In July of last year, I wrote about the death of cartoonist Ian McGinty and the way his death highlighted systemic, pervasive, and longstanding problems plaguing the comics industry and its surrounding cultures. At the end of that essay, I gestured towards the need for experimentation—not merely in regards to the content or aesthetics of comics (though, that would be welcome), but in the manner of their production (and, we might also add, their manner of distribution). In the intervening period, it has also become clear to me that the critical discourse of/on/for comics likewise requires experimentation. What might it look like to practice forms of comics criticism (or, more capaciously, a “writing about comics,” as Tom Spurgeon might have put it) adequate to the goal of subordinating comics to living rather than the inverse, as is so often the case? What new avenues might such an orientation make possible, and what new forms might it require? What would such a task require of us as writers and readers? How might it enrich and alter other aspects of our lives? Related to these questions is another point, which I insisted on at the end of that same essay: the need to decommodify the making and sharing of comics. What might this process of decommodification look like? What might it smell like, taste like, sound like? What social conditions would be required to realize this process? What follows is a sketch of this process—an attempt to imagine its necessary conditions and potential affordances—and the performance of an experiment in writing about comics that hopes to provoke a revaluation of the role of comics in our lives: the ways they enrich our lives, but also the ways that a commitment to robust comics cultures requires a transformation in so many other aspects of life that appear, at first glance, to have nothing to do with comics.
Do yourself a favor and indulge me by imagining, just for a moment, that on an ordinary day, quite like every other, the sun creeps over the horizon and beams itself into your western-facing window, waking you, gently, softly. You are conscious before you open your eyes and in the silence of the morning you think to yourself about the day before: the lecture you attended by the woman who first translated Takano Fumiko into English; the screening you attended of Kahlil Kasir’s latest feature; the class you taught on Nate Garcia; the chapter you read from Domingos Isabelinho; the poem inspired by William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara that you stayed up late fiddling with; the afternoon conversation with friends over the relative merits of Charles Addams versus Edward Gorey versus Martin Vaughn-James versus Jules Feiffer versus William Gropper. You think of your ‘zine full of drawings, which, though they are not technically accomplished, capture an idea, a concept, a visualization of something you cannot put into words, and so they are just right, and you think of blowing ash across your amateurish images in the hopes of achieving a certain effect, a certain texture, a certain feeling. You think of all the work you still need to do to format it to print it to give it away.
When you finally open your eyes, you are greeted by a stack of books on your bedside table: Morson and Emerson’s book on Mikhail Bakhtin; an untranslated copy of Enki Bilal’s La Foire aux immortels that you ordered from a store in France; a D&Q collection of Seiichi Hayashi comics you inherited from your mother; a copy of Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile that you bought secondhand; Anime Wong, Karen Yamshita’s collection of plays, which a neighbor lent you; a volume of Rachel Pollack’s Doom Patrol that you borrowed from the library; the PictureBox edition Shigerua Sugiura’s Last of the Mohicans that was given to you in exchange for a short essay about it; a yellowed collection of Mister Miracle comics published on newsprint that your friend gifted you on the sixth night of Hanukkah or the seventh day of Kwanzaa or the eve of Christmas. On top of them all is a Moomin lamp, which your sculpted and wired by hand.
Your partner is still asleep beside you in bed, so you get out of bed slowly, quietly, and make your way to the kitchen. Like sixty percent of your town–a small, semi-rural city far from the 21st century centers of comics culture (New York, Portland, London, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, et al.)–you live in social housing, which has a rooftop garden that supplies most of your neighbors with most of their produce. What little meat you eat on special occasions is carved by the butcher at the end of your block and sourced from a farm located just outside of the city. The interior of your home is tastefully appointed with furniture accumulated from secondhand stores, relatives, friends, and local carpenters, glass blowers, upholsterers, and your walls are decorated with prints illustrated by Tadanori Yokoo and Heavy J and Emory Douglas and Ghassan Kanafani, or maybe a single-page Matt Seneca comic printed as a broadsheet. You admire them while you prepare yourself a small cup of Yochin Tayel Kinal coffee: grinding the beans by hands in an act of silent meditation before emptying the grounds into a small Chemex and pouring hot water over them in a circular motion and allowing the pot to slowly fill, drip by steady drip. You take your cup of coffee to the balcony and enjoy the crisp morning air, the dew on the vegetation that covers the exterior of your building like a vertical forest, and you slowly read through the latest issue of Gladioulus or Bubbles or Comics Blogger or Canon or LAAB.
