Spring 1997

Existentialism for beginners

Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels

Roger Sabin
Phaidon

The definitions hinted at in its title are fully amplified in Roger Sabin’s excellent book; differences between comics, comix and graphic novels are clarified as Sabin analyses a genre with a remarkable capacity for re-inventing itself in changing circumstances. Equally remarkable is the ability of comics’ moral opponents to re-define their positions; what we see is a decades-long pas de deux whose participants continually shimmy around each other – surely a graphic novel in there somewhere. After a brief historical prelude, Sabin launches into the mainstream of comics’ evolution; it is immediately clear that even at the turn of the century the knives were out for Ally Sloper, Willie Weary and Tired Tim, branded “a threat to literacy” and worse, by “middle-class paternalists,” who thus set a still-unresolved agenda.

Equally evident is the immediate exploitation of illustrators by publishers. From Harmsworth through Disney, IPC, DC and Marvel, the pattern has been one of proprietorial vampirism. Historically, only a handful of American and British publishers have behaved consistently honourably, in contrast to European producers who have had a much more generous attitude to artists, mirroring the general European acceptance of comics themselves. The emergence of various radical, underground movements has been almost as much to do with avoiding this exploitation, as with the emergence of new comic forms needing an outlet which the mainstream would have denied. Comics’ own reflection of political change is documented, from the anarchy of 1960s underground comix to the subtler ways in which Superman, for example, gradually mutated through various degrees of liberalism and nationalism in deference to external changes. (Did I notice this in 1960? Possibly not).

Problematic links between comics’ violence and 1990s heroes such as Judge Dredd and The Punisher are rightly explored: no description of such violence as “ironic” or “symbolic” can allay some unease at the barbed strand of sadism running through comics’ recent history. Though Sabin remains somewhat ambivalent about this, possibly perceiving a necessary evil within the genre, he does decry excesses en route, ironically aligning himself with those “middle-class paternalists,” forebears of the Comics Code Authority et al. Debate about violence, sexism or racism often produces strange bedfellows. The specific problem with violence, especially when repeatedly visited on women, is that one man’s irony may be another man’s wank fodder. Robert Crumb, in particular, pushed things to extremes, veering from anarchic hilarity to vicious psychosis, and to Sabin’s credit he pulls no punches on even this crucial but flawed figure.

The work in the book presents a riveting carnival of character and atmosphere; an oblique history. The apparent innocence of the earliest examples seems to have disappeared. But it’s strangely reassuring to note Ally Sloper’s grog-blossomed nose, and to realise that, albeit without a chainsaw, Ignatz the Mouse was beaning Krazy Kat as early as 1918. Krazy is maybe the earliest example of that seam of skewed brilliance, through Little Nemo, The Beano, Mad, Zap, Raw and Eightball, which shows comics at their starling best. The fantastic originality of character, narrative and visuals shines a bright, subversive beam through the fog of human (and feline) dumbness. Krazy’s devotion to his brick-throwing nemesis, or Mark Beyer’s trauma-prone Amy and Jordan suggest as much about the human condition as any existentialist – Quicker! Cheaper! Funnier!

Since the 1960s, such zanies have largely emerged from and operated outside of comics’ mainstream, or, like Viz, have created their own. The big publishers’ focus on the “superhero” (and his near-relatives) has led to a history of commercial manoeuvring patiently dissected by Sabin. From the origins of Superman and Batman, via the X-Men era to influential graphic novels such as Sandman or Alan Moore’s Watchmen, there’s a certain predictability about these guys’ progress. Moore’s work stands out for its political and psychological subtlety, but much of this genre blurs into one. Yet another suffering/psychopathic individual emerges, sporting the obligatory tights, mask, pecs and obsession. Any woman in this male-dominated preserve inevitably has, in Sabin’s phrase, “breasts larger than their heads.” This genre’s characteristic of introverted, suffering laddishness would make its longevity a surprise, if not for its ever-renewing audience of introverted, suffering lads, and an every-changing set of marketing outlets for related films, television series, toys and computer games. Sabin chides Hollywood for its convenient development of these “recognisable brand names” in lieu of genuinely original products, also hinting that the mainstream comic industry would be unwise to rely exclusively on the ongoing popularity of this genre: “sooner or later… the fans (will) realise that they are being conned” by the media conglomerates that own both film studio and publisher.

Women’s roles, both as characters and creators, are shown to have changed startlingly; the anodyne commonplaces of Girl and the male-oriented eroticism of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle having given way to the powerful post-feminism of Julie Doucet and Aline Kominsky. Sadly, excellent European counterparts such as Kate Charlesworth and Claire Bretecher aren’t included: other surprising omissions include Superman’s surreal Bizzaro episodes: anything by “Mad’s maddest artist,” Don Martin (master of the sound effect: my remembered favourite was “Fagroon Klubble Klubble,” the sound of a building exploding and collapsing); recent newspaper gems such as Doonesbury, Ernie Pook’s Komeek or Peter Blegvad’s idiosyncratic Leviathan. Minor caveats aside, with all of this McCay, Herriman, Baxendale, Crumb, Beyer, Charles “Dogboy” Burns, Clowes, Kominsky, Spiegelman et al to enjoy; with nuggets such as a 1991 David Lynch strip or the information that The Phantom (1936) was the trend-setter for those ubiquitous tights; and with an enthusiastic text which absorbed even this non-fan, this is clearly the definitive history of its complex subject to date.

First published in Eye no. 24 vol. 6, 1997