Last month, SOLRAD published the first piece of comics criticism by O.F. Stapledon: a long-time comics reader who has, over the last ten years, become increasingly dissatisfied with the state of comics publishing and comics criticism. Though this review–an article on Derek M. Ballard’s Cartoonshow–was Stapledon’s first, it produced a significant amount of conversation on Bluesky, Threads, and Mastodon. More surprisingly, however, was that it sparked a conversation offline as well. My attention was first brought to the review after a friend of mine asked me if I had read it. Interested in this concept of “the end of comics history” and fascinated by the discourse it generated, I wanted to speak with Stapledon about his review and try to learn more about what he means and what he hopes to contribute to the field of comics criticism. I had the pleasure of speaking with Stapledon by phone, and our conversation spins around this question of the aesthetics of comics and their economic context. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, which has only been lightly edited. Many of the pauses, circumlocutions, and circling back were retained, because I felt that conveying the conversational nature of how this dialogue unfolded is important to conveying the spirit that drove it.
I wanted to begin by asking you about this phrase that you ended your recent review of Derek Ballard’s Cartoonshow with: “The end of comics history may finally be coming to an end.” This phrase seemed to strike a chord with readers. Why do you think that is?
You mean it really pissed everyone off.
I wouldn’t say everyone [laughs]. But yeah, you did ruffle some feathers.
From the usual suspects, I’m sure.
Who are the usual suspects?
[laughs] I don’t want to cast aspersions. Readers will either know or they won’t.
Were you trying to rile up these “usual suspects”?
Yeah, I guess maybe a little. I do think the comics industry really has gotten to this boring stagnant place, and part of me does miss seeing cartoonists and comics critics being divided about something and arguing about it–even if it was penny ante bullshit, and everyone was mostly wrong and talking out of their ass. At least people were talking when they were arguing like that. Now it’s like there’s not even any talking. We need people to talk more and disagree and argue and have some opinion about what comics should be and whether or not we’re all failing to utilize the extraordinary richness that comic books offer artists.
Y’know, people used to have some opinion about art, and they used to fight about it. And we need to fight about art more. We really need to fight about art more. I think that…that silence?…that’s a big part of this end of comics history thing actually, which I think–I hope–we may be starting to come out of.
Can you elaborate on this concept a little? Because this was something I saw a lot of people talking about, and arguing over really. It sounded like you were kind of…dismissing, maybe?, recent comics–out of hand.
I pretty much was, yeah. I mean, I was trying to get at something a little more substantial than that, but I do think comic books are getting worse every single day, and a lot of people should be embarrassed about what they let out the door—people should be absolutely appalled by the things they subject themselves to as readers, and they should be disgusted with how they defend this complete and utter dreck to themselves. I do believe that. But it’s more of an extension of what I’m saying. We need to have higher standards for ourselves. And actually, it’s more like I felt myself becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the comics I was reading first and then went about trying to figure out what was going on. With “the end of comics history,” I was trying to identify a period in which the aesthetic range and diversity of comic book publishing really started to narrow and flatten and stagnate. It really feels like everyone is just spinning their wheels. Like we’ve all just given up on even the possibility that something genuinely new is on the horizon.
Would it be fair to say, then, that the phrase refers to your feeling that comics have stopped developing aesthetically–
As a form, yeah.
Comics have stopped developing as a form. It’s important that readers not think I’m suggesting that individual artists have somehow or another stopped developing, or that there aren’t occasionally readable comics that get published. Of course there are, and even some of the older cartoonists still making comics sometimes put stuff out that’s worth reading. Many of them do not, and they’re only relevant as nostalgia acts, but some of them do. I mean, like, no self-respecting person is actually reading new Robert Crumb comics–I don’t care what boomer VCs are willing to spend on his original art. But–okay. In the 1970s, people were not making the same kind of comic they were making in the 1950s. They were responding to an earlier aesthetic generation, reacting against it, and incorporating new styles, techniques, tools into comics making. These were people who grew up reading comics but then went to art school, or who got trained in graphic design, and they were attentive to broader aesthetic trends emerging at the time. They brought in these new aesthetics and merged them with the cartooning they knew and that was old hat at the time, and they made something genuinely new. Think Steranko or Guy Peellaert or Frank Springer bringing in pop art stuff, or Neal Adams and Walt Simonson bringing in their graphic design training. They weren’t trying to imitate their forebears, they were trying to build on them—or tear them to shreds in some cases! And maybe that’s what we need. Maybe what we actually do need is someone to say “Jack Kirby fucking sucks” and really try to make comics that demonstrate you can make good stuff by rejecting his influence.
