Fight the Comic Aristocracy (Part Two)

Fight the Comic Aristocracy: Democratization

In the first part of this essay, I discussed the ways in which the comic industry is pervaded by aristocratic structures that prohibit a vast diversification and democratization of publishing, content, and production. In this section, I will turn to examine the democratic structures that work against these existing hierarchies.


Democratization: Economy

On the economic front, the Internet provides the most democratic structure in contrast to the aristocracy of the print industry. By and large, everyone on the Internet has a fair shot at success. Granted, audiences still need to find authors’ sites in the vast digital sea of material, but there are no measures preventing this such as they exist in print, like 1) the necessity of a publisher and distributor (even if its one’s self), 2) printing costs, 3) a limited distribution system, 4) a limited network of available outlets (i.e. comic and book stores), 5) marketing costs, etc.

Innovative creative possibilities aside, this is the real power of the Internet: a level playing field for distribution and exposure, accessible to any person bold enough to post their work online for public consumption. Start-up costs for web-publication are miniscule in comparison to print, even including the cost of a computer. This is also the enticing promise of micropayments — it allows democratic distribution the capacity for a democratic system of financial reward. If successful, the Internet does not have to serve as a vast promotional tool for the licensing of physical properties (or advertising) when it can produce revenue by its own creative content.

However, this is not ground for giving up on the print industry. While it might not be to the same degree as the web, a democratization of the print genre is still possible, though significantly more difficult to implement. It requires a greater shift toward the establishment of real publishers as opposed to corporate plantations, where the company serves to unite an author to their audience as opposed to manufacturing corporate products. While publishers such as Top Shelf and Fantagraphics have been more prominent in the last few years, a complete restructuring of the print genre might not be able to happen in an industry structured the way that it currently is. Hope for the print industry can also come in the form of established book publishers making forays into the market, especially evident nowadays with the push in the graphic novel market. Again though, this sidesteps the “comic industry” proper, expanding into a separate market through different channels which are still controlled by “gatekeepers” of some sort.

Furthermore, prices of comics must become affordable on a mass scale. Over the last twenty years, costs have risen so much that it is hardly economical for a consumer to buy many comics. In contrast, manga in Japan are printed in black and white on lower quality paper with vastly higher page counts. The average monthly American comic costs somewhere around three dollars at 30 pages, while weekly manga compilations sell at roughly three American dollars for often over 200 pages! This same price gap runs true of textual paperback books in America opposed to graphic novels. By and large, graphic novels cost significantly more than the standard book of the same genre and page length. Meanwhile, the Japanese paperback collections that are published after the story’s initial run in weekly anthologies remains far more affordable at around six dollars for over 200 pages. Across the board, manga cost a miniscule amount in comparison to American comics, and they sell significantly higher numbers — in the millions rather than the thousands.

This price comparison could stem from treating the medium as an Art rather than a Language. With higher quality paper and coloring, emphasis gets placed on the images (and the print object) to be appreciated aesthetically, as opposed to stressing the communicative capacity of the medium as a language to convey the ideas of the author to the reader.

The issue of paper quality might also run deeper, to factors of accessibility versus durability. In Japan, after each week’s worth of reading, stacks of manga compilations will end up curbside ready for recycling, as opposed to American comics which are kept for preservation, no doubt sponsored by a collector’s market. Indeed, the perception of comics tied to collecting inherently stresses the economic value of the object, rather than the communicative value of the insides.

If prices of comics were lower, it would allow more people to become casual buyers, without the need to make a major investment. However, this relies on two other major factors: reading content and distribution.

To expand readership, comics must cater to tastes beyond the scant topics prevalently written about, and must reach people in places other than the inclusive sphere of comic shops. Keeping the product in limited locations promotes an elitist distribution that excludes those “outside the club” without incentive to enter it. Nor should they want to, especially if the content being written about does not cater to their tastes or interests. Not everybody does or should want to read superhero, science fiction, fantasy, or the other minimal genres dominating comics. People have diverse interests and tastes, all of which can be fair game for comics. New readers should not be expected to be brought in to the club of comics membership. The product must be brought to them, in places that they go, with content that will suit their interests. I won’t belabor this point here though, as I talk about how democratization across these fields could occur elsewhere.

