Just over sixty years ago, the city leaders of Binghamton, New York initiated a house-to-house search for what had been deemed by preeminent physicians a dire threat to its young people. It wasn’t reefer. It wasn’t BB guns. It was comic books.
A few months earlier, in the Colliers magazine article “Horror in the Nursery” in which he made public the findings of his recently concluded study, Dr. Fredric “Doom” Wertham declared, “We found that comic book reading was a distinct influencing factor in the case of every single delinquent or disturbed child we studied.” It was statements like this that had prompted the door-to-door hunt for comic books in Binghamton, which ended with a public burning of those
seized. Despite the fact that the majority of the pubic found such authoritarian measures alarming and uncalled-for, especially in light of the lessons of World War II, Dr. Wertham would go on to testify before a 1954 U.S. Senate Subcommittee Hearing on Juvenile Delinquency that, “I think Hitler was a beginner compared to the comic book industry.”
Fortunately, saner points of view prevailed, and comic books and their graphic novel cousins have gone on to great critical, commercial, and cultural success. Art Spiegelman’s Maus became the first comic book nominated by The National Book Critics Circle in 1986 (it would receive a special Pulitzer Prize in 1992). Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) was the only comic book included on Time’s list of “the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.” And countless comic books and graphic novels have been turned into successful television shows and films, including many that do not feature protagonists with superpowers, such as the motion pictures Road to Perdition, A History of Violence, and American Splendor.
Yet comics have turned out to be even more than cool, cathartic, and in some cases, profitable. The format is now seen as an invaluable tool in helping communicators, entertainers, and educators of all stripes. In addition to this relatively recent embrace of comics as a means to some other end (i.e. a comic book serving as the storyboard/script for a movie director), old-fashioned ink and paper comics remain powerful pieces of art and expression in their own right.
Visiting professor Ryan Claytor has brought his love for and lessons from the world of comic books to the UM-Flint campus for the past two years with his Art 301 class, “Advanced Comics Studio.” Claytor said he had been a heavy comic reader until his early teens, but put them aside until after he graduated from college. After art school he rediscovered them in a big way, challenging himself to create one comic each day for days on end. That was the start of what would be a series of autobiographical books entitled And Then One Day.
You won’t hear lectures or receive instruction on how to create superheroes like Spider-Man and Super Woman in Claytor’s class – although he acknowledges the contributions of such archetypical characters to humanity’s understanding of itself. Superheroes and super villains are a modern addition to the long tradition of folk legends, tales of titans, gods, and godesses, and various mythical representations of humankind at its best and worst. Still, Claytor has always been more drawn to the truths revealed through extraordinary interpretations of more ordinary human experiences.
“I’m an alternative comics geek,” says Claytor. “They have more theme and theory, and are truer to life. I think a greater cross-section of society can relate to them.”
Claytor says a good example of this work can be found in the drawings of Chris Ware, who recently had a cover concept rejected by Fortune magazine for its depiction of the current state of capitalism. Other notable (hard to say “famous”) alternative comic artists include Mad magazine’s Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, and John Severin; underground and counter-culture legend R. Crumb; American Splendor creator Harvey Pekar; Gilbert Shelton, creator of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and like Crumb, an illustrator for rock albums for the Grateful Dead and others; and Gary Panter, whose Jimbo comic and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse set-designs Simpsons creator Matt Groening cites as major influences.
Claytor says there is a growing demand for comics, graphic novels, and for his course. He said, “Some of my students from my first class last year [Intro to Studio Art] have created their own comic books, and have turned them into a commercial venture.”
One of those students is Chris Reed. Reed has been making comics for nearly 30 years, since his boyhood. Despite his decades of experience, Reed said he learned a lot about his craft through the class. “Mr. Claytor encouraged us to explain why we create our art and what it means to us. This wasn’t something I’d spent much time thinking about. But when I did, I realized that many of my past experiences helped to shape me as an artist, and I was able to pinpoint what those experiences were and what effect they have on my art. It was a very enlightening experience.”
Reed also said the class has made him more thoughtful about the process and technique of storytelling. He said, “Storytelling is the foundation for comics, the same way it is the foundation for movies, novels, television shows, and the like. If you want the reader (or viewer) to care about your characters, then you must create a compelling story. Pacing is also very important. You want to keep the story moving, keep the suspense building. If you cannot create a compelling story with characters that your audience can relate to and cheer for, then you risk losing your audience.”
With the meteoric rise in the number and variety of digital media platforms, many in the comic world have expressed concern that compelling storytelling is not enough to keep audiences reading traditional print comics. However, unlike many other genres, comic enthusiasts place an extremely high value on not only knowing the history of the genre, but on still being able to experience that history the same way as previous generations. For many, that means frequenting brick and mortar comic shops – not virtual ones.
This sensibility explains why Professor Claytor’s students gave their final “Comics and Visual Narrative” class presentations at the Vault of Midnight comic shop in Ann Arbor.
So what’s the future of comics? Given their proven adaptability to every new form of mass communication since radio, and new mediums’ near total reliance on all manner of visual content, comics are likely to have a very strong presence in our society for a very long time. But as far as traditional comic books… “that’s harder to say,” says Chris Reed. “Unfortunately, with the way many publishing companies are turning towards e-books, I fear that someday comics might go the same route, which would be sad. For me, there is nothing like holding a comic in my hand, feeling the pages, smelling the paper. You can’t get that by looking at a computer screen. But the good news is there will always be artists making handmade comics, and the more prevalent the electronic market becomes, the more appreciated the underground comics movement will be.”
Chris Reed on Flint’s Love of Handmade Comics:
Handmade comics (zines) do have a large following in Flint. I suspect there are two reasons for this:
1. The cover prices are much cheaper. These days, comics by the big publishing companies (Marvel and DC) can run upwards of $4 an issue. Comics at indie art shows in the Flint area typically run between $1 and $3, and usually have just as many pages as mainstream comics.
2. There is something about handmade comics that you do not get with those published by the big companies. Mainstream comics are mainly created with computer programs like Photoshop, so the finished product is very polished, which many will say is a good thing. But I think this kind of manipulation removes much of what makes art special. Since the images are so highly refined, there are no traces of the artist’s fingerprint, nothing that proves it was done by human hands. When you remove that element, I think you remove a lot of soul from a piece of art. Handmade comics retain that human quality, and I think more and more people are appreciating that, especially comic fans in Flint. By retaining that handmade quality, it lends a gritty, blue-collar feel to the work, which is very Flint.
Check out the work of local comic artist and UM-Flint alum Pat Hardin
Visit a Local Comic Shop:
Amazing Book Store
3718 Richfield Road, Flint, MI
G4050 Fenton Rd, Flint, MI
Jellybeans Used Books & Music
730 South Dort Highway, Flint, MI
Pick up the latest issue of Flint Comix!
Flint Comix and Entertainment is a comics and entertainment newspaper, free to readers and advertiser supported, available at over 250 locations throughout the Flint area and surrounding counties. Randy Zimmerman and Ted Valley have been publishing it monthly since early 2009. Prior to that, Randy was the cartoon editor for The Uncommon Sense alternative paper in Flint and has had extensive experience in self-publishing alternative comics (under the Arrow, Weebee, and Massive Comics banners), creating such properties as Spank the Monkey, Tales From the Aniverse, and The Dead. Flint Comix is currently the main focus of Randy’s time and someday soon he expects to franchise the idea out into other locales, but for now Flint Comix is the only comics-oriented newspaper publication of its type in North America.