And part of this, it is worth pointing out, is down to technological developments in publishing where art could be reproduced at higher quality, so artists could draw with a little more detail or use color in ways they couldn’t before, because they knew stuff would actually translate to the printed version in a new way. And there was some of this in the early webcomics boom of the 2000s–I mean, remember when everyone was going crazy for the “infinite scroll”? But it feels like people in the 2020s have just been remaking the same kind of comic for the last twenty years. We’ve had twenty years of comics production that is all pretty much indistinguishable from one another. There’s very little development or reaction in relation to developments in contemporary life.
I would even settle for things that are legitimately edgy or boundary pushing in terms of content. It’s like, we have so many more women making comics these days than in generations prior, but where is our Tits & Clits? Where are the ugly, messy, fucked up, angry, trying things comics? The readership for that was never massive, but it existed at one point, and it has completely collapsed over the last fifty years. Now we have all these comics by and for women and young girls, but they’re the most incredibly sanitized bourgeois comics imaginable. And this is true for other groups of people that were, at one time, considered marginal in comics publishing, as well. We have so much more “representation” than ever before, but the kinds of stories these cartoonists are “allowed” to make, or the cartoonists who are really being elevated–the aesthetic range has become very, very narrow. And again, this is a product of market forces.
Maybe what I’m trying to say is that contemporary American comics really feel like they could’ve been made at any time and come from any place because they come from no place or time in particular. They’ve become aesthetically detached from any sort of historical underpinning, and, as a result they’ve become–generic isn’t the right word. They’ve become worse than generic. At least if they were generic they would be rooted in something, in dialogue with some place or time.
So you would say comics history “ended” in the 2000s, then?
It’s hard to put an exact date, because it’s not as though this thing began one day. It’s really the culmination of a lot of things happening over time and converging with one another, so it has its roots before the 1990s and takes a while to really take over the industry. But I would say that it starts to emerge in the early ‘90s and by the early 2000’s the industry was just completely unable to produce anything that genuinely seemed new, fresh, or even just anything that felt contemporary.
Even with the Image Revolution—or counter-Revolution, really—in 1992, you had this moment where the comics makers seized the means of comics production for themselves, and, in doing so, they created this space to make these things saturated with youth culture. And these were young guys, a lot of them, and they were really plugged into contemporary mass media as consumers. So they processed what was going on around them and rearticulated it in their own work and participated in those aesthetic trends.
Unfortunately, the Image guys quickly became bosses themselves and started behaving exactly like the people they were trying to get out from under. This re-emergence of bosses at Image sort of corresponds with the stagnation of their titles. But at the time, they were setting the trends. No one had seen anything like Todd McFarlane or Jim Lee, and they really produced an aesthetic wave that dominated the rest of the industry. This aesthetic was reactive to the past and situated firmly in the youth culture and emerging aesthetic trends of the period, so you get a “90s look” that’s very specific and very particular, and it really comes out of, again, that moment when the workers fired their bosses.
There are some trendy aesthetics that unify superhero comics in the early 2000s—y’know, like, it is true that for a good five or so years, every Marvel comic did have that “widescreen” look with four or five panel pages all landscaped to fuck, and these things were borderline undreadable, and it was downright offensive to charge what they were charging for those books, but at least it was something that broke from the past. It was based on this emerging idea that comics were just like movies, and you saw that idea reflected in the work where they began to look more like movies. It’s a stupid idea, but at least it was an idea; it was something that differentiated the present from the past. As the decade goes on, though, mainstream, direct market comics—so superhero comics and the loose stool that people graduate to dropping at Image after their superhero shelf life expires—it all just collapses into a kind of amorphous mush.
