The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

Gutter Thoughts

Guy Leshinski
Posted February 17, 2004

I have to admit, I’m not much of a cultural theorist. My grasp of our cultural gutter is about as sophisticated as a falling anvil — and it’s nowhere near as funny. Which isn’t to suggest I haven’t myself reclined in the gutter and slurped up its spillings like the rest of us… but to try and define the thing itself, not to mention what attracts me to it, is like trying to catch a fly with a pair of chopsticks (if you’ll pardon the pillaged metaphor).

In my defense, comics are a gutter-al artifact due mainly to misinformation — okay, so maybe their sensationalism (at least in their formative years, produced for a North American market of, mostly, young boys) played a part. But to claim that Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, to name just two in the recent spate of literary graphic novels to grip the medium, are indistinguishable from X-Force or the collected Heathcliff is too absurd for words.

Yet it remains the prevailing consensus in our culture: that comics can only titillate or distract, never provoke or inspire.

Now, don’t think this a jab at titillation and distraction — they can be great fun (add a bottle of Jagermeister and a pit of whipped cream), and I pity a life without them — but art can do more.

And many cartoonists don’t merely aspire to it but create, consistently, work that resonates deeply, that provokes ideas and is as relevant to our cultural discourse as any art being made. And just as consistently, their work is dismissed or simply ignored. Just because it’s comics. (We’ll see if the medium’s present cool is a genuine shift or just another wave of interest that seems to build and ebb every decade or so.)

Comics’ gutter status seems to me based mostly on prejudice, misconception and ignorance. I’m one of many writers trying to rouse the public (the English-speaking North American adult public, if you want to be picky) from its anti-comics stupor, and the amazingly fruitful work being produced these days is ample wattage to jolt people to attention. The growth of the graphic novel, the ascension of manga, the boom of comics communities and the waning influence of Marvel and DC genre books, all are contributing to a thriving comics subculture of a piece with the San Francisco underground boom in the late ’60s, but on a vastly bigger scale. Many comics still appeal to adolescent power fantasies — the gutter prime — but increasingly, artists are trying to express an adult worldview and describe complex experiences in challenging, nuanced ways. And if this “literary” approach can be fraught with pretension, it’s also stretching the medium in ways it never was before.

Problem is, the medium’s lurid history tails it like toilet paper on a boot, so many readers don’t even bother with it. And unlike, say, video games, which have thrived in spite (or perhaps because) of their marginality, comics are still restricted by it — publishers still have trouble making a profit and top cartoonists still have trouble making a living from their work. My hope is that writing about comics will encourage more people to read them (ie, buy them), which would encourage more people to make them, and develop the form further. It’s a pretty selfish goal, really: more readers mean more (and better) books. If I can educate readers about this unique, flowering medium, and if I can in some way expose its potential to someone who might not otherwise care, I may be able to help the comics and artists I love… if not escape the gutter then at least find some nook where they’re less likely to get trampled.


3 Responses to “Gutter Thoughts”

  1. Mark
    February 21st, 2004 @ 6:40 pm

    I’m not sure if, by “the medium’s present cool”, you mean cooling off — as in, people are cooling to the medium — or that it’s becoming more hip. But when you say that our culture’s prevailing consensus is that comics can never provoke or inspire, it sounds like you’re talking about the industry ten years ago, before Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics became a best-seller and made it onto every graphic designer’s must-read list; before people like Jessa Crispin of felt comfortable touting the genius of Warren Ellis and Jonathan Franzen in the same breath; before an indie slice-of-life comic like Ghost World could be turned into a 7-million-dollar film; before book-selling mega chains started devoting entire shelves to independent comics; and certainly before Sandman: Endless Night became the first American comic ever to make the New York Times best-seller list. (Ironically, Gaiman’s greatest contribution to the medium was probably to become a successful novelist, and the New York Times’ greatest contribution has been to get novelist comic reviewers — Nick Hornby reviewed Linda Barry and a bunch of other books not too long ago, for example.) The teenage boy stereotype is dissolving too: A few years ago I was reading Jhonen Vasquez on the bus and not one but two teenage girls, both complete strangers, came up to me and told me how much they loved his stuff and how brilliant it was. Comics are still considered disposable pop culture by a lot of people, but my feeling is that even those who will never buy a comic for themselves now realise that the medium is gaining some acceptance as a “legitimate” art form. I’ll buy that “our culture’s prevailing consensus is that *superhero* comics can never provoke or inspire,” but the statement’s probably too sweeping to apply to the whole medium — which may still be in the gutter, but has been clawing its way out, despite the occasional fumble, for the past twenty-five years at least.

  2. Dirk Deppey
    February 25th, 2004 @ 1:40 am

    I think the medium’s dubious cultural status helps it in the current North American pop climate as much as harms it. Despite the media conglomerates’ attempts, popular culture is more disposed to filter up from the bottom than it is be asserted by fiat from the top. It’s the immediacy of comics, and to a small extent comics’ disreputability, that gives the medium its current hipness.
    To the extent that artcomics have removed some of the “kids-only” lustre, this is all to the good — but the greasier, poppier stuff has an added value as well, and I suspect the two may well be adding to one another more than cancelling each other out.

  3. Peter Diamond
    December 31st, 2004 @ 4:12 pm

    I think graphic art in general, ie posters, comics and illustration, are subject to similar prejudice at large. What is most interesting to me is that comics and graphic art harken back most strongly to the earliest forms of art. The cave paintings of Lascaux, the art of the Syrians, the Greeks, Egyptians, in fact the art of all early civilizations, is graphic art. It is bold, stylised, and often motivated by narrative aims. It is the notion of ‘fine’ art, the unique art piece for its own sake, that is the newcomer here. It irks me that on some level I feel obliged to somehow prove that my work, or the comic medium as a whole, is legitimate in the context of Fine art and literature.
    Guy, if you are reading this, let me thank you for your review of my Lucky Comics #2 which I read at Cheers to you, such a positive review is a great help to us at this stage in the game. I couldn’t russle up your email to write you directly, so this’ll have to do.

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