Cartoon and Illustration

Back to Fandom (and the quest for legitimacy)

Yesterday (after finishing up with the long deadline) I managed to get caught up reading Michael A. Leonard’s “Public Domain” blog (http://michaelallanleonard.wordpress.com/).  One of the items he covered while I was doing other things was a book by Gerard Jones about the “Secret Origin of Fandom”.

I haven’t read the book myself, just Mike’s blog.  (Sorry Gerard, I love your work, but money is still tight).  But it’s interesting because the subject dovetails into something I’ve been contemplating about comics and fandom in general–specifically the quest for legitimacy.

What I mean by this is right now webcomics are in the process of declaring their legitimate right to be considered on the same level as “real” comics–you know the ones printed on paper?

(BTW, I will not be using the term “dead-tree” to describe these, as I find that description grating.  My family has survived for several generations now, in part by running a pulpwood farm.  It’s not a big bucks operation, neither is it eco-evil.  Trees have a life span and when we harvest them, we replant new trees that supply everyone around with oxygen, give habitat to many woodland creatures, prevent erosion, etc.  I could go on.  Obviously I have a sore spot about this.  When Mike refers to it that way, I cut him slack because he’s being funny.  But the rest of the world has to be quiet.)

Anyway, getting back to comics, webcomics, etc.

This struggle for the webcomics crowd is not new.  It seems ever generation goes through it.  In fact it probably goes back before there was “fandom”–because human nature does not change.

In my own life I’ve been part of the “alternate comics movement” of the 1980s.  But any number of people did not think of black and white comics as a legitimate form of the medium.  I have to include myself in that, as my ultimate goal was to get work in color comics (defined as DC, Marvel, etc.) even to me, at that time, they were the legitimate publishers.  To a certain extent that mindset is still true.  Nevertheless many fine pieces of work have appeared in black and white comics.  Several have won awards (at least one pulitzer prize, and any number of “lesser” awards as well).

But the fact remains that few at the time (many times the creators of these works themselves) thought of the books as “legitimate”.   That would be achieved when we moved on to other companies where they could afford color printing, big licensing deals, and newsstand distribution.

Seriously.  We may have kidded ourselves that we were “just as good as those guys”, but we didn’t believe it–not really.

So when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles came out, few, if any of us thought of it as anything “real”.  It was a fluke.  A flash in the pan.  Sure, we bought it, but with jealous and covetous hearts.  We went to see the movies (taking along a few little kids we knew to make sure everyone knew it wasn’t us that were going to see this film–it was, “you know, for the kids–they seem to like it.”)  But again, seeing the Turtles 18 feet high on the screen all we could really think was, “Why isn’t MY creation up there?”

Of course all us “alternate comics” types rankled anytime that someone called one of our books “underground”.  I personally hated that label.  Underground comix were all about dope smoking hippies, sexual deviants, and subversive politics.

To us alternate comics were actual literature–not thinly disguised subversive propaganda.  But the very fact that the previous generation lumped them in with undergrounds made all us alternates a little uneasy.

A generation before that there was Marvel Comics.  Seriously.  Have you ever hung around with any of the “really old guys”?  You know the ones that have mostly passed on now?  The ones that were drawing comic books back in the early 1930s?  I won’t say that they all held this view, but more than one had harsh words for Stan Lee.   So far as they were concerned he was a punk kid who wouldn’t know a “real” comic if he bit into one.

Not so for my generation.  I was born in 1963, so Marvel was just as legit as any other comics publisher.  Spider-Man held as much respect as Mickey Mouse or Superman.  He was on the newsstand, right?  He was on TV, right?

The weird thing is all those “really old guys” probably didn’t think that working for DC, Fawcette, Fox, and all the other companies was real comics either.  Real comics to them were daily strips in the newspaper–or if not comics at least doing covers for Amazing Fantasy, and other Pulp magazines.

Of course to the legion of artists who were painting the covers for the pulps, the goal was to break free from that and work for Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and other such magazines.

And for the generation doing magazine illustrations the real goal was to do book illustrations like Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and other superstar illustrators of their own formative years.

We artists are too hard on ourselves.  That much is clear to me.  Each generation both over estimates and under estimates ourselves.

The thing is that each generation has had to aspire to “greater things” while simultaneously settling for venues that will pay the bills.  When I work on webcomics, I’m not all high-minded about it.  I want to see the things collected into “real” printed books on paper.  But I also recognize that this may not have any bearing on the generation growing up with webcomics.

To those many who are presently working in webcomics because they want to–my hat is off to you.  But I hope that many of you will come to the realization (in 25-30 years) that you were likely working from that same jealousy/covetous place I was working during the 80s.  (This is not to say that I dislike working in webcomics, but so far it’s been more of a “I guess I have to move in this direction to stay afloat, and less a “I really WANT this!”)

The thing is it seems you HAVE to want more in order to rise above those who are just doing it for now.  You can’t hope to survive without a goal in mind–even if you never attain that goal, you have to keep striving for it in order to make your work better.

Does this count as a rant?  Call it a rant if you like.  It’s still true.  Sorry if anyone’s feelings got bruised in the process.  I respect you webcomic creators.  I hope you have some respect for me.  I respect you my fellow alternate comics creators of the 1980s–and so forth.  The thing is we need to be honest with ourselves–would we ever really create anything worth creating if we were not trying to do something more?  Some of the kids that are reading our comics now will aspire to be what we are now–whether we’re satisfied with it completely is not the point.

The point is, do the best you can and keep dreaming and striving for what you believe will make you legitimate.  From what I’ve observed, it’s the only way to get anything done.

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