Wednesday, 25 May 2016

My Stuff: Question Marks Won
a broadsheet newspaper exploring comics
12 BIG pages / £4.00 buy it here
Comments on the fist issue of Question Marks'

As an occasional print object, Question Marks is not set up for dialogue which is ironic as that is the purpose of sharing these comics and fascinating artists' thoughts with an audience, however compact and bijou that audience might be. There is no room inside for a letters column or proper discussion with readers, so we're trying an online version.

Please share any thoughts on ?sWON you like here, and reply to any other writers too. Opinions will not be policed, we're all big enough to behave properly, I'm (not so) sure, but trolling and meanness will get you deleted. Well, not YOU, but your posts...

So, one letter so far from Andrew Cocktoe in who's retrospective Past Live (buy it here) the inside back piece Internal Affairs first appeared:

Thanx for the contributor’s copy of Question Marks. From the consumer-friendly, possibly deconstructionist front cover to the enticing Nearlymade snip on the back it's an attractive proposition, if somewhat unwieldy (in the bath).

The substance of the paper seems to nicely underwrite your stated intention: to probe and  'take a serious look at other aspects of comic making - the philosophies  and thoughts behind...' in finely tuned and well thought out questions and answers. You might add to this an exposition and exploration of process that you are clearly fascinated and enthused by in your dialogues with the two creators showcased in this first issue. 

The strips featured are obviously in thrall with, and homage to, traditions: comics, and classical; graphic and literary. Tastily depicted, they  benefit from the magnification in print exposure over your newsprint pages. 'Internal Affairs' seemed to be about exploring other people’s anuses, rather than its own; hopefully.

And this kind of talk brings me to a slightly  more problematic area of the  project. The editorialising,  as somewhat rhetorical provocation while inviting debate, skirts and reflects an on-going, if often unacknowledged, challenge to comics criticism. 

For those of us who have spent much of our lives attempting to conflate the highbrow and the lowbrow there is something quease-inducing about projecting the language of the media studies academy on to our beloved art form of the Comic. Here, for example, we find terms  like 'Industrial comics',  'industrial comics artists'.  If these are  meant in the kind of descriptive, value-neutral light as 'Industrial Music' (yes, I know, you’re talking about the publishing industry..), they nonetheless come across as being used pejoratively. Would we not be better served by a differentiation such as 'narrative-based comics, and creators', particularly in the context of your interest in other artists 'playing and experimenting to bring us something new within the form'.  Gareth Hopkins refers to himself as an 'abstract artist whose medium is comics, rather than a comic artist creating abstract works'. I wonder what this means.

When fine art sensibilities are introduced into the realm of comics, I  question whether we are in danger of reintroducing that highbrow/lowbrow dichotomy into the very medium that has historically suffered at the hands and frontal lobes of such cultural value systems.

An equally large question for a number of periodicals both in hard print and online: should we be using literary critical or sociological languages or fine art criticism in the way in which we look at and examine comics, in order for them to be served and seen in a serious and culturally acceptable light? (presuming that is even our hope) 

What language would best serve the still relatively nascent (despite 300+ issues of the Comics Journal and a number of English language academic journals and courses) field of comics criticism? The projection of Leavisite literary criticism? Or the wholesale transposition of Ernst Gombrich's 'tradition with innovation' art crit principles onto Mark Cousins' 'Story of Film' (not at all dissimilar to the defining idea of T.S.Eliot’s 'Tradition and the individual talent' essay)? Or something like Paul Morley's history and traditions of pop music described in the shape of a city? ...

Your publication is astutely named. 

Perhaps I’m just being reductive and nostalgic when I recline in my metaphorical summer house armchair and view comics as a punky, mongrel medium running parallel to the so-called 'art world' as well as other media ('art comics' is another distinction I’ve seen elsewhere to describe work outside of the usual 'genres'. It's a term that seems, if nothing else, tautological ). 

Your first strip and Gareth Hopkins' subject matter rely heavily on unpicking the contours of the wider comic world. I think I also saw this suggested somewhere else not so long ago, but what of the notion of responding to others' comics in the comic form itself? Abstract comics art; abstract criticism?  What are those comics which pull others' works from whole cloth and project their own texts onto, again for example, doing? Commenting on, if not criticising in the normally understood sense of the term? Lichtenstein as numero uno comic critic? Art Spiegelman seemed to be getting at this in a number of his early experimenting-with-form comics pieces.

Question Marks, indeed. 

I think Andrew has misread my intentions a little, but in an interesting way. I will comment below... please join in.


1 comment:

  1. ANDREW - when you see ‘Industrial Comics’ you feel a slight that is not intended.

    The term is value-neutral as you suggest and I think it is only your old-school knowledge of the days when comics were just for kids or trash reading that makes you misread it. You see value judgements where there are none (unless you bring your own) and mistake the distinction being between narrative and abstraction – understandable, perhaps, given who I interviewed in ?sWON, but a mistake.

    Industrial Comics is a (my) term for comics made as part of a production line for the corporate owner of an Intellectual Property – as with Hollywood movies or franchise books/tv/etc, so Industrial Comics can be brilliant works of art or hollow attempts at tuning a profit.

    Independent Comics like independent cinema/author-originated books published by corporations/etc can also be brilliant works of art or hollow attempts at tuning a profit.

    Neither category determines the quality or the work or it’s popularity. Industrial Comics can throw up Watchmen, Lady Thor (is that really what it’s called?) or the most incompetent Batman cash-cow you can imagine. Independent comics can give us From Hell, Maus or an endless morass of misery memoirs. The distinction is that with one, a product or its parent product already exists waiting to be made in to a comic by hired-hands, while the other requires the comic to exist before it becomes a product.

    In modern American comics, Marvel, DC and Archie deal almost exclusively in Industrial Comics; IDW, Dark Horse and Kaboom work in both idioms; Fantagraphics, Image and the art comics crowd produce Independent Comics. Many creators work in both areas of the form. The difference is in the reason a piece is made and its ownership, not in methods of production or content... but the content of Industrial Comics must, by it’s nature, skew towards formula and homogeneity.

    I am talking to creators whose work excites me about why they do this and what they are reaching for, so there is not much scope for talking about Industrial Comics because the underlying answer has to ‘it’s a job’ whether they brought more to a project than that or not. I’m not against any other sort of comics, but there is a wealth of commentary available on those, so it’s not something I need to publish.

    There is no high/low divide any more and you are bringing outdated ideas to the conversation when you think in those terms. Comics are part of the wider cultural world in good and bad ways, the ghetto has been absorbed into the general populace so there is no need to foster an US & THEM attitude. There is space for rubbish, fun, trashy comics; rude and crude or hollow and cynical; slick and professional or hand-crafted and amateurish... or any combination of these and other terms.

    As for the style of language I’m using in ?sWON, I am not intentionally using art-speak or media-studies or the like, but neither am I interested in asking what happened next... The language with which we talk about the form has to depend on what we are looking at – you would not critique the recent Deadpool movie in the same terms you would a Kurosawa epic.

    In the end, I am simply asking questions that the works I read posed to me, which is pretty much all we can do as honest critics. Those questions are often (but not always) something other than ‘Who’s stronger - Hulk or Superman?’. But that would be ok too...