.