Just finished reading BELLY BUTTON COMIX, the new effort from Sophie Crumb. Published in the U.S. by Fantagraphics, this is a pretty nifty effort that proves that even if an apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, it can still taste pretty different.
Artistically, Sophie has a somewhat calmer and sharper style than her father. Pieces like “Cell’Amour” demonstrate more of R. Crumb’s influence, but when she gets away from that, the book gets stronger. There are two stories featuring a character named “Sally La Frite” that still show a bit of familial style yet find a way to distance themselves in tone that go down much smoother. However, when Sophie sets her eye to herself (hence “belly button” comics) the book takes off.
The series of strips titled “Sophie & Cecile” is a real standout for many reasons. First, we begin to see a better picture of the author and her personal point of view that draws you in. Secondly, they’re almost uncomfortable to read to a fault. Sophie and Cecile are friends, but they’re that set of friends we’ve all met whom you can’t figure out why they hang out together. There’s obviously a sort of underlying need to have someone around that the other can abuse and feel superior to. It’s destructive on a quiet and subtle level, and it makes you feel like you’re sitting at the table with them and can’t get away. Great, great work. On the flip side, the book’s other highlight is a true story about how she fell for a young man who was selling postcards on her corner, and how she approached him in a humorous and very real way. It hits multiple high notes, and you get a sense of Sophie’s anxieties and how she battles to get through them and begin leaving him a series of notes with the hopes of asking him out. It’s likely to be the most romantic comic of the year not drawn by Tom Beland, and it works well.
Like any book with multiple stories, there are also a couple of misses, but overall, this is a strong book; well-drawn, interesting, and full of characters I enjoyed spending time with. It’s definitely worth your dollars.
It presents a really important question, though: why aren’t there more Sophie Crumbs?
Comics are an art form that inspire a great deal of love and passion for the medium, both in creators and the readers. It is an artistic endeavor that allows for an enormous creativity and freedom when done well. But what it doesn’t do is inspire many second generation creators.
Sure, we have a Sophie. John Romita Jr. The Kuberts. But why isn’t there a stronger next gen? Shouldn’t, logically, a kid see their parent staying home to work and doodling and think, “Wow, I wish I could do that? I want to make comics for a living.”
Let’s run down some reasoning here:
- Are comic creators just too ugly to procreate? I don’t think that’s it. Plenty of comics folks have kids. Even the writers, and I know how difficult that can be. So, we’ll grant that the folks putting the books out aren’t so hopeless that they can’t get an opportunity to make a baby here and there.
- Is the next generation just too lazy to bother? I don’t buy this one, either. Long before there were video games, cable TV, and internet porn, there were a whole bunch of guys making comics. Some real giants. And outside of Joe Kubert, I can’t think of one who really sent in a son or daughter to take their place on the team. So while I wouldn’t expect J. Scott Campbell the 2nd thanks to the modern distractions of time that already distract Daddy, the absence of Stan Lee Junior is sort of glaring.
- Comics as the system works are more of a pain in the ass than they’re worth, and parents let their kids know this. Well, yeah. Gotta think this is right.
The guys working in the 50s were busting their humps in brutal conditions that were more sweatshop than funshop, and they were likely not receiving any credit for their work. Not something you’d encourage your kid to do. Then you see guys like Kirby and Simon, or more modern, Len Wein and Tony Isabella, and they don’t inspire anyone to get into the field either.
I have a difficult time imagining how that conversation would go. How would you ever encourage your child to take a job where the odds are that you’ll own none of your ideas, make very little money, be seen as disposable by your editor and publisher, and receive very little to no support from readers when you want to try and get your creations back from the corporate beast? Any kid who was encouraged to do that would instead be smarter to call Child Protective Services and ask to be removed from the home.
Look, you’re as disposable at any other job, true. But at least at General Motors you can join the union and get some protection. Most companies offer a health and dental plan these days. You have to be fortunate enough to sign an exclusive contract with a publisher to get that as a guarantee these days, or you’re gonna pay a lot more for it out of your own pocket. There’s always self-publishing, but then that’s a huge financial risk, no benefits that you don’t pay for yourself, lower sales because comic shops ignore you if you aren’t Marvel or DC, and lower profit. You’d better be praying for a movie deal or a video game. God forbid you wanted to make a romance comic.
I dunno. Maybe the industry will change. Sophie published in Europe first, where the rules (and the sales) are a lot different. But I can’t honestly see what the comics industry has to offer a sane next generation talent, let alone a sane talent, period. Yet in the end, it won’t matter, because the suckers who read and love the books will always develop new dreamers who believe that their idea is the next big thing, and that their experience will be different because they’re different. To them I say, “Good luck.” And to the publishers I say, “I have a proposal sitting here I’d like for you to take a look at.”