Robot 6

The Middle Ground #3: Whatever Happened To The Mainstream?

Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1

Bryan Lee O'Malley's Scott Pilgrim Vol. 1

I keep getting caught up in thoughts about mainstream comics. I might be imagining it, but I seem to remember a movement some years ago that tried to rebrand certain indie publishers (Maybe just one publisher? For some reason, I’m convinced that it was Oni Press, but I don’t want to tar them with this brush if I’m wrong) as The Real Mainstream, or The New Mainstream, or some variation on that idea. The thinking, as far as I remember it, was that what we call “mainstream comics” – i.e., Marvel and DC – don’t really reflect mainstream pop culture, and that the books that do come from the publishers somewhat ostracized by the comics industry. Nowadays, of course, I’m not sure that you can really make the same argument.

It’s not that publishers like Oni or IDW or BOOM! or whomever aren’t continuing to put out material that’s in tune with whatever pop zeitgeist is out there at any given opportunity, because they are (Albeit with different methodologies; Oni by, for the most part, creating all-new series and stories that reflect or anticipate trends, IDW by licensing movies and TV shows like Transformers or True Blood. Sure, they sometimes swap – The very idea of Oni’s upcoming Yo Gabba Gabba comic makes my head spin as much as it makes my heart swell, I have to admit – but generally, it’s a relatively safe rule of thumb), but more that… Well, you can’t really discount superheroes as part of the popular culture conversation anymore. I mean, seriously: Who in the US isn’t at least considering going to see Iron Man 2 (International fans: I wouldn’t presume your desires, now that the movie’s been out in many countries for the last week or so)?

In one sense, I’ve got no problem with that, especially when the movies are as good as Iron Man (or, for that matter, the comics as good as Fraction and Larroca’s Invincible Iron Man). But on the other… Ehh. The problem with the increasing prevalence of superhero movies is that it reinforces the idea for non-comic readers that Comics = Superheroes and that, with the rare exception of a Maus or a Persepolis, that’s all they can be. Why wasn’t more made of The Losers‘ comic book origins, when that movie came out, for example? Why don’t many people seem to think of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World as a comic book movie? Because they’re not superhero movies.

I’m all for making the argument that not all comics are the same; I hate it when people ask me why I have no interest in seeing Kick-Ass or whatever when I read comics, not realizing that that’s like asking someone why they aren’t interested in The Notebook because, hey, you read novels, don’t you? And I’m also not complaining that The Losers‘ underperformance at the box office won’t make people expect failure for Scott Pilgrim just because they share a source medium. But at the same time… They’re comics movies! Just like Road To Perdition! And V For Vendetta! And 20th Century Boys! And and and… Well, you get the picture. There is a “Real Mainstream” in comics, and it’s full of wonderful material that would and should appeal to comic faithful and comic newcomers alike. But, as the real mainstream comes to resemble the comics mainstream, the idea of showing the outside world that there’s more to comics than just superheroes sometimes feels like it’s getting lost in the shuffle.

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11 Comments

I’ll just go ahead and blame the direct market for all the inconsistencies you are observing.

One of my friends asked me why I don’t put more effort into watching any of the superhero movies since I read so many comics. So I asked him if he was gonna start reading the comics since he liked the movies. He said, “no, I’m not interested,” and I told him that was my answer. I don’t think he was satisfied with that though.

“I mean, seriously: Who in the US isn’t at least considering going to see Iron Man 2?”

Picture me raising my hand. :-)

Also, Joe H? Awesome answer. I will have to remember to use that one!

It’s interesting that Mainstream is a word that can mean vastly different things depending on the media were discussing.

In movies and TV, it seems like Mainstream is roughly the same as “commercial,” while artsy stuff or indie or foreign movies would be non-Mainstream.

In novels, Mainstream is roughly the same as “respected literature,” while genre novels of any kind are primarily know as “(insert genre name here) novels.”