I don’t think I’ve heard anyone describe Image comics quite that way [laughs].
Is it not consistent with your experience? I know Image—especially during this period about ten or so years ago—it really positioned itself strongly as this sleek, genre, “mainstream alternative”–whatever the fuck that is– to DC and Marvel, and part of how they managed this was launching all these titles from former superhero people. Y’know, these people who were fed up with being exploited, but were completely incapable of recognizing that the exploitation is systemic rather than a matter of individual corporations [laughs].
People went crazy for that, and really bought into this image of Image. Myself included! But most of these comics are all surface and no substance. It was just cheap, glossy shit. I mean literally. Part of what made Image so appealing on a consumer level and on a sales level was that these series were laid out to fit neatly into trade paperbacks, so they were able to hook the bookstore crowd, and they sold the first volume cheap, and they were shiny and slick and very, very professional looking. I remember working in a comic book store at the time, and these Image #1s–it was like we were giving them away. It was totally an example of the economics of direct market publishing driving the art—literally dictating the narrative structure of these things for, maybe not every title, but for a number of them and, importantly, many of the “big” series. I mean, hello, Saga?
At this point, I’m just not interested in maintaining the cultish delusion that Image is something other than a shit factory just because they have a financial model that’s less predatory than their competitors. It’s not a model that supports good comics or good art, and it’s one that does nothing to address the enormous disparity in the comics market where yes, some people can get extremely wealthy off this, but most people won’t ever make a penny.
I don’t totally disagree with your analysis, but I have to confess that I actually do have a lot of affection for a number of Image titles. Even from the period you’re describing. But I do want to push back a little and defend them, because I would say their publishing structure is better than just “less predatory than their competitors.” They give creators a lot of freedom–both financial and creative–which is a significant deal in this industry.
They do, sure, but—and I want to say, I do also have some love for a number of Image titles, and I completely understand why people publish with them. They do have a structure where, if your work is successful, that success directly translates to a financial reward. And they’re a mainstream publisher! They can give a title a lot of visibility, and “having an Image book” confers a lot of prestige in a lot of ways. But the freedom they offer, it’s…it’s a freedom to fail in a lot of ways. It’s what used to be called “the freedom to starve.”
My understanding is that, per book, they make roughly the same whether it sells 10,000 copies or 1,000,000 copies. Maybe this is wrong and someone can correct me, but this is kind of how they sell themselves to cartoonists. And while this prevents them from getting too big a cut of any individual success, it insulates them from risk by outsourcing it to the cartoonists. It also disincentivizes them from really getting behind a book, because a creative team’s success is not Image’s. So what you see is a lot, a lot of Image books are just left to rot on the vine, or at least fail or succeed without any help from their publisher. So there’s this asymmetry at Image, where writers and artists who are already successful get some help and push–y’know, it’s not as though every Image creator is able to secure financial advances on their titles the way others are–and what you see happening is just the asymmetry of celebrity and power that structures the broader industry is reproduced and exacerbated at Image. It’s also–and really this is why I have such antipathy toward Image–their structure gives them some plausible deniability when their creators turn around and treat their “employees” as poorly as the bigger corporations. Because Image is so hands off–it’s really like each creative team is its own private contractor or like a 1099 employee, and Image doesn’t dictate how profits are distributed. So The Walking Dead is a “creator-owned” book, but all that money flowed to Robert Kirkman who paid out his collaborators not as fellow owners but as employees, y’know? Individuals are free to be as exploitative as they want and Image doesn’t really have any interest or desire to mitigate that at all. So what I’m really trying to get at is that Image is not…Image has serious issues, and it’s as guilty of perpetuating the systemic inequities in comics publishing as any of the large, more rapacious corporations. Image is also an interesting example precisely because this promise they’re founded on–this promise that cartoonists will be in charge of the process of comics production, which they hypocritically deliver on and fail to deliver on at the same time–it’s one of the last major shifts in the comic book industry. It’s one of the last moments where the engines of comics history are really turning.
