Saturday, August 18, 2007

In Seach Of: The Elusive "Bridge" Comic?

The bridge book: the future of the medium?

Much has been made of the elusive bridge book, the comic tht would allow the reader to move gracefully from the Ritchie rich to the fantastic four to Kill your boyfriend in three easy steps and 30 years worth of maturity. So much time has been spent looking for this progression that I’m not sure that anyone has recently looked at it in light of today’s marketplace.

We often talk about comics and don’t necessarily define our terms for the discussion that well. There are comics as the things tht we read, a particular issue or trade or long box in the garage, and there are comics, the medium that we have works produced in, in the Scott McCloud definition of words and pictures working in concert to tell a story. Frequently the two get mixed up and the discussion gets muddied, which is not my intent here at all.

What we’re discussing today is comics as medium, a mass medium, which is not something that we could have said as easily 10 years ago, and how it relates to today’s buying public. It is helpful, and occasionally instructive to look at other mediums, vastly more mature mediums, (for all that the comic has been around since the 1930’s) such as books and film in this regard.

I believe that the notion of the crossover comic is not one that is particularly relevant anymore, if we could accept the premise that the person who is likely to rent Terminator 2: The Director’s Cut is not generally the same consumer who rented Mansfield Park, or is going to go pay to see Becoming Jane. What those two people have in common most is a love for the film medium, and an understanding a) of the storytelling conventions of the medium and b) that Terminator 2: The Director’s Cut is not an acceptable choice as date night.

While there is the occasional crossover blockbuster in any medium, as I defy most any of the Merchant/Ivory filmgoers to actually deny, with a straight face, that they have never seen Jaws for instance, it would be far more helpful and interesting for there to be as wide an array of comics available to the potential reader.

Last week I went home with the following in my bag to read:

  • Criminal #8 by Brubaker and Philips
  • Mighty Avengers #4 by Bendis and Cho
  • Powers #25 by Bendis and Oeming
  • The Salon by Nick Bertozzi

And I think nothing of mixing Criminal in with the slowest moving Ultron saga ever (literally, Mantis had become the Celestial Madonna in the time it has taken Ultron to take over the world again) or moving over to the over the top art references of The Salon, but I’m beginning to think that there may not be that many of me out there. It has been put to us in America that the manga in Japan, for instance, has so many volumes out that that the adolescent Japanese female who wants to read lesbian vampire fiction can easily have a series targeted towards her particular tastes. Certainly there are enough DVDs out in video stores to accommodate such a specific request for material. The real question is, is there enough American material to allow for targeted reading?

It is, alas, the terrible fact that to be a true mass medium, you need the mass of numbers. Because without that, you're a pretender, which is what comics have been for the last 20 years. It really is my answer to those that think that teh San Diego Comic Con should spin off the comics into their own con again: we've waited long enough in the wilderness as fringe media, don't exile us again because you don't like crowds. We need a huge number of readers, used to the conventions of visual storytelling to continue the tradition, and we need a great wealth of material to bring people back again and again. It is not the book itself a lot of times, but the habit of reading the book. If the habit is there, then they will go seek out the books themselves, and, thankfully, these days there are more and more books to fill in the gaps.

OK, so I'm being a half-full kinda guy these days. Can't help it. Came back from the San Diego Comic Con believing that I saw such an amazing breadth of material being published that almost any age should be able to find a comic to enjoy.

If only they know to look. And its a big IF.


RedMaigo said...

You bring up a good point, but it's one that is going to take generations to address.

I used to read Western comics up to my sophomore year in high school and then stopped. I guess I had grown up and was moving on with my life. Although I have fond memories of those comics, I never really thought about keeping up with the hobby.

Fast forward a few decades later and I am knee deep into anime and manga culture. Oh, I would still go to the premier midnight showings of Hollywood's latter-day offerings of the comics I used to love -- X-Men, Spider Man etc -- but none of these blockbuster's made me go back to Joe's Comic Shop to catch up on the two decades of story lines and characters that I missed.

I'm pretty sure that most people who also saw these movies felt the same way. They enjoyed the movies for what they were and then went on with their lives.

Back to the manga/anime thing, I'll make an example: Currently I watching a series called Claymore which, like most anime, is based on a manga or Japanese comic. Now that the series has aired most of the comic's storyline, I can safely buy the book without spoiling my enjoyment of the show.

Right now I have bought the series up to the 7th book at $8.00 a pop. Can you imagine if Marvel/DC/Image or any of those companies could move product,like this due to the movies and/or television shows?

Sure X-men and Spiderman have been blockbusters but has the sales of these comics which the movies were based on had any spikes in readership due to these movies?

Maybe with the fans who love and enjoy these franchises but how about any new readers? How about any young readers?

Maybe some but not a lot I bet...

You may say that the manga I'm speaking on is just another one of a glut of manga titles that have blossomed and enveloped most of the shelf space you see at your Barnes & Nobles and Borders. However, the reason why there are is a glut of these books is because, as you mentioned, there is something there for every discerning taste.

I still shake my head when I see the Western comic graphic novel ghetto -- maybe a shelf and half -- that most book stores consign Western comic titles to. But then I think that's the way it's always been as Western comics become something that you get at specialty shops or that ghetto shelf space at most book stores.

