How and Where Comics Cultures Flourish
by Amy Louise Maynard
In a Twitter thread composed in mid-June this year, creator Darryl Ayo (Little Garden) decried what he considered to be the lack of cultural spaces for independent and/or small press comics, both online and offline. According to Ayo, the demise of Google Reader and the decline of Tumblr meant that it was harder for independent creators to have a virtual ‘hub’ where their work could be found, shared and discussed:
Indie comics has a culture problem: specifically, that indie comics attaches itself to other cultures to survive. Whether it’s being driven out of the direct market shops or hitching its collective wagon too tightly to 2000-2008 era internet websites [sic]. Indie comics has the following culture problem: it attempts to survive as a symbiotic subculture but doesn’t insist on its own boundaries (Ayo, 2017).
In regards to physical spaces, Ayo pointed out that serial comics produced through the direct market system still had hubs for consumers; the comics store:
One thing that is appealing about “mainstream” comics, i.e. the North American direct market, is that there remain dedicated cultural spaces. There is a self-sustaining cultural space to go to and to be and to experience that culture. Yes, it’s a commerce space. But it fits (Ayo, 2017).
Whilst the sustainability of the direct market system as a business model is debatable, due to the monopoly of Diamond Distributors in the serial comics market and the rise of digital sales, Ayo still has a point in that comics stores are not only seen as sites of retail (McCloud, 2000: 71-76). They function as social spaces for collectors and casual readers alike (Woo, 2012: 659-676; Woo, 2011: 125-136; Norcliffe and Rendace, 2003: 242, 247-248).
There are still cultural as well as economic issues related to comics stores, regarding how these spaces function as cultural intermediaries, which can decide what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ in relation to product and consumer (Woo, 2012: 145; Woo, 2011: 127-132; Brienza, 2009: 104, 106-107, 110). But for Ayo, when compared with comics festivals, collecting or visiting comics stores means that there is a ‘fixed’ space where the social norm for most customers is to congregate with others on a weekly basis:
There’s a big difference in how these spaces [stores and festivals] operate. Direct market shops tend to be places where you will visit frequently over time so even though you have your weekly/Wednesday grind, you have the time to accumulate these little moments and casual interactions. At a comics festival, it’s all at once. Just once per year. So naturally to succeed as a vibrant cultural space, it needs to Do More [sic] (Ayo, 2017).
The crux of Ayo’s manifesto is questioning what purposes these independent comics festivals serve. Using examples such as the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MoCCA) Festival, in Brooklyn, Ayo believes that whilst the fair offers more than sales through a gallery, there needs to be more emphasis on discussion panels. Panels make consumers more active participants, through questioning the labours of production and the ideologies of creators. Comics fairs and/or festivals therefore become cultural hubs, rather than just sites of consumption:
I’m tired of people staring at me like I have two heads when I insist that panels are very important! Panels are more important than tables. Individual tables at a comics festival come and they go. But the panels provide an opportunity for a CULTURE to flourish. More than retail (Ayo, 2017).
This essay should be read as an appraisal of Ayo’s ideas, rather than a criticism. To begin, the focus will be on Ayo’s point about indie comics culture and festivals: what do we, (comics creators, consumers, other intermediaries), want and need from a comics festival to make it a socio-cultural space?
It should be noted that Ayo’s thread was created from the perspective of a creator based in the United States. As Bart Beaty (2007: 120) has explored through his seminal work on European comics, Unpopular Culture, comics festivals in Europe serve the purpose of celebrating not only a medium, but a city:
When one thinks of the cultural organisation of the comic book field, it is clear that spatially that world is organised into a series of festivals, which themselves become emblematic of core values associated with local comic book production. The ideological space of international comics production is framed by a network of festivals in cities like San Diego, Angoulême, Luzern, Haarlem, and Bethesda. The contemporary comic book festival is a site at which a particular artworld, to use Arthur Danto’s term, coalesces for brief periods of time. The comic book festival is the only regular social space in which so many differing aspects of the artworld come together at one time, including writers, artists, editors, publishers, journalists, booksellers and fans. These events serve to remind us that, romantic images of the garreted cartoonist heroically slaving over inky boards notwithstanding, the production of art is a thoroughly social process.