Why do you think that this?
Why Image is where things begin to grind to a halt?
Yeah, or maybe why do things start to stagnate here?
Well, the concept of “the end of history”–and readers may already recognize this–it really comes from Francis Fukuyama, and it’s a phrase that people really make fun of him for. Not without good reason, I don’t think. In a sense, it’s completely ridiculous to think “history” could ever end. Y’know, things have certainly happened since the early 1990s, and there have even been countless major events. In the same way, people have continued to make comics for the last thirty years, so it’s not as though I’m trying to say people have stopped making comics.
But this phrase of Fukuyama’s comes from his 1992 book with the same name, and this is an End of the Cold War book if there ever was one. In it, he basically says that “history” is over because capitalism has triumphed over socialism. By “history” he has a very specific meaning in mind, which comes from Hegel, and which he actually shares with Karl Marx. For Hegel, history is this play of reactive, interacting forces that move progressively toward human emancipation. History “ends” for Hegel with the resolution of these contradictory forces and the realization of human freedom. For Marx, these forces are class based, and history is immanent to this ongoing struggle between classes. So for him, history is this ongoing battle between the capitalist and socialist tendencies within societies. And the “end of history”–or really the beginning, because he says that human history only begins with the advent of communism–but for him, he really sees these class antagonisms resolving themselves in communism, and once we’re all communists, then we can start being human. Fukuyama sort of inverts Marx to explain the triumph of capitalism over socialism at the end of the Cold War, so that instead of socialism winning out over capitalism, capitalism blankets the world and we’re all capitalists bickering among ourselves on this basis–and for Fukuyama this is a good thing.
As a consequence of history’s end, he claims that there are no more “political” problems. By this he means that that ideological disagreement is over, because capitalism has demonstrated its supremacy and we have all accepted it as the only viable way of organizing an economy. He still believes there will be social problems, but he basically believes that they can basically only be managed rather than solved. In this sense, he was basically right. The last thirty years have seen more or less everyone in the West accept the inevitability of capitalism. I mean, think of Bill Clinton getting up and saying “the era of big government is over,” and basically conceding that both major American political parties are going all in on capitalism, and then he went and kicked a million people off welfare. Another term for this is “the neoliberal consensus.” Of course, Fukuyama was wrong and political problems persist, but Americans really bought into this perception that they weren’t “political” or ideological disagreements at all. These things began to be seen as “cultural” or “technical,” and the solutions on offer were various forms of representation or incorporation into capitalist institutions–things like this. So Fukuyama ended up being right in a way, but that ended up being a very bad thing for all of us.
And really Image is exemplary of this fact because on its face it seems like a socialist solution to the problems of the comics industry. The Image founders really did seize the means of comics production for themselves. But then, like I said, very quickly this publisher became an even worse form of what we left behind where people are just untethered individuals who succeed or fail on their own capacities as small business owners. It’s the most neoliberal institution in comics by a country mile! [laughs] So you get, in the comics industry specifically, this acceptance that capitalism was it. What we were going to argue about from now on was, like, “Should there be a Lady Wolverine?” And “Is Wolverine gay?” Y’know, “Is the CIA torturer’s Green Lantern comic good”? Things like this that—I don’t know, maybe this matters to someone, but I don’t personally want to spend time alone with that person. And it’s these kinds of conversations—I mean, even these “culture war” bullshit conversations—my god, we’re even having the exact same conversations we had in the ‘90s only they’re infinitely stupider now. It doesn’t occur to anyone that maybe we shouldn’t give a shit whether or not the CIA ops comics are good—they’re not even close to being readable, by the way, I don’t care what people have deluded themselves into believing–and I think that maybe we should absolutely refuse to give a shit about any of this, and we should absolutely refuse to support a publisher that would hire these losers and psychopaths, and maybe we should refuse to give this military propaganda the time of day. Cause that’s what a lot of this stuff is! It’s R&D for action figures and Mortal Kombat rip-offs at best and it’s recruiting material Northrop Grumman at worst.
