John Robbins mends his politely subservient programming and gets passionate in his opposition to the leading paradigms in the distortion of small press ethos.
That glimmer of interaction between creator and reader which small press publishing offers is often the essential element or hook that provides the ammunition for seduction of an audience. Small press material over-reliant on this gregarious aspect would fail dismally to satisfy if removed from the context of direct supply. It is ironic then that the very factor which provides small press with its greatest advantage over mainstream publication is responsible for a deluge of creators unable to discern encouragement from genuine praise as they glow with the effusive adulation of an audience relishing the creator-to-reader ratio and primarily reacting to the personal touch of direct supply. Ultimately, creators starved of constructive criticism and/or opinion that closer resembles the true worth of their work relax into a satisfied stupor and fail to strive to improve the quality of their output with anything resembling the necessary conviction.
This tendency toward overblown comment - caught up in the protocols and complicity of the small press milieu - is predominant amongst ingratiating creators, and with criticism frowned upon there is little to interrupt the masturbatory sessions of mutual back-patting which give rise to a kind of closed community syndrome, wherein creators lapse into a blinkered self-involvement, cultivating over-inflated opinions of their abilities, and developing an eagerness to write or draw effortlessly at the expense of dedication. This budding hack is fuelled by little more than the desperation for a sense of celebrity, and must be destroyed.
Oftentimes there is a misconception among small press creators that they are rebels with suppressed talent, struggling against the might of the inferior mainstream and producing work of greater substance. This romanticised view also alludes to a notion that any production of material beneath the small press umbrella is somehow underground in nature. In truth, most small press efforts concerned with comics - and comix - bear little or no resemblance to those genuine underground publications that reflect counter-culture sensibilities through the conventions of the comic strip form. The true underground makes no concessions to mainstream publication; more often than not it is occupied with individual creative expression encapsulated in the discussion of taboo subjects, of jaundiced society, and of a neurosis tinged excavation of the soul. Rarely are these dressed in spandex and bestowed with powers of invulnerability. No, they are stripped naked, made real, and sent out into an over-entertained world.
Not to suggest that the superhero genre is incapable of producing examples of first-rate, complex work, but fundamentally it exists as disposable entertainment, even when providing the intellectual shape-throwing or sci-fi guise convenient to allowing adults indulge in what essentially is just more cool power-fantasy. Indeed, the substantial works occur in spite of the genre, and are the exception, not the rule. Yes, Watchmen is excellent, and proves that the provision of power fantasy through the vehicle of the superhero genre is not necessary; but then, for those very same reasons - and for the inherent satirical quality and portrayal of the superhero in extremis - one would question the legitimacy of the work as being of that genre. Perhaps the connection is purely cosmetic, and the result of a marketing logic dictated by an expectant comics audience.
By its nature, the superhero genre panders to a juvenile audience with set formulas that provide the genre with its labelling. There is little room for manoeuvre beyond choosing from inspiration provided by the five year re-workings cycle; a cycle that potentially offers fresh creators and readers variety of definition of juvenile superhero mythology - adapted and repackaged with enhanced visuals and textual verisimilitude to target specific age groups - before reaching the limits of development and again commencing the re-workings cycle. With adult sustenance found elsewhere, comics is the medium of choice for the older reader attentive to the demands of their inner child; the result of which is that renewed interest in the concept of grown-up comics is cited as evidence of the ascendance of popular culture, and a barometer by which the anti-intellectual age can be measured.
Small press that resort to an ingrained preference for mainstream values exhibit little ambition beyond reflecting the business of mainstream, and speak of a creator's desire for both professional and mercenary status, as well as the desire for celebrity. While a degree of outside awareness that a person exists in a creative context accounts for a part of the motivation to self-publish, the vanity-buzz of satisfaction derived from such a non-artistic achievement - and the chance to advertise as creator or artist - is probably closer to the raison d'etre. But playing at creator, or at publisher, choosing to avoid the effort of writing or drawing well by self-imposing deadlines, is agreeable only to those of similar mind: small press enthusiasts/publishers less interested in creative development than in community and mutual backslapping, and more likely to read and eulogise about the creator of- and audience/distribution for- Super Powered Man or Knobbed Shit than read the work itself.