Taking your time to read the comics, the criticism, the interviews, you finish your coffee and shower and brush your teeth and dress yourself in thrifted clothes you sometimes have to mend yourself, and you kiss your still-sleeping partner on the top of their head before heading out the door and catching the bus, which is wrapped end to end in a short, four-panel comic illustrated Iasmin Omar Ata or Richie Pope or some local artist who has not yet been born or, maybe one day, you. The bus takes you to the train station without fare or turnstile, which will take you to the other end of the city you call home, and as you wait you admire the wall adorned in images by Nicole Rifkin, K.L. Ricks, Pearl Low, or any number of other artists (living or dead, real or imagined). Or perhaps you remove your ten-year old Steam deck from your backpack and play a game designed by Chris Kindred or written by Julie Muncy, or perhaps you peruse a TTRP manual illustrated by Zach Vaupen, or pull out your small Muji sketchbook and doodle with your brush pen in the hopes of achieving a line like Paul Pope or Sloane Leong or Guido Crepax or Chloe Brailsford or Alfonso Font or Sergio Toppi or or or…
When the train pulls into the station, you board and admire the passengers: their faces buried in books by Kuniko Tsurita, John Keene, Naoki Urasawa, Guy Peeleart, Christina Sharpe, Pete Toms, Olga Ravn, Taiyo Matsumoto, Tsutomu Nihei, Bianca Xunise, Takao Saito, Olivier Schrauwen, Trung Le Nguyen, Bill Watterson, Akira Toriyama, Olivia Stephens, Farel Dalrymple, Hideyuki Kikuchi, Claire Napier, Ocean Vuong, China Mieville, Inio Asano, Kate Lacour, Alisdair Gray, H.A., Richard Stark, Ben Sears, Torrey Peters, K. Wroten, Kentato Miura, Sesshu Foster, Ai Yazawa, Saul Williams, Katie Skelly, Dan Simmons, Ben Passmore, Iain Banks, Eiichiro Oda, Amos Tutuola, Tetsuo Hara, Nnedi Okorafor, Kyoko Okazaki, Samuel Delany, Michel Fiffe, Rumiko Takahashi, and magazines like Lux, Hammer & Hope, Pinko, The Drift, Clarkesworld, The Cleveland Review of Books, The Las Vegas Review of Books.
The train arrives at your stop and you disembark and you climb the stairs to meet a river of people streaming down the street on bikes, on foot, and you flow with them past the university where you sometimes teach classes for free to students who don’t pay tuition and don’t earn credit, and you arrive at the comic book store where you sometimes work—its interior like a lived-in living room: clean but uncoordinated, systematic in its having been cared for but not taken care of in any systematic way, disorganized but not disheveled. It invites browsing, lounging, lingering rather than efficiency or venal ideas of professionalism. There you spend the day restocking the shelves with the untranslated German comics you’ve just received, cleaning the floors, cleaning the couches, making coffee, which is given out for free, and interacting with customers: some of whom are regulars and some of whom you have taught or been taught by, or shared a meal with, or seen on the street, or the library, or the bike shop, or the train.
These neighbors, friends, colleagues, comrades spend their UBI checks on ‘zines and mini-comics you’ve made or helped make, or that were made by other neighbors or friends; or on issues of Kuš; on manga by Sanpei Shirato, Q Hayashida, Keiichi Koike, Katsuya Terada, or Mitsuru Adachi; or on picture books by Shannon Wright; or on bootleg superhero comics that Colin Panetta or Josh Simmons made back when “bootleg” still had meaning, before superheroes fell into the public domain and Marvel and DC were dissolved because they no longer had property to possess; or on this or that tome by Eddie Campbell, or Andy Douglas Day, or Liz Suburbia, or Shigeru Mizuki. Sometimes they just sit and read, or they borrow the books with the promise of returning them tomorrow, and sometimes you do the same–whiling away the late-morning/early-afternoon reading, talking, doodling, imagining, thinking, planning, wondering, asking, studying. The rent is cheap and controlled by the city, the utilities are offset by a small solar array on the roof and the wind farm situated just outside of town; the city flows in and out, and sometimes a small profit accumulates over the day, which will inevitably be redistributed equally to you and your fellow worker-owners or pooled into a pot for supplies, stock, repair, expansion.
In the late afternoon a small group of children enter the shop and gather on the couches around the table, and you produce a pile of paper and pens and you talk to them about inking and texture and they try their hand at inking sample pages by José Luis García-López and Michael Turner and Mike Mignola and Alberto Breccia. You talk to them about coloring and you show them pages by Hergé and Lynn Varley and Steve Oliff and Phillipe Druillet and Mickey Zacchilli, and you talk to them about lettering and show them pages by Moebius and John Workman and Eldo Yoshimizu and Roman Muradov, and they try their hand at all of these too. At the end of the session you collect their experiments and you pin them to the wall and you tell them that they are cartoonists too and you tell them you’ll see them at the park or the grocery co-op or on the street, because you share the city, which is their home, and you tell them that you look forward to seeing them next week.
