Monday, August 11, 2008

The Nightmare Scenario

Here's the thing: I love comic books. I grew upon them. While my mother gave me life, Marvel comics was my official wetnurse. I subscribed to the Fantastic Four during the mid-ninties (that period was not a high-water mark for the series); like most comic book nerds, I spent my pubescent years attaining a fine-grained recall of the history of the X-Men and admiring the colossal and statuesque slab of womanhood that was She-Hulk. (The Beatrice of my adolescence was a heady amalgamation of Stephanie Seymour and She-Hulk) I left off the habit during high school, not in order to acquit myself of nerdery entirely, but just to seek out other forms of nerdery (read: musical theater) that led to more promising (read: female) forms of social engagement.

But I developed a newfound respect for the medium during college, when I went back and read the work of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and the critic Scott McCloud. This respect turned partially on my appreciation for the versatility and narrative depth possible within the confines of the traditional superhero genre, but also on the inherent formal possibilities of the medium: the way that the arrangement and organization of images in sequence could be used to reinforce, undercut and shape the meaning of the words and images themselves. There were self-conscious artists, like Moore, who were using these formal tools to expand the expressive range of the medium and tell different stories, stories that aspired to the complexity of characterization and formal rigorousness I demanded from other forms of art.

I could probably tell a similar story about my love of games, which I left off playing during my college years and rediscovered as a graduate student. Games are a young medium with a lot of potential-- maybe even a greater porential than comics-- but they've been shoehorned into catering into the narrative and experiential needs of the teenage male. But like many gamers of my age and tastes, I hope for a future where video games break out of the historical path laid out by comics. The hoped-for scenario goes like this: the audience for video games expands to the degree that the public comes to regard them as one form of entertainment among others, and begins to become economically viable to make products that reach beyond the teen male demographic. There will be, as there is for cinema and television and literature, a creative space large enough to sustain a wide range of games with different sorts of artistic and narrative ambitions. The development of the medium so far offers grounds for hope on this front, especially as gamers mature and come to demand this sort of thing.

But there is also, in the form of the cultural history of comic books, what I call “The Nightmare Scenario.” A confluence of factors (craven self-censorship brought on by public hysteria over the effect of violence and sex on children, lack of nerve on the part of the artists and writers and editors, a business environment that favors creative conservatism) led comic books down the road to ghettoization in popular culture.

Psychonauts developer and writer Tim Schafer offered a well-fleshed out synopsis f the nightmare scenario in an excellent interview with Playboy magazine: “The thing that scares me most about the games industry is what's happened to the comic book industry. Comic books are an incredibly powerful art form as well, but they've been relegated to kid stuff for so long that now the comics that aren't kid stuff are called "underground" comics. So the comic books that are mature and have adult themes and are about emotional issues and are really powerful, those are underground? Those are the ones that should be the most mainstream because they apply to all people, not just the plots that are supernatural or fantasy oriented. So I feel comics is a medium that hasn't found its whole potential because it got locked into a limited corner of popular culture. Games could be teetering on the edge of that. And the problem is that very few publishers want to go in the directions that I'm talking about. A lot of the fans do, but there is no publisher in the world who is saying right now they believe games are art. They just want to go after where the money has been so far. And that's exactly the kind of thinking that killed the comics industry”

I wish I knew how games are going to find a different path; from the perspective of cultural history, they share so much with comics. Even if they have all this potential as a medium, it will matter naught if the audience for the games that realize this potential are a niche within a niche. Shafer's comments are primarily directed towards the business side of things, and as I've written before I think a lot of the responsibility for the creative narrowness of games lies at the feet of the publishers. But as the audience we share some of the blame as well. Who's to blame for Psychonauts being a colossal, developer-bankrupting failure? How about Okami? It might be promotion-- these games have an audience who would love them if they only knew they existed-- but at the end of the day the reality is that there isn't an audience for these games, at least not yet. And where there is no audience there is no economic wherewithal to support creatively ambitious games. Gamers are the only ones who can save the future of the art form from the nightmare scenario, and so far we haven't done much to sustain any optimism for that future.

Addendum: Steve Gaynor has a great article on the comics versus games issue, which raised some hackles and put forth some great points I didn't touch on here. It also led to some good commentary and exchange, so check it out.


Denis said...

Along with Scott McCloud you also have more people jumping on the bandwagon of comics explication, such as Douglas Wolk. Wolk also points out this disparity while showing how comics are still in that tricky spot where it doesn't have its own critical language because people didn't want to talk about it. It's not quite literature, it's not quite art, and the ability it has to exist in a realm that incorporates both means it really seems to be cheating when it comes to actual examination of the medium (sound familiar?).

