Retrospectives, whether of a year, decade or century, are really predictions: what willl still be appreciated in ten years or longer? What will history forget, and what will it view kindly? With that in mind, I’m going to nominate the past ten years as the decade non-fiction comics went mainstream.
So far as the last comics business is concerned, there’s little doubt that the major companies did basically nothing of significance other than continue their slide downhill. Almost every move they’ve made has been to try to consolidate and recapture their traditional audience, whether it’s been resurrecting Hal Jordan and Barry Allen, erasing Spider-Man’s marriage or recreating the multiverse. What few efforts they’ve made to expand their audience, such as DC’s Minx line, have received about as much support and commitment as a Fox sitcom. I’m not the first to point out the irony that this is happening at the same time as superheroes of various kinds have pretty well taken over the movie business; the problem for comics companies is that special-effects have advanced to the point where movies can do a better job than comics at delivering the kind of excitement superhero comics promise. Similarly, the rising quality of cheap overseas animation has made TV one more way of getting superhero thrills more easily and cheaply than comics. All that comics have left that no other medium can promise is the ability to deliver a continuing narrative (and shows such as “Justice League Unlimited” and “Spectacular Spider-Man” show that this advantage may not last much longer,) which is why DC and Marvel are now stuck on a treadmill of constant”events” and stories that never end.
From the perspective of the publishing business, the big comics story of the last decade has been the widespread adoption of manga by North American readers. There are a couple of reasons, though, why I don’t think that this qualifies. For one thing, it’s not really a comics story; the cultural movement has really been led primarily by anime, with manga tagging along behind. (It’s significant that the shop in my neighbourhood that specializes in such works is called the Anime Stop, even though the majority of its shelf space is given over to manga.) Moreover, while manga is now widely read on this side of the Pacific, it’s not read by comics readers. When people started putting together best-of-the-decade lists a few months ago, one thing that was consistently true was that all of them — whether assembled by a superhero loyalist, an indie reader or a catholic comic lover — failed to include a single manga title. Put simply, there is almost no overlap between traditional Noth American comics and manga in terms of readership, and what little overlap there is consists of American titles that ape manga in style and content. But the manga readership isn’t the mainstream, either: it’s another non-mainstream audience, parallel to but separate from the ones that read indie and superhero comics.
So much for what the decade wasn’t. Why was it the decade of non-fiction comics? One piece of evidence is just to look at the titles that made the New York Times best seller list, such as Persepolis, Fun Home and Stitches. You can look to the success of the movie version of American Splendor and the interest it aroused in the work of Harvey Pekar, a pioneer both in specifically autobiography and (along with his wife, Joyce Brabner) more broadly in non-fiction comics. But I think what distinguished the development of non-fiction comics in this decade was in part its broadening its focus to include more than memoirs. Look at the work of Larry Gonick, whose landmark series Cartoon History of the Universe began in the 1970s but was completed (three of the five volumes) in the last ten years.
Joe Sacco, whose work was nearly all published (in book from) in the last decade, is another good example, and it shows how well comics are suited for non-fiction topics. While he works hard to uncover the facts, he never presents himself as an impartial observer; neither does he try to remove himself from the story. When this is done in other media, such as film, there’s always a sense of being manipulated; in a Michael Moore movie, for instance, when you become aware of how selectively Moore is using his footage it can undercut the force of his argument. Sacco’s work, on the other hand, is transparently his own impressions and recollections.
One more reason it was the decade of non-fiction comics is that they have improved so much. Consider, for instance, the “For Beginners” series of books . The former books may occasionally have had some merit, but by and large they were hardly even comics — most often they were simply illustrated texts that made the old “Classics Illustrated” comics look like Watchmen when it came to comics storytelling. Compare these to a work such as Action Philosophers! which, while not without its flaws, is indisputably a comic in a way those books are not.