Robot 6

Talking Comics with Tim | Mark Sable & Paul Azaceta

Graveyard of Empire 1

I rarely get a chance to interview two collaborators for a project, but welcome to my latest fortunate rarity. Writer Mark Sable is back at Image Comics, collaborating with Grounded co-creator and Amazing Spider-Man artist Paul Azaceta. The two creators were kind enough to contact me for a joint email interview. As noted when this project was first announced: “In Graveyard of Empires, when a young lieutenant arrives at Combat Outpost Alamo, a remote outpost in Afghanistan, he learns a new kind of insurgent math. It’s said that in war, when you kill one insurgent, you create ten more by angering his family and friends. In this story, when you kill one, he comes back from the dead to infect ten of your fellow Marines . . . Graveyard of Empires #1 (APR110400), a 32-page full color horror/survival comic that will appeal to fans of The Hurt Locker and THE WALKING DEAD, will be available for sale in a comic shop near you on June 15, 2011.” Sable and Azaceta also provided Robot 6 with a six-page preview from the first installment of the three-issue miniseries. Frequent readers of Talking Comics with Tim may notice that as of late, I have given the interview subjects a chance to ask Robot 6 readers a question. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sable took this opportunity to invite folks to ask him questions in the comments section. He has committed to answering any and all questions, as his schedule permits, so by all means ask him all that you want.

Tim O’Shea: You two clearly went with an eye-catching, iconic first issue cover. Care to discuss how you arrived at that cover?

Paul Azaceta: Thanks. I knew right off the bat that I didn’t want a complicated cover. I wanted something that stood out and going with something simple and graphic was the way to go. I can’t say where exactly I got the idea for the skull with the poppy flower but when it hit me I knew I had it. I drew a quick little sketch for Mark and he suggested adding the helmet. Actually, the harder part was carrying that idea on with the other covers. But that was my inspiration, simple graphic covers.

Despite the fact that the United States is involved in a couple of wars at present, are you surprised that the market does not support war comics (for example, Joshua Dysart’s Unknown Soldier relaunch ended after 25 issues)? Why do you think there are not more war comics at present?

Mark Sable: I’m surprised only because comics has a long history dating back to at least World War II of not only dealing with war but being a head of the curve in terms of other mediums in doing so. From Captain America to Blazing Combat to ‘The Nam comics have never been afraid to tackle the subject in an honest way and war have traditionally been one of the staple genres.

One of the things comics has going for it is that there is a relatively short turnaround time compared to other mediums, so you’d think that we could get almost real-time coverage of the wars we’re involved in.

Part of the answer to why there aren’t more war comics is the same answer to why there aren’t more romance or sports comics – the market is dominated by super-heroes. I also think that post-WWII wars are much more divisive. I think you can date the beginning of the end of modern war comics to the combination of the Comics Code killing non-superhero publishers like EC and the less popular wars in Korea and Vietnam.

There ARE good war comics being done, though. Garth Ennis’ Battlefields is some of his best work to date. Buying that, picking up the Unknown Soldier trades and voting for Joshua Dysart for an Eisner (full disclosure – Josh wrote Paul’s BPRD: 1946 and is a friend of both of ours), and of course, checking out GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES is the best way to let publishers know you want to read books like that.

Azaceta: It could also be that these modern wars aren’t as black and white as the other wars. World War 2 was something that had a real bad guy to hate. You can easily set up a good guys versus the bad guys story with that war. Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t as cut and dry. That’s my theory anyway. I also believe these new wars are better off for that very reason in that you can have real nuanced stories with real characters that aren’t just cookie cutter heroes and villains.

O’Shea: It’s been five years since the two of you last collaborated, what was it that got you both together again on this particular project?

Sable: I’ve been dying to work with Paul ever since we finished GROUNDED a few years ago. While that book helped launch both our careers, it shot Paul up to superstardom, especially his Amazing Spider-Man run with Mark Waid. For me it’s been a question for working diligently to come up with an idea intriguing enough to tempt Paul away from the higher profile work.

Azaceta: Creator owned work has always been important to me and I never wanted to forget that. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on some great books with some great writers but my real love is creating comics from the ground up like I did when I was a kid. I think this was more about timing than anything else but Mark definitely helped pull me away with his pitch. who can resist the chance to draw Taliban zombies?