Man, I couldn't tell you the last time I saw a comic at a convenience store, or a supermarket or a drugstore anymore. You know the places where I USED to get them when I was young?

When I visited Japan a few months ago, I noticed that they had manga everywhere! From the convenience stores, to the mom-and-pop shops to the little bus/train/airport newsstand kiosks.

Unless this indifference toward the source material remains, I don't see Western comics gaining any mindshare with the culture at large. Sometimes I feel that Western comics are going the way of the pulps and there is nothing we can do but bow our heads in remembrance and just move on.

Frank Esposito said...

Gateway comics do exist - in the form of the Archie line and the kid-friendly comics put out by Marvel and DC. DC's are great, Marvel's aren't so good.

The bigger problem is distribution. Comics no longer are available at grocery stores, drug stores, etc., so they'll never have the mainstream audience they once had. Kids who buy manga do so at bookstores, not so much at comic shops.

Matt Brady said...

Comics seem to be on a path toward more mainstream acceptance, although it might take another generation to get there. I think the kids that read manga these days will end up moving toward Western comics, especially since manga publishers like Tokyopop put out work by American creators. I don't know if they'll end up reading superhero stuff, but I imagine they will read art comics like The Salon or the sort of stuff that Oni or Slave Labor publish. But who knows? I'm probably pretty bad at predicting the future...

Scott Bieser said...

I think we will know comics has reached "mainstream" when we can buy comics about bored Connecticut or New England housewives cheating on their husbands.

Alex Scott said...

In several anime/manga communities, you'll typically see quite a few discussions of people's 'first' anime or manga, the thing that first intrigued them or got them hooked on the respective media. The following is a list of titles that I can remember acting as gateways:

Astro Boy
Speed Racer
Battle of the Planets/G-Force
Star Blazers
Lone Wolf and Cub
Dirty Pair
Project A-ko
Vampire Hunter D
Ranma 1/2
Oh My Goddess!
Tenchi Muyo
Macross Plus
Ghost in the Shell
Sailor Moon
Dragon Ball Z
Neon Genesis Evangelion
Toonami (especially when they resurrected Robotech, Voltron, Sailor Moon, and DBZ)
Final Fantasy VII (not an anime or manga, but I personally credit it with helping to promote both)
Mobile Suit Gundam
Cardcaptor Sakura
Fushigi Yugi
Hayao Miyazaki movies
Cowboy Bebop
Love Hina
Fruits Basket

I guess this pretty much supports your theory. Even though many of these are years apart, there's still enough added together to appeal to just about anybody; and in some cases, to appeal to more than one type of person.

Heck, you could probably trace a pretty good path of manga's developing female fanbase from Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo, up through Sailor Moon, and on to Fruits Basket.

TonPo said...

My roommate and I were just having a conversation about this last night...

As much crap as "the 90s" gets among intelligent comic consumers as the "killing point," or whatever, of the industry, we had options. We had Dark Horse Presents; we had Madman; we had Flaming Carrot; we had Judge Dredd. We still have this stuff, but what younger readers need in order to mature and grow as fans of the medium is brand-new material, and I have to wonder how much of that is really out there.

I think that there are two factors to consider:

1) Much attention has been paid to producing age-appropriate comics for younger readers, but little attention beyond late childhood. Wouldn't it be wise to consider that, if we can produce enough comics that are going to excite and interest our youngest readers, eventually they will need new age-appropriate comics when they reach 13 and eventually 16 or 17? Can we say that any publisher has earnestly been building this outside of "more mature" versions of the same exact stories we read as kids?

2) Graphic Novels/OGNs are the thing. That's the term that people in the press and critics love to throw around these days because "comics" apparently is not enough. But what regularly published material is there in terms of "transition" books? Like I said above, when my roommate was a teenager, he was getting into Dark Horse Presents and 2000AD. When I was a teenager, I had Flaming Carrot, Sam & Max, Bone, and Evan Dorkins' work to help transition me into reading more maturely crafted story-telling (pardon me for liking the masturbation jokes and graphic puns that were laden throughout old issues of Dork, but hey, it made a Gertrude Stein fan out of me).

I think this is more the territory of cartoonists and writers than anything. There are enough non-mainstream publishing outlets for creators who don't want to work with franchise characters. Even something like Invincible, which is still more fun super hero story, can incite an interest in comics that are not Marvel and DC books. There's some good stuff out there for this purpose right now, but I think that your point about having enough sheer numbers in terms of options is very right on. The growing popularity of things such as Manga and Anime is indicative of the fact that today's comic readers need as many options available to them as possible.

In your opinion, does a work like Bertozzi's The Salon hurt to transition readers, since their interest in the medium could very well end with the story, or does it help? Does something like Fell or Cassanova help, because it is being produced continually and on a fairly regular basis? It could potentially give readers and excuse to keep coming into the comic store and check out other books, whereas OGNs or even collected editions may only draw readers into a Borders or Barnes & Noble and not check out anything really new (i.e. they may get into Cassanova's hard-cover collection, but they're not going to pick up the current issues with all the fun back-matter; they may like the Walking Dead collections, but they may not get to see The Astounding Wolf-Man)?