The Middle Ground #81 | Is comics, is not comics
One of the weird things about writing about comics for a living — or, at least, part of a living — is that, at this time of year, you end up being asked for lists of the best comics of the year, or your favorite comics of the year and, if you’re anything like me, find yourself falling back in love with comics all over again as a result.
It’s really easy to get exhausted by comics, or fall out with comics, especially if you pay attention to the mainstream companies and get exhausted by the constant hype and exaltation that this is the big one and, really, it’s the same big one that you’ve read countless times before over the past however-many decades (although I’ll admit to being amused by Image boss Eric Stephenson calling Marvel and DC out on his blog last week by saying that “Image Comics is on a supersonic rocketship to the future” when they’re also relaunching a line of Rob Liefeld comics, for the love of whatever Pete you’re looking for). Something genuinely odd about comics as a subculture is the sense of … insularity, perhaps, or cliquishness that it seemingly demands — this surreal idea that, in order to be “into” comics, you have to somehow want to pay attention to what the biggest companies are doing with some level of worrying devotion (it’s not enough to know that the Avengers are fighting the X-Men, you have to know who Hope is and why the Scarlet Witch might be pissed at the Avengers; it’s not enough to know that DC relaunched with 52 new books, you’re expected to have a favorite of all of them, and so on) that, I feel, doesn’t really exist with other forms of media.
(On top of that, as well: Comics is so large as a subject, with minicomics and small press and the direct market and digital comics and webcomics and manga and oh God how can we keep up with all of this; again, I feel like this isn’t something that other media really has to deal with. Am I imagining this idea – both internal and external to comic culture – that “comics” is some kind of homogenous entity that is entirely interchangeable? Really, you can tell me; I won’t freak out too much.)
Even if you don’t get exhausted just by the need to know things, the expectation that you should have opinions on all of that, there’s also the fact that so much of comic culture is so combative. It’s schizophrenic, really, that a culture can be simultaneously convinced of its own unity and universal importance and yet also ready to just disagree and fight with everyone within that culture who dares to disagree with each participant’s particular opinion on any subject: Who’d win in a fight between Superman and Thor? How can you say that Chris Ware is overrated? What do you mean that you don’t get Achewood?!? The unity and sense of brotherhood that comes from that idea that, Hey, you read comic books too, is almost immediately thrown away by the upset from a realization that You’re not the same as me after all.
But if you can somehow separate comics themselves — the work, the comic books, you know, the important stuff — away from all the other comic-related culture like the movies and the internet chatter and the news (both real and fake) and everything else, then there’s wonderful reminder that, really, you love the comic format and a lot of things that people have done within that format. It’s difficult to do, to take “comics” as a medium away from “comics” as a culture, I think; there’s something about the cultural aspect that can be so amazingly overwhelming at times. But they are separate, and it’s always worth reminding yourself of that. When you need a break from what you think of as comics, you should take one; stop reading all the crap online, all the comics that you don’t really care about but feel like you should be reading, and just sit back and read something that you love and would love no matter how the story was told.
The best way to recharge your batteries from dealing with “comics” is with a comic. As long as you can remember the difference between the two, of course.