A relatively earnest, politically on-the-nose and straight-forward piece this week.
I'd like to talk about that for a second.
I've been producing the New Statesman weekly comic for over a year now, and making journalistic comics for longer than that. In that time, I've read/heard many in the comics community be dismissive, even a little sniffy, towards political comics and I thought it might be worth addressing some of these opinions here.
The negative attitude towards political comics seems to me to divide into three themes: 1. Legacy, 2. Purpose, and 3. Ideology.
1. Legacy. There's a common notion that political comics are going to date badly. That it's far better to aim for universal content, devoid of historical context, so that future generations can appreciate a work as much as, if not more than, the audience of the time. Beyond the absurdity of the idea that avoiding references to current affairs in 2014 will somehow ensure a Peanuts-style, 25 volume, immaculate hardback retrospective, there's also a more worrying idea behind this conceit: the notion that any artist is capable of producing work in a vacuum. Nothing we produce is timeless. Everything we make is steeped in how we are now. What we think now. How we feel now. It will date. In fact, I think a piece of work can say so much about current socio-political issues through the very things it omits. Aiming for timelessness by self-censoring what you choose to comment on seems, to me, to be an entirely self-defeating pursuit.
Another popular topic for critics of political comics is the limitations of satire. Like the dinner party bore who tries to find a philosophical loophole in the vegetarian's life choice, there are those who would like to place parameters of success and failure around a piece of art that dares to critique the status quo. Who is it for? Is it only preaching to the choir? Has it changed anyone's mind? Changed the world? Made everything better? If not, is it worthwhile? Why do it? Why bother?
Every artist should, of course, at least consider who their audience is, and question the intent behind a piece of work before they commit to it. That's as true for the autobiographical comic artist as it is for the superhero comic artist as it is for the political comic artist. But suddenly, we're in the territory of asking if the art is quantifiably worthwhile if it doesn't change people's opinions. Which seems to me to be moving the goalposts somewhat. And how exactly does one find out if the work has met some sort of platonic ideal of satire?
3. Ideology. There's always the worry, when sticking your neck out as an artist and saying "I think this", that you'll alienate some of your audience or - even worse - come across as earnest. There's a comfort in flippancy and cynicism. By never committing to a position, you can never be called out on it. Now, I can be as flippant as the next comic artist but some of my favourite comics for the NS have been ones where I felt genuinely angry or frustrated and tried to articulate that in an interesting way. And I'm comfortable with the idea that my position could change the following week. That my opinions, however thought through they are, are malleable enough to take on board an opposing point of view. I'd much rather engage with an interesting argument that I disagree with than read one perfectly composed to say nothing at all. I just don't know if earnestness should be such a dirty word.
There's a Miro quote I remember reading that's always stayed with me: "I understand that an artist is someone who, in the midst of other's silence, uses his own voice to say something and who makes sure that what he says is not useless, but something that is useful to mankind".
I'm not saying that everything (or, indeed, anything) I do is useful but I'm happy to strive for it. And I get a lot of joy, satisfaction and inspiration from consuming art that is antithetical to Miro's fairly prescriptive statement. What I suppose I'm trying to suggest here is that there are many ways in which we all engage with the world and feed that into our creative output. And this one - political cartooning/comic journalism/comic reportage/whatever you want to call it - is as valid and worthwhile as any other.