San Diego has a long-standing relationship with comic books. Indeed, the annual Comic-Con is the crown jewel of comic-book conventions, giving writers and artists a chance to meet fans, sign autographs and introduce new material. The movie studios use San Diego as a focus group-if a film's preview flops at Comic-Con, it goes back into the editing suite. And fans get the opportunity to dust off and squeeze into that spandex costume one more time. Heck, the con is so well known that last year it had its own guest spot on HBO's Entourage.
Of course, the high-profile comics and affiliated film projects give the impression that the art form is all about superheroes, a stereotype cemented by the success of films such as the Spider-Man, X-Men and Batman franchises, The Incredibles, Catwoman and Fantastic Four. They earn big paydays at the box office and, in many cases (Catwoman and Fantastic Four excepted), garner decent critical reviews.
"It's become increasingly about the movie business, especially in the last five to six years," says Michael Chabon. And he should know. Chabon holds a screenwriting credit on Spider-Man 2 but is better known for his 2000 novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. It tells the story of two cousins at the forefront of the golden age of comics, just before World War II, and their signature character, The Escapist. It earned Chabon a Pulitzer Prize and the respect of fanboys everywhere.
Chabon will appear in San Diego on Feb. 1, along with comic-book legend Art Spiegelman, to discuss the use of art, comics and culture in exploring Jewish identity. (Full disclosure: the event will be moderated by this reporter.)
If Chabon is beloved by the comic-book industry, Spiegelman, who earned the 1992 Pulitzer for Maus, the wrenching account of his father's Nazi concentration-camp experience, is a demigod. "Maus had a seismic impact on the industry, obviously," says comic writer and San Diego resident Brian K. Vaughan. "When it came out, it was instantly recognizable as the greatest comic book of all time, which it probably still is."
The influence of Maus, which cast cats as Nazis and mice as Jews, on the comic-book industry is almost impossible to overstate. Almost single-handedly, Spiegelman changed the perception of comics, making them a viable literary outlet. "I discovered [Maus] when I was in grade school," says Vaughan. "As the first comic I'd ever read without superheroes in it, it completely blew my mind. Books like Spider-Man helped me survive childhood, so I always knew that comics were capable of more than just cheap entertainment, but Maus showed me-showed all of us-exactly how much the medium could accomplish."
Neither Chabon nor Vaughan is dissing superheroes. Why would they? Vaughan has written stories for Batman and the X-Men titles, and the lead character in his Ex Machina-named by Entertainment Weekly as one 2005's Fiction Books of the Year-is a onetime superhero currently serving as mayor of post-9/11 New York. And in Chabon's case, his characters are able to express many of their hopes and dreams through the superheroes they create. But it's become clear in recent years that comics don't have to be about wearing tights and protecting cities.
"I think a lot of the interest and attention that comics have generated over the past few years has not been so completely in the realm of the costumed crime-fighting superhero," says Chabon. "Stuff like Spiegelman's work, [Dan] Clowes' work, Chris Ware's work. You're seeing profiles and articles about them in The New York Times and The New Yorker. In terms of critical attention, the tastemakers have been paying a lot of attention to stuff that isn't superheroes."
And more importantly, says Chabon, even when comics are about superheroes, they aren't any less artistic. "Even though I think I've been guilty of it, to a certain extent, I really want to not appear to be endorsing the view that comics are any less an art form when they're about Superman than when they're about two guys eating donuts in Oakland. The medium is the medium, and art is art."
Writing for comics allows Vaughn more freedom than he would have in other avenues.
"We might not make as much money as screenwriters-though, truthfully, some of us make more-but we don't have to deal with studios, be limited by special-effects budgets, have actors change our dialogue, etc.," he says. "I've been writing comics for almost 10 years, and as my friend Brian Bendis once noted, not a single word of our writing has ever been altered by someone else's hands. I can't think of another visual medium that offers a writer such direct, unfiltered connection with an audience."
"Writing comic scripts is also a great way to collaborate if you work with an artist you trust," says Chris Ryall, publisher and editor-in-chief of IDW Publishing, a La Jolla-based comic house. "You can write to the artist's strengths, and also talk through a story before you hit the actual script stage. It's a much more satisfying form of writing than prose or screenplays, when you're in sync with your artist."
As Vaughan says, "Comics are all about collaboration, and regardless of who gets the most attention, great books have always combined great writing and great art."
And everyone seems to agree that comics have reached a level of acceptance in adult popular culture. "For the most part, the only people I meet who think that comics are for kids are people over 50," says Vaughan. "I think everyone else has read or at least heard of comics by Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Marjane Satrapi, and on and on and on, and are hip enough to know that comics can be as "adult' as any other form of art. We're a medium like painting or literature, and anything is possible in a medium."
"The art and writing, and even printing, have all gotten more sophisticated and mature," Ryall says. "I think there are fewer mothers throwing their kids' collections in the trash when they go away to college, which has to count as progress."
So comics are artistically healthy. And for the top titles, their finances are in good shape, too. But the medium has to compete against any number of other forms of entertainment these days-video games, the Internet and movies all take a toll on the audience. It could be said, in fact, that some comics actually go up against their own films-there are no shortage of people who have never picked up a copy of X-Men, but who have seen both films.
"Since I was a kid, people have been saying the comics market is doomed," Ryall says. "It shrinks and grows, ebbs and flows, and faces the same challenges and setbacks as any publishing venture. Luckily, the stigma comics used to have in decades past is only shared by people who don't really appreciate the written word in any form. To most people, comics are at last an accepted form of literature."
That said, not even a Pulitzer can keep some titles afloat. Chabon's own comic, Michael Chabon Presents The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist, published by Dark Horse and on which Vaughan was a collaborator, was recently cancelled-though it will be modified and re-launched later this year.
"The audience may never be there, numerically," says Chabon. "There may never again be a mass audience for comics as there once was, 50, 60 years ago, when comic books that were successful were routinely selling in the millions. That may never happen again. I don't think you can make that a criterion for being taken seriously. Comics aren't the weak stepchild anymore. They don't have a problem getting taken any more seriously than any other art form. Now, maybe right now all art forms have a little bit of a problem being taken seriously, but I really do think that battle is over. I think it's been won, by comics."
Michael Chabon and Art Spiegelman will appear at the Mandeville Auditorium at UCSD on Feb. 1. Please visit www.artpower.ucsd.edu.