O’Shea: Can you see ways that the two of you have evolved in one’s storytelling philosophies today when compared to your past collaborations?

Sable: Definitely. With GROUNDED I would hand dialogue-heavy, description-lite script pages to Paul and leave it up to him to make things interesting visually. And then go back and with editor Ivan Brandon’s help, try to trim as many of the words covering Paul’s art up as possibly.

We deliberately set out with more of a collaborative approach here. We discussed the story in depth before I sat down to write a script, shared research, and went back and forth through multiple drafts of treatments. Paul’s contributions to the story were invaluable. He didn’t just tell me what he wanted to draw, he gave me notes as good as any editor would.

Paul kept me honest, making sure each moment felt real…something especially important in a story with fantastic elements. He pushed me to up my storytelling game, and hopefully I did the same with him.

Azaceta: I think we both grew as creators since that first book and it’s a pretty different collaboration now. We’re both bringing what we;’ve learned in the past few years to the book. We really didn’t know what we were doing the first time around and hopefully this time we’ve been able to put together a story that is on another level.

O’Shea: Given this is a creator-owned project, how hard is it for you two to pursue such work. For example, Paul, am I correct in thinking you are turning down mainstream paying work to pursue this project?

Azaceta: I did have to turn down some things but like I said before I was adamant at having a career that rode the fen between mainstream work and creator owned. It’s tough when Marvel or DC is offering you work that’s really tempting but I know that for me I wouldn’t be totally happy unless I had something that was mine out there. I never want to end up just another cog in the machine. Being a comic creator is more important to me than just being an artist for hire.

O’Shea: Many of the pages in this first issue are quite sparse on dialogue–and I am also struck by the abundance of sound effects on those dialogue-less pages. Can you two discuss the pacing of dialogue and how you planned it?

Sable: There’s always a balance of trying to have characters speak naturally, without exposition while making sure the reader is caught up. I generally prefer a reader knows what’s going on, even if it means being a bit lest naturalistic. But with the first issue in particular, I wanted the reader to feel thrown into the chaos of war, where it’s not immediately clear what’s happening.

Where did that gunshot come from? What was your fellow Marine trying to say over the din of gunfire? Can that possible suicide bomber approaching the base understand the word “stop”? And why isn’t the oustide world responding?

Azaceta: I’m never a fan of exposition, although I understand the need for it sometimes. I like not knowing what’s going on all at once. Getting a clue here and a tidbit there, l always feel more engaged if you’re thrown right in to the story and have to claw your way out. Frankly, we didn’t have time to explain everything right away.We set up a story that starts with tons going on, gets crazier as it goes, with the big payoff by the end. Its a fun ride that you realize is a little more when you finally get to look back.

As for sound effects, I really can’t get enough. I love the language of comics and sound effects is part of that. I think too many people forget that and with a war book it’s almost essential. I actually have to stop myself from adding too many at some points because it’s so much fun.

O’Shea: What kind of research did the two of you do for this project? Who concocted the tampon idea for the first issue?

Sable: We both research this book pretty heavily. Not just reading, but speaking to veterans of this and other conflicts, intelligence officers close to what’s happening on the ground, and watching way too much emotionally arresting combat footage.

Using a tampon as a way to stop the bleeding from a wound is evidently something that really happens, which we learned from one of the more influential books on our comic, Sebastian Junger’s “War”. Almost everything that’s not zombie-related has some basis in fact. But don’t try that at home, kids.

Azaceta: You can’t beat real life and with all the research we did it became about what can we fit in. There’s so much out there now about these current wars and so many facets that we could have easily made this a much longer book. It was also important because we wanted that juxtaposition of ideas. Basing everything on real life as much as possible amplifies the fantastical nature of the zombies.

O’Shea: Am I correct that Graveyard of Empires will be a three-issue miniseries, with hopes to do more miniseries down the road, depending on response?

Sable: Yes. These issues tell a complete, self-contained story about a zombie uprising in Afghanistan. That said, we’ve got definitely plans to continue a larger story in the way that books like Criminal and Hellboy do. We have already discussed plans for a follow up set in the same world with another locale that’s never been used in zombie fiction before. The analogy we like to use is The Wire, where the focus shifted each season to new characters, but we still follow the surviving characters in the background. That’s assuming anyone survives GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES, though…

Azaceta: Mark’s brain has already been concocting new directions for the story after the dust clears on this one and I really hope we have an opportunity to do more. The next chapter is something that would be a dream come true to draw.

