Comic-Con: Will comics creators ever get the respect they crave?

Are comics art?

SAN DIEGO—At Friday night’s Eisner Awards—the Oscars of the comic book world—the interstitial music that played as the winners approached the stage sounded really familiar. I couldn’t quite place it. And then I remembered: It was the theme song from the X-Men cartoon I used to watch after getting baked on Saturday mornings in college.

The Eisners (named after Will Eisner, a pioneer of the graphic novel) are an effort to inject some institutional legitimacy and gravitas into the world of comic books. Wait, did I say comic books? Apologies, I meant sequential art.

The prize for best educational/academic work was awarded to Charles Hatfield, a professor at Cal State Northridge. Hatfield’s book, Hand of Fire, is an analysis of the oeuvre of the legendary comic book figure Jack Kirby—co-creator of Captain America, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Hulk. As Hatfield wrapped up his acceptance speech, he got emotional, and his voice grew louder. “I want to thank my subject, one of the greatest narrative artists of the 20th century,” he bellowed, a catch in his voice. He shot a fist toward the rafters and yelled, “Kirby lives!”

Kirby’s comic book characters are juggernauts, revenue-wise. One need only examine recent box office receipts for clear proof. Yet comic book obsessives still lash out every time some erudite film critic dares to admit that superheroes leave him cold. The temptation of the critic is to say, “Geesh, why do you even care what I think? You won, geeks. Relax and savor the spoils.” But commercial victory simply isn’t enough. What’s craved is respect.

A general view of atmosphere as San Diego prepares for 2012 Comic-Con at the San Diego Convention Center on July 11, 2012 in San Diego, California.

Comic-Con 2012 attendees.

Photo by Jerod Harris/Getty Images.

Earlier in the day, at a panel dedicated to Kirby’s legacy, Hatfield lamented what he called “literacy bias.” He argued that our cultural critics have a prejudice against drawings. “They think visual imagery is meant for kids, for people who can’t read,” he complained. He noted that newspapers like USA Today, with more images and color, are considered less serious, while the New York Times has historically prided itself on not including funny pages.

I feel for Hatfield. He’s got a fair point. But it must be frustrating to demand reverent treatment of your subject matter, and then to look out at an audience that includes a woman wearing a Viking helmet and a metal brassiere.

Another seminar, titled “Jack Kirby, Modernism, and Abstraction,” faced similar headwinds in asserting that Kirby should be considered among the visual masters of our age. Don’t get me wrong. I was fully convinced by the end of the session. The “Kirby krackle” is a singular aesthetic innovation! Kirby lives! (Actually, as a biographical note, he died in 1994.) But I must admit, when presented with side-by-side comparisons equating Kirby’s work to that of Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Kline, I found it hard to overlook a pertinent fact: Kandinsky and Kline did not paint enormous green Hulks into the middle of their compositions. Quite possibly a misguided artistic choice on their parts. Nonetheless.

The defensiveness of comic book aficionados bears some relation to the wary, self-loathing attitude I’ve sometimes encountered among advertising creatives. In their most confident moments, these ad guys firmly believe that their work is art. They can truthfully say that they have poured their souls into a thirty second TV commercial. And then that pesky Aquafresh logo pops up at the end–accompanied by an earnest, slo-mo shot of rainbowy toothpaste extruding from a tube. Details like that tend to cool a museum curator’s jets.

Again, before you jump down my throat: There’s no doubt that the very best comic book artists are genuine auteurs. Pop culture poets. Which makes it sad that much of the general populace, including many otherwise culturally aware folks, has never heard of Jack Kirby. Millions of people who watched The Avengers or the X-Men movies have no idea who he was. But he gave those beloved characters life, and molded their personalities. It’s akin to adoring Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in a Pride and Prejudice miniseries, yet remaining utterly blind to the existence of Jane Austen.

One of the more touching themes I’ve noticed at Comic-Con has been the effort to grant forgotten comic book creators their due. Panel after panel has paid solemn tribute to comics legends of yore. I watched a grown man get choked up as he recalled that Captain America co-creator Joe Simon was buried with a red, white, and blue shield inside his casket. There was a panel devoted to Bill Finger, the co-creator of Batman, who was denied official credit by his schmucky partner Bob Kane. Complaining that they don’t expect to see Finger’s name listed in the credits for the new Batman movie, the panelists urged us to give a symbolic “finger” when Kane’s name appears. Another panel recounted the sad tale of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, who invented Superman but then sold the rights for $130—70 years later, this is still the subject of an ongoing lawsuit.

There remains some conflict between authors and publishers. Alan Moore, who wrote Watchmen, is furious that DC Comics is putting out a series of prequels against his wishes. I went to a panel that included several of the folks involved in making Before Watchmen, and they were brashly unapologetic about appropriating Moore’s characters. (By the way, Moore’s qualms aside, the prequels are fantastic. Mindblowing visual art. You should check them out.)

On the whole, though, life is much better these days for comic book creatives than it was in the golden years of the industry. They retain far more control over their works, and wield far more power in the boardroom. Robert Kirkman, for instance, has a producer credit on the AMC series derived from his comic book, The Walking Dead. He was made a partner at Image Comics, where he developed The Walking Dead, and later was able to launch his own imprint. By all accounts, he’s raking it in.

John Layman, creator of the comic book Chew, told me he’s in talks to turn it into a TV show. He didn’t seem concerned that somebody out there might not be properly respecting his artistic legitimacy. When I asked him what he was most looking forward to this weekend at Comic-Con, his one-word answer was “Money.”