Allen Swords, an English lecturer at Clemson University, in Clemson, South Carolina, saw some of the comments on comics content in recent weeks, including those of Buddy Saunders (see 'Buddy Saunders of Lone Star on Comics Content') and Joe Field (see 'Joe Field of Flying Colors on Comics Content'), and responded:
I have enjoyed the spirited discourse that continues on the all-too relevant topics of comics' content, their diversity, and their role as entertainment (and yes, art). I wanted to take more than a few of your moments to discuss some of the myriad of comments made over the past two weeks. I'd also like to partly discuss Mr. Bennett's newer columns since his one that sparked my initial reply.
In reply to my first posted email, Mr. Buddy Saunders writes:
'The world is not so nearly dark and depressing and 'complex' as many comics make it out to be. Unlike those who populate the world of ink and paper, real people do smile and laugh.'
How can you make such a callously uninformed comment? We smile because we have and need to; I don't doubt that. I smile as I engage in this debate. But I'd look like the Joker if I wanted to smile all the freaking time when I picked out my entertainment. And believe it or not, Calvin and Hobbes occasionally makes me cry in its deft and still resonant commentary on our culture.
Have you read the paper, looked out a window, or even turned on a TV in the past few weeks? Do you intend to make the point that we don't need reminding of the world's misery when we seek out entertainment? All media have a right and duty to reflect such troubled times (even if not indefinitely). My mother (whom I love dearly) won't watch sad movies or TV shows, because, as she says, 'there is enough sadness in the world, I don't need it in my entertainment.' As a teacher, and as her son, I couldn't disagree more. Nor must the world's entertainment venues pump out 'happy endings and easy answers' to keep us calm amidst the storm. Why can't comics, specifically challenge us? Anger us? Leave us wringing our hands and asking why? Let them shake us a bit. Allow them to venture beyond the 'good vs. evil' motif that I and others so easily enjoy every month. I love, no adore Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, but that isn't all I want out of my art/entertainment.
I always strive to teach my students that we must maintain our 'HOPE' (think Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption) for our world's present and future, but not at the expense of idealistic naivete and an ignorance of the evil of the world and perhaps within even ourselves. The world is probably even more dark than portrayed in comics. Think about what the spate of 9-11 tributes books (now 4-years-old) had to concern themselves with in their dissemination. In Vol 2 of DC's work, Superman looks on in admiration of many of the real heroes involved in 9-11's events. As I firmly believe in the principles behind the notions and ideals of Superman (and enjoy nearly all of DC's output of monthly Superman fare), we live in a world where he won't save us. We have the hope behind our heroes and their mythic existences, but the world must deal with its demons on its own--with real people and sometimes even 'real' and provocative art / entertainment.
As readers, television watchers, moviegoers, and entertainment lovers, we do need to 'smile and laugh.' I do, you do, and so many others do. But should that be all we do when we sit down to read a work (be it sequential art or other fare), enjoy a program, or take in a film at the local multiplex? Isn't that the problem with the 'comics must be fun' quotient of our dwindling paper empire? Truthfully, we need our entertainment to challenge, inform, and shock us more than it does, not less. Enjoy entertainment and art, by all means... but don't limit its power based on simplistic and shoddy arithmetic and logic.
I write all of this as a person who enjoys DC and Marvel 'superhero fare,' 'Duck books,' Seinfeld, Family Guy, The OC, Law & Order, countless genres of film, Disney movies, and all things Spielberg and Lucas. New and old, I can't get enough of such works! I can enjoy today's 'controversial' take on Superman, Kingdom Come, Superman for All Seasons, The Dark Knight Returns, Sin City, Strangers in Paradise, Peanuts reprints, and Capote in Kansas.
Superman for All Seasons is (as I tell my students and anyone who'll listen) my favorite comics story, ever. But I don't want it over, and over, and over, and over. Should TV (or other entertainment) provide 'escapism?' Sure. Absolutely, even! But that isn't all it should provide, nor should such tales be the only material available to audiences. My students and I always talk about the natural human need for simplification (and the human desires/cravings for it). We (for the most part) demand such simplicity from our major forms of art and entertainment. But that doesn't make such a demand the best course of action for industry or society.
Comics have a power that our culture has yet to fully realize, grasp, or understand. Many, many citizens have banished 'comics' to the realm of kiddie-land. Those of us who love the medium must do all we can to promote, advance, and rally the cause. But we won't do that by only having 'happy endings and easy answers.' Other people (especially in academia) view our beloved genres as inferior to 'real literature.' Hollywood utilizes the industry as a glorified minor-league system for ideas, stories, and subject matter (even as many in that fairy-tale land totally fail 'to get' what makes our industry so special and vital). I love comics exactly for the diversity that so many of you claim doesn't exist. Diversity is there, and it shouldn't be so easy not to find.
Saunders further comments:
'Morbid, distorted, and often septic human themes may indeed be necessary to a broader understanding of art and life. But in the comics industry, especially, this is the only prism that matters.'
How can any of us believe in such an overt and unfounded generality? Would you describe Will Eisner's The Plot in such terms as 'morbid, distorted, and often septic?' That book certainly isn't a happy one. Doesn't he have the talent for us to enjoy The Spirit and his 'serious' works? How about Ghost World by Daniel Clowes? Blankets by Craig Thomspon? There are plenty of available comics where this 'prism' doesn't affect content or editorial direction. Maus (even Cerebus and SIP) may be sad, but would you suggest we abandon those in favor of 'happy endings and easy answers' that Mr. Bennett advocates in his latest column. And by the way, Will Eisner probably didn't mean for Mr. Bennet to misuse his relevant conversation with Michael Chabon for a limited point of view, sir. One need only look at his oeuvre to see that Will Eisner believed in the power, diversity, and complexity of the artistic medium we all profess love.
Saunders closes by chiding me:
'No other industry, and we are that above and before we are art, does what the entertainment industry does. A restaurant that saw declining customer traffic would look to its menu and makes changes. The owner would not stand at his door and belittle passing customers for their lack of culinary taste.'
Who's actually belittling whom? I want to rally people to the cause of comics, not give them a sugary soda and tell them that our heroes will always 'make the world safe for democracy.' I never said that people shouldn't enjoy comics (or entertainment). Nor did I imply that if people 'don't get it,' they should seek entertainment elsewhere or that they 'don't get' us -- though such a topic merits some debate. My rant merely asked if we only want mainstream comics of a certain type and formula. I don't, and I doubt I am alone.
You ask the comics market to make changes to its menu, but must those changes result only in 'happy endings and easy answers?' How is that a change from the Golden Age to the 2000s? I don't belittle anyone for their purchases or comics choices; I am gratified that discerning readers have so much from which to choose. I can have my ducks, Star Wars, Girls, and Age of Bronze. I can relish Darwyn Cooke's masterpiece The New Frontier and revisit Maus or From Hell anytime I choose. That is diversity, friends.
The opinions expressed in this Talk Back article are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.