Part of a necessary-at-the-time assault I made on competent boy comics in 2015/16. There is an accompanying comic here.
Part 1. Competent boy comics - an explanation
I am allergic to competent boy comics. I recognise them by an involuntary physical reaction, a stomach ache and an oh-dear-not-this-again heaviness in my limbs. To really look at one requires the summoning of energy, a psyching-up, a resigned determination. And when I do look, inevitably my eyes cannot focus. My vision slips and slides all over the surface, unable to really grip anything. I get a headache and then I experience a kind of general vomity despondence.
None of this though is very helpful for non-allergic readers who wish to identify competent boy comics for themselves. So in this post I attempt to offer a more reasoned, less visceral list of the style’s key attributes (developed by me rather valiantly after two days reading competent boy comics closely, and then a corresponding two days in my sickbed).
I acknowledge the following list is nebulous, and that comics I do enjoy often feature one or more of the things on it. I think true competence lies in the combination of all that follows (but as I said, you can only really tell by the stomach ache).
Anyway, here’s what I think are the characteristics of competent boy comics:
The desire to be ‘liked’, especially by the masses and by any type of celebrity. The notion of a wide and admiring audience is paramount and probably the competent boy comic’s single most defining feature. It is the driver for many of the other things on this list.
Uniformly proficient drawing. This encompasses a wide variety of drawn things (characters, objects, actions, settings) which although stylized, are generally representative of things as they look or are understood to look (like dragons or superheroes) in the real world. The things look consistently the same in different frames and contexts, and conventional notions of scale and perspective are utilised.
Work that is pleasant to look at. There is a kind of ‘auteur-lite’ aspect where it is desirable for an individual competent boy comic artist to be recognisable by their work, but this must be tempered by agreeability. It is important that individual style not be too singular or extreme.
The notion of comics as a storytelling medium. The comics form is subsumed by attempts to achieve this and content is the most important thing. Frames, speech bubbles, the interaction of text and image are not intrinsically valuable, they are just tools for managing narrative. Competent boy comics desire the reader be enveloped in the story and do not draw attention to their own construction.
Adherence to the established conventions of whatever genre the competent boy comic happens to be in. This is again about the emphasis of content over form, and making the story comfortable and accessible for audiences.
Logical linear narratives that unfold sequentially over an articulated period of time. Traditional commercial Western storytelling techniques are utilised (a protagonist with problems, developed characters, peaks and troughs in the pacing etc.) Stories may be fantastic but they are still sensible via the very important mechanism of cause and effect (if a character has feelings or superpowers or undertakes a particular action, we’re shown why).
An underlying ‘worthiness’ to the story. This is often an exploration by the main character of individual existential-type angst (I am less than perfect and/or my life is in some way complex or hard) but also commonly manifests as the investigation of a (current or historic) social, environmental or political issue or event and/or important person. Jokes, fights, monsters and sex are acceptable and valuable only in regards to the way they contribute to the underlying, more worthwhile idea.
Length. Competent boy comics prefer to be long. This allows for lots of opportunities to showcase traditional storytelling ability and the skilful drawing of multiple things. Competent boy comics generally consider ‘length’ and ‘substance’ to be synonyms.
Easily accessible to audiences. There are lots of professionally printed copies, widely distributed and which stay in print for a long time. They are also part of a canon, made by someone (ideally a ‘professional’) who has over time made lots of other comics, all of which are also easily accessible.
A lack of awareness or acknowledgement of all the previous bullets as a set of situated, value-laden success criteria. Competent boy comics (offensively) naturalise themselves simply as ‘comics’, assuming they represent an obvious and universally desired ‘maturity’ regarding the medium(1). Works with different attributes are generally discredited and viewed (sometimes explicitly, sometimes unwittingly) as failed attempts to reach competent boy comic glory(2). (Please note this is quite a different thing from the individual success (or not) of individual competent boy comics as they strive to achieve what’s on this list. As with any human endeavour in any context this varies from work to work).
I am a coeliac. I cannot eat gluten, and I regard a competent boy comic in much the same way as I do a chocolate gateau. I can see they are appropriate in some contexts and that they take time and skill to make. I also do not begrudge the pleasure they obviously give others. It’s simply that both give me the shits. Neither wheat nor competent boy comics are the only way.
