Degrees of Alienation

Degrees of Alienation

Comics--to the normal, everyday human who has not yet spilled blood at the altar of ~sequentials~ and committed to this forsaken hobby--exists as a tenuously connected series of major and minor cultural touchstones: Multi-billion dollar movie franchises; collectible toys; swaths of the nostalgia industry; Saturday morning cartoons--

Comic shops.

Enter the New York Times' recent profile of Brooklyn comic shop Desert Island and, perhaps more accurately, of its owner, Mr. Gabriel Fowler. The article in question was done as part of New York Times regional coverage. Specifically, it was under the banner of the "Neighborhood Joint" series, described as "a weekly column about New York establishments that transcend being merely commercial."

No argument here, since Mr. Fowler recently put on an event which charged for tickets, was staffed by over a dozen artists for hours at a time, and for which none of them got paid. So no, not "merely commercial":

Exploitative.

Could it be that major outlets devote more time to romanticizing the middle-men of this corner of the culture than they do on the creators?

In an article where the artifact in question is the shop itself, I obviously do not expect the subject of inquiry to be the other business dealings of its owner, per se. I should point out, however, that this fact did not stop the author from going out of his way to favorably mention Comic Arts Brooklyn, which "proselytizes offbeat creativity." For unknowing readers outside of the comics world, this perhaps sheds a favorable light on a flea market held in an art college gym.

When the major cultural touchstones only loosely exist for the average person as bundles of romanticisms ("look at this comic shop with the old bakery sign above it!"), it becomes impossible to penetrate the vagaries and get at the heart of the matter. Any comic shop painted in this rustic, romantic light ("Wage Theft Comic Shop" does not have the same ring to it) is situated as an altruistic member of an otherwise barely accessible artistic community. The zines it houses are offbeat cultural gold that you wouldn't be able to acquire elsewhere.

But this, of course, is not worth interrogation on the behalf of the New York Times. Why is it that it's so hard and so rare to come across independent, original work just on a rack or shelf in a normal bookstore or direct market comic shop? Could it be that major outlets devote more time to romanticizing the middle-men of this corner of the culture than they do on the creators? Could it be that this makes creators' lives harder by empowering the brand of institutions while obscuring creators' own brands, putting their collective means further at the mercy of those same institutions?

While, again, I am not naive enough to think this is the place where the New York Times (of all outlets) would ever engage with such a thing, what I'm suggesting is that in only engaging with comics culture in this way they are both amplifying and extending the problem. By building layers of empty myths and empty altruisms on top of an economically and politically broken cartooning culture, the New York Times is performing the intellectual equivalent of "Bam! Biff! Pow! Comics aren't for kids anymore!" Fowler and his shop are a big sexy hipster locus for the culture while half the artists with books on consignment have open gofundme's for their healthcare bills.

These articles exist within a vacuum of coverage of the conditions of the artists who actually drive the business.

Neither the New York Times, nor most dedicated comic sites, are going to interrogate that. The creators and their quality of life are just sediment, settling out of view in the midst of an ongoing storm which will continue to churn new talent. Both the small, edgy shops and the large, cultural goliaths will exist and have plenty of fuel for the box office and for the papers, long after any given cohort of artists has burned out without a peep from the outlets giving free airtime to the people flipping their hard work.

Reactions to these kinds of criticisms typically range from shrug to knee-jerk. The existence of a shop selling people's work is probably better than them having no platform to sell their work. The existence of an article at a major newspaper pointing people to this same place where more work might get purchased is probably a good thing as well.

The issue is that these things are not happening in a bubble. Comics problems are ingrained and interwoven--coming from both within and without--and require a holistic perspective. This shop does not exist independent of the tables artists rent or the free work they provide at its festivals. Meanwhile, these articles exist within a vacuum of coverage of the conditions of the artists who actually drive the business, and thus explicitly reinforce the status quo.

If comics culture--in the public discourse, or in-and-of-itself--is going to make any progress with respect to giving artists credit for their cultural contributions, we must start treating creators--both individually and collectively--as the consistent and central generators of creative value in the world of comics. Pieces like this New York Times article only alienate cartoonists from that fact, joining in with a chorus of comic news sites that instead make it seem like comic institutions and the people who run them are where all the public creative value first originates.

Austin Lanari

About Austin Lanari

Hacker, writer, critic; Democratize Everything

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