In part, this bubble of mutual adoration is inflated by the desperation to confer meaning on our lives, but mostly it is inflated by daydreams; self-indulgences utilised as legitimate escapes from the daily humdrum. Fair enough - dreams aren't necessarily there to be realised, but are to maintain optimism; they fill an emotional gap, represent a stubborn refusal to accept limitations, and feed our courage to carry off the ordinary, everyday challenges we face. However, over-indulge them and we're not just willing self-deceivers on a grand scale, but the person we are is selling short the person we'd like to be. A little perspective is required; and a mindfulness of our capacity to manufacture from the facts a narrative that corresponds with our particular views - psychologists ordain it conformation bias: seeking evidence that confirms one of your already-set opinions - which wrongly attempts to elevate nebulous successes into indisputable kudos, and excites a loss of contact with reality, the very madness that a small press bubble facilitates.
(Revealingly, the same processes that lead to madness in some, may result in extraordinary creativity and inventiveness in others. Creative individuals are more open to incoming stimuli from the surrounding environment due to possessing low levels of latent inhibition – defined by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology as an animal's unconscious capacity to ignore stimuli that experience has shown are irrelevant to its needs. Says psychology professor Jordan Peterson: The normal person classifies an object, and then forgets about it, even though that object is much more complex and interesting than he or she thinks. The inability to properly filter incoming or internal stimuli and information sources has been linked to psychosis.)
The lure of creating within mainstream parameters proves irresistible for the small press publisher eager for the chance to be adaptable to the strictures of an intrusive company bent on product development. In the current mainstream climate of committee created adventures - where the loudest voice in the creative process is that of the marketing department - it is perhaps conceivable that the freedom small press publishing enjoys might present the opportunity to avoid the derivative stuff of the mainstream. It is the existence of this stuff within small press publishing that dilutes the challenge of contra-comics and further limits both the possibilities and the appeal of small press, and acts as aversion therapy to the comics medium in general.
Perhaps the small press publisher that fails to escape the restraints of the mainstream - by choosing to waste time regurgitating the homogeneous material which prompts tired comics fans to turn to the alternatives in the first place - nurtures a misdirected optimism, and entertains belief that he/she can reach an audience not yet caught in the mainstream miasma? Edge-less and comfortable, polished but pedestrian, mainstream-mirrored small press employs a formula of emotion-by-numbers, producing work sterilized by an ambition to reach the widest audience; one most likely blinded to the appeal of out-of-the-ordinary material - oblique beyond immediate calculation - by lack of provision of regular intellectual stimulation through comics.
Though convenient to reduce the mainstream/small press divide to a simplistic condition - commercial success through artistic subservience versus admirable failure as a consequence of a refusal of the artistic compromises necessary for commercial success – verily, small press should never concern itself with numbers; the mainstream exists to serve the largest numbers with material least offensive to that audience. Small press success is measured not in issues sold, but in feedback garnered – i.e. feedback of substance; not the flirtations of a reader seeking to connect with a creator's vanity - its survival only an issue in the absence of this feedback, or if creators succumb to ingrained sensibilities as coloured by the business of mainstream publishing. A publication - be it with a print run of dozens or millions - that finds an appreciative audience - be it dozens or millions - via the passing around of a single copy, is neither going to register positively with the mainstream, nor with the small presser concerned with the business of mainstream.
Ideally, small press should cater to personal tastes, have cult appeal, not mass appeal, and should exist not as a display for transitional creators with mainstream ambition, or as a venue for publicly honing their craft, but as a genuine artistic preference and ennobling resistance to mainstream involvement; as a legitimate platform for exploring the choices that set us apart even as we are compelled to draw connections in an attempt to link ourselves to one another; as a thriving community/network of visionary subversives and no-men who utilise the potential to produce the kind of work that absolute freedom allows, and in any form, in any mix of their choosing - the sky's the limit!
Don't let flying heroes limit your sky.
Originally published as Leaflit #30, Oct. 2000
(Revised Nov. 2009)