Sunday, May 31, 2009

Selling Ted Out

Why is it that when something enters mainstream consciousness, it suddenly seem to become a lot less cool?

I remember when Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was a beautifully-kept secret of the Geekdom Illuminati, a wonderful piece of visual prose that had existed below the common fanboy’s radar for decades. Suddenly, with the release of the book’s collected volumes, everyone and his cousin was reading about Dream and the rest of the Endless. In fact, when Gaiman came to visit a few years ago for a local event, he was quite literally swarmed by legions of his readers.

Now a few who had been reading the series before it erupted into the mainstream reacted in different ways. Some were suddenly cooler than they actually were, just for having read the book before the rest of us did. Others violently protested against the Sandman’s sudden boom in popularity, wishing that the book stayed a secret known only to the purest of comic book geeks. Whichever side you belonged to, if you were one of those who were early readers of the series, I’m guessing you couldn’t help but feel that the series lost a bit of its allure when its sales increased astronomically.

There’s a little bit of romanticism behind knowing of something that others don’t. It’s like a secret tropical paradise – it’s more precious when less people know about it. The more people know about your heavenly beach getaway, the more will come to visit. The more people that come to visit, the more businesses come to capitalize on its popularity. As it becomes more and more commercialized, even more people come to party in the summer months. The place gets loud and raucous and dirty, and your favorite beach, while still a premium spot for tourists, becomes a lot cheaper (I’m looking at you, Boracay). In the end, it all boils down to one scenario – the more people who know about it, the more people will spoil it.

Now I’m not saying that the same will follow for Gaiman’s work. You have to admit, however, that you now can’t go to a local bookstore without seeing his name. Comic book snobs (especially those who make it a point to refer to the books as “graphic novels”, which really is just a snootier term for what they are) shudder at the thought of your regular old Juan de la Cruz perusing the shelves and picking up a copy of Neverwhere just because it has “Dat Gay-mahn Guy’s” name on it. They call Coraline’s cinematic release a crime against nature, because of the addition of a character new to the beloved source material.

But I ask, what the hell is so bad about that? What’s wrong with more people appreciating what you do? I’m not entirely sure, but from my experience, there are about two reasons why aficionados dislike their goods entering the mainstream.

One is that they may envision the secret beach scenario I illustrated above. They fear the emergence of *gasp* Sandman charms for Crocs or *gasp again* Delirium popping up in an episode of Hannah Montana or *be still my raging heart* some other disgustingly mass-marketed product.

Another is that they run out of self-perceived “coolness”. With Sandman out in the mainstream, the comic snobs can’t scoff at the common fan’s fascination with colorful spandex and explosions. They can’t ridicule people for enjoying comic books’ equivalent of Michael Bay movies when everyone else is reading the works of Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and Frank Miller, among other fantastic writers. They lose the ability to say “Psssh. You read X-men? If you want to read real comics… excuse me, Graphic Novels, you should read what I read.” It seems as though knowing about something that others don’t is a status symbol, a step up in the hierarchy of coolness.

Honestly, I’ve felt this way before, but I’ve always consoled myself in the very fact that more people are reading the stuff. So what if crappy adaptations take liberties with the source material (I still hate X-men Origins: Wolverine, by the way)? So what if your hyper-trendy next-door neighbor buys a few trade paperbacks of the Sandman solely because “everybody’s reading it”? I think it’s good that everybody’s reading it, because that means their tastes are improving, and if the taste of the mainstream as a whole improves, so does the quality of work the major corporations choose to publish. Your little snobby secrets are helping make everything better.

It’s because of this that I want to sell Ted the Bug out.

Ted is a character in one of my favorite titles, Bone. Drawn and written by the extremely talented Jeff Smith, Bone tells the story of three cousins and their adventures in a valley of fascinating people and creatures. The tale begins with Fone Bone, Phoney Bone and Smiley Bone being driven out of their hometown following a disastrous event involving Phoney’s ambitions and some bad prunes. Lost in the wilderness and desperate for water, they chance upon a crudely-drawn map before being separated by a swarm of locusts. Fone Bone is able to hold onto the map and finds his way to the valley, where he meets Ted, the possum kids, a cigar-smoking dragon, a pair of stupid, stupid rat creatures, and Thorn, a young farm girl living with her grandmother.

Despite its simple, almost cartoon-ish start, the story develops into an epic journey, with an ages-old battle that extends into the dream-world and an unbelievable discovery about Thorn’s past. Jeff Smith masterfully melds the animated whimsy of early Disney cartoons with Tolkien-esque fantasy in his storytelling, while his art explodes with dynamism and expressiveness in every panel. The tale is full of wonder, charm, terror and humor, and is, in my opinion, a classic for all ages. The art and storytelling is simple enough to be read as a bedtime story, but the themes, plot and dialogue can be appreciated by any age group. It’s hard to find a story that can capture the emotions behind love’s regret and the corrupting influence of power in such a quaint, well-done package.

The critics agree, too. The winner of 10 (TEN!!!) Eisner awards and 11 (ELEVEN!!!) Harvey Awards, Bone was named one of Time Magazine’s Ten Greatest Graphic Novels. Scholastic acquired the rights to publish Bone in 2004, and just finished publishing the last volume in January 2009. What’s great about the Scholastic editions, and what sets them apart from Smith’s independent Cartoon Books label's editions, is that the series has been colored by award-winning colorist Steve Hamaker.

I realize I’m gushing about a comic book, but I really do want more people to read it. It’s a fantastic piece for all ages, and if I can get even just one person who chances upon this little bit of binary code on the vast universe that is the Internet, I’ll be happy.

I’m also writing this because Lauren gave me the most awesome gift for my birthday: The Art of Bone. I really love seeing Jeff Smith’s work in progress, and he’s been one of my biggest inspirations in the field of comics. To think that he’d been drawing these characters since his early childhood, and was able to develop them into a wonderful work of modern visual literature is just amazing to me, and I can only hope to achieve what he's accomplished with his dreams.

I am being such a fanboy right now it’s not even funny. But really, if you do so happen to read this post, read Bone as well. You’re going to love it.

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