This is the golden era of indie comic, artistically and even financially, at least in term of the number of publishers, CAFs and cartoonists who wake up every day excited to be cartooning. It’s a movement that is aesthetically and formally as exciting as anything else going on out there.
All of which makes the Jason Karns Kerfuffle all the more unusual. Indie comics circles don’t have kerfuffles—defined as in depth analysis of the social, racial or gender-based meaning of a certain comic or statement. Those are for nasty old mainstream comics. In case you missed it (and you probably did) it started when Frank Santoro, the cartoonist, comics educator and archivist, posted a thing called New Small Press Comics over at The Comics Journal. As he often does, Santoro just took pictures of comics he liked. Santoro is a comics liker, and if you’ve ever been with him while he goes through an old long box full of old weird comics, you know he is the Nicola Tesla of comics liking, exploring bold new vistas on a daily basis where few can hope to go. This time out Santoro praised the work of Marc Bell—just about everyone likes Marc Bell’s weirdo humor comics, right?– and Jason Karns who, among other books, does a comic called Fukitor which looks like this:
If anything, this reminded me of a somehow more life affirming version of those torture covers everyone was appalled by the other day. If struck me that Fukitor was firmly in the same camp as the Cannibal Corpse stuff everyone told me was fun loving and adorable, and I was maybe going to mention this, but then it really didn’t interest me that much so I didn’t.
The comments on that post at TCJ quickly turned negative however, as people pointed out how racist the book was—Karns’ hero goes around squashing mostly brown people who are portrayed as terrorists. I’d throw in “jingoistic” as a description as well. Oh and misogynist but isn’t everything. The book’s defenders lauded it as edgy and daring, while others suggested that racism and misogyny aren’t all that edgy and daring. Santoro actually backed away from the book pretty quickly—it’s obvious that Karns is one of those energetic and imaginative artists who has so far chosen to work in the gross out genre—and Santoro was responding to the energy not the content. Karns himself eventually showed up in the comments to stand up for his right to be “subversive.”
This was a very, very rare example of the indie comics “community” getting into a Kerfuffle—I mean, of course the Comics Journal/Hooded Utilitarian axis loves arguing, but it’s rarely about anything that bears any connection to the real world, as far as I can make out. Darryl Ayo delivered the best slap down in the comments:
For something to be subversive it needs to both mimic and undermine the societal power structure. The society of the Western world is invariably white dominance and anti-brown. To be truly subversive against that power structure, a work of art would be clinging closely to that as well as poking holes in the structural integrity of the white power structure. Since nothing that we can see here in “Fukitor” does anything to undermine white power while it makes a big show of making sport of nonwhite people, it literally just is what it looks like.
Perhaps I liked this best since it mirror sentiments of my own. But anyway, the kerfuffle played itself out over the next few days. Santoro apologized. Karns climbed up a ladder into his getaway helicopter gloating,
Update – 9/2/13 – Orders have gone waaayyy up since some people starting bitching about this imagery. Thank you. Please, keep bitching.
Tom Spurgeon stepped all into it in a piece that ran several hundred words without actually mentioning the name of the cartoonist he was talking about, but averring:
I don’t know the work of the cartoonist in question, certainly not well enough to lower the boom with a racism charge.
And that got the kerfuffle going all over again! Because when you draw or write things that are racist…well, they are…racist. Darryl Ayo wrote again
There is no need to read a lot of someone’s work to determine if a particular project is racist. As a culture, we are past the era of equating “racism” with a boogeyman, an allegiance to a specific codified group that exists simply to hate people based on race.
….[snip].Jason Karns got exactly what he wanted. He got to be the renegade bad boy for a day, beholden to nobody’s wishes, offending without a care toward the offended. All in all, it was a good day for Mr. Karns. The rest of us were treated to yet another reminder of how Middle Eastern people can be casually dehumanized and how much of society’s dreams and fantasies involve brown people being reduced to mindless beasts, fit for slaughter. Good times.
And David Brothers, also weighed in.
Here’s what happened: someone posts a comic and reviews it. Someone else asks if it’s satirical or what, because it looks pretty racist. The creator of the comic rolls in, asks if people are censors, the pc police, and all this other nonsense. Cartoons aren’t real so who cares, you’re the real racists anyway, and a bunch of other idiot arguments. His cronies roll in, talking about how soft and cowardly the question-askers are.
Other people, myself included, point out that naw, this comic actually is racist, and if you’re riffing on something else that’s racist, you’re still using racist elements! Other people talk about how discussing the racism of something isn’t requesting a ban, and if your transgressive work is just replicating the same lazy ideas that transgressive works were doing 40 years ago, maybe your work is part of the status quo, not transgression.
I found all of this reaction very interesting. As I noted before, in the torture covers discussion, no one really disagreed about anything. There was much more dissension in the Karns Kerfuffle, probably because Karns himself came by to defend the work and that Organized The Protest. The overall reaction also made me proud to live in a country where depictions of members of a geographical group—one which we were at war with a few years ago and may be at war with in a few days— can still be actively and widely labelled as racist. Maybe we have improved as a society a bit since this happened:
Perhaps the most striking thing to me, however, was how little indie/art/literary whatever you want to call them comics are put in any kind of larger cultural context. It seem that that is left for the superheroes. Len Wein, Gerry Conway and Todd McFarlane were roundly vilified for saying that superhero comics—or the “mainstream” as they quaintly called it—didn’t have to have a subtext. “The comics follow society. They don’t lead society,” Conway was quoted as saying, which was kind of a tossed off statement, but sounded really wrong.
