BOOK REVIEW / Big draw for 'sophisticated' nerds: 'Adult Comics: An Introduction' - Roger Sabin: Routledge, pounds 35/ pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
ARE comics anything more than kids' stuff? That's for Roger Sabin to prove here, and something less like a comic than his book would be hard to imagine. Each chapter closes with suggestions for further reading in media and cultural studies. The book is out to redeem the popular image of comics and those who bother with them.

Sabin's big point is that comics for grown-ups were around long before 1986, when arts pages cottoned on to them. In fact, the ancestral line runs back to the 19th century and a publication called Ally Sloper's Half Holiday (1884). Sloper was drawn as a thinly gentrified layabout. It's hard to think of him in the same family tree as Conan the Barbarian, but there he is.

This is all illuminating and scholarly, but it doesn't really grapple with the question on most people's minds: namely, if comics are so smart, how come they're read by nerds, by people whose idea of a good time is 45 minutes alone with the Incredible Hulk? Sabin explains 'double-purchasing', whereby the fans buy one copy to read and one to hoard untouched. You can hardly blame him for choosing to dwell solely on the economic side of this phenomenon (it keeps the industry afloat), but a brief piece on its psychological implications might have gone down well.

Still, though clearly a fan, Sabin doesn't strike you as someone with a complete run of Doc Chaos, mint, in plastic bags. The obvious, fruitless debates are nicely ignored here. A strip can be a pliable means of telling a story, but Sabin is not so protective of the form that he needs to make unhelpful comparisons between, say, the narrative coherence of Dickens's Great Expectations and some of the early issues of Cerebus the Aardvaark. But at the same time he'll willingly doff his cap at the 'densely-plotted drama' which is Elfquest. And he's prepared to say that an artist called Moebius achieves some 'visually stunning' work. The illustration shows a kind of ornately fanged chimp, squatting on a rock: to find this visually stunning, you would probably need to be fairly well stunned in advance.

Adult Comics does little to quieten your suspicion that for every Raymond Briggs, for every Art Spiegelman, there are a thousand artists dedicated to comics in which implausibly built gladiators go charging about in cheesy landscapes. As a result, Sabin doesn't know quite what to do with the word 'adult', whether to slap it down on the page and brave the consequences, or whether to back off from it by putting it inside inverted commas. He's like this with a lot of his key terms. Are comics mature, or simply 'mature'? Are we dealing here with the sophisticated, or merely the 'sophisticated'?

It should be said, the debate about whether comics are adult or not won't trouble most comic-readers, who will continue to buy and enjoy them regardless. Theirs may finally be a less taxing position than that of Sabin, who sounds a lot of the time like someone bound in by objections. As one artist says here, referring to his comics: 'it doesn't matter how sophisticated they are, they're still about men with their underpants over their trousers.'

(Photograph omitted)