Friday, June 02, 2006

Art Comix: Distribution, Technology and the Future

On a recent visit to Bridge City Comics in the quickly gentrifying Mississippi Avenue hood in North Portland, I asked my four year old son Max if he would like me to buy him a comic book. Bugs Bunny, perhaps? Scooby Doo? Power Puff Girls?

“No thanks Dad, comics are for grown ups.” Laughing, I realized I walked right into that one.

It begs the question, where are we headed with comics? Do comic books have a future as an art medium, let alone as a commercial product? In an era when several conglomerates are vying to deliver movies to your cel phone, where do graphic novels fit in?

I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for clues as to the current and future viability of my chosen art form. Surely the future is bright; with the occasional New Yorker cartoon lampooning the ascendant popularity of the graphic novel, I feel moderately bullish that it’s possible to secure an audience. Certainly, I look more to movies like American Splendor and Ghost World as evidence that there is a public for decent cartooning than to the latest X-Men or Splooge Bat offering from Hollywood.

Truth is, nothing has ever stopped successive waves of kids from being incredibly excited about making comics. What’s more, nothing stops young artists from doing it their own way, packing their picture stories with their own cultural touchstones, the visual moments gleaned from the iconography encountered in the hyper wacked media landscape that is evolving around us. That’s a jumbled way of saying that comics as an art form constantly renews and reinvents itself.

It’s worth taking a look at the current state of distribution for comic books and magazines. Diamond Comics has a lock on “the industry”, as it were (when you hear someone refer to “the industry”, they are more likely to work for Image than to be a creative toiling in art comics). Even if you are doing limited edition comics with screen-printed covers, a Diamond order can underwrite a big part of your expenses; their market access is potent. But a monopoly is a monopoly no matter how you slice it; it’s been ten years since Diamond swallowed Capital City Distribution, the remaining major comics distributor.

Fortunately, we have the Global Hobo’s of the world, smart people creating and supporting a community dedicated to the flowering of comics as a means of personal expression, and to creating an exchange for such clever items as they appear. This is preferable to viewing or downloading comics on the web, I’m still very much interested in holding comics (and books, and magazines) in my hands as I read them.

With digital media proliferating like bunnies on steroids, is incumbent on each cartoonist to choose how to define themselves—are you a graphic novelist? Are you going to screen print your comics on Macy’s windows and cop cars in the middle of the night? How will you create and package your work, and how will it be distributed?

I love the example of Jeff Roysdon. Here is a guy who executes ingenious, witty paintings as a high level of craft; he produces strip and panel comics that appear in Vice, among other publications, and he is an insanely great Flash animator, the guy who always has a fresh idea. Here is someone who is not in the “comic book” world, applying his considerable energies and genius to a variety of mediums.

But what about movies being delivered to your Cel phone, let alone via DVDs, TV, theatres and downloads? Are comics being digitally distributed? Yes, yes and yes. The difference is that no one is getting rich off of digital comics as of yet (although I could be wrong on that).

My own mini vision as I am about to issue a new graphic novel is to work the web with generous excerpts from the book, letting the best part of the cat out of the bag for free. I guess it’s worth thinking about movies themselves too. No doubt some readers of this mag have put videos up on the web already. Meanwhile, loose canon investors are pouring their money into movies at a record clip, at least this season. Hollywood insiders snear at the newcomers, yet are happy to make deals and take their money. Not too many art cartoonists are going to run into a Hollywood deal, and many would not want to, but I for one am a big fan of Ghost World, what the hell, let’s see some more cool flicks like that! I note that I have yet to view Art School Confidential as of this writing; the critics are panning it, but I will make my own judgment.

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