(1) This is highlighted by the proliferation of comic-qualifiers in recent years. There are now ‘short comics’, ‘mini comics’, ‘abstract comics’, ‘nonfiction comics’. These prefixes highlight deviations from the implicitly understood (competent boy) ‘comics’ norm.
(2) Competent boy comics do recognise a very small number of specific state-sanctioned ‘other’ comics. These are the exceptions that prove the rule.
Part 2. New Zealand comics are not competent boy comics
“You know, comics can’t actually give you stomach aches” one young earnest comic boy helpfully said to me in response to my last blog post. Other than this most of the feedback has focused on my contention that in Aotearoa/New Zealand competent boy comics have become naturalised as ‘comics’; that their attributes are seen as self-evident indicators of ‘quality’ rather than as a bunch of constructed success criteria reflecting and reinforcing particular values.
Mainly the individual response to my contention has run along the lines of, “but I like all kinds of comics. I like the work of [insert name of non-competent comic boy maker here].” While I guess it is nice to hear that people ‘like’ different comics this does not negate the issue. When I discuss the naturalisation of competent boy comics, I am referring not to the opinions or beliefs of individuals but to a discourse. Discourses aren’t about personal preference. They are shared systems of meaning made up of language, artefacts, institutions and practices that over time gain the status of ‘truth’ and dominate how we constitute and value the different parts of our social world.
To illustrate the competent boy comic discourse in action I refer to five events between 2012 and 2013, all of which purported to represent ‘New Zealand comics’. I believe however they did not so much ‘represent’ New Zealand comics as ‘constitute’ them, working to establish the New Zealand comic ‘truth’ as being that of the competent boy and relegating the status of other comic approaches. One of the (many) ‘relegated’ comic categories is that of comics made by women(1) and in demonstrating my point I’m going to focus specifically on this.
The following table lists the five comic events and the number of women comic artists (actual and percentage-wise) featured in each:
‘New Zealand’ comics event:
Featured Women artists:
The numbers of women represented are low. But these figures in no way reflect the actual number of women comic makers in New Zealand. There are 65 cartoonists in Three Words (an anthology of New Zealand women’s comics). There are also numerous (historic and contemporary) women comic artists and writers not in Three Words (for all kinds of valid reasons). There are more than enough women cartoonists to enable equal gender representation in any of the above contexts.
Why then aren’t more women included? I speculate that although many women make comics, not enough women make the ‘right’ comics and/or make them in the ‘right’ way. That is they do not make comics that can be substantively understood via the competent boy comic discourse framing the five events(2).
Two of the things valued by the competent boy comic discourse are ‘widespread popularity’ and ‘commercial success’. Evidence of this can be found in the media release for the book From Earth’s End which praises ‘New Zealand comics’ for being “…award-winning, internationally recognised…prominent…gaining mainstream recognition…(and) bestselling”(3). Promotion for New Zealand Comics and Graphic Novels takes the same approach, emphasising comics perceived to have, “…significant followings both locally and internationally….” and those “…on best seller lists and winning top book awards”(4). Similar sentiments are expressed in regards to all five events.
Always the desirability of ‘widespread popularity’ and ‘commercial success’ are presented as self-evident; as a motivation and aspiration for all comics and therefore a legitimate means for including and excluding particular works, and for accepting all the disparities (gender and others) that accompany this. Each of the five ‘New Zealand comics’ events recycle the same limited number of qualifying works, privileging the same artists and perpetuating and affirming the discourse. Thus over time competent boy comics are naturalised in the minds of many as the only valid approach, the ‘true’ New Zealand comic.
But they aren’t. And in proving my point I’m going to discuss one final comic event, the 2013 ‘Special New Zealand Edition’ of the biannual Melbourne anthology Dailies. Just like the other books and exhibitions discussed, this work framed itself as ‘New Zealand comics’. The articulated qualifiers were very different however. Instead of works that were ‘popular’ and ‘commercial’ it aimed to showcase “…a community of passionate and unique artists…”(5) The discourse gave agency to the comic makers rather than the comic market and so the works were much more diverse, more ‘representative’. It contained comics that were competent but also cerebral, bewildering, silly, gloriously beautiful and uncomfortably base. In Dailies, the female to male ratio was EQUAL; 26 artists, 13 of whom identified as women.
Competent boy comics are not natural or inevitable. The discourse that says they are is factually incorrect, and to me exclusionary, offensive, dull, and a bit embarrassing in its lack of vision. Competent boy comics are not the same thing as New Zealand comics (and they do give me a stomach ache).
