We live in changing times. But just how 'changing' remains open to question. It is fashionable to see modern culture as being in the process of transformation by huge, almost apocalyptic, forces which will leave it unrecognizable in a very short space of time. We can see this in two interlinked areas in particular: the hopes and fears surrounding the 'digital revolution', and the current fondness for postmodernist theory.
Both themes are extremely relevant to comics. The digital revolution, for example, is said to herald the end of print. The argument runs roughly as follows: books, newspapers and comics will all disappear as computers take over, and people get their information and entertainment from the Internet. With the Net growing at an exponential rate (10 million new users in last year alone), and more and more companies using it to publish their wares, this progression is seemingly inevitable. In the forthcoming digital age, to coin a pun, the days of the comic are numbered.
Postmodernist visions of the future are more optimistic. For example, in our introduction, it was suggested that comics have never been accepted into the realm of 'real art', and that this was due to a number of interwoven prejudices against popular culture. But recently, a number of postmodernist philosophers and writers have suggested that this division between art and popular culture has been breaking down. We live in an era, it is said, where the media dominates cultural products, and where, therefore, surfaces and style have become more important than content. Under these circumstances, there are no longer any agreed and inviolable criteria which can serve to differentiate art from popular culture. Comics, therefore, are not dying out, but entering a new era of acceptance.
But before we get carried away, events need to be seen in perspective. Taking the digital revolution first, it's necessary to question who the revolution is for. Certainly, it won't benefit the majority of the world's population, who cannot afford telephones, let alone expensive computers. Taking this as a starting point, it is easy to challenge the idea that the Net and comics share the same properties. They do not. One is cheap and one isn't; one is mobile, one isn't. (Although it's possible, we don't think in terms of taking a computer on the bus.) Of course, computers have the advantage for certain kinds of storytelling: they can be interactive, for instance. But at the present state of technology, the experience of reading from a computer screen compared to that of reading from a comics page is no contest. They are, in other words, two completely different media, and therefore the rise of one does not by any means automatically presage the decline of the other.
As for postmodernism, it is a seductive argument, and it would be very tempting to apply it to the history of comics. After all, we have seen how in the 1980s and 1990s, comics have become more 'respectable'. Maus won a Pulitzer Prize, and graphic novels were reviewed in the literary pages of the quality newspapers. Even the existence of an art book such as this, devoted to such 'trash', could be taken as a sign of a change in the cultural climate.
But let's be clear. On the rare occasions that comics have popped their heads over the wall of media indifference, there have usually been reasons other than an acceptance of the medium as a whole. Maus, for example, was a one-off, while the mainstream reviews of graphic novels were largely inspired by their novelty value. Certainly, in some countries, such as Japan, comics are accepted as art. But, as we have seen, this has been due to a distinct set of historical circumstances. So far as Britain and America are concerned, a few decent reviews in the press do not a revolution make.
So where does that leave us? Marginalized for sure, but such a marginal position is an attractive one for many creators and consumers. The comic's exclusion from the art establishment enables it to eschew the dampening appraisal of art criticism. Moreover, its association with street culture gives it a certain edge, which many contemporary artists have vainly attempted to transfer to the gallery. Whereas fine art can only send shocks through the art world, comics - available to a far broader audience - are still regarded as dangerous enough to be clamped down on intermittently.
Comics seem to be going through a golden age right now. When I see recent books like Joe Sacco's Palestine and Chester Brown's I Never Liked You, I am filled with admiration for the medium. Sacco and Brown's generation of creators were inspired by the underground generation before them, and I'd be willing to bet that sometime soon they'll inspire a future band of comics stars with their own take on what 'a comic' can mean. As ever, the medium remains worthy of any message.