O’Shea: Given that zombies are already a heavily used story element in recent years, did you hesitate at all injecting them in this story?

Sable: Yes and no. I didn’t want to get tagged with “yet another zombie story” – although considering how many super-hero books are out there, you’d think we have a long way to go before the zombie genre is exhausted in comics. Plus, I think it’s been done very well lately, with Chris Ryall’s Zombies vs. Robots, Max Brooks’ World War Z and, Robert Kirkman/Tony Moore/Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead, in all it’s incarnations. I give a lot of credit to Image for not worry about cannibalizing their own market by publishing this.

At the same time, this is as much a war story as it as a zombie book, maybe even moreso. Don’t get me wrong – I do think we’re doing some things with zombies that you haven’t seen before. Even the title, which refers to the fact that Afghanistan has been the literal graveyard for centuries worth of armies, shows why it would be the worst place in the world for the dead to return.

But to me, despite the inclusion of the undead, this will be one, if not the, most realistic depiction of the War in Afghanistan in comics to date.

O’Shea: Paul, you recently wrote: “Speed lines, sound effects, action bursts, motion lines, dizzy stars, and even those little dark clouds over angry characters, are just some of the things I wish more people would throw into their work.” Why do you think more artists should do this? Mark, what’s your take on Paul’s perspective on this, please?

Sable: I 100% agree with Paul on this. Comics aren’t film, and shouldn’t read as storyboards for movies even if there’s a high concept like in ours. I love comics like Casanova that really embrace the form.

Paul asked early on if he could do his own sound effects and I said yes just because I wanted him to do the book. But very soon I saw how it paid off. Comics is a medium where sound is conveyed visually, and it allowed Paul to create a landscape of cacophony.

Azaceta: I got into comics because I love the medium. As much as comics borrow from other mediums it stands on it’s own with things it can do. Sound effect and motion lines are the tip of the iceberg. I find it amazing how much you can play with the reader by changing a panel shape or moving a balloon. Why limit yourself to a simplified version of the language when you can use every bit of it’s vocabulary to create an immersive experience for the reader?

O’Shea: Anything to discuss that neglected to ask you about?

Sable: I’d like to mention that Image is re-releasing GROUNDED, as well as HAZED my dark sorority comedy with Robbi Rodriguez. Also, Kickstart is doing the same with RIFT RAIDERS, my teen time travel adventure with Julian Totino Tedesco, at a 50% off. I hope readers will check those books out as well.

O’Shea: Any questions you’d like to pose to our readers?

Sable: Wow, I don’t think a journalist has ever turned that around on me like that before, I love that.

I guess I’d like to know, what do readers want from war/zombie comics that they don’t feel like they are getting from what’s out there now? I’d also love to know what their favorite works are in either genre that they’d recommend. And finally, what can Paul Azaceta and I do as creators and share with you, to help make a better informed decision about whether to pick up this book? I promise I’ll be back here to respond to any and all questions.

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Thanks Mark and Paul (and Tim) for the great interview. Between this and your back-and-forth with Abhay over at the SavageCritic, Mark, you’ve totally sold me on Graveyard of Empires. Both you and Paul seem to have a good handle on what makes a comic book work (I’m all about the speed lines and sound effects), and I admire your focus on clear storytelling and lack of pretension when it comes to keeping the reader up to speed. I’ll fully admit to being one the people who groaned “Ugh, another zombie comic?” when I read the solicits, but it’s obvious from the interview and preview pages that you worked hard to make this book a unique experience.

As for your question, Dysart’s Unknown Soldier was a favorite of mine when it was being released. I also have a deep appreciation for what Joe Sacco does with his incomparable war reportage comics. I don’t feel like either of these are missing anything, but I will say that what I liked about them was that they never let the bigger, sweep-of-history stuff overpower the personal, human-scale drama of war. I imagine when writing on war, where events reverberate globally, there’s a danger to go plot-heavy, or even, in a weird way, to focus on world-building, since a warzone is unfamiliar to most readers. I liked that Dysart was able to handle all of that in a story that remained very much centered on the protagonist, Moses Lwanga, and his character development.

