Comics – a mix of kids’ stuff, art and commerce
Last year when Stan Lee died – the founder of the Marvel empire, creator of superheros like Spider Man and, together with Walt Disney, the most influential figure in the global comic market - his obituary was published in many of the world’s leading magazines. They praised him and the importance of his work in shaping cultural developments over the past decades. Did this represent a radical change of mind or was it just acknowledgment of his overwhelming commercial success?
There was a time when the best thing that adults could say about comics was that they were childish and only of interest to children while strict educators dismissed them out of hand as lowbrow trash. Yet thanks to my mother who at some point took out a subscription to Mickey Mouse for me, for many years and contrary to the prevalent opinion, I had the joy of finding a new magazine in the letter box each week which I eagerly devoured with great pleasure. And even today I still remember this.
It was a time when the line between serious highbrow culture and pleasurable lowbrow entertainment was rigorously drawn. Especially when such entertainment happened to come from America. Comics together with English pop and rock music were frowned on as trivial forms of entertainment, not to be taken seriously and they found their first real home in youth culture and the subculture.
Nowadays comics are not only am integral part of the adult world but have also been accepted – quite rightly I think – as part of our culture and a valid expression of art. OUBEY always considered them as such. He always had a huge and continually growing collection of comics which included many of the wonderful publications of the Jean Giraud, who used the pseudonym Moebius and was one of a kind, or the magazines of the Japanese comic series “Akira”. They are all remarkable not only for the outstanding quality of their artwork but also for the philosophical issues they deal with in stories like “The Airtight Garage”. “Up to the Stars” is “one of the most fascinating science fiction adventures Moebius did ever create” commented the publisher. The header photo of this article shows the cover of this outstanding comic. Jack Lang, minister of culture in France at that time, awarded Moebius for his outstanding artwork with the “Great Prize of the French State for Graphical Arts” in 1984.
The comic genre finally established itself in the mainstream when Stan Lee brought the comic heroes of his Marvel world to the big screen, Today they’re a standard part of most movie-goers’ fare. And with the merchandising that goes with them, they bring in revenues in the billions. Stan Lee – a marketing superhero. Is it through Stan Lee’s marketing skills that once despised comics have now achieved the status of a “cultural asset” due in large part to their lavish blockbuster versions?
An age-old longing
Sure, that’s a big part of it, but I still think that there’s another and much deeper reason. Boundaries have now become blurred, we’re now much more open-minded and our longing for fabulous fantastic tales of heroes have found a new outlet in many comics.
Such longing is nothing new. It was expressed in the old sagas about gods and heroes and today as a reflection of our times comes dressed in modern garb. The fantasy that animates these improbable tales of indestructible heroes has its roots in our need to see good eventually triumph. Comics satisfy this need, and satisfy it in a highly entertaining way. In them, the rational world of enlightenment finds its pleasurable counterpart which is not above making the occasional charged political point. This doesn’t just apply to the rather clone-like heroes of Marvel comics. It applied and still applies to a great number of other comic series which are now perhaps showing their age like Asterix & Obelix or the tiny but all-powerful Marsupilami.
“Yes, but what’s all this to do with art?” you might be asking.
The freedom of fantasy
This is a question to which I can give no adequate answer here. Yet I do see points of similarity between what we call art and what we call comics.
I got the idea to write this post from a conversation I had some time ago about OUBEY. The man I was talking to knew some of OUBEYs very deep and multi-layered paintings and drawings and so was completely astonished when I let drop at some point that OUBEY used to enjoy drawing comics. .
Even as a young schoolboy he drew and produced his own comic series “The Adventures of André Noir”. Back then there were no public photocopying machines so as he wanted to produce and sell as many copies as possible, he produced each single magazine by hand.
Anything is possible in art. And this applies even more to comics. They create and visualize new beings, new worlds, whole new universes. The mind takes wing and wanders in the free realm of fantasy. When I look at certain pictures and drawings by Paul Klee, who undoubtedly was a truly great artist, this kind of interrelationship becomes clear to me. As it does with part of OUBEYs work too.
In my view it’s a step forward when boundaries are no longer drawn so dogmatically. Art broadens its spectrum and what’s fun is no longer excluded just because it’s entertaining.
Rigid boundaries are a challenge to the spirit that it will seek to overcome. That the spirit continually and increasingly often succeeds is doing this is something I find excellent, highly refreshing and a most invaluable development.
Header: Moebius – Up to the Stars (Cover), Schwermetall Volume 5, 1987