Ignore the Industry Behind the Curtain
We all know the industry is in trouble, that sales are down, that the fanbase is shrinking... no wait, come back, this isn't going to be one of those doom and gloom "comics will be dead in two years" columns. I'm going to talk about the upside.
And the upside is this: We are so far beneath America's radar that comics are more free to experiment, creatively, than any other medium. Because the readership is down, because people are more concerned with what their kids are watching on TV and playing on their computers and reading on their Internet, sometimes incredibly controversial things can be snuck past the narrow-minded idiots to those of us who are intelligent enough to understand it rather than fear it.
Take a look at all the furor surrounding Dogma. The minute word got out that it was a film involving religion, all kinds of protests and threats of violence (Love Thy Neighbor... unless he makes a film you don't like, than you can beat him senseless or kill him if you want) were heard, despite the fact that the movie was very much a positive film in regards to the actual religion. It was just unkind in regards to the human organizations that have popped up around the religion.
Compare that to Preacher, which portrays God as a lazy bastard who walked out on his own creation and then went on to use violence, threats and torture against the man who came to seek him out and ask why. There is no furor over Preacher. No newspaper articles decrying it or demanding that audiences not buy it, or saying that Garth Ennis is the Anti-Christ. Because the people who would oppose it haven't noticed it. And even if they have, they wrote it off as something that isn't reaching that many people, not as much a concern as those dangerous TV shows like God, The Devil and Bob. (Let me tell you, the only danger there is wasting a half-hour of your life watching something that's really not funny).
Granted, the freedom at comics companies is often curtailed by corporate policies that also dictate how the company behaves in television, film and other media. But that doesn't mean that independent creators don't have the freedom to do whatever they want. Take a look at Lowest Comic Denominator by Kieron Dwyer and tell me we'd ever see something that outrageous on television or in movies.
It's terrible that comics sales are in such a sad state, that new comics die without a chance to find an audience, and that older comics struggle to hold onto their readers. It drives me crazy that half the books I love right now probably won't be around in a year. It bugs me that several writers and artists who I think are incredibly talented (and so do editors at the big companies) can't get enough work because the market is so tight. But there is an advantage that comes from all this, and gaining more mainstream acceptance and more readers would cost us that.
I say we enjoy it while we can, and while we're complaining about how comics aren't selling and prices are going up, remember that there is an upside. Books like Preacher and Transmetropolitan probably wouldn't have happened if the companies had a healthy bottom line supported by their super-hero sales. There's no need to experiment when things are going well, and there's less interest in anything new when the old favorites are still working.
The problem is, we're not taking full advantage of this. Those in the comics business are so scared of a repetition of the situation that led to the Comics Code (despite the fact that today, the thing is a paper tiger, lacking any kind of real power) that they self-censor themselves, and the result is that creators who want to push the envelope while they can, which could lead to mainstream acceptance, would rather work in film or TV, where they'll have the same creative headaches, but at least they'll be making more money.
We, the comics readers, are often just as guilty as the publishers. While they may self-censor their output, worrying about public outcry, we often don't give this new experimental stuff a chance, instead sticking with our comfortable favorites. Marvel and DC offer up westerns, espionage-tinged super-heroes, fantasy and other genres, but watch as the sales on those are low while sales on the same-old super-hero shtick continues to sell. Putting out a book without super-heroes is a guaranteed way to cut your sales, and that's because we the readers don't take as many chances as we should. And the result is that instead of taking advantage of the freedom to do just about anything, the publishers do what they know we'll buy.
It's undeniable that for comics to survive, the industry eventually has to become more in the public eye than "Oh, my kids used to buy those" or even "Bam! Pow! These aren't your parents's comics!" But at the same time, when and if we do get that mainstream acceptance, we will be losing something valuable, and that's unparalleled creative freedom.
Although this contradicts something I said earlier when I talked about showing your love for comics in public, maybe sometimes its good that people look at you and shake their head or that you read your comics at home where nobody else can see you. And please, if someone comes up to you wearing a priest's outfit and asks about the Preacher trade you're reading, don't hold up the book and say, "See? This is where the guy f*cks a chicken!" I mean, we may be beneath their radar, but we're not invincible.
Randy W. Lander pitched his idea, The Adventures of the Pope and Pippi Longstocking, in these days of freedom and open-mindedness, but has yet to hear back from anyone.