And my question to you: I noticed that many exponents of creator-owned comics emphasize the importance of getting other genres and genre-mashups aside from superheroes into the marketplace. While I mostly agree (with the caveat that superheroes do encompass many genres, e.g. Daredevil / noir, Nick Fury / spy, Cap / WW2, etc), I have to wonder why there’s such a push for genre fiction to be published, when (1) it seems like we do have a fair amount already, and (2) genre fiction, on a surface level, would do little to dispel the popular myth of comics as trash medium. In other words, a more diverse marketplace is surely desirable, but I wonder why not stress the need for more… I don’t know, “literary,” genre-defiant works, like Asterios Polyp or the Immonens’ Moving Pictures, and why seemingly so few creators seem interested in making this kind of comic?

If I have you sold on Graveyard already, Cass, I should probably shut up because all I can do at this point is make you change your mind:)

Seriously, I really appreciate such thoughtful questions. Let me take a stab at answering them.

(Oh – and glad you read/liked the Savage Critic debate with Abhay. We have plans to do more creator vs. critic columns, and the focus will be on less mainstream work as they progress).

First, I don’t want to put myself in the same category as Joshua Dysart or Joe Sacco. Not just in terms of talent – but because they actually went to some dangerous places to research their work. That was brought home to me when Academy Award nominated director/photojournalist Tim Hetherington (Restrepo) was killed this week. We had an internet correspondence and was kind enough to help with the research on GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES.

I’m devastated by his loss, and it gives me a new appreciation for the kind of reportage that he and others like Didier Lefèvre (the subject/narrator of The Photographer, which ironically enough Tim recommended) do. As much as I’m proud of the research Paul and I did, what we did doesn’t compare.

As far as characters go, managing the number of characters we needed vs. developing those characters was/is a real challenge. I think you’ll find the first issue of GRAVEYARD like Restrepo in that you are thrown into the chaos introduced a large cast. I might have liked a smaller cast, but we were bound not only by genre but by the number of Marines who could realistically man a Combat Outpost in Afghanistan.

Some characters multliple scenes, others just a few panels. There’s one double page, 16 panel grid in the 1st issue that’s there to help fill out some of the minor characters, where they get a panel per time of the day. I think it turned out pretty cool thanks to Paul, it will be interesting to see if it worked.

I do promise that as the series progresses and the cast things out you’ll get deeper inside the survivors on both sides.

Okay, now onto your larger question about whether having genre fiction other than superhero comics really helps the medium, or if only literary fiction would truly elevate the medium so it’s not considered trash. It’s an excellent question and one I’ve wrestled with myself both as a reader and creator.

Your question raises its own set of questions.

Does genre fiction disqualify something from being literature? Looking at other mediums, I think you could look at say, John Le Carre or Graham Greene and ask whether the fact their work is spy fiction disqualifies it as serious literature. By the same token…as good as Le Carre is, I don’t think the best of his work approaches that of say, Phillip Roth.

You can also ask…is there truly such a thing as genre-less fiction? The greatest writer in the English language wrote comedies, tragedies and history plays, and that’s pretty much it. Is Shakespeare a genre writer? Is comedy or tragedy not a genre?

But let’s put those things aside and accept your implied definition of genre-less (or as you put it, genre-defying) work as things like Asterios Polyp. And then let’s ask a) would it help the medium to have more of it and b) why are so few creators seemingly afraid of it.

Would it help the medium? It depends on your definition of help. I don’t know that it would expand the market for comics very much. Literary fiction as you define it is not particularly popular in ANY medium, be it film or novels. Just look at the New York Times best seller list. I’m actually not sure that the ratio of literary to genre work in comics is that different than novels or film. I think it’s just that more films and books are published than comics, so therefore there are more genre-less movies and novels.

I think the real difference, when you look at a comic book shop vs. a book store, is not that there is a better ratio of literary to genre work in a book store. It’s that comics is so defined by one genre – superheroes – that it blinds something else. I’m someone who believes in growing the pie by increasing the audience, and I think more work from other popular genres – romance, crime etc. – is probably the fastest way to do that.