So, for me, “the end of history” is a kind of ridiculous, provocative concept, but at the same time it gets at a very real sense that since the early 90s, since capitalism won out, mass culture has just been completely hollowed out and annihilated, and this has had a debilitating trickle-down effect on the whole industry and the people making art on its margins. We’re going nowhere and we’ve been going nowhere for quite a long time now.
The more I thought about it in these terms, the more it seemed like this was the best way to describe the kind of widespread malaise and dissatisfaction with comics that had been building, and that I saw other people complaining about but just…continuing to accept and buy into and consume, consume, consume even as they whined about what they were consuming—as though they physically couldn’t go without this stuff that they didn’t like reading.
You mention that these different people—when they talk about history, and how it moves—what moves it—you mention that they all kind of have a different sense of historical forces. When you’re talking about comics history and its “end,” what do you see as the analog of these forces?
I’m a classic Marxist in certain regards, and when I started thinking about comics history, and the historical development of comics, I started by thinking about class: who is a worker and who is a capitalist? I started asking “What are the corporations doing?” and “How are the artists in conflict with that?” Y’know, “What are the conditions of work?” Basic stuff. This was really sparked by a line in that #ComicsBrokeMe essay by Shea Hennum, which is why I wanted to publish at SOLRAD in the first place, but when I looked for myself, what I started to discern is a history of comics in which comics made these important, discernible shifts as a consequence of artists—either as workers or as people refusing waged work—seizing the means of comics production. Again, just thinking in these classic Marxist terms and appropriating them to describe things in the comics industry, which is a microcosm of the broader capitalist economy.
A good example of this is when Frank Miller, which—he recounts this in that interview book with Will Eisner—he talks about making Ronin, and Ronin was this book that Miller had all this freedom on in regards to the comics-making process. It was one of the first DC books where the cartoonists really drove the car. He was given control over what paper would be used and the publication format and who was gonna color it, and all that. And he tells this story in Eisner/Miller where he went in to see how they were photographing the originals, and the reason artists couldn’t go full bleed on their pages was because this photographer did not have this special lens–it was like $100 or $1,000, something unbelievably cheap like that. So Miller made DC buy the lens, and now artists could use the page in a new way, and you have this instance of artist-workers taking control and, in doing so, making something new and expanding what is possible in comics publishing. In a way, he kind of forced this technological development, which expanded the aesthetic possibilities for artists. But then, what you saw after Ronin’s success and the creative team profiting off it–DC never gave that deal to anyone ever again. So you saw the artists waging a kind of class war that was reacted to, by the capitalists, with class war and repression and re-appropriation of the means of production.
So, I guess, another way to put this is like, when you begin to view comics history as the subject, object, and site of class struggle, the history of comics makes a lot more sense. But that requires you to have some sort of class consciousness, which unfortunately most people making comics don’t really have. And maybe even worse, a lot of people in this industry are completely hostile to thinking in this way. Even among alternative cartoonists who position themselves as wanting to “just make art,” or who are trying to somehow exist outside of this economic context.
What does the end of comics history mean, then, in this context?
It means that around 1995–give or take—the capitalists won the war. Or, maybe “win” isn’t right, because as I’m trying to say, some sort of opposition persisted–as it always does–and I think it’s starting to reemerge. The revenge of the repressed, as it were. [laughs] But it was driven underground for sure, and the capitalists’ consensus about comics and the conditions–of work, but also of reading and talking about comics–that it imposed on all of us—that really has become today’s common sense. So many of us have accepted it as natural, and just the way things are.
So comics history has stalled, to keep thinking about this idea, because that opposition has been so thoroughly marginalized. It’s really just proof positive that capitalism doesn’t breed innovation or competition, because when it wins, we see for ourselves that it produces conformity, homogeneity, and it erodes any sense of culture or discernment. Because capitalism really has been left to run roughshod over our backs for the last thirty years, and it has completely obliterated people’s lives. All it gives us in return is rerun, retread, reboot, remake nostalgia bullshit that it forces down our throats at faster and faster rates. Consume more “content”—“second screen experience”—stuff like that that’s just…fuck that. I’m sick of all that. I’m sick of this way of thinking.
