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Modern Cartoonist: The Naked Truth Print

This essay originally appeared as a bound-in booklet accompanying Eightball #18, originally published in 1997.

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - front cover

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - title page

Copyright © 1997 D. Clowes - Printed in Canada

THE CURRENT SITUATION: In 1953, fifteen years after the American comic book makes its debut, we have, with the apex of E.C. Comics (and MAD specifically) the first inklings that comics may have some sort of potential beyond lowest-common-denominator kidsí stuff. 15 years beyond that, we have the underground comix movement and another 15 years later we have the start of the unnamed "adult comics" movement spearheaded by RAW, Love & Rockets, and Weirdo. Apparently 15 years is the time it takes for one generation to absorb the discoveries and failings of the previous generation and to grow up and produce their own comics. The next creative epoch is due to begin in 1998; are we on the brink of rapture or armageddon? At this moment there are (Iím guessing) certainly no less than 3000 people in America who identify themselves as cartoonists. Of these, there are by my estimation 20-25 creators producing work of an extraordinarily high order, and another 25 or 30 with noble aspirations but slightly less impressive results. These 50 artists have emerged gradually from the 1983 crowd, which makes this the most artistically successful 15-year-period in the history of comics, in part I suspect because it began and continues to exist in obscurity, free from the fear of state or corporate censorship and removed from any cultural movements (its namelessness is an undeniable asset). Will this lead to a lull or an ever-expanding continuum? The comic book field (I direct this to comic books rather than daily strips because the world of syndicated strips ó with two or three exceptions ó is a homely waste-heap that serves only as a scarecrow to the elusive mainstream audience: "I guess comics really are for idiots") at large is peopled by teenage

millionaires who draw to create fodder for "development deals" and those in waiting to be same. The creations of these and especially their low-end imitators are not devoid of content. Many of them offer an embarrassingly direct look into the id of their adolescent creator (the musculature of the average super-being is a labryinth of castration anxiety and gender confusion). Far less interesting are those who roam the unthrilling no-manís-land between "mainstream" and "alternative." These men are often skilled and knowledgeable on a variety of different subjects, but their work seems diluted and impersonal, built from secondary sources and lacking in, even fearful of, self-knowledge and self-doubt. On an entirely separate tangent we have the political cartoonists (why do they all draw in that annoying style?) and an ever-dwindling number of gag cartoonists and cartoon illustrators (the New Yorker crowd). The long-time public acceptance of these sub-groups leads me to believe that itís not the comics form itself that repels thinking readers, but the relentlessly dull and insipid content of the comics they come into contact with (usually the overstuffed works of the compromised middle-grounders). The "thinking public," that slippery, potential audience of 200,000 or so that we "know" to exist are, like everyone else, accustomed to being bombarded by P.R. and pull-quotes. The comics field has no such machinery and so when the interested neophyte decides to give comics a try, chances are very high that he or she will pick up something bad (or simply alienating) at random and never try again.

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - page 7

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - centerfold (pages 8-9)

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - page 10

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - page 11

Modern Cartoonist by Daniel Clowes - page 12

THE FUTURE AND BEYOND: As we enter, voiceless and impotent, a digital age of "instant access" (or constant excess), the fragile chemistry of our hand-held, non-automatic pictorial narrative device and its inherently sublime nuances (the texture and silence of the pages and our profound trust in processed wood-pulp to convey comicsí charms without threat of mechanical failure or annoying chirping sounds) appears to be in grave danger. Reading a comic book as God intended is a simple pleasure and as such, our precious pictorial pamphlet, like vaudeville and the magic lantern, is just the sort of thing that gets crushed in the gears of progress. There will probably continue to exist picture/ word narratives in some technologically advanced form, but once these still, noiseless movements are transferred to a world of overwhelming possibilities (canít you just hear the annoying sound effects?) they become underachieving aliens to their context, condescended to by their very mode of transmission. Who will want to look at such a sad spectacle, especially when the turning of a knob brings us the 3-D Stereo All-Necrophilia Channel? Itís like walking past a sad mom & pop grocery store next to a giant supermarket: you want to support it but somehow it seems cruel to prolong its misery. The new technology promises a structural shift (ďdemocratizationĒ is a word they use) in the readerís favor, giving him an exaggerated role in the give-and-take between artist and audience. He is to be given choices so he can "interact" with the narrative. Is this a good thing? Is our Every-Reader a worthy collaborator or does his involvement dilute the whole process? Do we, as readers, want this? This is where the "entertainment media" at large is headed: to pander to the impotent lout and to provide him with masturbation fodder or the narrative equivalent of a roller-coaster ride.

Itís precisely because of this all-around cultural decline that I see hope for the "comics industry" to continue in something resembling its present incarnation for the "forseeable future," perhaps even to "break out" somewhat and reach a larger audience (one that has the impulse to read but has lost the taste for words without accompanying pictures). Beyond that comics will continue to exist as long as they are made. There will always be, at worst, a small but interested elite. Perhaps once comics are soundly beaten to death in the marketplace theyíll begin to be taken seriously by academics, art historians and the like, but this canít happen until dedicated cartoonists continue to produce comics of such increasingly high quality that they are eventually impossible to dismiss and ignore. The comic book really is a perfect consumer item. Itís portable, flexible, cheap enough to be disposable, durable enough to last several lifetimes with proper archival care, lightweight, colorful and simple (no packaging or shrinkwrap required). I suspect that even in the face of utter indifference there are those of us who will continue to create comics, if only because of the vast unexplored prairie between what has been done and the thrilling possibilities that lie around us in all directions.

Published by the Catholic Federation for Preservation and Enhancement of All Things Related to the Comic Book and Its Creator, Inc. Additional copies may be obtained from Fantagraphics Books, Inc. 7563 Lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115 USA for One Dollar Apiece

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 29 December 2009 )
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