Similar observations about comics’ contribution to city spaces through festivals have been made by Dave O’Brien (2014) and Zainab Akhtar (2014) in the United Kingdom.
In my own research on the Australian comics industry, I establish a clear link between the format of comics festivals and cultural tourism (Maynard, 2017). The cultural tourism movement eschews commercial, mainstream attractions focused purely on consumption for activities that provide tourists with new skills and an appreciation for the unique cultures of the places they visit (Richards, 2010: 11; Richards and Wilson, 2006: 12, 14). ‘Tourists’ can be audiences from another locale or they may be consumers who are familiarising themselves with a new subculture or scene. The term ‘tourist’ is used to denote a consumer who is contributing to agglomeration (clustered) economies by consuming and creating new products and knowledges (Richards, 2010: 11).
Cultural tourism occurs via cities strengthening their spaces for creative practitioners through urban planning and policy. Creative labourers use these spaces and technologies for sustainability, innovation and, specifically regarding cultural tourism, to set up sites of ‘prosumption’ (Hartley et al, 2013; 19; Berg and Hassink, 2014: 657). Prosumption is when a tourist actively participates in the creation of a cultural artefact or cultural experience with a creative practitioner (Richards, 2010: 11, 14). An example of an Australian comics event that strengthens economies by utilising cultural tourism is GRAPHIC!
Whilst GRAPHIC! is not strictly a comics festival—it is a festival that celebrates sequential art generally—it is still accessed annually by comics practitioners and it contributes to the industry’s economy. Only featured practitioners have their comics for sale and effectively ‘advertise’ their books by communicating their knowledge of the medium and their contributions to the art through panels and interviews, that guests are encouraged to be involved in. Aside from Australian stakeholders, GRAPHIC! has featured international comics guests such as Neil Gaiman, Scott McCloud and Grant Morrison.
GRAPHIC! is distinct from other comics festivals and/or events as it is held in the Sydney Opera House: it is explicitly connected to a landmark associated with the culture of a specific city (Richards and Wilson, 2006: 13, 15).
Australian comics stores are also becoming sites of cultural tourism, as they look to expand their audiences beyond the direct market. Comics events such as comics signings, comics launches, reading groups and even mini-festivals (such as the All Star Comics Women in Comics Festival in Melbourne) are held in comics stores. The purpose of these events is to diversify the stores’ audience by providing a space where people who may not feel comfortable or are not interested in socialising over serial comics can still access the stores’ services and a unique national comics culture.
Due to the direct market system being so prevalent in Australian comics retail culture and Australia’s relatively small population size, Australia has an independent ‘small press’ comics culture, rather than a serialised, corporate comics culture. However, Australia still has nationwide conventions (Supanova, Oz Comic Con) that are commercial, franchised operations that draw in attendees due to their celebrity guests. Whilst these conventions advertise a brand more than a city, they are still events that contribute to a national creative economy and contribute to Australian comics culture through creator-fan socialisation. As well as comics stalls, there are panels and portfolio reviews. These conventions still have Australian comics cultural intermediaries acting as conventioneers and table organisers and so a valuable connection forms between creators, gatekeepers and consumers.
There are three other points about Ayo’s thread regarding independent comics culture I would like to address. The first is that Ayo has a point in that panels offer consumers the opportunity to learn more about comics production and industry culture but where comics conventions and comics fairs can offer a sales experience that is different from comics stores, it removes the ‘middle man’ that the direct market relies on. It may be a fleeting social experience, yet it is still a meaningful interaction not only for consumers, but also for creators. To quote creator Dean Rankine (Itty Bitty Bunnies) (in Rackleyft, 2015: 56):
Supanova was an absolute blast. Drawing at pop culture conventions is such a different experience than my usual day-to-day. I’m normally at home by myself, staring at a sheet of paper or computer screen and going slowly insane from my lack of contact with other human beings. But at a con I’m drawing people like they’re a Simpsons character, or drawing their heads in jars à la Futurama, so it’s constant [interaction] with people. I’ll often have a bit of a crowd watching me draw. So in some ways, it almost feels like performance art. People get a real kick out of seeing something appear on a blank page.