What would you say to those readers that think this view seems rather narrow? Maybe it’s true for superhero comics, let’s say, but what about all the non-superhero comics that are being published?
I get that people aren’t going to want to hear this, but all the non-superhero comics suck, too. Not just Image stuff like I was saying, but Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, all those imprints of traditional book publishers, or these “art comics” that people are telling me are better. A lot of this stuff—y’know, it’s working in a different tradition, but a lot of it’s fucking generic and ugly too. And part of that, y’know, is important, even if I don’t want to read it or I don’t find it that interesting. There needs to be a place for ugly art or pretension art or development stuff or things people make for themselves. There needs to be a place for that. But it’s like, okay, I’m sorry, I don’t want to read a fucking Simon Hanselmann comic. And why the fuck would I?
[laughs] Point taken. But what about some of the younger artists who are maybe somewhere between these two poles of the comics industry. I’m thinking of someone like Zoe Thorgood who got nominated for a bunch of Eisner awards.
She’s good. I like what I’ve read of her stuff—and listen, again, y’know, my point is not that there aren’t any good comics being published. I think Zoe Thorogood makes good comics, and there’s several other cartoonists that are really really interesting. Bhanu Prata’s stuff is cool, and there’s people like Grim Wilkins, Artyom Trakhanov, Celine Loup, Morgan Jeske, Tradd Moore, Alex Degen, Ian McEwan, Simon Roy, Richie Pope, Sloane Leong, Emily Carroll, Sarah Horrocks, Linnea Sterte, Michael DeForge, Ron Wimberly, Emma Rios, Katie Lane. Some of these people are just starting to break out on the scene, but most of them have been making comics for a while now. I do see actual young people occasionally—like Thorogood, or Tillie Walden was very young when I first started to see her work—but these people are pretty rare. I mean, people like this are always rare. But there are periods when they are more or less rare, and I think we’re definitely in a period where they are more rare. That’s just the squeeze we’re living through.
To more directly answer your question, though: there are of course exceptions to what I’m saying, because despite everything, there’s always going to be people who make interesting, accomplished art—this is true in music, film, the novel, whatever. But there just are not that many of these people, and the market is really hostile to them. I would be happy to be wrong about this point—I really am interested in reading good comics and seeing them get made—and I just don’t have the time to read every single comic I come across like I used to–but I’m not seeing much that impresses me. And the stuff that is impressing other people turns my stomach. Partly I think this is because the talented young people are not getting opportunities to make the kind of work they really want to be making. There’s also a lot to say about how a lot of these young artists are being funneled through art school–getting saddled with debt, getting burned out, having the interesting aspects of their work beaten out of them–just getting totally institutionalized. And then they get driven into video games or cartoons or editorial illustration, which pay better, but have many of the same issues. I don’t know, that’s its own can of worms.
But my point is that there’s a very small number of good comics published every year. And I think no matter where you look, the last twenty years has seen a flattening out and homogenization of every field of comics-making. Even from this small group–how many of these people are really–not just making good, readable comics–but breaking new ground? I would say maybe none? And that’s what I’m really trying to get at more than anything else. There are some good comics being published, but they’re rare, and even among these, there’s still a lot of wheel-spinning, rehashing, nostalgic shit. And part of this is just economics. It’s like, what should we expect from a market that’s completely hostile to interesting and unusual art? There’s no money in this! Not that there ever has been. But at least rent and college and groceries used to be cheaper, so it was a little bit more doable.
I’m glad you brought up money specifically, and how difficult it can be for these good artists to make art because it’s not making them money. How do you square this with the fact that there’s more money to be made in comics than ever before?
