Sometimes the mainstream is shallow

An interesting point emerged a while back in an email discussion I had with the redoubtable Sean Collins about his ongoing crusade against backhanded compliments given to comic books in the mainstream media. He asked if he could post it, but, well, he didn’t. So I’m going to.

There is an ongoing … problem? Issue? Phenomenon? In any event, comics have now reached a level of cultural impact that the more literate examples of the form sometimes get reviewed in mainstream literary venues — the New York Times, Salon, and whatnot. However, these reviews, even when they’re positive, almost invariably spend a good chunk of time reassuring the reader that comics are widely known to be subliterate drivel, power fantasy, preadolescent ya-yas, etc., and generally tearing down the medium before proceeding to the reasons why the book under examination rises above the filth of its roots. Those who love comics do not love this approach.

There’s a certain amount of frustration involved here, I think. The literary comics are supposed to legitimize the medium in a certain way. At the end of the day, Maus is supposed to make your relatives not give you crap for reading comic books. But the equation doesn’t work if the mainstream insists on severing the relationship between literary comics and the rest. The problem, it seems, is how to educate the mainstream about the medium, and how even the crap is, at least, no crappier than crap TV or crap novels. And so the intellectuals of the comic world wait for that mighty breakthrough volume which will have such obvious merit that the world will at last have to acknowledge the potential of the medium.

I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think the problem really is the mixture of snobbery and ignorance that it’s traditionally held to be. Rather, it’s a psychological thing.

The problem is no longer that the mainstream doesn’t know what comics are. The problem is that the mainstream knows what they were, and doesn’t want to know what they’ve become. All those “normals” who used to love comics when they were nine are not the medium’s natural allies. They don’t especially care what comics are doing now, or what they may be capable of. For them, comics are a quintessential part of their childhood. Insofar as they want anything from comics, they want their early-70s comics back. Ideally, they’d have their early-70s comics back as they knew them as a nine-year-old, and anything which interferes with that retro fix is an unwelcome distraction.

No one wants to admit that their childhood is gone. In practice, this means that most of us assume that everything we knew as kids is the same as it was, and kids today do things like we did, until facts intrude. It’s what makes parents so desperately uncool. It’s what depresses older video game fans when they discover that today’s kids think that Tetris is lame and should blow up more. No one wants to admit that their childhood is gone, no one wants to admit that they’re getting older, and no one wants their entertainment media to serve up a side order of the cold wind of mortality.

In a way, it’s a testament to the critical dedication of these mainstream reviewers that they get past nostalgia to give comics fair and positive reviews. But I think that the prefatory smackdown is their way of resolving the cognitive dissonance — of reassuring themselves that regardless of this single intrusion into the world of adult literature, comics as a whole are still the stuff of simplistic playground idylls. It’s how they keep that 9-year-old clutching his 1974 Amazing Spider-Man to his chest alive.

It’s going to be hard to write a comic book good enough to kill a 9-year-old for.

Originally published on LiveJournal