I also think comics are at a point where they ARE respected as a literary medium. They are studied in academia, they’ve had Pulitzer prize winners etc. I don’t think it’s at the top of the literary spectrum we’re slacking – we have Eisner, Spiegelman etc. – it’s the in the vast middle.

Don’t get me wrong. Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve is one of my favorite series. I wish it was published with more frequency and that more creators did work like that. But I don’t think that if they did, it would have as much of an influence on comics than if comics became more like genre diverse (but nevertheless genre-heavy) outlets like HBO or AMC.

As for the question of why are so few creators seemingly not interested in genre-defiant works? Well, I can only speak for myself, the rest is supposition. But here goes anyway.

First, I don’t think you can judge creators aspirations by what they publish, even in the creator-owned arena. Even Image and Vertigo have a market and an audience, and time is money. What I’ve learned is that the current audience tends to want genre material with continuity that “counts”. They prefer brands, whether it’s the Marvel or DC brand, the Vertigo brand, the Buffy brand, or now the Walking Dead brand. Go outside of that and you have to know you have little or no chance of making your money back.

I also think it takes a different skill set to write something literary work than it does to write genre work. At least in the same way it takes a different skill set to write romantic comedies vs. science fiction. That doesn’t necessarily mean one is better than other, or that someone can’t write both. But it’s not an easy leap to make in either direction.

It does seem that most creators that I knew grew up with many of the same cultural influences. Whether it’s X-Men comics or Elmore Leonard crime novels or Star Wars films. All of what is now termed “geek culture’. We were attracted to comics as readers, so it stands to reason our aspirations often lie in those directions. I don’t think you can fault anyone for writing what they’d like to read. My guess is that if we were all of a sudden given complete creative freedom the medium would look a bit more like HBO. Less superheroes but probably not that much more literary work.

I think if people who like and aspire to write literary work were exposed to more comics – say Persepolis alongside Pride and Prejudice – they might consider comics as an alternative to poetry or prose or the stage. THAT is an area where more literary comics work would help bring about the change you’d like to see. As good as literary comics are, I’m not sure that Eisner is Phillip Roth or Marjane Satrapi is Jane Austen. It’s a chicken and egg type of thing, but the only way things will change is if more creators attempt literary fiction and more critics and readers champion them.

As for myself…ironically enough for a while I thought my next collaboration with Paul was going to be a “literary” story called Murray’s Blues, about a Jewish grandfather who has an affair with the young, African American nurse that cared for his late wife.

I bet Image would have published it with Paul drawing it. You’d have to ask Paul why he found GRAVEYARD more appealing (it probably has to do with the fact that was an idea I’d developed more fully, whereas GRAVEYARD gave him the opportunity to get in on the ground floor in terms of collaboration).

I hope one day to bring that, or something like that to the page. But I think, given the realities of the market, the only way that will happen is if a) I succeed enough doing more mainstream material that I can afford to pay an artist to draw the book, or b) my drawing gets to the point where I can do it myself. Or, you know, if an artist or publisher is reading this and wants to take a chance on it:)

Sorry for the long-winded response, Cass. I hope I at least answered your question, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking the time to ask something so thought-provoking. And thanks to Tim for giving me the space to talk about stuff like this. As narcissistic as I am, and as much as I like to talk about my own work, it’s much more interesting for me to have discussions like this.

As Tim said, I’m happy to answer any and all questions as time permits.

Mark Sable

Wow Mark, thank you so much for the thoughtful answer, and don’t worry, nothing you wrote in your response will dissuade me from buying at least the first issue of Graveyard. I’m actually pretty stoked about the 16-panel grid.

As far as addressing your points, I don’t have much to add beyond a couple of nits I’m going to pick.

I would definitely have no problem terming some of Shakespeare’s work “genre.” Still, I don’t think it’s fair to call comedy and tragedy – as entities apart from Shakespeare and his tics – I don’t think it’s fair to call them genres, because with comedy and tragedy, there is only one, broad defining characteristic, a general sense of levity or melancholy (or even more broadly, Greek ‘comedy’ just meant the ending wasn’t a total bummer). When I think of genres, I think of a more specific set of tropes, plot points, and characterizations, without which a story would cease to be perceived as belonging to that genre. For instance, crime, criminals, dames, and violence will always figure heavily in a noir story – otherwise, it wouldn’t be noir, right? – whereas comedies may be funny in any number ways, and the characters need not even be funny provided the scenario is humorous enough. Although there is plenty of comedic and tragic genre fiction out there (noir is tragic, usually), I don’t think that makes tragedy and comedy genres in and of themselves. I know it’s a very minor point in your response, but like I said, picking nits.

