The comic book’s quest for maturity

PAMELA YOUNG September 28 1987

The comic book’s quest for maturity

PAMELA YOUNG September 28 1987

The comic book’s quest for maturity


The sun never shines in Radiant City. Searchlights slice through perpetual midnight, casting razor-sharp shadows on ominous Art Deco skyscrapers. The inhabitants—victims of a botched experiment in mood-altering architecture—live a waking nightmare of sleep disorders and drug addictions. Their fate rests with Mister X, a brilliant, cadaverous enigma in dark glasses. Architect, pharmaceutical wizard and junkie with a social conscience, only he can reverse the city’s mindbending decay. But will he? To find out,

many Canadians have become devoted readers of Mister X, one of a growing number of comic books aimed over the heads of adolescents. People who once spent childhood allowances on comics are rediscovering the splashy, kinetic joys of the medium—and they have returned to the comic racks armed with wallets and credit cards.

Comics aimed at adult readers have been around for decades: in the late 1960s taboo-bashing underground books, such as Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural, waved the banners of sex, drugs and social change. Now, adult comics have moved from counterculture insolence to more diversified territory. The new graphic literature of the video age ranges from the cerebral gamesmanship of British author Alan Moore ( Watchmen), to the hip, rapid-fire raunchiness of U.S. writer/illustrator Howard Chaykin (American Flagg!).

A recent survey at Canada’s largest

comic book shop, the Silver Snail in Toronto, revealed that males over the age of 18 generated 80 per cent of the store’s sales. They are readers who can afford to pay for expensive formats: while children’s Superman comics sell for $1 a copy, most adult material sells for between $2 and $25. And analysts expect that the adult market—estimated at $60 million annually in North America—will continue expanding. Said industry consultant and former Silver Snail manager Mark Askwith: “Three years ago

we didn’t have a lot of material to show adults. Now the market is poised for a breakthrough.”

Pop artists began borrowing the comic strip’s flat colors, dialogue balloons and zap-and-pow graphics four decades ago. But only now is the comic book itself gaining the prestige in North American art circles it already enjoys in Japan and parts of Europe. Peter Dako, editor/publisher of Casual Casual, a Toronto magazine for experimental graphic work, has exhibited a show of international comic art in Toronto, Montreal and Paris galleries, and plans to take it to Tokyo later this year. Avant-garde cartoonist-artists show their experimental and often disturbing works in such comic art magazines as New York’s Raw. Raw's publisher, Art Spiegelman, is also the author/illustrator of Maus, a serial novel in comic book form based on Spiegelman’s father’s life. In it, mice and cats portray Jews and Nazis respec-

tively, but it is impossible to mistake the harrowing Maus for a children’s tale about talking animals.

In most cases, however, the division between adult material and children’s fare is less distinct. Superhero myths— by far the most popular category with the traditional comic book audience of 10-to-15-year-olds—also figure prominently in comic books for older readers. Last year one of the most popular adultoriented stories was Batman: The Dark Knight, Frank Miller’s portrait of Batman as a bone-weary, cynical 55-year-

old. DC Comics Inc. will not release sales figures, but the four-part series is still selling out in comic book stores more than a year after its publication.

More recently DC published Watchmen, one of the most complex stories ever attempted in comic book form. In it, writer Moore places a stable of retired superheroes in the context of a radically rewritten 1980s history: the United States has won the Vietnam war and Richard Nixon is still in the White House. An apparent plot to kill off people who were once costumed crime fighters causes Moore’s heroes to don their masks once more. Meanwhile, global unrest is rapidly accelerating toward full-scale nuclear war. Fans of the series, which was published last week in book form, say that it has the absorbing appeal of a good novel or film. Said Bruce Peck, 36, a Toronto computer analyst and a comic book collector for more than 20 years:

“It’s complex, but it’s very rewarding. The characters are so well developed that you actually feel personally involved with them.”

Such highbrow superheroes inhabit a world whose pace has quickened considerably. One of the most frenetic and popular of the adult books is Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, set in a future universe that resembles a vast video arcade. Published in the graphic novel format—an oversized paperback with glossy color pages—it charts adventurer Reuben Flagg’s close encounters with fists, bullets and curvaceous women with

such names as Medea Blitz.

While the two industry giants, Marvel Comics Entertainment and DC Comics Inc., control roughly 70 per cent of North America’s $200-million comic book market, much of the adultoriented material is produced by small, independent publishers. Working more often in black and white than in expensive full color, the independents specialize in the idiosyncratic and the bizarre. In an industry dominated by

larger-than-life characters, one of the most offbeat publishers is Cleveland’s Harvey Pekar, who produces the defiantly low-key American Splendor. Written by Pekar and illustrated by various artists, Splendor is drawn from Pekar’s own supremely ordinary existence. Typical episodes feature Pekar searching for his lost spectacles or fumbling to articulate his thoughts on racial prejudice.

Reid Fleming, on the other hand, is known as “The World’s Toughest Milkman.” Written, drawn and published by David Boswell of Vancouver, Reid Fleming is about a bottle-nosed milktruck driver with a bad attitude and a squint. Fleming spends his days blackmailing his customers and harassing his dim-witted boss.

He is only one of the prickly antiheroes of Canadian independent comics who have built a strong following throughout North America. Another is Cerebus, a wisecracking aardvark adrift in a cosmos that has become a bureaucratic black hole. Published by Aardvark-Vanaheim Inc. of Kitchener, Ont., Cerebus is written by Dave Sim and illustrated by Sim in collaboration with an artist named only Gerhard. A monthly, it has a print run of 32,000 copies—an unusually high figure for an independent comic. There are even spin-off T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Cerebus: He doesn’t love you. He just wants your money.”

Unlike the decadeold operation behind Cerebus, most independent comic book publishers have set up shop only within the past few years. William Marks, publisher of Toronto’s Vortex Comics Inc., observed: “When we started up five years ago we were one of 20 comics publishers in North America. Now we’re one of 300.” Vortex’s flagship publication, Mister X, created by Toronto artist Dean Motter, has been published in book form in Canada and France, and the major publishing firm Warner Books will release a U.S. paperback edition later this year.

Much of the adult-oriented material by Canadians is published in the United States. Renegade Press of Long Beach, Calif., publishes some, including The Silent Invasion, a thriller scripted by D. Larry Hancock and illustrated by Michael Cherkas, both of Toronto. Their hero, Matt Sinkage, is a 1950s reporter who becomes a hunted man after stumbling onto a story about flying saucers and Communist spies. Hancock’s smart, slangy dialogue (“wave a flag in front of that dame’s face and she’ll do anything for her country”) and Cherkas’s blocky blackand-white artwork have the melodramatic charge of theme music from Perry Mason. The Silent Invasion, which made industry magazine Amazing Heroes’ list of the 10 best comics of 1986, is rich in ambiguity. Said Cherkas: “A lot of what’s going on is happening only in Matt’s mind. Readers have to figure out if he is crazy or the only sane person in the story.”

Despite recent advances, comic books for adults remain a marginal market still awaiting general acceptance in North America. Said former Silver Snail manager Askwith: “It angers me that there’s still a stigma attached. The comic book is a reputable art form and literature form.” According to Askwith and other converts, the only obstacle still facing the adult-oriented comic book producers is learning how to leap tall preconceptions in a single bound.