Smash! Boom! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids any more. Does this phrase look familiar? It should. It, or some variant thereof, appears on a semi-annual basis in media all around the world every time an innocent journalist scratches the surface of comic book fandom and discovers that most fans are adults.
This, thinks the journalist, is odd, because they don't read comics and don't know anyone who does. So something like this headline is trotted out and, somewhere, a comic-reader's head explodes. It's a leading cause of "sudden brain failure" in adults aged 18-35. If journalists knew how many people they were crippling, perhaps they'd do it less. I wish they would. But there's no getting away from the fact much mass media continues to treat an interest in comics as arrested development.
Of course, comics haven't been "just for kids" since the 1950s, if in fact they ever were. It's not the case any more than novels are just for hysterical women – a view that did prevail for a surprisingly long time just as the things were taking off in Regency-era England. The argument I'm making isn't that comics are somehow suddenly becoming mainstream, it's that they already are, and have been pretty much forever. It's just for some reason, no-one quite seems to realise it.
Take the Armageddon Expo, which by the time you read this, will have been and gone at the Claudelands Event Centre in Hamilton. Armageddon bills itself as an exposition of pop culture. A glance at the programme confirms this: it's a massive convergence of various entertainment niches. There's wrestling, which I really haven't the slightest idea about; "Twilight", a fandom which I find even more baffling (and I must admit to some intrigue as to what what would happen if you pitched the Twilight people against the wrestling people) various anime and manga interests (Japanese animation and comics, respectively); trading cards; video games; and even good old-fashioned comics.
Now, I still know people who dismiss this kind of gathering as nothing but a niche nerd-fest, but the numbers say different. Twilight, love it or hate it, is a multi-billion dollar franchise. Pro wrestling is huge, with entire TV channels devoted to this sport of, uh, "inventive" narratives and very real injuries. Anime and manga drive the popular culture in Japan to a degree unimaginable here, although we've certainly seen plenty of it wash up on Kiwi shores – the phenomenon of Dragonball Z and the art-animation of Hayao Miyazaki spring immediately to mind. Video games are bigger than Hollywood.
As for comics – the big two, DC and Marvel, which are what people often mean when they refer to a comic book industry, are in a creative limbo. Sales of traditional "floppy" comics, usually carrying superhero fare, are stagnating as dubious creative decisions take hold. Like DC opting to reboot its entire fake universe, only with added stupidity. But that's just superhero comics. Superheroes themselves have become the fuel for a major new Hollywood boom. The blockbusters of today star Marvel and DC heroes formerly considered unbankable at the box-office.
All these things I've been describing are indisputably mainstream, not only in terms of dollars spent, but in the war for the hearts and minds of today's entertainment aficionados. But what is often missed by a public and press finally getting to grips with an entertainment culture firmly planted in the superhero comic tradition, is a quiet revolution with a total re-evaluation of what comics are and can be.
This, too, has been going on for a rather long time. It's cliched, but only because it's true: the internet has unleashed an explosion in creative energy. Influences aggregate and cross-pollinate at a rate never before possible, and the people who grew up steeped in this eclectic cultural miasma are producing wonderful work in the comic book medium.
A good example is a great comic book called Scott Pilgrim, which can possibly best be explained as "Canadian slacker-lit as a video game. With kung fu". It slowly grew from a niche book into a powerhouse series that now lives on top of the New York Times best seller list for comics. Smash, boom, pow. Comics aren't just for kids, if they ever were. They're for everyone, whether you realise it or not.
Joshua Drummond is a Hamilton freelance writer who can be found on page 209 of Scott Pilgrim in the top right-hand corner.
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