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Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature

The debate about the future of comics these days usually leans toward figuring out how the medium can survive in an increasingly electronic world. Individual artists have been producing “webcomics” for a few years now, which seems to be picking up a little bit of steam. Most of the comic sites I read (check my smooshed blogroll) fail to cover webcomics in any significant fashion, but the subject pokes its head up from time to time.

I’ve tried checking out the webcomics scene, but I find that most (all?) of them are in the comic strip format, which is a far different creature than comic books and not quite what I’m looking for. Plus, I find the notion of having to click through to each page to ruin the rhythm one gets from reading comic books. A comic book is an object a reader can read at one’s own pace, but a webcomic’s pace is determined by how fast one’s machine and Internet connection is. And clicking through to a page that won’t load is just plain irritating.

Superhero comic fans seem to be waiting patiently for the big two, Marvel and DC, to start offering downloadable comics. It’s been reported that Marvel is trying to take the lead in this possibly emerging field, but the real truth of the matter is that reading comics on a computer screen kind of sucks between the illumination and formatting issues, e.g. a rectangular (vertical-wise) comic page has no business being on a squre or rectangular (horizontal-wise) computer monitor.

So, when Sony debuted its Reader at the Consumer Electronics Show in January at Las Vegas, it looked like the future of comics may be held in this little device. Well, maybe not in this product itself, but in the technology. This is a product I am very interested in and not just for comics. Right now I’m reading John Irving’s new Until I Find You. I’m only a few pages in — and it’s off to a great start — and I would much rather carry around a little portable device than have to lug an 800+ page hardback in my shoulder bag for a week or more. I mean, I love owning and having books. I love their feel and their smell. But, man, having a little handheld reader would be so much better.

The product isn’t available yet, but early reviews seem to indicate that this device won’t be comics’ saving grace, particularly since it all operates on Sony proprietary software. However, the concept of it may be and future open source versions of the product may be what revolutionizes the comic and book trades.

However, author Charles Hatfield is looking to the future a bit differently with his scholarly Alternative Comics through which he hopes to legitimize comics’ past as a valid form of literary study. He states several times that his book is not the end-all and be-all of all independent comics study, but will hopefully successfully launch a wave of literary criticism in comics the way books without pictures have been studied. Hatfield does lay out a very convincing argument — ok, I may be biased, but I still think he hits all the right notes — so he may get his wish.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a purely academic book, so I thought Alternative Comics started out a little dry as Hatfield lays out the introduction to his argument. But things start kicking into high gear when he presents a quick overview of the early days of comics’ underground, particularly Robert Crumb‘s groundbreaking Zap Comics. Hatfield’s most intriguing theory puts Zap on the same level of pop art as Andy Warhol‘s Campbell soup cans — two cultural artifacts ironically presented as high art.

However, Hatfield’s critical eye focuses mostly on the work of Gilbert Hernandez (Love & Rockets) and the field of autobiographical comics. Personally I haven’t read much by Hernandez, so I was both intrigued and frustrated by the in-depth critical analysis of his “Palomar” stories, which Hatfield goes to great depth to show Hernandez’s life work is as complex and rich as the work of any great novelist. Alternative Comics includes a lot of great comic art samples, so we can see exactly what Hatfield is referring to. But, as I said, I was a bit frustrated with this chapter though only because it made me want to get Hernandez’s epic Palomar collection published by Fantagraphics Books.

As for autobiographical comics, as I noted in my review of Epileptic, this is the genre that seems to be most “acceptable” to the general non-comic reading audience. I was really pleased to see such care taken to the analysis of the work of one of my personal heroes, Harvey Pekar. Hatfield begins with Pekar to cover the problematic nature of comic book autobiography: Is Pekar an insightful social critic? Or just a cranky narcissist? I, of course, agree with the former, as does Hatfield.

I think most people who are comics fans will already agree with Hatfield that a real “graphic novel” can be as rich and complex as a novel without images, so his book is actually an introductory tome for non-believers. But for us fans, the author still presents much food for thought in critical comic analysis, some of which I hope will inspire my future reviews here on the Underground Film Journal.

Buy Alternative Comics at Amazon.com!