At around five o’clock, you and your co-worker/co-owners leave the shop together and lock the door behind you (or maybe you don’t, because maybe there’s nothing to steal, because maybe everything inside already belongs to everyone). You part at the train station and take the train halfway back home. While you wait, you remove a tablet you repaired yourself from your backpack that you re-stitched yourself and passing the time by reading HamletMachine comics or Celine Loup comics or Casey Nowak comics or Aleks Sennwald comics or Tom Herpich comics or Carta Monir comics. You arrive at your stop and return your tablet to your backpack and you head up the stairs from the station to the masjid composed entirely of wood and you leave your shoes at the door. There you meet with your fellow Comics Co-op delegates, which have been elected by your neighbors, and you continue discussing your plans for this summer’s comics festival. You draw up a list of people to invite and those delegates from your city to send–by train or boat–across the world for similar festivals in similar cities, and you allocate spaces in cafes and concert halls and theaters for lectures and readings and interviews and study groups and workshops, which will inevitably blur and blend into poetry readings and film screenings and political protests and labor strikes and letter writing events for the shrinking number of people who remain incarcerated (this is, after all, an improving world and not-yet a good one). There is a back and forth and a debate and disagreement and agreement, and you finalize many things while leaving others to finalize at next month’s meeting.
You return to the train that returns you home and when you arrive your partner is lying on the couch holding Frank Chin’s play, The Year of the Dragon, above their head. They put it down and greet you, and you kiss, and they ask how your day was, and you both move on to the balcony to smoke a cigarette. You tell them about this idea for a graphic novel that you’ve been thinking about for a while–the kind of thing that, once upon a time, you couldn’t have ever dreamed of seeing published, but that was then and this is now and you don’t have to worry about cost or profit or distribution. You will print it yourself with the help of your friends and give it away for free and a small group of people will read it and any even smaller group of people will appreciate it, but that will be enough for you, because it will have been a pleasure to think about and make and share, and you can take all the time in the world. You ask your partner about their day and they tell you about the vase they sculpted that fell apart right as they were moving it into the kiln and you tell them you’re sorry and they assure you that it’s okay, that tomorrow is a new day, that they will try, try, try again. They tell you about the rest of their day: the masala chai they made after you left that morning, the passage of the Zhuangzi they read on the bus, the Ryuichi Sakamato song they listened to on their walk to their quantum physics study group, the idea they had to go camping this weekend.
The night will pass peacefully–maybe your neighbors will come over to share a glass of wine and stories from their childhood, or the children two floors below you will open their door to let the music from their party float out, or your cousin will come over to smoke some weed with you and tell you about working at the recycling plant or his recent day of canning vegetables or his compost heap–and at its end you will crawl into bed basking in the tremulous beauty of the day, the richness of your life, the hominess of your city to which are intimately connected, and the knowledge that in the morning it will start again and it will bring with it the renewal of the connections that make your heart full and the novelty that keeps us all propulsively spinning into a future that, while always uncertain, always carries with it the promise of beauty and wonder and care and love.
Isn’t this a life worth struggling to keep, you’ll ask yourself, isn’t this a life worth living for?
While this may be a daydream, may it be the kind of dangerous daydream that Murray Bookchin identified in the late 1970s: the bit of poetry, the balloon that flies up in history, the place where changes in consciousness are first expressed, because it is here where the present state of things is articulated as both intolerable and mutable, where the desire for something better is envisioned and demanded. It is a utopian daydream, to be sure, but a concrete utopia whose seeds are already present before us. In fact, much of what I describe is already going on, already exists in fragments and shards and germinating pockets. Our task is to grow and connect these seedlings and budding flowers: patronize these artists; carve out time to share with one another; devote our attention away from social media and toward living our lives; be patient with ourselves and with one another whenever we can; take things slow and work to make it more possible to take things more slowly by contributing to the fight for universal basic income, universal childcare, socialized medicine, the expansion of mass transit, the control of rent and the moratorium on evictions, tuition free university, the clearing of student and medical debt, the onshoring of printing, the making of shitty, mundane, simple comics and ‘zines that we share only with our friends or ourselves, the experiments in new ways of living together and producing and circulating culture. Start a newsletter, a blog, a reading group; join or start a political organization, a union (of debtors, tenants, workers, students), a mutual aid fund, a cooperative, a strike, a protest, a sit-in, a blockade. Experiment, fail, learn, experiment again. Demand the impossible and fight for it, because through that struggle, you will make the impossible possible. There is much work to do, but don’t let it daunt you. Instead, let it serve as a reminder that there are many opportunities to contribute, many openings to transform the world. No action is too small, and no ambition too great. May this daydream attune us to the fact that a better world is possible and that it may, in fact, already be coming into being.