Perhaps finding encouragement in my overly cautious take of the Watchmen trailer also sees more people being once again introduced to Moore (even if through a poorly adapted film--who knows, Watchmen may surprise me). No matter how it fares, Moore's popularity is rising, and I believe comic books are finally seeing more critical praise relegated in their general direction as not just kids stuff anymore.

Perhaps I'm just too optimistic.

Steve gaynor said...

I drew a lot of heat for making a post like this not too long ago.. watch your six!

Roger Travis (TinPeregrinus) said...

I find the comparison really interesting, but not finally compelling. Comics are a graphic version of a form of storytelling that's existed since Herodotus. They don't present any cultural affordances that novel and short-story don't have, except for a marginal visual capacity that films I think do much more engagingly.

Games, on the other hand, have tremendous cultural and educational affordances. As you know, I'm fond of bringing those all the way back to Homeric epic, which of course became a mainstay of ancient culture. I maintain that those affordances haven't been present in culture for a long time, and are starting now to have an enormous impact on such basic institutions as schools.

Obviously, it would be really good if those of us who know what a great game can be and do had a way to shape the conversation at that level. Maybe someone should start a center! :D

Quinn said...

I don't know; are comics really as ghettoized as they used to be? When you look at the widespread critical and commercial success that Marjane Satrapi has received in recent years (even discounting the film version of Persepolis), and how many book-of-the-year lists Alison Bechdel's Fun Home topped, I see a lot of evidence of broader acceptance of comics as a medium all the time. And hey, Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for Maus 16 years ago. I know that this isn't exactly mainstream success any more than the New Yorker is a really mainstream magazine, but I'd still hesitate to call it a cultural ghetto.

I think these kinds of transitions just take a lot of time. Film became a respected mature art form within its first few decades, but comics had been around for nearly a century in their current form before they really started to shake free of their perceived infantilism. Games may have to wait, but I don't worry too much about them becoming permanently stalled where they are now.

Cyranix said...

Nitpick: Schafer, with a C.

Other than that, very good post which I'll have to absorb fully when I'm not at work.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@denis: I think you're right that in terms of their content, modern comic-book narratives are beginning to achieve a wide audience commensurate with the sophistication of the comics themselves. The Dark Knight and Watchmen both use the conventions of superheroism to comment on larger issues, and I think the critical acknowledgment of that fact is going to help boost the public estimation of games in the public at large.

But the problem is that this isn't going to make the public at large think differently about comics as an art form, because people are getting this from movies rather than the books.

@steve: I totally remember that article, it was very good. I honestly don't know where to come down on your wager, but I think you make a very persuasive case, and the point you make about the barriers to entry is a very important one that I neglected here.

@quinn: I don't deny for a second that there has been some excellent, even transcendent work in comics over the last few decades. But even the pulitzer doesn't seem to work in terms of changing the public attitude towards comics as a whole. And unless there becomes more public acceptance it's hard to create an economic climate that favors risk-taking and maturity.

David Carlton said...

I think the ghettoization of comics was a particularly American phenomenon. Maybe not just American than that, but certainly Japan has a much much broader range of comic book subjects than the US does. (And the US is learning a lot from Japan in that regard, so there's hope for us, too.)

Maybe the same thing will happen with video games. Also, if Malstrom is to be believed, Nintendo is successfully pursuing a blue ocean strategy that will break the domination of the hardcore. (I.e. of those who want games stuck in stereotyped teenage male interests.)

I'm optimistic that the blue ocean strategy will continue, that the barriers of entry will start going down so that we can get more fertilization from small players, and that geographic diversity will be a reserve if necessary. We'll see...

The Clandestine Samurai said...

The business side of the arts and crafts always ruins things for the art side. I don't know, it could just be because I focus on the games I'm interested in, but nowadays I hardly ever come across a game geared for teenage boys. Not geared technically anyway.

But the point still holds true, gaming needs to be embraced as a true, universally artistic medium and a bigger range of appeal should be created.

sean said...

great post, which inspired one of my own.

content is always somewhat driven by the dominant audience of a medium, right? from fox news to comic book shops, things get sold to the people willing to devour them. so the question really becomes, how do we further diversify the came audience, so we do end up making something for everyone?

Sean said...

great post, which inspired one of my own.

content is always somewhat driven by the dominant audience of a medium, right? from fox news to comic book shops, things get sold to the people willing to devour them. so the question really becomes, how do we further diversify the came audience, so we do end up making something for everyone?