Sans Genre X
Into the valley. Sometimes you stare into a microscope for so long that you only remember there's a world a million times wider outside the lens when somebody taps you on the shoulder. Such is life as a reader of American art-comix. The relatively low cultural visibility of all comics makes the medium something that's at least moderately difficult to follow without being motivated and passionate about it, but when you start talking about the cutting edge of avant-garde sequential art, you're talking about a specialists-only interest. It's a precondition for work that only makes it into maybe fifteen or twenty retail outlets nationwide, that relies on tumblr websites for publicity and paypal for money more heavily than anything else, and most of all, has such a tightly knit community of followers that it's often difficult not to wonder whether the audience for the stuff outside of cartoonists and critics numbers in the triple figures. But every once in a while the uninitiated folks to whom you insist that acts of unfettered artistic expression get at "previously unseen potentials" and that risograph printing is "the most beautiful production method going" and that Gary Panter is "the fucking bomb" actually get themselves interested and decide to take the plunge.
Almost always, the result is confusion. Especially for people with a pre-existing image of what comics are and how they work (which these days is pretty much everyone of the age and inclination to check out some more difficult comics -- Watchmen and Walking Dead, like it or not, have become pop currency), confronting work that uses pages and panels and quite often even a word balloon or two but doesn't subscribe to the same precepts as the mass-market "graphic novels" named above, can be a befuddling experience. It gets even more so because the few corners of comics' critical body that are capable of expressing simple opinions with a modicum of intelligence are almost uniformly rapturous and equally vague in their praise of such work. The story I usually tell here for some color is the tale of The Day My Brother Visited And My Copy Of CF's City-Hunter Came In The Mail. I studied the pages of what might be the quintessential arty-comics zine of the past few years consumed by transports of delight; he gave it a quick flip-through, handed it back to me, and shrugged "dude, this comic sucks."
I knew I was right -- leave the fact that I write for the Comics Journal and as such all my opinions about comics are automatically correct out of it, the mere fact that anyone could look at the comic and be so enraptured by it indicated the abiding worth of it. But art-comix, almost exclusively, don't come to you -- pulling the value from them can be a difficult task. Luckily, I recently had the issue brought to my attention again, by a pen pal who asked for some tips for accessing and appreciating more esoteric comics. Since not quite knowing how to get around inside these wonderful books is anything but an uncommon complaint, I thought it might be good if I shared a few simple strategies on how best to appreciate art-comix. Pencils ready!
Look at the pictures. That might sound obvious, and it's true for any kind of comic you might run across. But the great tragedy of the "graphic novel" era, in which comics have risen slightly above the status of a cultural joke and onto the Barnes and Noble shelves and the aging hipster professors' curriculums, is that the mainstream acceptance they've been afforded has come with an unprecedented emphasis on the writerly qualities of the books that have made it to the NY Times/AV Club canon. The pictures serve the story, yes, but they're also an equally lively and much more immediate vehicle for individual aesthetic expression than narrative. In most art-comix, this is the facility for expression that's being given the better part of the workout. I like to think about the relationship between pictures and words in art-comix as being like that of music to lyrics in songs: the words certainly count, but the reason to listen is what's underneath them. They use the word "art" in the name for these books with reason: the best art-comix are an exercise for the eyes and the mind, the content they hold based as much in concrete visuals as abstract plot points.
Forget what you know. Coming to art-comix from superhero comics, especially, makes for a bumpy road. Leaving aside the obvious aesthetic differences for a moment, the best way of processing information presented within the two idioms is vastly different. What superhero comics emphasize above all else is essentially sameness: readers are encouraged to look for dialogue between what they're reading at the moment and previous issues, or classic stories featuring the same characters, or books from the same publisher that feature other characters, or all of the above at once. Pretty much every corporate superhero comic exists as a tiny sliver of something the reader is encouraged to see as seamless and continuous, a vast reach of inextricably connected story material. Art-comix, on the other hand, frequently disconnect from themselves, even in the shortest of stories. Random digressions, subplots that never follow up, pin-up pages, "commercial breaks" of varying length... rather than shoehorn every possible idea into a single plot a la Grant Morrison, the preferred route of comics' avant-garde is to let ideas coexist as separate entities from one another, even if they happen to share the same cover or even the same page.
