On the rare occasions I step out of my bubble (or, I don’t even need to: sometimes the call is coming from inside the house), I time-travel to the era before the rise of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, etc, and encounter publishing or academic or institutional or creative people who think comics are not a valid art form or even a medium. Despite the fact comics are flourishing in the US, already a core part of literature in Europe and Japan, accessible to a varied audience, and proving itself a strong representational medium for a variety of issues/topics/experiences. But I don’t have to reiterate the statistics and official articles and journals to confirm this. It should be as mundanely acceptable a phenomenon as prose books and films in the global cultural consciousness, because it already is a part of said consciousness.
I don’t mind doing the ‘Comics are literature/an art form/a medium’ dance if the situation calls for it in good faith, if I’m the only voice from that side of the arts. In fact, I actually love talking about comics and showing people what a great, accessible, forgiving medium of storytelling it is. You only need paper and pencil, and they can be dirt cheap. (That’s how I started as a kid, with lined school notebooks and whatever’s in my pencil case) You can make an inspired fictional epic, or document your travels, your day-to-day, etc. I am happy to present people these possibilities. I want to empower the public so that they can engage in art (whether it’s comics or singing or anything) mundanely, because it’s an ancient part of humanity since prehistory, and they don’t need to be a genius or perfect or a member of the white-walled space to have their art and the art of others recognised, seen, valid.
But then I trip over a gatekeeper who is invested in something? (the high-mindedness of the Arts; the disgust over the contamination of public access; preconceived notions of what Art is, what Artists should look like, even though it’s an artificial construct) and my feral monkey nature awakens.
Fortunately I haven’t come across someone who deserves the bad luck of experiencing my wrath, yet I have experienced dismissive attitudes. Most of the time it’s usually well-intentioned allies who kinda get the spirit even if they accidentally perpetuate old attitudes. Like how comics are valid because they promote reading in “struggling” readers or children in general, which… yes true, except only hawking that line of thinking still traps comics as a stepping stone or beginner’s level towards Better, More Legitimate, More Grown Up forms of reading (y’know, like prose?).
Besides, it’s not as if prose books can’t promote reading in “struggling” readers too. The real issue is always about the choices educators make in their school syllabus and the condescending, forceful attitude adults have towards what stories children or anyone should consume to be seen as legitimate readers or appreciators of art. But I digress. 🙂
Going beyond the ‘stepping stone’ line of thinking is to talk about how comics are just one medium of storytelling (for creators) and experiencing (for audiences) among many, with its own particular craft, devices, ways of seeing/thinking/reading and material peculiarities. It’s already like that in Western Europe and Japan, where comics are as mundane and deserving of appreciation as movies. There’s no need to argue for anything (at least, not as part of the job) because everyone is chill and has a diverse enough, open enough attitude towards media. Even if detractors exist.
At this point, honestly, I am gradually losing my interest to specifically dance for people who don’t have an open-minded approach towards media, towards comics in particular. It’s not my fault if they haven’t gotten with the times, if they consciously choose to narrow their world and close off their knowledge towards new experiences, in favour of maintaining some purity of thought. (though I’ll not bother anybody if comics are genuinely not their taste; like, I don’t read religious self-help books, for example, or even engage in the science fiction genre. They are both just not my taste. Doesn’t mean they aren’t valid. No need for moral justification here.)
It’s a teacher’s dilemma; do you expend your energy teaching an audience who is completely non-receptive to your subject? One person only has limited time and energy afterall. The risk of diverting limited resource to a walled-off audience is that it comes at the expense of the engaged one. So what’s the best solution? My opinion is that teacher should try to engage with both, in a way that completely dedicates their entire energy to the receptive audience, while still opening the door for the non-receptive audience to eavesdrop and allow in a few converts. So that’s what I am doing in regards to comics.
It’s a common frustration among comics creators that there are still people — even people who love entertainment and stories, who also work in publishing — who can’t recognise the labour behind our work, who see our medium as lesser due to its proximity to the public and its transcience (as if those are bad qualities; what do they think those ancient objects in the museum are??). We still have one foot in the Comics Code era when comics were seen solely as junk food, brain rotting content, which has trickled down to this decades-long negative attitude towards the medium which we’re slowly recovering from.
And I share that frustration too. It’s just that I channel it indirectly by being very transparent about my process, writing this blog, actively documenting Alexander Comic and hopefully one day, produce half-pedadogical material. Plus collaborating with supporters from different mediums and disciplines, through panels, through UNNAMED, through anything.
Yes, it’s another kind of dance. Though it’s not explicitly for the non-receptive audience. It’s not a dance that is dancing in shapes and motions cynically targeted to please or convince the gatekeepers. It’s a dance I am already doing when I am alone, when nobody is seeing, just with the curtains open nowadays. It’s primarily for myself as a way to archive my body of work, to have a record of how I used to make things in 2010, 2020, etc, to provide context for something. It’s for the folks in good faith, for newcomers, for the public. If they take away anything from my transparency, it should be knowledge, and if they want to dance their dance too using the stuff I gave them, then they are welcome. I really don’t care.
The reason I do this is because I don’t like gatekeeping or purposely hiding knowledge, as I was (and still am) often on the receiving end of such nonsense. I am marginalised, I am from the global south, most things are inaccessible to me. I’m forever grateful to the authors and scholars who have been generous to the public with their wisdom, their resources, their tools, their attitudes. That openness developed my career. So I’m paying it forward, by being as open as possible to the next generation.
At least with all of my openly-available documentation and articles and materials, I can rest assured that if anyone remains intentionally ignorant in my face, it’s not my problem. It says more about them, than about me or my medium. That’s one less thing to worry about.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She creates the webcomics The World in Deeper Inspection, and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya; the latter of which is the first Malaysian graphic novel to be Eisner-nominated.
Currently writing and drawing a whole bunch of stuff. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur
Who knows ??