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Let me make a forced analogy by way of introduction. There's a certain type of person who listens to jazz music. He doesn't listen to it because he enjoys it. He listens to it because there's a certain cultural cachet to being a "jazz fan." This type of person listens to jazz because he understands that other people will tend to think that jazz fans are arty, cool intellectuals, and more than anything else, he wants to be an arty, cool intellectual too. So he will make a big show of letting as many people as possible know that he is a jazz fan. He will talk loudly, and at length, about all the jazz concerts and festivals he has gone to. He will spend outrageous sums of money on obscure recordings and back-catalogs of musicians who are only remembered by music historians. And, perhaps most importantly, he will take every opportunity that presents itself to denigrate other genres of music and the fans of those genres.
We generally call these people “posers,” though I personally find the phrase “self-consciously hip” tends to describe them better. This type of reader spends a lot of time trying to make other people realize how cool and interesting they are. For them, the actual quality of the work isn’t as important as which company happened to release it. For this type of reader, incomprehensibility in a work is actually a plus. They like autobiographical comics a lot, because for some reason they’re really able to identify with self-important people who think that the entire world gives a damn what they think (yes, I do have a web-site, why do you ask?). They like works to be “important” as it gives them the opportunity to look disdainfully at anyone who has the audacity to complain that they didn’t understand it “Well, of course, you wouldn’t” is their victory cry, their proof that they are the hippest of them all. Fortunately, this type of reader has, for the most part, either left comics for other terminally pretentious mediums now that Raw is no longer being published, or writing reviews for The Comics Journal and can therefore be safely ignored.
(Of course, this is not to say that “complex=bad”. Good writers and artists are fully capable of creating multi-layered, intellectually stimulating works of quality. Alan Moore and Grant Morrison are the first examples that spring to mind. Their work rewards careful reading and deep analysis. Coincidentally, these are the two writers whose work I most often hear complaints from super-hero fans about. For super-hero fans, complex most certainly does equal bad. To everyone who says to me “I don’t understand Rock of Ages” I can only respond: that says more about you than it does about Morrison.)
Related to the posers, but not quite the same beast, are the indy scenesters. These are people who have mostly crossed over to comics from some other, well, scene, usually music scenesters, goths and emo kids. Their sole criterion for a comic is that it not be a super-hero book. It could have been printed on recycled paper towels at Kinkos, on a printer running out of toner, on black paper to boot, and they won’t care because it’s just one more accessory that they need to complete their look. To be fair, they generally do enjoy the work they buy. But their standards for quality are woefully low. And they have an unfortunate tendency to look for the next hot thing before their friends do so that they can tell everyone that they were into it before it became popular. It is with some sense of shame that I confess that when I was their age (they’re always young as well) I was just as guilty of placing a work’s “indy” credentials or value as a prop above its merits. Unlike the posers, who are generally a lost cause, these kids will hopefully grow out of this phase and learn that quality really does matter.
And lastly, there are the people who just sort of miss the point. They’re the people who insist that Spawn is an indy comic, on the grounds that it’s not published by DC and Marvel. Well, that statement is only partly correct. Marvel and DC, as the two largest publishers of super-hero fiction, not to mention their corporate identities, certainly qualify as “the mainstream” in super-hero comics. In the sense that the book is not published by Marvel and DC, something like Spawn can maybe be called “indy” by the broadest possible definition. But one of my personal pet peeves is that what comic-book fans call “mainstream” is the opposite of what everybody else in the world calls “mainstream.” For the rest of the world, super-heroes are this strange aberration of a genre, not quite sci-fi, not quite fantasy, not quite pulp. To the rest of the world, “mainstream” means “designed to appeal to the widest possible audience.” By that token, books like Spawn, Savage Dragon and Witchblade are about as far from the mainstream as you can get, designed to appeal primarily to people whose emotional maturity stopped somewhere in early adolescence.
Luckily for all of us, and in direct opposition to the status of the super-hero fan, the vast majority of indy readers don’t quite fit into any of these categories. They mostly represent the people who have out-grown super hero comics (more or less, there’s no shame in enjoying quality super-hero comics as an adult, so long as you acknowledge that the quality super hero work is few and far between) but still enjoy the medium as a whole. I salute those brave souls, going into their comic book stores, week after week, searching for comics with something to say, the talent to say it, and the sense to not try to use people in tights hitting each other as the way to say it.