Some Thoughts on Patronage, Part 2on June 26, 2014 at 12:07 pm
I can’t say sports and rooting for a team is something I ever really understood. But today in the spirit of World Cup fever, I feel a need to paint an American flag on my face and defend our country. It’s been a couple months since I returned from Europe and I can say the cultural enrichment and mind opening lessons about how a society can be constructed have all but faded away. A land where people seem interested in supporting comics through public funding seem like a distant memory.
I talked a little about this magical land a few posts ago. Just thinking about the amount of generosity and hospitality I received really and truly humbled me and restored my faith in humanity. Seeing how Europe treats their artists gave me hope in the future and how the world could be set up. Most touching of all was seeing how they treat artists who aren’t even European. Europe literally funds more American cartoonists America does. I’ve been invited to 4 European festivals at this point despite never having paid a dime into their tax base. It’s no surprise really when you hear so many stories of American artists from great Jazz musicians to Robert Crumb getting a little taste of the continent and saying “Fuck America! I’m out of here.”
One of the most bizarre incidents in my travels was talking with a cartoonist who used to work for an ad agency in France. He told me he didn’t want to squander his artistic skill to sell crass consumer goods to children, so he quit. “And then what?” I asked. And then nothing! In fact, roughly 100% of the cartoonists I met were unemployed. The one guy I met who was employed worked at an unemployment agency. It’s an amazing system they’ve got and I can’t express how much I’m constantly amazed and dumbfounded by its scope, whether it’s watching the minister of French culture drop by my table or reading Lewis Trondheim lamenting in an editorial in Le Monde about what a pity it is that cartoonists aren’t paid to attend Angouleme. Meanwhile back in the US, there’s a raging debate about whether it’s a bad trend for consumers to voluntarily give money to beginning cartoonists to print their books.
As Scott McCloud pointed out in Understanding comics, the mechanics of comics is pretty similar when comparing Kirby and Tintin. The biggest difference between American and European comics as I see it is attitude. As a French couple condescendingly explained it to me, “French see comics as art but in America it is pop culture.” To which I rebut, “That is some bullshit!” It’s self serving and harmful to think art can completely bypass the popular phase and is in my opinion perpetuated by artists themselves for cover. For every Emily Dickinson I feel there’s a hundred Mark Twains or Beatleses in the world. Also to put it plainly, I think American comics are pretty good. Maybe it’s my own cultural bias but in a comics Battle Royale I see Charles Schultz, Kirby, Chris Ware, Herge and Tezuka as the last 5 on the island.
To compare career arcs, I see the average European cartoonist growing up on Tintin or Asterix. They try to draw their own and eventually get good at it. They go to the Sorbonne, learn fine arts. After graduating, they learn how to write grants. Then one day they look down and they’ve got 5 graphic novels about Bosnian refugee camps. But… Who wants to read that!? Even they don’t want to read that. Over drinks the European cartoonists I met wanted to talk about really pulpy stuff like Django Unchained and Pacific Rim. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had their way, that’s the kind of comics they’d want to make too.
By contrast, I see the average American cartoonist growing up reading superhero comics (or these days manga). They go to Cal Arts where they learn how to draw dragons for video games. They work in said video game industry and makes comics on the side. A few by dint of sheer determination, skill and talent manage to emerge from the crucible in one piece. But for most, this goes on for a decade or so before they give up and call it a life. I think a lot of American cartoonists really love what they’re doing and make comics they would want to read. It’s hard being an artist in this society. But I feel it really weeds out anyone who isn’t really passionate about it.
And I feel like total garbage for saying this but sometimes the best art comes when limitations force you to be resourceful. For example hip hop was essentially invented because some kids in the Bronx figured out a way to turn old busted up record players into musical instruments. But if the Bronx had been in France, the government probably would have just bought every kid a violin and called it a day. Sometimes I feel it’s so cushy, the French have to invent hardships and limitations for themselves, like writing an entire freakin’ novel without using the letter “e”.
Going a step even further, I wonder if struggle in general can lead to some great art. I’ve lived in Oakland my whole life and call it my home, but after returning from Europe I’m beginning to realize what a festering hell hole it is. The other month, my wife and baby watched someone get shot at a brothel three blocks from our house. She tried to put on a brave face for me and remain cheery but sometimes I just want to pack up and get out of Dodge. I want to go to a place where they just leave their bikes unlocked in front of the gas station. Switzerland is freaking paradise but their main cultural export, Heidi, is like watching molasses run out of a jar.
So there you have it. It’s all crappy. Everywhere you go. Japan, France, Switzerland and America especially so. But that’s my backhanded defense of our comics industry. Within our harsh and unforgiving market driven economy, we have a brutal tournament model of employment wreaking complete havoc and misery in the lives of dewy eyed artists just starting out in life. It’s a Pyrrhic victory, but at the end of the day, I think we’ve got a few good comics out of it.