Now, I should clarify something about my question. First, I didn’t mean it as a value judgment against genre fiction, which comprises most of what I read anyway. Second, I also didn’t mean to imply a belief that mainstreamers would come flocking into the shops to purchase “lit comics” (which I’ll use for want of a better term) if all of a sudden publishers decided to push that direction. As you say, look at what sells at the box office and in book stores.

My position regarding lit comics is sort of convoluted, and my supporting evidence is all anecdotal and based on personal experience, but I’m going to try to lay it out anyway. I come from a lower middle class background. My mother and my grandmother are both big readers, but nearly all of what they read would be labeled “trash” by an academician (dime romance, sentimental memoir, etc). Still, it’s clear from conversations I’ve had with them, they believe they’re engaged in intellectual activity when they read. In their view, reading books is intellectual, even if the books register a solid zero on the scale of literary merit.

Yet, both of them disapprove of my comic reading. To them, comics are petty trifles for little boys, and any attempt to explain otherwise, or to offer a comic that I know is perfect for one of them, never goes anywhere. I don’t find this attitude to be especially uncommon either, in particular among women readers, although that may have something to do with female heroes falling out of their tops on every third cover.

Anyway, to bring this back to lit comics, I think it’s vital, albeit in a roundabout way, for the industry to establish a big canon of “important,” literary comics and authors, the way prose fiction has its pantheon of authors that everybody reads in school. In this way, with sequential art being taught alongside Kafka and Austen, reading comics can gain a similar status as reading books among the “vast middle,” as you put it, the status of being intellectual rather than frivolous or juvenile. If this change in perception is effected, I fully expect most people to gravitate to the same type of stories they read in prose and watch on television now, and to generally avoid the important comics until Oprah includes them in her book club.

As you note, comics have in recent years made some headway in academia. My younger cousin, for example, is reading Persepolis as a part of freshman English. But it’s not enough yet. I only graduated last year, and while I didn’t major in English literature, I did take half a dozen courses in it, and not one comic appeared on any of my syllabi. Relevant to your points, what is so crucial about getting comics as “literature” into the school system is that once the general public feels comfortable enough to seek out comics for entertainment, writers and artists will actually have an audience for the genre fiction they want to create.

Maybe my theory is total nonsense, but I strongly feel that the main reason regular, middle-class readers avoid comics is because they think they’re dumb, not because there’s nothing in comics to appeal to their tastes – how would they know in the first place, having never bothered to look?

Cass,

I think you make some excellent points, but I’m going to attempt a more concise response this time to spare readers my rambling.

I agree with you that comics are widely perceived as a juvenile medium. And I do think that having more lit comics would change that. But I still think that expanding out of the superhero genre is probably the more efficient, realistic way of achieving that goal. If only because I don’t think there are that many creators capable of producing comics of high literary value (watch that win me friends among my peers).

As great as Alan Moore or Chris Ware is, I’m not sure we’ve created a Kafka or a Jane Austen. To be fair, novels were around a long time before either of them emerged. The counter-argument is that film has been around about as long as comics and has produced more literary/art films and fillmmakers. Of course, there have been many more films than comics.

Again, to me it comes back to the questions “why are comics perceived as juvenile”? And to me the answer is almost always superheroes. They have dominated the medium in America since their inception. The superhero genre was aimed at kids for most of that time.

The superhero story for adults is a relatively new phenomena, mostly dating back to the 80s. To me it’s perfectly logical that comics would be thought of as a juvenile medium because that’s who they’ve been marketed towards.

Superhero comics are in a very strange place now. They are nominally marketed towards kids. But that’s illusory. Walk into a comic store and you’ll see that’s not whose buying them for the most part. No – the majority of the superhero reading public are teen to middle age males who want an adolescent power fantasy. Again, not a value judgment, just an observation.

Yet, it’s important that the mainstream publishers maintain that illusion, because they are part of mega corporations whose purpose is to maintain the family friendly image of the brand for merchandising purposes.