It is telling that amongst the whole “manga craze” of the last few years, that the major companies have not done the sensible thing and mimic the manga business model, but instead have treated it as they would any other fad: by creating hollow imitations of it. So, rather than diversifying genre and expanding distribution, they have instead opted to create “American manga” by aping the stereotypic style and themes of Japanese comics. Of course, this should be expected, since the major companies’ assets are in corporately owned properties, which cannot necessarily expand to other genres, but can be given a “manga makeover.”

Democratizing comics economically means making the topics in them appeal to a wide range of people, making them available for purchase in easy and accessible ways and places, with affordable costs that place the focus on communicative content rather than investment or object durability. Such a status would sponsor the language of comics to reach its potential as a human communicative ability across a diverse populace, rather than pigeonholed to an entertainment genre driven by economic gain.


Democratization: Perception

Truly, accepting the notion of the “comic medium” as a visual language is an equally democratizing force with regard to many aspects of comics. To briefly rehash this definition, sequential images (as in the “comic medium”) are actually a visual language (VL), which co-mingles with textual language in the social objects of comics. “Comics” is not a medium, but refers to the socio-cultural artifacts and broader culture associated with this visual language, not to the structure of the “medium” itself.

The notion of visual language is foremost a democratizing force because Language is automatically assumed to emerge from an individual source. Though it has the potential to be tempered by several people (as in a true editing process), language is produced from the mind of an individual person, which is in stark contrast to the assembly-line methods of “creative teams.” Individual creators of this type has been evident throughout the history of comics, in what are now oppressively named “writer-artists.” Such a term treats authors as if they are somehow exceptions to the “normal” practice of the “shop style,” because they write both words and images. Indeed, creators who take on both roles should not be considered abnormal at all, as it is natural for humans to communicate in more than one “modality” at once.

Heightening the awareness of the medium as a language will elevate the status of the individual creator. Thus, it democratizes the potential for creativity amongst “speakers” of the language, and away from company executives and so-called “editors” who might not have any real productive fluency in VL at all. It comes as no surprise that so many independently published creators work autonomously, either in print or on the web, rather than as “creative teams.”

Most likely, hierarchic assembly-line creation has been accepted because of the cultural perception of the “comic medium” as an Art rather than as a Language. Culturally, Art empowers a select few with “skill” while others must suffer at being “unskilled” in their craft — with learning based largely on practice modified by some sort of innate “talent.” Language on the other hand is biologically imbued in everybody, only requiring the nourishment of being exposed to an external language to bring it out. Granted, the inherency of language to humans says nothing about craftsmanship — being a “good” or “bad” image or words-smith — which only has to do with how those abilities are used. However, the cultural conceptions we hold towards image-making begin with our considerations of their creation first. If a democratic perspective is gained with regard to creation, a democratic usage can arise from it.

In addition to the individualistic role that language plays, it also binds members of a community together through its shared use. By and large, users of language are expected to be both producers and receivers. In a print culture such as comics, promoting such a perspective would encourage everyone not only to be readers of works, but also be able to create their own works, which they could share. Creating mass fluency in this way would also lend towards a broader base of creativity, most likely leading to a larger quantity of higher quality works. (Hypothetically, if 10% of the population creates high quality work, then when population increases, the number of quality creators rises as well.)

With the power of web distribution, such mass usage is readily a possibility. Part of the usefulness of a publishing venue without the restrictions of companies is the lack of constraints on quality. Indeed, by and large, the quality of webcomics is much lower than in print, simply because there are no limits put on who can post their work online. While some may view this disparagingly by taking an aristocratic perspective of Art or publishing, viewing it in terms of VL acknowledges that quality of “artistry” should not matter so long as people are employing the language en masse.

However, though the Internet does not place restrictions on distribution and economics, web publishing still does not equate to the usage of the medium as a language. In a past column, John Barber stated that the Internet allows for comics to break free of their “ivory tower” and become “a true form of communication.” Here, Barber is commingling the web’s distributive power with the social factors of democratization. Though the web allows for the employment of the medium to enter a level playing field of distribution, the Internet does not determine how people use that language. That is, the Internet does not free visual language from “comic culture” itself. Truly, a socially prevalent use of VL would not restrict it to the inclusive comic industry.

Indeed, the most powerful democratizing force that visual language offers is in its potential against the notion of “comics” themselves. “Comics” can also be considered an aristocratic institution with regard to its relationship to visual language, because “comics” is a small culture, which (partially because of the economic hierarchy) dominates the usage, perception, and exposure of the language associated to it.

