Every few weeks I receive a batch of mediocre graphic albums from France. So-so humor, dull detective stories, fatuous heroic fantasy, cruddy crime stories - stuff that if I had nothing better to do I might read, but wouldn't actually buy.
Basically, it's crap. And my understanding is that aside from a handful of superstar series like Asterix and Blueberry and such, it's the crap that keeps the French comics industry alive.
What's interesting about French crap is that it's all technically pretty good, and works within the trappings of genre fiction that would be accessible to the average reader. It's the equivalent of the kind of fat paperbacks you can buy at the airport.
What's also interesting is that the crappy French genre work covers a relatively broad spectrum of quality, so that by the time you get to the top you've got a few genuinely outstanding detective series, some first-rate science fiction, a few great Westerns, and so forth. Very little of it's actually unreadably bad, or incomprehensible, or grotesquely ingrown. Unlike in the U.S., some of the very top French cartoonists either make a career in genre fiction, or dabble in it. (Jacques Tardi is arguably the greatest cartoonist of his generation, and at least half a dozen of his major works are flat-out detective novels.)
One of the big European successes of the '90s was XIII, a fairly preposterous but compelling paranoid thriller series that was the equivalent of a Bruce Willis or Mel Gibson movie (or TV maxi-series). Well (if somewhat coldly) drawn by the journeyman William Vance, and written by the prolific Jean Van Hamme—people my esteemed co-publisher would immediately dub "hacks," I'm sure—it was good enough for me to regret when my supply of free new volumes ran out due to a changing of the guard at the publisher. (Catalan published a couple of the volumes as part of their "Comcat" swan song, to general indifference.)
Similarly, Hermann's "Jeremiah" series, which Fantagraphics published in the U.S. as The Survivors over a decade ago, continues apace with a new album every year - it doesn't have much on its mind except post-apocalypse Road Warrior-type mayhem, but it's beautifully drawn and insidiously addicting. I buy a couple every time I hit Paris, then hide them in shame.
What I see as missing from American comics is that bulwark of solid, unpretentious, accessible genre fiction - a more or less undistinguished mass of okay-to-good comics that might catch your eye and give you a thrill, that loyal fans would buy out of habit, and anyone else might just pick up for the hell of it.
We don't have that in the U.S. What we have is Art Comics on one end and Unimaginably Awful Super-Hero Shit on the other. The handful of cartoonists who try to explore some middle ground of decent genre fiction are few and far between, and are usually ignored by the super-hero fans and scorned by the "alternative" fans (unless it was done in the 1950s, in which case they've acquired that patina of coolness). I don't like Sin City particularly, but I have a suspicion that a lot of people who hate it would hate it even if it was done with the skill, wit, and verve of the great Spanish Torpedo series - and a lot of the people who love it love it because it's Frank Miller, and would ignore a much better series done by Joe Blow.
My conviction is that an Art medium works only so long as it is supported by a populist Crap medium. Reading, or going to the theatre, or going to the movies, is a habit, and it's not a habit that imposes itself on the more exalted end of the spectrum.
I'm not arguing that publishers have to do crap to support the unprofitable good stuff. (That's probably true, but it's not what I'm specifically arguing here.) I'm arguing that in what is a pop medium, like it or not, you need the "pop" part to sustain it.
Comics need Dean Koontzes and Robert Ludlums and Leon Urises and that Clear-and-Present-Danger guy, Tom what's-his-name. They need stuff that's kind of dumb but also a little bit smart, not particularly adult but not totally juvenile. They need a middle ground somewhere between Utter Shit and Great Art. Otherwise the marginalization will continue, and the genre stuff will turn into modern network TV (i.e. horrible beyond belief) and the good stuff will turn into modern poetry, and we'll all be fucked.
I think this is to some degree what Alan Moore is trying to do with his America's Best Comics line (even though it's heavily weighted towards super-hero comics, which is something of a problem in the grand scheme of things). I think it's what was on Art Spiegelman's mind when he co-created the Neon Lit line, but whoops! they ended up being more (no pun intended) Art comics. There are blips and blinks and spurts of it, from the good (Usagi Yojimbo) to the bad (Ms. Tree) to the forgotten (those DC sci-fi titles of the '80s). But until the day comes when there's enough of this kind of basic, unglamorous genre material that Joe Public could walk into a bookstore and buy a comic for beach reading, just because he felt like turning off his brain, comics will likely continue to be marginal and ignored. And I suspect we'll just have to live with that.