When I first read the second issue of Linda Medley's Castle Waiting (which, the wonderful world of comics being what it is, was the first issue I ever saw) I knew that sooner or later there would be a place on my home page for the image reproduced above. I didn't know just how appropriate it would be: Castle Waiting is an apt introduction to a page which has been on hiatus for over a year. It's an appropriate image, too, to adorn a "new home" not only in the sense that the text which follows is new, but also because The Shadow Gallery has at last moved to its very own domain.
Last year I discovered Chaz Brenchley. He's a terrific writer, he lives in the city where I work, he's been publishing novels for over ten years - and yet I'd never come across any of his books until we met in person (in a bookshop, of course!) and I set out to look for them. One reason is that he is seen as a writer of "genre fiction" - crime, horror, fantasy - and these books just aren't promoted in the same way as mainstream fiction, "real books". Does this sound familiar?
So I've spent much of the last year recommending these excellent books to people who "don't read horror" or fantasy, or whatever... and meanwhile, everyone who takes comics seriously is looking for ways to keep the medium viable by drawing in new readers - or rather, to bring back people who read comics as a kid, but are now grown-up and "don't read comics".
There are two obstacles to persuading new readers to try your pet genre - how they react to the best of the genre, and how they react to its worst:
If a comic or a genre novel actually manages to struggle out of the ghetto and win the approval of mainstream readers, it will be praised as not really belonging to the genre at all, as "transcending the borders of genre", "using the form of the detective story". Margaret Atwood's Handmaid's Tale is treated as a mainstream novel despite its classic SF theme; J.G. Ballard's Crash, once treated as experimental science fiction, is dragged into the mainstream by the success of his Empire of the Sun; Posy Simmonds is congratulated on inventing a whole new art form in Gemma Bovery, her reworking of the story of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (I'll give you a clue: it uses words, drawings and speech balloons!); "We don't stock graphic novels" says the bookseller, standing in front of a display of Raymond Briggs's Ethel and Ernest.
This is irritating, but bearable; if people are prepared to read the best of a genre, does it matter that their acceptance doesn't extend to the more run-of-the-mill stuff? Maybe not, but unfortunately the merely average is all too readily associated with the worst of the genre; you don't have to be a fan to notice the vampire pot-boilers and mutant spin-offs, the five-volume trilogies marketed as "the new Tolkien", the fantasies constructed from the "Every Fantasist's Cliché Kit" indexed in Diana Wynne Jones's Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Or, for that matter, the Great Detective who immediately spots the flaw in the alibi of Cardboard Character #17, and the career girl with the cute name who has various risqué adventures but still finds True Love at the end of the story.
In a sense, the whole idea of genre exists for this stuff, so that fans, people who love the genre for itself and have a high tolerance for its failings, can get their fix in quantity, if not in quality. These readers have their own reasons for loving comics, or a particular genre, and those reasons are independent of literary merit. And why not? It's no worse to visit Fantasyland because it is so magically unfamiliar than to enjoy a particular novel because it is set in locations with which you are familiar. If you read detective fiction for the intellectual challenge of finding the solution before it is spelled out, you may prefer well-written books with convincing characters, but settle for Agatha Christie if that's what's on offer. Kurt Vonnegut invented a science fiction writer called Kilgore Trout, who was a terrible writer but had great ideas, and, far from being outraged at this insult to the genre, sf fans reacted with such gleeful recognition that Philip José Farmer actually published a novel, Venus on the Half-Shell, under the pseudonym "Kilgore Trout". Material for addicts only exists in every kind of book, "90% of everything is crap", but no-one uses the low standard of the average Mills & Boon romance as an excuse not to read Jane Austen.
You may prefer well-written books... but if you are a hard-core addict, you may not. Intelligent authors, well-written books, thought-provoking stories demand more from the reader than copycat generic products. From Hell (allocated by Amazon to the "humour" category), with its scratchy black-and-white drawings, its detailed consideration of Victorian society and its gloomy plot, is outsold by unmemorable comics in which indistinguishable teams of anatomically improbable superheroes save the universe. And it's the same in text fiction; the best of genre fiction can be too creative to stay comfortably in genre. A dark crime novel in which the family who rule the city like a mafia clan just happen to be magic users, a medieval fantasy which questions the moral certainties of the Crusades, these don't have the mass success of more predictable material. But if you like the sort of comics I write about in these pages, maybe you should give Chaz Brenchley a try.
© 2000 Jean Rogers.