December 8th, 2011
In the great play, the play of the world, the one I always return to, all emotional souls occupy the stage, whereas all creative people sit in the orchestra. The first are called mad (alienated); the second ones, who depict their follies, are called sages (philosophers). The eye of the sage is the one which lays bare the follies of various figures on the stage. — Denis Diderot
In light of DC’s New 52 relaunch, with its selective erasure of 30 years of Direct Market convolution, I want to once again look at comics history through the industry’s material processes. Last time, if you recall, we looked at the conditions and hypothetical emancipation of the 1960s comic book industry worker. Bright-eyed Fordist optimism gave way to the thrill-powered overcompensation of a fatigued 60s and 70s. Here I want to move things along to the 1980s, the crucial point in comics’ transformation from mass-cultural newsstand item to speciality item via the enclosure of the direct sales system. In many ways, this post is an analysis of a particular space—the direct market comic shop—and the sensibility it has produced. It’s worth pointing out that this is not done to prove how unique, amazing or terrible the comics industry is, but rather to ask what has really changed in comics, and how we can relate it to wider cultural and political transformations.
What sparked this was thinking about superhero comics in tandem with 80s and 90s cyberpunk. Evan Calder Williams, in his book Combined and Uneven Apocalypse, recently offered this verdict on the latter:
Cyberpunk was both creation and consequence of a gap between the paranoia of the technological sublime and a creeping realization that perhaps this is no brave new world. Just a nanotechnology dressing up of the way things already were going, and for that reason, it stands among the sharpest of critical realisms.
The cyberpunk aesthetic, often read as celebrating the techno-utopian possibilities of virtual space and immaterial labour, was always in fact an ambivalent or openly critical unmasking of the real tendencies lying behind them. Similarly, direct market comics have their own critical realism that begins in the 1980s, one both more and less obvious than the cyberpunk version: a clear-eyed demolition of the superhero legacy, imbricated in both the Dark Age and the subsequent Mindless-coined Prismatic Age. However, moreso than literary science fiction the development of comic books is tied up with the dynamic of markets, impersonal forces, raw commerce, along with their bizarro mirror image in its network of powerful fan identifications. I tend to think that comics’ most productive tensions arise from a kind of post-Fordist melancholia—in other words, from their difficult relationship with the failed project of consensus mass-culture and mass society, the glorious shiny Superman virility of a hard-working non-collective of consumers. The space of the direct market comic shop has been, since the 1980s, the theatre in which these tensions are played out, which makes it the ideal frame through which comics’ critical realism can be understood.
The direct market’s startling origin
The shift to the direct market is largely the story of what happens to twentieth-century industrial forms of mass culture as they decay and turn inwards, yet cannot be allowed to die. In Of Comics and Men, Jean-Paul Gabilliet links the slow demise of the traditional newsstand distribution network in the 60s and 70s with fundamental economic shifts in American life: “the erosion of rural retailing, of small towns, and their accompanying lifestyle.” The contraction in newsstand distribution resulted in the dramatic price jumps of the 1970s, with comics’ increasing divorce from mass-cultural low-cost profitability prompting the turn towards the specialist comic shop model. The direct sales system was adopted in 1973 at the suggestion of comic convention organizer Phil Seuling, but it took the increasingly DM-centred success of titles like Claremont’s X-Men for the major companies to put out work solely for the enclosed audience. At this point, the comics industry had already lost thousands of readers, but through the DM it gained a degree of autonomy; as Gabilliet puts it, the situation results in “a medium detached from the economic and cultural universe of the periodical press.” (This is perhaps why, incidentally, to a DM reader, the rare comics that remain in the mass-market periodical press, whether they are Nickelodeon ones or Marvel compilation comics, seem so weird.)
The autonomy of the DM is not simply a recipe for more of the same in a different environment. On the contrary, it means a fundamental shift in the way that comics as objects relate to their readers. Mass-media models of production and distribution are usually impersonal; the mass publication is, to varying degrees, reliant upon not deliberately turning off prospective readers—hence, for example, the importance of the Comics Code Authority during the height of the newsstand period. From the 30s to the 70s in comics we have a foundation of novelty—the comic book as object is fundamentally a novelty item bought on a whim, every comic is someone’s first—upon which the reader must then be assailed by familiarity: classical or pulp archetypes, dime-novel era comforts, funnies, western, crime, science fiction. The superhero becomes comics’ own strikingly identifiable composite of all of these elements. (It goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: no newsstand, no superhero.)