Yeah, there’s a ton of being made off of comics and in comics. I want to distinguish between these two things, because I think they’re often conflated. By “off of comics,” I mean that a lot of the money that’s circulating in the comics industry has its basis in comics but it’s not actually being made by comics, by selling comics. It’s movies, theme parks, toys, TV shows, merchandise—all that stuff that’s “based on a comic.” So this is driving a big part of this, but the money isn’t coming from comic sales, and a lot of this “comics stuff” being successful doesn’t translate into comic sales, so it doesn’t mean money in the pocket of comic professionals.
Another big part of this is the popularity of manga and anime. A huge portion of the increases in comic sales over the last twenty years have come from this, and y’know, that’s great for the One Piece guy or whatever, but Naruto readers do not necessarily become Julia Gfrörer readers, so that money is already captured and isn’t going to flow to American comic makers. Which is worth mentioning, because it means that all the money flowing into comic publishing isn’t necessarily something comic professionals can capture or get a slice of. Maybe some of them can. There are some people who have done well positioning themselves for that audience, and they’ve had some success in doing so. But, by and large, that money is getting hoovered up by these multinational corporations, and that’s to say nothing of the problems in the Japanese comic industry or the way that there, too, you have billions of dollars being made but it’s disproportionately flowing to a very, very small number of people. It’s a readership problem that we’re not going to solve today.
A third part of this story that’s important to mention is the rise of YA and middle-grade comics, and this is actually a sector where American cartoonists are getting publishing opportunities—and at publishers with contracts favorable to the cartoonist…with many exceptions. So it’s both a place where a lot of readers and money are going, and a place where cartoonists actually can get in on that. The problem, though, is that this sector has overtaken the industry in a lot of ways. The sales of Scholastic or First Second dwarf the sales at Marvel or DC, but what this means is that if you’re a talented cartoonist and you want to make a living making comics, you’re going to have to make YA comics or work for Scholastic. And that’s great in a lot of ways. There should be good, thoughtful comics for younger readers. But I’m an adult. I don’t want to read kids comics. I don’t want to read Steven Universe knock-off comics. I just don’t. But the economics has driven a bunch of great cartoonists that way, like Zack Soto, Anya Davidson, Paul Pope, Sloane Leong, Farel Dalrymple. It’s like what Marvel does to these young directors, where they get them cheap and just make them completely incapable of doing anything interesting after Disney has used them up. And that’s if you have a good contract. I hear a lot of these Scholastic contracts are shit.
But again, it’s worth pointing out, the economics of the industry shape the aesthetic output, and as the capitalists have continued to impose their will, the work that’s available to us–and the opportunities available to cartoonists–it’s just…it’s shit. It’s not anything that I want to read, and it’s not stuff that…I can’t comprehend why other adults would want to read this stuff either. Which, maybe, is just a personal issue, but the point I’m really trying to make, and I do think it’s an objective one, is that there is very little aesthetic diversity, novelty, risk-taking, experimentation as a consequence of these market forces.
And this is true of comics because it’s true of all the other culture industries too. Comics are neither remarkable nor unique in this. I mean, Jesus, c’mon. These Marvel movies have been going for fifteen years now. We’ve had how many different Spider-Man 2s in the last twenty years? Fast and the Furious started in 2001! Mission Impossible started in 1996! They used to release comedies and documentaries and thrillers in theaters, for god’s sake! You used to go out and see fucking documentaries in a theater! Can you imagine that? I can’t remember the last time I saw a documentary even get a theatrical release. But that market is gone because of Netflix, and there are now so many sequels to movies that are twenty, thirty, even forty years old that we have had to invent a new term to describe them. This isn’t just the big movies either. It’s also the “Oscar films,” the prestige films, which have become their own genre with their own cliches and generic tendencies and flatness. Like in comics, the few people actually making decent stuff–even they are kind of retreating rather than advancing. They’ve become aesthetically conservative, and there’s been this big shift where filmmakers are incapable (or uninterested) in telling stories set in the present, about the present, or concerned with the kinds of social problems we’re dealing with today: insurgent fascism, climate catastrophe, that’s sorts of things.
