Emanata: Ten Things to Fear About the Future of Comics

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The most interesting thing anybody’s written about comics this week is Shaenon Garrity’s column “Ten Things to Know About the Future of Comics”–a vision of what’s coming, based on her interactions with her students. I hope she’s right about most of her predictions, and only slightly wrong about a few. But since it’s nearly Halloween, I’d like to suggest the horrors that might be awaiting if Garrity’s predictions don’t come to pass.

1. Newspaper comics become zombies. Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac really is lovely, and although Garrity’s commented elsewhere that it “would be such a beautiful strip to end on,” I’d love to see it herald a new generation of daily strips supported by… whatever it is that newspapers turn into. The awful flip side of that possibility is that the only institutional support available for daily comic strips goes on the same franchises forever–taken over by increasingly feeble ghost artists as their creators fall away, impossible to dislodge from their perch in the local news-pad-feed.

(More on Techland: Emanata: Eight Comics That Demand to Be Reprinted)

2. Monthly comic books become zombies, too. I’m one of the serial-comic-book faithful, the Wednesday people, and I’d personally love to see that part of comics thrive too. But what I fear is the scenario where there’s just enough fan support to keep X-Men and Batman and a few dozen other titles afloat in perpetuity, but they’re ground out month after month by creators who hold their collaborators and audiences in contempt, just to get a work-for-hire paycheck.

3. Format is infinitely imposed. A central digital distributor might well insist on a single standard format for everything it’s willing to distribute; comics could go out to every big-screen device looking like old-fashioned printed comic book pages, and to small-screen devices with their panels all chopped up. Can’t see everything at once? Scroll, pal.

4. The audience is a monoculture. If it gets turned into a movie or a video game, teenage fans hear of it. If it doesn’t, a comic remains a tiny cult item at best. Consequently, the only way for a new comics project to be financially feasible is to court Hollywood relentlessly. (There already seem to be a lot of creators who believe that, chillingly.)

(More on Techland: Doonesbury Shows the Nerd Love)

5. There is a canon, and it stays the same forever. Once a canon gets established, it’s very hard to get anything new into it–see, for instance, the British Film Institute’s poll of the best films ever, whose results have stayed nearly static for decades. (In the 2002 poll, the more recent film to get in was The Godfather, from three decades earlier.) Garrity suggests that Calvin & Hobbes, Bone, Naruto, Death Note and Watchmen are the present canon: fine, I’m cool with those too, although Naruto‘s the only one that’s currently creatively active. Now imagine that those are the only projects young comics aficionados universally know ten years from now, or twenty, or fifty.

6. Superheroes become only comic-book characters. Flash forward: Turn Off the Dark, DCU Online, and the next three superhero movies are Ishtar-level duds, and all of a sudden superhero IP becomes poisoned turf for every medium outside comics. Zombies replace them as the big thing. Cultural fantasies of transcending humanity as we know it are replaced by cultural fantasies of surviving in the very short term. Every year during Comic-Con, the streets of San Diego are lined with colorful banners depicting rotting corpses.

7. Manga? That was just a fad. Without TV tie-in support, American manga culture dies off, and the kids who grew up reading it move on. Manga and its “sprawling, subjective, emotional approach to visual storytelling” (as Garrity puts it) becomes as much a relic and signifier of a historical moment as, say, sword-and-sorcery comics or disco. Lots of American readers and cartoonists remember Naruto and Death Note fondly from their youth; every couple of years, somebody does a tribute to them, strictly as a stylistic exercise.

8. The line between fans and creators is more like a wall. Some combination of net neutrality being replaced by walled gardens, IP lawyers freaking out over fanfic, and a major-publisher star system means that you’ve either got an exclusive publishing contract or nobody of consequence is ever going to see your work. Creators are advised to stay far away from their fans, except for the occasional ticketed signing; fans go back to drawing exactly like a few big stars, hoping to be taken on as an apprentice and maybe even ghost their work as a stepping stone to a work-for-hire deal.

9. Creepy boys drive a lot of the girls away. Have you seen the freaking comment section on Robot 6’s post about Kate Beaton’s comment on unwelcome “compliments”? Dudes’ sense of entitlement knows no bounds. Memo to other guys: nearly everything good that’s happened in comics in the past decade has happened because an influx of women–on all levels of participation in comics culture–has made it possible. Keep acting like jerks, and then getting all defensive when you get called on it, and you’ll get to watch a lot of the stuff you like fall apart.

10. Whoever’s left standing isn’t very good at making comics. Remember back around 2000 to 2010? Yeah, that was a great time for comics. It really looked like they were about to go into some amazing places. I don’t know what happened. Bone, Death Note–they don’t make them anywhere near that cool any more, do they?