(1) Acknowledging that the concept ‘woman’ can itself be perceived of as a discourse, and that the notion of a ‘comics made by women’ category is problematic.
(2) I do not suggest that all the comics featured in all of the events completely fulfil all the (nebulous) competent boy comic success criteria. However I do feel the works can generally be comprehended to some significant degree via this perspective. Works that are included but which I would generally consider non-competent boy comics (they don’t give me a stomach ache) seem specifically to qualify by virtue of their drawing quality and popularity (mostly via ‘proper’ publishing of the comic and/or awards won by the comic).
Part 3. How competent boy comics tokenise others.
Thank you Stefan, Clayton, Sarah and Sam.
Those readers with a keen eye for footnotes will have noticed that up above (via said footnotes) I allude to the idea that there are some “state sanctioned” exceptions to the New Zealand competent boy comics hegemony. That is, I consider there are a small number of comics that don’t fulfil all the criteria but that the competent boy gatekeepers appear willing to include in their various ‘New Zealand comics’ conversations, events and publications.
I am referring essentially to the practice of tokenism; when an organisation or group, on their own terms, incorporates a limited number of ‘others’ and in doing so appears inclusive and progressive. And I think in the competent boy version of ‘New Zealand comics’, tokenism is rife. I will illustrate this contention with some specific examples, but first want to discuss generally the concept of tokenism as I understand and utilise it in this post.
Tokenism is more ambiguous than the definition suggests. While it is no replacement for true diversity, good things can come from it. For those tokenised, the benefits include visibility which can lead to connection with others and/or genuine opportunities. For the ‘New Zealand comics’ audience, token works do provide at least the glimmer of a world more exciting and interesting than that of the competent boys and a basis for further exploration should individuals be so inclined.
Tokenism can be deliberate or unintentional (I suspect in the case of competent boy comics it is mixture of both) and does not preclude genuine skill on the part of the individual being tokenised, nor genuine admiration on the part of those ‘doing’ the tokenising. So I do not say that the comics I am about to discuss are not worthy of attention, nor that they are not truly loved by individual competent comics boys (and others)(1).
Tokenised objects and the individuals who make them may be admired intrinsically but within the context of a dominant discourse this is not their only worth. They are also valued for their representative purpose. Tokenism places a burden on individuals and/or works to represent all others like them(2). There are some typical ways by which we can recognise tokenism via this representative function. These include (in no particular order):
When a lone ‘other’ is asked repeatedly to speak for their ‘group’ and/or about being a member of that ‘group’.
When the same named individual appears as the ‘representative’ over and over again; when instead of involving many qualified and diverse participants, organisers limit involvement to one or two who are canonized as the most worthy or expert.
When the activity or output of the canonized ‘other’ resembles that of the organisers; it can be comprehended to some significant degree against the values of the dominant paradigm. With competent boy comics I perceive there are two non-negotiables in this regard. These are ‘success’ (the comics are published or win awards or some celebrity says they like them) and the ability to draw in a traditional, things-look-like-things kind of way.
I think all of the above attitudes and behaviours are evident within ‘New Zealand comics’ as promoted by the competent boy comics discourse. I’m going to illustrate this contention with examples regarding women, LGBQT, and punk comic makers (there are others).
First up, punk comics. Whether ‘punk’ is the right word is debatable, but by it I mean comics that are obviously ‘made’ by someone and rejoicing in this. Comics that are a bit brutal, a bit silly, and a bit ugly-beautiful; that don’t care about being universally liked or commercially successful; that are a paradoxical mix of deep-deep- love and don’t-give-a-fuck-ness. The kind of comics I like.
It is interesting that despite all their hard work to make comics as bland and respectable as possible, competent comics boys do cling tightly to romantic notions of the comic as defiant, outlaw and a bit punk. Therefore whenever they organise anything ‘New Zealand comics’ they tend to include a token example, and fairly often this example is Oats.
Oats is a gang of friends who made a lot of comics in the mid-nineties and who make a few comics now. It is my comics gang and it is difficult to describe, coming to me as a series of impressions and feelings - mischievous giggling, the green glow of the photocopier, the smell of Waikato Draught, the furtive handing out of comics at parties, fun, love, and productive rebellion. The competent boy comics discourse has though a different version of Oats. It goes pretty much like this:
Oats is a group with an outsider DIY punk-type aesthetic;
Stefan and Clayton’s comic ‘City of Tales’ is amazing and here’s a City of Tales comic to illustrate;
Some other Oats comics/comic makers exist including xxx;
A few quotes, nearly always one from me (if the Oats exposé is in written form).
