Why does it still have to be said that comics are a medium not a genre?

In today’s Guardian, an article was published entitled ‘Frank Miller and the rise of cryptofascist Hollywood‘. It was written by Rick Moody, whom I presume to be the American novelist and short story writer (the Graun doesn’t provide any details in the byline).  In the article Moody discusses the current output of mainstream Hollywood cinema using Miller’s comics, and the films which have followed them, as his focal point – decrying them as ‘cryptofascistic’. Frank Miller is something of a talking point these days, mainly stemming from his blog tirade against the Occupy movement, which hardly needs to be rehashed. Basically, he doesn’t like it. He calls the individuals within the movement “louts, thieves, and rapists”, and deems them traitorous “pond scum” in the face of America’s “war against a ruthless enemy”, that is, the forces of militant Islam.  (The ones that, despite the death of their most prominent figurehead, countless drone strikes and often Benny Hill levels of incompetence, are still out to get you, your grannie and the contents of your biscuit barrel.) I was frustrated by Moody’s essay. He made sweeping generalisations. He dressed up mundane points in needless, arch academia-speak. He didn’t actually explore the subject matter he was discussing – Miller’s comics, or Hollywood cinema – in any great depth; he made his points in the way that a stone creates ripples on the water it skims across.

Comics: just for kids

The broader point of Moody’s article is that the current social system found in America – and echoed to a greater or lesser extent throughout the West – requires a propaganda system in order to be maintained. This propaganda arm, Moody claims, is dominated by Hollywood; and Hollywood, Moody writes, is cryptofascist (that is, it only deviates from fascism insofar as it’s afraid of causing offence):
Miller’s hard-right, pro-military point of view is not only accounted for in his own work, but in the larger project of mainstream Hollywood cinema. American movies, in the main, often agree with Frank Miller, that endless war against a ruthless enemy is good, and military service is good, that killing makes you a man, that capitalism must prevail, that if you would just get a job (preferably a corporate job, for all honest work is corporate) you would quit complaining.
On the whole I have little quibble with this, though I think it’s glibness does little service to the point Moody’s trying to make.  There’s no conspiracy to it: it’s only natural that mainstream Hollywood cinema, in being a product of corporations, will naturally espouse a worldview that is sympathetic to corporate interests – or at the very least not antithetical to them. What Moody doesn’t do is claim that cinema as a whole is similarly fascist-in-denial, only that (monetarily colossal) subset of it deriving from the Hollywood mainstream. By contrast, he has an apparent inability to draw a similar differentiation between comics as a medium and mainstream American comics. I guess they could be called, by analogy, ‘Hollywood comics’ (the same companies make em):
[300 is] a barely watchable film, but what from Hollywood these days is not similarly unwatchable, when so many high-profile releases are based on a medium, the comic book, made expressly to engage the attentions of pre- and just post-pubescent boys. At least comic books themselves are so politically dim-witted, so pie-in-the-sky idealistic as to be hard to take seriously.
To be unable to differentiate between a medium – a method of transmitting information, but in this case specifically a story – and a genre – a category or type of story – is woefully ignorant. Like any other medium, a comic can be any genre its author desires: autobiography, memoir, comedy, tragedy, historical, adventure, thriller, science fiction, romance, westerns, fantasy… That any writer (assuming I’ve identified Moody correctly) can be so misguided about so fundamental a point is pretty damn staggering. Has Moody, for example, heard of Maus, Persepolis, One Bad Rat, EpilepticFrom Hell, The Arrival, Britten & Brülightly, Love and Rockets, Mail Order Bride…? Yet Moody’s supposition goes further, revealing even an ignorance about the medium’s origins. Comics were not made ‘expressly’ to appeal to ‘pre- and post-pubescent boys’ any more than novels were ‘made’ expressly to appeal to middle-aged accountants suffering from concussion and a bad case of wind. As I see it, new media arise from the interactions of three components:
  • the capabilities of technology,
  • the desires of creators, and
  • the existence, or otherwise, of an audience.
To suggest that a medium is created for a specific audience smacks of conspiracy nuttery, and implies to me that Moody has allowed Hollywood committee-writing to infect his own thinking to too great an extent. It annoys me when the word ‘comic’ is used synonymously with ‘light’ or ‘immature’; it’s like having sand in my brain. It shouldn’t need saying: comics are no more or less capable of intensity of feeling or elevation of thought than any other form of expression. What’s more it’s a highly democratic medium, requiring unlike film only paper, stuff to make marks on paper and a brain to be created (as with so much else, a computer is a useful but still optional extra). Its freedom from the need for a massive budget means that it is relatively free from the tentacles of corporate influence (in the form of product placement, celebrity sheen and so forth). Anyone can make a comic, should they wish to. Not everyone will make a good one, but all those who can, can; the same couldn’t ever be said of a film. Moody, comics are a hope against the top-down culture promulgated by Hollywood. They deserve not only your respect – no more or less than any other medium – but – insofar as they are offer a potential counter to mainstream propaganda, from the bottom up – your support. It’s easy. All you have to do is read a few.

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