Notes for a Critique of the Political Economy of Alt-Comics

In any industry, infrastructure has a tendency to stifle innovation. The more we invest in scaffolding a specific type of production, the more we are invested in continuing to produce a specific type of work. The film industry is a perfect example. Production budgets have skyrocketed in recent years and failure to secure a return on investment now constitutes a financial catastrophe. This has been hugely detrimental to indie film makers and has also made film companies and producers far more conservative in which projects they choose to finance. It comes as no surprise then that we see remake after remake, sequel upon sequel and that the Marvel Industrial Complex has begun to dominate film culture. This is because those franchises already have a guaranteed built-in market and audience. These movies make money, but they also slowly poison Hollywood so that every film eventually loses its identity in a vast sea of sameness.

The connection here to comics seems tenuous, of course eventhe most successful cartoonists can only just barely escape living below the poverty line. Nevertheless, I wonder if there is anydifference in the type of comics work becoming popular today over that of a few decades ago. Alternative comics as an independent print culture only emerged as recently as the 1960s, and many would argue that their advent was a direct response to the stringent censorship of the Comics Code Authority. The CCA was a regulatory body formed in the 50s that restricted the narrative content of the mainstream comics industry to only the most orthodox subject matter, meaning that if you wanted to make work about anything beyond the most inoffensive, bowdlerized pap you had to do it outside of an institutional governing body.

It was out of this schism that the American underground comics movement first grew, the earliest directly traceable antecedent to the contemporary alt-comics “scene” in North America. As such, indie or small press comics here have always carried with them the incendiary stench of the counter culture. The impossibility of ever making any real money and the near-universal derision of the medium itself by art institutions meant that you could really do whatever the hell you wanted. This was in fact the main appeal for many creators, and part of why comics have historically lent themselves to producing shocking, controversial or confrontational narratives.

Today, Drawn & Quarterly is an imprint of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, the “Big Five” publishing companies have embraced graphic literature, cartoonists can win Macarthur and Guggenheim fellowships or appear in The Paris Review or Artforum. “Comics for adults” is no longer an obscene and unthinkable proposition. It’s hard to point out when and how a culture changes, but in many ways I see, alongside the cultural acceptance and celebration of the medium we’ve sought after for so long, a contingent longing for respectability, a softening of the transgressive philosophy that used to define comics. From where I’m standing I see two possibilities for young cartoonist’s today – you either get paid, or you don’t.

As institutional support scaffolds even the most tenuouspossibility of making a real career out of cartooning, those same scaffolds offer their own unique limitations. It is pretty clear that big mainstream publishers prefer a certain style of work that precludes the type of explosive, scabrous or vitriolic stories that could get an artist arrested in previous decades. If offered the chance of a six figure advance wouldn’t anyone sand down the more offensive or risky aspects of their manuscript?

Maybe the editing process isn’t even so overt as that, maybe it happens in the artist’s head before the toonist’s pen even touches paper. Artists being aware of the specific tastes of big publishers incentivizes them to produce a certain type of work before they even shop their books around. This is in contrast to an alternative comics culture that used to market itself as the last bastion of freedom of expression, an untamed land where every aspect of your creation was under your complete control.

Let’s return to the inverse scenario: You don’t get paid anything and you only make comics because you love them. Eventually, this might tend to give rise to a community of artists who can afford to contribute years of unpaid labour. Anyone who isn’t capable of making that sacrifice is similarly incapable of participating in the culture. The pre-Raegan economic landscape of the 1960s, in which you could work a few hours a week and still make enough to pay the rent on your grimy and dangerous New York loft, is long dead, we are now firmly entrenched in the gig economy.

Of course, regardless of socioeconomic factors, there will always be visionaries scratching their ink lines in the few midnight hours between shifts at their day job, but these few would necessarily be an exception. Is it a stretch to say that on average, people with economic security may also be more hesitant, or may not even have the critical distance available to them to be able attack their own class interests? When I do still see glimmers of acerbic anger in comics it is all too often punching down rather than up.

Last weekend someone mentioned to me that they were lamenting the lack of sass in the community today. Where has all the sass gone? I think as an industry it may be time to ask ourselves whether comics’ punk ethos is baked into the medium itself or whether it is has become a warmed-over aesthetic that we are having trouble letting go of because it gives us a feeling of authenticity even when the material foundations for that authenticity have been gradually eroded.

Lately I’ve been thinking too much, and tracing every phenomena I encounter back to systems of power has made me very depressed and unable even to enjoy things which I know are good and wonderful, because when I look just underneath them I find something else unpleasant there. I want to emphasize that through all the remarks and observations I’ve made about comics I am not speaking about the actions of individuals in any way. Rather, I am focusing only on systems and infrastructure and the limitations they imply. As with every limit there are numerous exceptions, and the continued flourishing, innovation and astounding variegation of the contemporary alternative comics scene inspires and encourages me every day. It is, after all, why I started making comics in the first place.

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