It’s a powerful illusion, though. I don’t blame people for thinking comics are juvenile because you’d have to walk into a store and actually read them to figure out that they are not. What they’d find are that most comics are inappropriate for juveniles because of their content. Only a minority are adult in the sense of being intellectually engaging for adults.

That’s a shame because by trying to maintain the illusion of being kid friendly while appealing to an audience that doesn’t want kid friendly material you wind up pleasing neither, for the most part.

I think your own anecdote (which rings familiar to me) helps prove my point to some extent. The dime romances and sentimental memoirs your mother and grandmother read might be considered ‘trash”, but there’s a difference between trashy and juvenile. Those genres are not aimed at kids.

That’s only part of the equation – reading is synonymous with intellectual activity for many reasons other than the fact there is literary fiction. It’s how we are educated from grammar school on, it’s the basis of our legal system, how we communicate etc. I think the belief that prose is more intellectual than comics starts long before anyone gets to a freshman lit class. Comics would have to be part of our grade school curriculum, the way we get news etc. before it was considered anywhere near the kind of intellectual medium prose works are.

I don’t mean to slag on superhero comics, which I read and enjoy writing. I also don’t mean to dismiss the power that books like Persepolis can have in changing perception of the medium, and I certainly don’t want to discourage creators or publishers from putting out more books in that vein.

But what I think would make more of a difference would be a) taking a look at the current superhero publishing model and being honest about how its failing almost all of its target audiences, and b) putting out more and more good material outside that genre.

Where you and I may differ is that I think that putting out more popular material vs. more literary material would be more effective and realistic to achieve. But the truth is that there is no reason that BOTH approaches can’t be tried. In fact, I think they could compliment each other. And the best case scenario for comics would be books that are both popular and have literary value. The best works of literature are often both.

I think you’ve hit upon a key distinction that my theory fails to make (or does make and then promptly forgets): it’s not so much that people think comics are “dumb,” which is the word I used at the end of my post, but that they think they’re childish. The blame almost certainly lays with the hegemony of superheroes. To use another anecdote, a friend recently asked me about the “weird comics” on my table, by which he meant a pile that included Parker: The Hunter and Tomine’s Scenes from an Impending Marriage. These were presumably weird because they didn’t share the same dimensions as the typical floppy or TPB, and because no caped crusader appeared on the cover.

I don’t mean to regurgitate your points, but yeah, you’re right. It’s safe to say that comics are at a point where Batman is the face of the entire industry. To people who don’t buy comics, and heck, to many that do, superheroes – Batman and his ilk – that’s what comic books ARE, that’s what they’re about. It doesn’t do the medium any favors either, when at most a few hundred thousand adults give a shit about Batman, and the rest are put off enough by his garish costume and presumably cartoonish adventures that they don’t want anything to do with comics.

You’re right that it’s not so important whether the industry is putting out lit comics or genre fiction or, heck, let’s add nonfiction like Sacco’s work to the mix, just so long as it diversifies more and more, with more and more obviously adult material (and, you know, kids material that is actually intended for kids). If we can reach a point where Batman is no longer considered a synonym for comics, even if he remains the most popular, just as Harry Potter can be super succcessful while no one would claim he’s the face of the entire medium of prose books, if comics can reach that point, then I think we’ll start to see some new people coming into the shops and hopefully recommending stuff to their friends and it can branch out from there.

Anyway, Mark, I’m sure you’re a busy guy and don’t have all week to debate with me. I should probably get back to my studies as well. I just wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed our conversation, and I look foward to reading more of your thoughts in future installments with Abhay. I hope you’re able to shift a few units with Graveyard of Empires and that Murray’s Blues finds an artist and a publisher one day. If we ever happen to be at the same convention, I’ll be sure to stop by your booth and we can shoot the breeze.

Consider me sold! I’m all for more war comics on the stands, and this looks and sounds great!

I’ve very few complaints with the handful of modern war comics being put out. They’re well-researched, realistic, and for the most part unbiased. The Other Side is close to being the perfect war comic, if I had to choose one.

Also props for mentioning Didier and Guibert’s The Photographer, absolutely fantastic work altogether! Guibert’s Alan’s War is also worth checking out.

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