The ideal mindset to enter an art comic with is something as close to passive reception as possible: reading actively in an attempt to make as many connections between what's at hand and what's come before is usually a mistake. Instead, try to see everything for what it is. Find what value you can in every page, every panel, every drawn form and line of dialogue before moving on. More likely than not, the neatly tied narrative fulfillment we're trained to look for as pop-media consumers in a historically Judeo-Christianate country is not forthcoming, so embrace a more hedonistic reading style and focus your energy on pulling as much enjoyment as you can from what your eyes are resting on this second. If it links up later, that's great. If not, who cares? You'll be looking at something else by then.
(New) world building. Frequently -- maybe even more often than not -- art-comix won't make a whole lot of what's commonly referred to as "sense". Scenes switch setting midstream, words and pictures don't match up, characters come and go without warning, and figurative content jacknifes into abstraction at the drop of a hat. Where so many comics stress the patient, meticulous evocation of a world that corresponds as closely as possible to our own, art-comix embrace the differences, the fact that any world printed on paper is never even going to come close to what's outside your window. So take them as they come. The world you're inhabiting while you're on the pages of the book is never supposed to be the one you live in; revel in the surprises and discoveries that figuring out its individual logic entails. Accept what's on the page as reality, no matter how unfamiliar or nonsensical it may seem. It's meant to be that way. Comics are a powerful tool for escapism, after all, and few will take you to a further remove from reality than art-comix.
Bad is good. This one works along the same lines as the last. We're trained to interrogate drawn images for as much faithfulness to reality as possible: reproducing the look of the world around us for artistic purposes is the most common goal in everything from figurative painting to movies to photographs to comics art. We're also told to value professionalism above pretty much anything else, but when people who draw like "professionals" produce terrible comics with such frequency, passion stands revealed as the truly necessary component of exciting work. Leave your classical illustrative values at the door for art-comix. Books that contain worlds removed from the logic of this reality have no obligation to replicate it visually. Savor the imperfections of the art, the deviations from both realism and common artistic shorthand. The parts that look wrong are the parts that define the outer limits of the world you're reading, the easiest ways to see that what you're involved in is different from usual. Sometimes being individual is a more important statement than being pretty. It's why you dyed your hair purple in seventh grade. All it takes is training to get things right: send anybody to commercial-art school for a decade and they'll be able to draw like Neal Adams. But the stray marks made, the liquid medium splattered, the hiccups in form and style that riddle art-comix are the property of their creators' hands alone.
They cost too fucking much. Yes they do. Grit your teeth real hard, is my advice. Nobody's getting rich here. Being part of something that only a handful of others are means paying premiums. Look at it this way: if Marvel knocked a dollar off their cover prices, maybe a few ancillary titles might get canceled. If most art-comix were any cheaper they simply wouldn't exist, because their creators couldn't be making comics. If you're buying it you value it, so you should damn well value it.
Tool and technique. Since the artists are also usually the most effective proselytizers for art-comix, it's easy to come away resentful, feeling like you're reading a bulletin from some cartoonists-only clubhouse meeting. And as with all comics, an appreciation for artistic technique adds to the reading experience. But there's no need to sign up for a correspondence course if you want to enjoy this stuff. The main thing is to view the art you're reading as art: not abstract information, but real substances pressed or scratched or smeared or xeroxed on a page. If there's any aspect of art one should enter the noisier regions of comics ready to appreciate, it's the tactility of the media used to make the comic, something we can all understand. Art-comix tell the stories of their own creation, calling back to the components they came together from. The dust of a pencil line speaks in a different voice than the trail of ink left by a pen. The filmy sheen of marker colors is something entirely separate from the buff crust of dried paint, even if the tones themselves are exactly the same. The charming waver of a freehand line against the eerily mechanical feel of a rulered one. Look for as much in the building materials of the comic as the comic itself: they're a part of it too, after all.
These are only a few strategies that you might find useful; there are certainly plenty more, many of which you may have already found or be yet to find on your own. All of my instructions rely on sweeping generalizations made about a wide-ranging and incredibly vital corner of comics, so depending on the book your mileage may vary. Of course, the real fun begins once you master reading art-comix and bring the reading methods honed there back to your favorite mainstream comics: insurrection, bitches. And now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to the release party for the new issue of Kramers Ergot!
Thanks to Messrs. Dave Morris of Calgary and Corey Mullee of Williamsburg for asking the question.