It’s certainly an issue but the way I see it, modern costumed superheroes are the only genre (or concept, if you’re of the mind that “superhero” isn’t precisely a genre) that was created within comics. That doesn’t mean comics aren’t more — of course they are — but no other type of story can trace all its roots and development to that one media. So you can’t really blame the mainstream audience. Take “The Losers,” for example. There’s no reason to suspect that wasn’t just another Hollywood action script that got produced. You show someone a superhero in a mask and there’s a good shot that was invented originally in comics.

I would have thought “mainstream” in novels is anything where the author’s name is larger than the title. ;)

And I second Joe H as clever.

Weirdly, I make comics for a living, and my wife loves what I do, but I could NOT get her to read a comic if I tried. I cannot explain that at all. It just leaves me to believe comics (superhero comics) have been the prevailing ambassador for the medium for such a long time (and maybe Archie) that the stigma of ‘childish nonsense’ is going to take a long time to cleanse from the collective subconscious.

You’re on the nose about your intro: Several years back Oni began throwing out the term “the real mainstream” in their publicity efforts; I believe this was when SP was first debuting and Q&C was one of their main series. The Oni forum has a topic where they tangentally talk about it (http://www.onipress.com/forum/comments.php?DiscussionID=14).

But yeah, I remember the middle years of the 00s right after “team comix” peaked and the hey day of the AiT-PlanetLar books of Ellis, Wood & Fraction while simultaneously seeing the rise of the early genre work of Remender. It seemed that within the comics clique there was a chance for “mainstream” genre comics to grab the chalice, but after Marvel & DC solidified their base with the event comics and the superhero movies re-enforced the comics is superheroes cliche it seemed too late. Now with virtually all the indie houses making thier bucks from licensed books or books built to license out, we’re in a new world — or perhaps an old world of comic sin the mid 80s.

One of the major problems we see in the Anglophone comics culture is that when someone tries to point out that superheroes are just another genre and maybe there should be equal emphasis on other genres as well, they are often accused of hating superheroes. Honestly, it’s not so much that we hate superheroes as much as it is that we would enjoy comics in other genres. Unfortunately, there really isn’t a good source for good comics in other genres written in English – except indie comics.

Or you can go to a comics culture that has a diverse range of subject matter – manga or BD – and read stuff that’s be translated. I’m convinced that the reason manga has taken off is that there are a lot of potential comics fans out there, but they’re really not all that interested in superheroes and the fandom that has grown up around it. Having no real alternative here, they turned to comics that offered real genre choices.

There’s an argument that if we wanted real genre choices, we should buy more non-superhero comics, but the Big Two have built their business model on selling superheroes to superhero fans through superhero-centric shops. I honestly believe that if we want a more mature comic book culture with a larger readership, we might want to rethink the way we present ourselves. Manga readers go to bookstores because that’s where they can find the material they’re interested in. Why aren’t other publishers using that distribution method for translated French comics (to use a random example)? They have a proven sales record and they appeal to a broad demographic.

“I would have thought “mainstream” in novels is anything where the author’s name is larger than the title. ”

That is a great definition! :)

Although I read “real mainstream” comics…honestly, I have no interest in trying to show the world comics ARE more than superheroes. Because to be honest, that shift comic book fans online want…isn’t what I want.

I can GET all those other genres elsewhere, and they’re in no shortage of supply, Marvel Studios has a mandate to only produce 2 films a year. DC Entertainment hasn’t gotten their own work off the ground yet, so they haven’t got as solid of a plan yet, but Green Lantern is a 2011 release, and their last film was three years ago.

To those who enjoy superheroes but also enjoy all forms of storytelling media (comics, movies, television series), there’s a dearth of superheroes everywhere else but comics. …It kinda balances.

I don’t understand why it’s such a problem if the general public thinks comics is mostly superheroes. Who cares? Make better comics in other genres, then. Successful or not, it doesn’t seem to bring any more people to the comics source. Superheroes are the only genre that everyone knows originated in comics. Transfer The Losers to film and it’s just another action espionage film. Jonah Hex may be good but will likely look like other Westerns except with a hero with a messed-up face. The trick is to have more Sin Citys and 300s, films that are somehow able to convey comics conventions or a distinctive artistic style to film. That’s the irony of it, that so many of the great comics are great, in part, because they accomplish things that are nigh-impossible to duplicate in other media.

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