A dominant direct market, on the other hand, reverses the relation between familiarity and novelty. The foundation is an enclosed, guaranteed readership all-too familiar with the conventions of the commodity being sold, and overlaid upon this is a kind of shock-and-awe commitment to permanent novelty—think of the publishing techniques of the Wizard era with its array of formats, trading-card-inserted, alternate covers, die cut, polybagged Turok: Dinosaur Hunter bullshit; think of Marvel and DC’s publishing stunts based on sheer quantity of output, with a million and one Blackest Night tie-ins bludgeoning the reader sensorium. Moreover, the direct market inherits the historically-loaded composite necessary for the industry’s survival—the superhero—but without any of its original social/cultural coordinates, ie. the meanings and functions specific to a mass market and a Fordist society, once reflected in the clear-lined certainties of adventure storytelling. The superhero now signifies too much and too little simultaneously. Think here of the exhilarating emptiness of many of the first-wave Image comics and how they deal with the superhero as idea; or DC’s infinite Crises as attempts to make sense of the now-incomprehensible narrative decisions of the previous mode.
‘Plus I’ll tell you what the 80s like’
I want to pause here to take a look at the changes in content brought about as a result of the rise of the direct market. At the dawn of the new era, DC was still picking up the pieces of the Implosion, and phasing out their numbing campaign of 100 Page Super Spectacular reprints and similar fare. Marvel slowly abandoned its commitment to Conan-derived 1970s pulp-fantasy. These grimy newsprint adventures begin to make less sense in the shiny new DM spaces; Claremont’s space-operatic mutant model instead reflects the new comics industry problematic of how to excite a guaranteed returning audience. The mighty Dazzler #1, complete with creepy cover, is Marvel’s first DM-only title. This is not terribly interesting in itself, but as the 80s get going we have the experiments with the graphic novel format (Marvel’s introduction of the New Mutants; DC’s Science Fiction GN series; Eclipse’s Detectives Inc). The adult fantasy of Marvel’s Epic Illustrated magazine as a response to Heavy Metal, followed by the Epic line of comics. Chaykin’s exquisitely self-conscious American Flagg. The gradual proliferation of miniseries. Novelties like First’s preposterous attempt at a computer-generated comic in Shatter, “with a little help from Apple Macintosh”. DC’s canonizing of particular storylines and creative teams, their glossy Baxter reprints of ‘hard-to-find’ material by Neal Adams and others, and new glossy editions of Legion of Superheroes and Teen Titans, whose contents were reprinted a year later on newsprint.
Hand in hand with this, importantly we also have expanding comic shop back-issue racks and bargain bins, buyer’s price guides and the rise of the collector. Zombified labour of a previous era, congealed in every back-issue, haunts the spaces of the direct market. The material weight of comics history in all of its musty, yellowing corporeality is put into relation with every new release, just as the newsprint/newsstand editions of major titles continue to share space with the Prestige techniques and variations in format of the new era; the basest forms of bullpen-style standardized comics sit next to their critical successors, in a permanent tension so ubiquitous that it is hardly ever remarked upon, and instead is subsumed under simple consumer choice.
In the DM the comic shop establishes itself, then, even in its giddy first flush, as a specific kind of habitat rife with the objectified melancholy of recent mass-cultural history: the history that acts both as embarrassment and productive tension. On this basis, it produces a particular kind of reader sensibility—a particular consciousness—as it prods the comics audience towards the relentless comparison of different eras and styles. (This kind of sensibility was produced in independent record shops too, but there is something particularly acute about the comics iteration.) All this is not to say, however, that DM comics immediately reflected the topography of the new environment. Among other awkward misfires, DC’s first major DM event was the 12-issue maxiseries Camelot 3000, a synthesis of the Roy Thomas School of Literary Adaptation—CONTINUING LEGENDS CHRONICLED BY SIR THOMAS MALORY—with the cynical anti-hero science fiction mined by many types of media throughout the 1980s. In one sense, though, it did reflect the push towards a new kind of realist defiance in Brian Bolland’s (painstaking, much-delayed) art, an insistence on a certain kind of concrete construction whose effect is to comment upon the flimsy ephemerality of time-deficient Bullpen art. The series stands as one of a number of tentative experiments in producing work appropriate to the new situation, some unity of elements that would address the new cultural and economic space. Retrospectively the breakthrough is obvious of course: it came in 1986 with—yes that’s right, steady on, I’ll move on quickly—Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen.
