I've Been Thinking About Comics

Posted: Tuesday, July 6, 2004
By: Darren Schroeder

Cover of I've Been Thinking About Comics

Q: Why are you involved with comics?

Like everyone I read comics as a child but fell out of the habit. Later my interest in science fiction lead me to subscribe to the star trek comic thought Mark One, the first NZ comic shop. Their catalogue included some local comics and the idea that locals were making entertaining comics made an impression on me. I would bye cheap US comics that I saw in bookshops and slowly developed an interest in a few books - Mainly the comedy of Keith Giffen's work on Justice League International. The appearance of a comic shop in Christchurch feed my habit and meant that I could track down local comics and I've been a regular comic reader ever since.

Q: So are comics art?

They can be, but for some random quirk of fate the medium as a whole doesn't hold the same privileged status of say painting, and I don't really think there is any advantage to comics getting the label. Comics are more like books - some are put on the literature shelves, some on the fiction shelves. How the people at Whitcoulls make those decisions I'm never quite sure.

Q: So is there a division between comics and sequential art?

Not really, the term sequential art is just an attempt of some creators and readers to legitimate their own interests. Same with Alternative comics, comix, alternative music. How can anything thing that gets international distribution be alternative? The terms tell us more about what target audience the creators/distributors are aiming for than anything about the qualities of the comics themselves.

Q: What about the times when art and comics meet cross over in gallery shows or work such as that by Dick Frizzel or Colin McCahon?

For the most part those are appropriations when a curator wants to be seen as cutting edge. The artists get to be all nostalgic about their childhood and do some works that borrow certain formal aspects from the comic medium without any real understanding of how to make a working comic. Pleasant graphic design works, crap comics. These shows work for the artists because being exhibited gains them status. With comic creators having people wander past your work in a gallery can be a buzz and get some publicity, but those aren't the aim with the medium - it's about getting your comics read and having those people want to read the next issue. Readers don't equate a gallery show with readability, and most gallery displays discourage reading through their use of exhibition conventions - A friend tells the story of seeing a surrealist exhibition in a local gallery and they had what was clearly a comic in a exhibit case open to one page, an no copies on sale. Duh!

Q: Do you have a definition of comics?

Not really - a rough start might be text and sequential images presented in simultaneous groups on a flat medium, preferably paper, that form a narrative sequence. I'm sure people can pick holes in that.

Q: Why preferably paper?

I'm a bit of a Luddite on this issue, but paper is the best medium for comics I've seen so far. Internet/computer comics never seem very comfortable to read. With a computer there are two many variables that can get in between the creator and the reader - modem speeds, format compatibility, Internet access etc. Once you print a comic it's idiot proof. Distributing them is tricky, but the postal system is less likely to deliver a reformatted comic, or only one page every ten minutes.

Q: What's the New Zealand comic scene like?

A rose bush, with a few brilliant blooms, lots of budding potential and few thorns to keep you on your toes.

Q: So who are the blooms?

There are a few creators who look like they might have done more than just break even money wise or produced memorable works. Dylan Horrocks with Hicksville has achieved an international profile with Hicksville and his work on Batgirl; Martin Emond made a name for himself in the states and Japan with his work. Ant Sang outsells a lot of big name comics with his local Dharma Punks series and can't be far away from making a splash of the world stage. plus Eric Resiater...

Q: Budding Potential?

Every new creator who gives it a try.

Q: And the thorns\s?

Well... I guess maybe the Funtime crew, myself included, fall into that category - people aren't quite sure how to approach our work - it doesn't conform to their stereotypes of comics. I suspect some people question our dedication to the comics medium, which is kind of weird seeing we just realised issue #20...

Q: How would you describe the Funtime approach?

We all believe that telling stories in comic form is a valid thing to do, even If a few wouldn't admit that in public. We also share a suspicion about people who talk about issue of.... quality, no... craftsmanship. A lot of the judgements made about what good comics should look like seem based on styles - a certain style is valued over others, and a lot of times these judgements seem to forget about the quality of the ideas behind the narrative. At its extreme this approach values things that look polished but lack any originality. When I came on as editor I was interested to see that the previous editor had put aside work that some people has sent in because it wasn't flashy illustration. I thought that was a bad move; cause the other peoples work was just as interesting to read. Thus my open editorial policy - if someone spends the time to work on something and send it in then I'm likely to give it room in the anthology. Funtime attracts people who are happy with that sort of approach. There are some creators who I admire who aren't interested in having their work in our sort of anthology, but luckily there are enough who are to keep my "to use" folder fill.

