Comic Books: Out of the Basement and into Your Mainstream

We’re all a bunch of nerds here at the Casual Gentlemen.  Or haven’t you noticed?  With blog posts exploring Batman’s relationship to Occupy and podcasts investigating science’s unholy union of jellyfish and rat, that’s our slant.  But, unlike many gallivanting groups of goofy geeks we each have our own interests.  Which is a great thing.  Nerdom tends to be a realm dominated by righteous, stubborn city-states whose borders are surrounded by 700 foot walls of solid ice.  We can be an isolated bunch when, really, we should be celebrating others’ passions.

Me?  I like all kinds of books.  Including comics.

Sadly, comic books have a bad name, existing in the cold, craggy hinterlands of literature and art.  To outsiders and “serious” literary minds they embody the most base, shallow entertainment.  Comics wear stripper heels, shake their disproportionate breasts and reek of stale, moldy basements.  Many discerning readers are taught to distrust the medium — believing that comics are only for kids or pervs or Japanese businessmen.  Patrons of Barnes and Noble are sure to skirt the half-shelf of graphic novels, which are much too close to the role-playing section… Much too close indeed

But I am here to say, dear friends, that these self-proclaimed connoisseurs of fiction are simply wrong.  There are some truly remarkable stories in the world of comics these days, from both the larger publishers and the smaller, indie imprints.  Stories that would be remarkable in any medium.  I draw your attention to exhibit A — Y: The Last Man, written by Brian K. Vaughan (a former staff writer on Lost), a “high concept” tale that explores gender issues with fun, biting wit.  Or, perhaps, Terry Moore’s Strangers in Paradise, a more subdued series with some of the most truthful and complicated relationships I’ve ever seen in a work of art.

Alas, these comics and others are shunned as the stinky, exotic dancers of the literary world.  They simply don’t get the wide breadth of attention they so richly deserve.

However, even as I write this, the stigma may be changing.

Riding to the rescue, charging through the tangled underbrush of Nerdom, are three brave horsemen: The Dark Knight trilogy, The Avengers, and AMC’s The Walking Dead.  These three works have shown the masses that comics can tell intelligent, mature stories.  And with the current media saturation of events like ComicCon, more and more of the previously mentioned “serious” readers are realizing its not just a bunch of weirdos emerging, like a hoard (or herd?) of zombies, from their parents’ basements.  On top of that, numbers don’t lie…

The 100th issue of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead was released July 11th and sold out its initial 383,612 order in one day, making it the best selling comic of the century.  The series has a large, dedicated fan base, but I have to believe the AMC show contributed to this staggering number in some way.

Also, in April 2012, Marvel’s explosive storyline Avengers vs X-Men released its second issue, selling 158, 650 comics.  Issues 3 and 4, released in May of 2012 — the same month The Avengers movie was released — sold 175,695 and 178,330 comics, respectively.  Where did those extra 20,000 people come from?  No doubt a large portion were fans of the film delving into the world of comics.  And sales of the series continue to rise.

That’s a great start.  Yet I can hear whispers from “discerning literary minds” at the edge of the conversation.  “Why, if what you preach is great storytelling regardless of the medium, do I have to wade into the local comic book store — that dungenous unknown tucked into the basement of St. Mark’s place?”

Ah!  Now we get to the crux.

It is the medium itself that makes comics and graphic novels so rich, the magical marriage of words and picture that create unique offspring known as panels.  Check out Brian Wood’s DMZ, a series with timely, sophisticated political commentary.  The illustrations by Riccardo Burchielli are often chaotic and disorienting, not for the faint of heart, but wonderful none-the-less; evoking, I would argue, the most natural form of reader response.  The panels do more than make us think, the simple act of reading can be a struggle, placing the reader unconsciously into the emotional context of characters struggling through a savage war zone.  Then insightful stories of creation, love, survival are built on top of that.  This is a product of the medium.  Something you can’t experience in a novel with such full immediacy.

There’s also Neil Gaiman’s brilliant series, Sandman, a work as deep and mythical as any by Melville, Hemingway or Steinbeck.  Note the way panels (or lack there of) and spacing are used much the same way a poet may use a line break.  They focus our attention — fracturing, shifting, disappearing in reflection of the world our hero, Dream, inhabits.  Like film, comics are a visual medium and the most interesting stories fully embrace that fact.

So, if you are a “serious” reader, I implore you to pick up a comic trade or graphic novel.  Take a little vacation in Nerdom… approach with an open mind and once you get past the massive ice wall, I know you’ll find the land quite inviting.  Visit with the locals.  Soak up the ambiance.  Buy a t-shirt before you duck back to that distant (but getting closer all the time) mainstream world.  And remember, of course, any good nerd always pays his debts.

For those current denizens of Nerdom, pick up a new graphic novel.  Explore others’ passions.  Read the indie comic that chick at the Magic: The Gathering tournament mentioned.  Embrace the medium and maybe, just maybe, a whole new world will be unveiled.

Brendan Butz is a proud founder of the Casual Gentlemen.  You can see him write and occasionally perform at Our Bar, a night of comic theater, the first Wednesday of every month.

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