Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Why Do Adults Read Comic Books?

Why do they indeed? R. Fiore ponders the question from the viewpoint of someone who has been writing about comics since he first joined the literary heathens at the Comics Journal in 1979, the dark distant days of 1979. I had started reading comics in 1973, and grew up with all the various starts and stops that he talks about in his article, but with a different viewpoint. Perhaps because he was integrated into the comics criticism culture, or perhaps because his natural inclination was to prefer classic newspaper reprints at the time, but i had a slightly different take on the situation, as well as that question: Why would a grown man read comic books?
A question that has occupied my mind ever since I began writing about comics: “Why would a grown man read comic books?” I was never satisfied with the conventional answer, which had to do with the potential of the medium to be a great art form. While it does have that potential, and part of the reason to champion the medium is to give it the prestige it would need to one day attract the caliber of artist that could fulfill it, the potential doesn’t explain why you’re reading them now. You don’t eat hot dogs because you think they’re going to turn into steak someday.
Classic last line that. No, would answer, I read comics because they gave me a type of escapist fiction that i'm not getting anywhere else. To further R's analogy, I didn't give up hot dogs for steak, I happen to like both at different times. I was absorbing the acutely developed melodrama/roller coaster ride that was the Claremont/Byrne/Austin X-Men at the same time i took an entire 3 days of summer vacation and read Sophie's Choice by Styron. And I knew that one day there would be comics that matched that same punched-in-the-gut feeling that i got from that book. As holocaust literature, I will certainly read Sophie's Choice as well as Weisel's Night as well as Spiegelman's Maus. I don't need to pick and choose one as better or more relevant. Al three are powerful works.

The same collections that interested Fiore, such as The Hyperion Library of Classic American Comic Strips, were both interesting as artifacts and boring as examples of how much the current form HAD NOT advanced to me back then. They also pointed out a time, and perhaps reinforced a time, that believed in comics as juvenile art when i was sure that you could do so much more with the medium. I argue that Smith's Red Nails was as good as the damn Frazetta covers that everyone fell in love with. Certainly the newspaper artists knew how to advance a narrative slowly, keeping the tension as long as possible, which was just the opposite of the DC artists who had one panel in Superboy to portray a mind numbing interstellar war. I knew that somewhere in the middle of all that were artists that would both give us a narrative with greater consequences and more acute insights, and I was willing wait while enjoying some cheap fun with the Avengers or Iron Man or The Teen Titans.

We didn't have long to wait really. When Fiore started to write, Sabre was already out by Eclipse, and Detectives Inc by the masterful Marshall Rogers was soon to be out, as was A Contract With God. Maggie and Hopey and Luba were also right around the corner. American Flagg teased with becoming the great American Satire for a moment or two before Chaykin succumbed to the needs to produce 22 pages each issue and things went flat. His far greater work, Times Squared, was never appreciated and should be revised any day now if there is any justice.

As to why comics created by grown adults to resonate with children should still attract us, in to parse the adult from the child in each person, and that's bound to be difficult with the sharpest of scalpels. Many of the same things that we expect to attract children: a silly but well timed joke, an imaginative other world, interesting and unusual characters, should certainly attract adults as well. Adults appreciate well done comedy and drama, and it would be the rare movie goer who didn't appreciate dropping into a totally new world for two hours for their ticket money. Early comic strip creators knew that their work was going into the family home and would be read by Dad and Junior alike, and as the later Looney Tunes cartoons, so that work that could be enjoyed on more than one level would have the greater chance of staying in papers. There is also the nostalgia factor, which is always difficult to predict.
We think about them [omic books] and write about them because we perceive we like them not in the way we like, say, chocolate ice cream or pictures of naked women, but because they mean something to us that we can’t readily define.
Why did a grown man read comics? Because it is a unique medium, a combination of words and pictures that operate on both two or three different visual levels at once of meaning that, in skilled hands, can convey more together than separately. And because there are a host of stories to be told, and now, more than ever, more ways to tell them. I can readily define why i've been reading comics for 36 years: I enjoy then tremendously when they're well done, and I've seen a lot of well done ones, regardless of genre, regardless of critical acclaim, regardless of format in that 36 years. If the creation of critical language means anything (and the Comics Journal has played a huge role in that) then it has given us the means to describe why enjoy certain comics so much. Explaining why I like chocolate ice cream is actually a lot more difficult once you get beyond the word "yummy".

And for the record, in the original piece, Fiore does an excellent job on the next paragraph of explaining exactly why he does love comics as a medium, and I suggest that you take the time to read through the piece.

Happy New Year all.


Shelly said...

Gee, I still read comics as an adult because I like the mix of art and text. I'm not good at visualizing from words, yet I'm very visual, loving art and photography. Comics provide the pictures, like reading a movie. They're fun.

Todd Miro said...

I am dumbfounded when people are still unable to separate the medium from the message. Yes, comic books originally were created and marketed for children... so what? The medium - images and words told sequentially on paper - has nothing to do with the content, or who it is usually marketed to.

Why did I still read comic books as an adult? Simply because as I grew up, so did the stories told through the comic book medium - Watchmen, Love & Rockets, Eightball, etc.

I consume all sorts of entertainment from multiple sources: comics, movies, tv, music, books, YouTube, blogs - in all cases the medium is irrelevant to me and all I really care about is the content.

Adults are allowed to see "kids" movies and enjoy them all the time - "Up", "Toy Story", "The Incredibles", and yet cinema never has been ghetto-ized as merely a child's media like comics have.

Albert Giesbrecht said...

I stopped reading Archie comics at the age of 14, when I bought my first Playboy. I am now 48 years old.