There is no a priori reason why VL should be associated only with the production of entertainment and the genres enclosed within a single pop-cultural identity of comics. If VL is truly to be treated as a language, then usage of it can occur in any place language can — which is just about in any print material. And, nothing restricts visual language to just narrative purposes, as it can be successfully used for non-fiction exposition as well (examples of my own can be found here and here).

In order for the medium — visual language — to become democratized, it must leave behind the constrictions of limited “comics” usage. To truly become a “form of communication,” visual language must be free for employment in ways outside the culture with which it is stereotyped.

Widespread usage of visual language would render the sports page with articles written in visual/textual language that actually show the game as its discussed, or textbooks that integrate image and word more than a distant figure vaguely referred to in the text. Real usage of VL as a language would have no boundaries of use, not just the status quo confined to the limited avenues of comics culture. As I discussed in my past article, in order to truly allow the medium to expand successfully, the social notion of comics must be allowed to dissolve into a broader usage, rather than trying to pull outside readership or genres into the already stereotyped “comics culture.”

Freeing visual language from the hegemony of “comics” cannot come simply from some technological revolution. The democratization of visual language is a battle for minds that must come from education and a widespread usage that breaks the stereotypes placed on VL by the notions that “comics” has perpetuated.

Similar to any meaningful political change, resistance against the aristocratic institutions of comics must come from bottom-up. We cannot expect real change to occur top-down from the large comic corporations to the benefit of the average reader/creator. Individuals can actively make the choice not to buy or support corporate owned products, urging them to produce diversified content catering to more markets. If the voice of the pocket-book is the only one these companies responds to, speak out with it loud and clear. Bookstores and libraries are already expanding their graphic novel collections, and people can lobby their local stores to carry more titles that cater to interests beyond the pigeonholed “comic” market.

Moreover, with the Internet, anyone can begin posting their work online, with both stereotypic and non-standard content. Visual language does not have to only be used online for writing short humor strips and creative fiction. Creative and talented individuals can join together to publish compilations of their works united by topic, both online and in print, networking and advertising across lines of common interest outside of the inclusive comics community. For instance, if someone works on a liberal political themed comic (which doesn’t have to be satire or humor, by the way), they can join the many others who write on this topic to publish collections of their works. Such a collection can occur in print, or people can share a portal website that runs all newly updated works while linking back to individuals’ homepages. They can link to each other’s websites and seek advertising on the myriad of politically oriented media, websites, or publications, which range from radio stations (both webradio and not) to Internet news sites to blogs and more. This can work for any topic. Strength can be found in numbers, and in the diversity itself — not in spite of it.

Inherent in this though, is the importance to stress that any non-standard usage of the medium is not a novel exception to the rule, but is the expected way in which visual language should be put to use. This lends to the larger fight against the stereotypes perpetuating negative perceptions of the medium. People can publicly reinforce that visual language is not tied to any specific type of content by speaking out when people insinuate otherwise, by blogging, writing letters-to-the-editor in newspapers to oppose the coverage given to books, and generally working to break down the stereotypes that perpetuate the aristocracies relegating this language to minority status. However, as always, the best way to prove this is through action and not words.

Active change can come from a myriad of different sources, but it relies on people demanding that it happen, not just sitting and waiting for someone to do it for them. Promoting the power of the web and visual language is a choice for individual voices against creative teams, personal visions versus corporate properties, economic opportunity for anyone rather than a select few, and the expanded usage for the medium beyond limited genres and a constrained comics culture. The option is for democracy rather than elitism, and the choice is ours.

Neil Cohn

One Comment

  1. These are a few comments by weatherwise from my own forums about this article that I thought were worth adding on at the end here, because he really hits on some good points:

    weatherwise said…
    At a fundamental level, I think that what we’re really talking about is not the conflict between peasant and aristocrat, but proletariat and bourgeoisie. The problem is that few creators have the capital means to successfully publish and distribute their own work, so they have nothing but their labour to sell to those who do, the comic companies. Are there any creator owned and controlled co-operative publishers in existance? That would be where I would tend to look for some solution to these problems.

    Another approach to democratizing comics, rather than (or in addition to) starting to conceive of them as a language, would be to start conceiving of them as folk art or popular art, rather than mass, industrial art produced by a culture industry or even bourgeois art in the classical sense. This would allow us to think of them as something that everyone can contribute to, as you outline in your article. This would also allow us to begin a process of reclaiming products of the corporate system as our own, though many of them were created as work-for-hire with no real artistic ambition for the sole purpose of separating a kid from his dime, etc., etc., even as we currently argue for reforms to the way that comics are produced today.

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