Laura Sneddon [who writes for this site] examined this whole idea in a piece called How Comics Got Political, quite rightly pointing out that
One of the historical roots of modern comics is of course the political cartooning of the early newspapers; the mechanical reproduction of images finally allowing art to be consumed by the masses rather than the privileged few, with cartoonists leaping at the chance to communicate complex political situations via their deceptively simple form.
The idea of comics as a political tool is not without its controversies, from grumbles amongst novelists to riots over religious icon portrayals. Any fan of superhero comics can tell you that comics don’t have to be overtly political, but the recent insistence by creator Todd McFarlane that historically no comic book that has worked has been “trying to get across a message” was largely met by the rolling of eyes.
In the rest of the piece, Sneddon goes on to discuss the level of engagement with politics in their work with Stephen Collins, Joe Sacco, Paul Cornell and Grant Morrison. Obviously, Sacco’s work is some of the most valuable and powerful journalistic work being done in any medium, but’s notable that writers like Cornell and Morrison, who mostly write genre comics, are constantly being asked about the bigger meaning in their work, or claiming that it has a bigger meaning, a claim which a lot of people in the indie comics community would also scoff at.
And yet, it does seem that indie comics and cartoonists are rarely examined in a larger contextual way. This is possibly because the content involves a lot of what some call introspection, and others emo shoegazing—even the greatest one—and maybe because this kind of analysis if of a secondary interest of most of those creating and consuming indie comics? And to be fair, a lot of indie comics are created by an ethnically homogenous groups of suburban white kids. When they stray too far away from writing what they know, as Craig Thompson did with Habibi, the results aren’t awesome. Even a work as great as Building Stories is a personal story—on a most simplistic level, it’s telling us that it’s better to have a happy marriage than lie in bed every night wondering if you should kill yourself.
BTW, I’m not advocating for change here—like I said in the beginning, indie comics now exist in a wonderland where personal expression is the biggest concern, and that’s a beautiful, priceless thing that will eventually lead to even more powerful works. If I were to peg a second interest in art comics at the moment, it would probably be formalism. Critics like Santoro are most excited by the immediate emotional impact of comics art, up to and including printing techniques, an attitude that stems from the fine arts background of a lot of comics commentators and publishers, as well as being the primary focus of Ware and his admirers. (Mathias Wivel’s essay on Habibi quickly shifts from examining its politics to criticizing its inking technique.) And this isn’t in any sense wrong—there is ALREADY a huge tradition of comics, as Sneddon suggests, that deals with politics, subversion and radical ideas and they are rolling right along in various formats.
Still, I’m wondering if this riot of esthetic choices is ever going to be nailed down a bit more. As the world of comics explodes, I find myself lacking the critical background to even comprehend it sometimes. This was brought home to me the other day at my other job, when I was editing a review of Anya Davidson’s School Spirits. I had assigned a review of the book to one of my Publishers Weekly reviewers (who are anonymous by design) but when I got the review back it was pretty clear that he didn’t get the book at all, even though he liked it. As I read the book and struggled to bring the review more in line with useful analysis, I realized that I wasn’t even sure where to begin.
The book is published by Picturebox, which goes heavy into the fine-art formalism school I’ve been talking about—publisher Dan Nadel also co-edits The Comics Journal website, and published Santoro, so there’s an axis emerging there. Davidson contributed to Kramer’s Ergot so there’s another axis there. The Picturebox website describes School Spirits as “Beavis and Butthead meets James Joyce’s Ulysses,” which sounds promising and yet could be applied to almost anything, since Beavis and Butthead and James Joyce between them encompass most of 20th century art and literature. Davidson isn’t a cartoonist I’m particular familiar with, although I find her work fun to look at. Her narrative is dreamlike in its non sequiturs, but the art is more like, well maybe Johnny Ryan by way of Gary Panter if they met up at a tiki bar. It definitely approaches the “New Narrative” style that people were talking about in regards to things like Kazimir Strzepek and C.F. a few years ago. (That isn’t actually what it was called, but there is no “Guide to the Schools of Indie COmics” entry on Wikipedia.)
The failing I’m flailing around with above is all mine and not Davidson’s—I’m sure it doesn’t matter if she considers herself in the “new narrative” school or the “Kramer’s Ergot School” or the Chicago School, or whatever. She’s uniquely her own thing, and if that’s a detriment for someone writing a short review for a trade publication, it’s a virtue in every other arena. The most energizing thing about comics these days is you don’t have to be in any school. Each and every gem of a comic seems to exist in its own, infinite, contextless universe. This is also a product of the extreme hybridization of all forms as well. The “international style” of comics that is gaining ground in the actual mainstream (libraries and books) is one that draws equally from America, European and Manga influences, and the internet insists we mash everything up all at once all the time. Context seems to have less and less inherent value against this backdrop where immediate emotional resonance is the currency. Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes comics one of the most vibrant and relatable mediums of the day.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.