Duncan Falconer has it that Watchmen’s reputation is a black hole, warping how we view the development of the Dark Age’s gritty revolution. But does it have the same effect on analyzing the critical possibilities of the direct market? Clearly, there are many comics before Watchmen which critically deconstruct the superhero, satirize the latent absurdity of Men in Tights and so on. Many of them are written by Steve Gerber. But not until the historical weight and critical/comparative perspective specific to the mid-80s comic shop, together with the development of Prestige (re)production techniques, could Watchmen gain its particular resonance. These material conditions allow for the context—the stage—in which Watchmen and similar works could act the part of critical naysayer to the comic shop rack’s older players. The series’ success now figures as the overdetermined symbol of the DM’s accidental purpose: to unmask the totems and fetishes of comics’ mass-cultural history, to transform the ritual of serialized adventure into the ritual of narrativized critique; and more than this, to produce an audience who will come to demand this week in week out.
It is my contention, then, that Watchmen merely acts as the most obvious reference point for the comic shop’s critical perspective. The same goes for DKR with its original squarebound, 52-page 4-issue miniseries luxuriance; the weight and immaculate design of each issue providing the critical Prestige template. Prompted by these titles’ successes, the critical turn was then taken up properly by the industry as a whole. All existing superhero material is revisited, exposed to the critical gaze, even, or perhaps especially, the likes of Justice Inc and Black Orchid; the more incomprehensible an obscure old superhero feels through the 80s sensibility, the more glorious is the effect when they are given roles in the new theatre of the direct market. DC’s Vertigo imprint will eventually install critical consciousness as its de facto founding principle, chiefly through the ‘adult’ return of their 1960s supernatural characters. This is not just a narrative principle but a technical and art/design one, as DKR made clear. Two aforementioned titles, Dazzler and New Mutants, had hinted at this even before 1986 with the Brechtian shock of their Bill Sienkiewicz-painted covers. The comics work of Dave McKean, Kent Williams, John Bolton and other painters takes up this mantle, providing the other polarity to the one occupied by the remaining classical superhero artists like John Byrne, with the two poles allowing a suddenly vast number of styles to sit comfortably between them.
The curse of maturity
Something needs to be cleared up here. What is the relation between this critical consciousness and ‘mature readers’, the marketing category given to self-consciously adult material by the mid-1980s? Are we talking about something more than monstrous comics aren’t just for kids anymore cretinism? Certainly there are many interesting things going on in comics in the distinctions between childhood and maturity; but while they overlap a great deal, when I talk about critical consciousness it is not quite mapped by the Mature tag—anyone who has read, say, 100 Bullets knows there is nothing inherently critical about comics for adults. Nor is it quite mapped by reference to the Milligan-Morrison-Moore British Invasion authors who wrote many of the most obviously critical DM works of the 1980s, though they have come to exemplify it (and they suggest a further line of inquiry in distinguishing between the American and British modes of comic shop-derived sensibility). Furthermore, I can’t help but think that the Dark Age highlights only the most popular aesthetic route to this critique, one which quickly became uncritically fetishized in its own right.
Critical consciousness instead refers to something that is produced by the very space itself, the comic shop where the audience-as-collective-subject is formed. It deals with the sense of compulsively working through the recent past, picking it over, dispelling oneself of its most damaging myths only to return to them again and again in more sophisticated ways. In science fiction, this kind of critique was evident in stories like William Gibson’s early ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, where the pulp magazine era is pointedly cast in relation to the burgeoning cyberpunk one. The sense of release in working through an apparently idiotic yet inescapable past is palpable in both fields. However, as Carl Freedman has put it in regard to cyberpunk, critical realism can quickly turn into the “crackpot realism” of sentimental cynicism:
the attitude … that takes a world resistant to praxis and apparently void of utopia as one in which the entire notions of praxis and utopia may be merely abandoned with hard-bitten “knowingness.”
This is the sensibility that offers the reader “the always comforting conservative assurance that … nothing is to be done”: it is the tendency in comics’ own realism, sometimes overpowering due to their relentless weekly publication schedule, to suggest that there will be no meaningful understanding of the past, no future transformation, no way to finally resolve the tensions of the superhero, the direct market or mass culture (extrapolate further to capitalism, environmental catastrophe, etc); just a weekly ritual, just a working-out of these issues with no end in sight forfuckingever. We could probably point to Frank Miller’s work here as being indicative of this sentimental cynicism (at least before his recent move to a form of authoritarian psychosis); and we can obviously say that the major comics companies, with their terrifying overlords, would like nothing better than for this to be the case. It mustn’t be forgotten, however, that there have been points in the history of direct market comics that resist this urge towards paralysis, that continue to express the DM’s accidental critical spirit rather than its cynicism: through Morrison’s Invisibles or Nocenti’s Daredevil or Morales and Baker’s Truth: Red, White and Black, to name three, there have been bold suggestions of a way out of the enforced impasse. Remember that these comics don’t simply transcend the the direct market by virtue of their wonderfulness—they are instead the product and reflection of its critical purpose.