Sunday, November 30, 2008

From the vault: Unpopular Culture

Note: This review originally appeared in issue #284 of The Comics Journal.

“Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s”
by Bart Beaty
University of Toronto Press 320 pages, $29.95

I wasn’t surprised that Bart Beaty’s new book, Unpopular Culture would prove to be so readable. Anyone who’s followed Beaty’s reviews and essays in The Comics Journal, particularly his seminal Eurocomics for Beginners column back in the mid-1990s, ought to be well aware of how good a writer he can be. What did prove surprising to me is that a book so utterly and single-mindedly focused on the European market would actually have something to say, albeit in an indirect fashion, about American comics.

We Yanks tend to imagine the Europeans as being much more enlightened about the art of comics than our own countrymen could ever possibly hope to be. Why, they sell comics in honest-to-god bookstores over there! And not just in the science-fiction section! They write comics about detectives and other, alternative genres! Moebius is a celebrity! Surely Europe, or at least France and Belgium, is a cartoonist’s utopia! Reading Unpopular Culture will, if nothing else, clear that lie out of your mind once and for all.

Comics, Beaty argues, may be a popular medium in Europe, but there’s a big difference between being popular and being respected. The general European public, to say nothing of the intelligentsia, has largely regarded the medium as little more than kiddie fare for the past several decades. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when companies like L’Assocition and Fremok started publishing more art-driven, less genre-derived material, that comics started to be viewed less as some sort of bourgeois kitsch to foist on the dull-minded populace and more as a work of art in its own right, deserving of respect and acclaim.

And it is at this point bells should be going off in your brain if you know anything about the American art-comics movement of the past fifteen years or so. Despite the considerable geographic (and other) differences between the two groups, both seemed to come to prominence around the same period of time and share more than just a desire to overturn the status quo.

What exactly happened in the 1990s is the central thrust of Beaty’s book, and he meticulously goes over what he regards as seven key issues, drawing out examples from various publishers and individual artists to show how such a change came about.

It’s worth going over the individual chapters, not only to get a feel for how the book is laid out, but to also get back to some of those inevitable comparisons that keep cropping up. In the first chapter, Beaty shows how publishers like L’Association imposed a new aesthetic by deliberately setting itself apart from mainstream publishers like Dargaud and Humanoides. In the second, he discusses how many artists came to regard the comic book as an art object in its own right, both creating books whose very binding and choice of paper make the book want to be put on display instead of a shelf.

In the third he examines how the small press challenged itself by undergoing formal experiments like OuBaPo, and by transforming the mixture of text and art in unprecedented ways that in some cases stretch at the very definition of what a comic is or should be.

The rest of the book follows along similar lines. He discusses how autobiography has been used as a way for artists to declare themselves as separate from other, more popular genres. He looks at how the small-press comics movement has developed differently across the European continent. He talks about how indie artists like Joann Sfar have been absorbed into the mainstream comics publishing empire. And then he sums the whole shebang up in a winning final chapter by examining the career of Lewis Trondheim, who, as Beaty makes clear, embodies more of the changes that have gone on in European comics in the past decade and a half than any other artist.

In a wider sense, Unpopular Culture is really about the constant and continual pull between market forces and artistic choices; between the avant-garde and whatever accounts for the mainstream at any given point of time. It’s about how the avant-garde and small press define themselves by what they are not instead of what they are, thereby transforming the culture, becoming subsumed by it, and leaving the door open for another avant-garde movement to take its place.

These are issues that every art form, from cinema to prose, deal with on an almost day-to-day basis and it’s certainly not something which American comics are immune from. That being said, aside from the occasional mention of Julie Doucet or Craig Thompson, Beaty stays clear away from discussing American comics, leaving readers to draw their own inferences.

That’s probably for the best, as doing so would open another very large can of worms, but it’s hard not to think about how these issues affect American artists while reading the book.

One issue that doesn’t seem to be as strong on these shores as Beaty seems to describe in his book is the line of demarcation between the U.S. mainstream and the alternative movement. While cartoonists like Dylan Horricks and Gilbert Hernandez (not to mention Ed Brubaker) have written superhero stories for the big two, it’s hard to see any one creator in the art-comix movement moving back and forth with the ease that Trondheim does. The superhero market is just too narrow a genre to accommodate most alt-cartoonists’ unique idiosyncrasies and individual art styles.

Of course, for a long time Marvel and DC were regarded as THE ENEMY, but I wonder if that’s true anymore. The true enemy of publishers like Fantagraphics (or at least rival for their affections) may be mainstream book publishers like Pantheon and Houghton Mifflin since they’ve snatched up authors like Thompson and Kim Deitch by dangling the promise of greater financial reward in front of them. Chris Ware’s ability to shift from the mainstream book world to small indie houses like Drawn and Quarterly perhaps prove a better allusion to Trondheim’s successes than Horricks’ run on Batgirl does.

Of course, perhaps the most notable difference is that in America we largely see Deitch’s getting a book deal as a good thing, and not a betrayal of all we hold dear. It’s hard to imagine Chris Oliveros writing something akin to Jean-Christopher Menu’s Plates-Bandes (which Beaty discusses at length), railing at the mainstream market for trying to co-opt the small press.

I said Unpopular Culture was readable and it is. But it has a decided academic tome and readers expecting something more akin to the relaxed and occasionally snarky prose Beaty utilized in the pages of The Comics Journal may well trip over some of the meatier sentences.

Overall, Unpopular Culture is a superb, insightful and, I believe, seminal book that will undoubtedly be referenced again and again when talking not just about European comics, but art-comics in general. Obviously the more familiar you are with the works referenced, the more you’ll able to get out of the book (I’m not ashamed to say I was thrilled whenever a comic I owned was mentioned, as though I was a member of some secret club). But you don’t have to have Beaty’s level of experience and knowledge to appreciate the issues that he’s raising. Or enjoy the way he raises them.

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