Conventions offer indie comics a ‘space’ within an established commercial space; small but strong individual social networks are formed through sharing the fruits of labour as well as knowledge.
The second point I would like to address is that Ayo’s worries—about comics events only being frequented by audiences who are already in the ‘scene’, or culture—are founded. In an essay for State of the Small Press Nation, Andy Oliver (2014) spoke with comics creators based in the United Kingdom who were confident that small press events would always have core audiences. However, they were also concerned with how crucial it was to attract the general public to these events, to make sure that the culture didn’t stagnate. There were suggestions that there needed to be a change of perception about comics being ‘niche’ not only from the public, but also from policymakers.
In Australia this is being addressed by comics culture not being limited to ‘comics events’. There has been a focus on comics at writing festivals and comics exhibitions have been featured in art galleries and libraries. Galleries and libraries, as well as schools, have also hosted workshops and live demonstrations. This cross-pollination between comics, the broader creative industries and the educational sector has not only increased the recognition of comics as a medium in the public sphere, but has also meant that comics-related projects are receiving increased levels of public funding. Comics, even small press comics, are being recognised as a medium that enriches Australian culture.
The third point addresses Ayo’s concerns over virtual spaces for indie comics. Whilst social media is still essential to event management in the comics industry, virtual spaces where comics are regularly produced are becoming more amorphous. Tumblr and Google Reader may have been where communities were specifically created around the production of comics but it is becoming increasingly hard to define what it means to both create and appreciate comics on the internet due to meme culture.
Meme culture and comics have intersected in two ways. Either comics or comic characters become memes (KC Green’s This is Fine Dog, Matt Furie’s Pepe the Frog, Matt Bors’ Mister Gotcha) or memes themselves may be classified as comics. If we consider the broadest classification of comics to be images juxtaposed with text, containing distinctive patterns and features such as sequential action and word balloons, many memes could be considered ‘comics’. Yet, unlike comics that have distinct authors, memes are more likely to be generated by anyone who has access to the original template. Memes are generated and shared across most if not all social media platforms (Douglas, 2014: 315-321, 328).
In physical spaces, it has become easier to find and analyse where, how and why creators create social networks between themselves and the audience. Ayo’s tweet thread has some pertinent questions as to how comics culture outside of the direct market is established, but observing the practices in Australia, there is evidence that small press and independent comics culture can flourish through the creative industries and cultural tourism.
For virtual spaces, on the other hand, it becomes somewhat trickier. What we need to consider in terms of virtual spaces in comics is not only how comics communities are forming through the production of labour, but also what it even means to ‘produce’ a comic online anymore. In the age of memes, the lines are blurring in regards to who is the ‘author’ of a comic and whether a generated meme could be considered a ‘comic’ based on its form.
Ayo’s thread has multiple intelligent and important points about the present and future of indie comics, both hard copy and digital. In response to Ayo I agree that indie comics should not be denied their own cultural spaces but I question how indie comics culture is to thrive without creating at least some symbiosis with previously established spaces. These spaces may be following in the tradition of comics festivals that share aspects of cultural tourism. They may be ‘spaces within spaces’, i.e. indie comics creating their own unique niches within commercial, creative or educational spaces. Or, as written above, digital spaces have become much more fluid, as the definition of digital comics has become more fluid.
The key to indie comics’ sustainability is its malleability. Its future is not certain but neither is it stagnant. And if we begin to think critically about how its production and consumption spaces are formed and evolve, it flourishes.
Amy Louise Maynard has recently completed a PhD thesis at the University of Adelaide. Her research is focused on the creative industries, comics production, social network markets and cultural funding policy.
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