Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Us, You and Me, River, Sea, Ocean.

So, I’ve just finished Everything Bad Is Good For You, by Steven Johnson. It’s not a comic; it’s a book-length essay (actually, two half-book-length essays that form one argument, but that’s just quibbling) about what Johnson calls The Sleeper Curve – essentially, a theory that suggests that popular culture has been getting smarter for the last few decades, and because of this, the general populace are getting smarter as well (Shame on you who saw the word “Sleeper” and thought of Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ recently concluded series). One of the reasons Johnson puts forward for the growth of intelligence is that the culture that we consume has become more interactive… That with the growth of things like video games, email, the internet and even reality shows where the audience not only gets to decide who gets voted off but has to pay attention to the multiple narratives of each contestant and the (implied) relationships the contestants have with each other, we have ceased to be at the point where media is something that we consume passively, so much as react to and shape actively. This, of course, got me thinking about comics.

Comics, you see, have always been one of the more interactive forms of media in my mind. I’m not talking about that in the sense of “Anyone can make a comic and join that conversation”, although that’s a perfectly good argument to make (Minicomics being seen as more artistically valid than, for example, vanity press prose or cable-access TV. Not that I mean that in a “Well, minicomics suck” way, as much as a “There is probably value in vanity press prose and cable-access TV that gets ignored because of the stronger insider/outsider structure of those media” way); instead, I’m thinking about comics fandom and the strange incestuous relationship it has with the comics establishment. Letter columns, APAs, fans-turning-pro (Roy Thomas, for some reason I always consider that particular thing to be your trailblazing, although I’m sure that many went that route before you)… When didn’t the fan have a voice with publishers and creators? It seems as though comics have always had a history of being more receptive – or at least, giving the illusion of being more receptive – to its audience than any other form of mass market media. I’m fairly sure that this isn’t exactly the case, if only because I’d bet good money that television and movie creators are all television and movie fanboys made good, every manjack and womanjill of them, but there’s something oddly transparent about the process in comics.

(There are multiple possibilities for this – the periodical print format of comics, for one, combined with the content. Television shows, to use another example of mass media fiction, hopes to encourage the audience to empathize and befriend their characters, but they lack the prepackaged right-to-reply that mainstream comics offer in their letters column. Such columns, of course, aren’t exclusive to comics, but the average reader of Time or Martha Stewart Living doesn’t get invited to share in someone else’s ongoing soap opera month-in, month-out. Another possibility is the nature of the comics market, where the celebrities (creators) are more accessible and, in many cases, looking for interaction with their fans as ways to get feedback on their work, feed their egos or somewhere between the two.)

Nonetheless, there is the comics internet, where the nature of fan contact with creators and “the industry” seems to have gotten somewhat out of control. Newsarama posters rant and rave and seem to believe that their opinions should somehow magically change corporate decisions just because. Creators start message boards and lose touch with reality as starfuckers descend and kiss ass in a variety of new and amusing positions. A million blogs pop up (and mea culpa on this one) with a million opinions and it feels, occasionally, that everything just becomes noise, with less and less signal available, never mind being able to be easily found.

I was recently referred to by someone as an internet pundit, and I had this strange, ambivalent reaction. On the one hand, I guess that I am; Fanboy Rampage definitely gets a lot of hits, I suppose, and more than a few people seem to know what it is, and who I am, even if it’s just as “that guy who does Fanboy Rampage”. But on the other hand, I feel as if I shouldn’t be a pundit. Who am I to be listened to? I’m not a creator (well, I am, but only one thing has seen print by this point. I’m hardly Warren Ellis, Steven Grant or any of the many “real” creators, or retailers, or publishers, or people who make their living in the industry who have columns or blogs online). I don’t have any real inside scoop or gossip on the inner workings of DC or Marvel or whoever. I’m just this random guy who writes a lot of shit about comics. The same with a lot of online personalities who are seen either by themselves or others as some kind of voice of authority on comics matters; we’re just fans who talk loudly. None of this is to be taken as a condemnation of any particular blogger or columnist or even fan blogs, columns and websites as a whole; my Favorites list is full of people like Jog, Ed Cunard, Johnny Bacardi and far too many other comic blogs. But they’re all just fans, you know? It’s a hobby, an obsession, sure, but not a livelihood. They write well, they’re enjoyable and often more entertaining and educative that the comics that they’re writing about. But they’re not insiders, not that that’s a bad thing.

My point is, I think, that I think comics have somehow passed some point where the medium has become so interactive that there’s no clear demarcation between Us (the fans) and Them (the industry) anymore. Which, again, is not necessarily a bad thing (although I’d argue that the strange sense of entitlement that some fans seem to have because of the blurring of the lines, is. But that’s just me). It is, however, an interesting thing, and something that I’m fascinated to see where it goes next. Comics anarchy? Comics utopia? Absolutely nowhere?

Your guess is as good as mine, which is kind of my point.