The above narrative, while not exactly untrue, has been put through the competent boy comics filter. Thus it fulfils a bunch of tokenism criteria:
First is the ‘canonization’ of Oats and its repeated use as the lone ‘representative’ of punk comics (there are an infinite number of other amazing and diverse New Zealand punk comics and comic-makers that bear no resemblance to anything Oats and are hardly ever acknowledged).
Next is the ‘canonization’ and repeated use of named individuals and their works as the lone ‘representatives’ of Oats (I love Stefan and Clayton with all my heart, and City of Tales is amazing - heartfelt , weird, funny, sad, brutal, beautiful - but there is a whole lot of other Oats stuff).
Third is that the ‘representative’ comic ‘City of Tales’ can be comprehended by the competent comic boys against their own success criteria. It’s ugly but obviously intentionally and skilfully so (Stefan and Clayton can ‘draw’), it’s ‘successful’ (was in the Small Press Expo for example), and you can get it in ‘proper’ book form. (There is much more to City of Tales than this, but these are the parts the competent boys generally ‘get’.)
Finally are my own experiences in regards to the way I am inevitably asked by competent comics boys to speak for Oats or about Oats (this is not the same in other comics sub-cultures where I am asked about all kinds of things). I have mixed feelings about this. I do want the world to know about Oats, and as I said tokenisation brings with it some good things. It is tiresome though to always be approached as a ‘representative’ of other comic-makers and never really as a comic-maker yourself.
When it comes to LGBQT comic-makers, the tokenised, canonized, lone representative individual-of-the-moment is Sam Orchard. Sam does many great non-competent things in his comics, my favourite being the way his characters talk to the reader (I do love a comic that knows it’s a comic!) But as with Stefan and Clayton, Sam can draw things-that-look-like-things and his work is ‘successful’ (available in ‘proper’ books and bookshops). And again, a whole lot of other LGBQT comic-makers are ignored. This country’s proud history of radical feminist lesbian cartoonists for example, is consistently and upsettingly invisible in any competent boy comics ‘New Zealand comics’ narrative.
Competent boy comics tokenism is probably most stark in relation to women comic-makers. Like the radical feminist lesbian comic-makers of the previous paragraph, the discourse renders most female cartoonists invisible, acknowledging only one or two specific individuals. This is forcefully illustrated by the following handy real-life anecdote: “Hey!” I said recently to a competent boy comics gatekeeper, “why weren’t there any women in that New Zealand comics thing you organised?!” Without a trace of irony, he replied “Sarah Laing wasn’t available”.
Sarah is my friend. She is also the most recent of a small number of canonized female comic makers whose work somehow satisfies the competent boy comics criteria and who are therefore considered ‘important’. In this capacity Sarah is often called upon to ‘represent’ all women, a lone female amongst the competent comics boys or featuring on that most blatantly tokenistic of initiatives, the ‘women in comics’ panel.
I find lots of non-competent beauty in Sarah’s work; it is unflinchingly honest and there are those lovely scratchy lines and bright blobby colours. From a competent boy comics perspective though, her work is ‘successful’ (published in proper books and magazines) and she can draw things-that-look-like-things. Like Stefan and Clayton and Sam, her work meets the ‘right’ criteria. The gatekeepers ‘get’ it, therefore they deem it important, include it in ‘New Zealand comics’ and feel like they are inclusive, progressive and ‘right on’ for doing so.
But I don’t think the competent boy comics status quo is ‘right on’. I think it is stink and I yearn for an alternative. Instead of tokenism I’d like to see ‘New Zealand comics’ as a genuine celebration of diversity, one based on respect, dialogue, and learning and laughing about different comics, comic-makers, comic-making approaches and values. Fckn Oats.
(1) For my own part, in any competent boy comics context I am drawn to the things not-quite-like the others. I consider these comics to be the most interesting and they are the ones that don’t give me a stomach ache.
(2) The issue of ‘representation’ is particularly infuriating and funny given the minutiae separating the work of one competent comics boy from another. Apparently though, these (to me barely perceptible) differences are important signifiers of personal style and unique voice.