By Hannah Means-Shannon
Comics creators David Lloyd (Nightraven, V for Vendetta, Kickback) and Steve Marchant (The Cartoonist’s Workshop, The Computer Cartoon Kit) decided to take a captive audience on a ride through rocky territory during their presentation at the 3rd International Comics Studies Conference in the UK this summer, questioning the perception of artistic value in comics. Scholars filled the lecture theater, all preoccupied with their own particular research interests from Manga to trauma narratives, but the central subject matter was galvanizing. Lloyd posed an essential question that has continued to haunt comics despite the rise of the graphic novel format and talk of cultural legitimacy. Has cultural perception about comics really changed? He started with a challenging statement: “Comics have no artistic value that anyone can see”. Though the conference was entitled “Comics Rock”, Lloyd questioned whether, to the general populace, comics do really “rock”.
Lloyd, who is also working on the upcoming Aces Weekly digital magazine project, quickly drew a distinction between this conference-attending “insider” crowd committed to arguing for the “special” nature of comics, and “Joe Public” who most likely could not see those qualities. The problem, he suggested, lay at least partly in the use of terminology. The “term itself”, “comics”, Lloyd argued, is misleading and unhelpful.
Lloyd plunged the audience into the heart of a debate over terminology that some might feel is long over while others, like Lloyd, might feel has dogged their pursuit of comics as a profession or a field of study. The word “comics”, after all, has linguistic ties to the word “comedy” and even for those who do not associate comics with comedy, they might well associate the term “comics” solely with superheroes, which is also misleading. In Britain, the term “funnies” spread from strips to the first comic books, regardless of whether the subject matter was humorous or not, a “branding of sequential art” that Lloyd feels we have not yet escaped. A personal anecdote from Lloyd’s life illustrated his frustration: when working on his internationally acclaimed sequential art for V for Vendetta, his family members referred to the work as “them kids comics”, when in fact it was a “political thriller of great profundity”.
There was a distinct twinge of shock in the room when the audience heard this vignette. Most people involved in comics feel that we are moving closer to a post-prejudiced cultural environment. Lloyd’s uncomfortable reminder that “in comics, we are all branded by this perception” challenged underlying assumptions of progress. He pointed out that neither films nor pulp literature are denigrated in quite the same way as comics, and that comics might easily have taken a similar route toward acceptance if not for the moral scares prompted by Frederick Wertham in the 1950’s and the birth of the “suffocating” comics code. Despite developments in the accessibility of comics to a wider audience, and the positive impact of terms like “graphic novel”, Lloyd argues for a better solution: the use the term “sequential art”. If the designation “comics” keep people from taking sequential art seriously, shouldn’t we be countering that perception with more “serious” terminology?
Lloyd’s careful critique of the state of the medium prompted a great deal of debate during Q and A, but not before his colleague Steve Marchant had a chance to discuss their ongoing charitable projects dealing with comics. Marchant introduced “Cartoon Classroom”, a web-based resource archive for educators to encourage the use and study of comics among young people. Marchant’s presentation was more than just a technological reveal of teaching resources, but rather a remarkable trip through some of his most memorable projects working hands-on with those who most need art as a means of expression. He described the development of “simple stories” with classes from various geographical regions and with drastically differing backgrounds. Finished comics hailing from classroom workshops in elementary, middle, and high schools, often form an exhibit or a printed pamphlet on behalf of charities, courtesy of Cartoon Classroom. These stories, unsurprisingly, deal with tough topics from homelessness to drug use and teen pregnancy, and express the unique voices of their contributors. This, Marchant emphasized, serves comics as well as the community. Comics find new avenues for social relevance as a therapeutic, awareness-raising product and also as a venue that prevents comics from “dying out”. These classroom exercises, many of them directed tirelessly by Marchant, illustrate the basic underlying qualities and strengths of the comics medium. You do not have to be “masters of comic art” to participate, he illustrated, but rather strive for a level of simple articulation, conveying a message to the reader. Cartoon Classroom programs have impacted young children, teens, prisoners, and retirees alike, many of whom rediscover an artistic bent they may never yet have fully realized. Some of Cartoon Classroom’s projects have sold as many as 25,000 copies, conveying, for Marchant, that the “medium is capable of anything”.
During the question and answer session following Lloyd and Marchant’s presentation, some audience members felt that the emphatic use of the term “comics” for decades has drained the term of its misleading potential, and that it no longer carries with it the connotation of humor or ephemera, while others specifically felt that the term no longer suggests the dominance of the superhero genre. The audience was evenly divided between those who argued that we have reached a post-prejudiced era when it comes to the term “comics” and those who felt the term is still damaging. Many of those who felt the term “comics” needed to change were, like Lloyd and Marchant, artists who had experienced the denigration of their work. Among the dissenters, however, there was not strong agreement over whether “sequential narrative” was the most appropriate replacement term. Lloyd and Marchant made their case through grounded examples from personal experiences of life in the field. Their soldierly efforts to keep comics alive underline the need for questioning and challenging our assumptions about comics if we hope for the medium to remain vital in the future. If history teaches us anything, it’s not to assume that a battle’s over until it’s well and truly over.
Hannah Means-Shannon is a comics scholar and medievalist who has published articles on the works of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison in the International Journal of Comic Art, Studies in Comics, the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, reference books, and upcoming essay collections. She is working on her first book for Sequart Research and Literacy Organization about Neil Gaiman, blogs about Alan Moore for Sequart, and teaches at Georgian Court University in New Jersey.