We’ve been talking a lot in this class about comics’ place in the cultural hierarchy or the distinction between high/low culture, in which comics is most often relegated to the low end of the artistic spectrum. This is something that I’d say we’ve mostly exhausted, but there is one facet of this subject which we’ve barely broached — the high/low split within the comics genre itself. I’ve been noticing this split a lot lately, especially on these blogs and in the “Nerds!” lecture of our class (which, let’s just say, got a little heated). As someone who doesn’t read comics outside of this class, or partake much in the (sub)culture surrounding comics, I find this distinction, which manifests itself in debates between groups of fans who, at the outset, seem indistinguishable, incredibly interesting.
Before approaching the study of comics in a University setting, I had never really known any “hard core” comics fans. My only sense of what to expect in this class were the stereotypical characters portrayed in such media as “The Big Bang Theory”. Coming into this class, I guess I knew there would be a lot of comics fans, but I got even more than I bargained for. It became clear pretty quickly that I was out of place in that majority of the people in the class, it seemed, had a pretty enormous breadth of knowledge when it came to comics. It seemed, at first, like there was two groups in the class: those two were comics fans, and those who were not.
Soon, however, another split among the fans became apparent. It seemed to me that my original conception of comic books fans – those who buy every issue of their favorite comic, who dress up for conventions (which there is nothing wrong with, in my opinion) – was represented in the class, but there was also another group of fans I hadn’t really considered before broaching the subject of comics in an academic setting. This group of unfamiliar fans were those who seemed to take a more intellectual approach to comics; those who read not superhero comics, but more ‘intelligent’ (trying really hard not to offend any one here) volumes such as Sandman or Maus.
What was interesting to me was not only that these two divisive groups seemed to exist within one fan culture, but that they seemed always at odds with one another. The seemingly more intellectual fans looked down on the fans which seemed to fit the classic conception of a comics fan; likewise, the classic fans regarded the intellectual fans as, for lack of a better word, snobs. Dr. Beaty brought this up in class, though not mentioning our class population, when he talked about the rise of Image comics, which contained mostly empty, though visually pleasing, images in contrast with stories which had rich narratives alongside their sub-par art, like those coming out of Vertigo. He told us that this was what first enacted the high/low split within comics and said “those who read Sandman looked down at the people reading anything from Image”. This is something that I definitely see at work in the population of our classroom, especially towards the end of the semester when heated debates rose in class during the “Nerds!” lecture, and on the blogs after that contentious issue was raised.
I even noted this divisive split as apparent in our textbook, Of Comics and Men. Gabillet refers to what I here have (probably irrationally) termed “classic comics fans” as “speculator-collectors”. When discussing the sales enhancement techniques of publishers used in a bid to sell more copies, such as creating multiple covers or simply printing “collector’s edition” on the cover, Gabillet says the publishers did so under the certain principle that their target audience of spectator-collectors’ reactions would be “predictable, immediate, and entirely irrational” (154). Following this, he states, “for the first time, a publisher exploited the irrational comportment of speculators to artificially boost sales” (ibid). While he is speaking from a publisher’s point of view, the words Gabillet uses to describe his “speculator-collector” are quite harsh, and give the sense that he, as an academic in the comics field (who is no doubt, too, a fan), is above these lowly, irrational consumers.
In summary, in this class, I not only learned about comics, but also about the interesting, somewhat disjointed culture surrounding comics. I came to see in our class not only a split between comics fans and non-comics fans, but between separate groups of comics fans themselves. It became not a case of me, being someone who is not a comics fan, feeling outcast by my lack of knowledge, but rather, a case of two groups of those who are fans of comics duking it out while the rest of us sat on the sidelines.
PLEASE note that I am not looking to get into a debate with any one myself, just thought it was interesting to note this division within the comics culture of fandom as viewed from an “outsider”. Though, of course, if you have anything to add, feel free to comment.
Beaty, Bart. “Authorship.” University of Calgary. 27 March 2013. Lecture.
Gabillet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi (2010). Print.