TV is the same way. I mean, how many TV shows have been running for decades at this point? The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park, Doctor Who, Star Trek, SNL–hell they even just brought back Futurama for a sixth or seventh time, and we’ve gotten nostalgic sequels to Full House, Boy Meets World, Saved By The Bell–fucking Night Court? C’mon. Where is the next Simpsons? Not the next rip-off, but the next new thing that actually gets people excited and talking and causes some kind of stir. The closest thing in recent memory is Stranger Things, but that’s just more warmed-over, nostalgia apple sauce bullshit for people who already own too many Funko Pops–a morbid symptom of our ongoing apocalypse if there ever was one.
And I know I’m really stressing mass media, because that is admittedly what I’m interested in to a certain degree, but it’s also because that’s what is available to most people and it’s what most people are reading or watching, so I do think the state of mass media is important. And, of course, there are exceptions to what I’m saying that fall outside of that, and there are occasionally good and interesting things that come out. But again, they’re really few and far between, and even these are like…it’s more stuff from established names. It’s nostalgia stuff, or historical dramas, or homages, or adaptations of existing material, and it’s stuff that can be sold to Netflix or Amazon or Apple, which is a distributional context that has a profound effect on what gets made.
We’re being inundated with this shit from every direction, and it’s piling up in the mainstream, mainstream adjacent, and even the fringes of cultural production. And I guess what I’m trying to get at it is like: let’s get our shit together! Comics is experiencing this too, can’t you see? We need to fight like hell against it!
I know we’re running short on time, but—very quickly—could you say a little more about what fighting like hell might look like to you? I think that would be a good place to end.
Yeah, of course, and thank you again for your questions. I think comics critics need to really take seriously what we do, and be more self-conscious and self-critical about things, so I appreciate the opportunity to think more about these ideas with you and publicize them. I hope it contributes to some public conversation, but I really hope it fires people up—maybe to prove me wrong! [laughs] I would love for people to say “Fuck this guy” and try to prove me wrong!
But to answer your question, I think this conversation is a good place to start. Comics readers, critics, makers, we all need to have these conversations and develop—try, at least, to develop some sort of philosophy about what it is we’re doing and why and under what conditions. Not necessarily come to some specific idea that I have in mind, but people should really be more self-conscious about what it is they’re doing and why and what they hope to contribute to. So I think having these conversations in public is important and necessary because it’s one place – among many – where we can develop knowledge about this history, industry, art form, art practice in order to, hopefully, take it in a new direction. But just talking about this stuff isn’t enough. If we’re talking about ending the end of comics history, we’re talking about cartoonists linking up and sharing the means of comics production, of seizing them for themselves, firing their bosses, making comics from a working-class perspective—not necessarily about workers (or people who refuse to work), but stories from a proletariat or subproletariat perspective.
People are going to have to take risks, and people are gonna have to get political and militant, because we’ve really gotta change so much about the world to make it easier for people to take aesthetic risks without risking the roof over their heads or the food on the table–but maybe, at some point, people are going to have to risk that too. People are going to have to unionize and strike, occupy buildings, form cooperatives. And people are really going to have to grapple with the contradiction that the conditions of work at these companies need to be better, but the companies themselves also shouldn’t exist. How do we resolve that? One of the great things that’s come out of the WGA and SAG strike is this growing sense – among workers – that these oligopolies need to be broken up! That’s really been a demonstration that strikes are places where politics can happen, consciousness can be raised, and demands can be made that exceed the power of the workers in this one industry. These things need to be seen as battles in a long war rather than the war itself.
Retailers are going to need to become less reliant on Marvel and DC and Image–I think Domino Books is a good example of a retailer who is trying new things, and this is a function of an artist seizing the means of distribution!–and readers are going to have to shift their reading habits. And comics critics…Comics criticism is, like, the most underdeveloped, anti-intellectual field of knowledge on the planet, so I don’t even know where to begin. We should talk again, cause we’d need another hour to get through all the shit we are going to have to do! [laughs]
Then I guess I should say: until next time. [laughs]