Q: Are you saying those creators are elitist?

Not really, I'm not sure exaclty what they are. It could be they equate certain styistic conventions with professionalism. If they see work that doesn't match those conventions they don't value it. It's a shame, 'cause there are enough people who for some reason have decided that comics are crap and never read any without the need for people who say they like comics doing similar sorts of things.

Also, that sort of attitude can be very limiting, making people give up or never even try to create their own comics. When I talk to people about this they can all remember themselves and other kids at school who drew stuff but who seemed to give up for some reason. Why does encouraging creativity have to stop at a certain age? From my observations creativity is the only way for people to make money on their own terms, be it with music, film, science or industry - the people who are creative get the money, the people who don't try end up working for the man.

Q: how do you propose to get these people and the general public to be more open minded about comics?

I think the best way is by encouraging diversity. The more different kinds of stories we tell and different styles used the more likely comics are going to find a wider audience. The big comic companies occasionally make noises about getting female readers, but they seem to be unable to think out side the super-hero stereotypes. Women aren't going to read clichéd fight feast comics just cause they have a female character on the cover. Perhaps they'll read autobiographic comics, or political humour, or something else I don't know about. It is only through promoting diversity that we'll find out.

Q: does that mean you want to abolish the comics are for geeks image?

Yeah, but without going to the other extreme of comics are for cool or sophisticate readers - comic should be for people who want to be entertained, provoked, and amused. Geeks are good market - smart and usually with high discretionary income, and I'd class my self as one- but there are other markets. The current relegated status of comics in New Zealand, Australia and the US is because the comic medium became too closely associated with one particular genre: superheros. If people don't like or get superheros then they think they don't like comics. That's like saying I don't like Formula One racing so that's why I've never travelled using an internal combustion engine.

Q: But isn't the issue of quality still important.

Sure, but I don't want anyone else limiting what I can read based on their standards. When I review comics I'm looking to see if the creators have something original to say and if they can show that they have thought about how to tell the story visually. Copying old ideas and illustrating them in a perfect "learn to draw the acme way" style isn't being creative. Having some stick figures cope with serious relationship issues could be. The comics that get a bad review from me are the ones I can't see any originality in.

Q: Perhaps a NZ Comic month like is done for music could be an option.

I should give Mike Chunn a call, but then he didn’t have to get people to listen to music first; "Listening to sounds can be entertaining, it's not just nursery rhymes you know!" Efforts in the states with Free Comic Book Day don't seem to be having much impact, though the Manga explosion might just be our saviour.

Q: So which creators do you admire, and why?

Keith Giffen: He's a writer and illustrator who works mostly in the mainstream but he tells stories in interesting way - Reading his work I get a sense he comes up with a story and is thinking of oblique ways of telling it - breaking the dialogue up and using visuals that often only hint at the action. He's challenging me to think about what is going on.

Ariel Sharg: Autobiographical work that is heartbreaking in it's honesty. She's telling me things about her life that have real emotional punch.

Jason Lutes: beautiful pen-ship and with his books Berlin he is investigation an important period of modern history on a very human scale.

Seth: I just love his illustration style and he writes very thoughtful stories of quite ordinary lives.

John Weeks: He's a great ambassador for Australian comics and the medium in general, and his battle cry of "You could have done this" is very inspiring.

Q: No New Zealand Creators?

Umm.... next question.

Q: Can someone make a living from comics?

Not for a long period of time, though a few have gotten jobs that might have helped the bank balance for a while. Even in the states, a lot of creators that I think of as successful creators end up living on the streets with no health cover. The big money comes from the ideas that lead off into other mediums - Road to Perdition, From Hell, and Men in Black. If your idea gets picked up by other media then you can see a return, otherwise you have to stick with the day job while creating.

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