How to like comics
Published on: 8 Mehefin 2012 Author: Hannah Berry
'Comics: because you're worth it!'
The people of this country who love comics are many and varied, from any background and spanning any subdivision a census can think to throw at a person. Unfortunately we are still in the minority, and sometimes I lie awake at night thinking about how sad this is. If you should find yourself indifferent to or even repelled by the very idea of comics: I want you to know what you're missing out on.
You may be thinking 'no, Hannah, you want to help your industry, don't pretend you're being altruistic', in which case you'd be partially right. I've got no claim to altruism. I helped a blind old lady all the way home the other day because she was telling me an interesting story about Nicholas Van Hoogstraten and I wanted to hear the end of it. If it was a less interesting story I might have left her at the corner, but clearly she was pretty canny, this blind old lady. But that's not the point: the point is that a vested interest snuggled deep inside a good deed will still bring the old lady home safely.
So if you should find yourself indifferent to or even repelled by the very idea of comics, my intention is to persuade you to think differently about them. It won't be easy for a lot of people, but if I don't change your mind by the end of this residency I promise to reimburse every penny you paid for this blog. Can't say fairer than that.
I know what some of you are thinking. Comics. Here. On a literary blog. It fair chills the bones, doesn't it? What young people are reading, thinking is as good as a proper book, atrophying their brains, probably picking their nose as they do so and wiping it on the back cover, disgusting. If they could only pick up something more worthy-
There was actually a time when I had fairly similar feelings myself. Not quite as vehemently, but I gave the world of comics a cursory glance and didn't like what I saw. It was a dark period. I'd read the entire back catalogue of Calvin and Hobbes and Raymond Briggs and acquired all the Asterix and Tintin I was ever going to, and I wanted more, dammit, more. I wanted to get my teeth into some serious graphic novels, but I looked out and all I saw was this impenetrable sea of stories for small boys about groups of special people who have to break into the strongholds of people they don't like and mess up the place with fists and powers and stupid onomatopoeias. When I was younger I was a card-carrying tomboy: gender roles infuriated me (still do, incidentally) and I didn't have much truck with anything so overtly aimed at either boys or girls. So far as I could tell, comics were unappealingly a 'boy thing' ('girl comics' horrified me so much that I didn't even acknowledge their dainty little presence). I was still drawn to the format, and I suspected there were probably gems in there, but I had no idea where to begin.
Oh I dabbled as a young teen, of course; I think most people do at that age. You know someone who is into comics, someone who is maybe a bit older, a bit cooler, and sooner or later you might ask to try what they're reading... I tried a little Spawn, some X-Men once or twice. Frankly, I was underwhelmed (although I pretended I wasn't so as not to appear like a loser).
And then I had the first of two major epiphanies:
Firstly, just as oranges are not the only fruit, testosterone-fuelled man-boy fodder is not the only comic genus. (That's probably the subject of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit, isn't it? I've not read it. I'm pretty sure that's what it's about.) Scratch the surface and you'll see a vast, echoing trove of sequential delights, from first-hand reportage on the situation in Gaza to wordless, otherworldly tales of a newcomer to a strange land. In fact, there are comics and graphic novels on any damn subject or theme you may want to read about.
I immediately regret making that list. I limited it intentionally to graphic novels, simply because they are largely self-contained and therefore easier for newcomers to pick up and settle down with than comics and web-comics, but still there's so much to choose from...so many gems I've left off... so many colleagues I've just annoyed...so many heroes I've just missed the chance to ingratiate myself with... I feel a bit bad. I didn't really give it the hours of thought it probably needed. And I've just realised I've not included any Manga, so now I feel even worse. (I'd highly recommend the thoroughly researched and dramatically titled 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die if you're after a more comprehensive list. You can trust Paul Gravett - he'll see you right.)
Really though, the comics industry is just like any other entertainment industry in microcosm. If you emerged from a life-long cave-based hibernation and went out into the world, your first impression would be that the only films that exist are big Hollywood blockbusters, mostly by some guy called Michael Bay (you've been living in a cave, remember). The comic industry seems to consist mostly of superhero comics because most of the money is with big US publishers like Marvel and DC who have a lot of superhero lines, and because the industry is so small in this country that most people are only ever exposed to the most populist tip of the iceburg. In comparison, even the biggest graphic novel publishers in the UK make and spend peanuts. Now, I'm not getting all elitist on you, I'm not saying that the mainstream doesn't produce some great stuff, but it happens that a large percentage of these mainstream US comics/graphic novels are of a certain type, and this certain type is not exactly my own personal cup of tea. Which brings me to my second epiphany:
You don't have to like everything. This one came to me later. Much later, in fact. In fact, relatively recently. I'm so used to defending the medium and its right to exist that I forgot that I don't like all of it. It comes as quite a relief, I can tell you, to finally say these things out loud and throw diplomacy to the wind -
'The art in American mainstream comics is often very nicely polished, but the stories don't usually appeal to me.'
'All those "lonely man masturbates alone in bedsit" indie comics, while groundbreaking and anarchic decades ago, are a getting a bit boring to my mind.'
'I am GENUINELY DISAPPOINTED when I READ a COMIC and find the DIALOGUE is ACCENTED throughout, because PRESUMABLY they think I'm an IDIOT.'
I lied. I'll never completely let go of my diplomacy: some of my friends work in the US mainstream and they might read this one day. I have many other preferences and secret hatreds though, which I'll tell you about some day over a few bottles of wine. Diplomacy is no match for wine.
So I will say this now to anyone who doesn't read comics and has so far been put off by what they've seen before now: you don't have to like it all. You're allowed to have preferences. If you pick up a copy of holocaust survivor's tale Maus, the man at Waterstone's isn't going to make you take away a copy of Arkham Asylum with it, and vice-versa. (Though I'd recommend both.) With this burden removed, I hope that the world of comics and graphic novels looks a bit less intimidating to anyone who has never picked one up before.
So really, to respond to the title, it's very difficult to not like comics. To say 'I don't like comics' would be akin to saying 'I don't like books' or 'I don't like films' or 'I don't like music': it's a medium, not a genre, with so much variety therein that there is genuinely something for everyone. The only real reason to not like comics or regular books or films or music would be if you were confounded by the mechanics and didn't understand how to get to that smooth caramel centre of entertainment within.
And that's something I'll cover in a not-too-distant future blog entry.
In other news, my new book has just hit the shelves! You'll notice I didn't include Adamtine at all in this entry, but that's because it's not the right place to be blowing my own trumpet: this blog wouldn't be the fair and balanced argument I want it to be and it would be even less altruistic. So I decided not to mention Adamtine, even if it is currently available from all good retailers.
Check out Hannah's graphic novel
More from Hannah's time as Writer in Residence.