Tuesday, March 04, 2008

In Praise of Pioneers

A recent discussion at an Internet watering hole got me thinking about pioneering cartoonists, comic book artists and writers, and the lack of respect they get. The business has always been cruel to its veterans--comic books much more than comic strips, I think, but both find new voices more compelling, new styles more diverting. They eat their old. That's the way of the world, the way of business, and I understand it. I expect a profit-driven publisher (and publishers who aren't profit-driven don't publish long) to put out what sells.

What pains me is that fans go along.

The newspaper comic strip is just over a century old. Comic books have a history almost as long--at first, many of them existed to reprint newspaper strips--but turned a corner when Superman debuted in 1938, 70 years ago this June. Before the invention of television, comic strips were a major mass medium of entertainment and cartoonists were stars. Millions of comic books were sold every month during the "Golden Age" that began with World War II and lasted about a decade after (again, probably not coincidentally ending with the proliferation of TV). Into the 1970s, comics and cartoons were important and popular cultural touchstones in a way that many, including I, believe they haven't been since and probably won't be again.

That wasn't that long ago! A lot of very creative people who did that work are still alive. A few of them would still love to work. Not many of them get the opportunity.

Attending the big San Diego Comic-Con the past three years, I've gotten used to seeing cartooning pioneers sitting ignored in Artist's Alley, their view blocked by a long line waiting to meet the superstar wunderkind sitting at the next table. I dunno.... I've got no business telling people what to like. But to me, being a fan of something means having an appreciation of its history and the contributions of those who came before. To me, those fans lining up at the wrong table are like baseball fans who worship Barry Bonds but have never heard of Willie Mays.

(It's not the same thing, but I remember reading about a convention whose guests included "Star Trek" actors and Apollo astronauts. The actors drew huge crowds while the astronauts sat alone, chuckling to each other that fans would rather meet people who pretended to explore space than those who actually had.)

I can't say that the experienced pioneers deserve work; that's for the market to decide. But they deserve acknowledgement and respect. I've been lucky to meet a few. I never know what to say and I'm sure I always manage to sound like an idiot fanboy. It seems to come down to "thank you for your work, it means a lot to me," which is pretty weak but I think is better than nothing.

I'd take Willie Mays any day.

Top to bottom: Jerry Robinson, Irwin Hasen and Gene Colan,
talented pioneers and gracious gentlemen all. Look 'em up.


1 comment:

Mike Lynch said...

You're preaching to the choir, my friend! Well said -- and it needs to be said!