The highlight of my 2008 NY ComicCon experience was easily the panel featuring Scott McCloud and Doug Rushkoff, moderated by NYU associate arts professor Marianne Petit. McCloud is the well-known comics theorist behind Understanding Comics, and Rushkoff is a frequent lecturer, writer and media theorist who’s a comics creator in his own right. I’ll mention a few of the highlights here, but you can catch a recording of the entire talk over at The Daily Cross Hatch.
The conversation between these two was geeky, cerebral, and a pleasure to watch. There was a truly dynamic interplay as the two authors fed off of each other’s energy, like two school kids checking out a new month’s batch of comics on the rack. Scott McCloud in particular couldn’t help but have multiple responses to every new branch of the conversation, to the point of asking Prof. Petit to remember his overflow of responses in a sort of queue as he worked his way through the preceding ideas he’d had.
The bitter pill
One of the most exciting ideas riffed on by the pair at ComicCon is what Scott McCloud called the "the bitter pill, the Rozz Tox Manifesto." The Rozz Tox Manifesto is something that you should go read and understand yourself, but the very distilled gist of it is that artists should embrace capitalism as a mechanism for distribution of their work, and that they can actually be more effectively subversive by getting their ideas into the mainstream than they can by railing against The System from the fringes, trying to persuade others to their cause by the sheer conviction of their belief. The Rozz Tox Manifesto has influenced a huge number of artists who have gone on to get their work out into the public eye where people can be exposed to it, like the manifesto’s author Gary Panter, who was the set designer for Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and Matt Groening of The Simpsons and Life in Hell, who has often spoken about his affinity for the ideas behind the manifesto. Though it was published only a year or two before his death, there’s even a famous portrait of Philip K. Dick wearing a Rozz Tox T-shirt (the photos in yellow here are shots of a replica of that very T-shirt a friend of mine screened).
Zines enter the fold, whether they like it or not
Since seeing Jenna Freedman give a talk at Pratt about radical librarianship and her zine collection at Barnard, I’ve been giving some thought to the role libraries play in this funny game of legitimacy and expression. Jenna’s talk was great, and on the whole a positive one about the change people can affect by working toward a common goal. However, she and the McCloud/Rushkoff combo all briefly touched on a similar idea, which is that institutions like libraries can lend legitimacy to those who seek it, but can also foist it upon those who don’t.
As Jenna pointed out, a lot of zines now being collected in libraries were never written with exposure in mind. They were written first and foremost as a means of self-expression, and perhaps secondarily to be distributed to a small community of like-minded individuals. The same is true of many of the underground comics that are now finding their way into major publishing houses.
Zines are now reviewed quarterly in an LJ column edited by Freedman herself, and graphic novels are becoming more and more mainstream. "Up out of the gutters," as Rushkoff said, and into libraries, big-box bookstores and onto the screens of your local cineplex. And this isn’t just superheros comics, either: indie comics are becoming indie movies too, like Ghost World and Persepolis.
Rozz Tox to the rescue
While I’m a big believer that more is better when it comes to exposing people to unfamiliar ideas, Jenna’s talk convinced me that exposure can sometimes come at a cost, which I hadn’t really considered before. I’m not saying teens and developing artists are necessarily going to turn to other mediums as their outlet for expression because zines and graphic novels have been subsumed by The Establishment, sitting there in the stacks of an academic library. But having their hand-stapled pages cataloged by academic librarians is certainly not the dream of every zinester, and being assigned an LCCN number is probably pretty low on most comic artists’ list. For some artists, this kind of legitimacy libraries lend comes at the cost of credibility.
In short, I never really thought about libraries being The Man. That’s a dramatic way to put it, but the sentiment isn’t too far off from what certain artists and authors believe. I’ll admit I wasn’t losing sleep over this, but the notion was on my mind for a couple of days before going to ComicCon and hearing these guys talk. The Rozz Tox Manifesto is neither a counterargument nor a solution to this moral quandary, but rather a different perspective on a similar problem Gary Panter identified in the late 70s and early 80s.
In a way, re-discovering the Rozz Tox Manifesto allayed my fears, and re-convinced me that getting this stuff out there is in everybody’s best interest. As Doug Rushkoff said, "I’d rather live in a world where The Simpsons is mainstream than a world where Father Knows Best is mainstream," and this editor would rather live in a world where zines and graphic novels are in the hands of as many readers as possible.