Working on Johnny Bullet and exploring the world of Web comics has made me realized that we are in the middle of a new golden age for comics. I call this period of comic renewal nouveau comics. Nouveau comics is about the integration of cultural politics inside of comics. It’s not about the fight for identity politics, although that is part of it. Nouveau comics are driven by the reading needs and tastes of a wider range of comic readers than in the past. Many of those comics focus on previously excluded groups such as backs and gays.
There are a few forces shaping nouveau comics. The first is manga. Manga has been in North America and Europe for 25 years now. It has allowed a new range of readers to make comics their own hobbies. More than super heroes, manga has invaded and almost overtaken every genre where it has landed. Manga, by default covers a wide range of interests and topics. Yet, it abstracts this content in a way that is easily marketable and engaging for readers. Manga is not as iconic or symbolic as super hero comics. Yet, it is easy consume – if not easier and bland enough that any reader can identify with Japanese characters.
These Japanese characters are not drawn as Asians. They may be blond, reds or have blue hair. It doesn’t matter. Anyone can identify with the wide-eye characters whose emotions and inner turmoil often drives the story. Much of nouveau comics draws from this and combines it with a newfound freedom about what comics can be created which has been supported with electronic comics – mostly Web comics.
I’m loathe to say that technology determines genres and how society evolves over time. Instead, what I notice is how marginalized group have taken over the possibilities afforded by Web comics and the Internet to deliver the kind of comics that they want to read, be they wet dream stories about their favourite super heroes fighting the good fight while acknowledging their own queer sexuality. For example, Alex Woolfson’s The Young Protectors features a teenage team of super heroes fighting against a vicious villain. One of the heroes was tricked into a gay relationship with the villain. When looking at the comic, all I can see is Marv Wolfan and George Pérez’s New Teen Titans. The young hero Red Hot is Kid Flash and the evil Annihilator is Deathstroke the Terminator. But in this comic book series, Kid Flash can have sex with Deathstroke the Terminator, and then fight him on the battlefield.
Woolfson’s The Young Protectors is highly popular super hero material that could not have been published 15 years ago. Now, it is standard fare and widely supported by comic readers online. Access to an audience without the traditional filters of the print world has allowed new stories to be told. Nevertheless, Web comics do not have the exclusivity on nouveau comics. Larger publishers have been experimenting recently with ways to include other readers. Archie Comics has been the most vocal with destroying everything we knew about its old characters. First, it allowed Archie’s world to change. Now, it is changing the classic look that was the series’ signature for over 50 years. When I asked the late Archie publisher Michael Silberkleit in 2006 if Jughead was gay, he brushed me off and gave me a bland corporate answer. Today, Archie promotes Kevin Keller and earns awards for its so-called progressive focus on a comic featuring a gay teen. In 2006, my question annoyed Archie executives. Today, it pays their bills.
There is more to nouveau comics than queer contents and a spotlight on women and ethnic minorities. The very definition of what a comic is changing. For example, digital comics has inspired Tapastic to force the vertical webtoon comic layout on its creators. This format is optimized for mobile scrolling. Yet, it is totally impractical for a printed comic. But it seems that the need to be printed is the least worry of many of the creators that engage with nouveau comics. They optimize the reading experience for electronic readers first. And readers support these vertical comics in droves to the extent that anything else on Tapastic fairs badly until it is reformatted vertically. While I find the vertical layout of the Korean webtoon totally limited in terms of classic comic storytelling, nouveau comics readers don’t care. Their comics literacy and knowledge does not extend to the golden age. Their comics in both style and format have to deliver for now.
This is a feeling shared by their young millennial creators who often have no clue to the rich storytelling past of comics and just improvise on the spot instead of relying on Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, Roy Crane or Will Eisner. This of course, transforms me into one of those old foggies who keep saying – “back in my days comics were...” and that is a fun thing! I never thought I’d be one of those old foggies annoyed by the lack of comics culture and reverence to the past of today’s readers. I always thought of myself as one of the most progressive guy in comics!