Riding Shotgun: Funnybooks in the Lexicon of American Culture

Comics, the friend you never knew you had.

It’s a pompous title, I know, but this is going to be a two-parter, so I figure I’m entitled to pull out a few of the five-dollar words. There’s nothing shameful in using a dictionary. I know I’ve got one permanently handcuffed to my wrist.

By now this site has seen one or two pieces of mine under the heading “Riding Shotgun.” For those wondering about the meaning of that particular title, a minor history lesson is in order. Before “riding shotgun” referred to scoring the passenger seat in your buddy’s Buick, it was a term denoted to the man sitting next to the horseman on Western stagecoaches. While the driver was occupied guiding the horses, the gunman would keep an eye out for danger — Injuns, bandits, thieves, etc. — and promptly sent a barrelful of buckshot into them if necessary.

Consider this column a modern-day lookout for the details in the landscape of American pop culture that you might want to pay attention to: movies, books, events, whatever. I’ll continue to send the odd movie review (I do see a god-awful amount of movies, after all), but I’ll also do my best to ferret out those things that might not catch your attention otherwise. It’s doubtful that any of these will jump out from behind a cactus to steal your gold or rape your women (physically or metaphorically), but they might be worth slowing down to take a look at.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a genre of American art/entertainment that goes relatively unnoticed in a culture that pays so much attention to its pastimes: the comic book.

Don’t snigger. I know you’re doing it, or at least thinking of doing it.

“Comic books,” you say with barely disguised disgust, “are not art. They are barely entertainment, and are only read by pimply, post-pubescent, overweight teenage boys obsessed with mammary-enhanced heroines in Spandex.”

Two things. First, since when are overly sensitive, socially outcast teenagers not a good judge of art and entertainment? They did, after all, pull into popularity Beat poetry, the work of Andy Warhol, punk rock and the entire Internet culture, which has made the reading of this article possible.

And if you believe that well-dressed, popular sports enthusiasts who have a shiny, happy childhood will ever be the divining rod for relevant, long-lasting cultural phenomena … well, than you’re probably wearing at least one article of clothing from Old Navy and have raved to your friends about the masterful words of John Grisham.

Everyone else, ignore the previous three paragraphs.

Comics have long been a way to test the waters of the American psyche. The Golden Age of comics in the 40s and 50s saw the coming of age of the concept of the superhero. During a time when the world was at war and belts were tight, the public loved reading about tales of men who were more than men fighting villains intent on taking over the world. It allowed an escape from the common man’s feelings of impotence towards a fast-changing world.

Superman gave little boys hope in a world that had lost much of its innocence. Captain America showed that even a 90-pound weakling could grow up to be a super-soldier.

The 60s and 70s, also known as the Silver Age of comics, saw the birth of the anti-hero. These new characters were unknown to the spit-shined heroes of a generation before. Spider-Man was a lonely and bumbling teen — a model for the fans that were drawn to him. The X-Men, a band of genetically-mutated teenagers, dealt with issues of racial and cultural alienation when the entire country was wondering what to do with those darn women and minorities. Coinciding with this was a subculture of independent comic publications (see R. Crumb) that made a niche in underground pop culture by painting pictures of political and social satire.

It wasn’t until the 90s that comics finally began to make themselves known as an entertainment juggernaut of massive proportions. The past decade saw the industry expand at an exponential rate. Fifteen years ago, you’d have been lucky to find 50 mainstream titles even at your local comic book store. Now, there are hundreds, not counting the locals and independents that can be found emanating from any populated area.

Two companies, Marvel and DC Comics, held a virtual monopoly on the industry for over 30 years. The 90s saw a dozen substantial new upstart companies, often begun by former employees of Marvel and DC who were unsatisfied with the limitations imposed by an industry that felt they could control the writers and artists simply by being the only game in town.

Out of that dissatisfaction came Image, Dark Horse, Wildstorm and a dozen other companies that managed to create top-ten titles. Some of those have already been absorbed and bought out, but the changes they created are permanent.

Those changes included the discovery that the existing market was hardly saturated. There was a demand for more variety to a wider audience. Companies began routinely creating titles with complex, mature themes geared towards an older readership. Classic comic titles underwent resurgence in popularity with movies like Batman and X-Men, and Daredevil, Spiderman, The Hulk and Superman, which are in production. The Avengers even did a “Got Milk” ad. How’s that for mainstream?

The end result is an industry and an artform that’s matured faster than people’s perceptions of it. And the genre is being rediscovered everyday by the grown-up versions of the children that left it behind in their youth.

“So, what the fuck now?” you might ask.

Is it possible for someone who hasn’t picked up a comic book in a decade to jump back in? And if there are so many titles now, what’s worth checking out? Well, we’ll look at that in the next installment, tentatively titled “These Are Not Your Father’s Comic Books,” where I’ll give you a tour of the most interesting, violent, borderline obscene comics on the market, and maybe a few that you can bring home to meet your parents.

Article © 2001 by Steve Spotswood