I recently took part in a questionnaire designed for comic artists attending TCAF for Toronto's National Post. In one of the questions I was asked what my guilty pleasures were when it came to comics and I answered by suggesting a couple of mainstream superhero comics. You can read the full thing here.
This bothered me - belatedly - for two reasons:
1) I have a problem with the concept of guilty pleasures. I'm comfortable enough with my likes and dislikes these days to accept that if I enjoy something, there are genuine reasons for doing so. Guilty pleasures are an odd concept and I dislike the inherent acknowledgment of embarrassment it implies.
2) I want to take a moment to clarify something about the nature of mainstream and alternative titles. My apologies if this all ends up sounding like a manifesto.
You see - for those of you not overly familiar with the comic industry, readers and creatives alike are often found on opposite sides of the medium's intellectual and artistic spectrum. By and large there are those who read mainstream comics. Generally published by Marvel, DC, and Image. Generally involving superheroes. And then there are those who read alternative or independent comics.
Those who read the alternative comics view the mainstream with contempt. "They are power fantasies. Juvenile soap operas" they will say. "The art is terrible and there is little of artistic value" they might add. "They do nothing to highlight and nurture the intrinsic potential of the medium" they may well conclude.
Meanwhile, those readers of the mainstream similarly view the alternative press with the same crippling contempt. "It is all badly drawn tales of working in a record shop" they might counter. "It is all unreadable and pretentious arty fare or self-indulgent angst" (quiet at the back - I'm trying to make a point here) they may argue.
Of course, both arguments may well have elements of truth behind them but they are both missing the point.
The point being that we all love comics.
It seems that the smaller and more niche the interest is, the more zealous and polarising the opinions become. Just take a look at any online music forum. Or any kind of counter-cultural movement in fact. People who feel that their likes and dislikes are suitable replacements for an absence of personality are the worst offenders. And they're ruining all the fun for the rest of us.
Comics that teeter too close to the end of the spectrum on either side become bizarre cliches of themselves and their past. Be they a terrible Robert Crumb clone that betrays the author's lack of understanding of the original material or a superhero comic so bogged down by continuity and nerd-porn that it becomes unreadable.
For the alternative artists, distancing themselves from the mainstream was an important aspect of their development. Like teenagers rebelling against their parents in order to discover their own identity. They wanted the wider artistic community to take them seriously, and for that to happen, they had to show what the medium could be capable of and somehow remind people that superheroes were but one genre within a larger, more diverse medium possible of achieving anything the artist put her mind to.
Which is fine, but it is now 2009 and most intelligent people accept that comics are a viable, exciting art-form and we can stop calling them graphic novels in that horribly insecure effort to sound more grown-up. Maybe once upon a time this pompous term and this alternative vs. mainstream argument were necessary to getting comics accepted. But it's done. The battle, for the most part, has been won. If people are so myopic as to not see what a glorious medium comics are, then I'm frankly pleased to have saved myself some time in not having to get to know them.
With that out of the way, can we all now just accept that sometimes one wants to watch incredible, heartfelt arthouse films that change the way we think about cinema and/or ourselves. Discover something true and honest and real. Yet sometimes we may want to watch the latest blockbuster, turn off our minds and simply be entertained. The same is true of comics. Perhaps it is more accepted with films than it is with comics because we can view the narrative of a movie in the company of others, whereas comic reading is a more personal experience...
But you know what? Comics do blockbuster themes, high concepts and action with more gusto, imagination and boundless insanity than the latest big-budget multiplex fare. To ignore that would be to ignore some wonderfully mad and exciting storytelling by incredibly talented creators who were years ahead of their time. If you want some proof, go and check out the original artwork of Jack Kirby, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, and Wally Wood in Orbital's gallery this week.
Mainstream comics? Alternative comics? This is not what we should concern ourselves with anymore.
There are good comics and bad comics.
And guilty pleasures...