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Tuesday, May 06, 2014 

The Economist's exaggerations

The Economist wrote about a comics exhibition in Britain called "Comics Unmasked", and says at least a few things that are sugarcoated, or just dishonest. For example:
The names behind such titles as "Watchmen", "V for Vendetta", "Superman", "Tank Girl", and "Batman: Arkham Asylum" are the stuff of comic book legend: Dave McKean, Dave Gibbons, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Hewlett. All are represented here, through original artwork and special loans. Starting in the 1970s, this "British invasion" of America's Marvel and D.C. Comics brought a particular edginess to the bland all-American hero. The exhibition traces a line between the darker, more emotional storytelling the Brits injected into contemporary comics and graphic novels, and a centuries-long British tradition of rude satire and thumbing noses.
That invasion turned out to be hurtful in the long run. Sure, early contributors like Chris Claremont and John Byrne (the latter who was born in Britain but spent some time in Canada), delivered pretty well as some of the first of their kind. But later efforts by Morrison, Warren Ellis and Mark Millar turned out to be very unhealthy influences. And just why are they calling the all-American heroes "bland"? What, the Golden and Silver Ages didn't have any fun experience? And didn't American-born writers and artists like Frank Miller bring any edginess to their writing? The UK may be big on satire and black comedy, but people like the Economist's writers sure don't have much respect for what talent their USA counterparts can deliver.
Comics are an ancient form of storytelling, says Dave Gibbons of "Watchmen" fame. Think of the Bayeux tapestry or cave paintings "that essentially warn: 'Watch out for the buffalo!'" The show's oldest exhibit is a 15th-century pauper's Bible in which the Virgin Mary's words appear in a speech balloon; its most recent is "Dotter of Her Father's Eyes," which became the first graphic novel to win the Costa Book Award in 2012. But the tradition of "the anti-hero cocking a snook at the authorities" really started in Victorian Britain with the creation of the character Punch. The trouble-maker's portrait welcomes visitors alongside mannequins in "V-for-Vendetta" masks, which themselves have migrated from a dystopian vision of Margaret Thatcher's Britain to become the face of the international anti-capitalist Occupy movement.

One joy of this exhibition is that no knowledge of comics is required to realise what a flexible, democratic medium it is. In sections devoted to mayhem, self-expression, politics, sex, superheroes and altered states, comics emerge as a cheap and powerful means of expressing personal freedom and social protest. On the political side, these range from the efforts of the Suffragettes, who cranked out comic posters demanding the right to vote, to angry exposés of exploitative producers of thalidomide and AIDS drugs. In the arena of personal expression, rebellion against the status quo expressed itself from the late 1960s onwards in a counter-cultural explosion of violent imagery and graphic sexual content.
Some democratic medium it is! If what they said was true, the people in charge wouldn't have a problem with focusing on issues like combatting Islamofascism, anti-Americanism and communism, nor would they be against promoting better religions and ideals, or even featuring challenging historical subjects. They also wouldn't be so hell-bent on tearing down upon marriages and optimism. And it's very ironic that a medium they call democratic is being used to promote the Guy Fawkes masks for anti-capitalist propaganda.

Maybe once comics were flexible, but today, when you have Joe Quesada, Dan DiDio, Axel Alonso and Bob Harras running the show, it's clear mainstream are not, nor are most of the smaller publishers. And that's why the Economist is exaggerating.

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  • From Jerusalem, Israel
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