Shiny Shelf

Hey, Grown-ups! Comics!

By Eddie Robson on 13 April 2003

I was on a cheap break to Paris last week and, whilst flipping through the Rough Guide (or it might have been the Time Out guide, I can’t remember) I spotted a couple of lines about comic books. Apparently comics are regarded in the same way as any other medium by the French: they are an entirely respectable branch of literature without the stigma of being ‘for kids’.

Intrigued, I decided to visit a comic shop and planned my route to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery so that it would take in The-Troc, which is of particular interest since the owner publishes ‘The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’ (creator Gilbert Shelton lives just around the corner). Unfortunately, when I got there in mid-morning he had popped out and wouldn’t be back for half an hour: that’s France for you. However, the mere act of looking in the window confirmed what I’d heard about the attitude towards comics in France.

Judging from this and a couple of other shops, the most popular title at the moment is Daniel Clowes’ superb ‘David Boring’, recently collected as a softcover. The fantasy elements of ‘David Boring’ are very slight indeed (there’s a magic realist element when David survives being shot, but that’s about it, I think). Similarly, ‘Freak Brothers’ bends reality in a manner more akin to a Zucker/Zucker/Abrams comedy than a ‘Superman’ comic. In fact, the most overtly fantastical comics I saw were of the horror/gothic variety. The staples of the American comics market – sci-fi and superheroes – were almost completely absent.

In a way I feel this is a shame, because I like superheroes and, were I given the opportunity to write for one, I’d accept it like a shot. However, their dominance of the medium has created the popular perception of comics as being about fantasy tales of good battling evil, when in fact there is a great deal more out there. In his book on Alan Moore, occasional Shelf contributor Lance Parkin described Moore’s graphic novel ‘A Small Killing’ as seeming ‘like a fragment from a parallel universe where comic books are published by mainstream publishers and are about real people’. From my brief experience, it seems that parallel universe exists in other countries.

Could it exist here? It’s possible. Clowes is a useful case in point – his stuff is published in the UK by Jonathan Cape, a mainstream publisher with an excellent track record for finding and marketing fiction for people in their twenties. Then there was ‘Jimmy Corrigan’ winning the Guardian First Book award a couple of years ago: doubtless it would have sold more copies if it didn’t cost about twenty quid (Clowes works in duo-tone rather than colour and you can pick up his books for a more affordable ?7-?10). The problem is that the public perception of comics is too narrow and the medium is too ghettoised: people have no problem separating different kinds of books and films (we tend to think of them as ‘mainstream’, ‘arthouse’/'literary’ or ‘children’s’) but comics are all lumped together as a single thing.

Of course, we’ve been here before. When the world first discovered that comics ‘weren’t just for kids’ in the mid-1980s, the resultant boom tailed off because there wasn’t enough material of a sufficient standard. Today, as the profile of comics crawls upwards due to the current glut of superhero movies, I feel that there is enough to keep people interested – if they can be drawn to the comics shop in the first place. Paradoxically, however, whilst they’re happy to spend a couple of hours in a cinema watching ‘Spider-Man’, many people still attach a degree of stigma to reading a comic about him – either that or it just doesn’t occur to them to do so.

To go to a shop, buy something, take it home and read it is more ‘active’ than just going to the pictures and taking in a movie, and despite the popularity of sci-fi and fantasy (most popular movies of last year – ‘Two Towers’, ‘Star Wars’, ‘Spidey’, ‘Harry Potter’) it is still not seen as ‘normal’ to take an active interest in it. With comics being dominated by sci-fi and fantasy it is therefore not seen as ‘normal’ to read comics, in as much as it’s something that either you’re into or you’re not. Which is ridiculous, really – if somebody reads novels we don’t regard it as a lifestyle choice and there’s no reason why comics should be any different. Much as I’m loving the renaissance of the superhero movie, it’d be sad if this overshadowed the wealth of great comics that aren’t about superheroes.

Click here to order ‘David Boring’ from

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By Eddie Robson

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