Ghost Comics Festival debuted on Oct. 27 in Glasgow. Co-founded by João Sobral, Jessica Taylor and Julia Scheele, the fair was the first of its kind in Scotland— an arena to browse, discuss and even create alternative comics. The free and local event featured an array of work from cartoonists, comic collectives and small press operations in the Glasgow area. Along with an impressive lineup of exhibitors were opportunities for visitors to get involved, including a Collective Wall Comic inviting both creative professionals and enthusiastic readers to draw on panels as well as participate in puppet-making, screen-printing and comic workshops. Sobral, owner of the indie micropublisher and editor at O Panda Gordo, organized Ghost Comics in hopes of promoting what many perceive as a dying, long-dead or feeble art form. He explains, “I think the comics industry is full of people who’ve tried it, and then never done it again because what’s the point really if no one seems to care?” He says that he is “obsessed with comics in such a way that seeing talented people give it up makes [him] sad” (It’s Nice That, “Ghost Comics Festival Shines a Light on Glasgow’s Alternative Comic Scene,” 10.26.2018). Doubtless many other comics fans share in Sobral’s wistfulness for industry losses. There is a popular idea that Anglo-American comics are not what they used to be and, in turn, turmoil is increasing among die-hard readers. For example, many consider Comic-Con International superficial or corrupted by popular forces, more a costume gala than a cross section of comics culture. They lament over shop closings and criticize new stories and crossovers. Supposedly, small press publishers and the comics industry as it should be are doomed.
However outspoken these comic-book purists are, the numbers say otherwise. As graphic novels have outgrown superhero stories, the North American industry made more than $1 billion in 2017, as opposed to about $850 million in 2012. European actors like Europe Comics, a digital venue run by 13 publishers, and the French Comics Association are breaking into the American market. Comic book events such as MoCCA Arts Fest in New York and the D.C.based Small Press Expo enjoy increasing popularity (Publishers Weekly, “Selling Graphic Novels In a Changing American Marketplace,” 10.19.2018). We’ve experienced a renaissance of sorts in non-superhero graphic novels ever since the publication of series like “Bone and Amulet.” In the United Kingdom, independent publishers experienced a 79 percent increase in sales last year (The Guardian, “Small Indie Publishers Report Booming Sales,” 11.20.2017). Small stores like Comics Conspiracy in Sunnyvale, CA, have experienced an uptick in sales and an expanded, younger audience. Diamond Comic Distributors, which works with larger-scale creators, has noted a rise in the number of constituent stores over the past three years. Digital platforms for reading comics are now readily available.
Not only is any distress over the death of comics unfounded, but it also stems from the perception of comics as artless, silly, just for kids and even harmful. Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada explained to Wired Magazine, “This kind of doom-and-gloom thinking started with Dr. Fredric Wertham, which then trickled into American society in general. For decades, comics were labeled a dumbed-down kids medium. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.” Wertham’s book “Seduction of the Innocent” created a comics scare based on “corrupting the children!”, immoral images and scantily clad superheroes, which prompted publishers to form the Comics Code Authority (Wired, “Does Comics Culture have an Inferiority Complex?” 07.17.18). Under the Comics Code Authority, major American comics underwent pre-publication review for “unacceptable” content. The Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency even conducted an investigation into the comic books industry. (CLBDF.com, “Comics Code History: The Seal of Approval,” 11.09.12) American superhero series from this regulatory era tend to be considered the best of their kind by panicked purists. This erases the bounty of alternative and underground comics we see today.
Efforts like Ghost Comics Festival serve to support independent artists, directly engage small-press readership and show that comic books, zines and strips are as much works of art as are the paintings in the MoMA, as much works of literature as those on our reading lists for English class. Alternative comics are a reflection of local character, as seen in the creations of artists like Edinburgh-based Gloria Oyster, who exhibited at Ghost Comics. (Oyster records her misadventures in customer service and dialogues about the balding effects of hair dye she picks up around Scotland.) The non-superhero genre also captures people’s idiosyncrasies, humanity’s foibles, in a lighter, more accessible way than thick volumes. Not to mention, they are beautiful to look at. Cartoons extend from the mundane and simply physical (exhibitor Grace Wilson illustrates her pinching her stomach rolls in a dressing room) to the mad (as seen in Marvel and DC, of course, as well as the dreamy drawings of Glasgowbased Kathryn Macdonald). Such is one of our most creative methods of storytelling, of showing off artistry both literary and visual.
The “doom-and-gloom thinking” Quesada mentioned only manages to stir panic among readers. Particularly, we must not submit to the idea that the heyday of comics is past. On the contrary, one of our most valuable art forms is booming.